X-Men's horror story: Genre-bending The New Mutants and its long road to theaters
The set of The New Mutants is uncommonly dark, at least for an X-Men movie.
Production began July 2017 in Massachusetts, on the same location Martin Scorsese used to shoot his insane-asylum thriller Shutter Island. It's now a month later, and director Josh Boone and his crew have switched to night shoots, introducing the mild work hazards of tripping over wires and bumping into fixtures.
Anya Taylor-Joy, then the rising superstar of indie horror’s The Witch, is the only one with any light one August night. As Illyana Rasputin, the comic book sorceress known by her alias Magik, the then-21-year-old actress hovers above a snow-covered graveyard via wire rig. Holding a prop blade that will be magically enhanced later into her character’s signature Soul Sword through computer wizardry, Joy prepares for Boone’s cue. That’s when she'll drop down out of a teleportation portal from the realm of Limbo (they'll do it in post) to face a ferocious monster: the titular beast from comic writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz's 1980s Demon Bear arc that inspired the film. It certainly doesn't look like any X-Men release we've seen before.
"I can't believe they're letting us make this movie!" Boone says of Fox studios while taking a break from filming. "I still am like, 'Do they know how f—ed up this movie is?’”
Looking back, Boone’s ecstatic expression might have actually jinxed him. The New Mutants was meant to be the franchise’s first foray into the horror genre with a John Hughes vibe. Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams, as werewolf-like shapeshifter Rahne “Wolfsbane” Sinclair, joined a fresh-faced cast for a story about five teen mutants with budding powers held against their will at a secret facility as they face personal and literal demons. Now, the film is the last survivor of a discarded superhero franchise.
Once set for theaters on April 2018, Mutants was put on ice for two years as The Walt Disney Company finalized a deal to acquire 21st Century Fox properties, including the cinematic rights to the X-Men. When the dust finally settled, the film was put back on the map for release on April 3, 2020. Then another nightmare happened and the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything in Hollywood, including postponing the film yet again mere weeks before its premiere. The New Mutants finally has a release date, this weekend in fact, but it’s as theaters attempt a reopening comeback in the U.S., despite the prevalence of COVID-19 infections. The box office may be open but questions about safety protocols inside screenings remain. The situation surrounding The New Mutants, in certain respects, still feels somewhat dark.
It was just three years ago when darkness seemed to be this film's friend. "You get to see everybody's true self at around 4 o'clock in the morning, when everyone's really tired and you're trying to push something to get it done,” Joy told EW on the set. "I also just prefer having the days in the morning [to myself] because you actually get to do real-life stuff and then go to work.”
The actress, now 24, has thrived in the "dark" genre of horror for years. Boone saw Joy’s breakout moment in 2015’s indie hit The Witch, about a 1600s colonial family in New England plagued by the forces of black magic; he wrote the part of Mutants' Illyana as a more Girl, Interrupted kind of witch for Joy. This was the first time a director offered her a personalized role without the pressures of auditioning. “I was so overwhelmed and excited and drove to a comic book store and bought all the comics and just got really pumped,” she recalled in the summer of 2017. “The first day of filming, we looked at each other and we’re like, ‘We can’t believe we’re here,’ because the [first] conversation happened about a year ago [in 2016]. It’s been a long time coming.” Truer words, as it would turn out, were never said.
Boone’s “rubber-reality horror movie” was initially intended to be a spin-off of X-Men: Apocalypse. The director and his writing partner Knate Lee first met with franchise producer Simon Kinberg back when Fox was shooting that 2016 blockbuster, armed with a comic book they made themselves that outlined their hoped-for New Mutants trilogy. The genre-bending felt like a risk, but the vision wasn't as expensive to pull off as something like Days of Future Past. The cast was small and the first chunk of the movie had little to no special effects.
The plan originally was to set the spin-off in the '80s and include characters like Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Ororo/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), the latter taking a prominent role. In a February interview with EW this year, Boone says the story "was much more connected to what was going on in the X-Men universe in the time." But with the drafting process, the concept "got further and further away from that and became present day.”
A copy of Boone and Lee's original draft obtained by EW and dated November 2015 incorporated elements of Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith's 1984 X-Men: Lifedeath comics in which Storm loses the power to psychically manipulate the weather. The concept, set three years after the events of the Apocalypse movie, saw a punk rock Ororo (in her famous comics-style leather vest and white mohawk) struggling with PTSD from her days as a Horseman of Apocalypse and the loss of her powers. She stumbles upon the remains of a Native American reservation in the opening scenes and discovers Dani as the only survivor, thus segueing into the main Demon Bear inspiration for the movie.
Reports suggesting that the script depicted Ororo as a sadistic jailer to the five teens do not match the drafts obtained by EW. Xavier appoints Ororo caretaker of a school for new mutants set up at a rundown, abandoned hospital, complete with makeshift Danger Room made from X-Men hand-me-downs. It's a place for those who can't live in the Institute for Gifted Youngsters because they can't control their abilities — and may have even hurt others. Illyana, Rahne, Sam, Roberto, and now newcomer Dani are all members, though Warlock was also included, envisioned as alien tech given to Xavier to decipher by the NSA who turns out to be sentient. (Sacha Baron Cohen had been in talks for the role.)
Joy and Williams were cast early on, and remained attached as the script underwent multiple rewrites, some of which leaned R-rated, others toward more of the Hughes aesthetic. As Vulture first reported (and as independently verified by EW), Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who worked with Boone and Lee on The Fault In our Stars, were among the writers brought in to assist with multiple rewrites over the years as Kinberg became preoccupied with directing Dark Phoenix, his directorial feature debut. (On set in 2017, EW learned he wasn't present much in light of those responsibilities.)
Along the way, Fox cut the budget for the movie in half, which prompted further rewrites. A January 2017 version of the script looks more like the movie filmed later that year: the school for new mutants setting was changed to a mysterious medical facility, many of the special effects-heavy set pieces in the beginning were heavily reduced, Warlock was cut entirely, and Ororo's role was replaced by another character from the comics, Cecilia Reyes, a mysterious physician keeping the kids on the grounds for observations. Rosario Dawson was initially cast as Cecilia, but the actress left the project for personal reasons. Alice Braga then stepped in shortly before filming commenced.
Stranger Things' Charlie Heaton (Sam), Looking For Alaska‘s Henry Zaga (Roberto), and Another Life‘s Blu Hunt (Dani) rounded out the cast as the other teen mutants, each forced to face the horrors of their pasts. Despite the rewrites, Boone later told EW that a same-sex relationship between the characters of Williams' Rahne and Hunt's Dani Moonstar maintained the "spine and focus of some of the character-driven stuff in the film."
“It’s very... thriller,” Williams told EW earlier this year. “I think the nature of a bunch of teenagers being trapped at a facility, all with individual powers which they don’t know how to use yet or even summon, that lends itself really well to suspense and scary cuts. It’s all done in a very honest way and it really does come from the characters and the situations that they’re in. It’s not a happy, upbeat superhero comedy film. It’s definitely very dark.”
When Boone says “horror,” he’s not talking about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s more YA horror. Like, if the third Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Dream Warriors, became PG-13 and traded its teen leads for X-Men characters. "A lot of these horror scenes are taken from their own personal lives,” he says. “It’s not random things that happen to them. They have to deal with the crimes or sins they've committed in the past because of guilt and things happening in the facility during the course of the film.”
The visual template comes directly from Sienkiewicz, whose images made over the X-Men world in the '80s as a terrifying, stylized place — the same way Boone hoped The New Mutants would make over the cinematic franchise. Sienkiewicz was on-set during production to offer guidance on the vibe and, down the line, he would also work with Boone to develop opening- and end-credit sequence designs. "If you're a Marvel fan, you'll get everything you want in the last half of it," Boone promises. "If you're a horror fan, you'll get all that stuff, too."
A Change of Hands
After filming came to a close by September 2017, things quickly fell to "radio silence," as Boone recently put it. That December, Disney announced plans to purchase Fox properties for a cool 11 figures, but that meant a few active Fox movie plans weren't so active anymore. Some were dropped altogether, like the Mouse Guard movie from The Maze Runner's Wes Ball. Boone wouldn't revisit The New Mutants again until years later in 2019. He had already taken a job developing The Stand for CBS All Access when he was asked to come finish post-production, including all the special effects.
Disney, at that time, had finalized the deal and they had a new plan: the X-Men franchise as we had come to know it would be no more, but The New Mutants would still get a theatrical release. A studio source told EW there weren't any current plans for any of the X-Men movies before the pandemic hit. A studio summit held early in 2020 — a preview of sorts with a presentation by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige — didn't even have Deadpool 3 on the official docket, despite Ryan Reynolds' optimistic remarks on Live with Kelly and Ryan in December 2019.
When asked for further comment after the summit, Reynolds, in a nod to comic-book-movie detractors, told EW in an email, "I agree with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola that Marvel films suffer from an alarming lack of Deadpool."
That means the once-planned sequels, envisioned as different kinds of horror movies, are also a no go. Boone said that he initially went out to Antonio Banderas to potentially play the villain, Roberto's father Emmanuel da Costa, to be introduced in a post-credits scene. But those plans were scrapped.
In the face of all that, Sienkiewicz said during a virtual Comic-Con panel in July for The New Mutants, "People have talked about this being a ‘cursed’ film because it’s taking forever. But I think in some respects, the lockdown has actually just amped up the level of interest. People are really rabid for this."
People may be rabid, but the question remains if they will see the movie. AMC Theatres and Alamo Drafthouse began the first phase of reopening movie theaters in the U.S. on Aug. 20, but many states are keeping in-door cinemas closed. Drive-in theaters remain open. The Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., for one, announced day and night drive-in screenings for The New Mutants.
The question has been asked repeatedly: Why didn't Disney just release The New Mutants on a streaming platform, like Disney+ or Hulu? Boone told Collider, "With most movies, you sign contracts that guarantee a theatrical release, so it needs to open to ever go digital in the first place. We just, too, would like to see people to see it in the theater. But it needs to obviously be at the right time when it’s safe to go back.”
HBO became the first to stream X-Men movies like Days of Future Past, Apocalypse, and Dark Phoenix on HBO Now and HBO Go. One might presume they also have dibs on The New Mutants. A rep for HBO said the company does not comment on business deals.
In this new release environment, the Russell Crowe-led thriller Unhinged was able to gross $4 million domestic over opening weekend despite mixed reviews, a lack of built-in audience (unlike the X-Men), and a wide swath of theaters around the country not open to screen it. The New Mutants may just see comparable success, as it is the title under the Disney umbrella, and the first superhero movie, to open in theaters in the past several months. Disney reported the film made an estimated $750,000 from Thursday night previews in locations with open theaters.
Unlike Unhinged, however, the studio did not offer digital screeners or in-person screenings for press to review in the U.S. Multiple outlets, including A.V. Club and IndieWire, are refusing to cover the film until they can see it in a safe environment. Barring a VOD or streaming release for The New Mutants, that might be the case for many moviegoers, too.
This article was updated with early box office numbers.
—Additional reporting by Sara Vilkomerson.