The Gifted: Showrunner talks pressure of building an X-Men series with mass appeal
You have to make 'everybody happy,' EP Matt Nix says of working with multiple studios, including Fox and Marvel
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To pitch his idea for X-Men drama The Gifted, comic book fan Matt Nix (Burn Notice) figured he needed some superpowers of his own.
Or just a superpowered presentation. Using tricked-out slide-show software, he doctored photos of actors to make them look like mutants, inserted nifty transitions between slides, and even created graphics explaining how his idea would fit into the larger X-Men universe, from the myriad films to the hundreds of comic books published since the ’60s. “It was a big razzle-dazzle,” Nix says. “I was like, ‘If I don’t get this, my 10-year-old self will invent a time machine, come forward in time, and stab me to death!’ I had to throw at them everything I could.”
Spoiler alert: It worked. “PowerPoint doesn’t begin to describe what was going on,” recalls Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb, one of the dozens of execs in the room. “I mean, I think we applauded.”
After all, Nix had managed to bring the X-verse to the mainstream small screen by focusing on one family, the Struckers. Parents Reed (Stephen Moyer) and Caitlin (Amy Acker) discover their teens Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White) can manipulate matter after a disastrous school dance, so they go on the run from Sentinel Services, the government agency incarcerating mutants. Eventually they turn to an Underground Railroad-type operation led by metal-manipulating mutant Polaris (Emma Dumont), light-bending Eclipse (Sean Teale), superstrong Thunderbird (Blair Redford), and portal-creating Blink (Jamie Chung) — all of whom, even with their powers, make up a family fighting for survival, just like the Struckers.
Below, Nix talks about how he first came up with his idea to bring the X-Men to the small screen, how he chose which mutants to feature, and what to expect when the series airs.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about your pitch. I heard you created the most elaborate PowerPoint presentation to get your idea across…
MATT NIX: I actually used something called Prezi. It’s like a cinematic version of PowerPoint, and you can use these crazy transitions. The biggest thing I did was I just basically made superheroes. I would find actors’ photos, and [my assistant and I] would digitally alter photos to show their power and what they would look like. The other thing was I really needed to try to explain how this is where the movies and comic books have gone, and this is where we fit in that world, and so images really helped with showing that.
How did you come to the idea of following a single family as your way into the X-verse?
I was thinking about, What is the best way to do a show set in the X-Men universe on television? On the one hand, you can be like, “We’ll do the movies, only smaller and worse!” And that’s not a great idea. The other pitfall is like, “Let’s do something that’s nothing like the movies, where everybody just sits around talking.”
So the thing for me was thinking about how I could put these characters, these mutants, in a situation where they’re really on their heels, where the problems they would be dealing with would be problems that would be relatable to a television audience. What’s not television-friendly is having a group of really powerful mutants fighting another group of really powerful mutants. Like, we can’t do that well. I want to do that maybe someday, but I don’t want to do that here. That’s what led me to starting with a family; we really get to see the development of powers and perspectives, and we give audiences who maybe aren’t really familiar with the X-Men a window into this world.
From there I gravitated to the movie Running on Empty, which was just about a family running from the FBI. I loved that movie and weirdly, when I pitched the show, [EP and pilot director] Bryan Singer was like, “Have you ever seen Running on Empty? It’s one of my favorite films.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s it!” And he was like, “Why didn’t you say that in the beginning? You could have just said, ‘Running on Empty, with mutants.'”
That was one thing, and then the other thing was the idea of the Underground Railroad of mutants.
Let’s talk more about that. You feature some characters that are tied to the films — Blink has appeared in Days of Future Past as played by Fan BingBing, and Polaris is Magneto’s daughter in the comics — but at the same time, you also introduce original mutants like Eclipse. How did you go about choosing which mutants to feature?
I guess I liked the idea of a mix of characters who are familiar to the fans and ones who are not, so we’re not going in and saying, “This has nothing to do with anything.” Part of it was motivated by what I was excited about. I was excited by Days of Future Past, so I was like, “Can I have Blink?” And they were like, “Yup!” I think it sends a message about what kind of show we’re trying to do.
I thought thematically about what this show is about. At the core of the X-Men universe, it’s concerned with the relationship of the mutants to the larger society and there’s an inherent morality to it. In the movies, Xavier is constantly talking about the moral obligation mutants have, to take care of humans even though they don’t like some of them, while Magneto argues the opposite. I didn’t want to do the same thing exactly but view them with similar themes. So for example, I was drawn to Thunderbird because he’s a character who’s a Native American in the Marines who’s a mutant. That’s really interesting because there’s a parallel between the position of the mutants and the position of Native Americans in our country. I liked these ties to history.
Polaris was, interestingly, not in the original pitch. As I was developing the script, we realized we needed a love interest [to pair with Eclipse], and I looked at the list of characters — we have to go to everybody and [ask about] using characters — and I was like, “Can I use Polaris?” And at first it was like, “No, she’s Magneto’s daughter, there’s no way.” But then they were like, “No, she’s fine,” and I was thinking she could be a smaller character for a while, but she emerges as a central character… I liked the idea of having a character who is just unapologetic about her actions, and she’s never going to apologize for being a mutant. She represents this other perspective of the struggle.
What else changed from that first version of your script to what we’ll see on screen?
The biggest criticism that I got out of the pitch, which I thought was fair, was that it was too much for the pilot. A lot of what I had in my pitch I’ve been doing over the course of multiple episodes, and having now shot the pilot, I realize I was insane to have included the amount of story I wanted to do. But to cut myself a little slack, I was excited. I was like, “They’re going to let me do this? I want to do all of it!”
And so we went through a period where there was some thinking that maybe it would be better if the family were more troubled, which in a way wasn’t a bad idea, and I understand the instinct behind that idea, but the thing is, that family has enough trouble without also having to be troubled to start with.
I have to ask: Will this show explore the mystery of what happened to the X-Men and the Brotherhood at all? They’re mentioned in the pilot, but they’ve disappeared.
We will explore that. We will explore some of the events that led to that, the characters are going to have perspectives on that. I wouldn’t say, though, that [the season is about] finding the X-Men.
There are a lot of eyeballs on this project, given that it involves Marvel TV and 20th Century Fox and the producers behind the X-Men films, including Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, and Simon Kinberg. What was it like working with such a huge team? How much pressure is there on you?
It’s weirdly much better than you think and much worse than you think. My feeling truly about everyone involved in the process is that they all really care about this, and nobody’s stupid, you know what I mean? They have all been down this road and know how to deal with it. The thing for me is that everybody gives really smart input, so it’s my job to square, like, four different kinds of notes.
Fox, for example, is very respectful of the source material. It’s incredibly important to them, and they are conscious of wanting to make a show for everybody. You don’t want to just service one fandom. At the same time, Marvel very rightly is protecting their property, so they’re saying, “This is the way this works, this is how these powers work, this is who this character is historically in the comic books.” They’ll say, “You can draw a pretty direct line between the characters’ powers and their emotional life,” and that’s a smart note. And then everybody associated with making the movies has very valuable input in terms of what we’ve seen before, what we haven’t seen before, what things are hard, what things are easy.
So the biggest challenge is just, you get a bunch of smart notes, and then you gotta square everything at the same time in a draft that makes everybody happy even when one party doesn’t seem to care that much about the other party’s notes.
Finally, why does a show like The Gifted matter now?
I think there’s no question that right now we are dealing with a lot of questions that are central to what have been historically central to the X-Men mythology. It’s a question of, “What should we do about minority populations in the United States that some people are afraid of? How many rights do we legitimately take away from everyone in order to protect some interests?” Maybe the answer shouldn’t be “nothing” and it shouldn’t be “everyone can do whatever they want,” but neither should the answer be, “Let’s lock them all away, because someday they could conceivably be dangerous.”
I think we have an obligation to explore these questions in an evenhanded way. Ultimately, the X-Men is generally speaking about tolerance, but I think we do anything like this a disservice by treating it like there are simple answers to these questions or there’s no real debate to be had. And I think that’s more sustainable for the long term in television in general.
The Gifted premieres Monday, Oct. 2, at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.