There’s an unsteady, chaotic energy coursing through much of Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix. It almost feels like an extension of the existential crisis its titular hero finds herself in as she becomes the most powerful mutant to ever walk the Earth. That feeling, according to Kinberg, was a wholly intentional part of his directorial debut.
When I spoke with Kinberg over the phone recently, he opened up about how his personal love of the Dark Phoenix Saga is what made him want to use the comics story for the final chapter of Fox’s X-franchise. But there’s a distinctly grounded quality to Dark Phoenix that makes it feel unlike any other telling of the classic saga, and Kinberg’s reasoning for leaning into this version of the X-Men is nothing if not fascinating to mull over.
io9: The Dark Phoenix Saga’s such an expansive, complicated story in Marvel’s comics. Talk to me about your creative process and how you boiled down what elements of the classic stories you wanted to shape your film.
Simon Kinberg: I was talking to [Marvel writer] Chris Claremont about this last night after he’d seen the film. The Dark Phoenix Saga’s such a massive, complicated sprawling epic thing, but I really wanted to make this story about Jean. I wanted to do a Jean story that could go as vertically into her character as possible in terms of her experience of what’s happening to her psychologically and emotionally. I wanted to deconstruct the lack of control that’s always been a part of the Phoenix story and try to figure out what that means for Jean. What does it mean to be the most powerful creature in the entire galaxy and feel like you’re losing yourself?
io9: When you talk about that verticality to your approach to the film, what do you mean?
Kinberg: I think that what happens with a lot of ensemble movies is that the story goes more horizontal. You tell as many different character stories as you can, work in as many different plot lines as you can, and you don’t really have the time for quiet, reflective moments or longer drama scenes with your protagonists. I wanted to give Jean’s story the amount of screen time it needed to really breathe in order to be the most impactful.
io9: Who is this version of Jean Grey? What defines her, and how does she see herself?
Kinberg: Well, what I’ve always loved about Jean in the comics, and have tried to bring to this incarnation of her, is that she’s a person who’s benevolent and loving and loyal, but also troubled. She’s uneasy and uncomfortable of her own power because part of it scares her. She needs to be in control, and so she holds tight—maybe a little too tight—to try to make sure she’s maintaining that grip. That control of herself. That’s a hard way to go through life, and it’s not a fully authentic way to move through life.
io9: Was that to give audiences a way to see themselves in Jean?
Kinberg: Well, so many of us are like that. There’s something about our inner psyche where our demons and secrets live that we don’t necessarily want to share with even our loved ones. We live slightly inauthentic versions of ourselves, and you see so much of that in Jean. The thing that I’ve always loved about the Dark Phoenix story is that it forces Jean and the people around her to face some of those parts of herself that she was repressing. Just as a dramatic idea, that’s so resonant but also relevant given the way our society demands more of women than from men.
io9: There are a couple of moments in the movie that feel like deliberate pieces of commentary about how the X-Men have been treated. Was there a larger idea you were getting at by addressing that in Dark Phoenix?
Kinberg: I think women are meant to repress more. It’s increasingly less true, but traditionally, you think about the repression of certain emotions, sexuality, and Jean’s been a stand in for that idea in a lot of ways. She’s the most powerful of the X-Men, but she’s always been pushed to the side.
io9: Talk to me about stepping into the director’s role for the first time. What was your vision for Dark Phoenix, and what were the directorial influences you approached the story with?
Kinberg: Obviously there are the supernatural, fantastical elements from the source material and it was important to me that we included the cosmic intergalactic storyline from the comics because we hadn’t seen any of that in X-Men films yet. The superhero movies that were most inspiring to me were like Logan and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
io9: Batman? How so?
Kinberg: Ironically, the first half of Batman Begins is my favourite chunk of the Dark Knight movies. Obviously, they’re all masterpieces, but the first half of Batman Begins before he becomes Batman, I just found so relatable because he’s just a guy. He doesn’t have his suit or an alter ego. He’s not off fighting crime. I approached Dark Phoenix with those films in mind, and wanted to emphasise the character drama. The movie needed to be more raw and intimate and personal than we’d done with the franchise before.
io9: How did you want that rawness to translate on screen?
Kinberg: There were a few key things. Obviously, the performances. I spent significantly more time rehearsing with the actors, and I really emphasised that they needed not to treat this like your typical superhero movie. Keep that human drama in mind. That sounds like I’m denigrating the superhero movie genre, but I’m not. I love these movies. But I think there’s a certain way that actors sometimes perform in these movies, particularly in some of the previous X-Men movies, where things can come across either a bit too formal or too larger than life.
io9: It’s interesting you say that because you’d think that the Dark Phoenix Saga of all places is where you’d want that kind of melodramatic energy. But the movie’s so grounded, and it sometimes feels like the larger-than-life things that are still there are creating tension with the tone. Was that intentional?
Kinberg: In a way, yeah. Dark Phoenix needed to feel true to life, so we needed to bring it down to Earth. A lot of that is in the cinematography. I think there’d been two or three times previously when we used handheld cameras in X-Men movies, and everything was very fixed. Things were on dolly tracks and cranes, you know. I think there are only a couple of shots in this film that aren’t handheld.
I wanted the big action sequences whenever possible to be real, meaning achieved through in-camera techniques and not with a computer. So, there are two big sequences that come to mind. There’s a battle in the movie between Jean and Magneto over a helicopter that’s flying in the air. The chopper’s swinging back and forth between the two of them, and you’ve got soldiers running onto the chopper trying to weigh it down. Ordinarily, that sort of thing would have been done using mostly VFX.
io9: The scene definitely feels like a physical game of tug of war.
Kinberg: When the audience is looking at it, there’s this part of your brain that can recognise when the physics of something like a chopper waving around abnormally in the air are off or not. But the practical effects team really stepped up to give that scene a physicality that matched Michael [Fassbender] and Sophie’s [Turner] energy and the overall effect brought a realness to the battle that felt right.
io9: Let’s go back to the tension between the movie’s cosmic and grounded elements. Say more about how you went about balancing those two things.
Kinberg: By far and away, creating a tone that could sustain both of those energies and be cohesive was difficult. But the answer to why is actually really simple. I grew up reading these comics, and the Dark Phoenix Saga was my favourite storyline in the comics, and the cosmic is such a crucial part of the original story.
There were so many other parts of the comics that we excised from the movie, like the Hellfire Club and Charles Xavier’s romance with Lilandra, that it felt wrong to fully ignore all of the cosmic elements. If we kept things entirely on Earth and completely grounded, as bold a choice as that would have been and as easier as it would have been to pull off from a visual effects and tonal standpoints, it would have cut out something that I, as a fan, would have felt let down by.
io9: There’s that moment at the end of Apocalypse when Jean defeats En Sabah Nur and he seems to understand that she’s on the verge of becoming Phoenix-life. Was there ever a version of Dark Phoenix that built on Apocalypse’s foreshadowing as a way to keep the story more grounded?
Kinberg: Not really. That Dark Phoenix foreshadowing was troubling to me because Jean’s power…is otherworldly. It’s the Phoenix Force. It’s not just something inside of Jean. Jean discovering her own innate power and having it amplified by something in a more visually interesting way was a great idea for Apocalypse because Jean’s finally letting go, but then the notion of her becoming the kind of Phoenix Force that we know didn’t exactly make sense.
io9: Some of the cast has been fairly open about the number of changes that the movie went through during production to avoid overlapping with another comics movie.
Kinberg: [Chuckling] Yeah, they have.
io9: Level with me. Was it Captain Marvel? Were the major reshoots due to a mandate that came down from Fox and Marvel because of the acquisition, or were they just because you wanted Dark Phoenix to feel distinct?
Kinberg: The truth is, I think a lot of the cast saw Captain Marvel, and then went off to do interviews, and sort of put two and two together. But the decision to reshoot what we reshot happened before Captain Marvel came out, and you know, I don’t have access to Marvel Studios’ planning process. Having said that, our original ending that I’d storyboarded did have things in common with the very end of Captain Marvel.
io9: You mean the final battle taking place in space?
Kinberg: Yeah. But other than the setting, our ending was quite different. The reason I wanted to go back to reshoot things, though, was because this was meant to be the culmination of this family that’s grown together over however many movies, but it’s also a movie that tears that family apart. They’re facing a more serious trauma than they’ve ever seen before. The end of the movie really would have been more about the division between Charles and Scott with the rest of the X-Men. But one by one, the other X-Men side with Charles, and by the end, it’s just Scott by himself.
But in watching it myself and watching it with audiences during test screenings, the feeling was: if you’re going to put this family through all of these things, you’re going to want to see them united at the end. We never finished shooting that ending, but no matter how far along I got with it, it always felt like it was lacking closure and unity. That was really the impetus for the changes.