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‘The 355’ Director Simon Kinberg Talks Female Spy Movies, ‘Star Wars,’ and His New ‘Running Man’

The ”X-Men: Dark Phoenix“ filmmaker also tells TheWrap about Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton’s new film

Simon Kinberg, whose sophomore directorial effort “The 355” hits theaters this week, really has done it all. As a screenwriter and producer, he has worked with Ridley Scott on “The Martian,” shepherded the Fox iteration of the “X-Men” franchise (his first film as a director was 2019’s “Dark Phoenix”), and assisted on everything from Robert Downey, Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes” to Disney’s “Cinderella.” But with “The 355,” he’s embarking on an original property (scripted by Theresa Rebeck), one that could potentially be as long running and successful as any of the preexisting series that he’s been a part of.

“The 355” concerns a CIA agent (Jessica Chastain), who teams with a British agent (Lupita Nyong’o), a German agent (Diane Kruger), a Chinese agent (Fan Bingbing) and a Spanish agent and psychologist (Penelope Cruz). This group of rouge spies team up to root out corruption and stop a potentially deadly new technology from killing countless innocent civilians.

TheWrap recently spoke with Kinberg about what it was like putting that all-star cast together for “The 355,” his time working on the “Star Wars” movies, and got updates on his version of Stephen King’s “The Running Man” (co-written and potentially directed by Edgar Wright) and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton’s live-action sci-fi drama “Chairman Spaceman.”

The last time we spoke was on the Disney lot for [animated series] “Star Wars: Rebels.” What was your time with Lucasfilm like and what happened there?

Simon Kinberg: I don’t know how much liberty I’m able to say, but I will say that I think I’m allowed to say this and I have said it before and, and no snipers taken me out yet. I came onto “Star Wars” before it even sold to Disney. I came on very early in the process when George Lucas had hired Kathy Kennedy to take the company in a new creative direction and it was myself, Larry Kasdan and Michael Arndt. We spent a lot of time up at Skywalker Ranch together, which was an extraordinarily magical time. I met George and I met Dave Filoni and I’d been a huge fan of “Clone Wars.”

Obviously a massive fan of the original “Star Wars,” all the “Star Wars” and over time, I created and wrote a lot of episodes of “Star Wars: Rebels,” and was very involved as the executive producer in that show, which I was really proud of. I would come in now and then, to watch cuts of things, to read scripts, to give notes, to give thoughts. On the first “Star Wars” with JJ, we were in a little TV writer’s room, Michael, Larry and I. And Michael wrote the script and Larry ultimately rewrote it and I think I’m thanked at the end of that film. So, I was part of the process. It was a family of people, Pablo Hidalgo and plenty of other people whom I know you know.

And it was fun. It was great fun. I have tremendous affection for Kathy Kennedy and for everybody that was part of that process.

Universal Pictures

With “The Book of Boba Fett” on Disney+ now can you talk about your plan for the Boba Fett movie?

That I cannot share.

Can you talk about where “The 355” came from? You’re obviously so used to these franchise productions or adaptations, did you approach this any differently?

It came about in a simple way, and it came about from a franchise context, which is… Jessica Chastain and I are very close friends. We became close when I was producing “The Martian” and she starred in it and we became even closer after, our families are very close. That’s part of how I convinced her to come do an “X-Men” movie and she was in “Dark Phoenix,” and while we were on the set of that, she approached me… I think we were having dinner and she said, “Look, I have this idea of doing a female ensemble spy movie.” And I got really excited by every element, which is, I got excited about working with Jessica again, because I adore her and think she’s one of the greatest living actors we have and I got excited about doing something in the spy genre, which I hadn’t done since “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which is the first movie I ever made and was an original and I wrote when I was in film school. So, it was five million years ago.

And I got excited about them being female spies and I got really excited about this notion of doing an ensemble spy movie. It’s just not something you see, it’s weird, but when you think about the genres, even “Mission: Impossible” has really become the Ethan Hunt franchise and then there’s Bond and Bourne and “Kingsman.” I’d have to go back to like “Ronin” for a proper ensemble spy movie, where people are coming from different countries. So, I just got really stoked about that and it’s different. It is different writing, creating, directing, whatever you’re doing something original versus something that’s adapted from a massive piece of IP.

I’ve really spent the better part of 20 years working on IP, whether it’s “X-Men,” “Deadpool,” “Logan,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Cinderella,” “Star Wars.” Even “The Martian” was based in a book. Couldn’t think of better IP obviously, that’s the dream, the creme de la creme, there’s nothing better if you’re going to be working off of someone else’s original ideas. But being able to create something where there are no boundaries and there are no predetermined definitions or expectations can be very liberating. It excited me and I think we were able to do some things in this film where we just felt very uninhibited about making decisions.

Is that part of your brain still working though? Were you thinking about the possibility of future adventures?

I think when you’re working in a genre, you always to some extent are thinking about is there a possibility that this extends beyond this one film? When you fall in love with characters, the way that we really fall in love with these characters, making the movie, you’re like, I’d love to make another movie with these characters. I’d love to make another movie with these actresses. Maybe there’re more actresses that could be added, but we became this little family making this movie and the characters became this little family in the context of the movie. We definitely kept it open, but it felt like one singular mission or adventure that they go on together and maybe they come back together and maybe they go their separate ways.

Well, can you talk about rounding out the rest of the cast and also the decision to in some cases, totally cast against type?

Yeah, again, testament to Jessica Chastain, we made a wish list of our actresses and actors. It was really important to us for the movie to feel global and not just global in terms of places they go, but global in terms of the cast as well. You often see more often than not, you see white US, UK men as the spy and they go around the world and they’re sort of tourists in a travel log and we really wanted the cast to be international. We also wanted to reflect the world in which we live, which is not a predominantly white world, and it’s not a predominantly white cast. When you think about the five women, two out of five of them are white Jessica and Diane, and then you have Lupita, Fan Bingbing, and Penelope Cruz. We really made a wish list with those criteria in mind and just being able to have different perspectives from different parts of the world. Again, Jessica, just through sheer tenacity and people wanting to work with her, got pretty much everybody we wanted to say yes.

The 355
Universal Pictures

We wanted someone from the US, which is Jess. We wanted somebody from Europe, which is Diane from Germany. We wanted somebody who felt like they could kind of float, which was Lupita who’s UK, but the character has who knows background, like Lupita herself has African background, but also was born in Mexico. Then we wanted Penelope who is Spanish and is playing Columbian and Fan Bingbing who is Chinese. It was an incredibly, deeply collaborative process and they all brought something different and special to their parts and many of them did play very much against type. I would say Lupita playing the nerd or the computer hacker type character that’s usually someone like Simon Pegg and not somebody that’s been on the cover of Vogue. She was against type and she really embraced it. She did unbelievable. She’s an incredibly prepared actress, like all of these actresses and she just spent so much time studying hacking, computer language, literally became fluent in it so much so that she would correct me on set, if I was doing something that would betray the reality of it.

And then obviously Penelope, you don’t think of as the sort of nerdy or uncomfortable fish out of water mom and that was something that Penelope said from the very beginning, she was like, “I don’t want to play the fiery Latina character. I don’t want to conform to stereotypes. I want to actually do something that’s going to feel nuanced and complex and challenged and shake up the genre a little bit.” Also, I think she knew from the beginning… Penelope’s funny, we’re seeing it in some of her movies now and we’ve seen it before, but she brings, I think much needed comic relief humor to moments of this movie. So, that was something else that was very much again, I’m not sure the world sees Penelope as a comedic actress. It’s not like it’s a curse to be one of the most beautiful people in the world, but it does typecast you in a certain way.

Do you have any updates on Edgar Wright’s “The Running Man?”

Yeah, Edgar is co-writing it with Michael Bacall and they’ve been working on it. I’m as excited as anybody else in the world. Maybe even more so about that script coming in and knowing Edgar, it will be extraordinary. I’ve known Edgar a very long time, actually about 20 years, goes back to “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and when he came out to promote “Shaun of the Dead.” So, the hope would be that all goes well and we’d be filming that movie in the next couple of years.

What about Andrew Stanton’s “Chairman Spaceman?”

We have a great script for that, which would not be surprising given that Andrew oversaw it. He is a storytelling genius, which is also not surprising. It’s been really cool to see the sort of Pixar process put on something that’s not in an animated movie. We have a really great script and we’re very optimistic that we’ll be able to shoot that movie this year.

Is there a genre or a property that you haven’t touched that you’re dying to try out? You haven’t really done a straight up horror movie yet.

I like psychological horror movies, like “Get Out” or “The Shining.” Pop up scare horror movies are not so much for me. It’s not something that I think that I’m yearning to do, and I’m not somebody that could ever really write a straight up drama. I would say “Chairman Spaceman” is pretty close to a drama though, it has science fiction elements to it. I don’t know. I think there’s sub genres within science fiction, and within the action genre that I haven’t done. In many ways, I haven’t done just a straight up action movie.

They’re often spy movies or superhero movies or “Sherlock Holmes” or something like that. I think the idea of doing something like “Die Hard” or “Lethal Weapon” or “48 Hours”, that kind of like muscular, straight ahead, “John Wick”-style action movie, that’s interesting to me to try to figure out in a way that “John Wick” did, how to innovate. How to make a modern version of that kind of action film. Like just a fastball, down the middle kind of movie, that’s just adrenalized from start to finish. That seems interesting to me.

Is that something that you’re actively sort of thinking about?

Not until right now.

“The 355” is in theaters everywhere right now.