Exclusive interview: Gavin Hood talks Wolverine

The director chats with us about the Wolverine character, Richard Donner and studio spats…

Wolverine - Gavin Hood

Independent director Gavin Hood has had no easy entrance to the world of blockbuster movies. Set to open in cinemas on Friday, X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Hood’s contribution to the franchise – has been beset by rumours and strife in recent weeks, with tales of director-studio disputes followed by the disastrous leak to the internet of an unfinished work-print. Yet the director remains convinced of his vision for the X-Men’s ultimate ‘loner’, and he’s more than articulate on the subject…

You’re getting your first taste of how vocal comics fans are now – is that a factor you have to dismiss in a project like Wolverine in order to follow your own vision?

Obviously it can be both intimidating and inspiring, the passion that fans have for this particular franchise or indeed for any comic book, but especially for Wolverine. So one of the things I’ve obviously done is read a lot of what the fans think, and one of the other things that’s tricky is reading through all the comics and realising that – frankly – that the character of Wolverine has been written about by many comic-book writers over the decades.

There doesn’t appear to be one definitive backstory to this character; there have been various interpretations and that was a little – given that I confess I did not know the comics well when I was first asked to do the project…I climbed into this and searched for something definitive, and I couldn’t find anything precisely definitive. There are lots of definitive parts of the mythology in the sense that he’s lost his memory, and all those things that we all know. But the character has been illustrated and written about by different people over the years, and once I got to grips with that it was, in a way, liberating.

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It was ‘Okay, I’m not going to tell the fans that this is the definitive Wolverine – this is my interpretation of Wolverine and I hope that you like it’ [laughs]. Not to make too light of it, but there are visual interpretations of him of anywhere from a guy in jeans to a man in yellow spandex. I personally prefer the man in jeans and a shirt to the man in yellow spandex – for those who like the man in yellow spandex, they will be disappointed [laughs].  

Interviews with Hugh Jackman suggest that he was quite pivotal in getting you on board for Wolverine…?

Yes – I received this call out of the blue from Hugh Jackman. I was quite surprised, and wasn’t sure if someone was pulling my leg. I went along to meet with Hugh, who’s the nicest and most down-to-Earth bloke you could possibly hope to meet, and he said to me ‘Look Gav, I’m looking to do this story of Wolverine..’. Up until this point, Hugh had obviously been part of the other movies in an ensemble cast, and now he was looking at shouldering the bulk of the movie. Obviously there are other characters along the way, but this is very much Wolverine’s story, and so the emotional arc and the emotional demands on the character were going to be greater than he’d had before.

So this is how he put it to me, and he happened to have seen my film Tsotsi and he’d liked the emotional arc of that character, who – so [Jackman] told me – bore a somewhat similar resemblance to Wolverine. This was quite a shock to me; I thought ‘really?’. Not knowing enough about Wolverine…I mean, I’d seen the movies but I’d never made any close studies of the comics. I said ‘Well, Hugh, I’m flattered, delighted – let me go away and think about this’,

So I did, and this is obviously when I began doing some deeper research into the character. The line that – of course – is most famous and which struck me immediately was the famous line of Wolverine’s where he says ‘I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice’.

Now, mate, you’ll know how important these fans are, and that’s a line we have to quote dead right. We can’t say ‘And what I do isn’t nice’, it’s got to be ‘BUT what I do best isn’t very nice’. [laughs] I’m just trying to make me and you look good, so we don’t fuck that up, or they’ll get pissed off.

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“I’m the best at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.”

I reflected on this and so I thought that on the one hand you can read it as kind of macho [in ‘Tuco’ voice] ‘I’m the best at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice, so fuck you!’. Or you can read it in the way that I believe Hugh was reading it, which is ‘I’m the best at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice – I’m not sure I like myself. I’m not sure I like my inner nature‘.

This got me reflecting on the berserker rage. What’s fascinating about the berserker rage is that the fans love it. At the moment that we’re at our emotional peak, in some way it is a bit of a rush. And yet what’s interesting is that no sooner have we flown off the handle, as it were, than usually we wish we hadn’t. And we wish to metaphorically withdraw the claws.

So that kind of began to be my way; I thought okay, here’s a character that has considerable self-awareness – based on that line – that we could perhaps flesh out. I began to see the claws as a physical manifestation of an inner psychological state, without being pretentious. This desire to lash out, which is common to all of us at some point in our lives in reaction to things that make us crazy, manifests as a sort of superpower as he in fact grows these claws.

That took me to – again, not a point that hasn’t been made before – that the first superheroes are really those great Greek mythic characters Zeus and Poseidon. When Zeus flings his lightning bolts – which is his sort of superpower – he does it from a place of emotional truth. It might be operatic, it might be larger-than-life, but what I think fascinated early peoples listening to those stories  – the same way people listening to these stories are fascinated and which I think Bryan Singer achieved very well –  is that the characters are really and truly grounded in genuine human feelings and emotion in the end.

Certainly in Bryan’s work. And I think we just wanted to follow through on that.

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Given the size of the franchise and the burden of expectation, was it hard to get these views into the film?

The challenge is that you are part of an established franchise, and yet you want the film to sort-of stand alone – not just for selfish and creative reasons but also because you’d like to think that people who’ve never seen any of the other movies can in fact come to this movie and have a movie experience whether they’ve met Wolverine in any form or not. So I wanted to create a film that had its own signature, while at the same time being respectful and true to the established themes and ideas that Bryan so successfully set up – themes of alienation and being the outsider, which is I think one of the reasons why the films are popular.

So I think we wanted to hang onto those themes – the idea of being the outsider and the ideas of feeling your sense of alienation and trying to find your own identity, which are classic teenage themes that we all feel, like we’re the outsider and everyone else is ‘in’ and we’re ‘out’ [laughs], which probably means that there’s no ‘normal’.

But given that we were able to explore a particular character in greater depth, because we were going to spend more time with him than we’d ever spent before, I wanted to explore what the themes of it are. Any film that has any soul, has a clear sense of theme, so I always felt that we had to deliver two things – we had to deliver all the spectacle and the action that is expected from a blockbuster, but we also had to deliver some sort of thematic idea that was refreshing and new, as well as play through the themes that had already been established.

To be more specific, you want to maintain the ideas of the theme of alienation, because that’s a given in the X-Men world, but what seems to come through in this one…I’ll give you one that I’ve hung on to; we’ve already discussed the claws being a physical manifestation of a psychological rage, but I wanted to think a little more deeply about the idea of mutation.

In the comic-book lore, of course, you mutate post-a traumatic event. You must have the mutant gene, but if something traumatic happens to you, usually at puberty, then that mutation manifests itself.

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So this struck me as an idea rooted in real human psychology, in the sense that any one of us – post-traumatic experience – is different from the person we were before. We mutate, as it were; we become something other. These powers, in the case of the claws coming out, or – in the case of Gambit, a character that we were pleased to be able to introduce in this film – who infuses objects with his inner energy, which is often when he’s angry, we thought about where you place this anger and how it manifests itself. In these characters it manifests as some sort of super-power.

But a lot of us in experiencing something traumatic, whether it be violence against us or the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a love one or whatever…these big events change us. We’re not the same person. In a sense that’s what we explore in Wolverine. From his childhood he experiences a particular traumatic event that leads to mutation both physically and psychologically. Then he carries this change with him into adulthood, and it becomes his life-long struggle to deal with this post-traumatic mutation.

I think that is rooted in human experience too. Of course, it’s done in a fantastically mythic way by having these superpowers manifest when you mutate. But really it’s rooted in true human emotion, and that’s what we’ve tried to bring to the movie. So I hope the movie functions on the level of a blockbuster, with all the spectacle and action that’s expected, and also in the way that sometime more independent films are better at doing, which is to find some kind of emotional journey for the character.

What was Richard Donner really doing on the set of Wolverine?

Well let’s put it up front – Donner’s company is a producing company on the film, because he and his wife are The Donner Company. Richard came on as an executive producer at a time when it was actually very helpful. I know there’s all these rumours running round. We were away in Australia, this was the biggest movie I’ve ever done…there were certain aspects of the production that at a certain point I felt we needed to…I’ll give you a concrete example:

The first prize for any production is if you can find a location that means you don’t have to build sets, that will serve and is not excessively expensive to hire, then it can save you a lot of money.

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Well, we had a location, which is a physical place you can look up on Google called Cockatoo island, in Sydney Harbour, where we could do a lot of the movie, and indeed did do a considerable amount of it. The problem was that we were scheduled to shoot there for seven weeks and looking at it with my director of photography Don McAlpine, who was always a tremendous support, there were certain practical things about lighting and blacking out the huge warehouse area and so forth that made it look like we wouldn’t be able to achieve the kind of feel we needed for certain scenes.

So I really wanted to take some of the shooting into a studio and build sets, and be able to use…in a studio you just have a lot more control, especially if you’re doing stunts because all the gantries are rigged above and all the lights are already in there and you’re not improvising it in a location – which actually turned out to be a national monument because it’s where they built ships in the second world war; so you can’t paint your walls, you can’t hang anything on the walls, you can’t rig your lighting rigs to the walls…

So what might superficially appear to be a money saver may actually turn into a nightmare from a production point-of-view. In making those kind of arguments to the studio, Richard came down and I talked to him. I remember going out to the island quite literally with him and saying ‘Richard – these are my problems, mate, and I need to make this argument to the studio, but I have not done films of this scale, and I’m asking them to move me into a studio on the basis that I believe ultimately it would be a cost-saver’.

I think people forget that a lot of directing is just real management of the size of a production.  Richard turned out to be extremely helpful in making those cases, because he has the credibility of someone who’s made a lot more big films than I have. I was able to take him to those places and get his advice, get his help in terms of making the case to say that this would be a better way to shoot what we’re trying to do.

So he came out for a bit and he was very helpful, and I consider him someone that was a good mentor to me at that time. Of course there are rumours…

Well, I was wondering, given the rumours, whether the director’s cut of Wolverine on DVD might turn out to be ‘your’ version whilst something else comes out theatrically in May…?

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No, no, I’d like to think, despite…and my answer to you is that of course there are disagreements. I’m a fairly forceful personality [laughs] and so is the studio. But I think what we must get into perspective is that it’s not a fair way to characterise the thing, as ‘us against them’. When that happens, you can’t work.

So one of the things that I think is inevitable in any working relationship…and I use the example with anybody: almost all of us have a boss. You have a boss, I have a boss…and we don’t always agree with that boss.

The challenge in those moments is to debate, negotiate – sometimes vigorously – your point of view, and to hear their point of view – and that’s important. It’s too easy in this world to think that one person’s right, the other one’s just dead wrong. All of us are right some of the time and not all of the time.  

As a director you were hired to be given your head and make your vision – was there a point at which that was being definitely interfered with from your own perspective?

There was a point at which there were some debates…some considerable debates about which way, tonally, the film should go.  I believe I made my case well and I believe that I’m very happy with the tone of the film. And I had to make that argument. But I want you to emphasise, and I ask you to put it this way when I make it, is that you have to make that argument respectfully.

I think that there’s a rabid idea that you’ve got to somehow…I mean, you make it forcefully but respectfully. One must have a certain humility in the fact that this is – and I don’t say this to sound…compliant – but I do respect the fact that I am being hired to pick up the ball on an established franchise that is extremely precious to this studio. And if I were in the studio’s position I would be nervous of blowing the franchise.

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Now each person’s definition of what’s best for a film is slightly different, so…of course I fight for my vision. Every director fights for their vision. But at the same time you need to hear the concerns of the other folks and not walk away from those concerns.

We’ve seen directors kind-of storm off movies in a huff, and then nobody gets what they want. So I’d like to say that of course there were disagreements. I’d like to think that we negotiated those disagreements well and that the film is better for that. But it is a myth to think that sometimes creative disagreement doesn’t necessarily produce a better result.

Has the indifferent performance of Watchmen caused any second thoughts in late post-production on Wolverine?

‘Too late’, she cried [laughs]!  No, we’re done. But it’s a good question. We’re tying up our last loose-ends of colouring and mixing, but the edit is long-since locked. We open on May 1st, and whatever influence Watchmen may or may not have, it’s a bit late for us. Whatever lessons we may have learned from Watchmen, it’s too late to implement them.

However I think that one of the things that is important to me…and I don’t want to relate this to Watchmen; you can, but keep me out of it! I’d hate to criticise a fellow director in any way…but where I come from as a director is kind of what we’ve touched on before. I think that audiences of these films want the visual spectacle, but if the visual spectacle is not much more than a glorified music video, you can’t sustain it for two hours. Does that make sense? You can sustain visual beauty and innovative visual ideas for a certain length of time, but in a two-hour experience, which is really what movies are, usually audiences – whether they know it or not – most want an emotional connection to character. And if they don’t get that, they detach from the film and they watch it at arm’s length.

When you say that you risk saying ‘Oh well, it’s going to be sort of emotional and indie’. Trailers – and this is the great dilemma in our world – a two-minute trailer must have bells and whistles, because somehow we fear being bored if we don’t have sufficient stimulation in the visuals. So we go [to the film] based on the stimulation of the visuals, but boy, if there isn’t an emotional heart after twenty minutes, we’re ready to leave.

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So you think, having only seen the trailer, that the audience will be surprised at the emotional punch of Wolverine?

I hope so…well, you guys will tell me [laughs]! May 1st will soon tell me. But I hope that what we’ve delivered is both a spectacle, which films of this scale must offer, and some characters that you’ll connect with and enjoy. And not watch at arm’s length!

Gavin Hood, thank you very much!

X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens in the UK on May 1st.