Earlier this spring, director/writer Simon Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker sat down with a small group of journalists at WonderCon in Anaheim, California to discuss Dark Phoenix, the 12th and latest film in the X-Men franchise produced by 20th Century Fox — and likely the last in the wake of the Disney/Fox merger that will put the X-Men under the control of Disney’s Marvel Studios.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the studio and these filmmakers have tackled this classic storyline, in which team member Jean Grey’s telepathic powers are unleashed to their full capacity by her contact with a cosmic energy known as the Phoenix force, driving her mad and leading to a direct and tragic confrontation with the other X-Men. The story — or parts of it — were infamously folded into 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, a mistake that many fans have never gotten over.
The new film focuses solely on the Dark Phoenix story, with Jean (Sophie Turner) absorbing the Phoenix force during a space-based rescue mission. As her powers grow and long-repressed memories surface, it pushes her relationships with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast/Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) to the breaking point. Meanwhile, a mysterious alien (Jessica Chastain) manipulates the tormented young woman for her own ends.
The jury is out on whether Dark Phoenix gets the story right this time, but one thing is for sure: this is almost definitely the last time we will see this configuration of the X-Men on the big screen after a 19-year run that had both its hits and misses. Kinberg and Parker spoke about redoing Dark Phoenix and what they think the future could hold for one of Marvel’s most enduring properties.
When did the idea first germinate to redo this story again?
Simon Kinberg: Well for me it was something that, honestly, the second that I wrote the end of Days of Future Past and we did a reset, I felt as though there was an opportunity to retell X-Men 3 and I’d be lying to you if I said there wasn’t a part of me that wrote that ending so that we could have another crack at Dark Phoenix. And then I felt as though we couldn’t do it in the next movie, in X-Men: Apocalypse, because we’d be introducing a new Jean and we need to earn our way into the Dark Phoenix story with at least one movie moving with a new Jean.
When did you share to your team that this was where you guys were eventually going and when did you share it with Sophie that this was going to be happening?
Hutch Parker: We talked while we were making X-Men: Apocalypse about doing Dark Phoenix as the next story in this particular lineage. We didn’t know if it was the next one, or if it would be the one after the next one, so there were some conversations to what the next movie should be, and then we ultimately settled on this movie being Dark Phoenix.
Kinberg: I took Sophie to lunch about a year before we made this movie, while I was still in the midst of writing the script. I sat her down and I basically was like, “This is the new story we’re telling. I know you know what it is.” Because she had done her research by that point. “It’s going to require you to be the lead and carry the entire emotional heft of the film. You’re going to have to go to some really dark and disturbed places as a character and as an actress, and I want you to do immense amounts of research on schizophrenia, dissociative disorder. Really deep dive into the comics, all the kind of preparation that I just felt was necessary to get this part right because so much rests on it.” And she was 100% down for it, left the lunch saying, “I’m in and I’m going to be there entirely, and I’m going to be entirely prepared,” and she was.
That day I sent her links to a bunch of books, a bunch of YouTube videos of people with different kinds of mostly schizophrenic disorder, and she just swallowed it up and came back a week later having read everything, sending me new videos, new questions — she was walking around with earphones in her ears with voices so that she would know what it would be like to live through the world with voices in her head. And we had more rehearsal time on this film than we’ve ever had on an X-Men movie, just to really dive into the performances, and Sophie was there for three weeks of rehearsals before we started shooting. And for me, she was a real creative partner in creating this character, and this character is everything in this movie.
The comic is pretty cosmic in scale and involves a lot of characters and species that we haven’t really seen in any Marvel movies. How much of that did you at least want to try to acknowledge, and is the Jessica Chastain character a distillation of some of that stuff?
Kinberg: I really wanted it to make as much of a nod to the original comic as possible while also making a movie that was grounded, emotional, intimate and personal as we felt it needed to be. One of the touchstones for me, a superhero film that got it right, was Logan, a film that Hutch and I produced, but Hutch was really the lead producer on the film and was really there every second of it. It’s really emotional, really intimate, really grounded and real.
I knew we needed to have an extra-terrestrial and an interstellar element to this movie and there is that, there are scenes out in space, and Chastain’s character is an alien from outer space. We talk about that force inside Jean being the Phoenix Force, the cosmic force, but it really is integrated into a very grounded film. The performances are much more real and gritty than they have been in the past, so that sort of balance between the comic and the space opera element to it, and the great rounded character-based story of a young woman sort of breaking down psychologically, was the biggest challenge of the movie.
Jessica Chastain has been a holdout in this genre. Was she game for this or did she need a lot of convincing to do it?
Parker: She was, although I think Simon gets a lot of credit for that because they have worked together on The Martian, so they knew each other well, and had gotten to spend time together and had become good friends. I’ll say from my part I wasn’t sure we’d get Jessica for this, but we literally never pictured anybody else in the role, which is always a bad idea when you fall in love with an actor or an actress without knowing if they will do it or not. Luckily she shared the enthusiasm that we all did for the story he was telling and jumped in.
When did you know you were going to kill off Mystique?
Kinberg: Well I felt like it was really important that a major character die in this film, not because for the shock value of it, but because we needed the audience to believe that the stakes of this film were real. That actually Dark Phoenix could do the kind of damage that you couldn’t just dust yourself off. From there I started thinking about who is the character who is the most central to all the other characters other than Jean, meaning who was the character who is the center of the radius for all the other characters. (Mystique) impacts Charles, she impacts Magneto, she impacts Hank in really interesting dramatic and emotional ways.
How did the Disney/Fox merger factor into this?
Kinberg: When I first started talking with Hutch and the studio about the movie and when I first started writing it, it was three-plus years ago, long before there was any idea of a merger. I felt as though, and we all did, that this was a culmination of this cycle of X-Men movies. Not necessarily the end, but the culmination. That you’ve lived with this family for 20 years now in one form or another, nearly 10 years for the First Class family, and that this story — which is the ultimate and most iconic X-Men story — was an opportunity to test that family like they’ve never been tested, break that family apart like they’ve never broken apart before, bring them back together ultimately in a new configuration. It would feel as though you have culminated where those characters could go with in this cycle and start something really quite new by the end of this movie as you will see.
So I think fans will feel closure, but not because of the merger. That’s something that happened even after we were shooting, so the movie was in the can already. It was just something that we had thought of, and I felt from the beginning, and I also felt like this was probably the last time we were going to get Michael (Fassbender) and James and Jennifer for these films, so there was this feeling that if in fact this is the last of this cycle — and it remains an if — then this is the right story to tell to do that.
Have you had any discussions with Kevin Feige and the Marvel Studios team?
Kinberg: There’s always been a back-and-forth between Marvel Studios and Fox Marvel, and Kevin worked with Hutch when Hutch was down at the studio and Kevin was working for Lauren Shuler-Donner at the time. I worked with Kevin on my first X-Men movie, where he was one of the producers, and I was a writer. So he goes back a long way with us. Kevin and I have seen each other, and e-mailed with each other over many years now, and if he liked an X-Men movie, or Deadpool, or Logan, he would reach out in really nice generous ways and be supportive about the film. I would obviously do the same because I’ve loved so many of the movies he’s made, and the way he makes them. We sit down occasionally and get together as friends — we did that actually pretty recently, a few months ago.
And there are deals that have been made over the years — we’ll give you this character if you give us that character — which people don’t even know about because they just presume that character was inherent to a Deadpool or an X-Men movie, and they might not have been, or they may feel that way in the Marvel universe. There’s always been conversations around which characters we would share, what ways we would represent characters, what ways they would represent characters. It’s been more synergetic than people would believe.
Having said that, would you want to keep working on the X-Men franchise when Marvel Studios eventually reboots it?
Kinberg: I would love to continue to work on these movies. I love these characters, and we’ll see what form it takes as this merger evolves…But I will say also, separate from all of the Disney Marvel crux of it all, I think the question would be, what is the next story to tell in the X-Men world? Because we really did approach this movie as, let this be the culmination of the cycle and then let us be challenged the same way we were challenged with X-Men: First Class after X3. It’s maybe not coincidental that both X3 and this movie were culminations of a cycle, and after X3, we rebooted with X-Men: First Class.
I think there’s something about the Dark Phoenix story that feels like the ultimate X-Men story and so I’d be interested about what the future holds, but we’ve been so locked down in this movie for years now that I don’t know what the future of the X-Men is going to be.
Dark Phoenix is out in theaters Friday (June 7).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye