Producer Lauren Shuler Donner Talks the Darker Tone, Casting, the X-MEN Franchise, DEADPOOL, Sequels, and More on Set of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

     February 21, 2014

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Lauren Shuler Donner has been producing X-Men movies since the first one back in 2000, so if you have questions about the franchise and where it’s going, who better to ask?  I had the opportunity to do so last year when Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past was shooting in Montreal.  20th Century Fox invited a small group of reporters to visit the set to talk with the filmmakers and cast.  During a break in filming, we landed an extended interview with Donner.  She talked about her history with the franchise, how they decided where to go with the sequel, casting the actors, future X-Men movies, her thoughts on 3D, the tone of Days of Future Past, easter eggs, the Sentinels, her thoughts on how many superhero movies can be released per year, the Deadpool movie, and so much more.  It’s a great interview so hit the jump to check it out.

x-men-days-future-past-teaser-poster-magnetoQuestion: We’ve been going back and forth with everyone today, trying to get them to tell us what the film’s about without revealing too much.

LAUREN SCHULER DONNER: Ha, how’s that going? (laughter.)

Not well. The film is clearly influenced by a very famous common story, so a lot of info is out there. What can you tell people about the film?

DONNER: I can tell you… let me go back to its inception. This is meant to be a sequel to X-Men First Class, and in developing it we were thinking, OK, First Class took place in the ‘60s, so now what do we do? We just roll the cast into the ‘70s, and what happens in the ‘70s? Bryan had the idea that Magneto did something (cackles) and when you see the movie you’ll know what I mean, I’m sorry to be vague, anyway. Then the idea came up, let’s move them forward, but using Days of Future Past. And do me that’s such a treat, because I just adore… when you do three movies with a bunch of actors then you party every weekend, you love each other! It was like just bringing together all my favorite people. Anyway. So that’s how that happened.  

Now, what is this about? Much like the [comic story] Days of Future Past there is Doctor Trask, who you know, and he’s created a Sentinel in the future that is wiping out all mutants. All mutant-kind. We’re not strictly following the comic, we’re more adhering to the comic than, probably, before, but nonetheless. So, someone is sent back, and I think you know who is sent back to try to save the mutant race. And why is Logan sent back, rather than Kitty Pryde? Because it’s very dangerous to go back, and we thought the reality of it is that it’s very dangerous, and because he’s always healing himself we thought he would be the likely candidate. He does not have damage, but occasionally she can’t really hold him. Occasionally when there’s turbulence in the past it affects him in the future, because it’s the same guy, and sometimes he’ll start to get out of it. The worry is, if he pops out of it, then all is lost. There are a couple times when it gets a little hairy.

Obviously we don’t know how this movie ends, but at this point is there the sense that you’ll have members of both these casts to play with going forward, or does this movie serve as a definitive end point to the story of that cast from the first three X-Men films?

x-men-days-of-future-past-patrick-stewart-ian-mckellenDONNER: Well this is… no. Yes. No. (laughter) OK, next? (laughs) We will… continue… I can’t tell you, really. We will continue with our main characters in the future versions. We want to diversify. We will bring in new characters. My mandate to myself since I’ve been involved in these movies was “make every single movie different, so there’s never X-Men fatigue.” What I loved about what Matthew Vaughn did was that he made it a Bond movie. A James Bond movie. I didn’t want fans to say “I’ve seen it, been there,” you know. And what James Mangold did with The Wolverine was he made it a noir. It had a whole different style, a whole different feel, more focus on character, it was kind of one of those old film noir movies.  And Bryan, what he’s doing that’s interesting is, it’s time to bring back the “classic Coke,” the classic X-Men that we had before, the classic cast. It’s the right way to do it. You wouldn’t want to fool around and give it a different kind of style or genre, so that’s perfect. Will we… we will bring  a lot of people back, let’s just say that. And we’ll bring in new characters, and we will release different kinds of X-Men stories. I don’t know that we’re always going to follow this one, I think it’s time to reach out, to, well I can’t say because you’ll print it and then everyone will expect it.

Have you been involved in all the X-Men films?

DONNER: All of them. Every single one. This is my seventh. Well, I will say, I was ill last year, I had cancer last year, so I did not produce The Wolverine. I was there, involved, I always cast them, that’s my big thing, and then in post, because by the time they finished shooting I was done with my treatment, but yes, in theory I’ve done all seven of them, this is my seventh. I’m a huge fan, and I didn’t grow up with it, I didn’t grow up reading X-Men comics. I became a huge fan, I had somebody in my company who gave me the biographies of all the characters. I read Logan’s first, and was like what a great, tragic character. I just loved him. I read Jean Grey’s next, and again, not such a tragic character, but a complex one, and I just kept reading. I said, “this is it.” I’m a huge fan, and I find that the Marvel characters, unlike the DC characters, or any other comic characters, are flawed and dark and complex. There is much more to identify with, and to make them real. Bryan and I agreed from the very beginning, let’s ground them and make them as realistic as possible so that when she creates weather or he bamfs from here to there, people will buy it. And to me, they are real. In a sense.

You have so many characters that are critical to the story, with actors who may or may not have wanted to come back. As you’re in preproduction, what happens if Patrick Stewart can’t come back? Or if Ian McKellen doesn’t want to come back?

x-men-days-of-future-past-hugh-jackmanDONNER: Oh, well, we were screwed then. (laughs) But as we thought about doing this story we did reach out to those two, just to see if they would come back. They did want to, thankfully. The production nightmare for us was that they have these plays, alternating plays that they are doing in NYC, and they had a set rehearsal time. We had to tailor our filming to get them when we could. We had four weeks with them. So we started off filming the future, because that’s when we had them, and then we had to let them go because they had guaranteed rehearsal time. With Hugh, too. We reached out to a lot of the cast. First of all, the old cast, because we wanted to make sure they would come back. And then, once we knew vaguely what the idea was, we didn’t know enough to say OK, this character and that will be in…. with Hugh, yes, we checked with him. We checked with him late, but we did check with him.

You’re shooting native 3D; was there talk about doing post-conversion for 3D?

DONNER: Yes. I personally disagree with Bryan, but Bryan, I respect his opinion more because he’s the director. I believe in the future it will all be post-converted. The post-conversion is getting better and better and better. Bryan had just finished Jack the Giant Slayer and hung out with James Cameron and Peter Jackson, and they’re such 3D fanatics that it was in his head, he decided he had to shoot native 3D. I advocate… from now on I would only do the conversion, because it’s gotten so good. And I believe that most of the audience can’t tell the difference.

I’ll be frank about this, I think some 3D movies are terrible, even if they’re shot in 3D, because they don’t take advantage of the format, and they don’t frame anything… examples of great 3D: Hugo, Life of Pi.

DONNER: Had to be 3D.

Yes. Is there anything in this where you’re taking advantage of the format, or using it to say “this is why you need to see it in 3D.”

x-men-days-of-future-past-bryan-singerDONNER: (thoughtful pause) …Quicksilver? For one. And I agree — Life of Pi, yes, obviously. But not really, if you look at it, if you read the book it was a journey… yes, it’s a fable, but it’s supposed to be a realistic journey, you’re supposed to buy it as realistic. Hugo, yes, of course. Yes, there are certain scenes that we designed and shoot with 3D in mind, yes.

You know what I’m saying, though, about a certain framing. Some 3D movies are just spectacular.

DONNER: We’re looking at this differently. When I say “we” I mean Bryan. In his last movie I know he only watched the 3D monitor and focused on that. This time his feeling was, for the most part — he’ll go check all the time, because obviously he wants to make sure that we are taking advantage of it — but he’s also now focusing more on the characters. And you can only do that in 2D. You can either watch the frame and how it’s going, or as a director you can look at your actors, which is what it’s all about, and try to make it real. So his monitor at his station is 2D, he’ll go up and meet with the actors, and then he’ll run over and check the 3D, so it’s not the first priority. BUT, he’s got people who are doing that for him. We have the 3D team that is doing that for him, and if they feel that it’s not being framed right, if they feel like we’re not taking advantage of a situation they will let him know.

What about the tone?  First Class was light, this seems like a much darker story. How are they meshing?

DONNER: It meshes because of the storylines. The look, no, it doesn’t. Which is fine. You saw that, you saw the look and the tone in First Class. [This is] darker by necessity, you have the chance that the mutant race is going to be wiped out. The difference in look between the mutant future and the past is very different. It’s very dark in the future, very dark. Really dark. Although beautiful, in a sort of happy/sad, schadenfreude way. Really gorgeous. But they’re dealing with their death. And the past has a darker tone because there’s so much conflict between the characters, between Charles and Erik, who must work together in order to save the future, and they are in a place where they are not together emotionally, because of this dire situation. The clock is ticking and they have to get there. So it’s very serious, it feels that the subject matter is more serious than First Class.

x-men-days-of-future-past-peter-dinklageCan you talk about Peter Dinklage?

DONNER: He’s a wonderful guy! Well, he’s Bolivar Trask, he’s Doctor Trask. So that’s how he fits into the story. it is his desire to create the Sentinels. And, in terms of casting, Fox and Roger M, who’s our casting director, and Donna Isaacsen, who is the casting director from Fox, and myself put together this enormous list of who he could be.  And Bryan looked at that list and said Peter Dinklage. And we all discussed —

Was Dinklage on that list?

DONNER: He was on that list, I don’t know who put him on, I think it was Donna. There was a variance of people and ages, and we knew he was the appropriate age. They went up a little bit higher in age, a little bit lower, there were names and “not-names,” up and coming names, a humorous way, a serious way, much more serious, but he was literally our first choice. There were other people we all liked, there were some really good ideas, there are some wonderful actors out there, but once… the minute Bryan told me that it was like Oh my god. Because of the irony of it all, because he’s such a great actor, because we love him, because he already reaches a certain fan base that we like to reach, for a zillion reasons. But first and foremost because he was right for the movie. No, oddly enough, we didn’t have a second choice. I’m sure there were ten second choices, there were people we all liked and talked about. But he so led the pack that we honed in on him. Then we had to work with HBO, try to work out the schedules, all that horrible stuff.

At Comic-Con he drew a huge audience — he’s incredibly popular right now. And it’s good casting, but it was universally praised. What’s that like for you, to see that reaction?

james-mcavoy-x-men-days-of-future-pastDONNER: To me, it’s really exciting because there are a couple of small, fanboy websites who got my email and will occasionally email me, and I got one that was saying “why Peter Dinklage? He’s…. why?” And so I thought, “Oh, dear, people aren’t seeing it.” But you make a choice and you live with it, you live BY it. So when the fans really responded to him, it made us feel like “OK, at least there are some people who like the idea of it.” It’s great. it’s good because you work so hard on a movie and you want people to come for whatever reason they’re coming — get ‘em in the theaters, because then you feel the movie will win them over. And if they’re coming for Peter Dinklage, good on them.

This business is different now, in part because of the success of X-Men. Now Marvel is planning four years in the future — how do you feel about the changes and the expectations?

DONNER: We will do something similar. We have been talking, “we” meaning Fox and some of the people involved in the film, in terms of also laying out a timeline, which characters can be spun off, which stories we can do, if we pick one story, which stories THAT will lead to, that sort of thing. I think it’s a very good idea. I think Kevin Feige’s very smart — I gave Kevin his first job. I think he has done it right, he’s done it how we always ask to have it done, and he’s done a terrific job. And I think it’s good to tell the fans “this movie’s going to lead to that, and that will lead to…” It gives fans a confidence. And we will start to do that also.

You have a relationship with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige; what’s it going to take to combine certain characters?

DONNER: (Sigh.)

There has to be bad blood between Marvel and Fox, because Fox has all these characters that Marvel wants — would it be hard to work together, or at some point in the future if this slows down and the timing is right, of course you’re going to have that conversation? Or are we reading too much into this?

Producer Lauren Shuler Donner Interview

continued on Page 2

x-men-days-of-future-past-michael-fassbender-jennifer-lawrenceDONNER: That goes on at a corporate level, that’s not what I’m about. I produce the movies, I try to push other ones in the future, but what goes on between Marvel and Fox — I’m not invited to that party. I can’t answer that question.

You’re working on X-Force, we’re talking about how there should be a New Mutants movie. Fox has all these mutant characters; when do you think we will see more movies announced?

DONNER: I think we have to figure out how many X-Men films a summer can handle without getting into X-Men fatigue. And I just mentioned New Mutants off the top of my head because that’s a personal passion of mine.  I’m not saying that’s Fox’s next movie, please don’t misquote me or I’ll get a call. But we have to be very careful. As you all know there’s a Deadpool script that is out there, and you know about X-Force and you know about Fantastic Four. There’s a summer, there’s a year, say 2014, 2015, how many can you put out? Take into consideration there are also Marvel movies coming out then. At a certain point people want to see other movies besides comic book movies so you have to be really careful what you’re going to pick, and how many are going to be released within a year.

People say the Deadpool script is awesome, and clearly should be rated R. An X-Men movie has to be PG-13, but what about doing Deadpool at a lower budget point, releasing it at a different time than the middle of May? Is that an option, because Marvel is clearly not walking the R-rated path.

DONNER: Right. I agree.

I was hoping for more than “I agree.”

x-men-days-of-future-past-hugh-jackman-michael-fassbender-james-mcavoyDONNER: First of all, the Deadpool movie should be $50m in any event, whether it is PG-13 or R. Because it’s a single character, it doesn’t involve that many of the other mutants, which means not many other powers, which is CGI, which is what costs so much. It would be a lot of action, but it should be — and because it’s a standalone character, just like the Wolverine films, we keep them at a smaller budget, so it should be a $50m budget regardless. And I am a producer who NEVER discusses her budgets, EVER, ever ever. But that one should be kept small. As for the rest of it, I can’t really talk about it. I’d love to take the movie, it’s a really good script, we’ll see.

We all want that.

DONNER: Good! I’m glad! Write Fox and tell them. Thank you. 

Themes — is the interpretation here intended to be open, or are there specific intents to push a metaphor in one direction?

DONNER: Well, this is difficult because there are so many story lines and there’s always the undercurrent of tolerance, and because of that all of us who feel like we’re outsiders and misfits, for whatever reason, can blend right in. Some of us are more obvious with our flaws as mutants are with their visible characteristics, and some are not. The other themes, of friendship, uniting, we try to push our themes, and we try to make our movie mean something besides a good time with a lot of action and a lot of CGI and actors that you like. We really do. That’s one of the reasons I like working with Bryan, because that’s always first and foremost in his mind. So we try very much to push the themes, yes.

Is that the same reason you think women who might not be big fans of comics or X-Men should watch these films?

x-men-days-of-future-past-jennifer-lawrenceDONNER: Oh absolutely. And there are very strong female characters, that’s another reason I was drawn to it, there are Storm and Rogue and Jean Grey, there’s a lot to identify with, yes.

You get one f-bomb in this movie. Do you know where it will be, because we’ve heard there are a few actors who have casually mixed it in.

DONNER: Well, they do it to get the feeling, they’re angry, it’s effing this and effing that, and it will come out. And we’ll look and we’ll choose. I think I know where it will be, yes.

Do you think it will be Hugh again?

DONNER: I do not. But that was the best use of it, yeah, I think.

Hugh seems like he continues to be very comfortable with this character

DONNER: Not only comfortable. We did discuss, after the last movie, the thing I liked about The Wolverine was how internal he was, how he pulled it in, and kept it down, and therefore pulled you in. So, yes. he’s very comfortable with his character, he’s very comfortable with evolving this character through time, even though he bounces back and forth through time, I think it’s really fascinating from the day he started to where he is today. it’s really amazing.

What do you do when he decides he’s done?

DONNER: I cry! Because I love him, I want to work with him! I don’t know! I’m hoping that day won’t come, we keep talking about other stories to spin, and of course he wants to do other movies and theater and he wants to take time to be a dad. So far, I think it’s not on the horizon, but I’m sure it will be one day. It’s hard to push your body like that. Thank god the character doesn’t age! (laughs) Phsyically, he has given a lot. I loved it when the poster came out for The Wolverine, and there was a lot of chatter on the internet that it was photoshopped, it’s NOT. That’s that man, ok! Have him pull his shirt off, he’ll show you. That’s another reason for women to come!

Curious about easter eggs in the film, there’s a lot in the comics that can be thrown in. Is that something you think about, and are there things fans can look forward to?

x-men-days-of-future-past-hugh-jackmanDONNER: There is, but I’m going to save it because I want to make a game out of it. And maybe we’ll reveal it through some of the fan sites. I can’t tell you what it is, but there’s something really great that’ll be super-fun to look for on the Blu-ray. That’s one. And in terms of the other stuff, if I tell you it won’t be a fun surprise!

I’m not looking for specifics, just a “yes, in certain sequences.”

DONNER: Yes… more, not easter eggs, but a tip of the hat. We always like to tip out hat, and have, like Remy LeBeau being mentioned in X2, like we know about Gambit, and so on a list in X2 there’s Remy LeBeau. Or in the bar we had Hank McCoy in the background, because we could never figure out how to build Beast, and do it classy. We could never figure it out, so that was our way of saying “we know he should be in the scene, so here he is.” (laughs) That sort of thing is what we’ll do.

Having worked on all the films, what has changed for you over the years?

DONNER: I could tell you so much. One of them is Hugh. He’s such a nice guy, it took him a while to get inside and find the angry side. And now he’s very comfortable, very free to tap into that anger. The other is interesting, and… the first movie… Bryan and I tend to see eye to eye very much, we always do. The one thing we argued about was tone. He very much wanted to make a really dark movie, and I felt an obligation to bring in fun. That’s Joss Whedon’s script when he says “how do I know?” and the answer is “you’re a dick,” that’s Joss. We had to push for that. Bryan’s tendency was to make that very, very dark, and I was afraid we’d never get to the second one if it was unrelentingly dark. We argued about tone, and he finally allowed me a few light moments. Now I look at it and I think, “OK, we can go dark, let’s go dark.” We’ve established the characters. And Logan, traditionally, has that dark humor, you know, and to not allow him that is to not fully develop the character. He’s got to toss off those one-liners now and then. But now I see that we’ve come this way and we can go darker and darker and darker, so that I find very interesting.

x-men-days-of-future-past-james-mcavoyHas the audience changed as well?

DONNER: I think the time has changed. I see all these apocalyptic movies, which 13 years ago when we first made this wasn’t really in our zeitgeist. It is now, because of 9/11, because of the economy, it is more and more now. There is a darker awareness, although it would seem to reason that because life is so much tougher now people would seek entertainment to just totally escape. But it seems that there is a certain desire to look at it and make it come out alright, World War Z style. So that’s how the audience has changed.

Can you take bigger chances now?

DONNER: What I’m always afraid of is going “off-book,” so to speak, you know, I always get upset when the director leaves the classic comic that was so very popular. I argued, and I won’t say with who about what, but when we go way away from the original source material… that material is popular for a reason and I like to stick with it. The audience has been very generous with us, because we have taken big dramatic liberties, but I think you can do it with individual characters, and we have to be careful with our stories. 

Can you talk about the Sentinels here?

DONNER: They’re nasty! I can’t too much, they evolve into very threatening enemies, destroyers. That’s all I can say. They’re cool-looking, they’re almost omnipotent; they’re super-cool, I have to be vague. Sorry.

Bryan has been tweeting a lot of pictures of the production — is that something you talked about and worked out? And does he still have time to direct in between tweeting?

x-men-days-of-future-past-set-photo-nicholas-houltDONNER: (laughs) How long does it take to tweet? Yes, we discussed it, this was all pre-planned. It was more fun this way, it was more fun from his point of view. We could get a photo the traditional way and release it, but this seemed more fun. We all decided we wouldn’t show anything head-on, so in the beginning we were finding our way. They’re teases, that’s our approach to it. Nicely-framed teases. It’s not the pat, unit photographer’s photo of the thing. It’s “hey, here’s the movie Bryan is directing, and this is directly from Bryan’s iPhone.” And there’s one scene with jets, and they’re really cool, it was a day I wasn’t here, so Bryan tweets me a movie of him standing as these jets appear to come out from his head — I wanted to tweet that, but he wouldn’t let me.

Are you comfortable with the culture of expectation that has grown up around these films, that fans want two years worth of info before the movie comes out?

DONNER: Oh, yes! Listen, when I originally sold X-Men it was because I knew there was 40 years of stories. That was the point! Not only to do the movie and establish the characters, you know, you love the one you’re doing. It was because there are all these great stories, what a wealth of drama.

And you’re already talking about the next movie?

DONNER: Yeah! And not only that, but which one over here, and which one over here, yeah.

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