Fox's 'X2' marks spot as presummer starts May 2

Fox's 'X2' marks spot as presummer starts May 2

Martin A. Grove
Writer words: Writers may complain a lot about projects being written in development hell by studio committees and then rewritten in production by directors, but it's not always that way.

A case in point is "X2: X-Men United," 20th Century Fox and Marvel Enterprises' "X-Men" sequel, which will mark the spot at 3,000-plus theaters as the presummer season gets underway May 2. Directed by Bryan Singer and produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter, its screenplay is by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris and David Hayter (who wrote the screenplay for the original "X-Men"). Its executive producers are Avi Arad and Stan Lee and Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer. The sequel reunites Singer, Shuler Donner and Winter with a long list of stars from the original "X-Men," including Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, James Marsden, Bruce Davison and Anna Paquin.

When the first "X-Men" opened the weekend of July 14-16, 2000 it topped the chart with $54.5 million, averaging $18,007 per theater at 3,025 playdates. It went on to gross $157.3 million domestically and $137 million internationally. Its worldwide cume of $294 million-plus catapulted it to franchise status at Fox.

"The way the development process worked was very, very informal," Dougherty told me when we spoke Wednesday about the writing of the sequel. "We turned in hundreds of drafts just to Bryan. He's so involved in the story and the development of the screenplay that we were giving him a new script (with) a couple of drafts every week."

"Working with Bryan is a collaboration that takes place all day long every day," Harris said. "Every time a new scene is put together it's shown to him and every time a new idea is (thought of it's) presented to him. We talk about everything and everything is developed before it gets officially released in a draft. This wasn't any type of normal writing situation where we would turn in a draft to the studio and then get notes back. It was just pure collaboration with everybody."

"We sat in an office at Fox every day working on it," Dougherty explained. "Bryan would come in, meet with us for a couple hours, go over scenes. Then we'd take his notes and work on it again. He'd come back. Sometimes he would sit there with us for 12 hours reading the script line by line."

"It really harkens back to the old studio system of writers that work at the studio and are always available for collaboration and there's no such thing as 'the draft,'" Harris added. "Draft-wise, in total, we did about 26 drafts for the studio and about 150 individually just (for) our team."

"Bryan explained to us that it's kind of the more romantic way that Hollywood used to be where writers and directors were partners," Dougherty said. "They were always available to each other and they were the closest collaborators, whereas now there's this kind of strange animosity or separation between writers and directors. Writers come in, they do two drafts and walk away. And that's only fostered by the fact that writers are hired and fired every minute."

Clearly, the relationship Dougherty and Harris had with Singer was true collaboration. "We took a totally different approach to this," Harris said. "What that meant was by the time production rolled around, Mike and I were on the set next to (Singer) every single day for every scene of the movie."

"We worked from February to April (of 2002) in Los Angeles, working on the script every day at Fox," Dougherty noted. "In April they shipped us up to Vancouver for pre-production. So from April to June we continued writing various production drafts as the film was being put together, as sets were being built. We went on the location scouts and if we got to a location and Bryan said we should change the scene to fit the location, then we went back and did that."

"We sat in on every kind of meeting," Harris pointed out, "from visual effects to the budget to all that because everything affects the script. There was no time to come back at people with notes for drafts. We really felt integral to the production team of the movie."

What really makes this all the more impressive is the fact that "X2" is Dougherty and Harris' first produced feature as screenwriters. Moreover, Dougherty is only 28 and Harris is even younger at 23. While they're clearly off to a sensational start, it wasn't very long ago that they were struggling to get a foot in the Hollywood door. Dougherty, whose background is in animation, had made some short films that were shown on MTV and the Sci Fi Channel. His horror genre screenplay "Trick or Treat" is going to be produced and directed by Stan Winston for New Regency. With Harris, he also co-wrote the horror sequel "Urban Legends 3,' which they sold as a pitch to Phoenix Pictures. Harris, who already has financing in place to make his feature directing debut with a coming of age film called "Imaginary Heroes," directed the short film "The Killing of Candice Klein," which won acclaim when it was shown at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Both writers have New York roots. Harris was graduated from Columbia University and Dougherty is an NYU Film School graduate.

"We had previously met in New York through some mutual friends just once," Dougherty recalled. "I moved to L.A. and then a few months (later) Dan moved to L.A. Coincidentally, he moved in literally around the corner from me. We ended up hanging out and decided at some point, 'Why don't we start working together.' We were both short film makers and writers on our own and had done our own spec scripts and whatnot. Phoenix Pictures called me and asked if I'd be interested in writing a horror film and I said, 'Dan, why don't you come pitch this with me?' So we pitched it. They bought it. The funny thing about that was that the guy who wrote the first one is someone I went to college with and then the guy who directed the second one is John Ottman, the editor and the composer of 'X2.' It is a small world coincidence."

Just as they were finishing writing their project for Phoenix, Dougherty continued, "Bryan Singer called. He had read our material. He had read one of Dan's spec scripts, which is an independent film he's getting together with Sigourney Weaver attached called 'Imaginary Heroes.' And then he read a spec horror script I wrote called 'Trick or Treat,' which is being produced by Stan Winston. After he read that, he asked us if we'd be interested in coming on board 'X-Men 2' because they were in need of new writers and possibly trying out a draft."

Were they familiar with the "X-Men" source material? "We were big fans of 'X-Men,'" Harris pointed out. "Mike grew up with the comic books and is a great lover of 'X-Men' and I kind of lived with the cartoons and the video games. I actually adored the first movie and would do anything to work on (the sequel)."

Singer's approach to the writers came in late January 2002. "We came in and we did a draft and started working with Bryan and basically things just stuck and we kept doing more and more work," Harris said. "Because we're all so used to working along on our own stuff, when we work together as a team we both love the idea of actually sitting and typing. There are (writing partners) where one person types and one person talks, but we both love the actual act of writing. So we have dueling laptops."

"What we basically do is sit in a room and discuss the story and discuss the structure and how things are going to work in an abstract way," Dougherty said. "And then we separate and we each individually write our favorite kind of scenes in the structure. Then we switch the scenes and rewrite each other and then switch them again and rewrite each other again. By the end, you've kept the things you've loved and you've gotten inspiration from the other person's material and it's turned into a really nice amalgam. We're constantly polishing each other."

Do they use a screenwriting computer program? "Final Draft," they both replied instantly.

"We're taking advantage of every new piece of technology," Dougherty explained, "because we're always e-mailing the scripts back and forth to each other."

"Final Draft, the newest version, has great features," Harris added, "where they let us see the revisions that the other person has done."

"We don't have stock invested in Final Draft or anything," Dougherty said. "We just love the software."

When I told them that after they read this at Final Draft they'll probably send them the latest version of the program free, Dougherty laughed, "I hope so. It's expensive."

"Fox made us pay for the first one," Harris recalled with a chuckle.

Clearly, Dougherty and Harris got their money's worth out of Final Draft and must have given the computer program a good workout during their weeks of intense writing while on the set every day during production. "If there was a scene going on," Dougherty said, "and the joke's not working, they'd stop and point to us and say, 'Twenty minutes. Come back.'"

"It was kind of like being a fireman," Harris observed, "where you were on call to put out fires that were happening on set, let's say, (with) scenes that needed to work immediately. And then we were also working in Bryan's trailer rewriting scenes that were to be shot, say, tomorrow or a week down the road. A lot of times we'd be sitting in a trailer working on those scenes and a PA would knock on the door and say, 'They need you on set now.'"

"It's funny because working with that level of talent -- the actors are such an amazing ensemble -- they'd stop the scene and they'd say, 'Okay, we need a new line right here.' Ian McKellen would just start laughing and look at us like, 'Ha, ha, ha. You've got to come up with something for me to say,'" Dougherty said. "We were constantly on our toes. There was no time where you could relax and say, 'Oh, they won't need me for the next few hours. They won't need me today.' We were there from call to wrap for every day of shooting. It was (a real pressure cooker). But we learned so much from the process."

Having writers on the set is, unfortunately, not routine these days. "People assume that if the writer is present on set doing revisions, it's because there are problems. In Bryan's mind, it's not that there are problems -- and we learned this, as well -- it's because a scene can always be better," Dougherty told me. "You need the writer there (because) if you change one thing, it'll have a ripple effect and change 20 other things in the script. So it's always best to have the writer there to (deal with that). Who else knows the script better but the writer and can say, 'Well, you can't change this because then you lose this. You're going to affect these other five scenes.'"

When the writer isn't on the set, is it the director who would come up with such changes? "I think so," Harris said. "There's a little power struggle going on in most situations between the writers and the director. It didn't happen with us because we were around and available and there was no ego about anything. We were there to help and that's it. But it's funny. Bryan comes up with a lot of ideas on the spot, but he'll change things or request a different tone or different dialogue for a scene."

"But, at the same time," Dougherty added, "if we had ideas on how to make the scene better, he would say, 'Great.' We'd be watching a scene and he would let us whisper in his ear and say, 'Can we change this line to this or that?' And he would say, 'Yes, sure. Do it.'"

Why did Singer have such confidence in two young writers who despite their talent hadn't really been around the track at this point? "Bryan's a great arbiter of taste as a director and certain things that we had turned in early kind of started to prove us as the material was working really well," Harris replied. "And there's also a sense that we have so much passion about the film that this is our baby and we would never do anything to jeopardize the level of sophistication that it has to be at. We see that and we fully understand it. I think it's just a matter of everybody trusting everybody else and that we're out for the best interest of the movie."

"The whole film, itself, was really a boot camp (for Dougherty and Harris), but from February to April he really tested our limits," Dougherty said. "He was very hard on us and very disciplined and firm. I think he viewed that as, 'Okay, let's see if these guys can handle the pressure.' And then when he saw that we got through that okay, it was, 'Okay, they can survive and I think we'll do alright.' So we earned his confidence."

"We also earned the confidence from our acceptance by the studio," Harris said. "We turned in a draft that was very well received and then another one and they just kept us on."

"And the producers all supported us," Dougherty said.

"Everybody supported us," Harris added. "Originally, they were like, 'Oh, well these two kids are coming on. We'll see what they can do. We'll give them a draft. And that should be enough.' But it just kept working and everybody was recognizing that. So that made us feel really good them."

Did they feel any pressure from the fact that "X2" is the sequel to a blockbuster? "In one sense there's a relief because the movie is a sequel and certain things that are difficult in these kind of films -- i.e., setting up the world and the boundaries of our characters and their powers and other things -- were taken care of in the first movie. So from a practical screenwriting point of view, a lot of these things are making our job easier. But the stress of having to perform with this movie and set a high bar, I kind of feel like it's a myth of film that it's got to be better than the last one. Well, everybody's setting out to make a great movie. We're not setting out to make any kind of mediocre film. And just because the last one was great, is always in the back of our minds, but we're always striving to make an incredible film."

"We were huge fans of the first film," Dougherty noted. "We also understood that they had a lot of limitations. They didn't have the biggest budget. They didn't have the most flexible schedule. And they were really trying to prove themselves. So subconsciously, I think, were aware of all the things that we wanted to do. Of course, in the back of your mind it's like, 'Let's make this as big as possible and make it better.' But as Dan said, you knew where you were coming from and I think we had a sense that we wanted to take it to that next level."

"Plus, as 'X-Men' fans, you know what is going to disappoint the fans," Harris said. "If you're a fan, yourself, it's an easier way to tell what's working and what's not and what's going to be (good)."

Asked where they go from here, Dougherty told me, "We're definitely working on another project together, but we're also dabbling with our own personal projects. I came from the world of animation before all this and Dan was doing live action shorts. We're both kind of keeping our fingers in a lot of different pies. I'm still out there trying to do the horror film like I said (earlier in our conversation) and Dan's going to be directing his independent feature. But at the same time, we're still working on projects together."

Martin Grove is seen Mondays at 9 a.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., PT on CNNfn's "The Biz" and is heard weekdays at 1:55 p.m. on KNX 1070 AM in Los Angeles.