Director Bryan Singer returns to the X-Men franchise, and blends the original cast with the First Class crew for an audacious, time travelling adventure. The X-MEN team is fighting for survival in a dark future where the hulking, robotic Sentinels have been slowly wiping them out. In a desperate final gambit, the mutants look to time travel to help their younger selves stop this awful timeline from coming to pass.
Director Bryan Singer returns to the X-Men franchise, and blends the original cast with the First Class crew for an audacious, time travelling adventure. We went on set to talk to Singer and his team.
The first thing you should know – but might not immediately notice, as it’s a subtle element deployed for fun by production designer John Myhre, is that the sets for Days Of Future Past, like its predecessors, are littered with hidden X shapes. They’re especially present all over Charles Xavier’s mansion, here decorated for its 1970s incarnation, a little unloved yet still recognizable. It’s Myhre’s first time back on the franchise since the first X-Men in 2000, and the feeling amongst the designer and his colleagues is both that of a sense of reunion and a lot of new challenges.
For not only does Days Of Future Past represent the first time that the “classic” X-Men actors including Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Ellen Page and more have shared the marquee with the First Class characters introduced in 2011, but the return of Singer to the franchise he helped launch. He’s back behind the camera for the adaptation of one of the best-loved X-Men stories, which found our heroes fighting for survival in a dark future where the hulking, robotic Sentinels have been slowly wiping them out. In a desperate final gambit, the mutants look to time travel to help their younger selves stop this awful timeline from coming to pass. And, thanks to his innate healing abilities, Wolverine (Jackman) is the one chosen to endure the strain of travelling back in time.
It was Kinberg’s idea to use Chris Claremont, john Byrne and Terry Austin’s Days Of Future Past storyline from the Uncanny X-Men comic title, which allows the filmmakers to draw on their shared love of time travel films. Once Kinberg and Singer seized on the Future Past plot as a jumping-off point, the possibilities were endless. “Bryan and I spent months revising the script together,” Kinberg recalls. “He had mostly notes about character, and he was really focused on making the time travel element as logical and scientifically sound as possible.” It’s a common science fiction idea, though, and Kinberg knew what he’d look towards. “The first Back To The Future and the first two Terminators were what I studied and studied. And actually I had this crazy experience. I was on a panel speaking with James Cameron and I had a brought a book called The Making Of Terminator 2 with me for Cameron to sign. I'd never met him before and I was in awe of him and I was, like, ‘will you please sign this? Terminator 2 is in the top five movies of all time for me. We're doing Days Of Future Past and there are some people who think it influenced Terminator and now Terminator, at least for me, influenced this movie...’ He just wrote in it, 'Don't fuck it up. Love, Jim.’”
It was also important, according to Kinberg, to continue the First Class story without needing a direct connection. “We didn’t want it to start or a month, or even a year after the last movie. We wanted to give it a big breadth of time so that you would meet these characters in some ways for the first time again, so we set the movie 10 years later than First Class ended and in doing that, part of my responsibility as the writer was creating a timeline so we can just give the actors a sense of who they've become and how they got there over the span of the 10 years we haven't seen.”
Singer’s biggest logistical issue was wrangling two big casts, all with busy schedules. He and his team pulled off the plan by scheduling two separate shooting sessions, initially with the original cast and then with the First Class actors, with Jackman as the connective tissue for both. The director enjoyed the challenge. “It takes me back to The Usual Suspects more than any other film ever has in the sense that that movie I shot an interrogation scene in the first five days and that was Kevin Spacey, Dan Hedaya, Chazz Palminteri, Giancarlo Esposito, and then Kevin stayed on and we did the Stephen Baldwin, Pete Postlethwaite, Gabriel Byrne movie. With this it's very similar, in the beginning we shot with the original cast, it was the scenes in the future, it's not a majority of the picture but it does interweave through the picture much like Usual Suspects and then my familiar old friends left, and my new friends, my X-Men: First Class friends showed up, with one overlap day. Then we all went to Comic-Con – it was strange because it was, 'Oh, my old friends and my new friends!”
That feeling of a mutual appreciation society is borne out when you ask Singer about how he felt coming back to the director’s chair on the franchise. “There's definitely a shorthand. Hugh and I have it, and Nicholas Hoult and I have a lot because this is my second movie with him. The other original actors it was much like they haven't left, it was very strange. Their personalities toward me haven’t changed at all. The First Class cast, Hoult excepted, were another matter. “Michael and James are just actors I admire so much and even though I've worked with a lot of big actors I was very intimidated working with them. And knowing they'd done these characters, even though I was on set a bit during First Class, I wasn't directing them, so they'd done them for someone else and here I'm asking them to do more, to take it to the next level with a new guy. But they're really fantastically talented and they have a lot of ideas, which I like, they really care about the characters. Michael is really trying to bring his Magneto closer to McKellen and James enters the movie in a completely different place than he left the last one.”
Ah yes, Xavier. Though Wolverine is the one who travels back in time to his old self and must seek out the disheartened, damaged X-Men of the 1970s, it is Charles Xavier who has centre stage in Days Of Future Past. Far from the chipper, driven Charles we first met in First Class, the Xavier in 1973 is a shell of his former self, haunted by Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Raven’s (Jennifer Lawrence) betrayal, crippled and frustrated by his failed attempts to launch a facility to help mutants. It gave actor James McAvoy, the man behind the younger Charles, a chance to really find a new take on the character after helping to push Magneto’s narrative last time. “I can go further with the extremity from what Patrick did, but also from what I did in the last movie, too. So you’ll find him very different. Not just because he’s got long hair, but because of what he is and how shaky his soul is. That’s really the key to him in this one, that his power, which has always been seen as his psychic ability or great intelligence or whatever, really what I think it is empathy. That’s his greatest power. But he’s lost the ability to be able to empathize with other people, because it’s too painful for him. Why? Because he’s been given all of his own pain to deal with by Erik and Raven. It’s not just the loss of Erik. It has a lot to do with Erik, a lot to do with his relationship with Erik and their love for each other, but it’s also equally as much to do with his love for Raven, and the fact that he was sort of abandoned at the end of the last movie by both of them. Not just abandoned, but horribly injured.”
One pivotal scene in the film has the two version of Xavier meeting thanks to some powerful psychic ability. Was McAvoy intimidated by squaring off against Stewart, the man who first brought him to the screen? “Yeah. But we’re very different interpretations of that character, by nature of the fact that we’re very different times in that character’s life. And also, it’s weird, because when I took over the role of Charles, I never thought that I’d be working with him. I never thought I’d give a similar performance to him. I certainly never thought that I’d be giving a very different performance to him to his face. Kind of going like, ‘Yo, what you got, man? Show me your big nose! We’ve got big noses together!’ There’s like a profile shot with both our noses together. Conk to conk. I think he wins slightly, but they tell me that your nose grows with age, so by the time I’m his age I think I’ll be knocking the shit out of it in the nose wars…”
It’s not nose prosthetics that Nicholas Hoult, who plays Beast, has to deal with. It’s his entire face and some of his body. Which presented a different challenge. “It can be tough,” he admits. “But it's fun to be able to transform that much and you can play around with it a lot more and push the character in very different ways, but it's kind of trial and error. We'd be doing some scenes and then Bryan would be like, ‘Try and use the makeup more. Try and express.’ And you have to do things that feel silly as well. You have to growl and jump around and do things, which if you weren’t wearing the makeup would be completely ridiculous, but in the makeup luckily I think it's slightly more intimidating. And I've got a muscle suit on so it's maybe not as funny as me growling and roaring and stuff. But there's definitely a real playing element to it.”
Anchoring the whole thing is Jackman’s Logan, AKA Wolverine. The longest-serving member of the X-Men acting company, Jackman is back for his seventh (sixth including his First Class cameo) appearance in the hair and the claws, and reflects that Logan is a very different man from the troubled loner we met back in 2000. “You get the feeling that he's come to terms with who he is - I'm a warrior, I'm Wolverine and that's who I am, for better or worse, it's not all going to be pretty, but here we go,” Jackman says. But his latest mission could prove even tougher. “He's sent back to try and fix things and, as he says, ‘I'm the last person in the world for this. If you want someone to go back to take someone's head off, fantastic, but he's really got to go back and almost act in parts as inspiration, as mentor, as guide, because he can't do it all on his own, which is always his preferred method, but he can't here because of the nature of the story. So he has to become, not necessarily a leader, because I'd still call Xavier the leader here, but a facilitator for everyone to come together.” Getting into the lean, mean fighting machine shape for Jackman was easier this time, as he simply stayed in training following 2013’s The Wolverine. “I had a good amount of time to prepare, so I built slowly, I hit The Wolverine and this movie without any injuries, which is was the first time - every time I've played Wolverine before I've carried some kind of injury because I've had to race to get ready. I did it slowly and I felt great throughout. I felt tired, obviously, and it is harder, I'll admit that, but I felt really good. Physically for me, I feel better now probably than I did in the earlier films.”
He’ll need to be ready, as this time the X-Men are facing their toughest challenge yet. Game Of Thrones fan favourite Peter Dinklage was hired to play a very different version of Bolivar Trask, a genius who views mutants as a mortal threat to mankind and decides to create the menacing, technologically advanced Sentinel robots to fight them. Singer chose Dinklage for several reasons. “I was very familiar with him and I'm a fan of his. He first and foremost, carries the screen, and there's not a second that you take him for granted.” Kinberg admits that Trask’s creations were another big driving force behind the choice of storyline. “Once we all committed to Days Of Future Past, we knew the Sentinels would be a part of it, and Trask would be central to the story,” he says. “Bryan has done a lot of things to make the Sentinels feel loyal to the books but also distinct from all the things that are ripped off the Sentinels, like all the other robot movies that have come in the last 15 years or so, so they look and feel different. And Bryan spent a lot of time working on them to make them feel period specific but also cool and what a kid would fantasize about.”
In the film, the ‘70s Sentinels are the epitome of technology at the time, though obviously they seem dated now. The future robots, however, are complex fighting machines, able to adapt to mutants’ powers. “I really wanted to embrace the 70's,” says John Myhre about the first generation, one of which was physically built by Legacy Effects. “I love that 70's style of design of moulded plastics and white plastics and smoked plastics and looked at a lot of car design and futuristic concepts from the 70's on a high end but also stereos. So I was the idiot going in there saying, ‘this is what the Sentinels look like!’ It was the very first thing we started designing for the 70's sentinels and the future sentinels. Bryan was immediately very excited for our concept of the future. The 70's was a bit more complicated in that you really want to be faithful for the fans in the books so there a lot of elements that needed to be a humanoid shape to have a head arms and needed to be purple. There were a lot of things we had to do to give them a different look.” So fans of the comic book will see some elements they recognise, even though the film’s take on the robots is unique.
There’s no denying that Days Of Future Past is the biggest X-Men film ever attempted, and indeed the biggest Fox has made since Avatar. Singer, though, points out that it should be enjoyable to those who have read the comics and watched the movies and people who don’t know their Mystique from their Sunspot. “In the beginning we kind of recap everything,” he says. “There are things, images we see that help people. It still is tied into the universe so it's nice if you've got some familiarity but you don't really need to know, you can be really entertained by the movie if you haven't seen an X-Men film.”