The end is near. It’s a warm March day on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, with only hours remaining until the studio’s merger with Disney becomes official. The feeling of uncertainty is palpable — like the last day of high school.
Meanwhile, in a tucked-away office with a project going by the code name Teen Spirit, writer-director Simon Kinberg and his producer Hutch Parker are putting final touches on this summer’s highly anticipated X-Men film (and Kinberg’s feature directorial debut), Dark Phoenix. The changing of the guard isn’t on Kinberg’s mind at the moment, as he’s got a potential blockbuster to deliver. Says the director, “When you’re making a movie, you’re so inside the process that you’re not thinking about the executives who are going to be around for the premiere.”
Based on arguably the most iconic of all the story lines in the X-canon, Kinberg’s Phoenix also acts as a possible climax for this iteration of the mutant saga on film. It’s set in 1992, with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and others being sent to space by Charles (James McAvoy) for an astronaut rescue mission. While she’s up there, telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs a powerful, malevolent energy force (known in the comics as the Phoenix Force) that threatens to take over her mind and body.
After a devastating encounter with Jean leads to the death of a pivotal team member, the mutants — including Magneto (Michael Fassbender) — become divided over whether to save or destroy the tormented redhead. (Jessica Chastain also appears as a shape-shifting alien seeking to control Jean for her own nefarious reasons.) Explains Kinberg: “The story just felt like it was the culmination of all [these X-Men films], and it felt appropriate that we would kill off one of the main characters.”
Jean’s internal struggle meant the most challenging role so far for the 23-year-old Game of Thrones star. Turner studied schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder to try to ground her performance. “I found this amazing video on YouTube, and it was what it feels like to have auditory hallucinations,” says the actress. “I put it in my ears and I walked around [New York City], and I tried to function doing mundane tasks like shopping and talking to people on the street, and it was f—ing difficult!”
Adds Parker: “The movie is about Jean evolving from this character into something else, and that’s what Sophie did. She went from being honestly a kid on [2016’s] X-Men: Apocalypse to being unbelievably committed to the work and showing up with a level of preparation that definitely said, ‘Oh sh—!’” Turner’s costars were equally impressed. “If Sophie had to do 10 hours of work, she’d do 20 hours of prep,” says McAvoy. “She definitely put herself in the hands of Simon and relied on him, as well as helped him to create this dynamic.”
Much like Jean, Dark Phoenix has gone through its own dramatic evolution. While the film originally wrapped production in October 2017, the filmmakers decided to revamp the look of Phoenix in post (more “cosmic” and less “flamy,” according to the director) and shoot a new third act (instead of taking place in space, the climax finds all the X-Men kidnapped and on board a military train). Kinberg admits that his ambitious vision for Phoenix — a mix of poignant family drama and superhero spectacular — made for a complicated first stab at directing. “I think the biggest challenge is modulating the film so that we have the big scale and visual-effects action that these movies require, but balancing that in a way that feels calibrated with the drama,” he says. “You have these big space sequences and trains flying through the air and people firing lightning bolts, but you also have a lot of emotional, four-page dramatic dialogue scenes.”
With Disney and Marvel taking the reins of X-Men, it’s unclear what it means for the future of the franchise. But the series’ destination isn’t Kinberg’s current priority (Dark Phoenix doesn’t have a tag at the end, the typical spot to tease a new installment). “I’m thinking about delivering and finishing this movie the best we possibly can,” the director says before heading out to another meeting, “and then taking a vacation.” We’d just avoid outer space.
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