Bryan Singer interview: X-Men, Days Of Future Past, Star Trek and more

Interview Ryan Lambie 19 Feb 2014 - 17:00

During our visit to the Days Of Future Past set last June, we spoke to Bryan Singer about directing X-Men, Star Trek and more...

We had to feel a little bit sorry for director Bryan Singer when we visited the set of X-Men: Days Of Future Past last year. Not only did he have a gigantic summer film to create, but he also had a terrible cough ("Sorry, my allergies are going crazy," he told us), and he had load of jet-lagged writers gathering round to disrupt his day.

Yet despite his hectic schedule, Bryan Singer was kind enough to take about half an hour to answer our questions about his new X-Men film in a lively group interview. He also spoke about how Days Of Future Past harks back to the ensemble filmmaking of The Usual Suspects, and also his lifelong affection for Star Trek, which led to his brief cameo in Star Trek Nemesis.

Can you tell us how you came to have two casts?

Originally it began with a discussion Matthew Vaughn and I had, where we felt that although fans love seeing new characters, they also love the familiar. So it was a way to make it special, and do a movie that isn't a sequel or prequel, but what I call an interquel. And Days Of Future Past's framework was a really great jumping-off point, because it's such a great book.

It's been a while since you've done an X-Men movie. Do you feel that stepping onto a set and directing a new one is different now with other projects behind you?

Yeah, I think so. I produced X-Men: First Class - I was involved in the development and execution of that, so I feel like I've been recently involved in the universe. Directing is weird. It feels very familiar, and it feels more comfortable, going back into it, than doing something new.

Does the structure of this film hark back to The Usual Suspects, which played around with time?

Yes. In fact, in two ways. One, structurally, and also in the way I've shot it. Because I shot the elements that take place in the future first, and The Usual Suspects was a movie that carried one actor through both the flashbacks and the present day. It was like shooting a little movie first. That movie starred Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Dan Hedaya, Giancarlo Esposito. And they all left and the suspects came. 

Well, we've got the same thing here. We had the X-Men of the future - all the actors I'd worked with before - and then they left, and then new people arrived, so you really feel like you're making two separate movies.

Are they stylistically different, those two halves, and how are you approaching them?

Yeah, the future is tonally very cold. And the 70s is the 70s.

What's the most challenging aspect of shooting in 3D?

Well it's interesting. To talk 3D for a moment, Jack The Giant Slayer was a film I actually shot in native stereo as well, and I used stereo monitors. And I found that it was very educational because I learned what worked better or worse in 3D. But on this movie I wanted to be more aggressive with the camera, so I made a conscious choice not to direct using 3D monitors, and to use normal monitors.

I know you were pretty wowed by the 48FPS Peter Jackson uses on The Hobbit. Is that something you thought about using for this movie?

I feel it would have been impractical. I also think it works for certain things, and other things it's not so good for. We talked about doing some scenes in 48 and others in 24, and alternating, but...

Are you in a Twitter race with James Mangold and Marc Webb?

Yeah. A friend of mine's working with Marc, and I hear we both like tweeting a lot. I'm not very big into social media, but I made a promise that if I ever did another film with a pre-existing fan base, that I would do Twitter. Because I feel that there's always  a lot of chatter about a movie you're making, and it's always nice to be able to share something and connect with the fans. I do all the tweets myself, which is why they're sometimes misspelled and a bit stupid.

It's also a way to reassure people and take a bit of control of your press. I remember on Valkyrie, this film I did with Tom Cruise about a plot to kill Hitler, we were shooting in Germany, and there was all this scrutiny over the movie. It was like, "Oh God, they've got to go back to LA to do reshoots. They're in trouble." And it's like, no, we had a desert scene and there are no deserts in Germany! We had three days in the desert. It wasn't fun to be, "Calm down everyone. We're fine." 

Are you aware of how positive the response has been to that?

I've been told it is, and I sometimes read talk-backs on Twitter, but I when I make a movie I try not to go online and read too many articles or things like that. But people read them and tell me, "Oh they're happy with this!" I remember one, they were like, "Oh no, no leather uniforms." And I had the pleasure of tweeting, "No, there's no leather." And they were, "[Relieved] Oh. Okay."

Did you get a picture of Peter [Dinklage's] birthday cake for Twitter?

He likes the cake, actually. Peter and I are both from New Jersey, and we're both very shy. We're both, "No happy birthdays." But we did the cake. I did tweet it, yes. But no one seems to have reacted to it. Or maybe they did.

Talking of uniforms, which are we going to see this time?

In the past, less. Some, but less. In the future - you'll see. The future's more of a warzone.

It seems like a really cool move to inject the series with science fiction and time travel, and these big ideas. How do you translate such a crazy, wild comic book story?

To me, that's the thing that made it more appealing than just doing a sequel. It is somewhat a science fiction movie and a time travel movie, which I've never done before - it's a new thing, as opposed to another X-Men picture. That part is challenging and kind of fun. The key is making something where the past and the future can intertwine, and there's a logic to it. You get into a lot of stuff with that.

I thought I'd cracked it. I was talking to James Cameron in New Zealand, and I pitched it to him - I was at Peter Jackson's party. It was a real trip, one of the most fun conversations I've had in years. And he was really into it - he'd done time travel in The Terminator, so I said, "Okay, here's what I want to do with time travel", and I pitched the thing, and he seemed to approve. He gave me all the physics behind it. So yeah, it's trying to create a time travel film with integrity.

Speaking of powers, is this why Quicksilver's in it? Obviously he's being used by Marvel as well, so can you talk a little bit about that decision?

He was in our script quite early. It's not a big part in the script , he's not there throughout the picture. Super speed's been played throughout the series - Twilight uses it... Can you bear with me for a second? [Consults monitors for a take]

I had some ideas of how to do the power, the speed, that I hadn't seen before. So I started development with super high-speed photography and stuff like that, so yeah. It's a fun character.

Point of view type stuff?

Yes.

He looks like a strong personality. We saw some artwork of his room and his look. He has a little Walkman type-thing.

Yeah, that's modelled after the first portable tape player.

We've seen Bishop as well. What other new characters are there?

Blink, Bishop, Sunspot, Warpath - but he's an old character. Those are all in the future. The only new one in the past is, is Quicksilver, I think.

Is Scarlet Witch in it?

There may be a reference, but no, no. There are 26 main characters, and with seven of them, there were a lot of restrictions in terms of schedules.

I really wanted Peter [Dinklage]. If you're an X-Men movie, you can compete with another movie and still be in first position, but if you're up against a television show... Peter was in the script forever, but the reason he was announced so late was because I didn't want to announce the character until we had an actor. It took me so long to figure that out.

[Consults monitor again] 

You're working with the younger cast from First Class for the first time as director. Is there a different vibe with those guys?

Yeah. The older cast are a bit more set in their ways, and the younger cast are having, like, a party. Every day they dance and play music in their trailer, I'm told, and then they come here. It's hilarious. I've never had a cast like it. They're having so much fun, and then the moment the camera rolls [snaps fingers] they're on it. They're fantastic actors. I'd worked with Nick [Hoult] on Jack The Giant Slayer, James [McAvoy], Michael [Fassbender], Jennifer [Lawrence]...

What I'm finding most interesting is just how much fun they're making it. More than I've ever seen on any other film, and my sets are usually pretty happy.

Can you tell us about Bingbing Fan's character, Blink?

She's a very dark character. She's more Mystique than Raven, and part of the movie deals with a battle for the soul.

How important is continuity in this film, will we see Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique become the Mystique from the first X-Men films? Or will time travel open up the door to change things?

I don't want to give that away. But what I'll say is that, in terms of the way we play the characters, this is an alternate universe movie. We're respecting the continuity of the previous movies as best we can. It's not easy bringing certain characters back to life, but we're doing our best. 

I was curious, because of the time travel aspect and the ensemble, whether you went to other movies and were inspired by movies from the 70s.

Those are my favourite movies, the movies of the 70s.

[Consults with someone over a shot - Singer decides he wants a profile shot of Nixon]

I think from The Usual Suspects, I've learned to love ensemble pictures.

How does this movie interrogate the themes of the earlier films?

It establishes that some villain characters may have been right with their fears. And it confronts the notions of hope and second chances. It's characters that are lost trying to find themselves. In X-Men one and two, the characters had come into their own and knew who they were. In this one, they're all lost. And they're trying to keep it together.

How has technology changed since the first films?

We have so much more technology. We re-watched the first X-Men films. We didn't have the effects stuff we have now. But we still do as much practically as we can.

One of the best things about First Class was the friendship between Erik and Charles. Obviously they're in different places here, but how is that in this movie?

It's great. Yesterday we did James [McAvoy]'s first scene - or the first scene where we'll see him in the movie. And he looks like a homeless guy. He's a really great character. When we made X-Men one and two, Patrick and Ian always had questions about where they came from, and what was their friendship, and First Class was a beautiful way to explore that. In this one, they're on the journey to becoming Patrick and Ian. So it's nice to have Patrick and Ian in here as well, to remind us where we want them to go.

Is Nixon a villain in this film, or is he just a pawn in a much bigger game?

He's Nixon! [Laughs] Not all of that speech is going to make it. There's two parts to the speech that I'll use, and one part is kind of filler because we cut away to another scene to some ominous thing that you'll see. I just asked for some filler dialogue that is a bit draconian. He's not really so [aggressively] "Rrrr!"

[Here, someone asked an inaudible question about time travel]

As the story structure was coming through, I believe I cracked the time travel logic. Then once that happened, we thought it was a story worth telling, this could be fun. Especially for people like my mother, who aren't particularly X-Men fans. The moment I told her what it was, she was like, "Oh, I love time travel movies!"

Time travel movies are very specific. Whether it's Back To The Future or The Time Machine or Looper, there's something eternally interesting about going into the past and affecting the future, multiverses, and all that stuff. 

When you're making a genre film, you do have to think about people like your mom, though, don't you? Because you can't just make it for the comic fans. Was your mom a reference point?

No. I wouldn't want to see that movie. [Laughs]. "There's so many explosions! It's so loud! I don't understand."

But you can't get too geeky.

No, I care primarily about the fans. I know you're never going to please every fan. But I am conscious of the audience outside the fan base. Particularly with X-Men, because if you compare the success of the X-Men versus the Marvel films, you'll see Marvel's reach is so much greater. Everyone knows who Hulk and Spider-Man are. X-Men's always been a bit of the bastard stepchild of the comic book universe. It's its own thing - it exists on the outside.

I didn't initially know who Wolverine was. But I knew who Spider-Man was. I knew who Batman was. So it's important to make a film that can reach outside the X-Men bubble of exposure and interest.

What were you into as a kid?

I was into Star Wars and Star Trek. Every night I'd watch Star Trek with my friend at his house. I had two friends, and one friend was Spock and the other was McCoy, and I was Kirk.

Are you keeping an eye on that franchise?

I don't know. It's scary. Jumping into someone else's franchise scares me.

We saw in the production department some of the art for the future sequences. I was wondering if that scratched your Star Trek itch.

I saw the pre-vis of the X-Jet landing, and to me, it literally looks like a Klingon Bird of Prey. I said I wanted the nose from Concorde and this from that, and then I saw it, and I was like, "Fuck, it looks like a Bird of Prey."

Have you figured out how you died in the Star Trek movie?

I think I got sucked out of a front window. I think I'm in about 19 frames of that movie. I remember being at the premier, and Halle Berry's sitting in front of me, and my 19 frames came on, and she actually turned around and looked at me. [Laughs] And I have a trading card, a Star Trek trading card!

Bryan Singer, thank you very much.

We'll be running the full interviews with X-Men: Days Of Future Past's cast and crew over the next few days. You can read our set report here. The finished film is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd May.

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