Tom Beasley chats to producer Hutch Parker about X-Men: Dark Phoenix and bidding farewell to this roster of superhero characters…
After a turbulent path to the big screen, we’re now just days away from the release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, arriving in the wake of the big Disney-Fox merger. The film allows Simon Kinberg – now director as well as writer – to have another bash at the ‘Dark Phoenix’ story arc that appeared in the widely disliked X-Men: The Last Stand. This time, Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner is the powerful mutant Jean Grey, having been promoted to the leading role.
To mark the film’s release, experienced X-Men producer Hutch Parker sat down for a few minutes with Flickering Myth for a chatter about all things mutant…
I wanted to start with your period of time working on the X-Men films, because it has been quite a turbulent period with the real high points of things like Days of Future Past and some of the ones that weren’t quite received as well. So, looking back on your X-Men experience, how do you think it has gone?
Overall, I have loved it. I have had a great experience. I learned long ago that we don’t always control the outcome of films. You have lots of highs and lots of lows all the time, so you try to focus on the journey. Looking back over 20 years, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I think you’re right that sometimes we have done better than others. I think, with Apocalypse, the visual effects and the spectacle became something Bryan Singer was really focused on and that sort of upstaged the characters a little bit in a way that Simon and I felt took us away from what really is the core of the franchise. That’s these characters, their struggle and their attempts to come to terms with who they are in a world that doesn’t embrace or accept them.
So part of what we were trying to do with Dark Phoenix was to get back to that foundational exploration of those issues. But overall, I’m pretty grateful and thrilled by the journey.
And obviously, you’ve got Simon moving in to the director’s chair this time. Was there ever any concern with him directing such a big movie as his debut?
A lot of that concern was Simon’s, and I think he approached it really well. He had quietly had in his mind that he wanted to direct and he liked the idea of trying to direct one of these films. He set himself the task of doing the script and not answering that question until he had a script in hand. And with that script in hand, he then wisely asked himself: “Is this something that I can’t let go of? Is this something I feel so connected to that I don’t want to give it to anybody else?” As he has described before, there are scripts he has written that he feels compelled to give to someone else who will be better suited to tackling it than himself. This was a script he felt he couldn’t give away, which was a great indication to me and to the studio.
But even then, he made a point of wanting to earn the job. And by that I mean he put a lot of effort into early design work, pre-viz, storyboards and lots of art direction to show his vision for the movie. He wanted to make sure he could win the position the way a normal director would, which is to come in and reflect their passion and share their vision. He earned it the right way and I think, in his own interest, made sure he did all of the things and met all of the criteria that would suggest he was the right guy for the job.
It was a good process. I actually didn’t really have much doubt. He’s incredibly close to the material and the world. He has been around the making of these movies for more than a decade and so he knew all of the players, which is a huge advantage. He knew the key players on the crew as well as the key actors, so there was so much in his favour for him to step into that role and succeed. I was pretty sure that would be the case, but we all went through that process together and were able to look each other in the eye and say it was the right decision.
It has been quite a long road since Apocalypse and there have been a number of negative headlines about this movie throughout its pre-production and production. What is it like to be making a movie and see this reaction, with many people writing it off before they’ve seen it?
I guess my background is slightly different and either equips me well or not. Almost every time I had a big, notable project, there was negative criticism in advance. I remember on I, Robot, there was tonnes of critique of the robots and what always upset me about that was that the work wasn’t finished. Somebody would steal a photograph from set or something would leak and it would inspire all of this commentary and judgement. What I learned from that is to tune it out because, by the time we finished and came to market, for the most part people were pleased.
So I developed a sort of thicker skin about that stuff, in lieu of just trying to focus on the project and come out on day of release with the best film you possibly can. And I think it probably insulated me a bit on this one.
It’s not easy and I know it’s something that Simon was very mindful of, but it’s part of something you use as fuel to make sure you’re doing the best possible job. In the end, we’ll see and hopefully people will like the movie. We’re getting a good response so far.
One of the things I think the movie does really well is the sense of farewell and closure. Is there a sense in all of you that this is you guys letting go of it and handing it to a new home?
Interestingly, when we started this, the Disney merger was not on the table. The dramatic intentions in this were born of our instincts about the material and what to do with the characters and the stories. It was not a function of anything to do with handing over the property. And yet, I do think in that approach to the material, there was a feeling that we needed to go further. There’s a tendency in these movies – although less recently with what Marvel is doing and what we did with Logan – to hold things back and keep some powder dry. I’m a believer that that’s a big mistake because you tend to short-change certain dramatic ideas by virtue of not wanting to go far. I think our job, to some degree, is to entertain and surprise and not just recycle ideas you’ve seen before.
So part of the ambition in this was to really advance some of the core issues and conflicts we have seen, to reshape some of the relationships and to shake up the world in a way that would be surprising and hopefully engaging for the audience. Part of that meant that there is a degree to which there are some conclusions. Charles is in a very different place and it doesn’t feel by the end of this movie that he’s going back. You feel that Eric has somehow evolved into a different Eric. You can see that Hank is about to embark on a whole journey. Even Storm, Nightcrawler and Quicksilver have all assumed new roles. The idea was to close a chapter and turn a page.
If we had continued, we’d be looking to pick them up in very different places to where they were previously and explore new pathways. But I am equally excited about seeing what Disney and Marvel will do with these characters because they have done such a spectacular job with the properties they have been releasing.
On that note, as a final point, what are your hopes for what Disney might do with these characters?
It’s interesting. I don’t really have any specific hopes beyond the fact that I’m excited to be just a fan. I’m excited to go back to that expectation, wonder, hope and anticipation that goes along with being a fan of a property and/or filmmakers when they’re doing great work. There’s something so compelling and mesmerising about going into the theatre, knowing a film is in the hands of a filmmaker you admire, and then experiencing what it is they offer.
For example, I can’t wait to see James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari because I know what he will do with that material. I feel the same way about this. I love these characters and I know them inside and out, so it’s just the joy of getting to be the recipient of what other people are doing with them.
Thank you, Hutch!
X-Men: Dark Phoenix sees Simon Kinberg directing a cast that includes franchise veterans Michael Fassbender (Magneto), James McAvoy (Professor X), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Alexandra Shipp (Storm), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) and Evan Peters (Quicksilver) alongside new additions Kota Eberhardt (The Persian Connection) as Selene, Andrew Stehlin (Hacksaw Ridge) as Red Lotus, and Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) and Lamar Johnson (Kings). It is set for release on June 5th, 2019 in the UK and June 7th, 2019 in North America.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.