After a three-year delay, The New Mutants has finally arrived. Aside from all the headline-making postponements, what do we know, exactly, about the first horror-based X-Men film? Well, for one thing, it's been confirmed that the screenplay by director Josh Boone and his childhood friend, Knate Lee, is based on the Demon Bear Saga by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz.
"We were just so attracted to his art when we were young," Boone tells SYFY WIRE, holding up a trade paperback collection of the story arc. "It was so evocative and so different from all the other comic book art that we’d seen. It was dark and moody; it was already fantastical and sort of horrific. There was never like a lightbulb moment where I wanted to make a horror comic book movie — I just knew I wanted to adapt the Demon Bear story and it naturally just said, ‘I’m a story.’"
The filmmaker, who is known for others teen dramas like Stuck in Love and The Fault in Our Stars, describes the original comic as having "a dash of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a dash of Stephen King," while promising that his cinematic interpretation is "as much as possible a true adaptation of that in our own sort of strange wheelhouse."
For Boone, Claremont's accurate interpretation of teenage behavior is what made the writer's run on X-Men so iconic. "He cared about characters and dialogue and people’s feelings and psychology... so that certainly influenced our storytelling," the director says. "I remember a very specific issue of X-Men where the first panel is a full page of Kitty Pryde and she’s like, ‘Professor Xavier, you’re a jerk!’ It was sort of the first time that you’d seen a kid represented in a real way in an X-Men comic, and I always loved when they leaned in that direction."
In the comics, Danielle Moonstar (a mutant with the ability to make a person's worst fears come to life) loses her parents to the eponymous ursine entity. When it comes back to kill her and finish the job, it's up to Dani to defeat the supernatural being with the help of her fellow New Mutants, whom she ends up leading.
"She’s super strong and tough and smart," says Blu Hunt, who plays Dani's cinematic counterpart. "She’s super dead-on to the comic book, I would say. I got a bunch of Dani Moonstar comics when I knew I was auditioning for the role and I still have a ton of them. Her story is pretty much exactly the same as it is in the comics. Except for some of the more complicated things, like her parents and some [other] things are different, but for the most part, she’s straight from the comic."
At a virtual press conference that SYFY WIRE attended last week, Boone explained how certain backstories and characters needed to be tweaked or simplified for the sake of the moviegoing audience.
"They're very much like the characters in the comics, but I'd say we had to make sense of very convoluted Marvel history that a lot of these characters had and their entanglements with other books and everything else," he said, using Lockheed the space dragon as an example. In the comics, he's the pet of Kitty Pryde, but in The New Mutants, he belongs to Anya Taylor-Joy's Magik. "[Kitty's] so cool," Boone added, "but, you know, for us, it was just like, 'I don't know how to do this space backstory.'" That said, a lot of stuff does carry over from the comics, a good example being Magik's Soulsword.
Naturally, Dani's abilities give The New Mutants its spine-tingling set pieces. "You put one and one together, it equals two," Hunt adds. "We’ve got a girl who doesn’t know that she has powers and her powers are to make nightmares come to life so... you know, it kind of made sense for the movie to be a scary movie."
During Comic-Con@Home last month, fans got to see the opening minutes of the film, which introduce us to Dani's character.
"Filming that scene was completely insane," Hunt recalls. "That was my first real night shoot, and I didn’t know how insane that was gonna be. All of it was real, none of it was CGI. I think we did it in one take — once we ran out of the door, that was one take and the cars were really blowing up all around us... And working with Adam Beach... he’s iconic, he’s amazing, and he’s so nice. Being able to work with him all night long on that was cool. All the sets were real; we really built the trailer that Dani lived in, so I got to see her bedroom and I did some of those stunts, too. Like, I threw myself down a hill and actually rolled down it."
After that explosive opening, Dani finds herself at a mysterious medical facility (Milbury Hospital) from which there seems to be no escape. There, she meets other young mutants, who are also grappling with their burgeoning powers, which could definitely be seen as a metaphor for puberty. The cast of characters includes the aforementioned Illyana Rasputin/Magik, who has teleportation abilities; Sam Guthrie/Cannonball (Charlie Heaton), who can use his body like a deadly projectile; Rahne Sinclair/Wolfsbane (Maisie Williams), who can transform into a wolf; and Roberto da Costa/Sunspot (Henry Zaga), who can harness the sun's solar energy.
In particular, Zaga simply to had to draw from his own life experiences for his take on da Costa.
"[He] grows up in a wealthy family and finds out about his powers in a very traumatic way and ends up hurting people he doesn’t mean to. That scars him a lot," the actor says. "I think the similarities would be I went to private school growing up, so I kind of saw those kids that boast a confidence that they don’t have very close up. I knew they were full of sh**, so I could tell there was something very dark in there... Roberto is a tough one to crack because he is dying for some sort of connection with people, but that craving is manifested as pushing people away with his sometimes crass humor and an almost bullying-like personality."
Despite the fact that he didn't know much about the titular team prior to being cast in the movie, Zaga immediately felt a kinship with Roberto, who is Brazilian as well.
"I’m such a nut job with these things, that I went and bought the comics and started geeking out over it," he admits. "I marveled at the way Bill and Chris Claremont made it so dark and personal. It really hit home for me, especially seeing a Brazilian character so similar in so many ways. It was crazy. I guess I was a little fan of The New Mutants before I even knew it... I understand Sunspot’s heart very well. I take such ownership of him now and I have such a responsibility with telling his story, so it’s rewarding."
Similarly, Hunt felt close to Dani, because both of them hail from Native American backgrounds.
"I really reconnected with my heritage. I always grew up knowing I was Native American and my grandma would speak Lakota to me and I knew all about it. She actually lived with me after she lived on the reservation, so she would talk about it all the time and then we kind of grew apart as I got older and I kind of detached myself from it a lot," the actress says. "Getting to play Dani, I got to find myself... I reconnected with the Lakota Nation and I’ve been there a bunch of times since, and I’ve done ceremonies and things that I didn’t explore before getting New Mutants. Just being able to play that role and represent Native Americans in such a big role, it’s amazing."
Boone stresses the importance of representation in the film: "Just like we cast a real Brazilian to play Sunspot, it was important that we cast a real Native American to play Dani. It couldn’t be a model who, like on their resume it’s like, ‘I’m .0023 percent Native American’ or whatever. We really wanted somebody connected to a reservation, connected to a tribe."
Being culturally and ethnically respectful is just one of the ways in which this project puts diversity at the forefront. There's also a subtle LGBTQ love story between Rahne and Dani. Sinclair is one of the first people Dani meets at the hospital and the two almost immediately form a deep, emotional bond. As for the rest of the group, it takes some time for some of them to warm up to Ms. Moonstar.
"Illyana, she has her own baggage, which is really tough and she really takes it out on Dani when Dani shows up. I think they’ve probably both been through similar traumatic events and really difficult things from their backgrounds," Hunt says of Magik, who is able to escape her problems by traveling into a parallel dimension called Limbo. "Dani somehow manages to react with compassion and kindness, whereas Illyana only finds herself acting with anger and violence. She isolates herself like that and I think she’s jealous of Dani in a lot of ways. So they really clash a lot. Illyana says things that I think could be unforgivable to Dani, but with the lens of what she’s been through, Dani’s able to forgive her. I think that’s a really cool nuanced relationship. And then her with the boys, she really gets things out of them and becomes close with them pretty quickly, too."
Zaga reveals that Roberto is "instantly very close" to Heaton's Cannonball. "They just understand each other even though they’re incredibly different," he says. "Later on, you’re gonna see it in the movie, their facades, their masks, fall and they just are very similar. They all are very similar, they all have very similar backgrounds and there’s nothing else to pretend about. Their biggest fears come to life with Dani coming in, so what can you fake after that?"
In terms of picking a favorite member of the team, Boone says that it's like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Nevertheless, he does concede that he feels a strong connection to Rahne "not because she's the coolest character," but because, like the director, she too was raised in a strictly religious environment.
"Obviously, Anya’s the coolest character, but Rahne was raised under oppressive religious circumstances and I was also raised in Virginia by Evangelical Christians," he explains. "So I felt a bit of affinity for her as a character because I’d grown up under similar circumstances. I’m not choosing who’s cooler or better, I’m just choosing based on my personal feelings."
Casting Rahne was very important because "Maisie looks so much like the way Bill drew Rahne," he says. "All these things, we just tried to keep that image in our head of the crew that we love so much when we were writing it and find people that exemplified those characteristics."
The main facility where the mutants are being held is overseen by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), a scientist and mutant capable of projecting force fields around her body. It's a power that Braga says would be very helpful during the current pandemic. Similar to the comics, the cinematic version of Reyes is more interested in science than her mutation, but that preoccupation puts the doctor at odds with her young charges.
"I think it’s a very strict relationship because she has an agenda, she’s very organized, she wants these kids to cooperate with her motives," Braga teases without giving anything away what those motives might be. "It’s very much of a mentor, I think, as a guide. She wants to guide them through understanding their powers and controlling their powers and guiding them through to her objective that we’re gonna understand in the film."
Since Boone has previously mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a major influence on this project, Braga decided to channel Nurse Ratched for this role. She didn't want to do a carbon copy of the iconic part originated by Louise Fletcher, but hoped to tap into "that energy, that vibe, that sense of guidance and monitoring vibe." At the same time, Reyes isn't a flat-out villain, although she's perceived that way by virtue of the fact that she's an authority figure.
"She kind of has both [qualities] because once you are the adult in charge, right away you become the villain. You’re giving orders, so right away you become the villain," Braga says. "But she’s also the caretaker, so there is that. I think it’s interesting that Josh created that [dichotomy] because people don’t understand exactly what it is, what her agenda is."
In addition to Cuckoo's Nest, the director was also inspired by The Breakfast Club (in terms of the group dynamic) and Girl, Interrupted (for Magik, who is modeled after Angelina Jolie's Lisa Rowe in the latter), characterizing them as "institutional dramas that had worked before and worked well." Meanwhile, "rubber-reality horror movies" like Jacob’s Ladder and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors helped inform the more terrifying elements of the story. "Things like that, that sort of pushed the bounds of the real and the metaphysical and the surreal," he says.
"I would say it’s good, scary fun. It reminds me of old '80s, '90s fun, scary movies about teenagers," Hunt continues.
Many of the scares ended up being organic, stemming from the fact that principal photography mostly took place at an abandoned medical facility in New England.
"It brought a lot to the film because you are working with reality," says Braga, who was hesitant to walk around by herself during night shoots. "There are textures in it, there are smells, and I think the camera captures that. I think it is palpable. You can feel the energy, so that definitely helps the crew and the actors."
Zaga says he felt the power of the place, too, and swears that restless spirits would often puncture his good mood. "I’d be trying to get into Roberto’s mindset of making a joke out of everything and everything was heightened and fun," he recalls. "Every now and again, I’d go into a corner and just get a whiff of a terrible smell that I never [smelled] before. And I’m like, ‘Whoa, is this like a spirit here or did someone die on this spot? What’s going on here?' We were in a place where some really creepy stuff happened, so it was like a reminder, a punch in the gut, like, ‘Hey, you’re in our place. Chill out. Don’t have too much fun.’"
Once their fears are faced and bonding is complete, the adolescent mutants plot a daring escape from Milbury. What the future holds is anyone's guess. Well, not all of it is a mystery. Now that Disney owns the screen rights to the X-Men, the famous lineup of mutants can finally start to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe under the watchful eye of Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige. While Boone admits that, as a director, he "felt bad" for his own movie when the merger was first announced, he came to realize that he was both thrilled and excited from a fan standpoint.
"I was like, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be,'" he concludes. "As a fan, I really did have that feeling where I was like, ‘Oh, they’re all gonna get to be together finally.’ I read Secret Wars when I was a kid, where everybody comes together into a giant battle, and I don’t know, man, I’m really curious. It’s like these movies that Fox made over all this time are unique and interesting and different and really push the bounds of what comic book movies could be, but I’m certainly interested to see what they do as a fan of Marvel and Marvel movies. I don’t know what they’ll do, I have no idea, but I’d be the first person to get in line and go see it, for sure."
"I grew up watching the original three X-Men [movies] with Jean Grey and Wolverine," Hunt finishes. "I can still remember what the DVD case looked like — it was silver with the 'X' on it and my dad had all of them. I would watch them all the time with him and I had the hugest crush on the Wolverine. I even wrote an essay about him in elementary school that he was my hero. But the essay was mostly, ‘He’s my hero because I thought he was cute,’ which I thought was funny. So it’s very full circle to be in the last X-Men movie of that universe as far as we know."
The New Mutants is now playing in theaters around the U.S.
Additional reporting by James Grebey