Rookie writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris get their big break on Bryan Singer's "X-Men 2". They tell you how it came about.
There are lots of characters in "X-Men 2". Is it hard to ensure they all get enough screen time?
Michael Dougherty: They don't. They all get their moment. But, as with any ensemble film, you have to have your main characters. Others are supporting characters. Wolverine was always going to be the main character. It was difficult to ensure that all the supporting characters had something to do.
Dan Harris: It is a delicate juggling act. We joke that this is the Robert Altman of superhero films because we are dealing with an ensemble. There are 12 characters who have different stories that are sometimes the same as others and do intertwine. Hopefully, everyone gets their moment to shine.
MD: It's hard, though, because "X-Men" is different from other science fiction films, like Star Trek for example. No one is going to get upset if Sulu doesn't quite have as much to do as Spock or Kirk. But with "X-Men", if I don't get enough of my Cyclops or enough of my Storm, I would be upset. Each character has its own cult of fans.
DH: Each have their own storyline, their personality, and their own power. People latch on to that.
MD: We couldn't get caught up with playing favourites, though. I have my favourites but the story was the most important thing. So we couldn't do "Mystique Adventures".
This is your first produced movie. You're both quite young, so how did this come about?
DH: It was lucky and daunting. It is like winning the lottery. We are very spoilt. Look where we're sitting! [Plush London hotel The Dorchester.]
MD: Dan and I were both writers and filmmakers before this. We come from the world of short films. Dan did a lot of live-action shorts and I come from animation. At one point we both lived in LA and we moved in around the corner from one another, so became friends quite quickly. We both worked on a couple of spec scripts of our own which embodied what we were both good at. Dan's script is called "Imaginary Heroes", which was a family drama. Mine was a horror piece, so almost two sides of the same coin.
They had read my spec script and said, "Can you come in and pitch a horror film." I called up Dan and said, "Do you want to do this with me? It might be fun". So we went in and pitched it, and surprisingly they bought it. We wrote that over the course of eight weeks and just as we were finishing it, Bryan Singer - who had known us before and knew that we were young writers just finishing our first job - read our scripts and said he needed some help with "X-Men 2". Obviously, we said yes immediately.
DH: The thing with Bryan is that he has a history of working with young writers who are ready and willing to be collaborators in the very truest sense of the world. Writers who don't act like normal writers, who turn in a draft of the film and go on vacation and receive notes and they rewrite it once or twice. Bryan works with people who develop 24 hours a day. The idea of the draft goes out the window. We did 150 drafts with Bryan - it is a constantly involving creature. If we are around all the time, we are there to add ideas and always be around when something gets changed. It has been his history to work with young writers and he just thought: Here's two guys, let's just see what they are capable of. He knew we would be dedicated.
When did you get involved with the sequel?
DH: It was still in development. They had a release date, but studios now have a release date before a film is even announced. They had a date they had to hit, it was just a case of how they were going to get there and when they were going to start filming.
MD: There was this real anxiety. It was on our shoulders. There were already people designing storyboards and costumes, it was almost like all their jobs were based on our work. If it wasn't good enough, the movie was going to get shut down. There was too much money to waste. There was a lot of pressure.
What are the advantages of working on a sequel?
DH: It's wonderful because a very difficult thing about, in this case, an ensemble, character-based, science fiction, fantasy, comic book movie, is there's a lot to explain. The first movie did an incredible job of laying the foundation. A lot of the time they were just describing what X-Men is, who the people were and what their relationships are. And by the time that film had finished, they had a great story and everyone knows X-Men. Now we get to come in and say, "OK, what's our "X-Men" story now? We add a little intro to each character so we know who they are and what their powers are. We remind people, but beyond that, the first movie created the world and we get to tell the story within that world.
MD: Also we knew the actors who would be playing the roles, so you can picture their voice. It is a lot easier to write for someone if you know who is playing them already. Especially Ian McKellen, that was great. We love writing for him. Ian McKellen as Magneto is just so bitter and so perfect.
How did being X-Men fans help you?
MD: I think that that is one of the reasons that Bryan Singer brought us on board, because we are familiar with the universe and geeks without being too much so. In the comic book world, you have your hard-liners. They are the people who take things a little too seriously, and if you mess with their favourite character, you're in trouble. But, as fans, we were more open-minded. We were fans but not so geeky that we would get lost in terminology.
DH: Being a fan of the books and of the history means that your judgments about stories or scenes means that we can tell whether the fans will like it. If we are fans and we like it, then that sums it up for us.
MD: Bryan would say, "If we do this, is this going to be OK? Or are fans going to revolt?" For example, Deathstrike in the comic books is a Cyborg, but we had her as a mutant. Bryan said "Is it going to be OK if he is a mutant with healing powers." We said that was fine, no one was going to revolt, and no one has. If Bryan said "Can Nightcrawler be yellow?", we would have shouted, "No!"
You obviously liked working together. Are you planning to do it again?
MD: We like working together, but we also have our own projects.
DH: We both love science fiction. Mike is a big horror-based person and I am a drama-based person, so things come together. It is a matter for us finding the right projects that are balanced between the big ideas and the conceptual action. Those are the films that we love, like "Jaws" and "Close Encounters".
How did you find working with such a big budget?
DH: Not money for us but money for the movie, which is the right thing. It is great in this type of movie because this is the kind of film where we can write anything. In 99% of movies, they couldn't do things because CGI is so expensive. But when you are given more money, you can change a jet chase in the sky into a jet chase through tornadoes.
MD: That is a great example of when the budget came in handy, because it was just going to be a chase through the sky. Then we were like, "Hang on, we have a mutant who can control the weather, I think we should do something here." So it turned into this dog fight through the tornadoes. We had the support from the studio, so we just went ahead and did it. But at the same time we are not spoilt by it. Dan is getting ready to do a film which is $4 million - which I think is how much that tornado sequence cost! I am still a fan of low-budget horror films and I want to do one of those. It is not like we are only going to do $100 million-plus films from now on.
Will you be involved with "X-Men 3"?
MD: We'd like to be involved and it's looking good. We know that everyone is happy with what we did on this one, so fingers crossed.
Who are your favourite X-Men?
MD: Mystique - because there is a mystery to her and the power itself, that she can become anybody. You always get the impression that she is up to something. Even though she is Magneto's right-hand woman, you get the impression that she has her own agenda. That she would switch sides in a heartbeat and go over to Xavier's if she needed to.
DH: Magneto is my favourite. I love him because he has a history that is very deep and rich and is all about power, but above that I think revenge drives the world and Magneto drives the world. He is a very scary and complex person.
MD: "X-Men" gave new life to the comic book film genre, in a way. The studios are being very smart about how they proceed with the comic book films. "Spider-Man" is the prime example of putting very talented filmmakers in charge of that property. And making great films rather than just cranking them out. Yes, there is a movement to get these comic book movies off the ground. But it hasn't been overdone yet.
What did you think of "Daredevil"?
MD: For me it was a really good translation of the comic book. In the sense that it took a risk not doing what "Spider-Man" did in making it a bright, uplifting, pop-culture translation of the comic book. "Daredevil" has always been a very dark and brooding comic book, so I was happy that the writers and director chose to stick with that. They were willing to be dark, and I think that paid off. In Hollywood, people don't want to take that many risks and they are afraid of the word dark.
DH: They want everything to be edgy but not dark.
MD: But they go hand in hand. So it was good to see that they stuck to their guns.
So what is coming up next for both of you?
MD: We have our own personal projects. Dan is going to be directing the spec script that he wrote, "Imagining Heroes".
DH: That is a tiny movie that I will hopefully be directing in September.
MD: I have written a spec script, a horror film called "Trick or Treat", and Stan Winston [FX guru on "The Terminator" and "Aliens"] is producing that. He has been an idol of mine since I was 12, so that is an honour.