On Friday afternoon, February 12, 2016, just before the Amazing Arizona Comic Con kicked-off for the Valentine’s Day weekend, Nerdvana was honored to sit down with one of the convention’s biggest guests and an honest to goodness living legend, Chris Claremont.
In a no holds barred conversation, the author, whose expansive career includes making the Uncanny X-Men into some of the most popular characters in all of pop culture, talked about the X-Movies, Superman v Batman, and Deadpool. And somehow the discussion kept coming back around to the John Carter film as well (he’s not a fan.)
You can check out Part I of our interview here: Chris Claremont Interview (Part I): Serial storytelling, Steampunk and the Superstitions – and we begin Part II with Mr. Claremont reflecting on his involvement in the X-Men cinematic universe:
NERDVANA – How much have you been involved with the X-movies? Have you been a consultant on the films?
CHRIS CLAREMONT – I wrote the source material, that was it. I mean, I’ve had cameos, but the problem is for me and John [Byrne] and Terry [Austin] to do Days of Future Past was three month’s work and thirty-eight pages of material; and maybe, counting Glynis [Wein] and Tom [Orzechowski], $20,000 in fees. Versus Bryan Singer’s year and a half’s work, probably more with pre-production and such, and at least a dozen top, award-winning actors, you know between Hugh [Jackman] and Ellen [Page] and Jennifer [Lawrence] – I’m throwing names out like I know them – the list of Oscar winners and BAFTA winners is ridiculous; plus more technology, in terms of special effects, than you can shake a stick at. So our $20k investment versus Fox’s $100 (pfffft) million dollar investment is, you know, hard to balance.
Of all the movies they’ve done, do you have a favorite? Or is there a character that you feel they’ve really nailed?
Well, the cheap answer is probably the most accurate answer…Hugh. I mean, if there’s anyone who certainly encapsulates Logan, it’s Hugh Jackman. My standard convention joke is that if you look at Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry the size relationship is totally accurate. The only difference is in the comics she’s the one that’s 6-foot-4 and he’s the one who is 5-foot-nothing, and in reality he’s 6-foot-4 and she’s 5-foot-and-change, but on the other hand it’s Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry – so who cares?
How did you feel about Hugh Jackman when he was first cast?
He was the afterthought. Originally it was, oh, what’s his name…? The villain in Taken 3 but also the villain in Mission Impossible II, Dougray Scott! What happened was Cruise called him back for re-shoots for the final confrontation scenes on Mission Impossible II and he broke his ankle in a motorcycle crash. He asked Fox if they’d hold production until he got better and they said, ‘no.’
So Lauren Shuler Donner, the producer, went to her list and called Hugh in for an audition. He had just been nominated for a best actor Olivier, theatre award, for playing Curly in Oklahoma. So here’s this 6-foot-4 song and dance star of the London stage, he walks into New York does the screen test and 36-hours later he was on a flight to Calgary and twenty-minutes after that he was on the set.
I remember when word first came out that he was cast and people learned of his song and dance background, a lot of Wolverine fans were like, ‘Nooooo…’
If you look at that first movie, the casting was extraordinary. It was brilliant in retrospect, but it was even more brilliant at the time, because they didn’t have a [big] budget. Fox was figuring these films would be like Blade, not a ten-figure mega-film. X-Men was really the film that made everybody sit up and take notice. They figured they’d go to a $75-80 million dollar budget, hopefully make a profit, and that would be that – like Blade, or, God help us, The Punisher. The last thing they expected was a $98-million dollar opening weekend; I mean, Holy Sh!t! And that was in turn-of-the-century dollars which is serious money.
So what you end up with if you look at the cast in terms of popular awareness; the money-actor, literally, was Patrick Stewart, because of Picard. Anna Paquin had an Oscar, but it was a kiddie-Oscar for The Piano; everybody else was like, ‘oohh, Ian McKellen, well, he’s very good…on stage.’ Aside from that, it was mostly young actors and people you’ve hardly ever heard of – you know, the guy who played Sabretooth, Tyler Mane…who? [Grrrr…growls like Sabretooth] Halle Berry, yeah, she’s cute, she’s made a lot of films, but she wasn’t considered a money-star, she was just a looker. Famke Janssen…again they were all just working character actors, not considered mega-stars.
By the time the movie came out, Halle had a best actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball; Ian was tied in with Lord of the Rings, and we all know what that did; and Hugh Jackman was the hottest thing since sliced bread. And suddenly Fox had this huge engine, but also a hugely expensive engine, and I think they’ve had trouble dealing with it ever since.
The problem and the challenge from Fox’s point of view is that it’s very much of a team picture and very much an ensemble picture, which is a way of differentiating it from the Marvel films – where, yes, the Avengers is a team, but you can also do an Iron Man, you can do a Thor film and a Captain America film – and Civil War looks like is turning into the ultimate Avenger film – and it’s all good.
I think that was what Disney wanted to do with John Carter, but the most important thing you can do if you want to launch a franchise is you’ve got to make the audience care about your guy. With John Carter, firstly you need a John Carter that is so powerful to look at, in terms of how he presents himself on screen that…I mean, there’s a story they used to tell from back when I was kid-actor:
Opening night on Broadway for Camelot and they have this scene where Julie Andrews as Guinevere is prancing around on the forestage, singing up a storm while Richard Burton as Arthur comes in from backstage and – boom – every eye in the house just went to him and he hadn’t done a thing, but somehow you knew he was the guy. That’s what Carter needed to be. Somehow you know he’s the guy.
“It’s like the opening 5-minutes of X-Men with the fight in the bar; you know Hugh’s the guy.”
It’s like the opening 5-minutes of X-Men with the fight in the bar; you know Hugh’s the guy. And they nail it home with like a five word exchange, as he’s driving his truck and Rogue looks at his hands and asks, “Does it hurt?” And he just looks at her, “Every time.” Aside from the fact that it’s like, ‘Yesss!’ [Snaps fingers] Boom! Nailed it right there! Everything you need to know about that man is right there.
Forgive me that I can’t recall, but was that one of your lines?
I actually couldn’t remember back then so I said that if it wasn’t I sure as Hell wished it was. But, yes, it’s an exchange that instantly defines who he is and his relationship with everyone else and it makes you sit back and say, Holy Crap!
The challenge with the film is that all the damage that is done to him heals itself instantly, but you never see a consequence. Whereas in the comic, at least when I was writing it, we played around with that a little, especially Frank [Miller] and I on the [Wolverine] mini-series…that there is an impact of these constant wounds.
But you need to carry that over in the same sense when you are looking at [the film] John Carter. A stranger in a strange land – what does that mean? He’s a nineteenth-century man, he’s a warrior. Ok; how can you play with that? He’s just run into Tharks for crying out loud. You know the interesting question that occurred to me watching the film is, ‘How come he doesn’t think he’s insane?’ He accepts it as real right off the bat. He meets Dejah Thoris and she’s incredibly cool and they start playing back and forth.
I can see where it’s probably difficult to tell what he’s thinking. The story is written in first person, but it’s hard to capture those internal thoughts visually in a film when someone is by themselves.
Well, I think that’s the challenge between a film that works and a film that doesn’t. I mean Matt Damon is alone in The Martian, but you don’t lose interest in that film for a moment.
Yeah, but he had the option of recording his thoughts on a video diary.
The trick is, how do you come up with a way to get around that roadblock? Maybe he talks to Woola? I mean, you have a dog that’s faster than a speeding bullet, for crying out loud, and very cool.
They went out of their way to establish that he [John Carter] is damaged goods with the death of his family, and I actually thought that was brilliant. It told me they were trying to lay a foundation for who is in human terms and why the second chance was so important. Okay…do something with it.
The interesting thing is, in the book, John Carter and Bryan Cranston’s character [Powell] are partners and both survivors of the [Civil] war – if I recall one’s North and one’s South – and they are both looking for the gold mine, you know, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, when they get ambushed. Evolving that around the army it gives you a conflict right off the bat, where he gets punched a lot to teach him a lesson sort of thing, it’s not invalid, but that’s the director’s choice.
One of the things I’ve learned hanging around Hollywood production people is that the quality of the script is essential in that it gives you the tools you need to present the story. But when you are making the movie, the key decision, probably the ultimate key decision, is who you cast. Hugh Jackman, it turns out, was the right Wolverine. Matt Damon proved his chops in The Martian, because if he can’t hold that film for an hour, which is all on him while his crew is headed back to Earth interacting with one another, then you’ve got nothing.
What if Hugh Jackman had played John Carter? Do you think the film would have been better with an actor of that stature?
It’s not stature, it’s skill and charisma. It’ll be interesting to see Channing Tatum’s Gambit versus Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit. The same way that last night it was interesting seeing Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool versus Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
“It’s not stature, it’s skill and charisma. It’ll be interesting to see Channing Tatum’s Gambit versus Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit.”
So are you a fan of the Deadpool character?
No, he’s not my kind of guy; I guess I’m old school. I sat last night watching [the Deadpool film] and the audience loved it and I’m sitting there cringing. Absolutely the worst…Colossus…ever! The little punk chick was interesting [Negasonic Teenage Warhead.]
It’s an hour and a half and the first fifteen minutes are a huge, bombastic car chase, shoot ‘em out on a bridge in the middle of a city; an unnamed city, presumably in North America. Although there’s an American flag there somewhere in reality it’s Toronto or Montreal. But you’ve got five cars speeding down a road, you’ve got guys with machine guns, you’ve got gun-fire up, down and sideways, and there’s just one thing missing…cops!
It takes place in a vacuum. The final fight takes place on a helicarrier that’s being scrapped, presumably one of the helicarriers from Captain America: Winter Soldier. You’d think there would be cops. You’d think there would be some sort of official reaction. You’d think there would be extras in the background. But apparently this is a city where the mercenaries hang out in their own bar, I guess just down the road from The Expendables.
So, it was not quite to my tastes, only in the sense that…I’m real old school, so I come from the era when Stan [Lee] would intentionally find the one abandoned building in Manhattan, the one warehouse just about to be demolished, you know, if you’re going to have a superhero fight you don’t involve people who could actually suffer from it.
Speaking of civilian collateral damage, what are your thoughts on Man of Steel? A lot of people feel Superman was not being very superman-like when in the midst of the fighting and devastation he was too busy making kissy time with Lois Lane to save people dying?
Who was dying? Were there people in the buildings? I didn’t see any people in the buildings. Interestingly enough, in the Transformers Michael Bay goes out of his way to knock down buildings and show people falling and screaming.
“The problem is movies are very much like comics in that disaster is easy…consequences are hard.”
I actually think the devastation [in Man of Steel] becomes a key plot element of Batman v Superman, because, I believe, from the trailers, Bruce Wayne is in Metropolis that day and gets caught up in the chaos. I guess, presumably, time has passed since he went off to Italy with Catwoman [grins], though it may just be a slightly different reality since Michael Caine has turned into Jeremy Irons.
It’s movies, so I guess the concept is: more is more. Apparently this [new] movie has an equivalent battle in that Gotham gets hammered as well as Metropolis, and Wonder Woman comes in to save the day. Avengers had its own terrifyingly catastrophic and lasting disaster with the aliens attacking New York, and then Jane Foster slapping Loki over it, “I had friends in New York!” Wack!
The problem is movies are very much like comics in that disaster is easy…consequences are hard. How do you create a visual and structural story reality where devastation like that has impact on Clark…or on Bruce for that matter? How do they deal with it? Bruce’s response is, apparently, to become Batman again. But how does Clark feel about it? Does he resent the people he had to save, because he had to kill Zod to do it? Does he resent Zod for being such a butthead? You know, what’s his next step?
One of the many criticisms of the Man of Steel film is that Superman’s human persona, Clark Kent, is never well established as a character…
Which is weird because of all the time they spent trying to. With me it’s simple, Clark is Superman. He can’t go from the bridge that he and his mom are hiding under, like a hundred meters, to grab Jonathan? If nothing else, hold on to him! He could have, you know…there are so many ways to disrupt a tornado…
This is why I actually find Superman a much more interesting character than Batman. When I did the four part Elseworlds epic [NOTE: Claremont’s ‘Whom Gods Destroy ‘ story will be included in the upcoming Elseworlds: Superman Vol. 1 graphic novel], with Dusty Abell, the punch line of it was Superman arrives in 1939; Bruce Wayne starts his career as Batman, but there’s no point because Superman is around and they don’t need him. So he ends up becoming a two-term President of the United States and currently the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – so he’s had a happy life.
But the way this history evolves is that on December 7th Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, on December 8th Superman sinks the entire Japanese Navy, on December 9th Japan surrenders…they have no choice… ‘Do you really want to do this?’
So Germany never declares war, and the United States, because of conflicts within the United States, never enters the War in Europe. So Germany wins and it is only years later that Superman realizes the Holocaust occurred; and the Reich tells Washington to rein him in or it will be regrettable, and to emphasize the point they nuke Metropolis – which is why the story opens with Lois as a reporter for The New York Times.
So after Metropolis got nuked, Superman says, ‘screw you,’ and lives on the moon. He’ll help with the occasional natural disaster, but that’s it, he’s out of human affairs until the events of the story bring him back in.
The conflict in the graphic arc I was writing is Superman on one side and Wonder Woman and the Greek Gods on the other; and the Greek Gods are hooked up with the Nazis, which makes it a more equal playing field. The point from Superman’s perspective is that he is virtually limitless and the key with him is that the only limitations are the ones he imposes on himself. There’s just too much going on.
For dramatic purposes you can have a moment where Lois can say, ‘You go do what you need to do…they need you.’ Except that in reality he could have been out and back saving people a half-dozen times before she’s finished the sentence and she doesn’t even notice. It’s like, what’s that puff of breeze? Oh, that was just Superman moving faster than a speeding bullet.
But for me, as a writer, that would be fun to play with. I mean, how do you do that where he’s got to go out and rescue an ocean liner that for some absurd reason sailed out of New York in the middle of a hurricane and got stuck – which just happened – or I’ve got to save a cat up a tree! There are all these things to play with and that’s the stuff that I find cool to contemplate.
READ: Chris Claremont Interview (Part I): Serial storytelling, Steampunk and the Superstitions
READ: Chris Claremont Interview (Part III) – On Burroughs, Bigelow, Idris Elba, Iron Fist and Inhumans