Even mutants get a little slaphappy sometimes. It’s one of the last days of shooting on the Montreal set of 20th Century Fox’s superhero epic ”X-Men: Days of Future Past,” and stars Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr), and James McAvoy (Charles Xavier) are filming a tense scene onboard Charles’ jet in 1973.
Between takes, the trio can’t stop playfully punching each other in the arm. It’s a game that their costar Jennifer Lawrence, who plays shape-shifter Mystique, brought with her from the Hunger Games set. The actors try to get their castmates to notice a subtle hand gesture — basically the okay sign — and if the gesturing actor succeeds in garnering someone’s attention, he/she can punch that person in the arm. In today’s installment, McAvoy is losing. Badly. “I feel like I’m being victimized here,” he jokes.
From behind the monitors, director Bryan Singer, returning to the franchise he launched with 2000’s X-Men and the sequel X2, admits the humor has gotten more and more puerile in these waning hours of the 89-day shoot. That’s only natural given the pressure involved. With a $200 million-plus budget, Days of Future Past is the priciest and most complicated X-Men film to date. “I think this is the biggest movie Fox has made that James Cameron didn’t direct,” says producer-writer Simon Kinberg (X-Men: First Class).
It’s not hard to see where the money went: Past, in which a distant-future Wolverine is sent back to the ’70s to prevent war, combines the casts of both the first X-Men trilogy (Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, etc.) and 2011’s prequel X-Men: First Class (McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence) in a time-travel story involving two time periods, six countries, and hundreds of giant killer robots. “We have to deliver, and that’s really hard,” says Lauren Shuler Donner, who’s produced all of the X-Men films. “Plus, we don’t use guns, we use powers. The power is a visual effect. So by its very nature it’s going to be pricey.”
This rich superhero stew is Fox’s recipe to propel the X-Men franchise into the megaleagues. The Marvel property has amassed $2.3 billion worldwide for the studio over the course of six movies, including two spin-offs featuring Jackman’s Wolverine. Believe it or not, that’s a good-but-not-great number; Marvel’s The Avengers alone grossed $1.5 billion (not to mention additional billions from its spin-off franchises). Making matters worse, First Class, Matthew Vaughn’s 2011 kickoff to a planned trilogy, earned $354 million worldwide, the second-lowest-grossing X-Men movie to date.
Past aims to boost X-Men’s fortunes by bringing back marquee stars such as Jackman and Berry as well as younger ones like Lawrence and Fassbender whose profiles have risen in recent years. “The hope is that Days of Future Past will broaden the audience for X-Men such that it will motivate potential spin-offs even more,” Kinberg says. The challenge is that legions of non–comic fans are less familiar with the powerful mutants. “Everyone grew up knowing Captain America or the Hulk, but not X-Men characters — I didn’t even know who Wolverine was,” Singer says. “I call X-Men the bastard stepchild of the comic universes.”
In the X-Men fan community, the comic story line “Days of Future Past,” written in 1980 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, is hallowed ground, much like Jean Grey’s evolution into Dark Phoenix (as seen in X-Men: The Last Stand). It imagines the time-traveling brain of Kitty Pryde and a desolate future in which X-Men are hunted by machines called Sentinels. When captured, the mutants are either killed or placed in internment camps. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for a film that could link Stewart and McKellen with the First Class cast.
There was just one seemingly insurmountable problem: In the X-Men movieverse, present-day Kitty is played by 27-year-old Ellen Page. “If you send Ellen back 50 years,” Kinberg notes, “she’s negative 20 years old.” So in the movie version of Past, it’s gruff, unaging Wolverine who returns to his 1973 body to stop Mystique (Lawrence) from assassinating the inventor of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage). Keeping Trask alive prevents a devastating war between mutants and humans — and keeps Mystique among the do-gooding mutants. As Kinberg explains, “A lot of people have an emotional investment in her not going to the dark side.”
Speaking of dark sides, Wolverine must also unite frenemies Erik (Fassbender), who’s been (wrongly?) imprisoned for the JFK assassination, and Charles (McAvoy), now a drugged-up recluse living with Hank, a.k.a. blue-furred Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Much as First Class explored Erik’s backstory as a Holocaust survivor, Past delves into the background of young Professor X. “Charles is in some ways like Wolverine was in X-Men,” says Kinberg. “He’s rebellious and emotionally a mess and a pain in the ass.” Adds McAvoy, “Wolverine has to help me figure out who I really am, what I really want in life, and what I’m willing to sacrifice to get that.” The film cuts back and forth in time, but the majority of Past takes place, appropriately, in the past.
Wrangling the large cast, which also includes Berry’s Storm and a batch of new mutants, proved to be more taxing than arranging seats at the Oscars. “It was the most difficult [scheduling] I’ve ever seen, to the point where I honestly didn’t believe it was achievable,” says producer Hutch Parker (The Wolverine). “We had so little margin for error.” McKellen and Stewart shot for a month before heading to Berkeley, Calif., last August for a pre-Broadway run of Harold Pinter’s play No Man’s Land; Berry’s filming was limited to about a week due to her pregnancy (she gave birth to a son, Maceo, last October). But the tight schedule actually helped keep costs down: Because many of the A-listers worked only briefly, they earned less than their full salaries. “Circumstances took care of the financials,” Shuler Donner says.
For Jackman, who appears in both the past and the future, it felt like shooting two different movies. Worse, since he signed on while finishing up his second spin-off, The Wolverine, the star had to keep up his superhero diet for three more months. “I was already starting to plan all my cheat meals,” he quips. “I was like, ‘S—!'”
Despite the challenges, Singer seemed pretty relaxed on the set last summer. Between takes, he showed personal photos on his phone: his mother posing with Jackman; Lawrence frowning in her full blue Mystique bodysuit; Jackman, McAvoy, and Hoult clad in ’70s garb in the front seat of a car that could be straight outta Dazed and Confused. “It’s definitely the most pleasant movie I’ve ever worked on by far,” the director says. Even Berry, who famously fought with Singer on X2, had no complaints. “It’s no secret that we’ve had issues before,” she admits. “But I have to say, to Bryan’s credit, he was fantastic. He’s matured. He’s older. He’s learned a lot along the way, as we all have.”
One thing Singer has learned is how to harness the power of social media. While shooting 2008’s Tom Cruise thriller Valkyrie, the director battled bad buzz and rumors of reshoots after the film was pushed back from its original release date. “I made a decision if I did another film that had a high-profile awareness like an X-Men film, I would use Twitter as a way not only of connecting with the fans but also having some control,” he says. “If there is something you’d like people to know or something to clear up, instead of having a press conference you can just tweet it.”
Singer has a lot riding on Past, particularly after tentpole misfires like his Superman Returns, which failed to reboot that superhero series, and last year’s $195 million Jack the Giant Slayer, which grossed only $65 million domestically. The director, a self-professed geek, has always felt a kinship with the outsiders of the X-Men and feels he’s back in familiar territory. “With Jack the Giant Slayer, I was probably a bit out of my tonal element,” he says. “Superman is a very challenging character to try to get. I’m more comfortable with this [X-Men] universe.”
He’s already considering a future with the franchise. First up: directing X-Men: Apocalypse, slated for 2016, with much of the First Class cast. Fox has also begun prepping more X-Men projects, à la Marvel Studios’ interlocking Avengers franchise. The studio is exploring possible big-screen adventures for fan-loved mutants Gambit, Deadpool, and X-Force. “We have a great game plan to make sure everything we put out is a true event for the audience,” says Fox production president Emma Watts.
And given Oscar winner Lawrence’s box office clout, it’s no surprise that Shuler Donner and Kinberg regard Mystique as worthy of a stand-alone franchise. “I love what Jen has done with her,” says Kinberg. “Because she is in such a crowded ensemble movie, there’s so much more opportunity if you were to follow her solo.”
Back on the Montreal set, the 1973 mutant boys club is about to get a visit from its lone woman. At the end of the shooting day, Lawrence, who had already filmed her last scene, makes a surprise appearance. She walks in with boyfriend and costar Hoult, and the cast and crew visibly perk up, as if hit with a shot of adrenaline. It’s the star’s 23rd birthday. “Did you all get cake?” she asks. She greets crew members and passes out warm hugs to each of her castmates. Then, without missing a beat, she slugs Hugh Jackman in the arm.
Meet the New Mutants
While there are plenty of familiar faces in Days of Future Past, there are also some franchise freshmen. Here’s a primer on the new class.
Bishop, Omar Sy
One of the mutants fighting for survival in the future, Bishop can absorb energy, like Sunspot’s heat blasts, and use it for his own.
Blink, Fan Bingbing
The future X-Men lean on Blink’s abilities to open up teleportation portals to help confuse the Sentinels they are battling.
Quicksilver, Evan Peters
A ’70s-era mutant blessed with super-speed whom Wolverine, Charles, and Hank enlist to help them break Erik out of jail.
Sunspot, Adan Canto
A mutant who can harness solar power, making him both incredibly strong and able to emit powerful, full-body heat blasts.
Warpath, Booboo Stewart
A Native American mutant (a.k.a. James Proudstar) in the future, he’s a true warrior with super-speed as well as enhanced strength.
What to expect from the next film
Days of Future Past hasn’t even opened, but that hasn’t stopped 20th Century Fox from setting a date for its next mutant movie: X-Men: Apocalypse is due May 27, 2016. Bryan Singer, who plans to direct, is developing the script with Past screenwriter Simon Kinberg and X2 scribes Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty. Singer says the film will be “somewhat” based on the 1995-96 comic story line “Age of Apocalypse,” featuring the immortal villain Apocalypse, who was born thousands of years ago and is bent on world domination. “It deals with ancient mutancy,” says Singer. “What would humans have thought mutants were? What would mutants think humans were?” Hint: It does not go well. Says Kinberg, “From a visual standpoint it actually may be a bigger movie than Days of Future Past because there’ll be disaster-movie imagery, as the title implies.”