The following interview contains spoilers about Logan
X-Men franchise producer and writer Simon Kinberg is an anomaly in the film industry. It’s not often that you hear about someone cutting their teeth in the business by literally selling their first screenplay while still enrolled at film school. Not to mention, within the first year of graduating, having several deals lined up around town. But that’s exactly what happened to this Columbia University MFA graduate.
During Kinberg’s first year at Columbia, his producing professor was Fine Line Features founder and president Ira Deutchman. He happened to read a script that Kinberg cracked called Ghouls of New York which centered around 19th century grave robbers. Deutchman sent it around Hollywood and soon enough Kinberg was signed by CAA with his professional life underway. Flying between New York and Los Angeles became the norm, with Kinberg landing a TV development deal with Warner Bros. and Jerry Bruckheimer, selling a pitch to Warner Bros, and securing a plethora of rewrite assignments. In his second year at film school, Kinberg’s thesis project was his original screenplay Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He pitched it around town and every studio turned it down. But then Akiva Goldsman stepped in and championed the project to its greenlight.
Having been enthralled with comic books like Batman and X-Men growing up, Kinberg finally landed the job interview of a lifetime soon after arriving in Hollywood during the early 2000s: With Avi Arad, then founder of Marvel studios. “I don’t think I slept the night before,” says Kinberg. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand marked Kinberg’s third feature film writing credit after 2005’s xXx: State of the Union and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. He boarded the franchise as screenwriter at a time when Bryan Singer, who helmed and wrote the first two X-Men titles, was taking a respite from the series and heading off to make Superman Returns. The Last Stand was a huge hit in 2006 grossing close to $500M worldwide. When Fox was looking to revision the X-Men franchise with 2011’s First Class, Kinberg took on producing duties and has been a vital voice in shaping the famed Marvel comic-book series about mutants going forward, especially with Deadpool and Logan breaking the mold as R-rated superhero movies. Now there’s buzz that Kinberg will direct the next X-Men movie.
As both a producer and writer, Kinberg has amassed $6.58 billion at the global B.O. in credits across 18 films. Dollar-wise that’s more than what James Cameron has pulled in ($6.2 billion), and with Logan‘s great traction at theaters, Kinberg’s B.O. will soon surpass George Lucas’ ticket sale credits ($6.59B). Kinberg was nominated last year at the Oscars in the best picture category for Ridley Scott’s The Martian, and he also counts two Producers Guild best picture noms for both Martian and Deadpool.
DEADLINE: Now that Deadpool and Logan have proven that there’s plenty of money to be made with R-rated superhero films, how does this impact the X-men series going forward?
KINBERG: We take the R-rating on a case by case basis when the story warrants it and necessitate that rating, and shouldn’t be hemmed by the rules of PG or PG-13. Should a story be readily told in a PG-13 fashion, it should be for creative, not business reasons. The success of Deadpool and Logan have bolstered our confidence to make edgy, more daring, provocative bold movies that audiences will embrace. More than that, we feel a responsibility to make bold and provocative movies. Each time we make one –and audiences have so many options these days, not just from superhero movies, but all movies, videogames and content on the internet – we want to stand out. For us it’s a way to excite filmmakers and our actors because they can play a really broad spectrum of colors that not all event tentpoles can do.
DEADLINE: How did the idea come up to create a Wolverine movie that’s Dirty Harry meets John Cassavetes’ Gloria with a dash of Paper Moon?
KINBERG: This was Jim Mangold’s vision for Logan. He had a clear sense of what he wanted the movie to be and Scott Frank was a partner in realizing that on the page. Hugh Jackman was a huge partner in creating and bringing it to life. For Jim he always talked about Hugh as a Clint Eastwood-type of actor, an actor who could do a lot with a little. I know they talked a lot about various westerns like Unforgiven in that Wolverine is akin to the greatest gunslinger at the end of his life, going on one last mission. But it was the tone of this movie, the cinematic references both implicit and explicit in the case of Shane that were really on Jim Mangold’s brain. It was a bold way to approach the movie and the studio was really supportive.
One of things that was also bold about the movie was its marketing. As wild and anarchistic as Deadpool’s marketing was in using the internet, its viral pieces and billboards, Logan was the opposite. We went really analog and old-fashioned much like the movie itself. A lot of us who worked on the movie are in our 40s and 50s and we grew up at a time when our favorite films and commercial films were R-rated. I grew up on Alien, Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard movies. Westerns were also R-rated and were more for grown-ups than kids. This was the story we were going to tell and R-rated was the format for it. What it meant for Deadpool and Logan is that we would make the movie for a fraction of the budget than regular superhero tentpole movies. Deadpool was made in the $50M range and Logan was just under $100M. With the R-rating we had to be responsible because we knew that we would be eliminating the younger part of the audience.
DEADLINE: Even though Deadpool cracked the door open, how much of a risk was there going into the project in turning a PG-13 superhero like Wolverine into an R-rated one?
KINBERG: I would give credit to Jim Mangold, Hutch Parker and 20th Century Fox studio executives Emma Watts, Jim Gianopulos, and Stacey Snider. They felt like the biggest risk we could take would be not taking a risk at all. To make another installment, another episode of Wolverine would not be enough for audiences. And not enough for Hugh. He felt the greatest responsibility to make this the greatest Wolverine movie ever. It’s his last time playing the part. Hugh felt more acutely that this one had to be the best one and that came with breaking some rules and being bolder than we’ve ever been.
DEADLINE: Will you look to Hugh in figuring out the next iteration of Wolverine and who might play him?
KINBERG: We heaven’t even thought of the next iteration of Wolverine. For all of us, we were keeping our fingers crossed that the audiences would respond to Logan the way they have. I can’t visualize in my head another Wolverine but if that day ever comes, we would talk to Hugh about it.
DEADLINE: There is talk about you making your directorial debut on the next X-Men movie. Will you also write it?
KINBERG: I’ve read those reports. If I were to direct, I would certainly write. As someone who started his career as a writer then transitioned into being a writer-producer, when I make that transition into directing, I would definitely want to be the writer as well. It’s because I can’t imagine directing something that I didn’t create myself. Having made many great movies, the ones I feel the most emotionally connected to are the ones I wrote.
DEADLINE: How much of the X-Men universe is left in the vault? How big is this universe?
KINBERG: The great thing working with a property that has been around for decades is that there’s thousands and thousands of rich, compelling stories and characters than we’ll ever have time to tell on screen. We are working hard on New Mutants, Gambit with Channing Tatum, Deadpool 2 and the new X Force movie where Deadpool is alongside Cable and other main characters. We are taking chances and those chances are being rewarded commercially and critically. We’ll continue to keep taking chances. It means each of the different movies will have different reasons for being. The mandate that I talk about with the studio all the time is that they have to have emotion. For all the fun, jokes and zaniness of Deadpool, it was a love story at the core. For all the violence and visceral action in Logan, it’s incredibly emotional as a father-son story, and a son meeting his daughter. That’s what the X-Men comics have done really well and it’s something I go into each one of these movies with. Regardless of tone, narrative content or rating, what is at their core is an emotional story and then we can build on top of that. While the audiences for these movies have been teen boys, older females tested well across the board more than other demographics. The tracking for Deadpool was high among females; Logan wasn’t as high as Deadpool‘s (in that demo), but they did come to see the movie. The one area where tracking is out-moded is the speed at which word of mouth is passed around. You can track a movie, but in a few days, reviews come out and a movie can do better than it’s tracking if the reviews are good. If the reviews are bad, than a movie can do worse than its tracking. The reviews for Logan were better than Days of Future Past. It use to be five to ten years ago, we’d have to wait until Monday morning to hear people’s opinions on a movie. But the recent problem that tracking has been having is anticipating whether a movie is good or bad.
DEADLINE: In terms of what’s next in the X-Men universe pipeline, it’s Deadpool 2, then…?
KINBERG: Deadpool 2 is going into production this year. Then X Force which is a combination of Deadpool, and Cable –they’re like the Black ops of the X-Men. They’re much darker and have an R-rated decibel. There are other X-Men characters coming into X-Force at different times in the comic, but it’s separate from X-Men. There is a larger architecture to tell these stories in. I talk to the studio all the time about this and there is a plan for how these movies can connect and be a part of a larger narrative. It’s something that’s fun, exciting and it will be interesting to see how we marry the different tones that we’ve been generating in these standalone movies of the X-Men universe. But we go into making the best movie we can. It’s not just about a Colossus or Deadpool cameo. Connecting all of these movies will happen when it organically makes sense. These movies aren’t simply being built as stepping stones to a larger story. Each one is wholly enclosed and a movie worth seeing.
Deadline: Where did you find Dafne Keen? As Wolverine’s daughter Laura aka X23, she plays torment quite well.
KINBERG: We found her through our casting process. She sent in a tape of herself from Spain. She’s Spanish. Jim Mangold saw it. One of the things he’s so extraordinary with is getting great performances out of the cast. He’s directed actresses to Oscar-winning performances: Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, and he’s had other actors nominated throughout his career. X23 is younger than we initially imagined. She’s a teenager in the comic books, but she has this otherworldly wisdom to her.
We talked about The Professional. Natalie Portman was around same age as Dafne (12 years old), and she also felt so much older in that film. Jim and Scott had this idea that it would be interesting if X23 didn’t speak than if she was some sort of petulant child. Hutch Parker kept bringing up Paper Moon as a model for us to look at. Tatum O’Neal was petulant and a talky child in the movie. Jim and Scott felt that by making X23 more mysterious, it would be more valuable to the movie and the audience would empathize more. By the way, Hutch as a producer was there on the ground on set in 130-degree weather. He is the unsung hero of these X-Men movies. Having worked in development, he has so much experience when it comes to making movies. He’s been the head of a studio so long, that he knows how to make these movies for a price that is impossible.
DEADLINE: Constructing a finale where Wolverine dies — can you expound on the challenges with this and what was important about nailing down the right swan song?
KINBERG: Part of Logan is based on a famous Wolverine comic book run called Old Man Logan and X23 is from the comics as well. We really used strands from different comics. We also felt like we had the license to create new scenes and storylines. Something that we felt on Deadpool and Logan was that as long as we stay true to the essence of the comics, we can change any particulars around. In the original comic that Days of Future Past is based on, it’s Kitty Pride who goes back in time to warn of the Sentinels in the future. As the writer, I chose to make Wolverine as the one who goes back in time for different reasons, not just because he’s the most famous character, but it was a more interesting way to go dramatically. Fans weren’t up in arms about it. Their response was like ‘you changed things up and the movie was good.’ The problem is when you change things up and the movie is not good. Logan was done for artistic reasons. We all felt going into the movie, especially Hugh, that we wanted to end with the death of Wolverine. For Hugh it was going to be his last Wolverine movie. When we were developing the film, a small group of us, including myself, Hugh, Hutch, Jim Mangold and Scott Frank — we felt like we had to earn Wolverine’s death. One had to feel as though they traveled through the end of his life where he says goodbye to his father, Professor X, and in the last chapter of his life finds hope in this little girl, his daughter; so that Wolverine’s death wasn’t dark, cynical and depressing. It made you cry and the takeaway from Wolverine is that this girl would live on. We felt this responsibility and obligation from the very beginning of our process on Logan. A word that Hugh used from the onset was ‘Utopia’: That the process of the film and the team we put together needed to feel Utopic. We needed to feel like we left no stone unturned and challenged ourselves to the fullest and to the best of our shared abilities.
DEADLINE: How surprised were you by Deadpool at the box office?
KINBERG: I was surprised when it came on tracking as high as it did. We felt we were making a good movie, but that it was a niche one for a core fan base that would possibly broaden out. We would have been ecstatic if we made $250M worldwide and if we opened to $40M. When the movie came on tracking, we thought it was a clerical error, than we realized that it wasn’t an error, but it was opening like a real superhero movie. Heading into the weekend, we hoped that it would open to $70M-$80M, but then it opened to $132M-plus. For all of us, Ryan Reynolds, Tim Miller, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and the studio, we all felt like we were drunk all weekend, sort of a hazy dream. On Monday morning, we thought they skipped a decimal point. Deadpool didn’t just open, but it played and played and played. Obviously as filmmakers, as artists who spent many months, in this case years on Deadpool, we wanted audiences to love it. But were all so surprised, and the film continued to surprise us over and over again even as it entered the awards conversation this year. We found ourselves at the PGAs, Critics’ Choice and Golden Globes. All of it wasn’t anticipated as we made an R-rated movie with fart jokes in it.
DEADLINE: We’re in the middle of changing times in the industry with streaming and the renaissance of TV encroaching on moviegoing. Studios are looking to move up the streaming window for films. Some producers believe that the mid-budgeted movies that were greenlit 10 years ago are now destined for TV. As one of the most in-demand producers and writers in town, what do you make of all this? How have high concept films changed since you hatched Mr. & Mrs. Smith?
KINBERG: No doubt we’re in changing times. A lot of the movies I grew up with were mid-budget dramas and they have a tougher time getting made as theatrical features today. The hope for those movies are in the new studios; the Netflix and Amazons of the world who have a lot of money, whether they’re on different platforms or the same platforms. These companies feel like theatrical is just a smaller part of a larger release. That’s where the renaissance for those movies will come from. I’m fascinated by box office and movies going back several years. I look at Rain Man. It was the No. 1 movie in the year it came out (1988). Today the notion of two people in a car being the top movie is pretty hard to fathom in the face of Star Wars and superhero movies. I don’t know if Rain Man gets made by a studio that’s focused on the theatrical window in today’s market. Also, the notion of movie stars has changed from what it was 15-20 years ago; the bankability of movie stars. You could make a Rain Man back then because Tom Cruise was the No. 1 star in the world. Today, you never know going into a movie whether you can bank on that. The stars of today are still helpful, and they continue to have appeal. But there’s a different kind of star today in certain titles and characters and they compete with those movie stars as well. I worked on Cinderella. She is a movie star in her own right. But I think change is happening in ways we can’t anticipate yet because the whole generation of viewers who are viewing films – film may not be the appropriate word in years to come. I’m excited about the possibility of new types of storytelling; that to me is less daunting. I’m excited by how we’ll evolve with those formats thematically, tonally and in narrative.
DEADLINE: With the looming Writers Guild talks, what deal points are the most important to you? Is it wise for the guild to strike?
KINBERG: I hope there is not a strike. I was around for the last one. I hope there is not a strike because I want people to keep working and making TV and movies. The last time we had a strike, the writers in the middle suffered the most. My primary focus is in features, so that’s where I’m speaking from. The writers on top, the ones who have credits on good movies, they will work because they have a body of work behind them and continue to prove themselves. They’re a small percentage of the Writers Guild. The writers who are up and coming and the least expensive of the guild, will continue to work. After a studio goes through four or five writers, they’ll bring in a less expensive writer (on a project). But the writers who haven’t had a movie in a long time or ever, the ones in the middle who are good writers, they suffered the last time. I fear that will happen again. No matter what the winds may be, it gives the studios an opportunity to clean house a little bit. They did it across the board (last time) and used it as an excuse to clear out a lot of producing deals. I’m on both sides of this as my life is split between being a writer and a producer. I think so much is changing in our world. Anything about new media is incredibly important because we don’t know how that will develop and explode over the next few years. I have two sons 7 and 11-years old. I see the way they ingest story – it’s all over new media. It’s something I wasn’t thinking about in the last round (of talks) and it’s something we’re all thinking about now.