Simon Kinberg interview: X-Men Apocalypse, Deadpool and more

The writer and producer of X-Men Apocalypse talks to us about writing the sequel, the future of R-rated superhero movies at Fox and more...

For the past decade, Simon Kinberg’s been involved with the X-Men movies, whether as a writer or producer or both. He’s well positioned, then, to not only talk about the challenges of penning a huge ensemble movie like his latest project, X-Men: Apocalypse, but also the state of Marvel movies at Fox as a whole.

What’s it like to not just consider one movie in isolation, but also spin-offs like The Wolverine or the forthcoming Gambit? With Deadpool making an unexpectedly colossal $762m at the box-office – an incredible return on its $58m budget – what impact has that had on Fox’s future plans?

Read on for the answers to these questions, plus Kinberg’s thoughts on the themes lurking below the surface in Apocalypse and the status of a potential Fantastic Four sequel…

What was your approach to writing this? Because you have so many characters, such a big ensemble. What’s the writing process like? Is it a case of shifting lots of index cards around?

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There’s a lot of index cards. I mean, I’ve gotten used to it, right? This is, in some ways, the third or fourth X-Men movie I’ve written in some form. Days Of Future Past was, I’d say, more complicated than this one, because it was also different versions of the same characters. In this, at least, there was one version of each character. But once I know what the overall story is, I will create different coloured index cards for each of the main characters, and try to track their personal and emotional arcs over the span of the film.

It’s hard, because in a normal movie you have maybe two or three at the most arcs that you’re tracking. Usually you just have a hero and a villain – in any movie, not just a superhero movie. But in these movies you’re 10 characters deep, sometimes 15 characters that you really need to service. I want to make sure – what’s really important to me, especially once I know I’m going to be there standing on the set with the actors having to answer their questions, that they evolve over the span of the movie. Or devolve, depending on the character. So yeah, there’s a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of architecture that goes into it. And having said that, all the mechanics aside, you have to feel it – you have to feel that there’s some primal, emotional thing that those characters are going through. 

When it comes to the action sequences, where do they come in the writing process? Do you write around them, or are they integral to your story?

No, I write them. Part of the fun for me is writing the action sequences. I’m like a geek that grew up playing with Star Wars toys and creating action sequences, essentially, with toys. So now I get to do that in my mind, and eventually it manifests as something sort of real, and then the computer makes it seem really real. But there’s a lot of people who are involved in actually crafting and manifesting those sequences.

The most important thing for me in an action sequences is, you understand the characters’ intention and the challenges the characters are going to have to face. What the character story is within the action sequence. Then I’ll write it in a way that excites me visually, and then by the time it gets to the theatre, it’s now gone through me and the director talking about it, the director and me and the second unit director who’s going to have to shoot most of the physical real-life in-camera action, the visual effects department that creates that, the pre-vis department that’s also involved. So there’s a tonne of people. You’re talking about hundreds of people who are involved in creating and completing an action sequence in a movie. But it does start on the page. I don’t write around it. Some writers do – some writers will say, you know, “then they fight and this person wins.” But I like it. I get so immersed when I’m writing that it would be hard for me to cheat anywhere. I really write the movie that I’m imagining in my head.

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As a producer and a writer, you’re not only thinking about this film necessarily, but also the arc of the future films and how this one dovetails with the one previously. That’s something relatively new in cinema, isn’t it?

It is.

That’s possibly, what, 10, 15 years at the most?

Yeah. I think what’s different, certainly, is thinking about these movies horizontally as part of a larger universe – where you’re telling different character stories. Like how this movie impacts Deadpool or it will impact Gambit or New Mutants, things like that. The notion of telling stories, where you’re thinking of the last and the next just as sequels goes back to Star Wars, Indiana Jones – those films have sequels to them. George Lucas, specifically with the Star Wars movies, was very aware of things he was setting up in the first film were things he’d pay off in the second. He even called the first film, obviously, Episode IV.

But I do think this idea that you’re creating a larger tapestry that can include movies that are not direct sequels or prequels is very fresh. It’s something that, frankly, was inspired initially by comics, but in the cinematic universe was inspired by what Marvel Studios is doing with Kevin [Feige]. The superhero movie I worked on was X-Men 3, and Kevin Feige was an executive at Marvel at the time, and so we worked together very, very closely on that film. We became quite close, and remain quite close. So I’ve watched what he’s done with that, and it’s extraordinarily inspiring, and it’s something we’d love to emulate. 

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Deadpool was a really big hit earlier this year. What was the impact of that success like on Fox and their plans for future comic book movies?

You know, I think they were very excited after Days Of Future Past – they were very bullish about the future of their comic book movies was going to be. Just from a pure business standpoint, before Days Of Future Past, no X-Men movie had ever made more than $500m. And Days Of Future Past made, I don’t know, $750m, $775m, something like that. So they were already broadening their horizons, and part of that helped us to get the money we needed to make Deadpool. I mean, we made Deadpool for a fraction of what these X-Men movies cost. Quite literally, like a fifth of an X-Men movie.

The success of it, I think the result is, we’ll have even more freedom – and they give us an immense amount of freedom – but we’ll have even more creative freedom going forward. And maybe a little more money for the next Deadpool movie and when there are films that want to be raunchier, want to be darker, want to be violent or R-rated, they’ll be open to it. And not every movie should be. I don’t think that the main X-Men movies should be R-rated; I don’t think they’re R-rated stories. But if we were to make an X-Force movie, that probably should be R-rated. And what we’re doing with the Wolverine movie… that wasn’t impacted by Deadpool. We’d made the decision for Wolverine to be R-rated before Deadpool came out. But I think there’s even more confidence about having made that decision now that you see that an R-rated Deadpool movie can do better than any X-Men movie’s ever done.

Can you talk a little bit about the theme of this movie, which I thought was really interesting. It’s kind of survival-of-the-fittest versus the collectivism of the X-Men. That they’re stronger together. I was thinking there’s a lot of division in the world right now, especially, so I was wondering whether this was your response to it.

Well, there were two things to me that I was very aware of when I was writing the story, and one was very personal and one was more political. The one that was personal was the idea that families form in different ways. There’s the nuclear family that I grew up thinking was the only kind of family, and today, family is defined in different ways. Families are more complicated, divorce is more common. It’s a different time. And so for me that part of the story was very personal, and the movie is ultimately about family coming together despite the fact that they can split apart.

The other part of it is is what you say. Which is, we live in a very divided time. In a time when some of our leaders want to divide us even more. They can be like Apocalypse – they can prey on our fears and our anger, and make us feel like that’s empowering, when in fact it’s the opposite. It’s enfeebling. And so the end of this movie is certainly an attempt to say, “we are stronger together than we are apart”, which is something politicians have said before. And hopefully pedagogues like Apocalypse and some of the other people in our political realm now are not the ones that end up ruling the day. 

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Are things like that, which can be expressed in superhero movies and science fiction movies, is that what interests you in writing genre stuff?

You know, to me that’s what’s most interesting about science fiction. Superhero movies are just one genre of science fiction. The thing that’s interesting about science fiction is that it is always, when it is done well, a lens on our world. And yet it is a metaphor. So it’s easier to watch for an audience. You get a broader audience. But you’re telling the same message you would tell if you were doing a political thriller or a political drama. That’s my favourite… I grew up on Star Wars and on science fiction literature. So my favourite science fiction writers were always exploring themes and politics that you couldn’t do in a best-selling book if that’s all you were doing.

I’m not sure how much you can say, but can you tell me what your plans are for Fantastic Four?

We want to make another Fantastic Four movie. We love that cast – I mean if I were to say to you now Michael B Jordan and Miles Teller, and Kate [Mara] and Jamie [Bell] are great actors – we love that cast. I love the comic, I mean I love it almost as much as X-Men. It’s slightly more the generation before mine, and I also feel this responsibility to tell it right because we didn’t the last time. We didn’t make a good movie, and the world voted, and I think they probably voted correctly. And you can’t make a good movie every time out – not everybody does. We actually have a pretty good batting average, all things considered. But I think we made many mistakes when we made that movie – mistakes that we learned from and we wouldn’t repeat.

We’ll try to be truer to the essence of the tone of Fantastic Four, which is completely – well, not completely, but largely – distinct from the X-Men, which is brighter, funner, more optimistic tone. I think we tried to make a darker Fantastic Four movie, which seemed like a radical idea but we were kind of messing with the DNA of the actual comic instead of trusting the DNA of the comic. I think those actors are capable of playing the parts as they were created in the comic, so yeah. We’re working really hard on figuring that out. Nothing would make me happier than the world embracing a Fantastic Four movie.

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X-Men: Apocalypse is out in UK cinemas on the 19th May.