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Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon - "X-Men" should give summer a hot start

Martin A. Grove

Wednesday 26 April 2006, by Webmaster

"X-Men" Xcitement: Although the early weeks of May have evolved into a pre-summer season with good grossing potential, it’s Memorial Day weekend when the boxoffice really heats up and establishes the tone for the summer ahead.

Last year, a soft Memorial Day weekend with key films down 6% from 2004 sparked valid concerns about Hollywood’s health. The four-day holiday weekend’s top grossing film was Fox and Lucasfilm’s "Star Wars: Episode III" with $70 million for its second weekend in theaters. It was followed by DreamWorks’ opening of its computer-animated "Madagascar" with $61 million and Paramount’s launch of its action-comedy remake "The Longest Yard" with $58.6 million. The bad news was that key films grossed $226 million for the four days versus $239.2 million a year earlier.

This summer looks like it should get off to a hot start May 26 thanks to 20th Century Fox and Marvel Enterprises’ "X-Men: The Last Stand," the third episode in the blockbuster franchise based on the hit Marvel comic book series created over 40 years ago. It’s a tribute to the film’s strong boxoffice potential, by the way, that it isn’t facing any competition from other wide openings over the four-day Memorial Day weekend (May 26-29).

Directed by Brett Ratner, the new "X-Men" — let’s just call it "X3" for short here even though "3" is not actually part of its title — is produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter, producers of the first two episodes, and written by Simon Kinberg ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith") and Zak Penn ("X2: X-Men United"). It was executive produced by Marvel Studios chairman and CEO Avi Arad, Marvel Comics chairman emeritus Stan Lee, Marvel Studios production president Kevin Feige and John Palmero, who’s partnered with "X-Men" star Hugh Jackman in Seed Productions.

The franchise stems from Fox’s mid-summer release of the first "X-Men" on July 14, 2000. Opening to $54.5 million, it went on to gross over $157 million domestically and nearly $139 million internationally or about $296 million worldwide. "X2" arrived in theaters three years later to kick off the pre-summer season May 2, 2003. It opened to $85.6 million and wound up doing nearly $215 million domestically and about $191.5 million abroad or nearly $406.5 million worldwide.

"X3" reunites the stars of the first two episodes — Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Halle Berry (Storm), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Patrick Stewart (Xavier), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Anna Paquin (Rogue), Rebecca Romijn (Mystique), James Marsden (Cyclops) and Shawn Ashmore (Iceman). Returning from "X2" are Aaron Stanford (Pyro) and Daniel Cudmore (Colossus). Joining them now for "X3" is Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Henry McCoy, also known as Beast, a mutant geneticist who after conducting experiments on himself sprouts blue, bestial fur.

For some insights into why the "X-Men" franchise has enjoyed such great success, I was happy to catch up recently with Shuler Donner, who explained, "Going way back, I think Marvel created really complex psychologically well drawn characters. I think one part of (the franchise’s success) is that we had some wonderful existing heroes and anti-heroes and tragic heroes to deal with. Then I think there’s a whole thing about just being a mutant and being an outsider. I think people can identify with that. I think we all feel that way. So right away we’re empathetic. And then I think there’s also wish fulfillment in having powers. I think that also makes the audience like us and want to be entertained by us."

The pressure, she acknowledged, is intense to deliver to fans of the franchise with this new episode something that’s just as good or better than what they’ve applauded previously. "It was intense (pressure) in the second one, but our goal with the second one was obviously to make it better and more enjoyable and not repeat ourselves," she told me. "That was the thing. We didn’t want (to repeat ourselves) because sometimes you see sequels and you feel like you’ve been there before. So on the third one, yes, the pressure was even more intense. We had to be even bigger, even better, even more exciting and even more original.

"We have the trilogy aspect in our favor in that we had set up in the first two movies a few storylines that were paid off in the third. So that worked in our favor. Plus, there were a couple characters that we always wanted to do that were too expensive to do — and the storylines were never woven intrinsically into the movie — that we decided we would do in ’X-Men 3.’ For example, the character of Beast that Kelsey Grammer plays."

Shuler Donner is particularly happy about having added new characters like Grammer’s Beast to the franchise with "X3." "It infuses new blood into the series when you don’t use just your cast, but are bringing in new characters with new storylines," she said. "I think that made it fun for all of us, who had journeyed down this (path) before. To conceive (Grammer’s) look was a whole new challenge. We have Vinnie Jones, who plays Juggernaut and his look and his creature and his music was another challenge. So that was a lot of fun. And then we have Ellen Page, who’s a fantastic actress (playing Shadowcat), and we have a young actor named Ben Foster, who plays Angel. Angel has wings so we had to figure out how do we build his wings both practically and also digitally. That’s sort of the good and the bad news. The good news is that it’s fun to create it. The bad news is how the heck are we going to do this?"

It also helps that all the principal stars of the first two "X-Men" films are back for the third episode. "We have the best cast," Shuler Donner observed. "These are not easy movies to make — and nobody complains. We have a wonderful cast. We love each other. We film together. We work together. And then we play together on the weekends. Outside of the movies, I’m friends with them. I enjoy them. I hope personally to continue to make movies with them because they are a delight, a joy and each one of them’s more challenging than the next."

I recalled speaking to Shuler Donner just before the first "X-Men" came out and learning from her how in 1998 she’d discovered Hugh Jackman, who wasn’t well known then, and cast him in the original film. "He was in ’Oklahoma’ in London playing Curly (on the stage) in Trevor Nunn’s production and he couldn’t leave," she said. "So he taped an audition and sent it over. And when I saw that audition I flipped. I thought he was so charismatic. Then I rented (a) movie he did in Australia called ’Paperback Hero’ (a 1999 romantic comedy directed by Antony Bowman). And, again, he was charismatic, funny, physical, comedic, real, everything. So we brought him in.

"Bryan was already up in Toronto starting to prepare. I met with him with (casting director) Donna Isaacson. We loved him so much we took him right over to (Fox co-chairman) Tom Rothman’s office and introduced him to Tom. And Tom also responded and liked him a lot. So I called Bryan and said, ’I’m going to send him up. Audition him. Put him on film and tell me what you think.’ So he went up there. We had Anna Paquin there and they had a scene together. Bryan brought the crew together and filmed him and I think both he and the crew by the time the audition was done agreed (that Jackman was perfect to play Wolverine)."

Asked about developing "X3’s" story revolving around a "cure" for mutancy that would let mutants give up their powers so as to fit into society, Shuler Donner replied, "There was a comic and a Saturday morning show that both centered on the idea of a cure. We thought that a cure would be very controversial and would affect each character in a different way. Of course, the whole concept of it is the antithesis of what the X-Men are about. So we decided to recast the center of our new story universe. Plus, in the other two ’X-Men’ we had set up the idea of Dark Phoenix, which is Jean Grey (Famke Janssen’s telekinetic character). She ’died’ at the end of ’X2,’ but we gave her a sort of golden form over the water to allude to the fans that, hey, we know she’s going to come back. She’s also our plot in ’X3’ (reborn and transformed into the ultimate weapon and a threat not only to the X-Men but to the entire world) along with the cure."

While the first two "X-Men" installments were directed by Bryan Singer, "X3" is directed by Brett Ratner, whose credits include such hits as "Rush Hour," "Rush Hour 2" and "Red Dragon." In the often Byzantine world of A-List directors, Singer was originally going to direct "X3" but dropped out and signed on in July 2004 to direct "Superman Returns" for Warner Bros. (opening June 30), replacing McG ("Charlie’s Angels"), who doesn’t like to fly and, therefore, wasn’t happy about having to go to Australia to shoot that film. At an earlier point, Ratner was going to direct Warner’s long in development "Superman" project, but back in March 2003 he pulled out of it. When Ratner came aboard to do "X3" he only had about a month and a half in which to prepare for shooting. On a movie as big as "X3" that’s something many directors just wouldn’t be able to handle.

"Brian took ’Superman’ and Brett had been involved in another movie and left that movie and it was perfect timing," Shuler Donner explained. "We felt that Brett is a terrific director, had the energy and the enthusiasm and the vision and we felt it was a perfect match. I can tell you it was not very easy because he came in about six weeks before we started filming. We did not have enough time for his prep, but you know Brett — he’s so enthusiastic and he’s so energetic. He just jumped right into the fray and had a great idea about the script. He changed the third act of the script much to the benefit of the movie. And we just hit the ground running."

How does Shuler Donner, whose films since 1983 have grossed over $2 billion worldwide and who’s a real working producer not just a dealmaker, work with directors? "I’m very hands on," she replied. "I feel like I’m a creative producer. I work with them very much in pre-production, particularly in casting. That’s my favorite area. You know, the ’X-Men’ movies are different than other movies. An ’X-Men’ movie is a lot about creature conception and that sort of thing. But I’m very involved in prepping a movie with a director and on-set I’m there. I like to obviously allow a director their vision and try to solve problems if I see another idea. You know, maybe a scene needs more energy or we’ve got it (shot but now) let’s try it with a little bit more humor. I will make a suggestion with great reverence. I like to (have it so) that I’m the director’s partner."

Making a movie on the scale of "X3" is clearly akin to marshalling an army of troops. Looking back at the rigors of production — shooting began Aug. 2, 2005 and ended Dec. 23 — Shuler Donner told me, "Oh, my God. We had a thousand people (working) at one point. It was very difficult because it seems as though there’s never enough prep time for these movies. We built the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. We built the bridge and then had green screen behind it. It was enormous — like a football field. We built it in Vancouver out in a field, fairly close to where our base was, which was the Vancouver Film Studios. It was huge. You could see it for miles. So we had the Golden Gate Bridge and all the cars on it. And then green screen. And then next to it — but, of course, you had to get in your car to drive next to it — we also built the exterior of Alcatraz. You’re right, it’s like marshalling an army.

"Also, you have to be extremely prepared because that means that half of the shots are visual effects. So you have to know what is going to be done in order to film what’s in front of you knowing what it’s going to match later on. So you have to have everything (story) boarded out. We have a wonderful First A. D. — his name is Lee Cleary — and we have all the boards. Of course, the director, Brett, has worked with storyboard artists and with visual effects and with special effects and has boarded out the sequences. Then Lee brings those boards on to set and everybody can see what we’re filming. The way Lee does it is after each shot is done he’ll cross it off and we know we’re going on to the next one. It’s a tool to communicate to this very large group."

On top of the built-in demands of making such a film, it didn’t help any that the weatherman wasn’t very cooperative. "It rained for the past six weeks," she pointed out. "I mean, we have done six weeks of exterior night freezing cold filming. It was freezing. If you look closely you’ll see people’s breath during the fight. And they’re working hard and their breath is frozen."

As for the greatest challenges she faced in making the picture, Shuler Donner observed, "That was the most challenging — standing out there in the rain. And figuring out the dynamics of the last 20 minutes of the movie — without giving anything away. That was the most challenging sequence that any of us have ever been involved with."

Fans of the "X-Men" franchise will certainly be happy to know there’s lots more material that can be developed for future episodes: "I hope there’s a fourth and an eighth and a tenth. I mean, look, there’s 40 years of ’X-Men’ comics, so why not? There’s a huge world (of back issues and the comic book is still ongoing). There’s so smart (at Marvel). Not only do they have comic book artists and writers, but they’ve now drafted filmmakers. Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed episodes of ’Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and is now writing and will direct the feature film ’Wonder Woman’ for Warner Bros. and Silver Pictures) wrote an entire series of ’X-Men’ comics as did Bryan Singer. They’re very smart (because) they’ve also involved a lot of filmmakers in their ongoing comic books."

With over 40 years of "X-Men" comics to plow through, how do they decide on what material to bring to the screen next? "You know, we’re a good group — Marvel, Fox, myself and Ralph Winter. We’re a team that’s done it three times now and we sit down and talk about those stories that we want to pursue. There are separate stories like one called ’Days of Future Past,’ which were written many, many years ago, that we all love and one day want to make. So we try as a group to toss out ideas.

"Also, Marvel does a lot of research online with their website and they get a lot of feedback from the fans. And I go online a lot — sometimes under a fake name — also to get feedback because they’re our fan base and we want to make sure that we are catering to them. We listen to what they want to do and we combine that with what we want to do. Often they’re the same (and) that’s a great feeling."

On the marketing front, Shuler Donner applauds the team at Fox for its work on "X3" as well as the two previous blockbusters in the franchise. "They’re fantastic," she said. "One of the greatest advantages of working with Fox besides their wonderful production team of (co-chairman) Tom Rothman and (president) Hutch Parker is their marketing (team headed by domestic marketing co-presidents) Tony Sella and Pam Levine and (executive vice president) Jeff Godsick. They’re amazing. They’ve always astounded us (with things like) their conception (of campaigns). Their ideas for posters (and) their trailers are, I think, absolutely the best in the business."

And speaking of "the business," I reminded Shuler Donner that last summer many media people were ready to bury Hollywood given the weak grosses we were seeing at the time. Now with ticket sales up nearly 7% and admissions ahead by nearly 3.5% for the year to date versus last year thanks to some strong spring product, things are looking a lot brighter. "I think it’s very complicated," she said, emphasizing that Hollywood still faces big problems. "I will tell you I think piracy is seriously affecting the business beyond what people talk about. I mean it’s really taking globally a big bite out of profits and I think it has to be curbed. I don’t know how, but I know it has to be dealt with.

"I do think, in general, the business is down (because of competition from new entertainment media for people’s time and money). I believe gamers want to game and people go online and they buy DVDs and rent DVDs. The business is not as (simple as) it was years ago. But we can only hope that if we keep making exciting movies they will come and see them. I think this is going to be a good summer. I mean, certainly, between (such films as) ’Da Vinci Code’ and ’Mission: Impossible III’ and us, hopefully, it’s going to start off well. I think we’ll have a good summer and, hopefully, that’ll give the whole business a boost."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From June 15, 1987’s column: "Vestron Pictures, the 18-month old film production arm of Vestron Inc., moves into high gear this summer with its first national release ’Dirty Dancing,’ a dance film targeted at the youth market that’s starting to be talked about as a possible sleeper.

"’Dancing’ was originally supposed to arrive July 24, but Vestron Pictures president William J. Quigley told me at lunch Thursday that a new game plan just set calls for it to open on a wide national break Aug. 21. The change reflects the fact that July 24, which had a fair amount of product to begin with, has in recent weeks become crowded with major studio releases relocating from July 17. Instead of going head to head with that logjam of product, Quigley says Vestron would rather come into the marketplace three weeks later when some of those big films with high hopes are likely to have fallen by the wayside...

"’As a company with a video parent there were certain expectations of us going into the marketplace as to what we were. We had a very clearly defined idea of where we wanted to go,’ he says. ’We knew we didn’t want to be a so-called classics division specializing in art product or specialized product and we knew we wouldn’t be a major studio.’ In Vestron’s view there was a niche in the marketplace it felt it could fill as a new independent distributor. ’As a film buyer who booked a lot of screens for a long period of time, I know there is a niche there,’ he comments. ’And we’ve gone after that...’

"’Dancing,’ which was made for under $6 million, was one of the first films Vestron was involved in producing. ’It really shows you what we’re doing,’ Quigley points out. ’We’re aiming for a portfolio approach — some of the very best specialized films and also some of the films that are very much (in the mainstream)."

Update: "Dirty Dancing" turned out to be a huge success for Vestron. After opening Aug. 21, 1987 to $3.9 million ($4,000 per theater) it went on to gross nearly $64 million domestically and was the year’s 11th biggest grossing film.