SA director Gavin Hood puts his mark on the latest ‘X-Men’ film

2009-05-01 00:00

Gavin Hood had not read a single X-Men comic book in his life when he was approached by Hugh Jackman to direct X-Men origins: Wolverine.

And he had watched the previous three X-Men movies as just an ordinary moviegoer.

Hence his initial doubts about whether it was the kind of movie he could, or wanted, to make.

And when I confessed that I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that he was the one who had directed the movie, he only laughed.

“Did you think it was going to be a sort of weird movie for teenagers where heads roll and blood spatters everywhere?” he asked. And then continued, “It’s very interesting, because when they offered me the movie, I thought exactly the same thing. I’m glad that was your response, because quite honestly, that was also my response.”

But instead of immediately saying no, Hood first had a long discussion with Jackman, who plays the starring role as Wolverine and is also the producer.

“I felt I had to find a way of feeling I was bringing something to the movie. And ultimately, that which draws me in a story is the way in which a character undergoes a journey. The audience doesn’t necessarily like the character at the beginning, but eventually they become crazy about him — which is what we did with Tsotsi.

“And then, of course, it was a wonderful opportunity to tell a character-driven story with visual effects and other elements I could learn from.”

In due course, he began to think it may well be something he could do. Something he could actually make his own mark on and make a Gavin movie out of, with the kind of themes that interested him.

To make an X-Men action/fantasy movie that was simultaneously an unbelievable visual experience was no easy process. First, Hood had to get past the strong ideas of the Fox studio about what the movie had to look like.

“There was quite a battle over this. There is a certain expectation, when you are about to make a movie like this, that it should have a polished, shiny appearance. All the sets are brand new and everyone is wearing leather costumes that were made that morning and are being worn for the first time, and everything is just so.

“And I asked, why? Why can’t we portray the story in a more real world where people’s nails get dirty and there is some texture and grittiness?”

It is no secret that the Fox bosses were worried about Hood’s vision for the movie. In the U.S., clashes between Hood and Fox chief Tom Rothman were widely reported.

“They were worried that Wolverine would not have a superhero feel about it, because for many people a superhero is someone whose hair is always perfect and whose clothes are always perfect.

“My idea was very different, but I managed to translate it to a more earthy world and somehow make a story about someone with claws — which is not at all believable, but in a way that made it believable. Whatever that might mean.”

Moviegoers who have seen Hood’s previous movies, A reasonable man, Tsotsi and Rendition, will understand why this project would appear to be in such contradiction to Wolverine. But Hood was determined to find a balance between making a movie that was beautiful and also filled with glorious action.

“It was necessary to find a balance so that the movie could fit in with the other three X-Men movies, but in such a way that I could still do my own thing. I had to keep both myself and the studio happy. X-Men is Fox’s biggest franchise. I had to respect that. They could not afford for this movie to fail. There was too much invested in it. That is why you had to listen and not go too much on your own mission, but at the same time you wanted to make a movie that has your feel and conveys the themes that are important to you.

“I think they’re happy now. We’ll know for sure after May 1.”

He clasps his hands together, almost prayerfully. “Oh please let it do well. Because if it doesn’t do well … uhm … then I’m out on my ear!”

But it wasn’t only the Fox bosses that Hood had to keep happy. There were also the X-Men comic book fans, who can become fanatical at times. So he had to get the comics and make a thorough study of them. “While working through the comic books I looked for what the definitive Wolverine story was. And I couldn’t find it, because if you look at the comics you see they were written by different writers over the past approximately 40 years and that different illustrators were used.

“So I thought, okay, there isn’t a definitive story line, but what we do have is a definitive emotion associated with that wonderful saying of Wolverine: ‘I am the best at what I do, but what I do, isn’t very nice’.” Hood laughs as he adds, “It’s terribly important to get that quotation exactly right, because Wolverine adherents will slaughter you if you get it wrong.”

It was then that he realised there was a parallel to be drawn between the character of Wolverine and that of Tsotsi. “Here’s a man who isn’t even sure whether he likes himself. The conflict between good and evil is not external; it is internal. And that is what drew me to the movie. I though, aaaah! Here’s something I can work with. This is something Gavin can hold on to. There’s a theme here that I like.”

And to keep the comic book fans happy, he incorporated a number of little things into the movie that hardened adherents will recognise and that will send the message that he had listened to all the comments they had put on the website.

And only now, after several heated debates during the making and development of the movie, is Hood at ease — well, at least until the box office figures are released after opening weekend. “Of course we debated. I have a very strong opinion, as you can probably imagine.”

He laughs heartily before continuing. “But do I regret it? No. Am I happy about it? Definitely.

Because I think the movie is better because of those debates.”

Before you know it, the brief time in the presence of this impressive director has come to an end.

But one thing you do know for certain when you leave there is that Hollywood’s glitter has not managed to cling to this South African. He is still the same guy with a love for movies who grew up in Bryanston with dreams of becoming a director.

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