Screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz talk X-Men: First Class

It’s a tragic bromance,” says Zack Stentz, one of the screenwriters of X-Men: First Class, bringing to light what he considers, “the dirty little secret of the movie.”

This is a film about self-image,” adds Zack’s fellow writing partner Ashley Miller. “How do you see yourself? Who are you? Who will you become?

The bromance and self-image relates to the two lead characters, Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy, and Erik Lehnsherr, played by Michael Fassbender. X-Men: First Class, takes place during the 1960s and shows how both Charles and Erik worked together, forming the first X-team, using their powers to prevent a global catastrophe, and the eventual rift that turned them against each other.

Ashley and Zack became writing partners after they both worked on the TV series Andromeda. They have since scripted episodes of the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, as well as the recent comic book movie Thor. They’re currently working on an adaptation of Dark Horse ComicsDamn Nation.

They took a little time out to answer questions relating to their work on X-Men: First Class during a roundtable interview; specifically about the choice of mutants for the film, dealing with the pressure of writing a comic book blockbuster, as well as how Dungeons & Dragons and the recent Star Trek film turned out to be an influence and helped them structure the story. Be advised that some of their responses do contain bad language.

The screenwriting duo actually share a screenplay credit on First Class with the director Matthew Vaughn, and his fellow writing partner Jane Goldman, both of whom adapted the comic book Kick-Ass for the big screen. Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer (who also produced the film) share a story credit. “It was collaborative,” says Zack. “The final script had earlier versions of the script, and even material from another project folded into it.”

When you’re creating a script for a film, there’s a continuum of work,” explains Ashley. “So you can find a footprint of one writer in different ways, to different degrees; from a single line of dialogue, to the structure of the scene.”

Ashley also revealed that they did take into consideration Sheldon Turner’s script on X-Men Origins: Magneto, and that some scenes from Turner’s script found their way into the new film. Originally intended to have been filmed before First Class, he doesn’t reveal which scenes exactly were transferred over. “There were certainly pieces,” says Ashley, “especially towards the beginning of the film, that really found their origins as scenes in [the Magneto] project. But the deeper you go into [our] film the more it diverges, and the more it doesn’t resemble that.” Ashley also adds that Turner’s script helped backup different pieces of Magneto‘s history. “It was legitimate to consider that material.”

When it came to choosing which mutants would appear in the film, Ashley explained that a lot goes into making those decisions. “You’ve got to think about what they’re going to do for you in terms of advancing the story. What do you find cool? What do you think you’re gonna have fun writing? There are some powers that are just not fun.”

Some are fun,” says Zack, “but don’t visually translate into the film medium.” He mentions that the inclusion of certain characters is not about popularity. Sometimes it’s about which ones will translate into a good fight on screen. “If you’re doing an X-Men movie, and you’ve got good mutants and bad mutants, they’re going to fight. What is going to be a good match up between them? A bizarre little secret is that Ash and I are two big Dungeons & Dragons players.” Ashley laughs after Zack brings this up. “You kinda pick your mutants, like you do at D&D,” says Zack. “You want the fighter who can go up, absorb damage and fight up close, you want someone who can fly, you want someone who can cast energy.”

Banshee earned his way into the movie and stayed in the movie,” says Ashley. “Because if you drop Banshee in the water, and you’re looking for a submarine, he can be a sonar. So guess what, Banshee stays in the movie.”

We were so proud,” adds Zack. “It’s like the dumbest power ever, we found a cool use for!

It’s come out in interviews that until fairly late in the game, Sunspot was going to be in the movie,” reveals Zack. “We had a whole conversation with Bryan Singer where he was saying, ‘I see Sebastian Shaw and he has Sunspot on one side and Emma Frost on the other, because I like the idea of fire and ice as his two assistants.’

If you’re starting with the Hellfire Club as your bad guys, and you’re dealing with Sebastian Shaw, you’ve got to deal with Emma Frost,” says Ashley. “We love Emma Frost, but she was there because Bryan loved the idea of Emma Frost, but mainly Bryan loved the idea of the Hellfire Club, which is a great idea.”

Even the decision of, ‘What do you call Charles and Erik?’ is a big decision,” notes Ashley. “Well I could say Xavier, I could say Magneto, I could say Lehnsherr. But ultimately we decided, we’re going to call them Charles and Erik, because that’s who they are now. They’re not Magneto yet. That’s their self-image.”

Then suddenly in the ad campaign it’s, ‘Before he was Professor X…’” says Zack.

He was this guy… with hair,” adds Ashley.

For Ashley, Erik looked to be the most interesting character to write when starting out. “He’s the most internal, and he’s the most dramatic. On paper, he’s got the biggest arc. It’s a tragic arc, and it’s very emotional. When you get into writing the script, Charles becomes very interesting,” he says, describing Charles as the protagonist. “It’s very much a movie about Charles Xavier. It’s certainly Erik’s movie as well but I think what McAvoy does is fascinating.”

Bryan has told us that his model for this was J.J. [Abrams’] Star Trek,” recalls Zack, describing Abrams’ film as more of a “happy romance,” while First Class goes in the opposite direction. This is why Zack labels the film as a bromance. “It’s two characters who meet and love each other, but are driven apart by a combination of circumstance, and the fact that Erik can never get over the trauma of what was inflicted on him when he was a child.”

As fans of the comic book franchise and Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, they admitted that the pressure was huge. “It was like, ‘HOLY S**T GUYS, WE GOTTA HAVE A MOVIE OUT IN A YEAR,’” recalls Ashley. “‘Please give us a script that we can shoot!’ So that was the pressure! I mean, nobody says, ‘You know what, write any old s**t movie!’”

We can do that,” jokes Zack.

We wanted to write a movie that was great but hopefully worked,” says Ashley. “There was pressure from all different directions and it was a very tight schedule to get it written and get it ready, and then from Matthew to get it prepped. I think the way that you get over that pressure is you remember that it’s a job, and you just let the characters do their thing. Once we understood who they were, and once we understood what the emotions of that were, we just let that carry the writing, and they got us through.

With director Matthew Vaughn already talking about the possibility of a sequel, Ashley and Zack were quizzed on what it might be about. “I think it’s Watergate,” answers Ashley, only he then turns to Zack, and says, “I don’t know, what do you think?

No, I think it’s Studio 54,” jokes Zack.

That sounds better,” smiles Ashley. “I love that!

I think there’s a place for Dazzler in this sequel,” laughs Zack.

Totally! Actually Dazzler was in one of the drafts of the script,” reveals Ashley. “There was kind of a cool bit where Banshee plus Dazzler equals laser beams… which is kind of awesome!

That was actually cool,” recalls Zack, “stacking their powers that way!

Exactly; very clever,” adds Ashley. “So Dazzler’s gonna be the star!

 

X-Men: First Class opens in the UK on June 1st, and in the US on June 3rd.

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