In 1963, as prejudice and fear gripped the U.S. at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Marvel Comics editor, head writer and art director Stan Lee created X-Men, a comic book centering around a team of mutant superheroes. The X-Men, like many of their Marvel predecessors, were an unusual heroic group - at times sarcastic, antisocial, and clearly flawed, yet sympathetic when battling the demons of their love lives, tackling the traumas of self-esteem, or taking on powerful villains in their universe of special powers.
Stan Lee's X-Men world imagined the existence of a superior species and the harsh political and social environment they encountered in a not-too-distant future world. X-MEN director Bryan Singer appreciated the comics' allegories about racism and bigotry and their underlying themes of tolerance, running throughout the dramas' non-stop action and adventure.
"The story of the X-Men is quite political," says Singer. "It's about differences and similarities. Because the comic was born from the tumult of the '60s, there are political and sociological issues and messages inherent in the X-Men lore."
"In fact," Singer continues, "the relationship between Xavier and his one-time friend and colleague, Magneto, exemplifies the ideological and philosophical differences of that era. They are essentially cut from the same cloth, and both see this mutated breed of humanity as a subject of persecution. However, Xavier lives to protect those who fear him while Magneto lives to destroy them. Each believes his side is right. Neither is willing to compromise."
"Ultimately, the film is about how difficult it is to find a level of tolerance that is mutually beneficial to all involved. That's a philosophical concept that mankind and mutantkind could fight about forever."
"It's also a kick-ass movie," he adds, grinning.
Six years ago, a staff member gave producer Lauren Shuler Donner some back issues and character profiles of X-Men. "I read first about Logan/Wolverine, who is a truly tragic hero," she remembers, "and I got caught up in his search for himself. He was so psychologically complex."
"I then read about the other X-Men," Shuler Donner continues.
"X-Men struck me as different and more complicated than other comics. It is grounded in terms of character. It revolves around the themes of prejudice and repression. We are all mutants and misfits in one way or another."
Shuler Donner subsequently set up the project at Twentieth Century Fox, beginning a chain of events that, four years later, would lead finally to the start of production. In 1995, Bryan Singer and his creative partner, executive producer Tom DeSanto, had a meeting with Fox executives - on another project. DeSanto, a self-described X-Men fanatic, suggested that Singer instead take the helm of X-MEN. "I explained," recalls DeSanto, "that while Bryan wasn't the most obvious choice to direct a comic book film adaptation, there were cinematic elements and important social themes in X-Men I knew he would find challenging and appealing."
"At its heart," continues DeSanto, "X-Men is an allegory for prejudice. It's Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (Malcolm X (1992) and the next wave in human evolution: Xavier's dream of mutants and humans living together in peace versus Magneto's Darwinist view that mutants are superior and must survive by any means necessary."
As Singer considered the project, he and DeSanto began work on a new story that would capture the comics' characters and mythos. Singer, widely respected for "smaller" films like The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, and who was new to the X-Men universe, committed to the project after much research.
"I immersed myself in the history of the comic book series," says the director. "I read all the issues and character backgrounds I could find, and watched all 70 episodes of the animated series. My life became saturated in X-Men lore. Through it all, I kept looking for what leapt out at me emotionally and texturally. It all came down to the characters and their philosophies. What really excited me was that their special powers exist in our 'real' world. So I agreed to direct the film, determined to make the story as believable and real as possible."
Says executive producer Avi Arad, CEO of Marvel Studios: "Bryan knew X-MEN was a story worth telling, and was about more than cool costumes and visual effects. X-Men is a mirror of life, a reflection of how people treat each other based on preconceived fears, prejudices and discriminations. Bryan's personal philosophy was in sync with the philosophy of the comic book and its characters."
As Singer dug deeper into X-Men mythology, he discovered the crux of the characters. "They are all reluctant superheroes," he says. "With each of their fantastic special powers comes a frailty, flaw or weakness. For example, Xavier is an incredibly powerful psychic but he's also 'crippled' in a wheelchair. Rogue, who has the extraordinary ability to absorb the powers of anyone she touches, faces a life devoid of intimacy; she can never hold hands with her boyfriend, never make love, and never hold a baby in her arms."
"Their reluctance makes them all the more human, adding depth to the characters, which in turn makes their adventure more relevant and exciting."
As Singer and the writers continued to finesse the screenplay, Ralph Winter came on board as a producer, joining Lauren Shuler Donner as X-MEN's producers. At the same time, the filmmakers began to face their greatest creative challenge: walking the tightrope between satisfying the die-hard fans (who weighed in daily on numerous Internet Websites and chat rooms), and exposing the next generation of fans to the X-Men.
It was a delicate balancing act. "Bryan put his heart and soul into this in terms of finding a way to tell a story that would satisfy the core audience," notes Winter. "However, since he didn't come from that core audience, he knows how to make X-MEN an engrossing picture for all audiences."
Singer relied heavily on the expertise of several self-professed X-Men fans-turned-production staffers, like Tom DeSanto and associate producer Kevin Feige. "I wanted to respect the X-Men history for the fans," says Singer, who says he relied heavily.
"I also insisted on creating a story that would be interesting, entertaining and provocative to all the new fans as well. I called it 'designing the evolution of the evolution.' That is, we set the story against the backdrop of the early days of the X-Men, when Logan and Rogue first come into the fold. This helped set up the exposition needed to introduce the characters to those who are unfamiliar with them. Then as the story unfolds, we delve further and further into elements that the die-hard fans have come to know and love about these characters."
Casting X-MEN proved to be another formidable challenge. The process began in the spring of 1999 and wasn't completed until late October 1999, when principal photography was already underway.
"There are so many great heroes and villains in the comics that one of the toughest parts of development was choosing the characters on which to focus," says Lauren Shuler Donner. "Once we figured that out, the task was to put a great ensemble cast together."
The first actor to sign on was former professional wrestler Tyler Mane, who plays the havoc-wreaking Sabretooth.
"The transition from professional wrestler to Hollywood actor is actually a pretty natural one," says Mane, who in reality stands a still-formidable 6'10" and weighs 275 pounds. "Wrestling is performed on the hardest stage in the world - the four-sided kind - where you can't hide anything. It's all out there for the world to see. As a wrestler, you create a character in the ring. It's a totally different persona, which translates easily into acting for the stage or screen."
For the role of Professor Charles Xavier, the filmmakers agree that Patrick Stewart was their first - and only - choice. Shuler Donner first mentioned the project to Stewart several years ago when he was filming Conspiracy Theory with her husband, producer-director Richard Donner.
"Just look at Patrick next to a picture of Xavier," says Singer. "There's an obvious similarity. Much more importantly, Patrick is an incredibly talented actor. His voice, presence, and ability to understand the material made him perfect for the role."
For Stewart, best known for his role as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Xavier is the latest in a long list of strong characters he's played over the years. "I'm just another authority figure," says Stewart, laughing. "Since I was a teenager, my career has been littered with kings, captains, emperors, party bosses, trade union leaders, presidents, generals; you name it, I've worn the uniform. Now, in X-MEN, I am a mutant leader. What's truly ironic is that I am the least authoritarian figure you're ever likely to meet."
Stewart was particularly pleased to have the chance to work opposite his old friend from his Royal Shakespeare Company days, Ian McKellen. "In all the years we spent together at the RSC, Ian and I worked together only on one production, and that was just a few days work. But we are of a similar age, our careers have grown together, we come from the same part of England and, in many respects we have similar backgrounds. Then, to find ourselves playing these two closely-linked characters in X-MEN was a total delight."
The feeling was mutual "What fun," enthuses McKellen. "Two actors of the same generation, tempering our respective English accents to battle each other in this fantasy world."
McKellen also was pleased to reunite with Bryan Singer, with whom he had worked on Apt Pupil. "I am a great fan of Bryan's," says McKellen, "and we are good friends. He has wonderful taste, and a clear vision of the material."
McKellen appreciated Singer's depiction of the intolerant society in which the X-Men live. The actor also has his own take on this aspect of the X-Men mythos. "I'm interested in this mutant world because, in a way, I feel like I'm a 'mutant'. Being a gay man, I often am thought to be too dangerous, unusual and abnormal to be allowed into society as a whole, judging by the laws that prevail in my country and indeed throughout the world. And it's not just gay people who can identify with these characters, but other minorities, as well."
"I was also attracted to the film because it is a rattling good adventure story, complete with the sort of moral dilemmas that Shakespeare plays with in his characters. I don't think it too far-fetched to say X-MEN owes a lot to the Bard in terms of its epic quality, imagination and serious intent."
James Marsden, an avid film lover, relished the opportunity to work with two of his acting idols, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. "Growing up in Oklahoma, I used to watch them at the movies - and there I was on X-MEN working with them," Marsden shares. "It was a real treat and a great learning experience."
With McKellen and Stewart on board, the filmmakers turned their attentions to filling the other key rules. Over the summer months of 1999, Marsden, Famke Janssen, Academy Award winner Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park, Bruce Davison, and recent Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award® winner,Halle Berry, signed on.
"I think we were able to put together such a wonderful cast because of Bryan," says Shuler Donner. "He sent the message out to actors that his vision was more reality - and dramatically-based, which, in turn demonstrated that this was not going to be a typical comic book adaptation."
Indeed, Singer's take on the themes and characters was a particularly strong draw for Halle Berry. "I really appreciated X-MEN's ideas about acceptance and tolerance," she explains.
"Storm is the only black character in the movie, and I was pleased that she possesses such wonderful strength and soul. She is the earth mother and conscience of the team. I felt really positive about Storm and loved the idea that many people will see her as a powerful yet sensitive role model. Of course, I also had fun with the character - and kicked a little butt."
Famke Janssen agrees. "I really don't see X-MEN as a comic book movie, even though it is," she comments. "Because it's called X-MEN, people will perceive it as being of that genre. But Bryan Singer's approach makes it much more than that, and I think the film will appeal to a wide audience."
As this stellar ensemble began preparing for a late September start, the filmmakers faced a small crisis. Dougray Scott, who originally was cast as Wolverine, was scheduled to finish work on Mission Impossible 2 (2000) by late October, and then join the X-MEN production in Toronto in November. However, when Mission's wrap was delayed, it became clear that Scott would be unable to take on the role.
The filmmakers moved quickly to re-cast the part. When they found their Wolverine, the actor's name had cinephiles in the U.S. asking the same question: Who is Hugh Jackman? But audiences in Australia and London already knew the answer; for several years, Jackman has been a rising star on the stages of London and Australia and the film and television screens "down under."
For Jackman, who like some of his colleagues was as yet unfamiliar with the comic book series, the auditioning process alone was an eye-opening entry to the X-MEN universe.
"When I arrived in Toronto for my final audition," he recalls, "I told the airport Customs and Immigration officer that I was there to have a meeting for the X-MEN movie. His eyes just lit up and he asked me which character I was playing, and I said, 'Wolverine.' He screamed, 'Wolverine!!!', and wanted me to sign an autograph - even when I explained that I was just auditioning for the part. That moment, I realized how much Wolverine means to the fans."
Wolverine's relationship with the teen-aged Rogue is central to the film. They're both looking for something critical. For Wolverine, it is clues to his past, of which he has almost no memory; for Rogue, it's something even more daunting: living a "normal" teenage life. "Rogue is having the ultimate bad teenage experience," notes Anna Paquin. "The problems faced by a typical teen are magnified a hundred times for Rogue because she's a mutant who can never touch another person for fear of harming them."
Principal photography began at one of Toronto's most popular film locations, the thirteen-acre Gooderham & Worts Distillery complex. Amidst the collection of 19th century industrial buildings and red bricked-paved streets, the cast, crew and over 350 extras slogged through ten inches of mud for two days, effectively creating the chilling concentration camp scene that opens the film.
The camp, replete with thousands of feet of barbed wire, German-language signs and gun-toting Nazi soldiers, was the first of almost 80 different sets or locations created by production designer John Myhre and his staff and crew of 200. Myhre jumped at the chance to do X-MEN after being Oscar-nominated last year for his work on Elizabeth.
"That's what I love about my job," says Myhre. "One day I'm creating an Indian village, the next day I'm in an Elizabethan castle, then I'm building an ultra-modern, secret underground laboratory for the world's most powerful telepath."
Among his favourite X-MEN designs are Xavier's underground lab, Magneto's Lair, and Cerebro, the global mutant-monitoring system housed beneath the Professor's Westchester, New York mansion.
"I liked these three sets because they provided the opportunity to show a little history between Xavier and Magneto," explains Myhre. "They once were colleagues and even friends, and we used that bit of history to connect their respective habitats. Cerebro was designed by both men, so in that set you'll see details that link their two opposing philosophies."
The X-Men's above-ground world is Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, which was designed as a beautiful, classic mansion, where mutant children could learn to find their places in a society that had shunned them.
The exteriors of Xavier's mansion were shot at the Parkwood Estate in nearby Oshawa, Ontario, while the Toronto landmark and tourist attraction Casa Loma was home for the interiors.
The X-Men's secret world, which Myhre calls "rabbit warrens of underground passageways," lies underneath the mansion. Unlike the two Toronto homes used for the exteriors, Myhre and his team had to design and build the laboratory from scratch.
"We wanted the underground space to be clean, sophisticated and elegant, reflecting Xavier's personality," says Myhre. "We used blue tiled walls, floors and ceilings to create a multi-purpose space that could be used as a research library, medical operating room, or even a meeting space."
By touching any of the blue panels that rested on the walls, floor or ceiling, the X-Men would have equipment and furniture available to them for any number of projects. It is a very utilitarian space, connected by hallways and sliding "X" doors. In addition, the laboratory set was suspended from the ceiling, which opened up some creative lighting opportunities for director of photography Newton Newton Thomas Sigel.
Cerebro also is located underneath the mansion. Myhre, using the same blue tiles and panels seen in Xavier's underground laboratory, constructed the three-story circular set on a sound stage at the headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC).
Myhre also created an entire subterranean world for Magneto's Lair. "Magneto lives on and inside a very rugged, Spartan-like island," he says. "He has used his powers of magnetism to hollow out caverns and tunnels, which is why we employed a circular motif of metallic ore and water inside and outside the Lair. His magnetic powers also explain why we made all of his furniture is metallic."
The Lair's exterior included a huge steel monolith extending ten stories above ground - and fifty-two stories through the center of the Earth. The set was a combination of miniatures, digital paintings and a three-story section of monolith built by Myhre's team.
The monolith, X-MEN's most expensive set, was built in the Greenwood Conservation area, located outside Toronto. "Our biggest challenge was creating the water surrounding Magneto's Lair," says Myhre. "First, we laid down asphalt, much like a parking lot would be constructed. Then we built an asphalt lip all the way around the perimeter, and flooded the space with about ten inches of water. This gave the impression that the entire set, including the monolith, was sitting in the middle of a deep, deserted body of water."
The production spent about one-half of their 90-day shooting schedule on Toronto area sound stages, including Showline Harbourside Studios. The facility's three stages were needed to accommodate the enormous sets, including a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
The filmmakers decided early in pre-production that the film's climactic sequence, set at the famed landmark, could not be filmed in New York due to prohibitive costs, complex physical logistics and the restrictive conditions of working at a national monument.
Instead, the production constructed the Statue's torch, and interior and exteriors of the head and crown on the Showline stages. The Statue's torch, head and crown were built about 50 percent larger than scale in order to accommodate the intense action involving several actors and stunts. Showline's Stage 14 also was home to the largest blue screen background ever used for a movie, built especially for this sequence.
Another notable Gotham attraction also figures prominently in X-MEN. For a key scene set at Ellis Island, the production used Toronto's Central Commerce Collegiate school, whose architecture is similar to that of the historic locale.
While X-MEN comics have been top sellers for decades, only today's cutting-edge special effects could bring them to cinematic life. Overseeing the technical wizardry were Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Michael Fink and creature effects/special makeup effects designer Gordon Smith. Stunt coordinator Gary Jensen (River Wild, The (1994), Usual Suspects, The (1995)), second unit director (fight sequences) Corey Yuen (Romeo Must Die (2000), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)), and special effects coordinator Colin Chilvers (Academy Award winner for Superman) also made key contributions.
Fink relied heavily on computer animatics, a series of animated shots used as reference for a final product. For example, an explosive action sequence set at a train station was created as an animatic, stored on a laptop computer and readily accessible on set as a reference.
Fink's biggest challenges were designing the computer generated effects for the characters' unique powers, including: adamantium claws, optic blasts, ten-foot tongues, the Blackbird jet, shape-shifting, and a character meltdown (literally). "We don't save our big effects for the third act," says Fink, who supervised the work of no less than six top effects houses to realize the X-MEN CG wizardry.
Working closely with Fink was special creature effects makeup supervisor Gordon Smith. Smith and his team from FX Smith, Inc. were responsible primarily for the design and execution of Wolverine's claws, Toad's elastic tongue and the special prosthetic makeup applications for Mystique, Sabretooth and Toad.
Smith knew that fans would be looking closely at one of their favorite X-MEN trademarks: Wolverine's claws. They'll no doubt be pleased that Smith designed and created fifteen different sets for actor Hugh Jackman. Some were plastic or metal, others were flexible, or chopped off for scenes of Wolverine punching through walls. Other models were mechanical or created through computer generated images.
Another critical X-MEN component is Toad's tongue, which can stretch from six feet to fifteen feet long. Smith designed it as a dental plate that actor Ray Park bit to keep his mouth open, as Toad's elongated lingua (courtesy of Michael Fink's effects magic) wreaked havoc on the X-Men.
According to Smith, designing these special devices and, especially, the character makeup, provided new opportunities. "I had to jump into a new area of technology to achieve what was needed," Smith explains. "Although I have been working with prosthetic technology for the last seven years, X-MEN required the newer field of silicone technology that had never been tried before on film."
The Toad and Sabretooth makeup applications were relatively straightforward, because only the visible parts of their bodies - faces, heads and hands - had to be applied. However transforming Rebecca Romijn-Stamos into Mystique was a whole different ball of wax - or in this case, silicone.
"It was a very elaborate process," Smith explains. "From head to toe, she was wearing close to 70 self-sticking silicone prosthetics, and her entire body is painted blue, including ears, nose, soles of her feet, and just about any other place you could imagine. That's all topped off with a vibrant red wig and yellow contact lenses. The first time we did the application it took ten hours. By the end, we got it down to between six and eight hours."
Romijn-Stamos, not surprisingly, had mixed feelings about her makeup routine, which she calls a cross between "the coolest thing she's ever seen" and "the most obscene, excruciating and humbling experience" of her life. "The most difficult part was the amount of time," she states, "during which I was poked, prodded and painted in places I never expected." The extensive makeup process, time working on the set, and the two hours it took to remove the prosthetics and the body paint, sometimes had Romijn-Stamos toiling 22-24 hour days. This made it logistically impossible for her to work two days in a row.
After five months of shooting and several months of post-production, X-MEN was ready for release. Thirty-eight years after its comic book debut, film audiences will experience what the fans, the filmmakers, the cast and the crew of over 400 artists, craftsman and technicians have known for quite some time: The X-Men will never die; they just keep evolving.