Howlin' Wolverine: Gavin Hood hears the call of Hugh Jackman

Call it a matter of claws and effect: The X-Men movies were hits, due in no small part to Wolverine becoming a breakout character onscreen, just he did in the comics, and so the first spinoff of the Marvel superhero franchise is X-Men Origins: Wolverine. As our feral friend would say, “You gotta problem with that, bub?”

And you might if you like your superheroes straight, no chaser. Spider-Man or Superman may experience self-doubt, but you know they know they're on the side of the angels. Batman and some of the heroes of Watchmen, however…we're just happy they don't slit their own throats by the end.

Wolverine—a coolly Clint Eastwood-like badass with retractable claws, super-strength, superhuman tracking senses and a "healing factor" that lets him quickly recover from virtually any injury—"is intriguing from the point of view that you have a hero who questions his own nature," says the film's director, Gavin Hood, 45, the helmer of such character-driven dramas as Rendition (2007) and the South African Tsotsi, which won the 2006 Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. "That's the first thing that's appealing," he analyzes, "and the second thing is he's not just a hero who believes he's the good guy fighting the bad guy—he's much more complicated than that. There's a sense that he doesn't necessarily like himself, and that the concepts of good and evil are both present within him."

That resonated with Hood. "I'm not a fan of the philosophy of good versus evil," he says. "I think it hasn't served us well in the last eight years. The danger of that simplistic philosophy is you fail to examine your own potential to do evil, and I think all of us have the capacity to be both kind and compassionate and unkind and vicious."

Whether the hero's antiheroic attitude will lead to a boffo Batman Begins or an unwatched Watchmen hinges on the familiarity of the X-Men and the wide appeal of producer-star Hugh Jackman, who played Wolverine in the 2000, 2003 and 2006 films about the misunderstood mutant-superhero team. Nothing's guaranteed. Hood, known for directing intelligent, substantive films, has never before handled a big, expensive, special-effects-laden Hollywood action flick—and Paramount's Star Trek, aimed at roughly the same audience, opens a week after 20th Century Fox's Wolverine debuts on May 1. And much rides on this movie: Producer Lauren Shuler Donner and writer-director David Goyer have both told interviewers that Fox is awaiting returns for Wolverine before giving the go-ahead to the next planned film, X-Men Origins: Magneto, or other X-Men films on the, so to speak, drawing board.

Hood is aware of the pressures. "I honestly don't know," he answers when asked what his next movie will be. "There are some things that have come my way, but the truth is that, given that I haven't made a big movie before, I believe [studios and producers] are waiting to see if I succeed or fail, which makes me feel both excited and terrified. So much of one's career almost always depends on what you've just done and how people respond to that."

Hood was as surprised as anyone when Jackman contacted him. "I got a call from my agent—I remember it as if it were yesterday—saying, 'Hi, Gavin, Hugh Jackman would like to meet with you about the possibility of your directing Wolverine.' I was like, 'Yeah, right, what are you really calling about?'" he says, chuckling. But Jackman had seen and liked Tsotsi, "So I went along to the meeting, not knowing a great deal about the Wolverine comics. I grew up in South Africa and was exposed to the wonderful Asterix and Obelix [René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's long-running, French cartoon-adventure strip "The Adventures of Asterix," starring the titular ancient Gaul and his right-hand warrior], but I hadn't actually seen anything to do with Wolverine. I knew the [X-Men] movies," he amends, "but I'd watched them as a casual moviegoer, not as an avid fan."

Jackman, Hood says, had responded to the conflicted natures of characters in Hood's movies. "Hugh told me [Wolverine] is filled with a certain degree of self-loathing, and yet the audience felt a great deal of empathy for him and connected with him [in the X-Men films.] He felt that the character didn't necessarily like his own nature."

Wolverine is set in the 1970s, according to Fox press notes, placing it decades before the X-Men films. Wolverine, a.k.a. Logan a.k.a. birth name James Howlett, was born in the 19th century—his aging slowed by his healing factor—and has grown war-weary fighting in conflicts from the Civil War to Vietnam. His lifelong comrade-in-arms has been his half-brother, Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), a fellow feral mutant who will later become the sociopathic supervillain Sabretooth—and who, aside from some fan speculation, is not Wolverine's half-brother in the comic books. "Why did I ask the studio if we can go that way? Because you want the antagonist and the protagonist to be as emotionally connected and involved as possible," Hood explains. "Human emotion is at its most emotional when it's family that you're in dispute with."

The two are recruited by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston) for the government black-ops squad Team X, composed also of Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a wisecracking mercenary with his own healing factor; John Wraith (rap star, a teleporter also known as Kestrel in the comics; Agent Zero/David North (Daniel Henney), a tracker and marksman with the ability to absorb energy; The Blob/Fred J. Dukes (Kevin Durand), a 700-pound immovable object; and Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), who can manipulate electricity. Other mutants in the film include Emma Frost (Tahyna Tozzi), a telepath who can make her skin diamond-hard; Gambit/Remy LeBeau (Taylor Kitsch), who can charge objects with explosive energy; and Cyclops/Scott Summers (Tim Pocock), a younger version of the future X-Men leader capable of firing optic rays. Tragically, Wolverine's lover, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), is brutally murdered, rendering Wolverine emotionally hollow. When the government covers his skeleton in indestructible adamantium, there is metaphor along with that metal.

Sabretooth had been played by former professional wrestler Tyler Mane (né Daryl Karolat) in X-Men (2000). "I have to be sensitive to somebody who did a great job in what was essentially a cameo role in the other movie," says Hood, referring to Mane's part in a supervillain ensemble. "Once it was clear that Victor Creed was going to be emotionally connected to Wolverine and not just a bad-guy antagonist, it became clear to me that I needed an actor with considerable dramatic experience." The RADA-trained Schreiber, who won a 2005 Tony Award for the Broadway revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, "is an actor with serious dramatic chops," says Hood. “I feel genuinely very fortunate to get an actor of his stature. You've not only got to measure up against an actor who's as physically very imposing as Hugh Jackman, but you've also got to measure up against him from a dramatic point of view because it's no longer a cameo role—it's the second lead."

The Sydney, Australia-based production encompassed "about 12 weeks of first-unit shooting and about 12 weeks of second-unit shooting running pretty much concurrently" in Australia and New Zealand, Hood recounts. Late reshoots took place in January 2009 in British Columbia, and at some point there was "a tiny bit in L.A." Hood entered the picture after early-draft screenwriter David Benioff (the novel The 25th Hour and its 2002 Spike Lee adaptation) "had already done his thing and developed the script as far as he wanted to develop it. The work with David was done with Hugh and the studio before I was ever involved. When I came on, [co-credited screenwriter] Skip Woods was already attached to polish some action and do some things for the studio." As for Hood's contribution, "I pushed hard for a relationship between the brothers, which I thought would really help the movie."

And he's the director; he has a right to. Yet as Variety reported in September 2008, Hood was "nearly fired…because of squabbles with the studio" and "two backup directors were in place." Director Richard Donner (1978's Superman, the Lethal Weapon movies), husband of Wolverine producer Lauren Shuler Donner, arrived on set, causing an explosion of Internet rumors that Hood was being replaced, as Donner himself had been on 1980's Superman II. Yet all concerned have since said that action-film veteran Donner—later credited as a Wolverine executive producer—was simply lending a hand, and Hood, indeed, remained.

Later, of course, came the much-written-about pirating of a workprint onto the Internet for a day or two on March 31.

"At first I didn't quite believe it: 'What, are you kidding me?' We'd been so careful for 18 months to not let anything get out of our hands. How the fuck did this happen?’ I thought, 'Jesus! We're so screwed now!' This thing just took off like wildfire, which on the one hand is flattering because it shows a tremendous interest in the movie—people wanting to see it so badly they're gonna download an unfinished version and watch it on a computer." Which leads to the other hand: "We spent many hours in a big sound-mixing studio looking at a big screen to give you a big summer-movie experience. And you're gonna watch it on a shitty computer with shitty sound?"

Ironically, Hood notes, "Some are now saying, 'Well, maybe it'll even help, because it got us on the front page of the newspapers.' Some said, 'Well, maybe you did it on purpose.' This I can assure you we did not do!" he laughs. "Nobody in their right mind would take the risk of letting a movie out in the world before it's finished. That'd be crazy nuts!"

Be sure to check out Frank Lovece’s sidebar article, “Wolverine Origins: Marvel.”