Josh Boone’s The New Mutants is a movie years in the making. It’s also technically the final piece of the puzzle to 20th Century Studios’ massive franchise of X-Men cinematic spectacles that have been steadily drawing people into movie theatres for decades now. Sometimes the stories were great and sometimes they were patently awful.
Gizmodo caught up with Boone earlier this month over video call ahead of The New Mutants’ theatrical release. He was quick to explain that as much as he’s been a hardcore fan of the cape movie genre and the comic books they’re based on, he sees his X-Men project as more of a multifaceted celebration of both teen romance and horror with just a touch of magic and superheroics thrown in. Even though it’s been years since the film first announced and more than a handful of comic book movies have come out since then, Boone’s still confident that The New Mutants is the only thing like it in the game.
Charles Pulliam-Moore, Gizmodo: So talk to me about talking about the energy that you really wanted to define The New Mutants. What did you want to bring to the larger X-Men franchise that in your mind hadn’t really been done well or at all before?
Josh Boone: Well, I mean, one of the key things that was really important for me even before the story was there was that we had a movie actually starring young people because all these superhero movies, and dude, I love them all, but they mostly star adults.
Boone: So it’s like other than the last two Spider-Man movies, which were like a big breath of fresh air and so great, you don’t really see that enough. I’d love to see more like that and I leaned in a lot towards movies that meant a lot to me when I was young like John Hughes movies and Cameron Crowe movies and things like that.
Gizmodo: But at the same time, you can see just how much of the comics sensibilities make their way into your film.
Boone: I wrote The New Mutants with my best friend [Knate Lee] we’ve known each other our whole lives and we were as Marvel obsessed in the 1980s as you could get sort of long before there were these comics movies. I vividly remember Bill Sienkiewicz’s covers to his run on The New Mutants, and they had the most evocative dark, brilliant, kind of moody art I’d ever seen in a comic.
Gizmodo: Yeah, it was very out there for its time. Was it Sienkiewicz’s’s dark aesthetics that made The New Mutants feel like fertile ground for horror?
Boone: It’s funny, I never had like a light bulb go off over my head where I was like, ‘Here’s a brilliant idea. We have to make a comic book horror movie.’ It really wasn’t that, it was more like, we really love these issues where Dani has to face this Demon Bear who was attached to her tribe.
Gizmodo: The X-Men films have always had a habit of shying away from character studies because the casts are so large and you’ve usually got heroes facing off against a team of villains. Did you want to sort of swing The New Mutants in the opposite direction?
Boone: These characters sort of gave us a chance to kind of do a Breakfast Club meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with all the superheroics people want. But we also tried to smuggle a lot of other things in like a gay love story, and more interest in performance and characters than some other comics movies have, you know? I really wanted to prioritise quieter moments and intimate moments between people, which is just where I feel strongest as a filmmaker regardless of genre.
Gizmodo: It’s safe to say that most people who eventually end up seeing the film, whether they’re familiar with the source material or not, will have seen a comic book movie or two before and a number of them have featured younger people. Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix come to mind. What, if anything new or novel did you want to bring to the larger superhero movie genre with The New Mutants that’s really going to grab audience members?
Boone: Well you know, it’s not that X-Men hasn’t dealt with younger characters before, but they have always sort of been sub-characters in the background. You think the First Class, and there are a bunch of A-List movie stars and then the kids were there but not being given any sort of authentic depth that they deserved, you know?
Boone: And you know, I loved Logan, and my favourite superhero movie of all time’s gotta be Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and in half of it he’s not even in his costume, but it’s still sort of the end all be all for these sorts of movies for me. But at the same time, I still don’t see the kind of movies that I grew up seeing. There’s a smaller window for movies in theatres that aren’t these big spectacles of movies, and my goal was to be able to tell a story that had a bit of both of those kinds of energies. To be a spectacle and to be this really intimate kind of movie.
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Gizmodo: You mentioned earlier that the movie’s going to feature a queer romance — were you talking about Dani and Rahne?
Boone: Yeah, and their bond really become the emotional spine of our movie that really pulls from teen dramas that are classic and contemporary. So while this is very much channeling that ‘80s and ‘90s horror energy, there’s also something here for people who might be into something more like The Fault In Our Stars.
Gizmodo: Obviously, the movie’s path to the theatre’s been a complicated one. What’s it like to see it finally moving forward with a release especially considering that you’ve been removed from the production process for so long at this point?
Boone: I mean, I never obviously want to watch it again, but I don’t watch anything I’ve made again because I’ve had to watch it more times than anybody else other than my editors, who’ve worked on everything I’ve ever done and are some of my closest friends. I don’t feel the fatigue. I never worried about when the movie was going to come out because I still don’t think there’s another superhero movie that tries to do these things. Until somebody does, I say we’re the only game in town.
Gizmodo: We’ve got to talk about the criticisms that have been leveled against the film for casting Henry Zaga to play Roberto, a character who’s Afro-Brazilian in the comics, originally read as Black, and whose origins do touch upon anti-Black racism in Brazil. I suppose my first question’s: do you get where that criticism came from?
Boone: You won’t have any argument from me. It’s like my thing was my goal was to cast a real Brazilian and I saw 300 of myself black, brown, lighter-skinned. I saw every shade of the sun. It was the same case with Blu Hunt. It’s like we looked at 300 Native American people and people very close ties to the Native American community. My goal was to find the best actor who, because they’ve done so little work, was at least the closest to kind of what I saw in my head for the character. There was nobody who hold a candle to Henry. It’s like maybe if Henry didn’t exist, I would have found somebody who was darker skinned who exemplified what I needed. But it was never about the colour of their skin for me.
Gizmodo: Did that just not fit into your vision for Roberto’s story in the film?
Boone: I didn’t care so much about the racism I’ve heard about in Brazil, about light-skinned versus dark-skinned. To me, it was I wanted to represent Brazil in a positive way and I wanted to find somebody who seems like he could look like a guy who’s had the silver spoon in his mouth, who has like a really rich dad and [Henry] just exemplified all these things.
Henry’s such a dedicated performer and you can see it in her performance on The Stand where he’s playing someone who can neither speak nor hear, and he put so much time into learning sign language and spending time learning from deaf people was just great. He’s a beyond reproach human being, and I sort of defy anybody who wants to say that Henry’s not a good Roberto simply because he’s lighter-skinned.
Gizmodo: I’ve got one last sort of larger picture question about the X-Films and your handling of Magik. Between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, the last couple of films in the franchise have really been expanding on this semi-shared world with wilder concepts from the comics. You’re introducing Illyana here, and I’m curious as to how grounded you’re making her in terms of her power set and origins.
Boone: Her backstory is so convoluted in the comic book and there are so many layers to it that connect to other magical aspects of the Marvel universe. We really tried to use a somewhat similar backstory for her and simplify it and ground it psychologically as much as possible. This is another thing we sort of smuggled into the movie — a plot that deals with child trafficking. For Illyana, we gave her a childhood reminiscent of Stephen King’s book Lisey’s Story. This fictional realm that Illyana’s imagined and she’s so powerful, that it’s almost become this real kind of thing. Lockheed we approached in the same way because while there’s so much that I love about her dynamic with him, if I were to get into his proper backstory in the comics, then you get into space and it gets too messy.
I think we’ve honoured all the characters mythologies while at the same time making sure that they felt really psychologically valid and felt very you know, it felt real and authentic in a way that it didn’t feel so much like a superhero movie.
The New Mutants is scheduled to hit Australian theatres on September 3.