WHOM GODS DESTROY
The end i s nigh i n X- Men: A pocalypse. Ian Berriman i s on set a s the mutants f ace t heir greatest t hreat yet...
All the old paintings on the tombs, they do the sand dance, don’tcha know… Sorry, SFX is suffering from a bad case of a Bangles earworm. We’re standing at the sandaled feet of a giant jackal- headed statue – just one of four that tower 25- 30 feet above us in a vast temple chamber. On the walls, friezes depict warriors armed with spears and bird- headed gods holding ankhs. The left- brain insists this is a movie set, but gazing around it’s easy to get swept up in the illusion. We could be 6,000 years ago, transported to ancient Egypt. Well, if you ignore the plywood steps on the way, the scaffolding and the plastic sheeting protecting panels of hieroglyphics – one of which our guide pulls back to reveal an amusing detail: the familiar shape of the X- Men logo. It’s day 31 of 84 of principal photography on
X- Men: Apocalypse, and we’re at Mel’s Studio in Montreal. Catching up with director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg later, there’s one thing we simply have to clear up: what’s with those hieroglyphics? Has Professor Xavier been travelling back in time to dispense interior design tips?
“It means nothing,” Singer laughs, “It’s an inside joke. By the way, there are many more. There’s a hieroglyph of a guy choking a chicken – you missed that! I don’t know what that means in ancient Egyptian…”
While such details may not be significant, the ancient Egyptian setting certainly is. It’s there we first encounter the Big Bad for this closing instalment of the prequel trilogy that began with First Class: the titular Apocalypse, whose belated introduction is an exciting development for fans of the comics. First seen in 1986, in X- Factor # 5, he’s the first mutant, born 5,000 years ago and endowed with god- like powers. A key arc of the ’ 90s, Age Of
Apocalypse, saw him conquering an alternate America radically reshaped by Professor Xavier’s death. Though X- Men: Apocalypse
won’t tell that story, its topsy- turvy take on the X- universe has influenced Singer’s thinking when it comes to characterisation.
“If you look at Age Of Apocalypse, everyone’s roles are reversed,” he explains. “I can’t quite tackle that entire 50- plus book universe, but what I can do is find characters at places they were not at when we met them in X- Men.”
The look of the ’ 80s X- Men comics is another key influence, Simon Kinberg tells us.
“Visually, there’s a ton from the ’ 80s comics, in the colour of the costumes and some of the other aesthetics of the characters. We wanted it to look and feel different from the other movies – to be a unique experience.”
And there’s good reason to homage the era of the Rubik’s Cube and Reagan. When we last visited the X- universe, it was 1973. Leaping forward another decade, this film sees Apocalypse waking in 1983, after lying dormant for centuries. And he’s a mite peeved.
“He’s a guy that went to sleep thousands of years ago, in a world that – in his mind – was moving towards purity or perfection,” Kinberg explains. “Then he wakes up in the most corrupted, polluted, disgusting time in our history – 1983! He’s looking around at the ’ 80s like, ‘ What the hell happened to my world? I’m gonna fix it.’ And for him, fixing it means wiping it out and starting over.”
It’s a point of view far removed from the struggle for supremacy which powered the agendas of Magneto and Sebastian Shaw.
“The notion of mutant vs man is not that interesting to him,” Kinberg explains. “He doesn’t care about that. It’s like if you came back, as a grown- up, to your childhood home and it was overrun with all kinds of awfulness – you’d be upset! So an aspect of his
We wanted it to look and feel different from the other movies – to be a unique experience
motivation is hopefully human and emotional. The thing that we spent the most time on in conceiving the movie was making sure that even though he’s a larger- than- life villain there was still something emotionally grounded in him, and relatable.”
Star Wars’ Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaac, is the man playing god.
“He has a great philosophical way of looking at things,” Singer says of his star, admiringly. “We both saw eye to eye on the character, equating it to leaders of cults. To me, Apocalypse is a god of the Old Testament, a vengeful god. When he came to be, men were beating each over the heads with rocks for a piece of meat, and he brought civilisation. He believes mankind owes him worship, and if he doesn’t get it he’ll swallow them up through the earth – and he can do it! But I think Apocalypse’s greatest power is persuasion”.
It’s Apocalypse’s silver tongue which enables him to recruit a mutant “Four Horsemen” to aid him in laying waste to our idolatry.
“When Oscar and I studied cults, what I got from that was that every cult has four elements,” Singer explains. “There’s a political element, so I chose Magneto; a military element, so I chose an angry character, Angel; the youth element for indoctrination – that’s young Storm; then a sexual component – y’know, most cult leaders sleep with half their congregations – that’s Psylocke.”
If anything demonstrates the force of Apocalypse’s charisma, it’s surely that Magneto is willing to bow the knee and do his bidding.
“That was challenging,” Singer reveals, “his storyline – how he comes to a place where he’s vulnerable for indoctrination by Apocalypse.”
The solution: giving the embittered Erik Lehnsherr a family. In the comics, Magneto
The thing we spent most time on was making sure there was still something grounded in Apocalypse
married his wife Magda after rescuing her from Auschwitz; later she fled after he revealed his powers while failing to save their daughter from dying in a fire. In Apocalypse the two meet much later, but it sounds like the relationship is similarly doomed...
“He’s living off the grid as a regular guy,” Singer says. “He’s gone to Poland. He’s worked among humans in anonymity. Suddenly that’s disrupted and he’s forced to return to his old ways, but in a very different way – an almost apocalyptic and tragic way.”
back to the comics
A grinning Professor X is thrusting away at Cyclops from behind, like an over- sexed Labrador. No, this isn’t a radical reinterpretation of the character dynamics; Jean Grey doesn’t have a rival for the young Scott Summers’s affections – it’s just James McAvoy horsing around in- between takes. As the set- up’s being blocked for lighting purposes, it’s actually a double bearing a strip of tape with “Scott” scrawled on it who’s the unwitting recipient of a momentary Xavier air- humping, not newcomer Tye Sheridan.
SFX has teleported ( okay, taken a minibus…) to a dusty, disused industrial facility – once, trains were repaired here – to observe Xavier, Scott and Jean hiding out from Apocalypse in a small, dingy room in Cairo. We see them crashing to the floor, rolling over, and looking round – rocked by an explosion, perhaps, or just transported here? Another moment sees Charles reacting to a voice booming his name – Apocalypse? A third sees Scott robotically advancing on his comrades, as if under control… Over the course of several hours we only get a brief glimpse of Singer, who’s present mostly as a god- like PA voice. We catch brief snatches floating on the wind: “Jean senses this… getting killed by Apocalypse”. Inbetween the seemingly endless succession of takes, Game Of Thrones’ Sophie Turner sits cross- legged on the floor, while McAvoy unfastens his wristwatch ( digital, natch), spins it around on his finger, fastens it again, then repeats. Though these aren’t key scenes, it’s still a thrill to witness the advent of something X- fans have long anticipated: James McAvoy finally rocking a chrome dome!
“In each of the other films, we talked about it,” Kinberg reveals. “There was a scene in First Class where he went bald. In one draft of Days
Of Future Past he was balding over the span of the movie. It just never felt right, for whatever reason. Here, it’s tied to something narratively, and also it was the end of this trilogy. So it felt like the right time.”
It’s also fascinating to see newcomers Sheridan and Turner in action as the young
Scott and Jean. It’s a reminder that there’s so much going on in Apocalypse. Not only does it introduce the most powerful threat our heroes have faced, and bring the curtain down on this trilogy, but it refreshes the franchise as First
Class did, by bringing in new blood to play younger versions of iconic characters – not only Jean and Scott but also Storm ( Alexandra Shipp) and Nightcrawler ( Kodi Smit- McPhee). It all goes back to what Singer said earlier, about the influence of Age Of Apocalypse.
“Everybody’s different from how they are as the older characters,” he explains. “Cyclops, who’s destined to become Xavier’s right- hand man, is this total ne’er- do- well, a complete fuck- up in school. Jean Grey is this young girl who has no idea what’s growing inside her, this tremendous power that she doesn’t even understand. And young Storm… wow, she’s a villain! So you get to see our heroes from X- Men
1- 3 as completely different characters. I think that’s going to be really fun for an audience.”
It’s a recurring theme in our conversation with the director. This may be the ninth X- Men movie ( counting Deadpool!), but Singer insists that it’ll feel fresh, and suggests he’s achieved that by going back to the well with the comics.
“I’m trying to bring things we haven’t seen before. All different kinds of things. Ways to shoot Cerebro we haven’t seen before. The looks of characters, and them doing things they haven’t done before in movies. So I look to the comics. This is… how many X- Men movies have I been involved in?” So many that he has to start counting aloud. “One, two, three… With First Class I wrote the story, so yeah, it’s five. So for me, I can’t do the same things!”
Watch out Jean Grey, there’s a lorry behind you!
The past’s so bright you’ve got to wear shades.
“I want you to manifest your superpowers like this!”
Characters no 84 and 85… keeping up?
Will Quicksilver steal this movie too?
Kodi Smit- McPhee slips into Nightcrawler’s skin.