Inside a Montreal warehouse, an old brick and wood building that didn’t seem particularly noteworthy, there were mutants preparing to take on the world. A battle of wits was ensuing that would change the face of everything we knew about a very familiar villain. This was the setting back in July of 2015 for a day’s filming on Bryan Singer‘s much-anticipated X-Men: Apocalypse, the eighth film in the popular X-Men franchise, and Singer’s fourth as director. That day’s scene featured Michael Fassbender‘s Magneto and Oscar Isaac‘s Apocalypse, with Olivia Munn (Psylocke), Alexandra Shipp (Storm), and Ben Hardy (Angel) in tow. The rundown: Apocalypse is trying to convince the disaffected master of magnetism to become one of his horsemen. From the looks of it—and from what was gleaned from Singer himself—there will be some deep things going on in this movie.
“It was a very intense day,” Singer said to a group of journalists in his trailer following the long day’s filming. “I wrote some scenes in the car on the way here, got them there, worked with Simon [Kinberg, the co-producer and co-writer of the film], and then worked with Oscar on them. Then we really, really, completely crafted 60 percent of this scene on the day. Then shot it. Then got some magic. Then got some…spontaneous camera ideas while he was killing it. But it had that energy to it that made for one of the best days we’ve had.”
Singer was in full manic artist mode as he spoke to us; very frank, very intelligent, and very, as he said, intense. The group interview went on for over an hour, and we were enthralled throughout. He called the day’s filming “an embarrassment of riches,” celebrating the scene between Fassbender and Isaac, which was interspersed with previously filmed cutaways featuring Magneto and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier.
Apocalypse is a villain unlike any fans have seen on screen—we asked Singer why, 15 years after the release of the first X-Men film, this was the best time to dive into his story. “Because it’s just so different,” he said. “We’ve always tread this theme of mutants vs. humans. Apocalypse has two aspects that make him such a different character than I’ve traditionally explored in the universe. One is that he makes no distinctions between humans and mutants. He’s interested in the Earth as a whole and the purity of civilization. And secondly, it deals with ancient mutantism, or the origins of the mutant state, or the origin of gods and religion, which the X-Men [film] universe has never really touched on.”
As we’ve already seen from clips and photos, Isaac’s Apocalypse is much different from the versions we’ve seen in the comics and the various animated television shows. Singer explained that his take on the character is like the “God of the Old Testament,” who requires worship and loyalty or he will tear the planet apart.
“He isn’t really God,” Singer began, somewhat cryptically. “He’s the first mutant, perhaps, but he’s not ‘God’ necessarily; he’s imbued with certain unique powers. Some of them may or may not be from this Earth, we don’t know.” This Apocalypse is also an entity that takes different bodies across the millennia in order to remain alive. In doing so, he picks up new powers along the way. “One of them,” Singer said, “is to imbue other mutants and to heighten their powers and abilities beyond anything they ever imagined. Secondly, he can shield from psychic powers, making it harder for telepaths like Xavier to tap in and get to him.”
We were all pretty intrigued by the idea of Apocalypse as a non-physical entity that travels from body to body, acquiring other mutants’ powers over time, and so asked the director to expand on that. Singer explained that this informed the character’s plans as we see them in the movie. “What’s wonderful is [Apocalypse] thinks in the beginning of the film he’s found this great body,” Singer chuckles. “I don’t want to give away what the power [this body] has, but it’s a familiar one that you’ve seen a number of very famous mutants have. It kind of ends up being the wrong one because he gets stuck in it for a long time. But then, suddenly, he has this opportunity and that becomes his agenda.”
Singer was quick to point out, though, that Apocalypse is not the behemoth he has been in other media. “He can amplify your power [and] transform you as a mutant, but his ability to physically damage, destroy, or build is in the non-biological world. That’s in the physical world. He can change the inorganic molecules of things.” He also offered a tantalizing tease about the movie’s climax: “These are some of the powers that we’re exploring, and there’s some epic things that he does towards the end of the picture.”
One aspect that Singer and his writers were very keen to explore with their film was the idea of Apocalypse’s innate powers of persuasion, and the cult surrounding him that springs up whenever he makes his presence known. The Four Horsemen in this story each embody a different aspect of what Apocalypse needs for his machinations. “[He finds] people at a time, in a moment, when there’s an emptiness, when there’s a need. [He finds] them just at the right time…and the hardest one is Erik [Lensherr—Magneto’s real name]. That’s a big one.”
Expanding on this, Singer said each of the Four Horsemen represents a different aspect of a cult’s power to recruit. “It has a political faction,” the director explained, “and I’d always felt Magneto could fill those shoes. It always has a military faction, so Archangel could fill those shoes as the guardian. There’s also youth faction. Those that you’re trying to seduce and grow into your cult—the young, whose minds are malleable.” Singer refers to Storm as the occupant of this role. “And lastly, the sexual component, because cult leaders tend to sexualize their position and have sex with half the people in their cult. And the Psylocke character, who was a very bright character in the comic but is always looking for guidance and leadership, always trying to find the right guy, so she ends up with Apocalypse in this one.”
While Singer called Days of Future Past the journey of Charles Xavier, Apocalypse is very much the journey of Erik Lensherr (and Mystique, Jean Grey, and Scott Summers to a lesser degree). “One of the biggest challenges,” Singer continued, “and it’s very emotional and it’s somewhat dark…is getting Erik to that place where he would follow [Apocalypse]. Because Erik is a super villain. He’s dropped stadiums on the White House. To get him to a place where he’s ready to go there with this character, with Apocalypse, that was one of the biggest challenges.”
The director effectively placed the onus in the film on Fassbender, but he had nothing but praise to dole out for the actor. “There’s a scene Fassbender does with this movie—you always wonder what’s going to make the cut—but he did something that [had us] pulling the Kleenex out in the tent. I’ve never had that happen on the set.”
So what exactly is Apocalypse’s agenda, and will it live up to the character’s name? “Yeah…it’s a global situation,” Singer says plainly. “He wants to make a massive global change. I don’t want to tell you what he’s going to do, but it’s visually unique. He’s going to do something really bad to the Earth that’s going to cause a lot of people to not live, and those that survive will be the strongest.”
It all sounds pretty dour, doesn’t it? Well, Singer realized he was speaking about very dark things and quickly assured us it isn’t all pain and suffering, turmoil and strife. “There’s some really funny parts too!” Singer interjected as we laughed. “I’m not making it sound like it. We rekindle romances—there’s three romances we start together. One that I didn’t really explore in Days of Future Past, but I did when I wrote the story for First Class between Hank and Raven. We’ve got Jean and Scott. Suddenly, Xavier and Moira start getting reconnected, so that’s all starting to happen.”
He also boiled everything down to being, ultimately, the origin story of the X-Men as we know them. “This movie is about the story of the formation of the team,” Singer said. “That’s really what this is. In First Class, they were sort of a CIA fighting force…you know, jokingly. Not everyone, but most of the characters we meet [in this movie] are so different from where they were in the last movie, and that’s kind of fun too.”
As with all of the Singer-directed X-Men movies, there’s a whole lot going on, and X-Men: Apocalypse looks like it might even eclipse Days of Future Past in terms of scope. We’ll all find out together on May 27, 2016, when X-Men: Apocalypse hits theaters.
Images: 20th Century Fox
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!