Bryan Singer Discusses Sentinels, Quicksilver, and Time Travel From the Set of ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’
Posted on Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 by Russ Fischer
Last August I went to Montreal to visit the set of X-Men: Days of Future Past. While in Canada I had the chance to speak to many of the film’s principals, including director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg. While much of what we saw on the visit has since been revealed to the public through the trailer and a plethora of images, Singer had a lot to say about the creation of the film that hasn’t ended up online yet.
Below you’ll find his comments on three key points: shooting the character Quicksilver, which was accomplished in part through the use of a high-speed camera; the creation and ideas behind the Sentinels; and the use of time travel as a plot device.
First, let’s look at Quicksilver. When asked about using 3D for the film, producer Lauren Shuler Donner highlighted Quicksilver as something that would be particularly eye-catching on screen. So we asked Singer about shooting the character.
With the phantom I can shoot over 3000 frames a second or something to that effect. So I’m doing like a variety of different things, high speed photography, slow speed photography, just a bunch of different technologies, motion controlled cameras. So sometimes we’ll be at our own speed, sometimes we’ll be at his. So we’re using that technology and it’s all 3D technology so we can shoot all of that native stereo, even at that speed. He’s not in the movie a lot, he’s just sort of in one section of it but there’s a fun sequence which will be fun to watch in 3D. Lots of stuff.
The much bigger aspect of the film, in a literal sense, and also with respect to fan expectations, is the appearance of the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots. They’ve been seen briefly in the series before, but this is the first time that Sentinels will really play a key role in an X-Men screen story. At this point we’d only seen images of the Sentinels of the ’70s and ’80s; the full reveal of the “future” Sentinel was yet to come. But Singer’s comments illuminate a few points regardless:
Well the Sentinels of the past… I have to say, there are movies like Transformers, and Iron Man, and Pacific Rim, that have already explored robots of all different sizes and shapes and scope and caliber. I knew that to make another “robot attacks people” movie is not [what we were after]. Yet they are an element in the picture. So they serve the story in an interesting way, and not necessarily in an obvious rock-em-sock-em battle robots at the end of the movie kind of way. Although, there is some of that now that I’m really thinking about it. Come to think of it, more than I probably realize. It’s just not that, particularly what you saw in that picture [an early image of Singer standing next to a prop Sentinel] is not the totality of it. That’s not exactly the whole of the technological threat.
We tried to make the ones from 1973, the Sentinels of the past, a little fun and stylish but also a little retro. The key is they’re not made of metal. That’s very important to our story because we’ve got a very powerful mutant [who can manipulate metal]. So that was a challenge, to make them look like they could be made of polymer or some other material, plastic or something, but still have them be formidable when flying around and all that.
I had very strong feelings about all of the designs about the characters and very specific about what I was looking for, and [Legacy Digital] came with different ideas, different head ideas, different body ideas [for the Sentinels]. Originally it had this round thing and then a big fan [in the chest]. I’m friends with Guillermo, so he let me watch Pacific Rim a while ago so, unfortunately I had to say “It’s too much like those robots. I need something cruder, more seventies.” So I had them put in the vent on the chest. I tell them bits and pieces of what I want, and the story behind the non-metal aspect of it and the internal aspect, then they bring stuff, different iterations. Eventually they come up with a great look.
One of the biggest points in Days of Future Past is time travel, as Wolverine is sent back from a future ravaged by Sentinels into a past where the robots are just coming into play. The idea, of course, is to effect events so that the dark future never comes to pass. That poses obvious problems in a story sense, and Singer talked about his time travel intentions and interest.
[There was the intent] to really play with time travel in a way. I know [some stories have] certain people in suspended animation, or take characters like Captain America and to bring them into the present, but this one actually delves into being a time travel movie. Once I took that on and figured out a methodology for it I embraced the fact that, like in The Time Machine, Back to the Future, Terminator, Looper, I’m now in that world or trench, but it’s a very fun opportunity to see “maybe this is a future.” When you see the X-Men in this future, it’s almost like you start off in sort of a dreary “maybe” future. It’s one you hope didn’t happen, maybe it won’t happen. So I went full out. That’s why its very dark and they’re all militant. I wanted to make sure they all looked like they’d been fighting a war for ten years.
Asked about using time travel to “correct” some continuity issues from previous films (such as the appearance of a different version of Peter Dinkalge’s Days of Future Past character Bolivar Trask), Singer demurred a bit, saying only,
There will be people who will freak out a little when you go back in time and start altering things. But what’s most interesting about this story is that, yes, it potentially alters things, but it also brings the characters closer to who they are destined to be. When I pitched X-Men: First Class it was always ‘how do I explain how Xavier and Magneto became friends?’ and then how they became frenemies. This film explains how they became Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.
As to the nuts and bolts approach to time travel, and the application of narrative rules to keep the characters and the events around them both moving and plausible, Singer explained:
I wanted it to make sense, and this is a rare film where past and future are co-existing, so I had to create a set of rules where that made sense to me. I created a very specific set of rules. When do things change? Who observes the change? Who has no memory of the change? Who has no memory of what was and who does, and how that works? I think I cracked it, I think I figured it out. When Matthew [Vaughn] left the picture and I took it on, that [set of rules] didn’t exist, there was a structure but there was no concept of time travel or how it works. So until I figured that out I had some misgivings about doing the movie. Once I figured that out I was very hooked, I felt like they had me cause I was like now I know how to do this and shoot this.
[When something happens to a character in the past, the future doesn't change], it’s not immediate. It’s the picture in Back to the Future. But it’s tough, like with Looper, you can make the excuses of multiverses and there’s a moment where they just don’t want to get into the time travel talk of it all. But I see Joseph Gordon-Levitt sitting across from Bruce Willis and my first thought is the first thing he is going to do is ‘Okay I’m going to get Rogaine, I’m not gonna be a jerk, and I’m not going to be involved with this woman, I’m not gonna do this, and not gonna do this’ and then suddenly foom! They’re not sitting there anymore, they’re sitting somewhere else. For that movie it was fine because it was people running around in the past and future so it was cool to see them affect each other in a certain way.
This is a story about a bad future, not a bad situation with an individual, but a bad future and how do you go back and change that. So it’s a very simple conceit. I pitched it to James Cameron when I was in New Zealand and he put it into physics terms. I wish I could articulate the physics of it, the experimental physics. It deals with the notion that objects and things evolve differently and behave differently when they’re observed and when they’re not observed. So I play with the principle of the travel, in this case it’s consciousness that moves into your younger self, and that traveler is the observer and the observer perceives one thing while the rest of the world perceives something else. In this case, Hugh is the observer.
To flesh out the background a bit, writer Simon Kinberg explained his big time travel references as well. He also had a little run-in with James Cameron about time travel, but not quite in the same way:
There is a relationship between the two periods [of this film] narratively. And then, just experientially, you’re not leaving the future to go to the past and never coming back the way you do in Back To The Future or the Terminator movies. This is a much more interconnected, interwoven [pair of] time frames. So I didn’t think about it as two discreet stories, because in writing it I was having to weave them together.
Back To The Future and the first two Terminator movies were the ones that I studied the most, they also just happen to be my favorite time travel movies. But the logic is so sound in those movies and in both cases those franchises are built around character. That’s the thing I really wanted to focus on, to use time travel to tell character stories as opposed to just do it for a science fiction purpose. I was looking at how the time travel in those films forces those characters to evolve, that the break in the space-time continuum is just an excuse for telling a character story. This franchise is obviously a very character driven franchise, so I didn’t want it to suddenly become this sort of plot driven, purely science fiction movie.
So the first Back To The Future and the first two Terminators were what I studied and studied. And actually I had this crazy experience, I don’t know if it was a month ago or a year ago, the last few months all blur together. I think it was two months ago, Fox Corporation, News Corp, did a corporate retreat in Laguna. I was on a panel speaking with James Cameron and I had a book, The Making Of Terminator 2, from a long time ago. It’s a 30-year-old book and brought it with me for Cameron to sign. I’d never met him before and I was in awe of him and I was, like, “will you please sign this, Terminator 2 is in the top five movies of all time for me’ and I said, “we’re doing Days Of Future Past and there are some people who think it influenced Terminator and now Terminator, at least for me, is influenced this movie…” He said, “Sure, I’ll sign it.” He just wrote in it, ‘Don’t fuck it up. Love, Jim.’ Pretty great.