I met the young Mr. Harris on the promenade of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts one autumn-touched evening last October. We shook hands and I took note of how furtive he looked--too small in a plain jacket, particularly for the wunderkind who, under the good graces of director Bryan Singer, has found himself as the screenwriter of not only X2, but also Singer's upcoming reimaginings of Logan's Run and Superman. He earned this luck in part based on the strength of his screenplay for Imaginary Heroes, now freshly-produced and opening wide as his hyphenate debut. Mr. Harris had, unfortunately, read my capsule review of Imaginary Heroes preparatory to meeting me (he confessed that he reads his press), and after we found a seat in an abandoned open air café, he thought it prudent to tell me so while sprinkling the rest of our conversation with evidence that he'd all but memorized the piece.
So the problem comes down to the inability for some artists, particularly with personal projects, to separate what they do for a living with what I do for a living. There's the expectation sometimes, I think, that if I don't like someone's film, I should act like a jerk when I meet them--that it's somehow a dishonesty if I don't. (In truth, I tend to decline interviews with the biggest idiots in respect of the danger that I'll lunge at them at some point; Garry Marshall, watch your ass.) I think that most people in the trade understand the unwritten rules of etiquette governing the majority of press interactions (don't ask, don't tell), but when artists (or critics, for that matter) decide to make an issue out of their differences, it can and often does lead to an uncomfortable experience. To my way of thinking, though, a twenty-five-year old millionaire living in Hollywood doesn't have a lot to worry about from a thirty-something critic just this side of welfare in Colorado--except that my opinion of Imaginary Heroes now appears to be the consensus. I just had the misfortune of being among the first to pan it.
But about that misleading: I told Mr. Harris that I really liked X2, which I remembered as true, having come from giving a lecture at the Denver Public Library on the portrayal of homosexuals in the movies. But in peeking at the review I wrote upon the film's release, I discovered that I only sort of liked it--an opinion I was able to confirm by spinning the DVD a couple of weeks later. It's okay, it just ain't great. So this is a public apology to Mr. Harris for overstating how much I liked X2; sorry for that.
DAN HARRIS: Let me start off by saying that this is sort of a weird interview for me because I've read the review.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Why would that make it a weird interview?
Well, it's the first time that I've sat down with someone after I've read what they thought of my film.
Let's get to what I thought about your film in a minute--tell me first how you went from a struggling writer to the sequel to X-Men?
What happened was I'd been living in LA in the summers, became friends with Bryan Singer and when I was a senior in college, I was in New York at Columbia and Bryan had come into town and called me to go to see the final performance, ever, of "Cats". A bizarre thing--but I was getting sick, so I went to a ["Cats"] party instead of the show and at the party I met this guy Mike who was also Bryan's friend, he'd gone to NYU. So I met Mike and he and I were sort of standing at the back of the room wondering what we were doing there because neither of us were "Cats" people. And it was totally bizarre, the party was like half "Cats" people and the other half were like career fans--that guy on the "Daily Show" who'd seen "Cats" like ten thousand times was there. But Mike and I, we hit it off, it turned out the next day that I had mono, took a lot of time off school, like three months, then I moved to LA and happened to live just a couple of streets down from Mike and Mike had a chance to pitch Urban Legend 3, and he told me about it and I had these ideas and we started brainstorming.
So you went in to pitch with him.
Yep--we sold it, got the job and that January the following year I had a short film at Sundance that Mike and Bryan both came to see, and it wasn't three weeks later that Bryan came to us and asked us if we'd like a shot at doing a script for X-Men 2.
And you said "no."
(laughs) Right. He knew that we had the background now in horror, knew that we both liked the comic, and knew that we had the inexperience, which was a detriment on the one hand, but on the other I think that Bryan knew that he could own us. He could mold us and beat us and work the hell out of us for as long as he wanted for almost nothing. He told us we had the one opportunity to put together a draft and if the studio liked the draft we'll move forward and see how it worked.
How many drafts total?
A year-and-a-half later we had twenty-nine drafts. It was a really exciting time but really stressful. Our experience was almost nothing--I mean, it was really an amazing experience. We're really, really proud of it because we tried to approach it from a character standpoint instead of just a supernatural or comic-book sort of standpoint. We asked ourselves what this movie was about? Revenge, right? A guy who sent his son to get cured of something that's incurable--a guy who's searching for his past to find out who he is, people coming together to form a family--about two love triangles. So it's about all these things and it gets very complex and juggling all those characters is really hard, but as long as you boil it down to character issues, then it becomes meaningful in the end. The problem with too many big movies nowadays, you have action and explosions and...
...and you wash away nuance.
Yes, you wash away the nuance--you have these weird studio mantras of every twenty pages you need a big scene and Bryan, he's a storyteller and he doesn't do those things. The amazing thing about Bryan is that we were on set all the time and whenever there was trouble, he'd actually consult with us. It was a collaborative process. There's a scene early when Professor X freezes everyone in a museum and says a line, but in the shooting script there wasn't a line but Bryan felt like there should be something there, a punchline--so he stopped production, snapped his fingers, pointed to us and said that he needed a funny line. So we took five minutes, hid out in somebody's trailer, and came up with as many lines as we could, knowing that this giant crew and all these people were waiting on us--and Bryan took the list and said, "No, no, no, no, yes." And literally that's what he's great at: he can pick the best thing from a series of choices.
|Shawn Ashmore and Anna Paquin in X2 (top); Sigourney Weaver in Imaginary Heroes (bottom)|
I really liked X2--the gay subtext in particular.
Well, "X-Men" always had that about the protection of minorities and fighting for minority rights, always. And I think while a lot of it in the books started out as a race issue, in the last fifteen or twenty years--not only in the movies but in the books, as well, it's become more a metaphor for sexual identity and orientation because it's more appropriate to look at a person and have to say, "Are you a mutant?" It's the best metaphor for a hidden minority, you know, you can't always look at a person and know that they're a mutant just like you can't look at a person and know that they're gay. Face values.
Tell me about writing the scene where Bobby comes out to his parents.
Yeah, that becomes something that Bobby has to deal with throughout the film--some people are open about it and comfortable with who they are in that context and then there are some people like Bobby who come from the typical upper middle class sort of maybe right-wing environment who have a tougher time with it. That's something that we keyed in on real specifically in Bobby. It just makes for a better, more rounded character.
Do you deal with Superman's alien-ness in Superman Returns?
I can't tell you. But we did turn in our first draft of it yesterday. It's going to be awesome.
Is it based on a story arc in the comic or on previous attempts at this project?
No, it's totally brand new. It's based on an idea that Bryan and Mike and I came up with over a weekend in Hawaii. We went to a friend's wedding over a weekend there and we were actually going to talk about X-Men 3 but the conversation kind of turned to this project. The thing with Superman is that you can't do it unless you're going to crack it. We didn't feel like the J.J. Abrams draft or the Kevin Smith draft was appropriate because they changed the mythology too much. We had so much respect and admiration for the Dick Donner movies and to us that was Superman, you know, that was the image of Superman that we grew up with and wanted to honour--the first two films together, just tomes of comic-book genius. More, we didn't feel like it was appropriate to do another origin story. Anybody over the age of thirties knows those movies back to front and anyone under the age of thirty is probably inundated with "Smallville" so, you know, it's covered and now it's time to move it forward.
What've you seen lately that you've liked?
I liked Napoleon Dynamite--I thought it was refreshing and different.
So if memory serves, I wrote that your film was derivative and emotionally immature.
Yeah, that's the gist. Look, I wrote Imaginary Heroes when I was in college at the end. It mostly was, um, you know it's not my story at all but it's a reflection of a lot of things that I saw as I was growing up. There were a few years in high school where my family was just inundated with tragedy in certain ways. Year after year after year things just kept happening to us and people around us--it just shaped me, I grew up really fast--and at the same time I was living in this state of the aftermath of tragedy and it seemed to me that that story was unique. At least I hadn't seen it before and I wanted to go out and tell what it felt like to be at that place and that time. In the late '90s, the teen movies didn't seem to deal with that stuff. American Pie, She's All That--that wasn't my life, this was my life.
Here's your chance to respond to all those comparisons I made of your film to other movies: how is it different?
Well, look, American Beauty is a great movie, but kind of to me it's a glossy, step-away-from-it, ironic-distance kind of film and I was doing my best to not do that, to really get involved with the characters. I'd never seen a movie like Moonlight Mile before doing my film but to me that movie is really so immersed in the period--so much a seventies film. And Ordinary People, I'd never seen Ordinary People. It was the kind of thing that came out when I was very, very young and as I was making this film people kept saying to me that I should really see it but I was making a concerted effort not to see it. I knew it was about a shrink and a kid who dies in a boating accident and that's all I wanted to know because I knew that if I saw it, I'd either start pushing my movie away from it or start drawing elements from it.
Because you knew it was the same film?
No. But I wanted to stay away from any possible intentional overlap. So it's a weird place to be in now, knowing that I have this story that's specifically free of outside influence but having guys like you layering things on top of it.
So the review didn't make you very happy.
I'm overly sensitive about these kinds of things. It's so hard to respond to those charges because you make all these comparisons to other things but those things had no impact on me. A Home at the End of the World came out months after Imaginary Heroes was locked and printed so how could I have been influenced by that?
See, but it doesn't matter. If you make a film about a space farmer who joins a rebellion against a monster that turns out to be your father to save a princess who turns out to be your sister--it doesn't matter whether or not you've seen Star Wars, because I have.
I dunno, I mean--I read a review and it's bad and I think that maybe I've wasted my time, but I sit in a screening of it last night and people all around me are laughing and crying and coming up to me and thanking me for making it and I don't know if that's the film festival or if it's a genuine reaction. So that's good and I feel better for it, but then I fall back on this doubt about its twists and turns and that's sort of a downer. But there are things that I know for sure: that Sigourney is incredible in this movie--it's something that she's never done before and you love her and you're with her and I know that everybody felt that and it hurts me to see a bad review or something that doesn't mention that.
Any last thoughts? Open forum.
It's hard, because I can't argue it. I didn't make the film for critics, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't read the criticism that I made the film for people, but I did read the few reviews that are out there now and I start to wonder if I should have gone this way or that way or something.
Best to own what's on the screen as yours, for better or worse.
It is, it's mine, and I don't know that I'll ever have to make another movie like this again because it's out of my head now, and it's too painful and I've kind of made it so the door's closed on that. Next thing is a sci-fi film about nuclear weapons and a middle-aged inventor and things falling out of the sky.