“How much am I allowed to talk about?”
I'm seated in the foyer of the X-Mansion and we hear this question more than once throughout the day. They've clearly adapted the “Loose lips sink ships” mentality on this picture - there's even some tension about revealing too much about the film. Director Bryan Singer's mutant epic is setting up to be a significant chapter in the franchise, and he doesn't want any of the surprises ruined for the fans.
Featuring the casts of the original films and 2011's X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the most ambitious project in the franchise and the second-most expensive film that 20th Century Fox has ever assembled. The production set up shop at Mel's Studio just outside Montreal, where they're inhabiting several sound stages on the lot. We've arrived at the studio on a warm Monday morning, and to further add to the mystery of the film and its secrets, we're immediately greeted with a non-disclosure agreements.
Once inside the studio, we're shown around the sets for the film that are still standing, one of which is being called the “inner sanctum.” Hidden deep in the mountains of China, this sparkling cavern full of candles and mirrored pillars is the last refuge for the mutants of the future, and you even get a glimpse of it in the trailer for the film.
“It's built so high up there's no roads to it,” production designer John Myhre told us. “And it was inspired by some real Chinese temples that are on the side of cliffs. As somebody who builds things, I have no idea how they built them. We wanted it to be a very special place. There have been a lot of monasteries recently in movies. And I had heard years ago somebody going to a monastery in India that was carved out of a single stone. So I started doing research and there were truly monasteries, if you can imagine they would carve something like this out of one rock.”
This particular set clocks in at around 120 feet by 300 feet, and that's only a fraction of what its original designs called for – the rest will be added digitally in post-production. The uniqueness of the set comes not only in its visual aesthetic, but also how Singer uses its various mirrors and glass to convey the scenes. Two characters conversing can have both of their faces shown simultaneously, thanks to their reflections appearing on one of the nearby pillars. No post special effects needed.
Afterward, we're taken to a much larger stage that is inhabited by a wingless jet (a regular one, not the X-Jet, unfortunately) sitting atop a hydraulic rig. It's inside this jet that today's scenes are being shot with stars Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult. Hoult is 'flying' the jet, but when things get heated between Magneto and Charles in the rear, Magneto takes control using his powers and causes it to do a dive. This is where the hydraulic lift comes in.
Controlled by a device that to my untrained eyes look like a pair of rings, the operator slowly dips the plane so that its nose is pointing almost at a 45 degree angle. Inside, James McAvoy tumbles onto a nearby couch, glasses and papers fall from the tables they were resting on, but Michael Fassbender does not move thanks to a pair of clasps keeping him on the floor. As their argument reaches its peak, Fassbender's character realizes what he's done, and the plane levels out once again. The take ends and director Bryan Singer passionately asks the operators that they dip the plane as quickly as possible. On the next take, McAvoy tumbles hard enough to cause a visible wince from the people watching.
“I try to fall on the soft things,” McAvoy admitted later. “I think our third take, I cracked my knee quite badly. But that was just my own fault. The plane wasn’t even throwing me around. I just tripped over a camera. I’m going to be limping for a week….The first time they did it, they said, 'Do you want to rehearse?' I said, 'No, let’s just do it and see where it throws me.'”
It's appropriate that we arrived on the set when the scenes aboard the jet were being filmed as X-Men: Days of Future Past is a bit of a globe hopper. The film will have sequences set in Washington D.C., upstate New York within the X-Mansion, the streets of New York City, Paris, France, and a dystopian version of Moscow in the film's bleak future.
“When I opened up the pages of the script and it was talking about Moscow in the future partially destroyed, I kind of went, 'Wow, I've seen that in about three or four major movies in the past three years.' But we came up with an idea visually that is really interesting and a new take on it.”
Mhyre quickly added, “But I'm not allowed to talk about it.”
The one thing that Myhre will talk about are the Xs that he has carefully hidden around the various sets for the film, the most obvious of which is before us on the staircase in the X-Mansion foyer.
“I fought for this X in the staircase. That was something I refused to let go,” he admitted. ”There's Xs everywhere. It's funny, one of the producers said, 'Give me a list of all the Xs.' And I said 'I didn't make a list. It's just a fun thing to do.' There doesn't have to be an X on every single set, but on the first one we brought in a lot, but it's also interesting how many Xs there are in the real world.”
“John Myhre puts Xs everywhere,” Singer said with a chuckle. “I always say that, but I actually heard he's very deliberately doing them on every set so I'm starting to find them. I'm like 'Oh, look at that pillow, or that ash tray, or that thing.' So yeah, that's one that was pretty obvious, I actually didn't notice, but then when my friends come I'm like 'Hey didn't you notice? Lets take pictures in front of it!'”
Not all of these Xs will be visible when you're watching the film, but the one that you'll no doubt notice was Myhre's favorite.
“One of my favorite ones we did on this was in front of their house. I wanted to do a circular drive in front of the mansion. And we were putting a hedge in with a fountain and I said, 'Why don't we make it an X?' You don't ever plan anything. So I took the big circle and just made a big X in the center.”