The sideburns and flares of Days Of Future Past’s 70s era gives way to the gaudy colours and tall hair of the 1980s in X-Men: Apocalypse. Again directed by Bryan Singer, Apocalypse introduces a new, very angry villain – Oscar Isaac’s titular mutant-with-a-god-complex – but it also gives its makers a chance to reference a whole bunch of stuff from the decade that taste forgot. Ms Pac-Man, Michael Jackson jackets and A Flock Of Seagulls haircuts all feature, and you won’t have to look too closely to spot a faithful recreation of a scene from a classic John Hughes film – right down to a cheeky cameo from a member of its cast.
Ahead of Apocalypse’s UK debut, we sat down for a brief chat with Mr Singer, where we talked about the film’s design and visual effects, and how Michael Fassbender’s abilities as an actor brought real drama to one of its most memorable scenes.
(There’s a very mild spoiler in here – nothing plot specific, but certainly something that hints at one of the film’s events. We’ve labelled it so you can skip through to the next question if you want to.)
Days Of Future Past was set in the 70s, and I remember you saying at the time that you were inspired by conspiracy thrillers of that era. So did this one let you tap into your affections for the films of the early 80s?
Yeah, absolutely. This one, also, [is set] when I was in high school – this was when I discovered my love for movies. And the arcade and videogames. So I kind of brought a sense of colour to the film that I was more cautious about. You know, I always like the X-Men films to be very much grounded in reality, but here I could get closer to the comic book, I felt. The imagery from the comic book, in certain characters and their costumes, just the overall design. And the music, of course. So yeah, it was just a really nice era to play with.
The period scenes in Ancient Egypt – those gave you a chance to channel a bit of Cecil B DeMille, perhaps.
It felt like it! When we did the Egyptian scenes, we had thousands of people on set. That was my chance to build some really cool stuff, both exterior and interior – I call it the Well of Souls because I’m an Indiana Jones fan, of course. And I was also an Egypt fan, meaning when I was very young I built a sarcophagus, I read all about King Tut, the whole Nile Delta, the Giza Plateau – these were things were so interesting to me as a kid. I always dreamed of going to Egypt but I never got to go. So to be able to recreate some of that in ancient times and have it inform the character – the idea of pyramids creating energy and power, which is something theorise – I got to use a bit of that. There was a lot of fun for me personally, stuff that I jazzed on when I was a kid in this movie.
Apocalypse himself, and his whole thing about survival of the fittest, his almost eugenicist approach to the planet – is that your response to the world at the moment? It feels as though there’s a lot of division around, but this film’s about collectivity.
Well, I think it’s more the idea of false gods. Whenever someone tries to view themselves as higher than everyone else, and more than everyone else, it’s a recipe for problems, conflict, disaster, wars, death and destruction. That’s what ultimately ensues on a global scale in this movie. That’s what Apocalypse represents – it’s in the name. Oscar and I had long conversations about history, about religion, about cults. We would exchange songs that inspired the character. So it was really interesting, too. We don’t touch on it in the movie, but to me there’s almost an alien aspect to it – so in designing the costume I thought about that. But that’s more internal.
Can you talk a bit about the way you conceive the action sequences with Simon Kinberg?
Simon writes, “Action ensues,” and I sit there and I go, “Simon, Simon. What am I supposed to do with that?!”
No, the dance we play when developing the script is, as is always the case with the X-Men movies, when the action starts, who is fighting who? Because if the wrong characters are fighting, the fight will end very quickly. Like, if you put one character up against Cyclops, he just takes his glasses off, it’s over. So it’s all about coordinating geography… it’s a bit like a dance. I’ve always had a knack for it, from the first X-Men at least, when we didn’t have the toys and the facilities and visual effects we do now… now we have that. We try to make sure that all our action is character-motivated. That’s the one thing Simon and I are very strong on – character, story. If it’s just action for action’s sake, let someone else do that movie. That’s a different kind of filmmaking.
[Incredibly mild spoiler follows]
That’s what I thought was interesting about the scene with Eric in Poland…
Sorry, my lips are really dry. [Applies chapstick of some sort.] I’ve failed and destroyed my chapstick. Okay I’ve embarrassed myself.
-…yeah, so that scene’s a really good example of character-motivated action.
Yeah. With a character as strong as Magneto, played by an actor as strong and amazing as Michael Fassbender, how do you bring that character to the lowest place possible, so he’s susceptible to the will of Apocalypse? It was heart-wrenching to shoot the scene. We were even emotional in the tent, listening to it on the headphones and watching it on the screen. I remember after he did it, I went up to Michael and gave him a big hug and said, “Thank you. Thank you for that. [Pause] Now I need you to do it again, but this time look over this way…”
He’s like, “Yeah, no problem.” And he can do anything, man. Him and James McAvoy can cry on cue from whichever eye they choose and decide when the tear drops. These guys are so great. And Oscar probably could but Apocalypse doesn’t cry.
He’d leave tracks in his makeup, wouldn’t he? Like mascara lines? [Laughs]
Who knows what it would do! The whole thing would probably come off!
[Incredibly mild spoiler ends.]
So what can you do now with visual effects that you couldn’t when you did the first X-Men?
Oh, the advent of effects, 3D technology – you know, we’re one of the few films that actually shoots in native 3D. So it helps with the rendering of the effects, it helps the quality of the image. Now we have more sophisticated rigs that can do that. And more seamless visual effects. They can render lighting better, surfaces. I always try to incorporate real physical stuff. Real actors, physical sets. Not make it feel like one big CGI-fest. And that way, when you do extend a set or bring in a visual effect, it has more organics to it – there’s more reference. When you’re shooting in true stereo, now for the visual effects people, they have real stereo images to key off. So that’s all developing a mile a minute, you know.
The sequence with Quicksilver this time, how much of that is real and how much is digital?
A lot more is real than you think. We did use certain visual effects, certain digital effects and explosive algorithms. But we also took multiple phantom 3D cameras and ran them in protective cases through physical explosions. We blew up our sets. We waited until we were done with them, and then blew them up. We flew the cameras through at 80mph rolling at 3000 frames per second. And so if you watch the dailies, you can actually see a flaming book move across the screen slow enough to read the chapters. For the Quicksilver scene, it took us a month and a half to shoot two minutes of film. Evan Peters worked for 17 days on just that one two-minute sequence.
Crikey. With that, we sadly have to leave it there. Bryan Singer, thank you very much.