21CF Chats: ‘The Gifted’ EP Lauren Shuler Donner on comparisons to ‘X-Men’ and ‘Legion,’ starting in the industry as an outsider


On Monday, Oct. 2, at 9/8c, FOX will open another door to the Marvel universe on the small screen with the new family adventure series “The Gifted.” The series, which comes from 20th Century Fox Television in association with Marvel Television, revolves around a suburban couple who discover that their children have mutant powers. The fallout will feature plenty of action, drama and, more importantly, profound themes that may strike a chord with audiences in the way it does for the show’s accomplished executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner.

Lauren Shuler Donner, executive producer for “The Gifted”

A producer on every X-Men film since the first movie in 2000, Lauren is also the executive producer for FX’s hit series “Legion,” which began shooting Season 2 last week. As executive producer for “The Gifted,” she has unique insight into how the new series relates to the film franchise and “Legion,” what it means to translate success in film into success in television, and the show’s central theme. I recently spoke with Lauren about these and other topics:

You helped 20th Century Fox acquire the rights to the X-Men characters about 23 years ago. Are you surprised that live-action TV shows are becoming a prominent outlet for the franchise?

No, I’m not surprised. There are a myriad of X-Men characters and stories, which is why I wanted to turn them into movies; lots of characters and stories to explore. We were successful, fortunately, in the feature-film realm, so it felt like time to explore some of the stories on the small screen.

How do you resolve the tension between telling Marvel stories on the small screen versus on the big screen?

The difficulty comes more in the X-Men world as opposed to the Marvel world. In the X-Men world, we have to make sure we don’t trip over ourselves. The Marvel world has a lot of different characters, and each character has its own canon. The X-Men have been around for more than 50 years, so you don’t want to get in the way of what we did in the feature-film world. And obviously, we want to move forward in the feature world and not repeat ourselves; we want to branch out, like we did with “Deadpool” and “Logan,” and are now doing on “New Mutants” and we hope to do the same with X-Force. Those encompass a lot of the characters and a lot of the stories – they have to get out of the way of each other so the audience doesn’t feel like they already saw that. And obviously, if we do a TV show, we don’t want to do something that we’re already doing somewhere else.

That brings us to “Legion,” which is a bold step beyond the familiar X-Men films. How does “The Gifted” compare to the X-Men films or “Legion”?

“Legion” is a very different animal. It’s impressionistic, traveling between reality and memories, and doesn’t veer into the feature world, except that David Haller is Professor X’s son. In the X-Men films, we were setting up a world with mutants who, though feared and loathed and treated as outsiders, fought for humanity. For the first movie, we had to assume nobody ever read the comic books. There are humans and there are evolved humans (mutants), and beyond that there are evolved humans who feel they’re also superior. The focus had to be on the characters. Today the audience knows a lot from the past 10-20 years, but we have to set it up again for “The Gifted.” We have to say: “There’s a family and it turns out the kids are mutants. What do you do?” Then you have to submerge them into a mutant underground, so now we’re meeting a whole new set of mutants. We’ll be learning about them, how they suffered, how they have risen above, how they have succeeded or not, and how they interact with each other and how they interact with the world.

You mentioned in a previous interview that these stories have always been about tolerance and outsiders – something you just alluded to. Does that theme resonate with you on a personal level at all?

Oh, yeah. Growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio, there were segregated streets and clubs and schools; segregated to keep everyone out but white Christians. And I was a camerawoman in the early days of my career, and I was considered a freak because people had never seen a woman behind the camera, and the guys did not want me around. It’s hard to forge ahead when people don’t really want you there. It was very painful, but nobody ever saw it – if I had to be upset, I went to the ladies’ room. I built a tough exterior, which helped me when I became a producer.

Your career has largely been built on phenomenal achievements in Hollywood. Is it difficult to translate that success and know-how into the world of TV?

I had to learn the structure of television. It’s extremely fast-paced: You’re shooting one episode while you’re prepping another, while you’re editing the one before. But the core of television and features is character and story, understanding structure, working with a director, working with actors, working with the studio. That’s why there are so many of us who go back and forth, because you’re still storytelling, you’re still engaging an audience in a character’s conflict, or you’re still trying to say something through the characters in a story, whether it’s in a 30-minute, 60-minute or two-hour format.

What excites you most about people finally getting to see “The Gifted”?

Well, we’ve been working on it so long, I want them to see it already! No, I’ll tell you, you want to know what I love about it the most? I love our cast. I keep saying this, and this is not to pat me on the back because there are so many people involved, but we cast it well. I really love our cast, and that is what you tune in to see in television. You tune in to see what’s happening to them, what happened to them, what’s going to happen to them. “The Gifted” is also a little more personal. I think “Logan” succeeded so well – [director] James Mangold did such an amazing job – partly because it was very personal. It was really about this character that you have come to love and the end of his journey. Sure, the action scenes were phenomenal, but really it was about the character. That’s what I’m really hoping that “The Gifted,” will do: help audiences engage with these characters and care about them.

“The Gifted” premieres Monday, Oct. 2, at 9/8c on FOX.