Michael Dougherty Talks Writing X2: X-Men United

Martin Grove at The Hollywood Reporter has posted a great interview with X2: X-Men United co-writer Michael Dougherty. It's worth a read for every X-Men fan.
Fox's 'X2' marks spot as presummer starts May 2

Apr. 11, 2003

By 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."

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The Hollywood Reporter