'X-Men' success creates a comics convert

Variety first published this interview with producer Lauren Shuler Donner, and its subsequently out on Yahoo News. It's about the X-Men franchise and how she was converted to comics. Really interesting...
Lauren Shuler Donner got the comics bug unexpectedly.

Searching for new material in the late '90s to develop, the producer of "You've Got Mail" and "Any Given Sunday" was given a book of character descriptions from the long-running Marvel Comics series "X-Men" and was instantly taken by the tragic tale of Wolverine. "I was so astonished by the complexity of this character because he really is a tragic hero," she says of the claw-wielding mutant.

"X-Men" opened in the summer of 2000 and grossed $295 million worldwide. Its success built on the modest success of Marvel's "Blade" and paved the way for the company's characters to beat a path to the box office with "Spider-Man," "Hulk," "Daredevil" and "X2", as well as other comicbook movies from "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" to the upcoming "Hellboy."

And Shuler Donner's fascination with comics doesn't stop with "X-Men." The film's success led her down the comic-book and sci-fi path to her current production, Keanu Reeves (news) starrer "Constantine," based on the DC/Vertigo Comics series "Hellblazer," and the Michael Crichton (news) time-travel pic "Timeline." She's also developing a miniseries version of CrossGen Comics' samurai tale "The Path," with Chuck Russell (director of "The Scorpion King"), and definitely plans to be back for "X3."

"I'd like to do more DC comics. I'd like to do more Marvel comics," she says. "I now have great affection for it. It's the pulp fiction of its time, but more so."

Shuler Donner finds "X-Men" particularly attractive because its story of mutants in a world that hates and fears them is a universal metaphor for being an outsider that appeals to teenagers and adults. She also enjoys the strong female action characters that are especially present in the Marvel universe.

But turning comics into movies has always been a difficult task. "X-Men" comics have been around since 1963, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the characters at Marvel. The comic is famous for its convoluted storylines and crowded cast of eternally suffering characters.

"It's very hard to get it right when you have 40 years of complicated stories and dozens of characters to deal with," explains Shuler Donner, who developed several drafts of the script with director Bryan Singer (news).

Singer says Shuler Donner provided another voice and point of view on the material that proved invaluable. He credits her tenacity in convincing him to cast Hugh Jackman (news) as Wolverine after Dougray Scott (news) unexpectedly bowed out. "When I first saw the audition tape for Hugh Jackman, I wasn't particularly convinced. She had a strong opinion and sort of rode my ass, to put it in an elegant manner."

Shuler Donner says she realized early on that the key to making "X-Men" work as a movie was to be realistic and focus on the characters and story. She learned a lot from the scenes of Clark Kent growing up in 1978's "Superman: The Movie," directed by her husband, Richard Donner. "Comicbooks are another wonderful excuse to make an action movie. But I think what made 'X-Men' work was it was personal."

Both Singer and Shuler Donner had to research visual effects, neither having worked with them to the extent "X-Men" required. "It's so unbelievably costly, you have to know where you can cut down," she says. "Once you establish the effect, do you need to show it every time? Will a sound effect do just as well?"

They decided to limit effects as much as possible to the mutants' powers, which also helped define the characters.

At the time "X-Men" was released, though, Shuler Donner was less than sure what the reaction would be. Die-hard fans were concerned the film wouldn't measure up and wondered why the characters' colorful superhero costumes had been changed to black leather uniforms. On top of that, the film was completed on such a tight deadline there were no previews and many of the 500 effects shots were delivered at the last minute.

By the time "X2" came around, Shuler Donner was more confident about the pic's prospects and the franchise had won the support of hardcore comicbook fans, many of whom had been skeptical of the original. "There's a part of me that's so grateful that they allow us to do our version of it and accept us," she says.

Fans also have been vocal about "Constantine," whose comicbook premise of a chain-smoking, hard-drinking con artist and occultist with real magical knowledge is about as far removed from superheroes as you can get. Aficionados' foremost concern is the recasting of the comics' very English John Constantine as an American.

But Shuler Donner, who believes fans will be happy with Reeves, says the character's bad attitude and irreverence has survived intact. "It's extremely close in spirit. John Constantine is a really unique character because he walks the line between good and bad, between hell and heaven. He doesn't care if he's liked."

After "Constantine," Shuler Donner plans a short break from comics to do the drama "The Secret Life of Bees" and then is back for "X3." For the third installment, she wants to include a loquacious, blue-furred scientist called the Beast and a sequence in the "X-Men's" training center, the Danger Room.
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