The process of making movies has a few things in common with the process of making comics. Both are trying to tell compelling stories in a visual medium, and both include a great deal of collaboration. However, there are no pen and pencils "artists" in films - not in live-action films, anyhow - but there are people on the crew who very directly influence the movie's "look." Aside from a film's cinematographer, the person who most influences this is the production designer. In the case of "X-Men: The Last Stand," this position is held by Ed Verreaux, whose credits include the recent remake of "Starsky and Hutch," as well as "Jurassic Park III" and "Contact."
While visiting the set of the latest "X-Men" film in Vancouver, Canada, CBR News (along with several other journalists) had the opportunity to meet Verreaux and chat about his part in the latest adventure for Marvel's merry mutants. The Fox Studio representative (our guide) began our visit by taking us to the X3 production office, located at Vancouver Film Studios, for this particular meeting. It was the last day of November 2005, and it was freezing outside; literally, it's about 30 F. As we entered the offices, all the production workers were bustling - it's like they're Santa's elves and have less than a month to get everything ready for the big day.
We were guided down a long hall where we met Verreaux. All along the walls were tons of production sketches, as well as a few photos of actual sets. "These are some of the current images from the movie. As things develop and change, things get taken down and new stuff gets put up," he explained.
Among these drawings is something X-Men fans have been dying to see in the films, although Fox has asked us not to disclose this item to our readers yet. Suffice it to say, fans will be extremely pleased with what this is and how it appears.
The X-Mansion and the X-Jet
Of the other pictures and drawings, Verreaux pointed out the X-Mansion. He informed us that Royal Roads, a nearby school, is once again being used for the X-Mansion exterior. As the X-Mansion has already been established in previous films, he said there wasn't excessive work to do here.
In addition to the main areas of the school, the X-Men will be going back to the halls under the mansion, which is referred to as the "blue corridors" by the crew. This is where the infirmary, Cerebro, and the X-Jet hangar are located. And although Verreaux said there wouldn't be a Cerebro scene in this movie, the X-Jet will definitely make an appearance.
"Just like Superman has his cape, the X-Men have to have the X-Jet," explained the designer.
Verreaux indicated that the X-Jet hasn't changed that much in this film. He said he made it look more like a real airplane on the inside, and upgraded all of the controls. While he would've liked to do some other modifications, the plane had already been established in other films, plus it wasn't in the budget. Therefore, most of the plane in this film comes from pre-existing pieces used in "X-Men 2."
"It's kind of like Batman and the Batmobile. It's gone through all these different iterations, and the most recent Batmobile [in 'Batman Begins'] is a total departure. So while it's always fun for a designer to say, 'Okay, this is what has been done, so what can I do to make it new and exciting and interesting?' This was something where, monetarily…those are decisions that had to be made [to not redo the X-Jet]."
Fans who are disappointed about not getting a fancier X-Jet, however, can console themselves with the fact that they are getting something they've wanted to see for a long time - a Danger Room sequence.
"They tried to do the Danger Room in the first two movies. In the first, they had a Danger Room design, which they didn't build at all. In the second, they had a Danger Room sequence designed and built part of the Danger Room, but decided they couldn't afford it. This time, the studio realized this is an X-Men thing, so they wanted it."
Verreaux said that when the crew pulled the old set out of storage, one of the doors had "Danger Room" on it in very small letters. He indicated that this had been kind of a joke with the guys on X2, because Bryan [Singer, the director of the first two "X-Men" films] wanted it, but they couldn't do it.
As plans had been made for the Danger Room previously, the question was asked if either of the previous designs were utilized. Verreaux responded, "I've changed it a little bit - I've simplified it somewhat. We don't see as much of the room as you would've seen in other films. When I was working with Bryan on the first one…you were actually in this space and you were really aware of it. And in this movie, you're more aware of what the room is projecting, and you begin to realize you are in this big multi-dimensional holographic media space."
From Alaska to Washington DC
Naturally, a majority of the film takes place away from the school in some new locations, as well as several familiar ones. One of the pictures on the wall shows the bar in Alaska where fans met Wolverine in the first "X-Men" movie. Verreaux told us that many of the same characters from that scene will be back, including the bartender. It's a small scene, and there's no fighting pit this time. He indicated Logan just has a discussion with the bartender.
Another familiar location is the Oval Office, last seen at the end of "X-Men 2." There is a Department of Mutant Affairs in the story, and the US president has a large presence overall in the film. Hank McCoy (Beast, played by Kelsey Grammer) is the Secretary of Mutant Affairs, so he has meetings with the president in the Oval Office as well as the White House "situation room." Verreaux also informed us that while the Oval Office was in the last movie, its set had been rented out several times in the past two years and several of its pieces were missing. Therefore, he and his team had to rebuild the office mostly from scratch.
A Mutant Prison Convoy
Another sequence with several sketches on the wall appeared to be a prison convoy, as well as an image of Juggernaut in restraints. Verreaux confirmed, "We have a mutant prison convoy where some of the Brotherhood have been captured. We have a whole convoy sequence where it gets overtaken by Magneto and some of the Brotherhood, and he breaks out several people, among which is Juggernaut."
The Brotherhood he refers to is based on the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants from the comic book series. "The Brotherhood will be going around blowing up clinics, and causing panic and terrorism in the world."
As for Juggernaut, he's a powerful force in the film. The designer said his description (in the movie) reads: "Cain Marko/prisoner must be restrained completely because once he starts moving, he can't be stopped."
Verreaux said part of the design question that he had to answer with regards to this sequence was, "What's going to look cool to contain this guy? Not just leg braces and straps - there needs to be more."
The resulting design in the sketches does indeed look "cool" and effective. Juggernaut's restraints "…are made out of the same stuff that held Han Solo at the end of Star Wars II," he quipped.
The design crew also built an underground hideout for Magneto. Verreaux said they tried to do it as if it was all made out of metal. In terms of designing a space for a character, that's the one he felt he got to do the most work on. They didn't want the hideout to be gigantic like the first one, but they wanted it to be "…a cool supervillain-type of place."
Magneto's lair was also the source of some consternation for the designer, too. For those who haven't been following the film's development, Bryan Singer started out as the film's initial director, but then left to direct this summer's "Superman Returns." Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake") then signed on and continued development, but left the project as the shooting date drew near. Finally, Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour," "Red Dragon") jumped on with six weeks left before shooting began. This led to last-minute adjustments to the script, as well as other production elements.
As for how all this affected Verreaux and the design of Magneto's hideout, he explained, "This is where the script really drove us crazy because we had this script, and we were going around trying to find locations [for Magneto's lair] to fit the description in the script. And every time I'd show Brett, he'd go 'No, this isn't really right.'
"And so finally I said, 'Well I'm going to have to do something because this shoots in three weeks. I'm just going to make something up right now.' So I did a design, built a little model, took it down to the set, showed him, and said, 'Do you like this?' He said 'Yeah.' And I said, 'Good. Then this is what we're going to build.'
"And then, later on, we have a whole sequence where we're outside. The Brotherhood have all gathered and they have this big forest encampment, and Magneto is up on this knoll giving them a big speech. And Brett said, 'Behind him, I have to have a trap door leading into his secret hideout.' (Verreaux shrugged his shoulders and laughed good-naturedly.)
"So some of [dealing with the time crunch] was retrofitting stuff as ideas came up. I think that's the one thing where it would've really been nice to have had a lot of this stuff in advance - so instead of reacting, we could've been a lot more proactive. But that's just not the way this movie turned out."
Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge
Two other locations that had a lot of sketches on the wall are both native to San Francisco - Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. In the film, the designer revealed that "Worthington Industries [owned by the father of the mutant Angel] has bought Alcatraz Island, and they have a genetics laboratory there. A young character in the movie [named Leech] is being kept in Worthington labs because of his powers, which become sort of the crux of the movie."
Verreaux and his crew rebuilt part of Alcatraz Island at the film's Boundary and Kent location in Vancouver, and added that the rest will be created with CG (computer-generation). "Unfortunately, because of the building schedule and all that, we really weren't able to have it ready for summer, which is when we should have had it ready - which is when we should have been shooting it - so we're shooting it now in the rain and the snow and the fog and all that stuff."
He also admitted that Alcatraz ended up being their biggest challenge, "…because it's huge. And the concept we came up with quite quickly. I built [a little model of Alcatraz] on a Saturday based on talking with Brett on a Thursday. This whole concept had changed, because this entire sequence was actually going to take place in Washington D.C. and it was really problematic. And so he came up with this idea, 'No. Let's do this sequence at Alcatraz instead because we're going to see it later on.'
"So - very, very quickly - we built it in Maya [a software program], and found a location for it. It was, like, getting it done in eleven weeks - getting it ready to shoot and all that - so it was a very short, short timeframe and we had to make a lot of quick decisions. Things like picking the colors of the siding that's ordered and comes from Calgary. It's like, 'Is this color going to work? Because I'm not going to see it until it's up.'
"It's those kinds of things where lots of times you can work stuff out (if it's initially not right). If you don't quite like it you can change it. In this case, there was no changing. You really had to make the right decisions the first time."
Regarding the sketches of the Golden Gate Bridge on the wall, several images showed parts of the bridge destroyed. Someone among us asked if this was Magneto's handiwork. Verreaux replied with a smile that that Magneto may have something to do with that.
The designer explained that all the work surrounding the creation of the bridge was very tricky. In addition to building a section that was functional, he and his team also had to create a crashed section that had to act like a stage where people could run, jump, and fight on it. It's not just a "background piece," Verreaux said. They had to work very close with the stunt coordinator, 2nd Unit coordinator, Ratner, and others to make sure it was all functional. "That's the scary part of it. It's so big and so expensive, that it's really difficult to change once you get going in a direction - it's really hard to turn the ship."
Speaking of the metaphorical "ship," Verreaux also spoke briefly about the film's captain, Brett Ratner. "Brett wants to put his own stamp on [the movie]. As far as aspects that he'll put his stamp on, expect the acting and editing to be more stylized, as opposed to the look. The look can't be changed too much because it has already been established."
Verreaux added, "We've tried to pull back a little bit and tried to make things a little bit more realistic and let fantastic things happen in a real world, as opposed to pushing the world and making the world much more comic book-like."
Tight Schedules and Wacky Weather
As of the date of this interview, he said, "We are over 70% done with principle photography, but then there's a huge amount of post to be done, although that's ongoing at this point and has been for awhile."
"We have three units working. We have a first unit and a second unit. The second unit is doing a lot of the big action and the big broad stuff. The first unit is doing all the character stuff with all of the actors. The third unit is going around picking up little close-up shots of hands picking up coffee cups and stuff like that."
On top of the tight schedule, the film crew has also had to deal with erratic Vancouver weather. As for how it's affected Verreaux's team, he explained, "It hasn't changed the design plan, but it's been difficult for the shooting crews. They've had rain and snow to deal with. They've had a lot of fog. They've had a couple of weeks where they showed up to a location, started shooting for a couple of hours, but then had to stop because they couldn't see anything due to the fog. It's cold - not 'East Coast-cold' - but cold enough to snow, which is tough on the actors.
"We had a sequence where Storm is fighting a bunch of these guys and she causes a big tidal wave…Whoosh! So the special effects guys had a bunch of really huge dump tanks set up - this is second-unit - so all these stunt guys are running toward these things and, literally, this giant wave, like, ten-feet tall, comes blasting out and knocks these guys back.
"Well, they had to rent a bunch of hot tubs or showers for that night so that these guys could get warm, because, of course, the water in the dump tank isn't warm. It's as cold as the water in the tap. So, now you're out, it's almost freezing, and you're totally soaked. You can't just go have a cup of coffee. You'll have hypothermia. So you just have to think about all this stuff and prepare."
With regards to this "wacky weather," people with a knowledge of filmmaking might also be curious about how they maintain visual continuity (e.g. if they're shooting a long outdoor scene over two days, but it snows on one of those days, you can't edit the scenes together). Verreaux replied, "It's night, which helps. Smoke effects and fog effects help also. Storm lays down a lot of fog in certain sequences, too. The trouble is when it's the beginning of a sequence and it's not supposed to be foggy yet."
Verreaux then led us from the production offices to one of the several nearby soundstages where they had been filming. Our first stop was my favorite interior from both of the previous films - the X-Mansion.
Welcome to Xavier's School for the Gifted
We walked down one of the school's hallways. There weren't any ceilings to the set, and lighting rigs hung overhead. Verreaux said he pulled back on the set dressing for this location, because he and Brett wanted to make the mansion look more like an old English school.
Several rooms were in various stages of preparation as we continued down the hall. He pointed out a classroom where Beast will be teaching, as well as Rogue's room (this is actually Kitty's room, too - they just change the set dressing depending on who they are shooting).
We got a glimpse of Iceman's room as well. It contained lots of "ice" items in its decor, including pictures of glaciers and snow-capped mountains. Naturally, they used very "cool" colors throughout the room.
Our walk-through of this set concluded with a visit to Wolverine's room. It was fairly plain and bare. Verreaux summarized the look succinctly: "Simple, austere. Logan doesn't go for interior decorating."
Part of the X-Jet Set
We moved to the next soundstage, and we're outside again…sort of. While we were still indoors, the set itself was a forest location. Evergreen trees were all around, and in the center of the set - the X-Jet. Well, the back end of the X-Jet, at the very least. A stair ramp lead into its body from underneath. The rest of plane will be added digitally, according to Verreaux.
He explained that this set is being used for part of a scene where the X-Men land in a forest. They get out of the jet and it's very foggy. Storm will appear and "clear" the fog. Once the fog is cleared, the rest of the scene will be shot on an actual location - Alouette Lake - which is an hour east of the soundstage.
We were allowed to walk into the X-Jet, and could see where students would be strapped into seats along the jet's walls. It was almost like the inside of a plane where soldiers are getting ready to parachute, except the only door is the one in the floor.
Verreaux described the section of the jet we saw by saying, "If you had a lot of X-Men, this is where they'd all be sitting."
A journalist asked in response, "If you had a lot of X-Men…?"
The designer merely smiled, and added that this plane prop is the same as the one used in X2. An interesting note is that the plane's stair ramp is actually longer than the opening in the plane that it drops out of, because the production didn't want the stair ramp to be too steep. So when watching X2, you'll never see the ramp go up into the ship or drop out of it. If you do, that's visual effects doing it digitally. Same with the steps on the ramp flipping up and down - it's a digital effect.
When asked why the X-Men have come to the forest, Verreaux would only say "…they are looking for something."
The Blue Corridors
Following this, we were led to the "blue corridor" set, which is supposed to exist under the X-Mansion. Down this hallway, we saw the X-Men's infirmary, a hallway which lead to Cerebro, and the elevator which leads to the school above.
I even had the opportunity to take a ride on the elevator - well, that may not be wholly accurate. I got to stand inside the elevator as Verreaux manually pulled the door shut (I hummed the muzak version of "Girl from Ipanema" for ambience).
We were also shown a door which led to the X-Hangar (where the X-Jet resides). When the door opens, you can see the beginning of the hangar's floor, but nothing after that. Verreaux explained that scenes shot in front of this opening use a green-screen in the background. Then the plane and the rest of the hangar are drawn in digitally. Since the digital team already has most of the X-Jet digital files from the last film, he indicated they are able to save time on this task.
Continuing down the adjacent hallway, we walked right up to the Cerebro door (the metal one with the large "X" on it in the previous films). Verreaux said that while Fox can't store all the set pieces from the earlier movies, many of the regularly-used pieces are saved. And from the details surrounding the Cerebro door that he shared, this was definitely a piece worth preserving. The door was all hand-built; there is wood underneath but it's all hand-cut metal - fabricated and applied - on top. "The Cerebro door cost $200,000 to make, so they definitely weren't getting rid of that," the designer added.
As we finished our walk down the corridors, he added that it's fun to speculate how comic characters actually built their houses and hideouts in their respective comic books, because most of the time, they couldn't really work from a practical point of view.
Mutant Prison Trucks
For our last stop, we were shown the inside of one of the prison trucks which was located on yet another soundstage. This is part of a prison truck sequence. Inside the prison trucks are containment cells that hold Juggernaut, Multiple Man, and other mutants, according to Verreaux.
With regards to the Juggernaut character (played by Vinnie Jones), he said, "Spectral Motion built this incredibly believable prosthetic suit for him, so he's this gigantic muscle man. And it really looks absolutely realistic. He's got this big helmet on, and they built this prosthetic for his face. And he just looks really imposing - he's huge."
The designer then showed us some of the containment cell doors up close. While they looked like hefty metal doors, upon touching them, we discovered they were very light. He said they were built out of meddite and foam-core so special effects could do a "Magneto effect" and have the doors rigged up to rip off the cells. He also explained the truck was rigged to a gimble that "shook and kicked up."
The production bought three tractors and two trailers that they "dressed out" as the prison vehicles for exteriors. They also used one of the trailer's interiors because the whole back to the truck needed to open up for a scene. Stunts occur around these trucks and cars flip over. Verreaux said, "Magneto really goes wild in this sequence. It's pretty cool."
In closing out our tour with Verreaux, he said the experience of "X-Men 3" has been a lot of fun for him. As someone who is Los Angeles-based (his family is down there as well), he said that he expected these months in Vancouver to actually be a lot harder; however, he said the entire production has been "really great" and looks forward to the film's release.
CBR's coverage of the "X-Men: The Last Stand" set visit is co-produced with help from our friends at Comics2Film.com.