Exclusive: Director Jack Sholder on Fox's Generation X, controversial castings and the X-Men effect

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May 27, 2014, 6:10 PM EDT

This past weekend, one of the biggest comic-book movies of all time debuted in theaters. X-Men: Days of Future Past is a massive blockbuster that 20th Century Fox hopes will reinforce its grip on the superhero genre. The film's franchise began in 2000 with the first X-Men, but that wasn't the studio's introduction to the mutant world.

Four years earlier, in 1996, the Fox Network aired a made-for-TV movie called Generation X. It was based on the comic of the same name that debuted in 1994 and was created by writer Scott Lobdell and artist Chris Bachalo. The team featured Emma Frost/The White Queen, Sean Cassidy/Banshee, Monet St. Croix/M, Angelo Espinosa/Skin, Mondo and Jubilee.

The TV movie was a passion project for writer Eric Blakeney, who was very invested in the source material. While he provided the story, director Jack Sholder added the visuals. We recently spoke to Sholder about the film's production and its place as a comic-book pioneer. It's been 18 years since Generation X premiered, but we believe its story before and behind the camera is worth a second look.

Let's start from the beginning. How did you get involved with Generation X?

Jack Sholder: Eric Blakeney, he'd been working on the thing for quite a while. He was really very into it. I got hired when they were ready to make the movie. They said, "Here's the script, you want to do it?" And I said, "Yeah." I wasn't a comic-book fan, and it was really the first time I ever encountered the whole Generation X thing. I knew about the X-Men. I used to read comic books a lot when I was a kid. But once I sort of grew up and stopped going to the neighborhood barbershop where they'd have huge piles of comic books, I stopped reading them. So I wasn't very up on the lore of all that stuff. They kind of filled me in.

Since you were a bit out of your element, how did they pitch the movie to you?

Jack Sholder: It was sort of junior X-Men, and it was a good script. It seemed like it would be a lot of fun and it would be challenging. It had a wacky sense of humor that got wackier once we cast it.

I'd like to talk about the casting. Did you catch any flack for hiring a Caucasian actress [Heather McComb] to play Jubilee?

Jack Sholder: I never got any backlash. I'd have to check the script. I'm not sure whether in the script she was Chinese. I would think that in the script if she was Chinese we would have tried to cast an Asian actress. I know that the actress who ended up doing it, Heather, we really loved her. She was one of the later people that we ended up casting. I know we should have cast her because she had this slightly indeterminate look about her. I think the idea was to go for more of a punk look. 

[Later: Sholder found a copy of the script and emailed this response]

Jack Sholder: The script does not mention her Asian ethnicity, nor is it mentioned in the casting breakdown that went out to agents. I see I auditioned Jeremy Sisto and Sandra Oh for Emma Frost.

Was the casting process fairly quick, or was it hard to find the right people for the right roles?

Jack Sholder: It was long by TV movie standards, but short by movie standards. The casting process was difficult. We got most of the actors from the U.S. Matt Frewer [Dr. Russel Tresh] was sort of a slam dunk. Heather McComb, we really liked her. A lot of the cast were kind of the best that we could come up with. The guy that plays Sean Cassidy, Jeremy Ratchford, he was kind of unusual that he sent us a casting tape. I had never ever cast anybody off of a tape, never having even met them. He sent us this casting tape and it was so good. We ended up just casting him off the tape.

If we'd had a bigger budget and more time, I think we would have done a better job with casting. I think the guy who plays Skin [Austin Rodriguez] is kind of weak. I think as a group they worked OK. I think Finola Hughes [Emma Frost/The White Queen] was really good. She was a lot of fun to work with. Part of the problem was that when you do a TV movie the prep period is like six weeks or two months, at the most. On a feature, you can easily spend six months prepping. We had about eight people who were all important characters that we had to cast. So we started the casting and then we had to go up to Vancouver. I'd spend a lot of time there and I'd just come down [to L.A.] for a day or two and see a few more people. I think we did very well on some of the characters and not so good on some of the other characters.

Weren't two new mutants (Buff and Refrax) created for the film because of budgetary reasons? Were they made to replace Chamber and Husk?

Jack Sholder: That's very possible. I got there when the script was pretty much done. The budget that we had to make this film was $6 million or $8 million, which was a lot more then than it is now. But it wasn't $100 million. There wasn't a budget to do really big stuff. We shot it in 23 days. We mainly just had to go with characters that would work and superpowers that were fairly easy to do. The character, was it Arlee [Buff], the one who was very muscular? She never wanted to take off her sweatshirt. At one point, you see her back in a dressing room and that was the Ms. Western Canada bodybuilding champion. When the woman came in, she had a better body than Charles Atlas. The special effects were pretty limited. There was a strict budget and there were orders to not go a penny over the budget.

How was it doing an effects-heavy movie in the mid-'90s?

Jack Sholder: The whole state of visual effects -- it was coming in, but it hadn't come in. I mean, now, you can do just about anything you want to do with visual effects. There are lots of people who know how to do them, and basically do them on their laptops as opposed to needing a giant setup.

So you shot in Vancouver? It was a hot spot even then?

Jack Sholder: It was the spot then. The X-Files was shooting there at that time. It's interesting, because I'd done four or five films for Fox. The first few films we shot in L.A. and, at a certain point, everything they did, they were doing up in Vancouver. If it was a $6 million film, they could do it for $5 million. We had some pretty good locations. We knew that we needed to get locations that were kind of over the top and we'd heard about that Hatley Castle [which was used as the Xavier Institute in all of the X-Men films], and we went out and looked at it and said, "Wow, this is absolutely fantastic. We really need to shoot here." Once we used it, a bunch of other people started using it. The rest of it was shot in some big abandoned factory, a power plant or something like that. It was a great big building. We built the sets for the laboratories, and a lot of the other stuff, we built a lot of that in that structure. The other thing that we shot in was -- I guess it had been a mental hospital. I guess it had been closed down. A lot of people used to shoot in that place, and that was where we shot a bunch of other stuff.

I heard that Generation X was initially a pilot for a TV series. Is that true?

Jack Sholder: They never told me that. Whenever you made a TV movie, that was always a possibility. But it certainly wasn't made as a pilot. There are things that are called backdoor pilots, which means it's not really a pilot but, depending on how it turns out, it could be a pilot. Probably, if it was done today it would be a pilot. It's a perfect situation for a pilot. You've got a group of continuing characters and this whole fantasy thing. At that point, the whole Syfy Channel hadn't really happened and those shows [didn't] start making money. So this was just seen as a one-off thing.

Once it aired, what was the feedback from the network?

Jack Sholder: I think it got some pretty good reviews. Here's one from Variety: "Generation X seems like an idea too wacky even for the Fox weblet bringing to life crimefighting characters from the X-Men comic book who stretch, shoot sparks and have unimaginable strength. Set it to a rock soundtrack and lace it with 20-something vernacular." So according to Variety, that seemed like a crazy idea, which of course it's what everybody's doing now.

The X-Men theatrical film came out in 2000. Did Fox let on that they were making another movie? Did they want Generation X to be separate or possibly lead in to X-Men?

Jack Sholder: I knew the Marvel comic-book guys because they were around on set.They had plans to try to do more movies, and this was kind of their trial run, and they seemed to be pretty pleased. They were having a good time. But you have to understand, this isn't a project that I had nurtured for several years. I basically got hired to do a TV movie. [With] features, you're really invested, and then the feature goes out and it shows in different countries and all that, whereas with a TV movie, you make the TV movie it goes on TV and that's pretty much it. I did my best and I edited the thing together. I was quite happy with it. I turned it in, and that was pretty much it. If they had said we're really hoping that we can interest Fox in doing this as a series, I probably would have stuck around and had a little more interest.

That definitely wouldn't happen now. Every studio wants a comic-book property on their roster.

Jack Sholder: There was a whole different concept back then. What's happened is that the last 10 or 15 years the whole comic-book thing has just exploded. Half the movies that come out now are based on comic books, graphic novels, this or that. I don't know why. I think it's a terrible development for film. Some of them are good, but a lot of them just aren't. All it is today is them digging up every possible superhero that they can find and making them into a movie. When we did Generation X that was not the case.

So when you look back on it, what's your takeaway?

Jack Sholder: I was just trying to make a good movie and have fun.

Generation X premiered Feb. 20, 1996, on the Fox Network.