By Christopher McKittrick.
Not many screenwriters have the distinction of being a member of the creative teams of two multi-billion dollar franchises, but Simon Kinberg is among them. His latest film as a screenwriter, X-Men: Apocalypse, is the ninth film in Fox’s X-Men franchise and comes on the heels of Deadpool, the most successful entry in the series, which Kinberg produced.
Kinberg joined the X-Men franchise as the co-writer of the third X-Men movie 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Although it was financially successful, The Last Stand was considered a disappointment by fans compared to the first two installments of the series.
Kinberg produced the 2011 revival X-Men: First Class, which started a new X-Men storyline set during the early 1960s, and co-wrote the 2014 sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past. X-Men Apocalypse, which was written by Kinberg from a story developed by Kinberg, director Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris, brings the X-Men conflict to 1983 with Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leading a team of young X-Men against the world’s first mutant, a world-conquering villain called Apocalypse (Oscar Issac).
In addition to his creative role with the X-Men franchise, Kinberg also has been involved as writer or consultant in Disney’s revival of the Star Wars franchise, xXx: State of the Union, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jumper, This Means War, and Fantastic Four. Even more impressively, Kinberg somehow finds the time to produce other films, including The Martian, Chappie, and Elysium.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Kinberg about why Mystique is a key character in his X-Men films, the similarities between the X-Men and Star Wars franchises, and whether one writer per film is best.
Earlier this year I interviewed screenwriters Drew Goddard (The Martian) and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool), and they were all highly complimentary of you as a producer on those films. In particular, they talked about the positives about working with a producer with such a deep understanding of narrative. Could you start by talking about the relationship between being a writer and a producer, oftentimes doing both on the same films?
It’s a different experience when I’m producing something that I’m not the writer of than when I’m producing something I am the writer of. In either case, my strength as a producer comes from being a writer – understanding story, character, and structure. I think those are the things that I bring to a movie regardless of what my title is.
When I work with other writers as a producer like with Deadpool or The Martian, the other part of it is the empathy I have for how difficult and harrowing it is to write. I try very hard to be there for the writer as emotional support, and also to protect the writer from what is already a pretty grueling process outside of the actual writing itself, which is the political manipulations that one has to go through to get a movie made.
More often than not, especially on these big movies, writers are treated as disposable, interchangeable parts as opposed to integral parts. A lot of my job as the producer is to remind the director, the studio, other producers, and movie stars that the writers are as important as any of them.
I think it’s not a coincidence that both Deadpool and The Martian were successful movies and movies that had the same writers from start to finish. I’m a big believer that having one writer the whole time is better than having a lot of different writers coming in and punching up scripts because I think it makes for a more organic, singular movie when you have that.
You produced X-Men: First Class and wrote the screenplays for X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. Are there any unique challenges of writing superhero films that are also period pieces?
I like writing in period because to me it feels almost like you get to write in a science fiction world. You’re creating something outside of our everyday lives. The other part of it is that is specifically fun with these X-Men movies is building around the known history of our world.
In First Class we used the Cuban Missile Crisis and Days of Future Past was centered on the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War. We didn’t use as much history in Apocalypse, but we had nods to 1980s politics and certainly 1980s style. It’s just extra fun color for these movies.
Do you go back to any particular films or scripts from those eras when you are writing?
No, but I end up doing a fair amount of research on the era itself. Sometimes I will look at movies for more aesthetic style, but that is less a part of the writing process and more when we get into doing stuff like costumes, production design, and the other elements of putting a movie together.
For the actual writing I just do research on the period. I less try to immerse myself in the period and more look for events, moments, and details that I can build out in the movie.
Including the Cuban Missile Crisis in First Class came from doing research of that moment in time, and when we started talking about Days of Future Past, Matthew Vaughn – who was initially the director – and I talked about doing this radical thing of leaping forward ten years in time from one movie to the next for the past part of Days of Future Past. We started looking at 1973 and what happened then and stumbled into this peace summit in Paris. It became the environment for the midpoint of that film.
I don’t really watch other movies to get inspired when I’m writing any movie regardless of what it is, but I tend to listen to music. I listened to a lot of music from the 1970s for Days of Future Past and even more so the 1980s for Apocalypse. Because the 1980s were the era that I grew up in, it was fun to go back with a little more nostalgia into that moment.
What does a character like Apocalypse bring to the X-Men’s world as an antagonist?
He’s a more formidable villain than we’ve ever had in an X-Men movie before. He’s more powerful than Magneto, which we’ve never really seen yet. He has an agenda which is larger than a mutant/human agenda, which is also something that’s unique to this particular franchise. The actual threat itself is bigger than what we’ve done.
Usually in the past it’s been more local and political. This movie is more global in the scale and stakes of the film. A lot of movies, like Transformers or Roland Emmerich movies, have global-level or extinction-level threats, and we’ve never really done that in any of the X-Men movies. Bryan Singer and I thought that after Days of Future Past that would be an interesting place go with the next film, and so we quickly set on Apocalypse as the villain.
These past three X-Men films can be looked at in one way as the Mystique trilogy. Can you talk about her character development over the three films?
I think that’s really astute, and it’s true. It’s something that I’ve been very aware of. Not that it was the intention going into First Class, but as we were developing First Class what I found was in the Charles and Erik story, which is the backbone of all of the X-Men films going back to Bryan’s original film, X2 and X3, they occupy two separate poles like opposite sides of a political spectrum.
We’ve talked about them as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and a lot of other examples in history where one person is more militant and separatist and another who is more of a pacifist. They were always going to occupy those poles, and they don’t really change over the span of all of the movies. They learn, feel, and have emotional experiences, but they don’t change.
The person in First Class who became the character in play – the character who could change the most, who could move from one pole to the other – was Mystique, or Raven. She started in First Class as essentially Charles’ sister and ended the movie walking away with Magneto.
It was such a clear arc in that movie that for me she became the character in play. She was the character that could move from pole to pole from movie to movie. We would watch her maturation and evolution over the span of many movies until she eventually becomes the Mystique that we know from the comics and X-Men, X2, and X3, which is someone who is on Magneto’s side.
But she starts in First Class entirely on Charles’ side, ends up following Erik, and we then find her in Days of Future Past and she’s on her own because Erik is gone. She’s on her own side in that movie but is drawn toward Charles by the end of the film and shoots Erik. Then in Apocalypse she comes back to Charles.
There’s a full circle narrative over the span of this little trilogy that is about Mystique from beginning with Charles in the mansion and ending with Charles in the mansion, but not as the same timid little girl we met in First Class. She has become militarized and is training a bunch of kids to essentially become vigilantes.
You also co-wrote X-Men: The Last Stand. Was it you who came up with the “the third movie is always the worst” joke in X-Men: Apocalypse?
To be honest, I don’t remember who came up with it. Certainly it was something I was aware that it would poke fun at X3. It was also a bit dangerous because First Class and Days of Future Past are very good films and it potentially puts Apocalypse in the crosshairs as well. It was just a joke that I thought people would get a chuckle out of. We’re ten years away from X3 and we felt that if Deadpool can make fun of X-Men movies, we can too.
It’s also interesting that almost every film you’ve written has either been part of a franchise or been spun off into a franchise – you even wrote a pilot for a Mr. and Mrs. Smith television series. Is franchise-building a niche you settled into, or is that something that you think is just where the industry has been heading during your career?
It’s funny, I’ve never really thought of my movies that way. But you’re not wrong.
For me, I grew up on franchises. My favorite movies were the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones movies, the Terminator movies, and the Lethal Weapon movies.
I grew up in the greatest era of what we now call tent-pole movies for action films. Those are the movies I grew up loving and those are the movies that I grew up wanting to make. I don’t think it’s an accident that the movies I work on tend to turn into – or are already part of – franchises.
In terms of the current state of Hollywood, there’s no question that for higher-budget movies they’re looking for films that can spawn sequels, TV shows, and in the future other kinds of media. Those two things do line up in a way that’s nice for me, but truly it’s just my taste.
Now that I’m doing it — this is the ninth X-Men movie and the fourth or fifth for me – I like it because you get to tell a story over many, many hours. It’s almost like a TV show – you get a larger tapestry as opposed to just a two-hour experience.
When you get to do four, five, or six movies with the same lead characters, you really get to watch them evolve, as we were saying about Mystique. She has a great arc in First Class, but we were able to evolve it in further movies.
X-Men: Apocalypse is the ninth X-Men film, and Fox obviously has more plans for the series. What do you think has to be done with the franchise to keep it fresh, especially with so many superhero films coming out now?
The truth is when the movies are good people come see them. The X-Men movies are really character-driven films, so we just focus on what is the next chapter in the story we want to tell for these characters. I’m aware of all the comic book movies that are out there, and we want to be different. That is a challenge.
What’s special about X-Men is that it has a very emotional, operatic tone to it, which is different from the Marvel movies and is different from the DC movies. It’s our own special niche, and it’s very fun to write especially when you have the actors that we have. You’re trying to write great character scenes for great actors, as opposed to “How do we make bigger explosions with each movie?”
With X-Men we focus first on character, and we also try to be creative with the sub-genre from movie to movie. What Matthew Vaughn did with First Class was create somewhat of a spy movie because he was really interested in the James Bond movies of the period.
Days of Future Past we obviously did a time travel movie, and with Apocalypse we’re doing a disaster movie. Each time we’re trying to be creative with the genre within the genre that we’re exploring.
You’ve also been contributing in various capacities as a writer and producer to Disney’s new Star Wars series. Can you talk about the creative process of working on Star Wars versus working on X-Men?
They’re very different, both in process and the object itself. With the process of Star Wars, there’s an amazing team that Lucasfilm has called the story group. It’s a very collaborative process where I work closely with them and all the different filmmakers all communicate with each other.
A lot of it feels like a family of filmmakers, including the story group. On the X-Men movies there’s not as much of a consistent team or crossover. I think I’m the consistent link between Deadpool, X-Men, Gambit, New Mutants, and the other movies to come.
The process is a little bit different, but the object itself is very different. Star Wars takes place in a truly science fiction alternate universe, which is not our world. X-Men takes place in a world that certainly resembles ours.
Those are the biggest differences, but I think what’s similar about both franchises is that they are both character-driven franchises. The things that I remember from the original movies and why I loved them were Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-wan, Yoda, and Darth Vader.
Those are some of the most iconic, enduring characters in the history of fiction, not just in movies. I think that the people at the Lucasfilm story group, from [President] Kathleen Kennedy to [Senior Vice President, Development] Kiri Hart, understand that the value of the franchise comes first from the characters. I think that is where there is similarity.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t miss our interview with Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick: The Real Heroes.