Jack The Giant Slayer: on the set with director Bryan Singer

While the cameras were rolling on Jack The Giant Slayer, Michael managed to get some time on the set with director Bryan Singer...

Bryan Singer is sold on 3D. In a massive studio at Elstree, halfway through the shoot for Jack The Giant Slayer (then known as Jack The Giant Killer), he’s in his element, reviewing shots from the previous weeks on a flat-screen TV in a small tent that is dwarfed by the beanstalk cross-section outside. The footage, two years away from theatrical release, is rudimentary at best, full of pre-vis effects and stock animation, but Singer’s imagination and rapid-fire chatter fill in the blanks.

This is a radical re-vamp of the familiar Jack and the Beanstalk tale, told with swashbuckling derring-do and an epic sweep. It’s his first film in 3D, his first with motion capture technology, but he’s already a vocal fan. ‘It’s a very Hitchcockian thing,’ he explains, describing the pre-capture animations used as guides for actors acting to eye-line marks, or performing in the void. ‘The way he used to put down a storyboard and say “here’s the scene”, I can say “here’s the scene you’re about to play.”’

Today – an early summer afternoon in 2011 – they’ll be lucky to get one shot filmed. It’s a tricky one, involving three actors, a wind machine and a bow-and-arrow. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is on his way to rescue the princess from the giants, with elite guards Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Craw (Eddie Marsan) in tow. They’ll have all sorts of nightmarish monsters to face once they reach the top, but first, they have to get from one leaf to another. A simple task for our heroes, maybe, but for a film crew shooting in 3D? That requires a whole day’s shoot.

While the crew change lenses and reset the cameras, Singer springs to life, calling out to an assistant, ‘play the one I screwed up!’. An exterior shot appears on the screen of a cavalry riding by; the camera pans in graceful motion, following the riders, before revealing, in anachronistic cameo, the bespectacled director gazing off into the English countryside, iPhone in hand. ‘Since I got my iPhone, I have to take pictures of everything at all times for some obsessive reason, and I did a dumb thing, I was completely oblivious.’ Yep, the director X-Men, Superman Returns and The Usual Suspects is, by his own admission, a Hipstomaniac.

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But he’s also one of the most interesting, candid and eloquent directors working today. His eclectic body of work – from superheroes to psycho-thrillers, from heist flicks to historical dramas – makes him unique in Hollywood. And he certainly knows his stuff. As the afternoon progressed, we had the chance to sit with Singer and watch the shots unfold, and quizzed him during the long downtime between takes, asking about the concept behind this fantasy adventure, the benefits and challenges of shooting in 3D, the astonishing success of the X-Men series, and how best to kill time during a boring shoot.

How similar is this to the tale we all know? Are there beans, a beanstalk and a cow and so on?

There’s beans, there’s a beanstalk… There’s not a cow. It’s a little about how stories like that get changed over the years and become the stories that we know. It takes the myth of Jack and the Beanstalk, which is a story from the 1800s, which is kind of a simple fairy-tale – I think it’s meant as a sort of allegory about the plight of the farmer, taking back from the fat-cats on Wall Street, the ownership in the form of the golden goose that lays golden eggs – and then merging it with the story of Jack the Giant Killer, which is a myth from the 1700s, which is a bloody series of tales about this character named Jack who killed giants and he has a seat at the Round Table. That’s not our story, there’s no King Arthur or anything, but it takes elements of those and merges them into an original. 

What attracted you to the project?

I like the fairytale and I like the story, but I also like the opportunity to work with this technology. I’ve never done a film with fully rendered CG characters, performance motion capture… So it’s a new challenge.

I very much like the story, and I got involved with this before the fairytale craze kicked in, but my initial interest was telling a fairy-tale and realising it in a full, realistic way. So it was fun to take the simplest, most basic fairytale – that’s the least based in reality – and actually try to realise it realistically. Because in your mind’s eye, you have an image of a guy climbing up a rope-like beanstalk and popping up in a cloud, but actually, what would that look like in real life? So that was the initial interest in doing a movie with this concept.

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There was a script that I read, but I did a lot of changes and rewrites to it. There were things that I liked in the script – characters and story beats – but mostly it was a conceptual thing that appealed to me.

What was your first encounter with 3D?

My first encounter with 3D was a pop-up book. And I loved pop-up books, especially ones where you’d open them up and you could actually move things within them. I loved it. I never was satisfied with the print medium. I was never a big comic book reader. I always needed things to be in motion, which is why I made the leap from photography to filmmaking at a very young age. 

Did you hesitate when you were asked to do this film in 3D?

No, because the studio said ‘you’re doing it in 3D!’ Actually, I didn’t hesitate, because for this kind of movie, the only concern was would they let me shoot it in true stereo, and I took a position. I wasn’t forceful about it, or demanding, but I encouraged the studio to embrace the idea of me shooting in true stereo. And this was after looking at a lot of post-dimensionalised movies, that I did not like the 3D on, and speaking at great length to fellow filmmakers like James Cameron and Bob Zemeckis, and people like that, who’d worked in this environment successfully.

And I figured, if they let me shoot in stereo, one, I think this movie, being a fantasy movie, warrants it, it’s right for it. Secondly, for me as a filmmaker, each film I try to make, I like to have new experiences, things I’ve never done before. Originally the idea was motion capture, performance capture, I’ve never done that before, but 3D was one more thing I haven’t done before. Superman Returns I shot with the Genesis digital camera, because I really wanted to shoot a film digitally. For Valkyrie, I went back to film, but I shot with Aeroflex cameras, because I was in Germany, and I felt it was appropriate.

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As my cinematographer points out, this is the first movie we’ve made that takes place in a time before electricity, so what are different ways that you can light a scene using the elements? A fire, the sun, the moon. So we’re trying to be interesting and clever about that in a 3D space. What’s nice is that the Epic REDs have 18-stop latitude, so you can really shoot by candlelight if you need to. And also they have an amazing exposure. On your iPhones, you’ve got a capability called HDR, well the Epic REDs give you a heightened form of HDR where you can basically be inside of a dark space shooting out a window, and it gives you the ability to collect all the information from the interior in darkness and all the information from the ultra bright exterior, and you can balance it all out as much as you want. So I’m experimenting with that, but also 3D. 

Have you had to learn new skills or techniques when shooting in 3D?

Yeah, you do. You have to be conscious. You have to be careful of too much movement, sometimes, because it can blur in 3D. Framing is different. If you push things too far to the side of the frame, they can bleed out into the theatre, and it can be uncomfortable. 3D is very often not about what’s in front of you, the subject you’re filming, but it’s about what’s behind the subject and also what’s in front of the subject.

It’s a lot like theatre. It takes you back to the mentality of stage design, where you try to create depth within a proscenium. When you’re watching a movie, you’re seeing a moving flat picture. When you’re watching a 3D movie, it’s like you’re watching a stage production, and you’re looking through the proscenium, and occasionally actors will step out of the proscenium onto the front of the stage. Very often, the reason theatre works is because we, as the audience member when we’re seeing a stage play, edit the performance in our own minds. With regular 2D filmmaking, the editor has that control, but here, one tends to do a little less cutting, and allow the audience to actually choose what subject they want to look at the way we do when we sit in our own, real-life, 3D space.

That’s another interesting thing. When you’re directing actors in a volume, there’s no cameras, there’s all sensors around and their helmet cams. So here, again, it’s like a stage play, they’re just acting the scene without any sense of where the camera is. And you do less takes, because you just do the scene. There was one actor who was having trouble with a line, and I wanted to get really close to the actor and say their line with them and direct them very intimately. Well, they’re in a suit, so they light up in the computer – I’m invisible, so I can walk among them and I’m not there. It’s another interesting thing – you can be right with your actors when they’re acting and you’re not blocking the camera.

Do you think it’s the future of filmmaking?

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Yeah, for character animation I think it is, because it allows directors like myself who are not animation directors per se, to have control over animated characters through the use of directing real human actors. But again it’s just a technology that’s being used for an old concept. Disney, when he animated characters, he would always have actors come and play the characters, and they would look at the references of those characters and draw them based on those references. So this is not a new concept, just a new technology. 

Does it make the shoot any more difficult?

We’re liking it. Sometimes there’s technical issues with the 3D. Remember, with each rig, you’ve got two cameras on it, so there’s twice as many things that can break. And we had a horse kick one yesterday, three feet into the air, so it’s kaput. So there’s more things that can go wrong, but we’ve had a lot of success. Knock on wood. We’re halfway through shooting and I’m still on schedule.

[The first assistant director wanders over. As we’ve been talking, Marsan, Hoult and McGregor have been rehearsing a shot which ends with Marsan kicking Hoult off the beanstalk branch.  Marsan is asking if, for the next take, he could try shoving Hoult instead. Immediately, Singer replies ‘I like the kick. Kick him. Kick him hard!’ Then, after a brief pause, he adds: ‘I mean, if it’s safe.’]

It’s very much a Hollywood production, but you’re shooting over here with a British cast and crew. Why’s that?

It’s British content. You know, ‘fee fie foe fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman’, it’s a very English story. We get certain cultural rebates from the government, which are really good. So we get more bang for our buck, moneywise. And also the talent pool is just great. I think I have an affection for English actors – if you look at Valkyrie, it’s half the National Theatre in that movie. And X-Men was the other half!

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How did it feel to have handed over the directorial reins of the X-men movies to Matthew Vaughn for X-Men: First Class?

Oh, it’s great. It worked out! Fortunately. I was saying, the key to being a good director, 50 per cent of it is picking the right actor. The key to being a good producer, I’ve found, 50 per cent of it is picking the right director, so that worked out. Certainly I think so. 

Marvel are moving towards big crossover events like The Avengers, but you had to do a very similar thing, bringing together lots of familiar characters in the first X-Men film. How did you approach that?

Well it’s ensemble filmmaking. It’s really challenging. It’s one of the reasons I hired Matthew, because I knew he’d done it before. And I’d done it with Usual Suspects. Trying to make a movie and give each of these characters enough to do, where they’re real characters. I won’t mention the films, but there are films where they just put all these characters in them and they all have a scene or two, they don’t have storylines. In X-Men, there’s Beast and Mystique, they have an entire arc. You have to understand, even if your character may not be the main character, they still have to have their own journey in the story, otherwise there’s no point having them in the movie, they might as well be extras. So that’s the big challenge.

[More time passes in between takes. Singer munches on a bag of crisps and gazes into the 3D monitor. McGregor, Marsan and Hoult are keeping each other entertained while they wait on their mark, halfway up the beanstalk. Later, we find out that they’re singing Elvis Presley songs to each other and trading woeful jokes.]

When you’re bored of shooting, after days and days, conversation degenerates. On The Usual Suspects, we were shooting a scene with all the cast – Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin, they were in a car looking over the marina where they were going to attack, casing the joint. We shot at the crack of dawn in a neighbourhood looking over this port. So nobody was around. Then suddenly this kid, this little kid comes out and he’s standing on his front porch, watching us shoot. And it’s so boring, it’s just a car, and the camera goes in the car, it’s goes out of the car. So I thought it’d be cool to give him a headset. And I do the scene, and the scene was them talking about their plans. And I take my headphones off, I direct, I change the camera, again and again. For like an hour or two hours we were doing this, and I forget the whole thing. And then I look over at one point, and I see the kid giggling, and I look at the car, and I realise. So I put on the headphones, and they’re like saying the most perverted… Then I’m like, get ‘em off the kid!

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Jack The Giant Slayer is released on 22nd March in the UK.

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