Spies, Character, Action

Simon Kinberg might be the go-to scripter for tentpole actioners like X-Men: Days of Future Past, but the comic book hero scribe says every screenplay he writes—no matter how superhuman—is a character-driven story that’s deeply personal.

©2014 Marvel/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
May 23, 2014 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Simon Kinberg

If the audience isn’t going through an emotional journey during the action sequences, I don’t think they’re ever fully engaged with the film.

Strip away the heavy artillery, pyrotechnic eye candy, gifts of levitation, immortality, time travel, and invisibility, the capes, tights, cloaks, and daggers, and the films of Simon Kinberg are actually relationship dramas. The wildly successful 40-year old screenwriter is a maestro of the superhero and comic book sandbox these days, having penned Jumper, Sherlock Holmes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, the Star Wars Rebel TV series, and the three latest X-Men films, including this month’s Days of Future Past.

Though Kinberg knows his way equally well around capes and tights, deerstalker caps and X-Wing fighters, as a younger man, he hoped to pen the Great American Novel. However, early readers oft told the aspiring Hemingway that his prose read like movies. On his own hero’s journey, Kinberg enrolled in Columbia University’s film school where he quickly tapped out two screenplays, including Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which netted him a plum paycheck before he even turned his tassel at graduation. The film, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, grossed more than $475-million worldwide.

When Kinberg arrived in Hollywood, fresh diploma in tow, work awaited him already with heavy-hitters like Steven Spielberg, John Woo, and Jerry Bruckheimer. For Kinberg, though, a lifelong genre enthusiast, it’s not the fireballs and flights of fancy that connect his films so deeply with audiences and, quite often, critics too. It’s all about the characters, Kinberg says, maintaining that his screenplays—no matter how supernaturally kissed—are deeply personal to him. “I’m not sure they’d be any good if they weren’t deeply personal,” he says. “It’s just when I start to write a relationship drama, it becomes spies very fast.”

Growing up, your mother was an English teacher and your father was a film professor. You used to sit in on his classes at USC, didn’t you?

Yeah. I was 10, 11 years old at the time. What I learned from my father is that film is an art, that there are technicians who are part of making it, that it wasn’t some magical thing that just sort of sprung to life. We were also early adopters of the Betamax, and my father would have Beta movies that we would watch at home, classic movies. There was also this reverence and appreciation in my house for storytelling, whether it was literature or film, that writers are something precious and almost sacred, sometimes to an intimidating degree.

What films connected with you as a kid?

It’s sort of two-fold. Really, my early education through my father was classic American cinema—movies of the ‘40s, primarily, things like His Girl Friday. These are movies I loved as a kid, and I still do. They were very dialogue and character-driven comedies and dramas from classic American cinema. On the other hand, I was a kid growing up in the ‘80s, so I was also watching Star Wars and ET and The Terminator movies, a totally different kind of filmmaking. My childhood education in cinema kind of laid the template for what I try to do now as a screenwriter, which is combine the character-driven films of classic Hollywood with the big, popcorn genre movies that I’d watch 10 or 15 times in the theater as a kid.

You’ve stated that your films, most of which are big-budget genre efforts, are deeply personal. When many filmgoers think of “deeply personal” films, they’ve probably got Whit Stillman or Henry Jaglom in mind.

I feel like every film that I write is about something personal in my life. It’s just sort of exploded into an action or superhero movie. I don’t know how to write any other way. But at the core of it, these are very personal stories to me.

Give me an example.

Well, Mr. & Mrs. Smith came from my being in a relationship with someone and her telling me that I was someone who was better in conflict than in stability. I thought that was an interesting idea to explore in a movie. Because I’m not a pure dramatist, I guess you could say, that movie didn’t end up being Ordinary People or Kramer vs. Kramer. It ended up being two spies trying to kill each other and falling in love in the process. When I came onto Sherlock Holmes, the thing that really resonated with me wasn’t the case or the period or the action, it was the notion of having to say goodbye to a friend and let him move on with his life. It was the Sherlock-Watson relationship in that movie that really resonated for me. A movie about two male friends who have to part could easily become a Whit Stillman movie or a Woody Allen movie. Or, you know, a movie with one of the most iconic characters of all time.

What about the X-Men films? How are they personal for you?

Each of the X-Men movies that I’ve worked on has been an exploration of some personal issue, just broadened into these big, superhero sides and action sequences, and I’ve really tried to honor the things I loved most about the X-Men comics as a kid growing up—the complex characters and relationships, the great emotionality. The Last Stand to me is “How do you say goodbye to someone you’ve loved, but they aren’t the person you loved anymore?” First Class was really, for me, Erik’s story, a sad one—“Can you ever get over the wounds of your past?” For me, the answer was no, at least in that story. It is a tragic story about a guy who starts the film losing someone to violence and ends the film as someone who is committing acts of violence himself. Days of Future Past is almost an inverse, about someone who starts to lose hope when he loses the most important people in his life. By the end of the movie, though, he’s found a new community and his hope is restored. All of the ways I’ve described those movies, they could manifest as a Woody Allen movie or a more purely character-driven dramatic piece, but the second I start to think about a relationship movie, it becomes spies very fast.

You’ve said that director John Woo taught you that action sequences should work in a film like musical numbers, that they explode when a character’s emotions can no longer be expressed in words alone.

At one point, John was going to direct Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and he taught me that and it’s exactly what I try to do with my screenplays. A lot of action sequences in movies tend to be an interruption of character. There are talking scenes and then there are fighting scenes, and the movie just swings back and forth between the two. It’s fine, and audiences are sort of okay with it, but they’re not the most memorable action sequences, no matter how visually stunning they are. If the audience isn’t going through an emotional journey during the action sequences, I don’t think they’re ever fully engaged with the film. James Cameron is arguably the greatest action director of all time, and he’s an absolute master of the action sequence not as interruption, but as exploration of character.

For me, I approach action sequences by naming them in a character-centric way—for example, “This Is The Sequence Where They Discover The Truth About Each Other” or “This Is The Sequence Where He Realizes He’s Not As Strong As He Thought He Was.” That means more to me—and to audiences—than saying, “This Is The Scene Where the Bridge Blows Up.”

You’ve written some very memorable action sequences. What’s the key to penning scenes like this that will land well with audiences who have seen just about everything one can imagine, and does technology’s ability to realistically portray just about anything help or hinder your efforts as a screenwriter?

First and foremost, your character is the most unique thing about your script, so that character’s emotional beats are the advantage you have over every other story being told. From a visual standpoint, the technology is a mixed blessing. I mean, you’re right; we’ve seen almost everything we can see. New York’s been destroyed over 50 times in the movies just this year. But there’s also an opportunity in the technology that we didn’t have very many years ago so that anything we can imagine can be manifested. That’s a neat place. I imagine it’s what comic book writers used to feel. Not that it’s ever easy to put pen to paper, but it’s easier certainly to know that what you write can actually be brought to life.

With the X-Men films, you’re juggling a tremendous ensemble of characters. How do you service all of these characters from a craft standpoint?

The assumption for me going into writing an X-Men movie has to be that an audience doesn’t know these characters. Even many people who have seen an X-Men movie have probably seen 100 movies since the last one. I know there are core fans that are intimate with all of the details, but I always look at these movies as the first time an audience will meet these characters. The way I do that is to put them in a very relatable, specific, emotional situation. You start a movie: this is a guy who’s broken and lost and this is the guy who’s caretaking for him, and this is a woman who has lost a lot in the world as a freedom fighter. These are things you can describe in a relatively short phrase, and then you can deepen that throughout the story for your casual audience and your core fans alike.

I always figure that the audience has, at best, some vague sense that the guy in the wheelchair is a good guy and the guy in the helmet is bad. The other thing I do, which is critical, is choosing a protagonist. You can’t make a movie about 10 characters equally. You have to choose a protagonist. In First Class, it was very clearly Erik. In Days of Future Past, it’s Charles. Once you decide that, then you can architecturally layer in the other characters’ journeys to challenge and deepen your protagonist’s.

You’re very devoted to outlining when you write. Tell me about that.

I’ve never needed an outline as much as I did on Days of Future Past! I had so many stories to keep straight, and even character stories that spanned different generations of the same character. When I was structuring the script, I knew there would be a limited amount of gigantic set pieces because there was so much character to reveal. [Spoiler Alert!] So there were three set pieces—the prison break, the confrontation in Paris, and then the final confrontation in Washington D.C.—and each of them is really a character chapter. The first one is the reunion of young Charles and young Erik. That’s what that sequence is about, and it could just as well have been done without the action. The midpoint of the movie is the reunion of young Charles and young Erik with Raven, and again, the action is built around this major relationship stuff. The third act is Erik and Charles confronting each other with Raven between the two of them and the audience is unsure which way she’s going to fall. They’re very rich character sequences that play out with superpowers and massive explosions and all the things you expect from an action sequence.

What is the template or high watermark for the comic book film, in your opinion?

The best of these movies redefine tone. The ones that are the models or paragons are what Bryan Singer managed to do with the first X-Men movie, which was really dramatic and almost purely character-driven, and what Christopher Nolan did with the Batman movies, and what Jon Favreau did with the first Iron Man movie. The Marvel Studios tone was defined by what Jon and Robert Downey Jr. did in that film. Those franchises, to me, pushed the genre forward and took it places it hadn’t been before. For me, from a taste perspective, my two favorite superhero movies are both number-twos: X-Men 2 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. It’s because those two are the most emotional of all the superhero films, to me at least, and unabashedly so. Both of those movies made me cry when I saw them the first many times. No other superhero movies have done that for me.

A lot of your screenplays are about outsiders or misfits trying to find their way to some kind of belonging. What does that mean to you, personally?

I’d never really consciously thought of that before, though I am now that you’ve said it. You just saved me a lot of therapy!

You’re welcome.

Part of that is that writers in general are people who choose to be by themselves, climb into their minds, and live in imaginary worlds. There is something compelling for all writers about learning to belong in the real world. That’s certainly true for me. When I was a kid, I had very kind parents and a very loving family, but I pulled away a lot and lived in my mind, in my room, reading and writing and watching movies. There was always a sort of fantasy for me that I’d find some other world one day where I belonged or that I’d find some band of misfits like me who would embrace me somehow. A lot of the things I’ve worked on, just thinking about it right now, are not about misfits trying to join the mainstream, but finding other misfits they connect with, a family if you will. That’s true of Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Sherlock Holmes and certainly the X-Men films, and it’s true of Fantastic Four, which I’m working on right now.

You’ve also developed a reputation as a “closer”—the script doctor who comes in at the last-minute and gets the script ready to roll or ready to wrap and collects a nice bounty in the process. What does it take to do that job?

It’s a pretty big part of my life. Basically, I’m airdropped in, sometimes for weeks at a time, sometimes for months. Usually, it’s three to four weeks. Sometimes it’s a month before a movie starts shooting. Sometimes it’s in the middle of principal photography. Sometimes it’s even after they’ve wrapped and tested the film and realized they need some radical reshoots. Without naming any particular movies, I’ve written as much as 30 or 40 pages of reshoots on some films. For the general audience, they’ll never know that a quarter of the movie they’re watching was discovered after principal photography.

What’s your approach to playing doctor?

What it demands is a pretty particular set of skills. It is a more craft-oriented, mechanical way of writing. You have to have a real command of story structure and character structure to be able to identify the places in a story where that structure is falling apart. There is a sort of surgical aspect of it, where you’re diagnosing why the movie isn’t connecting with audiences or what is dysfunctional about the film. Because often the movie is about to start shooting or is maybe already shooting, you usually have a very limited amount of play. It’s not like when you’re starting from scratch and it’s anything you can imagine. There are usually standing sets, scenes they’ve already shot, maybe even the whole movie is already shot. You have to work within the parameters of what exists. The magic of this work is that you have to do all that mechanical stuff while still being inspired and creative and really love the movie.

If you don’t love the movie and if you’re not inspired and it’s just mechanical and it’s just gears shifting, you can actually do more harm to a movie because you take out, even accidentally, the soul of the film. In my experience, audiences go to movies to feel. When the movie starts to breakdown and it becomes too mechanical or organized, instead of organic, audiences detach from the film. Inversely, when the story isn’t totally functional, but the characters are doing honest, true things that audiences can really feel, they are often willing to forgive a certain amount of illogic or plot holes. A lot of the time what I’m doing is blooming out over-storytelling and trying to correct characters who are not behaving in consistent ways. It’s instinctive mostly and there’s a certain amount of mechanical stuff you learn, much of which I learned from Akiva Goldsman, who has been such an extraordinary teacher and friend to me.

Like many screenwriters today, including Mr. Goldsman, you’ve also moved into producing. Why is it important for writers to work that side of the fence too?

For every writer/producer, it might be a little bit different. Traditionally, Hollywood did not privilege screenwriters. They treated us like interchangeable and disposable parts of the moviemaking process. Producing allows a writer to take some ownership of their careers and to claim authorship over their movies, to be there from start to finish. The happy byproduct of this is that more people at the studios are understanding the value and power of the authorial voice and having that person around from beginning to end. That’s a very healthy thing for moviemaking.

The other thing that’s great for me is that I genuinely love working with writers. Unfortunately, I don’t write for TV, so I don’t have a writers’ room that I go to everyday and hang out and bounce around ideas with five or six other writers. The only time I meet writers as a writer in Hollywood is when I’m about to rewrite them or they’re about to rewrite me, which is not the best collaborative exchange. So as a producer, I get to work with other writers. That’s fun for me, and it’s a great opportunity to learn. The most I’ve learned about writing is not from how-to books or film school, it’s from other writers. That’s an education I want to continue through my whole career.

You’ve mentioned that discipline is critical for a writer. What are some other lessons you’ve learned through the years?

At the end of the day, I’m a screenwriter who works on Hollywood movies. That’s a committee process, by and large, certainly more so than the guy who writes and directs indie films. To survive and thrive in the studio process, you have to know what about your screenplay is sacred and what is up for grabs. The things that are sacred, you have to be willing to fight and die for them, and the things that are up for grabs, you have to be open to changing and improving. That balance eludes a lot of screenwriters. Sometimes they’re too inflexible and other times they don’t stand up strongly enough. That balance is a skill almost as important as being able to write well.

© 2014 Writers Guild of America West

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