Simon Kinberg grew up in what he calls the “golden age of science fiction,” when Star Wars, Terminator, Alien, and Blade Runner weren’t cross-media IP, but banger movies you got to watch on big screens. For Kinberg, growing up in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Westwood Village in the late 1970s and ’80s put him in skateboarding distance of a movie theater paying Return of the Jedi on constant rotation. He found himself waiting in line with hordes of people hungry to see again and again. His people.
“Maybe the equivalent is a new season of Game of Thrones or a new season of Stranger Things, but even then you’re not having to wait with strangers out in the heat or people who have camped out to see these. And so there was a real magic to science fiction for so many of us who lived lives that are normal or mundane, that idea of entering into a hole of the universe and escaping our world.”
In his later youth, Kinberg would pick up H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov and find even more dimension to the genre that would eventually come to define a career telling stories for the types of people who lined up on day one for Return of the Jedi. When he finally wrapped up college and got his foot in the door of Hollywood in the early 2000s, Kinberg was almost immediately writing for Steven Spielberg and Jerry Bruckheimer, and becoming a favorite of Doug Liman with Mr. & Mrs. Smith (later turning the director toward more straight sci-fi fare with Jumper). He was the genre ace, giving simple premises a heightened hook, often through the rewiring of sci-fi tropes. It’s no surprise that Fox eventually handed him the X-Men and Lucasfilm came calling with Star Wars.
Twenty years later, science fiction is not just a genre for Kinberg, it’s a career. With the second season of his series Invasion now on Apple TV Plus, Polygon caught up with the Hollywood multihyphenate to talk about turning that magic of his youth into the fuel for his movie- and TV-making.
[Ed. note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: Science fiction in its many flavors has been such a huge part of your career. So right off the bat, do you prefer “big geek,” “big nerd,” “big dork”…
Simon Kinberg: I’ve been called all those things through childhood and actually into deep adulthood.
“All of the above” — I relate. What was the first project you worked on where the assignment was “go world-build”?
Well, I didn’t build this world, but I grew up reading comic books and I had an opportunity really early on in my career to work in the X-Men franchise. Obviously, that became a huge part of my career in life. The first one that I worked on was [X-Men: The Last Stand], and when I started working on it, Matthew Vaughn was the director. With Matthew, it was a major departure from Bryan Singer, who had directed the first two movies. Matthew himself is a world builder — or maybe more than a world builder, a tone builder. He wanted to do something tonally very different than the previous two films. And so we were really in the script phase, even through pre-production, because Matthew was aboard for a long time [Ed. note: Vaughn later left the project over creative differences and was replaced by Brett Ratner.] And so it felt like, even though we weren’t creating an entirely new universe, because Bryan had obviously done an amazing job of building the foundation with the first two films, and all of those decades’ worth of incredible comics, we were creating a new tone within that world and new rules. I think you saw that tone in X-Men: First Class. But it was a real sci-fi sandbox.
I am guessing “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch” was not part of that tonal shift.
The real on that is that was a reshoot Ratner line.
The X-Men franchise only became more driven by science fiction as you got more involved. Was the studio always on board?
The gateway was Days of Future Past because even though there isn’t high science fiction, like apocalypse or aliens, time travel is as big a science fiction trope. It sort of opened up what we could do because even though it wasn’t technically the multiverse thing that, ultimately, I think in some ways spawned it, it was outside the bounds of linear storytelling on Earth. It was other dimensions. There wasn’t a lot of pushback from the studio. Although paying all those actors, I don’t think they were wild about that, but it was a successful film and one I’m very proud of.
With Apocalypse, we entered a much more science fiction tone. Bryan was directing the film, as he had so many of them, and it was new terrain for him. He would talk about being able to direct, like, a real, pure science fiction movie. Not space opera, but science fiction.
It’s interesting because around that same time, while I was working in the X-Men universe, I started working in the Star Wars universe.
You didn’t wind up writing a Star Wars movie, but it seems like you were heavily involved with shaping this new era — what was your actual role?
Very early on, like, at the inception of Kathy Kennedy coming aboard to join George Lucas in what would be the new Lucasfilm and the new Star Wars movies, they hired me, Lawrence Kasdan [screenwriter of Empire Strikes Back], and Michael Arndt [Toy Story 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire] as kind of mini writers room. We went up to Skywalker Ranch and spent a couple of weeks up there talking about what the potential new movies could be. And so initially, I think the ask was: Just come up and break ideas and stories and brainstorm with two other people. Then Michael, Larry, and I each talked about writing a different Star Wars movie. Michael wrote J.J.’s first Star Wars movie, then Larry Kasdan rewrote it. Larry wrote the Han Solo movie, and I was gonna write a different one.
What were you going to write?
I was gonna write the Boba Fett movie.
I had heard that the early Boba Fett pitch was a play to steer Star Wars more toward hard sci-fi, which would make sense for you.
I mean, it’s all pretty sci-fi, but I think “hard” is the right word. Tonally like Logan. On the edge of R-rated, though I don’t think you’d have a Star Wars movie that could be R-rated.
But at any rate, I think over time, my role morphed as a friend of the court. And so it ranged from being a consultant on the movies, give thoughts, notes, sometimes actual pages for scripts, and obviously co-creating Star Wars Rebels and really staying with that show that I loved. Part of what was so exciting about Rebels was that we were getting to do something that those movies I just mentioned didn’t entirely do, which is create a brand-new set of characters.
And look at them now!
Now they’ve come to actual life.
Over the years you’ve really veered from comic book-y sci-fi to the more grounded work you’re doing on Invasion. I know you produced Elysium, and there’s also this Logan’s Run remake that people have been trying to make forever — is that still happening?
I hope so! I think there’s enough specificity to Logan’s Run concept in terms of the age clock that makes it pretty different.
But yeah, I’ve worked on a lot of different kinds of science fiction, and a lot of it has been tonally… You have something really grounded, like The Martian. It was so grounded that when that movie came out we had to actually make a statement that it was not based on a true story. Obviously not; we have not sent human beings to Mars…
That seems like something people should know.
Exactly, yeah, that’s not something we’d keep covered up! But it was so realistic that it’s really a testament to what Ridley [Scott] and Matt [Damon] and everyone was able to achieve. And Logan, which was super, super grounded and dramatic to something like you say it’s much more science fiction, world creation, like what Neill Blomkamp did with Elysium. And I’m working now on the Battlestar Galactica movie. We were talking to directors and I think we’ll be able to announce a director soon.
I’ll say Invasion, for me, was a chance to, in some ways, bring a lot of these different strands together. Because it is really grounded in one hand in terms of being focused on the characters and emotion in the way that something like Logan is. And then also, [it’s] science fiction with aliens and supernatural sort of mystery, and elements that are very much not of this world, by definition. That, for me, was the fun of sort of bringing this very sci-fi construct that we’ve seen a million times. Certainly, alien invasion shows and movies have existed before, but to make it as human and relatable and emotional and grounded as possible, and to tell it from so many different perspectives, was really exciting to me. I’ve always loved The War of the Worlds, the book, and I loved what Steven Spielberg did with his movie, but I felt like those are always told from one point of view, and it’s a very singularly British or American point of view, British with the book [and] American with the movie, and I just loved the idea of, if we’re going to tell a story about the world, to actually open it up and be able to tell a truly global story.
I know you have another Apple series in the works that sounds like it could have a science fiction element to it: Sugar. How does that veer you in a new direction?
Sugar is really like a film-noir detective show with Colin Farrell, and Fernando Meirelles directed a bunch of the episodes. It’s really special and very different than Invasion. It’s a singular point of view. It’s a guy in Los Angeles dealing with very detective-y things. As far as sci-fi, I don’t know… There’s a lot of strange things that happen. I’ll leave it at that.
Thank you for this freewheeling conversation and please resume being a big dork.
It’s not going to change, trust me.
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