Visiting the set of X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Last June, we were lucky enough to visit the set of X-Men Days Of Future Past and chat to some of the cast and crew. Here's what happened...

NB: This article contains very mild spoilers for X-Men: Days Of Future Past.

Opposite and a little way to my left, Richard Nixon sits happily eating his lunch. Well, not the real Richard Nixon, obviously, but Mark Camacho, an actor so cunningly made up to look like the infamous US President circa 1973 – complete with architectural nose and hairline – that it’s impossible not to stare. We’re sitting in the canteen tent of X-Men: Days Of Future Past, where tables have been arranged in long rows, one after the other, so the place looks like Da Vinci’s The Last Supper multiplied in a hall of mirrors.

Days Of Future Past marks an important moment in the franchise for several reasons. One, it sees Bryan Singer return as director for the first time since X2 in 2003. Two, it sees Hugh Jackman reunite with Professor Xavier and his team of heroic mutants for the first time since The Last Stand. And three, it brings together the leading cast members of First Class – Matthew Vaughn’s 60s-set, younger-generation series entry, and those of the initial trilogy for a sprawling time travel story.

An adaptation of the classic 1981 comic book run of the same name, Days Of Future Past fulfils the movie franchise remit of bigger, brighter and louder, and will also, perhaps, bring a greater sense of unity to a movie universe that is now well over a decade old. Taking place over two timelines – one at an unspecified point in the 21st century, where world events have taken a dystopian turn, and Nixon-era 1973 (a shift from the comics’ 2013 and 1980), it sees the two generations of X-Men fight to alter a future controlled by giant, mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels.

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It’s a fresh, sunny morning as we’re driven onto the film’s Montreal set. Mel’s Cite Du Cinema is, we’re told, Canada’s largest film production facility – previously home to such movies as Life Of Pi, Benjamin Button and, less auspiciously, Battlefield Earth – and 20th Century Fox has used every inch of its sound stages and grounds to make Days Of Future Past.

According to production designer John Myhre, the movie required the construction of so many sets that Fox’s spreadsheets couldn’t even list them all. “Fox’s accounting only goes to 99,” Myhre confided, as we crowd around some of the film’s concept art that adorns the walls of his production department. “We’re at 120 sets or something. I’ve lost count.”

Given that Days Of Future Past is being shot over the course of 84 days, that means the legion carpenters, painters, plasterers, electricians and other craftsmen have been frantically putting up sets, breaking them down, and building new ones at the rate of more than one per day. As we’re led around the studio, a set simply called “the monastery” has been stripped back to a few oriental-looking stone pillars, which are being hefted into the back of a truck.

“It’s part of the future,” explains our guide and host Joe Everett, a publicist who worked with Bryan Singer on X-Men and X2, as well as other major films like White House Down and Pacific Rim. “It was a really huge set, as you can see from the size of the room.”

And he’s right – it’s a huge sound stage, though empty now, aside from a lorry, a few men and a forklift truck. We’re ushered to another sound stage, where a recreation of the White House’s Oval Office has been painstakingly built. As we clamber up some stairs, we cautiously ask why the set had to be built some ten feet from the ground.

“Something happens in the Oval Office,” Joe says cautiously, “and the President has to be rushed… elsewhere.” 

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All plush carpet and expensive furniture, it’s most definitely the Oval Office as we’ve seen it in photographs or other movies. I’m briefly tempted to ask whether I’m allowed to sit in the president’s chair, but think better of it. Remarkable though the craftsmanship is on this place – and a letter from Professor X sitting in the in-tray on the president’s desk provides a hint as to the level of detail here – we’re told that it too will be taken down within the next day or two. It’s strange to think that, although this huge construction will be captured on film, it’s essentially a by-product, like a mould broken to get a bronze statue out of it.

The most exciting indoor set, though, is that of the X-Mansion. Myhre’s team have recreated the interior of the foyer, stairs and several rooms from the franchise’s famous country pile, and again, the attention to detail is extraordinary: bare stone walls really look like bare stone until you gently touch them and realise they’re plaster on wood, carefully painted to look like the real thing. An otherwise opulent study is piled high with books, plates of half-eaten food and other bits and pieces – a symbol, we later learn, of the 1973 Charles Xavier’s chaotic state of mind following the events of First Class.

We move on to the main event of the day: the filming of a sequence that takes place on the White House’s front lawn. Since the early hours of the morning, some 600 extras have been bussed in for what is, we’re told, a major crowd scene that lies somewhere in the movie’s third act.

The set is so large that it’s been built outside on the studio’s backlot, and as we approach it, the construction looks bizarrely like a dockland: we’re faced with a gigantic wall of cargo containers, some 40-feet high and God-knows how many feet across. The crew have cunningly used these huge metal boxes to build a makeshift soundstage, complete with semi-transparent tarpaulin roof which allows the diffuse Canadian sunlight in, but keeps the occasional bout of Canadian rain safely out.

The drums and parping brass of a marching band play as we approach the entrance, while a forklift truck rumbles past carrying a pile of rolled turf. And as we round the corner, we’re confronted by a sea of beige shirts, afros, wide collars, corduroy, crushed velvet, paisley, plaid, side-burns, side-partings, mutton chops, big shades and tiny skirts. All 600 extras have been clad, shod and coiffeured in quintessential 70s style, and the result looks like an Anchorman battle re-enactment, or a rock festival designed by Wes Anderson.

To our left, a gigantic section of the American flag forms the backdrop to a grand stage. On it, 50-or so generals, politicians and dignitaries – or at least, actors pretending to be generals, politicians and dignitaries – sit expectantly in their suits and military uniforms. Before them, the hundreds of extras sit in white folding chairs, or hang around chatting near gigantic 70s police cars.

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An incalculable amount of turf has been used to create a vast expanse of lawn. The walls of the stage have been clad with an equally generous quantity of fabric, coloured the distinctive luminous colour of a green screen – clearly, there’s far more to this scene than we can appreciate from our current vantage point.

We know little about this scene other than its rough position in the film, but we glean more clues as the word “Action!” booms out from a public address system like the voice of God. Richard Nixon takes to the stage, raising a pair of raised victory fingers to a cheering crowd as the brass band honks and rattles.

From where we’re standing, it’s a bit like viewing a play from behind a curtain stage left, yet as we crane our necks to see over the crowd’s voluminous collection of hairdos, we can just about make out Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) pushing Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) in a wheelchair. Dr X, we notice, looks like Tom Cruise playing Ron Kovic in Born On The Fourth Of July: long hair, shades, fearsome facial hair. And who’s that chap striding along next to them, obscured slightly by the heat haze on this warm June morning? That couldn’t be Wolverine, could it?

The X-Men movies have long been distinguished by their themes of discrimination and social injustice, and that, as readers of the Days Of Future Past comic will already know, is a thread that continues in Days Of Future Past – and Nixon’s grandstanding speech is positively sodden with discrimination and injustice. “My fellow Americans,” the President says. “Today we witness a great threat: mutants. An entirely new species. But we have a weapon. The most advanced weapon since Oppenheimer created the bomb…”

The weapon he’s referring to is the Sentinel – a new breed of deadly giant robot created by military scientist Bolivar Trask. We’re guessing that one of these mutant-killing specimens will be lurking behind the giant US flag hoisted behind Richard Nixon, just waiting to be grandly unveiled. Unfortunately, we don’t see it, and only catch a fleeting glimpse of what it’ll look like from the concept art hanging up in the production department, along with pictures of the futuristic X-Jet and some set designs we’re probably not allowed to talk about in public.

We do, however, get to meet Trask himself – as played by Peter Dinklage. Having stood among the heat and flickering moths of the White House lawn set, we’re then ushered to a nearby marquee where, out of the sun (but still within earshot of various lorries and trucks bleeping in reverse gear, and the tap of the marching band’s drums) we’re given the chance to sit and talk to several members of the film’s cast and crew.

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It’s quite a pinch-yourself moment to find yourself sitting at a table with Peter Dinklage, dressed in full 70s gear, complete with big retro shades. Relaxed and wryly funny, Dinklage talks about Days Of Future Past’s Vietnam-era setting.

“It’s set at the time of Watergate, and Richard Nixon is a character in the movie who I share several scenes with,” Dinklage tells us. “So that sets the tone for nefarious doings, politically. Trask’s agenda… he’s very good at what he does. He sees humanity threatened, and he has the ability to protect it, so that’s what he chooses to do…”

Here, he pauses for a moment, before asking himself, “How can I be more vague?” It’s an example of how nervous everyone involved with Days Of Future Past is about giving away too much of the film’s secrets.

When Nicholas Hoult’s asked about how his character, Hank (alter ego: Beast) feeds into the crisis we all know is coming in the X-Men ‘s future, the result is a similarly thoughtful pause. “The future… urrr… I’m not entirely sure what I can say and what I can’t”.

What we do know, though, is that since Charles Xavier lost the use of his legs at the end of X-Men: First Class, he’s been on an emotional slide, hastened by both his injuries and the onset of the Vietnam war.

“It’s affected [Charles] completely,” Hoult tells us, “because in those ten years, they’ve built the house, the lab, the school. This has all been happening, and a lot of the teachers and students have been recruited and drafted for the [Vietnam] war. So that’s made the situation in the house regress a little bit, and made Charles retreat into himself even more. And Hank’s been more of a support for him.”

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“You find Charles at a very low point,” concurs James McAvoy, whose hair is long like a prog rock guitarist’s, his shirt floral with unfeasibly wide lapels. “This is probably the smartest I look in the whole movie. Not just a low point – a dishevelled, messed-up point. So yeah, [his look] does reflect who he is.”

In Days Of Future Past, it’s Wolverine’s task (rather than Kitty Pryde’s, as in the comics) to project his mind into the body of his 1973 self in an attempt to change the future. And the turmoil Charles is suffering is akin to the wandering, lonely state Wolverine was in back in 2001’s first X-Men movie.

“I go back and find a younger Charles Xavier in a more vulnerable place, a slightly less wise place, a difficult place where I can play the role for him that he would later play for me,” Hugh Jackman – distractingly in his full Wolverine get-up – tells us. “It’s poignant, and beautifully brought out in the script.”

That script is from Simon Kinberg, the producer and screenwriter of Days And Future Past as well as the co-writer on 2006’s The Last Stand. Although he too was tight-lipped about specific story details, he also said that Days Of Future Past’s story is about the X-Men – including a shattered Charles Xavier – rallying to face a common threat. And the result will not only be a bigger X-Men film than any we’ve seen before, but also one more deeply rooted in the science fiction genre.

“I think the future action is more science fiction,” Kinberg said. “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.”

Towards the end of the day, we were taken into a darkened cargo container just off the White House lawn set – essentially Bryan Singer’s mission control, where he directs the action from a bank of screens. Over Singer’s shoulder, we can see that the stage on which Richard Nixon stands is part of a much wider shot, and thanks to modern green screen technology, we can see a rough version of what the matted-in background will look like, with the full American flag fluttering in the breeze and the White House squatting just behind it.

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Days Of Future Past is, Singer tells us, what he calls an ‘interquel’ – neither a sequel nor a prequel, but a story that stands apart from both the original X-Men trilogy and First Class while also building on their characters and history.

“It’s a new thing, as opposed to another X-Men picture,” Singer told us. “That part is challenging and kind of fun. The key is making something where the past and the future can intertwine, and there’s a logic to it.”

Singer’s intertwining treatment of the Days Of Future Past comic book story gained no less a seal of approval than James Cameron. Knowing that Cameron was no stranger to the knotty problems of time travel in his Terminator movies, Singer pitched the concept to him at a party in New Zealand (a shindig thrown by one Peter Jackson).

“It was a real trip, one of the most fun conversations I’ve had in years,” Singer said. “And he was really into it – he’d done time travel in The Terminator, so I said, ‘Okay, here’s what I want to do with time travel’, and I pitched the thing, and he seemed to approve.”

As Bryan Singer swings around in his chair and returns to the task of directing, and our time on the set draws to a close, it becomes clear that what we’ve seen and heard – big and starry though it all may be – is only a small part of a much bigger picture. Just as standing on the periphery of the White House Lawn set only gave us a suggestion of what the final shot will look like, so the day’s interviews and tours only provide a taste of a potentially huge film.

We may have met the likes of Hugh Jackman, Peter Dinklage, James McAvoy and Josh Helman (who’ll be playing the young Bill Stryker), but they’re only a fraction of a cast which also includes Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page and Halle Berry.

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The pictures and tiny model sets lurking in the production office, meanwhile, hinted at a story which spans a range of international locations as well as two very different eras. Only time will tell how this huge array of characters, intertwining stories and objectives will all come together, but there’s a definite sense of excitement among the cast about collaborating on such an ambitious story, where, as ever, the X-Men must put aside their differences and individual neuroses to fight as one.

As Hugh Jackman puts it, “alienation and discrimination” are constant themes in the X-Men comics and movies, but none more so than in Days Of Future Past, where the combination of Richard Nixon, Bolivar Trask and an army of Sentinels combine to become the biggest threat yet.

“What’s always been great about X-Men”, Jackman hinted darkly, “is that it’s not all happy endings or peace, love and understanding…”

We’ll be running the full interviews with X-Men: Days Of Future Past’s cast and crew over the next few days. The finished film is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd May.

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