FYI Ottawa: 8/19/01 and Canoe Jam!TV: 8/10/01
Mutant Next: Behind the scenes of the sci-fi series Mutant X
By CLAIRE BICKLEY
"I know when I was a kid I always had dreams about uniting the similarly mutant kids like me against the popular ones."
-- Forbes March, who plays Jesse in Mutant X
The dust-crusted minibus with the “Interplanetary Council” logo is a leftover from a former inhabitant of the massive Downsview studio on the outskirts of Toronto. Its current occupant, the new special effects and action-driven TV series Mutant X, doesn’t have characters who visit other planets. They travel in Audis and on Ducati motorbikes, not via matter transporters. They wear cutting-edge street clothes, not Spandex suits, masks and capes.
And although they may be mutants, they are not — got that? — not a TV spinoff of a certain blockbuster movie that also had mutants and an X in its title. Long before Mutant X’s premiere in U.S. syndication the first week of October, and later in Canada on Global TV, its new mutants found themselves battling for survival.
Last week, a U.S. court refused to halt production or force a title change as requested by 20th Century Fox, producers of last year’s X-Men feature film. Fox claimed the series was too much like X-Men, the exclusive rights for which it paid Marvel Comics big bucks. Marvel is also a partner with Tribune Entertainment and Toronto’s Fireworks Entertainment in Mutant X.
Following the ruling that the show may go on, both sides claimed victory — Tribune embracing it as confirmation that they aren’t copycats; Fox crediting their pressure with prompting major changes to the TV show’s look, content and promotion. The legal chest-thumping echoed all the way to the Mutant X set here at the old Canadian Air Force base in Downsview.
“I was deposed. There were lawyers that came to visit the set and see what was going on. I think it’s made the writers hypersensitive to the idea of not stepping on the X-Men movie,” says producer Jamie Paul Rock, who has grown weary of talking about this subject. “It was the general perception that we were trying to ride on the backs of X-Men, the movie, and I’ve got to tell you, from the very beginning that’s never really been our approach or our intent ... The mandate was always to try to generate a new franchise, a franchise that can stand on its own.”
Whether Mutant X’s evolution from costumed superheroes to more grounded, albeit heightened human beings was driven by legal or creative fuel, those involved now agree on one thing. Because of it, they may have made a better TV show.
The setup is still sci-fi fantastical. Sometime in the near future, somewhere in America, genetically mutated people with extraordinary powers live unbeknownst to the general population.
Aware of their existence are, on one side, Mutant X, a select group of mutants led by scientist Adam (John Shea), who helped create them and is now determined to keep them safe.
On the other side is the Genetic Security Agency, overseen by Mason Eckhart (stage veteran Tom McCamus), whose mission is to hunt down the mutants and harness them for its own evil goals. Other mutants aren’t aligned with either side and use their abilities for their own aims. But within its own context, Mutant X has grown more real.
Long gone is the plan for clingy costumes. Dropped are the characters’ alter-ego nicknames: Fuse for Brennan (Victor Webster), who can conduct electricity, Shadowfox for Shalimar (Victoria Pratt), who has animal DNA, Rapport for Emma (Lauren Lee Smith), who can read and control minds, and Synergy for Jesse (Forbes March), who can change molecular density from anything between smoke and stone.
“I always thought the suit thing was stupid and self-defeating,” says March, a 28-year-old from Halifax who as a boy identified not with the caped crusaders in the comic book rack but with the everyman heroes of war stories and such.
“Now it’s a relatable thing. Everybody feels like a mutant, whether they’re a visible minority or just a teenager with a pimple. I know when I was a kid I always had dreams about uniting the similarly mutant kids like me against the popular ones.”
March initially balked at an audition for the role of Jesse because the test scene had his character split in three and having a conversation among themselves.
“I was just, ‘What? Forget it.’ But my acting coach yelled at me and I tried to figure out how to do it. I did it and started getting more callbacks, at which point they decided he could no longer split into three pieces,” he says, satisfied with the way it evolved. “I’m an actor, not a set designer, so I want to play people. Anything they do to make the characters more human is fun for me.”
Designing Mutant X’s sets are the task of production designer Rocco Matteo, who aimed for the possible, if perhaps not quite the present. “The real trick when you take a comic-book fantasy is translating it into details that make it possible to embrace on some level in our world,” says Matteo. “There are little things that you look at and say, ‘I don’t think so,’ but how many things did we think would have been impossible 10 years ago that we’re now living with every day?”
The Mutant X Sanctuary fortress exudes the serenity of a Japanese temple garden, with its hi-tech equipment hidden by natural elements: Burnished copper, flowing water, soft wood, bamboo mats, stone and moss gardens. Villainous Eckhart’s Genomex plant — which Matteo dubs “a cathedral to invasive science” — is by contrast a cold, clinical and creepy take on corporate slick.
The studio’s third major element is the Double Helix, the Mutant X team plane. Matteo admits it was “a request from the broadcasters to give them something ‘wow’ for the audience ... They wanted something that was like, ‘That’s cool!’ ”
Want to watch producer Rock’s mood turn cool? Ask him about an early rumour that the feral Shalimar was going to have a tail. She doesn’t, and her animal side has other limits, Victoria Pratt says.
Like a cat, she can jump several times her own height but she couldn’t fall out of a plane and survive, for instance.
“I have a keener sense of eyesight and a keener sense of smell. Animal instincts. But it’s not like I have rows of nipples or anything,” she says, breaking into her delightfully dirty laugh. “I thought that would be a funny mutation. I was the only one who thought that.”
When the 30-year-old from tiny Chesley gets in touch with Shalimar’s inner kitty, she won’t sprout claws and go furry either. Her character’s main F/X is a cat-like transformation of her eyes.
Lauren Lee Smith, at 21 the baby of the cast and a giggler, gets going when asked to describe the physical manifestation of Emma’s telepathic powers.
“It’s just sort of a look of concentration, you know. Everyone has these elaborate (things) and I’m just, it’s like a headspin and then looking right off camera,” she says.
As one of the earliest members of the cast, Victor Webster had a front-row view as the concept was being massaged.
“I think there’s been a lot of minute changes and a lot of big changes. Even now, things are still getting tweaked here and there,” says Webster, 28 and originally from Calgary.
“In its original inception, I think it would have appealed more just to kids. Now that we’ve changed it, there’s more dynamics between the characters. It’s much more believable. It’s not a big comic book."
© FYI Ottawa and Canoe Jam!
Xpose 9/01, from Pink Hearts Victor Webster
New Season: Mutant X
It's got nothing to do with X-Men. Really. Or so say the people behind Mutant X, the new syndicated superhero action show.
Grant Kempster had his own thoughts...
It's one of the games of the year, the 'spot which movie they've based this show on' contest. It's not difficult, mainly because it happens so often, going from the literal (Weird Science, Stargate SG-1) to the plain obvious (Relic Hunter, Secret Agent Man). And then there's Mutant X, which is so determined to prove it's not based upon a big movie of last year that it's fought the matter in court. It won, too, which means that on top of the creative talent behind the show it sounds like they've got some super-powered lawyers too ('Quick! To the Bat-fax!').
Producer Jamie Paul Rock was recently quoted on the issue, saying that, "it was the general perception that we were trying to ride on the backs of X-Men.... That's never really been our intent...." which shoulds rather tentative if such noble intentions are true. The legal action has allegedly been responsible for behind-the-scenes changes which have actually improved the show, such as removing one-word names for our heroes and clothing them in normal fashions (what did you expect, yellow spandex?). Contrast this, however, with the presence of the Double Helix (our heroes' super-plane which was introduced thanks to the moneymen requirements of an obvious 'wow' icon) and you get the impression that for every two steps away from X-Men, there's one forward.
Whatever the origins, derivations or influences behind it, this October a new superhero series hits the screens. Mutant X is set in the near-future, where (get this) genetic mutations live among us (no!), some siding with and protected by John Shea's father-figure scientist (get away!), and others hunted by a sort of NSA for mutants which wants to use their powers. These abilities are extensive and varied; for example, the villain in Kilohertz who can transmit microwaves and has been banned from every frozen produce store in America, or Mutant X's selection of heroes who can do everything from conducting electricity to reading minds.
High up the cast list are a couple of actors no stranger to superheroics: John Shea played Lex Luthor in Lois & Clark (though here he's on the side of good), while Victoria Pratt was part of the Voice team in Cleopatra 2525 and here plays Shalimar, a owman with cat DNA. "It's not like I have rows of nipples or anything," she said regarding her mutation, before reflecting, "I thought that would be a funny mutation; I was the only one who thought that."
© Visimag's Xpose