Simon Kinberg interview: writing X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Screenwriter and producer Simon Kinberg chats to us on the set of X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Here's what he had to say...

Screenwriter and producer Simon Kinberg has been involved in the X-Men movie franchise since 2006, having penned the script for X-Men: The Last Stand. He produced X-Men: First Class in 2011, and now serves as both screenwriter and producer on Days Of Future Past, which brings the casts of the original trilogy and director Matthew Vaughn’s 60s-set origin tale together in one time-hopping story.

We were given a few minutes to talk to Mr Kinberg as part of our visit to the set of Days Of Future Past last June, and given that the X-Men sequel will undoubtedly be the most star-laden and potentially knotty series entry yet, we were intrigued to learn what we could about its use of time travel and just how the story’s changed in its journey from the page to the screen.

At what point did the sequel to X-Men: First Class become something that was bigger, and “let’s get the whole gang back together”?

After we were done with First Class, Matthew Vaughn and myself, and Bryan [Singer] were talking about what we’d do for a sequel on the next adventure. Then we talked about using Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as bookends to the movie – not like [we will in] Days Of Future Past, but as emotional bookends to the film. We started developing that, and I started looking through comic books and thinking about what could be a cross-generational story, and I came upon Days Of Future Past, which is one of my favourite runs in the comic.

Ad – content continues below

Then I pitched that, and Bryan loved the idea, Matthew was excited, and the studio was excited. The thing that was daunting was getting the cast together – schedule-wise, deal-wise, all of that. All those logistics. But creatively, everybody got really excited about it. That was in about the spring of last year [which would have been 2012 at the time of the interview].

I wrote the first draft of the script in the spring and the summer, with Matthew primarily, who was going to be the director at the time. Then Matthew fell off the project, and Bryan came on as director, and we continued to work on the script in the fall and the beginning of this year [2013].

It was this process of, how do we tell a story that isn’t a repeat or continuation of [First Class], but an extension of it? We wanted to bring in the older Charles and Erik, and from there, it evolved.

Is this an attempt to make the universe more coherent as well, because you have these characters spread over different timelines now. Is it a means of bringing them together?

It’s interesting, because they’ll still live in their own timelines – we have the characters from the original trilogy, who continue in the same timeline as X-Men one, two and three, and we have the X-Men: First Class characters who live in the past. So given that we wanted to bridge those two casts, Days Of Future Past did it with time travel. Initially, we were a bit nervous about time travel because it’s been done a lot in the movies, and as a writer, it’s really challenging to keep the logic of time travel straight, and tell a story that isn’t just servicing the A-to-B butterfly effect of time travel. Plus, we didn’t want it to be cheesy.

So I think the time travel element was something we talked about a lot – setting up the rules, setting up the stakes, so you have real goals in the future and the past.

Ad – content continues below

How does Wolverine fit in this movie, given that he wants to lose his powers in The Wolverine? Did you work closely with [director] James Mangold on what he was doing in his script?

We didn’t work together, but when I was working on this, I had access to the script for Wolverine. So I knew what the story was, and I knew what was happening with the character pretty early on in the process. I spent time talking and meeting with the lead actors in the film, so I spoke to James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Hugh Jackman, because he had a strong point of view about the character, and he was in the process of making The Wolverine.

So I was informed about The Wolverine. Our film doesn’t inform that film, but we did a little thing with James Mangold, so we’ve communicated back and forth.

When it comes to bringing the X-Men cast into it, some of the ensemble cast has fallen out of it. How did you decide on who was going to come back and who you were going to leave out?

The cast we did and didn’t include from the last movie was dictated by the story. So there are places in the future story where there are characters you’ve met in X-Men one, two and three who didn’t survive that period of time between X3 and [Days Of Future Past]. It was just feeling what would be poignant, and what would be compelling from a story point of view. It wasn’t about availability issues.

We actually had availability issues on X-Men 3, but on this film, everyone was game for it, and we had enough lead time that we could juggle a schedule around. It was just what best served the story, and that was true for the past part of the film, with the X-Men: First Class cast. There are certain small characters that will come back – obviously, the big ones come back – but there are some big ones that don’t. But that’s just because for this story, they weren’t best suited to it. Maybe, hopefully, if this movie’s successful, we’ll do a sequel to it, and maybe some of those characters will come back. 

Ad – content continues below

The continuity of the future takes place after anything we’ve seen before in the X-Men movies, is that right? And if so, how does that tie in to Patrick Stewart being in the movie?

I don’t want to ruin it, but we try to address  in a couple of different ways what happened to Patrick between X-Men 3 and this movie. And any continuity questions are addressed within the story. It’s a time travel movie, so there’s a butterfly effect from the past to the future, so the continuity of X one two and three is intact, but as things change in the past, they could also change in the future.

So we’ll see the future changed by things that are happening in the past, is that what you’re saying?

Yeah. It’s like any time travel movie – Terminator, Back To The Future – you go back into the past, you’ll change something in the future. In the Days Of Future Past comic, the aim is to go back in time to preserve peace for the lives of mutants in the future.

What about Ellen Page’s character, Kitty Pryde? Because in the comics, her role is extremely big.

Yeah. There’s plenty of license that we took with the original comic books in all these movies, and any comic book movie takes the essence and the characters, but will often change the storylines from the original books. The biggest diversion we’ve made is that Kitty goes back in the Days Of Future Past comic, and here we have Logan who’s the one who goes back into the past.

Ad – content continues below

That came from a lot of different places. Kitty has a big part in the movie, and she’s going to grow in the process of the time travelling, she’s just not the one who time travels herself. The Logan thing came from him being the most beloved character in the franchise, so we wanted to maximise his role in the film, and then there’s also there’s a logic to how people travel through time that’s particularly well-suited to him.

He’s strong enough to survive?

He can survive, and also what’s fun is, a comic book can do something like, if Ellen Page went 50 or so years into the past, she would be negative 15 years old or whatever. Versus Logan, who’s immortal and can live forever. So he would look the same in the future as he does in the past. We can use the same actor. 

How has the scale of this movie affected the writing of the action?

It’s definitely the biggest scale X-Men movie by a wide margin. Part of that is the two casts help justify it, but also, the two time periods give you completely looks, aesthetics, action – the action in the future is much more science fiction than these movies have had before. And then the action in the past is obviously not going to be the same because you didn’t have the level of technology 50 years ago.

So from an action standpoint, we approached it from a ‘sky’s the limit’ standpoint.

Ad – content continues below

So how do you match that in the past?

I think the future action is more science fiction – it’s more space ships and technology that you would recognise from an Alien or Star Wars kind of movie. The action in the past is more powers based, so what can we do with someone who can control metal, or someone who can become a beast? It’s really big in scope. And there is a slight technological advancement, I guess, that makes the past bigger.

The previous film focused a lot on the relationship between Erik and Charles. How much does this movie expand to two time periods? Are there allegiances, that sort of thing going on?

In many ways, the core of the movie is as it was in First Class, that relationship between Charles and Erik. Mostly in the past, but there’s work they’re doing in the future as well. In the past, it’s almost like their roles are reversed from First Class. When we first meet Charles, McAvoy’s Charles at the beginning of this film, he’s more of a broken, troubled character in the way we met Erik at the start of First Class – he was a broken, troubled character.

The arc of this film in many ways is seeing Charles, who lost his best friend in Erik, and his sister and confidante in many ways in Raven – Jennifer Lawrence – and also lost [the use of] his legs at the end of First Class – it’s seeing how that would break a person’s spirit in some ways. In this film, we build him back up to become Professor Xavier.

In a way, this is the bridge from the young cat in First Class to the wise, solemn teacher of X-Men One.

Ad – content continues below

How do you set up their relationship in the future?

In the future, they’re like two old friends who realise they’ve made a lot of mistakes at the end of their relationship and the end of their lives – they’re wishing they could have done things differently. This movie, in some ways, affords them the chance to do things differently. 

Was there an impulse from the studio to make the X-Men franchise bigger following the success of The Avengers? Fox obviously has a lot of mutant characters. Was there a message that Fox wanted to make it bigger – the more mutants, the merrier? [Laughs]

I don’t think that was the goal, honestly. It came from the place of, when I sat down with Matthew Vaughn, I thought about what could come next in the story of young Charles and Erik, with Raven in the middle of them. We, separate from the studio, came to the story of Days Of Future Past. And in some ways, that’s the biggest run.

It didn’t come from a mandate of a commercial thing of bigger and more mutants. I mean, ultimately it is bigger and it does have more mutants than if it was a pure sequel to X-Men: First Class, but the initial impulse wasn’t from “let’s copy The Avengers“, it was “let’s tell the coolest story we can tell in this universe.”

Are we going to see more adventures from either side of these characters?

Ad – content continues below

Sure. For sure. Absolutely, yes. At the end of the movie, I hope you’ll feel like you want to follow the older cast, and that you want to follow the younger guys into the 70s, 80s and onwards.

Is it possible we’ll see Age Of Apocalypse, or other sagas of the X-Men universe?

In the future movies? I have no idea what the future movies hold. We’ve been talking to Bryan, and the studio obviously, and we’d love to continue making these movies. So we don’t really know what the next story will be, but there are certain characters we’d love to play with, and certain origins we could tell that we didn’t get a chance to tell in First Class. But who those characters are or who the villain is, we’re not entirely sure yet.

Can you talk about how the themes have grown in this movie?

The themes of the comic are so rich and dramatic because of Charles and Erik. This film explores the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, big, iconic, literally political issues. But I would say that works best in the movies, and I think this is true of the books too, is when the themes are manifested in an emotional character, not in speechifying. In this movie, we’re exploring what we were exploring in First Class, in terms of Raven being the crux between one side that wants to become part of existing society – Charles – and a side that wants to destroy existing society, or take over the world. Erik feels like that’s their rightful place as evolved beings, in the same way as Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

I think a lot of that is playing in this movie, but I think the main theme of the film is, if you had the chance to do your life differently, would you do it? And I think that is playing in Wolverine going back and giving a message from the future – it’s like any future movie, where you now have the choice. You know more than we knew about the world ahead. You can change, or you can stay on the course you’re on.

Ad – content continues below

That, for me, as a time travel movie – we’re intercutting between the past and the future in a way we’ve never seen before. Even in the Terminator films, you had some scenes in the future, but it wasn’t really intercutting between two parallel stories. That theme of “if you knew then what you know now, would you do differently” – that is the core theme of the film.

Simon Kinberg, thank you very much.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past is out on the 22nd May in the UK.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.