For filmmaker Simon Kinberg, the road to Dark Phoenix was a 15-year journey which began by co-writing the much-maligned The Last Stand, which also happened to be loosely based on the famed “Dark Phoenix Saga” from Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin.
This time around, he’s writing and directing the movie himself with Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner in the role of Jean Grey, the member of the X-Men who ends up being inhabited by the Phoenix Force during a space mission by the team. Suddenly imbued with new power, Jean has to decide between letting her friends help her or testing out exactly how powerful she’s become.
Once again returning is James McAvoy as Professor X, the most torn about Jean’s transformation, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beat, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique and Michael Fassbender as Magneto, all of them in their fourth go-round as X-Men. The younger X-Men from 2016’s Apocalypse– Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Kodi Smit-Mcphee as Nightcrawler and Alexandra Shipp as Ororo, Storm – are also back, as is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, while Jessica Chastain plays a mysterious character.
The Beat spoke with Kinberg a few weeks back about what is looking likely to be the last X-Men movie under the Fox aegis.
NOTE: This interview was done without having seen Dark Phoenix due to a scheduling conflict.
THE BEAT: Last time we spoke was for Logan a couple years ago, and I directly asked you about doing Dark Phoenix again. I can’t remember what you said and if you were being coy, but you seemed to deny it. Obviously, you co-wrote Last Stand which was also based on the Dark Phoenix story. Not many filmmakers get a chance for a do-over, but this time, you also got to direct it. What was the motivation to do it again and to direct as well? That would make you the one man responsible for this movie.
Simon Kinberg: I don’t remember what I said to you either in that interview, by the way, but the motivation was that I felt the “Dark Phoenix Saga” was my favorite X-Men story line growing up, and I was a huge X-men comic fan. I felt what we did in X-men: The Last Stand, one regret I had was that it wasn’t as true to the essence of the comic as I wanted to be. The “Dark Phoenix” story as it was, was really backgrounded to the cure or “A-plot” of the story. I really always felt like the “Dark Phoenix” story didn’t fully get its due on screen. When the opportunity arose to tell the story again in a new way — and something that obviously created the opportunity for resetting the timeline at the end of Days of Future Past — I just was excited to get to tell the story in the most faithful way, focused on Jean as the absolute protagonist and center of the movie and to make it as emotional and as raw and as shocking as I experienced it when I was a kid. I wanted to direct it, because I just had such a clear vision for the tone and the feeling of the movie.
Now obviously, as a writer, you often have a clear vision for the story, and even the character arcing and the architecture of the movie. When I started to think about it, I was feeling it more than I had felt other scripts. I was really feeling and seeing the tone, the vibe of the movie. That to me is what a director does is he or she creates the tone of the film. I just felt like this was the one to direct. I’ve been wanting to direct for a while, and I had floated with a few projects over the years and have increasingly been sent a lot of movies to direct. This was the one that felt like I was uniquely suited to tell it.
THE BEAT: To be fair to The Last Stand, that one had shifting directors, including Matthew Vaughn as director at one point. There was a lot of stuff going on. Have times changed now with the Marvel movies that Fox is a little more open to doing a more faithful version or maybe the FX are better now than they were 13 years ago?
Kinberg: I think that a lot of things have changed in the almost fifteen years since we made The Last Stand. I think that comic book audiences have changed. I think they’re much more open to more radical, more challenging kinds of superhero movies than existed back then, because they’re just so fluent in the genre. I think that studios are more open to a female protagonist film then they were even five years ago, let alone fifteen years ago. I think that there is an understanding from the studio that the star of some of these movies is the first material. When you have a story that is beloved and as iconic as “Dark Phoenix,” you have to trust what is iconic about it.
THE BEAT: You mentioned Days of Future Past, but with Apocalypse you were able to cast a new Cyclops, and especially Jean Grey. When you were casting that movie, were you at least partially thinking about redoing Dark Phoenix?
Kinberg: I absolutely was. Once of the things that I find so compelling about Sophie and proved to be so critical for this film is that she has incredible strength and power, yet also has in play real vulnerability and fragility. Jean’s journey over the span of the Dark Phoenix movie is one where she becomes the most powerful creature in the entire universe, as you know, but also is struggling with that. You see the vulnerability and fragility and the fear that comes with not being able to control that power.
THE BEAT: Jessica Chastain is a new addition, and I believe she plays an alien of some kind? Can you talk about bringing her on? I guess she doesn’t really play a character that’s very well known. Can you talk about integrating her with the rest of the cast, some of them who are on their third or fourth film together?
Kinberg: Jess does play an alien, like you said. She is inspired by sort of amalgam of alien characters from different versions of the “Dark Phoenix” saga. Working with her is extraordinary. We had worked together on The Martian. We’d become friends after that film, and we’d been looking for something to do together. I really wrote this part for her, hoping she’d do it, and luckily she did. She’s just an amazingly prepared actress. She’s incredibly precise. She’s thoughtful about every move, every nuance that she makes and [she’s] creative. She’s just got a lot of ideas about how the character should look, should walk, should talk, a lot of behavior ideas. She’s a real partner in creating a character.
THE BEAT: Was there any consideration about bringing in Lilandra or the Starjammers or would that have just been too many characters for the movie?
Kinberg: I really tried to focus the movie on Jean and her struggle. I tried to make it as much of a character-based movie as possible, and then obviously focus on the people who are closest to her and how her losing control and becoming dangerous, and even deadly was impacting them and sort of ripping the family apart. I really wanted to focus on the drama of that story. Some aspects of “Dark Phoenix Saga” I didn’t want to get into, because I felt like they were going to become a lot of plot that would pull away from this more emotional storytelling I was going for.
THE BEAT: This movie’s a little bittersweet, because you got to tell this story and conclude your arc of the X-Men Universe, but it ended up getting caught up in the whole purchase/merger of Fox. Has the movie been finished for a while or did you have to deal with this stuff as well before you could move on?
Kinberg: The movie took the time it took, because we had some pick-ups at the end of last summer or last fall. Pick-ups are normal on all of these movies – they happen on every X-Men movie, they happen on every Marvel movie — but it’s hard on these X-Men movies, because unlike Marvel Studios that pre-plan a pick-up period where they schedule a pick-up period with the actors. We haven’t done that in the past, so we have to wait until all our actors are available at the same time. It took us a little longer to have to wait for them, so we ended up shooting in the fall of last year. Then there was a lot of visual effects work that had to come that that impacted as well, and we just weren’t ready. We probably would have been ready maybe like a month or so ago, but there were not dates available on the calendar where we felt like we had a good date to open, both domestically and internationally.
Really the only change in terms of the Disney of it all is that the marketing and publicity team are involved now and have been involved for the last month or so whenever the merger closed officially. In terms of the production, the post-production, all of that, that was all the same people that I worked with at Fox.
THE BEAT: Another benefit you had since making First Class (and I guess also a double-edged sword) is that Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy have become more in demand since cast in First Class. I was curious about how some of the newer cast like Tye Sheridan as the younger Cyclops have evolved between movies and working with them as director vs. as a writer/producer?
Kinberg: Certainly Sophie [Turner] and Tye both have evolved a lot as actors. I mean Tye went right from doing Apocalypse to being the lead in a Steven Spielberg movie [i.e. Ready Player One], so he was working with one of the greatest, if not the greatest mainstream commercial filmmakers of all time. Sophie had another couple of seasons of Game of Thrones in her arsenal. The way we approach this movie, because it’s a more dramatic, more intense and intimate film then the others have been, there was just a lot of preparation I asked the actors to do and we had more rehearsal time than we’ve had on an X-Men movie. We came into it with just a level of commitment and dedication that was extraordinary from the cast all the way around. [It] was really necessary, and I was grateful to have from the younger actors as well. Like I said, this is really Sophie’s movie. She’s the center of it in so many ways, and she really has to run the gamut emotional and physiologically, so that dedication and preparation was crucial. She really showed up in such an impressive way.
THE BEAT: You’re going to start filming your next move as a director next month. You’re pretty focused on that, as most directors would be, but how does that work as a producer as far as all the stuff you’ve developed at Fox that are in various stages. Do you just have to wait from Disney to know what happens to the rest of those films? Do you just focus on this other movie and not worry about another Deadpool movie, etc?
Kinberg: One of the things I’ve liked doing in my career –and it’s a little more challenging when directing — is multi-tasking. While I was directing Dark Phoenix,I was also producing Deadpool 2, I was also developing Death on the Nile, which starts shooting a little later than the movie I’m directing, 355. I was developing TV shows like The Twilight Zone that went on the air. I have a show that I wrote even in post-production on Dark Phoenix that Apple is going to be making in the fall. I like having multiple things to work on at the same time. Obviously, directing makes multi-tasking the hardest, but I still have weekends, I have some nights free. Sometimes for me it’s helpful to focus on something else for a little bit, so I’m coming back to whatever my main project is with some objectivity.
THE BEAT: You also have the Fox TV shows The Gifted and Legion, which returns this month. I’m not sure what you can say, but are the TV shows still going to happen? I know Legion is very popular.
Kinberg: Yeah, Legion is in its last season. It was always in its last season. That was the way that Noah Hawley had constructed the series, and Gifted was canceled, so, those aren’t really about the Disney merger. The ratings for Gifted were just not what Fox wanted, and Legion is always the way Noah had constructed the life of the series.
THE BEAT: Fair enough. As far as 355, and I’m not sure if that title is going to stick. It’s cool to have a number title, but I’m not sure if studio marketing feels the same way. What can you say about it? Is that an action-thriller style spy movie?
Kinberg: Yeah, it’s a spy movie thriller that focuses on female spies. It’s an ensemble movie with five female spies all of them from a different part of the world. It’s about these strangers from different countries and obviously different intelligence agencies who start, many of them as rivals, and then have to come together over the span of the film to save themselves and essentially the world. But it is — kind of the way I’m describing Dark Phoenix— it is a more grounded – sort of like the Bourne Identity in tone — spy movie.
THE BEAT: One of the things about these spy movies like James Bond and Bourne and Mission Impossible, they go to all these different countries. Are you doing that with this movie as well?
Kinberg: Yeah, we’ll be shooting in London, Paris and Marrakesh, and then some sequences in China as well.
THE BEAT: As a filmmaker and movie lover, what are some of your movie love, what are some of your biggest spy movie influences?
Kinberg: So many. I grew up loving the Bond movies. The Bond movies and Star Wars were my favorite movies when I was a kid. Bond was always my dream, to direct or to make. I never thought there would be more Star Wars movies, and I didn’t imagine I’d be involved in those, although obviously I have been. The Spy Who Loved Me, Goldfinger, Dr. No. Kind of the classics are the ones I love the most. I will say a Bond movie I feel stands among those classics is the remake of Casino Royale. I thought that first Daniel Craig movie was absolutely extraordinasry. It’s my favorite of the Daniel Craig Bonds. I also love the Bourne franchise… I just absolutely love the first three movies. I think the first one — Doug Liman’s movie — I loved it I guess because of the love story and because the notion of his amnesia was so wildly original and fresh at the time. I also like a lot of the Mission: Impossible movies. I nominated the last Mission: Impossible movie for Best Picture at the Oscars.
THE BEAT: That was in my top 10, too. Oddly, I spoke to Kenneth Branagh a few weeks ago, and he spoke about starting Death on the Nile soon, so how is that going to differ from Murder on the Orient Express?
Kinberg: It’s going to be similar in tone. If you know the story, it’s a sexier story. It’s Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer, and being on the Nile in Egypt, in the heat and all that, it’s very different from them being on that train in the snow. It’s got a different feeling and aesthetic to it, but it will still have this classic mystery vibe that Kenneth and the cast created and did such a great job of bringing to life.
Dark Phoenix opens nationwide on Friday, June 7 with previews on Thursday night.
Edward Douglas has been writing about movies and other forms of entertainment for over 25 years, so he’s probably older than you.