Ask the average moviegoer who Simon Kinberg is. Your query will be answered with a blank stare, followed by a long pause and half-hearted reply: My accountant?
But the 40-year-old British-American filmmaker has become one of the more important, unheralded figures in the recent superhero boom.
The writer of films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Sherlock Holmes, as well as the iffy X-Men: The Last Stand, has morphed into a formidable writer-producer whose latest project is the mega-blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past—a time-traveling superhero extravaganza directed by Bryan Singer and set in a dystopia where humans are enslaved and mutants are losing the war against drone-like Sentinels. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) are forced to send the quick-healing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back through time to sync up with their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender), and stop the shape-shifting Mystique from assassinating the Sentinel’s architect, Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), thereby changing the course of history.
In addition to the excellent Days of Future Past, Kinberg is serving as writer-producer on the film’s sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse; writer and producer of the upcoming reboot of The Fantastic Four, directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle) and starring Miles Teller (Mr. Fantastic), Kate Mara (Invisible Woman), Michael B. Jordan (Human Torch), and Jamie Bell (The Thing); producer of a live-action version of Cinderella starring Cate Blanchett; writier and producer of the fantasy epic Magic: The Gathering, based on the card game; writer and producer of Gambit, an X-Men spinoff starring Channing Tatum as the card-throwing superhero; and even serving as a consultant on the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII, directed by J.J. Abrams.
The Daily Beast tracked down one of the busiest men in Hollywood on the set of The Fantastic Four in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they’re in their third week of shooting to discuss the X-Men franchise and his myriad projects.
X-Men: Days of Future Past must have been a pretty herculean task for you, weaving a million A-list actors into this time-jumping screenplay.
It was a unique challenge. If you’re lucky, you’re worried about two of those A-list actors in a movie, but having to take care of eight or nine of them is a challenge. At the same time, you have less to worry about because I could probably write anything and Ian McKellen or Michael Fassbender are going to make it sound good.
How did you decide on what historical events to include in the film? There’s the JFK assassination, where Magneto is accused of bending the bullet to kill the president, as well as the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of Watergate.
When I first started working on the script, Matthew Vaughn was going to direct the movie who did X-Men: First Class, and one of the things he really wanted to do was explore different time periods, because he felt he’d already done the ‘60s with First Class. We didn’t want the events to take place right after, but see what had happened to these characters ten years down the road; see the real repercussions of the events of First Class. And 1973 appealed to me because I was born that year, but more because it was a flashpoint for a lot of different things—the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of Watergate. Then, I started looking at the events of ’73 and I saw the Paris Peace Accords, and thought that would be a great backdrop because the film is really about war and peace, so it felt thematically rich and potentially visually rich.
Peter Dinklage is so great as Boliver Trask. Singer said that he based the character a bit on Adolf Hitler.
[Laughs] Not to my knowledge! Bryan is very interested in World War II, which was a very big part of X-Men, Valkyrie, and Apt Pupil. It’s definitely something that interests him, and something that runs through the core of the X-Men world because of Magneto’s backstory. But for me, it wasn’t based on Hitler. I imagined him as a slightly more benevolent character. I’m sure Hitler imagined he was doing right by the people of Germany and the world, but for me, Trask has a slightly more noble cause—he genuinely believes he can use these scapegoats to bring the world together and save the human race. When I say that out loud, there are some similarities to the way Hitler scapegoating the Jews.
Who painted that hilarious painting in Trask’s office of Dinklage handing the amputee girl a prosthetic leg?
[Laughs] I’m sure it was one of our props guys. Bryan owns that painting now. That was an idea that Bryan had—that Trask would have a beneficent public face, and that he would use this technology as much to genuinely help people as he did to kill mutants.
With Quicksilver, there was a weird licensing issue between Fox and Marvel so now there are two separate actors playing the character—Evan Peters in your film, Aaron Taylor-Johnson in The Avengers: Age of Ultron—and apparently there were certain rules placed on the way you could handle the character in the film?
It was pretty clear-cut what the parameters were, and they weren’t particularly tough on our side. The only thing we couldn’t talk about was The Avengers, but I probably wouldn’t have talked about them because when we meet Quicksilver, he’s a kid living at home in 1973. They have different restrictions because of the way the deal works, although that’s way above my pay grade. We decided we were going to use Quicksilver way before they decided they were going to use him in The Avengers, so we just made the decision independently. Early in the script phase, that character was going to be a young Juggernaut, but Bryan felt we’d exhausted Juggernaut’s powers in X-Men: The Last Stand, and he wanted to see a mutant we hadn’t put on film before who had an interesting visual power.
I’m interested in the way you used Sentinels in the film—as these kill list-style drones that target mutants. It made the film seem culturally fresh, even though most of the events are set in 1973.
The way that I imagined the Sentinels was that they were programmed to hunt what the U.S. government termed to be enemies, but that they could be manipulated to be turned back on the American people. The danger of having weapons that are slightly autonomous is that they can be manipulated, and that’s what happens in the movie where they’re designed with no metal, but Magneto manipulates them with metal. I was definitely aware of the way that weaponry technology is advancing right now, and in some ways is beyond our control, and could get out of our control.
With X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Robocop, Homeland, etc., it does seem like Hollywood has targeted the U.S. drone program as something scary and worthy of reevaluating.
I think the best science-fiction, especially literature, is political in nature and is often an allegory about something problematic in our world, and it’s something that makes the X-Men comics so relevant—they’re about xenophobia and prejudice. There is a slightly more political bent to the movies, and we all have a political point of view, and it creeps into the films.
Did Jennifer Lawrence wear a new blue Mystique suit in this film? It looked slightly different.
We created a whole new system for the Mystique body in Days of Future Past because in the last one, it wasn’t cumbersome but it took such a long time to apply—her time in makeup was six-to-eight hours in First Class. So a lot of care, time, and energy was taken to get that time cut in half, and it was mostly about having a pit crew there like the Indy 500.
Lawrence’s role is more significant in Days of Future Past. Was that something you did on purpose? Her star has risen so much since First Class.
For First Class, we were casting her off an amazing audition and having seen Winter’s Bone, and she hadn’t been cast in The Hunger Games films—I don’t even think a Hunger Games book existed yet—so she was a relatively unknown actress. After we cast her, she got nominated for an Oscar, which definitely changed her profile, but she was a young, new face, and now she’s a young face everyone in the world knows, and that’s happened in the span of three years. But I really just told the best story for Days of Future Past, and Mystique/Raven is a big part of that story. When crafting it, I determined that the movie belongs to Charles Xavier—it’s James McAvoy’s story. This guy’s lost his legs, the people he cared about, and his hope, and is starting to become the Professor Xavier of the Patrick Stewart era, which is the heart of the movie. And the person who created the most crisis for Charles in First Class, and the person he cared the most about, was Raven. And she is such a great actress, I wanted to give her real drama and emotion to play.
Were there any big scenes that got cut? I heard a big action sequence with Anna Paquin/Rogue did.
The Rogue/Anna Paquin scene was by far the biggest cut we made, and that was more my fault than anything. When I was crafting the script, I wanted to create a subplot for old Charles and old Eric—Patrick and Ian—to have a mini-mission together, one final adventure. And that’s what the Rogue sequence was—that they went to retrieve Rogue. But it felt like it didn’t come from the spine of the film, it was an appendage where I just wanted to see the old guys get in the X-Jet for one last ride. It was a narrative detour, and in a film with this much momentum and narrative flow, you can’t afford any detours.
There’s an after-credits scene with Apocalypse building the pyramids. What was your approach to that, and reasoning behind it?
At some point in making the movie we talked about what the potential next film would be, and we all really gravitated towards Apocalypse. We really wanted it to be more for the core fans than for the broad audience; to be something that was a genuine tease, and almost mysterious to mainstream audiences who don’t know the comics well, so they’re thinking, “What’s that?”
Is the sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse, going to just feature the younger generation of characters?
It will focus primarily on the First Class cast, but it will certainly have some of the original cast involved, too.
Will Bryan Singer be back in the director’s chair for Apocalypse? That is the plan.
As someone who knows Bryan and works closely with him, what do you make of the recent allegations against him?
Well, I don’t really want to speak on anything outside the movie, but I believe Bryan created the template for the modern superhero movie. I remember where I was when I saw X-Men, and I thought he redefined the way people made comic book films. All the films that followed in the subsequent years, whether it be the Batman movies, the Spider-Man movies, etc., all took cues from X-Men, because he made it grounded, dramatic, really emotional, and somewhat political. He’s the architect of new superhero movies, and I love what he did with Days of Future Past.
I know there are all these licensing issues with studios, but are we ever going to see a crossover with X-Men and some of the other Marvel universes?
As a fan, I would love it. I would love to see the movies be able to do everything the comics would be able to do. In the real world, people don’t really understand that certain characters are licensed to certain studios—that Spider-Man is controlled by Sony, X-Men by Fox, the Marvel characters by Marvel and Disney. There are enough characters within each of these separate universes, but listen: a scene between Wolverine and Tony Stark would be awesome. It would be incredible. But for now, you get awesome scenes between Tony Stark, Captain America, and Thor, and you get awesome scenes between Wolverine, Charles Xavier, and Magneto.
You’re in the midst of shooting The Fantastic Four reboot now. I gotta say… the original films were very bad.
[Laughs] It’s a double-edged sword because you don’t have people saying, “Why are you rebooting something good?” and you also have people saying, “Why bother?” The core fans were not wild about the original movies, and nor was I. Last summer, Emma Watts at Fox called me on the set of Days of Future Past and said, “We really want to do a new Fantastic Four.” I said to her, “I’m interested but it depends how you want to do it.” She said, “Talk to Josh Trank.” We were shooting the Washington D.C. finale sequence in Days of Future Past and I talked to Josh, and he had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do with the film that was so different from the other movies—it was grounded, real, gritty, and what it would really be like if you went through a transformation and lost control of your body. That, coupled with him wanting it to be a coming-of-age movie, felt fresh to me.
What’s the tone going to be? The first Fantastic films were very slapstick and stupid.
The tone of this movie will feel as unique as when you saw Iron Man, X-Men, or Batman Begins for the first time. It’s not as goofy as the first movies; it has humor in it, but the humor is much more real and comes from character, not pratfall jokes. It’s a much more dramatic film than it is a comedy. I would say it falls somewhere between Raimi’s first couple of Spider-Man movies and Chronicle.
I was just speaking with Jamie Foxx about how there’s really no reason why you can’t make superheroes be a different ethnicity—like you did in Fantastic Four, casting Michael B. Jordan, a black actor, as The Human Torch. It seems like we’ve come a long way since the first Fantastic Four films, when they basically made Jessica Alba white… which was crazy.
[Laughs] Yeah, the way we went about casting Fantastic Four was, “Who is the best actor for the part?” We didn’t go into it saying we wanted to cast a particular race for any part. Josh had worked with Michael on Chronicle and I’m a big fan of Michael’s, so we knew he was the best actor for that part. We knew casting an African-American Human Torch would be news, but I can tell you it’s something that Stan Lee loves, and I can also tell you that having been on set and seeing Michael bring him to life, he’s really spectacular. He’s doing something really cool with the character that I think will become the iconic Johnny Storm.
You’re listed as a “Creative Consultant” on Star Wars: Episode VII. Can you talk about how you assembled the amazing cast? I can’t talk anything about Star Wars! But J.J. is a master at casting. If you look at his TV shows, the way he perfectly cast Star Trek and Super 8. He is one of the great directors at casting, and especially at casting new faces. As a fan, I’m super excited to see those guys—the ones from the original movies that changed my life, and the new faces.
You’re also listed as a writer/producer on a live-action Magic: The Gathering film. What’s the vision there?
The vision is absolutely to create a big fantasy epic like the Lord of the Rings movies, or Game of Thrones on a slightly bigger scale. I didn’t grow up playing Magic, but over the last several years, I’ve learned a whole lot more about it and how deep the universe goes. We’re talking to different filmmakers and writers now, and should be locking into somebody in the next few weeks.
You’re also a writer/producer on Gambit, which recently cast Channing Tatum in the lead. How did you arrive at him as your Gambit, and why did you decide to move away from Taylor Kitsch?
Gambit is still in-motion and being figured out. Channing made it known that it was a character that he loved and would love to play, and all the people who work on the X-Men movies are huge fans of his, so the notion of him playing it is exciting. I’m more fascinated by anti-heroes, and Gambit is one of those. I don’t know why he wasn’t explored in the original X-Men movies. Maybe the reason why was because they wanted to focus on Rogue/Bobby or the platonic Rogue/Wolverine relationship, and maybe there were too many similarities between Wolverine and Gambit, so in order to make it a Wolverine-centric franchise they had to cut him loose.