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

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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

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