‘X-Men ’97’ Directing Duo Chase Conley and Emi/Emmett Yonemura Discuss ‘Milky Way Ghetto’ And The Gut-Wrenching Episode 5; “The Thing About Tragedy Is Not Everybody Gets To Say Goodbye”

Even though it’s been nearly two months since Disney+’s X-Men ’97 ended, fans are still debating what occurred in the jam-packed first season. This new iteration of X-Men continues the iconic and beloved animated series X-Men: The Animated Series that aired from 1992 to 1997. More than just a nostalgia trip, the updated series brought back many of the former creatives from the original series in order to stay true to the 1990s sensibilities but push the envelope of what a modern-day X-Men series could look like.  Following the fall of Genosha, X-Men ’97 deals with the complex relationships between mutants and humans alongside the ramifications of Professor Xavier abandoning his team of mutants and leaving his formidable nemesis Magneto in charge.

In conversation with Deadline, directors Emi/Emmett Yonemura and Chase Conley break down the emotional challenges, heart-wrenching scenes and difficult choices made to make some of the most widely discussed episodes of the season.

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DEADLINE: Where does your relationship with the X-Men and Marvel start in general? 

CHASE CONLEY: I grew up in a rural town, Morganton, North Carolina. That’s where my family was from going back generations. My grandfather would have to drive into town to get his medication and back then, comics had spinner racks everywhere. So, eventually he would start buying me comic books every time we went to the pharmacy. And me being a latchkey kid, I had this growing stack of comics that I would come home and I would read after school. I had this natural proclivity for drawing, and those characters were so dynamic to me at the time. This was the early ’90s, so this is the height of Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri and the Marvel guys. It was these larger than life characters, their colors and their artwork… and right around then it aligned with X-Men: The Animated Series as it was airing on TV.  All of this became an outlet for me to explore artistically, and then getting props from my friends in school, I became the guy that they wanted to draw everything. So, I was like, “I think I’m going to do this.” And so I’ve always associated [comic books] with the birth of my artistic expression.

EMI/EMMETT YONEMURA: I was more into Japanese animation and manga, especially being half Japanese. I felt like it was such a great avenue for me to find my artistic senses and abilities, and then watching things like X-Men: The Animated Series growing up and being like, “Wow, we can do this too. This isn’t just content coming out of Japan. This is content that’s coming out of [The States], and look at how mature these storylines are. Look at how dynamic these characters are.” I found a huge attraction then to American comics actually kind of as a gateway through X-Men: The Animated Series, and actually ended up going to The Kubert School, because I wanted to follow that dream of also doing comics. And then, what was great about that was finding out how the Kuberts were also involved in actual X-Men comics and beyond.

Joe Kubert is just such a huge beginning influence for me. Learning under him was probably one of the most valuable things, but I really found a true appreciation for American comics once I finally went to that school and really saw how much was put into it and how much that industry does. And then from there my love of animation continued. That’s how I got here.

(L-R): Magneto (voiced by Matthew Waterson), Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio), and Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann) in Marvel Animation’s <em>X-Men ’97</em>
(L-R): Magneto (voiced by Matthew Waterson), Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio), and Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann) in Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97

DEADLINE: And in being here, we can also lightheartedly blame you for the devastating Episode 5. The episode most widely talked about on the internet and beyond. It is also the one up for Emmy consideration. Can you talk about this controversial Rogue, Gambit and Magneto pairing and building that heart wrenching dance sequence?

YONEMURA: When I got Episode 5, I had notes [laughs]. I had things where it was obvious that was like, “Look you need key moments.” We had to make that dance really sing, because you need to believe it. But also because, in the storytelling mode, you’re lulling the audience into this safe area, where you’re so focused on the relationship, you don’t see Genosha happening in the background. It was really a matter of kind of letting the storytelling and the emotions actually be what throws the audience off. So it is a distraction. So that means that it’s got to play, and it’s got to work, and it’s got to make sense. And another big goal of the episode was then destroying Genosha. And so it’s like, “OK, well, how do you introduce a whole city and destroy it in the same episode?” So then we knew, “OK, well we got to get people to fall in love with it,” and to fall in love with it also has to be alongside Rogue and Magneto on their journey there. It was to follow the rest of the kids there and kind of establish that this is a safe place. It was really about a lot of setup and making sure things paid off.

I worked closely with Cassey Kuo who was helping me assistant direct on that episode. It was really a matter of sitting with her and kind of going, “How do we find these moments and make them shine?” So she was the one who came up with how the kids are playing and running through the streets, and we see that, and to introduce us to Genosha. And she was also a huge part in helping us find that beautiful dance sequence. Sofia Alexander also helped board the initial dance, and then Cassey came in with me to really help find the intimacy, and to get those real sexy moments in. The real intimate part of their dance was all Cassey. And that was perfect, because when I first read the script, I was like, “Magneto and Rogue? No, I’m a Rogue and Gambit person all the way. What is this? I’m not into this. Savage Land? We can forget about that. Come on, no one wants this.” [laughs]. But then it’s like, “OK, well, how do we convince ourselves that we do want this?” So it was kind of like, “All right, let’s make this really sexy. Let’s find that attraction of why is Rogue attracted to this guy? Oh, because she can touch him. Well, then, I guess this dance is all about touch.”

So it was really about trying to find the thesis statements of each of those, to make them shine, so that then, when we came back around of breaking everybody’s hearts with Gambit, it’s like you were kind of with Rogue this whole time of her emotional rollercoaster, so that then, when you get there, to the end, and you see her and she’s in the fight with Gambit, and you can kind of see this love between them where they’re like, this is what they really enjoy, this is who they are, this is the couple that we love, to then just rip it out of everybody’s hearts. It’s like a delicate balance, but working with a good script and then working with brilliant board artists to really bring that all together.

Spider-Man in Marvel Animation’s <em>X-Men ’97 </em>
Spider-Man in Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97

DEADLINE: Chase, you’ve got a lot of Marvel character cameos in Episode 10. How did you go about making sure everyone like Peter Parker and Daredevil had their spotlight? Were you conscious of the staging and who made an appearance or not? 

CONLEY: There was flexibility, but I think that a lot of it is like, “What is the intention of why we’re showing particular heroes?” One, we wanted to show, I’ve always associated the Hell’s Kitchen group of superheroes as the real ground-level heroes. So it’s kind of just showing you the scale of like, “This is what’s happening on a greater scale with Bastion and the X-Men,” but on the ground level, people are rioting, and what’s the last line of defense as far as that’s concerned? And so there’s the ability to push back in those situations, if we see another character that may be better suited for that situation, or if there’s any kind of legal reasons why we can’t show anything. But for the most part, we all agreed on who would be there. I love Daredevil, I love his cameo from the ’90s Spider-Man show, and being able to include Spider-Man in there and answer the cliffhanger that Peter did find MJ. The cameos were also there just to show the widespread effect of the Prime Sentinels, globally. So we showed them in Wakanda, and we saw Black Panther ain’t having none of that [laughs]. Black Panther didn’t even have to hide inside, he went outside to go take care of business. And we wanted to show what was happening in Russia with Omega Red, and in Japan with Silver Samurai.

DEADLINE: In the wake of the first season ending and the wide range of vocal reactions on social media, was there anything that actually kind of surprised you or something that you weren’t expecting? 

CONLEY: Because there’s so much happening in each one of these episodes, it’s kind of difficult to do. But my goal was to give Jubilee her just due. Jubilee is one of my favorites. I enjoy drawing Jubilee.  I wanted her to be more than what she was in the original series, especially since we had an episode that was themed around her graduating into adulthood and then showcasing her powers that she saw her older self display in the form of Abscissa and just slowly introduce those into the show. So the biggest surprise to me is when fans would be like, “You know, I hated Jubilee, but you guys made me love Jubilee. I liked Jubilee, because I hated her,” and they make sure they say that first, you know, “Because I hated her.” [laughs]. The actual love and desire of people to see ’90s Spider-Man was cool too. It was similar to when Luke Skywalker popped up in The Mandalorian for me.

YONEMURA: I was really surprised seeing how much fans were starting to actually hate Rogue for cheating on Gambit [laughs]. It was really fun because I loved seeing how the audience was really responding to the soap opera of it, and people were like, “Man, I don’t know if I like Rogue.” And I was just like, “Oh.” And that was before Episode 5. Then with Episode 7, we saw everybody switch, and then no one talked about how much they didn’t like Rogue anymore. And now, everyone talks about how much they love Rogue and how much they totally agree with her, and I was like, “I love this.” It was really fun to almost relive my own rollercoaster of emotions with her, because again, when I got to that episode, I was like, “I’m sorry, she was doing what with Magneto in the woods? No, thank you.” Then to just ride with the fans as they experience that two years later by the time that this came out, I mean, it was very much like, “Yes, welcome to my rollercoaster of emotions, everyone.” I really enjoyed seeing that reaction from fans.

DEADLINE: What was something that was challenging during the process of directing your respective episodes? And how did you get through it? 

CONLEY: The most challenging was the intercut between the A story and B story in “Lifedeath Part I” and “Lifedeath Part II,” because tonally with the mojo of it, though I see the overlapping themes as far as one person leaving their life that was this way, and now it’s another way, as the overall arcing aspect of it is packing those two things out so they still have emotional weight was very challenging There’s so much narrative and you want to just stay in those moments and hope that we choose the right moments. Then it’s also mainly just about hitting some primal emotion, if you can, which I think is just good storytelling. There’s some horror elements and survival as a theme and love as a theme and redemption and some of those things that make it easy to relate to in these episodes. And trying to choose impactful visuals that will stick to the ribs of the audience to help prop those themes up is important. That was the biggest hurdle and challenge for me, but one that I felt like I was ready to tackle.

YONEMURA: The very last scene in Episode 5 with Rogue holding Gambit’s body. That actually went through multiple versions, where in some cases Gambit was still alive, and then dies in her arms. There’s some where he was kind of walking the cool hero walk up to her. And Beau [DeMayo, creator]  and I actually worked really closely on that, because it just never was hitting emotionally for us, and it wasn’t for the execs, either. They kept feeling like he was having two deaths now, and it kind of took away from his big moment and we agreed. There was another death scene that got cut, that was Callisto’s because I know that we just kind of see her on the rooftop in the gardens, but she actually had this really sweet scene with Magneto, where she is asking him to go save her Morlocks. My heart was so sad. I did not want to lose that moment, it was one of my favorites. It was so beautifully boarded by Jalin Harden. But Beau had a great point there where he was like, “The thing about tragedy is not everybody gets to say goodbye, so why do we get to say goodbye to this character?” And I was like, “Harsh.”


YONEMURA: Yeah, very harsh. Because Callisto was always one of my favorites, even as a kid. And so with Gambit, I just kind of took that rule into my head of like, “No, Rogue doesn’t get to say goodbye, and this is what accelerates her into it being even angrier.” And also, just how much more impactful it is to just be with Rogue in that moment, and she’s just holding him, and you see that she’s finally touching him, and she can’t feel him, and you just go out in black on that. And so it was a tricky spot, because we knew we had to do it right, and I’m just really relieved that it got the results that we wanted. But it was tricky, because there was always multiple versions.

Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith) in Marvel Animation’s <em>X-Men ’97</em>
Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith) in Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97

DEADLINE: I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up a particularly viral line from one of your episodes, Chase. Deathbird hurls an insult at professor Xavier and the counsel by calling Earth a “Milky Way Ghetto.” There were so many memes and people coming to self actualizations about our place in the solar system. 

CONLEY: Charley Feldman wrote that episode, and probably that line of dialogue. But I did know that after that episode, I was like, “Deathbird might be my favorite character in the show,” because she walks in, turns up on everybody, you know what I mean? Drops in, she’s got all the entrances, all the bars, and I like that she’s always on 10 the entire time. And it made me feel some kind of way, that’s how I knew it was a good line. I was like, “Damn, we live in… I guess it kind is.” You start thinking about life, like, “Damn.” [laughs].

YONEMURA: It is, we’re in the Milky Way Ghetto.

CONLEY: The Earth is kind of hood, you know? We do hood stuff, we do hood activities [laughs].

DEADLINE: We are a little ratchet down here, aren’t we? 

YONEMURA: I do believe it was a line change by Beau in post, but it was solid. It was so perfect. It was such a good line for Deathbird to say in that moment because it’s such a dig, and it’s true. We are on the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy… such a good call [laughs].

CONLEY: Such a great dig.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

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