By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 2, 2011 at 7:00AM
The fate of an entire franchise was at stake with X-Men reboot First Class.
The X-Men plot that screenwriter/producer Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: The Last Stand) hatched up with producers Bryan Singer and Lauren Shuler-Donner is "the origin story of two enemies who start best friends and turn into mythic enemies," he says. "It's about how two men fissure and start a war." (Here's a detailed account on who wrote what. Kinberg never sought screenplay credit.)
It was always a challenge for X-Men to rely on two characters who are not visually definitive, he adds. "It's hard for people to grasp a prequel," he says. "It's not a guy in a Batman suit; there's nothing as iconic as the Enterprise." But Kinberg is upbeat about the latest installment, which has earned stellar early reviews.
Do the math to take seniors Charlies Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) back to their 30s and you wind up in the 1960s. So the filmmakers decided to pivot the plot on the Cuban Missile Crisis. "It feels like sc-fi to kids today," says Kinberg. "But it was a massive event." To grown-ups, though, the movie will play like an alternate history, much like Tarantino's alternate World War II in Inglourious Basterds.
"We play with what really happened during the Cuban Missile crisis--and put it at the start of a Mutant War," says Kinberg. "It was a transitional moment." Kinberg found ways to bring into the movie "the violent alienation of the period, the Red Scare, and being afraid of anyone different."
The central third figure, and go-between for young Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), is Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who is struggling with her mutant identity, not knowing whether to embrace or reject her blue-scaled natural self. With the two men far apart philosophically, says Kinberg, Mystique helps to dramatize their debate.
The addition of Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn, who pulled out of a chance to direct an earlier X-Men but wound up embracing this one, and his writer-producer Jane Goldman, brought a new perspective to the franchise. "Matthew sparked off ideas," says Kinberg. "He has good taste. He's never going to get goofy or gratuitous or crusty and old-fashioned. He found his way with the 60s feel. It's contemporary, cool, sexy and edgy. It's a universe we'd want to live in, that 16-year-old kids will think is cool and groovy. He created the look and tone with the costumes, production design, and casting."
For the "humongous" scale of this production (which was less expensive than X-Men 3, some $200 million), the movie "really wasn't in production that long," Kinberg insists. The production schedule wasn't long enough, and so they went over.
Inspired by early mentor Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), Kinberg is adding producing to his screenwriting role on movies, through his Fox-based company Genre Films. He's getting several big projects up and running. One is in post, one is shooting and two are in pre-production.
First up is Fox's This Means War, a romantic action comedy directed by McG and starring Reese Witherspoon as a woman who has two men fighting for her: Tom Hardy and Chris Pine. Witherspoon gave her co-stars Design for Living DVDs, says Kinberg, who did a rewrite on the film, which shot in Vancouver and is scheduled for President's Day weekend release next year. He's confident that the $70-80 million movie is inside McG's wheelhouse: "It's a bright and sunny movie, something he does well, the right kind of tone for him, a big fun happy movie like Mr and Mrs Smith."
Also rewritten by Kinberg was Seth Grahame-Smith's first crack at adapting his novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The film produced by Tim Burton and directed by Timur Bekmambetov is shooting in New Orleans this summer. "It's very respectful of the book," Kinberg says. "It's a challenge not unlike X-Men: First Class: both films have to seem relevant, cool, true to the period, yet contemporary." Like Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Bekmambetov brings "such visual imagination, incredible visuals," says Kinberg, "in the sense of creating a universe in which the actors can't get in the way of the characters." Juilliard-trained Broadway actor Benjamin Walker, who played Andrew Jackson on Broadway, "is the weird reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln."
This July, District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp's VFX-packed sci-fi movie Elysium will start filming in Vancouver as well. "Honestly, this groundbreaking movie is genuinely unlike anything you've seen, visually, politically, dramatically," says Kinberg. "It's in crazy lockdown." Sony will release the film starring Jodie Foster, Matt Damon, Charlto Copley and Wagner Moura (star of Jose Padilha's Brazil hit Elite Squad).
Also revving up for a fall shoot is a very different big action effects movie from Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity, Fair Game). Casting now, Paramount's Luna is about a renegade mission to the moon. "Nothing is real, we're looking for two male leads, it's a young cast," says Kinberg, who compares the film to Liman's Go. "It's a young, anarchic, cool film that Doug put together about an illicit trip to the moon. It will do for sci-fi what Bourne did for action movies. He'll step it down, make it real and gritty, fresh. He's genuinely a good person, open and collaborative. For me, the process is about getting to contribute."