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London Comic Con -- X-Men: First Class panel


X-Men: First Class screenwriters school fans and aspiring writers alike in a truly first class panel...

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

One of the most interesting parts of the MCM Expo last weekend was the X-Men: First Class panel with two of the screenwriters, Zack Stentz & Ashley Miller (Thor, Fringe, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), where they answered questions from the audience, taking in a wide variety of topics surrounding the movie, X-Men, and the writing process, among other things.

And who better to talk about an X-Men movie than real-life superheroes? Well, screenwriters are superheroes as far as I’m concerned. How else do you explain Joss Whedon’s extraordinary storytelling abilities, unless the Alliance or the Rossum Corporation messed with his brain?

First off, we were treated to a new trailer, which was quite impressive. X-Men: First Class looks like it could be something special (as both of our reviewers have affirmed, here and here).

Then the writers began a long and fascinating discussion of the movie, their approach to writing it, the impact of the rise of the internet, writing in general, the X-Men cinematic and comic book universes, and more.

There was so much fascinating information that it was difficult to keep up, but I scribbled notes down as fast as I possibly could. Which wasn’t very fast, since I’m not…whichever mutant has the superpower of writing really fast. (Probably a really boring one.) But I think I got most of it.

They described X-Men: First Class as a return to form, and a return to the emotional storytelling of X-Men 2, though it stands on its own.

On the process of writing it, they said that producer and X-Men and X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer had come up with the story, and then he approached them to write the script. It took them about 12-13 months from beginning to end of their work on it, and due to the short timescale, at the start they did 20 hour days each for 10 days, effectively cramming 3 months’ work into 10 days!

Having worked on the acclaimed, fan favourite TV sci-fi shows Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe, they said that the most significant thing they’d learned from working in TV was simply: Write. Just write, because there’s no time to do anything else.

Ashley Miller mentioned the importance of having signposts for scripts, in terms of what happens with the overall story at various points in the script. “Writing is just about making decisions, and if you can make decisions, then that’s good.” He went on to say, “If you make mistakes, that’s okay”, because then your writing partner can fix it! And in any case, you’re still making progress, which is the important thing.

Zack Stentz commented that even under intensive time pressure, like they were at the beginning, you should still build in time to fix mistakes.

They talked about working in an established world, and Ashley Miller said, “You start making decisions in the context of the universe you have to work with.”

When writing each scene, they asked themselves: ‘What’s our point of view on Charles and Erik?’

They wrote “almost every conceivable combination of X-Men and the Hellfire Club fighting each other” over several drafts.

Both writers are huge fans of the X-Men comic universe and the X-Men film universe. They see the two as separate, but the comics can inform the films.

Asked which of the X-Men the most enjoyed writing, Ashley Miller replied that Emma Frost was the most fun to write, as she has a dry sense of irony, citing the scene in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men comic book run where the other characters are fighting and she puts them in a room with giant teddy bears.

Zack Stentz’ favourite to write was Hank McCoy (Beast), because of his intellect. This led on to a discussion of the relationship between Hank and Raven (Mystique) in X-Men: First Class. Ashley Miller said that the two have a sweet relationship where they understand each other, and Zack Stentz elaborated that Hank and Raven parallel Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (Magneto) in this movie, in that they draw closer together and then drift further apart.

Someone asked, “What is the hardest part of writing”?

Ashley Miller replied, “The first paragraph.” Similarly, Zack Stentz said it was the blank page, because you’re faced with an infinite number of decisions. However, “Once you have a plan, the rest is just commas.”

They addressed the nature of writing a prequel, with Ashley Miller explaining that he saw himself as writing Erik, not Magneto. A prequel gives you the chance to tell an origin story—which is a story in its own right. You don’t just write a younger version of the character, you write a different version: “You have to tell a story about how they move from one place to another.”

Zack Stentz finds it silly how prequels are sometimes dismissed wholesale: “Some people say, ‘Why watch a prequel? You already know how it’s going to end…’”, a criticism he dealt with simply by pointing out, “You know how most movies are gonna end.” The hero will probably defeat the villain, there’ll basically be a happy ending—but it’s about the journey.

Ashley Miller said that, “There are things about First Class that sync with X1 and X2”, but not as much with X3, and less with Wolverine. “We wrote for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and we love The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. You love T1 and T2; you love T3…well, no, you don’t.”

They said that there was a mandate from both above and within to make this one a film that tells its own story within the X-Men universe.

Zack Stentz said they took the approach of paying respect to continuity, but not being a slave to it. By analogy, he explained that they’re both big James Bond fans, and a question that could come up is: How does Judi Dench not recognise that Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig look different? Obviously you can’t try and make everything like this fit strictly into continuity, so to a certain extent you have to just go with it.

Someone asked the two of them, “How did you get into writing?”

For Ashley Miller, it was the “love of telling stories”. Zack Stentz said that he was “not good at anything else”. He wanted to do something creative, and this was the only creative thing he was good at.

They were asked about their thoughts on the complex writing credit dispute on X-Men: First Class.

Ashley Miller explained the process of arbitration briefly, for those who didn’t know. Basically, three professional screenwriters sit down and look at various different sources, such as various drafts of the screenplay, original source material, and so on, in order to determine how much impact each writer had on the finished film. There were something like 41 [if I remember correctly] different sources in this case.

It’s a difficult process. He’s sat on various arbitration panels before, and no writer is ever satisfied by anything but a “written by” credit in front of their name. Seven writers contributed to X-Men: First Class, and all of them made some impact; you can see each of their imprints in various elements of the film. When Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz worked on this film, they sat down with director Matthew Vaughan and writer Jane Goldman; it was a collaborative process.

Zack Stentz quoted Bismarck saying that you don’t want to know how sausages are made. Similarly, you don’t want to know how summer blockbusters are made. He cited the famous examples of Tootsie and Casablanca, where there was serious dispute over writing credit, but at the end of the day, as an audience member it doesn’t matter, because they’re great films; that’s what you remember.

Ashley Miller made it clear that they have nothing but professional respect for Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman, and that they’re very proud of the movie.

Someone asked about how the rise of the internet has had an impact in changing the nature of writing.

They replied, “Massively.”

Zack Stentz said that the internet is a double-edged sword: people know too much about the process, but it also shows people that these movies don’t write themselves.

Ashley Miller said that they got their first job, on Star Trek: Deep Space 9, from posting on the internet in its early days, and the showrunner noticed them and invited them to get involved.

Zack Stentz said: “Not that we’re in any way comparing ourselves with him, but Joss Whedon is treated as a rock star because of the internet.”

Someone then asked who we can expect to see in future X-Men movies that we haven’t seen yet in the movies.

They don’t want to ruin it, but admitted that there is the potential for some familiar faces to show up in future movies.

As a final question, they were asked which were their favourite X-Men.

Ashley Miller said that he’d always been fascinated by Thunderbird: the first X-Man to die, and stay dead. Also, treating mutants as metaphor, Thunderbird is a native American. He then said that he wants to do a Cable/Deadpool crossover, finishing with “Cable is awesome.”

And so was the panel, and, reportedly, so is X-Men: First Class.

Shadowlocked should hopefully have more updates from the Con sometime next week, and our coverage can be found under this tag.

See also:

X-Men: First Class review

X-Men: First Class [2] Review

X-Men: First Class Clip: Here!

New X-Men trailer renews faith in upcoming prequel

London Comic Con MCM Expo May 2011 report


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#1 Cable/Deadpool Caleb Leland 2011-06-05 06:10
This would be a movie that would almost be too awesome to exist. Almost.
#2 Re: Cable/Deadpool Calvin Peat 2011-06-08 16:04
I seem to remember reading a comic where Cable and Deadpool crossed over briefly. It was awesome.

And with films as cool-sounding as Cowboys & Aliens, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, J.J. Abrams' Zanbato ("swashbuckling robots with swords"), Robopocalypse, and Dominion: Dinosaurs Vs Aliens in the works, to name but a few, then who knows, maybe we'll get a Cable/Deadpool movie someday.

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