'Dark Phoenix' Director on Crafting a Goodbye and the Cast's Big Request

Simon Kinberg recalls the moment Jennifer Lawrence said she wouldn't return unless he directed, weighs in on his relationship with Marvel's Kevin Feige and talks getting the third act right thanks to reshoots.

It wasn't always clear that the cast of Dark Phoenix would be suiting up again.

After all, the X-Men series was in flux when the film started taking shape. 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse was soft at the box office, earning $200 million less than predecessor Days of Future Past. Director Bryan Singer was being ushered out of the franchise, with rumors swirling that writer-producer Simon Kinberg had been forced to step up to manage the Apocalypse set at times. And deals had expired for its core cast, including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult.

It was those castmembers who approached Kinberg, saying they'd return if he took the helm.

So the filmmaker got to work, drawing upon years of conversations he'd had with his cast to help shape their arcs. His script introduced the mutant island of Genosha for the first time in the films, with Kinberg knowing that was territory Fassbender had long wanted to explore for Magneto.

He crafted a story arc that challenges Prof. X's legacy, taking into account long conversations he'd had with McAvoy about the nature of Charles Xavier, a man who at his best is paternal, and who at his worst is patriarchal. And Kinberg finally got to make good on his favorite comic book storyline, which he partially adapted as co-writer of X-Men: The Last Stand, but which he has long acknowledged fell short. This time, the story of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) would be the story.

Dark Phoenix, opening June 7, comes as the X-Men are at a crossroads. Marvel Studios' President Kevin Feige will assume control of the property going forward thanks to the Disney-Fox merger. Dark Phoenix is presumed to be the final movie with this cast, while the future of the Kinberg-produced Deadpool franchise is unclear. 

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Kinberg reflects on his long relationship with Feige, discusses retooling Dark Phoenix's third act and shares his thoughts on New Mutants, which will undergo reshoots ahead of its 2020 release.  

You've said you write your films from a personal place. What was going on in your life as you sat down to start Dark Phoenix?

Something that I definitely relate to in the movie is the notion of letting go of the façade of control. So much of this movie is about a character trying to hold on to control of herself. Characters around her trying to control her. I found myself, for so much of my life, trying to contain and control things..... I think the repression of things and the instinct to control yourself or others is so much of what's unhealthy in ourselves. It was just feeling like I could just let loose a little bit.

This is a fourth movie for much of your cast, and not all of them had deals in place to return. Did you have alternate drafts of the script that would work without, say, Michael Fassbender or Jennifer Lawrence?

We presumed the First Class core cast — Fassbender, McAvoy Jennifer and Nic [Hoult] were coming back for this film. Part of the reason I presumed that was at the end of finishing X-Men: Apocalypse, when it was clear Bryan Singer was not going to direct the next movie, it was the actors that approached me about directing the next of the X-Men movies. Jennifer especially. Jen said she wouldn’t come back for another movie unless I directed it. So, I had a lot of support from them.

The writing and the producing and now the directing, they are all different job titles, but I approach them all the same way…in all cases I am looking at it from, how do I tell the best possible story with the richest themes and the deepest, most resonant characters? Each of those jobs, I feel like that is my responsibility.

How much do you think about budget in regard to star salaries or your story as you are writing?

I'm never really thinking about budget. Ultimately, there is somebody else who is thinking about budget and tells me what I can and can't afford to do. Especially at the writing phase, when anything feels possible and I'm sitting alone in a room with crumpled-up pieces of paper and a pen in one hand a stack of white empty pages in the other, I do live in a world of infinite possibility.

With Apocalypse, you and Fassbender took a plane ride and had the idea of Magneto having a family. Was there anything on Dark Phoenix that you and an actor conceived of together that was significant?

I knew Genosha [an island refuge for Mutants] was something Michael had wanted to explore. He was a fan of comics even before getting involved in the films and we'd never gotten to do it in the movies before, so when I was trying to come up with where geographically we would meet him, Genosha sprung to mind and it was something that interested him.

[James McAvoy and I] had talked in the past, not specifically about this movie, about the notion that there is an ego drive involved with this character [Prof. X], and a patriarchal side to a man who names a superhero team after the first letter of his last name. He lives in a mansion and feels that he has the right or the wisdom to define the fates and the identities of these kids around him. There was something about that that was obviously benevolent and paternal, and there was something about it that could tip into something that was a little patriarchal and domineering.

There is a crowd-pleasing line in Dark Phoenix that I won't spoil, but it's a nod to the fact that the X-Men feels like an outdated name, given that many of its members are women.

One of the things I loved about the X-Men comics in some ways in distinction to  most other comics, is it had incredibly strong female characters. Not just Jean, but Storm, Mystique, Rogue, Kitty Pryde. They are incredible female characters. They had been strong in the movies in the past, but they were not the foreground characters in the movies in the past. The movies had been so focused on Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine as the leads of the films. I just thought this was an opportunity to tell a story where not just the lead character, but other female characters around her could at least take an equal amount of screen time and lines and focus from the main male characters.

You've said most things are negotiable for things on your movies. But there are always a few "lines in the sand" that you won't budge on, that you will fight for. Were there any lines in the sand on Dark Phoenix for you?

Having been the co-writer of X-Men: The Last Stand, where the Dark Phoenix story was the secondary plot of that film, the first and foremost line in the stand was this needed to be the Dark Phoenix story. That it was not sharing a film with other plots and subplots, but it was a movie that is squarely about Jean, her struggle and the struggles of the people most closely associated with Jean.That was my first line in the sand.

As I was writing the movie, I was starting to feel and create the tone of the film on the page. It was a tone I wanted to make sure I would have the support to bring to screen and it was a very different tone than the previous X-Men movies. It's more personal, intimate, emotional. A more raw tone than we've done in these films before, that have been a little more formal and larger than life. I wanted to make it really true to life and more grounded.

That was the kind of line I never had the opportunity to draw in the past, but on this film, I felt [that tone] was critical to establishing a new kind of X-Men movie and also to telling this story in the best possible way, because it is a story that is so character-driven that I felt like it needed to be more emotional and visceral than we've done before. 

The third act is something you were still tweaking later in the game with reshoots. What were you looking to change?

With the Avengers movies, there are inevitably pickups you do when you are making the movie. You build it into the budget and the schedule. They know exactly when they are going to do it.

On the Fox/Marvel movies, we have never done that. We probably should have, because it just makes life easier. Getting this kind of cast all at the same place at the same time is not an easy thing to do. They go off and they have other things going on.…

In postproduction of the film, what I felt in watching the third act of the movie…this film is so much about the family that was established in X-Men: First Class.... It's this family of outsiders and outcasts, strangers who come together to form this surrogate family and over the span of these movies have conflicts, but mostly their conflicts are with the outside villains, so the family is tested but remains together. This is a film that would tear the family apart.

What I felt in watching the third act of the film [before reshoots] is it didn't fully pay off, the reconciliation of that family. There was not the kind of catharsis I wanted the audience to have where having gone through all of the trauma with this family that you as an audience have gone through with them, you want to see them come together at the end. You want to see them come together in a different form at the end, a more mature form. When you heal, you get stronger, but you're different from it. I wanted the third act to reflect that and so we went back and did pickups to really create for me what was a more satisfying, cathartic ending.

There are not many writer-directors of your generation who also make movies on this scale. Your friend Drew Goddard has come close a few times with Sinister Six and X-Force. Do you two have conversations about what it's like to make a movie on this level?

Drew is one of my closest friends and somebody I admire so immensely as a filmmaker. When Drew and I worked together on The Martian…he wrote it to direct. At the same time, he had written one of the Spider-Man movies, Sinister Six. It was supposed to be the third or fourth in the rebooting of that franchise and he had to make a choice between directing The Martian and directing Sinister Six. He went off to direct Spider-Man because it was always a childhood dream of his, having read the comics. I understood that as a comic fan myself. His Spider-Man movie never happened for all kinds of reasons.

Drew and Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman, there's a group of us who are all of the same generation. David Benioff. And we really root for each other and send each other encouraging emails in the best of times, in the worst of times. We all want to work together when we can. We'll show each other the work.

I showed Drew the script of Dark Phoenix. We walked around. He was on the Universal lot at the time shooting an episode of a TV show. And we walked around the lot for three hours, years ago. With him just giving me his thoughts on Dark Phoenix. I did the same thing for him on Bad Times at the El Royale.… Drew unquestionably will direct some big movie, probably a comic book movie, because he is a huge comic book fan.

You and Drew Goddard talking for three hours about Dark Phoenix sounds like a great podcast.

It boiled down to Drew saying, "People just want to see Dark Phoenix kick ass."

Disney's Bob Iger has said multiple times Deadpool can remain R-rated at Disney. You have shepherded the franchise as a producer. Have you had conversations yet about the future of Deadpool and if you will be involved?

I have not had any talks with them about it. Kevin Feige and I go way back to my first X-Men movie actually. He was the producer when I was the co-writer on The Last Stand. We've been friends over the years and are also people that root for each other and support each other. I saw him actually. We sat down to catch up. We'll have a meal every now and then, though obviously we've both been pretty busy over the past however many years. We met just before the Disney merger was made official, so we didn't talk about any business. We actually spent most of the time talking about Twilight Zone. But it was fun. It was cool.

The only thing we talked about in terms of Disney and Marvel was just how great the Disney marketing team is, because the only thing that has impacted Dark Phoenix from the Disney-Fox merger is the fact that the Disney team has become part of the marketing and publicity process. They are really great and I've known the Disney guys for a while now. I produced Cinderella over there. I had a hand in helping out and working on a few of the Star Wars movies. I know them well and to see them up close in the marketing and publicity of the film is really impressive. It's a pretty historic run Kevin has had and Disney has had. I haven't had any talks with them formally about their plan.

New Mutants is now dated for April 2020. Were you involved in that decision to push it back?

We do pickups on pretty much all of these movies, and we haven't had a chance to do the pickups on New Mutants. Largely because it’s a cast of actors, almost all of them are on television shows.... Getting them all together again at the same time and at the same place has proven difficult, but I think we've figured out a way to do it this year so that the movie will be ready in time for the new release date.

Dark Phoenix is the final X-Men movie of this 19-year saga. How early did you conceive of your ending?

I feel as though the notion of this being the last of this cycle of X-Men movies is tied for a lot of people, at least in the industry, to the Disney-Fox merger. In truth, when I sat down to write this movie, which was three years ago, I thought about it as the culmination of this cycle of X-Men movies.


Dark Phoenix opens June 7.