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The Last Word: Bryan Singer

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

A power player in the industry for nearly three decades, director/producer/writer Bryan Singer is among Hollywood’s master craftsmen when it comes to bringing the intricacies of human nature to the big screen. His work behind the camera on 1995’s critically-acclaimed hit The Usual Suspects landed Singer on the map, affording the USC Film School grad opportunities to showcase his directorial talents on projects ranging from Apt Pupil and Superman Returns to the X-Men franchise he’s been a part of since 2000. We sat down with the 48-year-old triple-threat, who shot X-Men: Days of Future Past in Montreal, to find out whether his love of superheroes extends to the playing field and, more importantly, the ice.

Is getting back into the swing of things with X-Men kind of like riding a bike, or does it take some getting used to?

BRYAN SINGER: It’s two-fold. Some of it is like riding a bike, especially working with cast members like Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Shawn Ashmore, Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin, who I’ve had multiple experiences with in the past. We have a shorthand and we know how to communicate with each other. But there’s a part of this movie that’s going to be very different than the other movies. The times during which it takes place, the tone of the movie and what we’re trying to achieve with this particular movie is very ambitious for an X-Men film, so some of it is new territory. We’re shooting in Native 3D. It’s the first X-Men film that will be shot in Native 3D.

Do you sense any pressure being in charge of a film with such a rabid fan base?

BS: There always is. That’s why I’m happy that I finally have a Twitter account, so when fans start to panic when they get some misinformation, I’m able to ease their concerns. I’ve proven myself in this franchise, so I feel it’s a lot easier. I feel a little less pressure than I did when I was making the first X-Men movie. But there are always those concerns. People care about this particular universe a lot. Fans are very diehard. You want them to be happy.

Do you ever read blogs to gauge fan reaction?

BS: Some fan reaction, I do. I read some and I have people I work with read a lot of it to get a sense of what’s trending and what’s really important. When there are a lot of people voicing a concern, then it’s brought to my attention. Sometimes I read them myself because it’s just interesting and fun to have that kind of direct interaction with your fans. But it’s a very new thing to me. I never had that before. I was never really into social media before. I promised myself that if I ever embarked on another movie that had a huge pre-existing fan base like X-Men, I would get involved with social media so I could have better interaction with the fans.

What is your personal philosophy when it comes to filmmaking?

BS: For me, in the beginning, it’s all about the script. I basically hunker down, and every meeting I have, every discussion, whether it’s with the art department, the actors, or with my fellow producers about the budget, it always comes back to script and story. I’m working very heavily on that in pre-production but also throughout the process because ultimately it’s storytelling as visual and spectacular as you can make it. To me, the heart is in the story.

What’s your favorite superhero film that you have not been involved with?

BS: The original Superman from 1978. There was something director Richard Donner achieved by putting tremendous iconic actors in to play those roles. Donner was truly the author of taking the comic book universe seriously, particularly with the first act of that film. I think that will always be a favorite of mine.

Singer with X-Men cast members (L to R), Shawn Ashmore, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart and Adan Canto. 

What fascinates you about the superhero genre of filmmaking?

BS: I think the superhero genre is very much our modern day mythology. I think 100 years from now, they’ll be looked at much the same way we look at classic Grimm fairy tales and other Greek and Roman mythologies. They’re mythic. They’re morality tales. They represent true aspects of the Joseph Campbell journey of the hero, and yet they’re fantastical, so they tell stories about the human condition, but in a fun and visual way. Ultimately, X-Men is about tolerance and about learning to have faith in each other, in humanity and in who you are, and your identity. But it’s told with fancy jets and super powers and fun stuff that people can relate to as well.

You’ve done it all in the world of showbiz. What kind of work are you most passionate about?

BS: Ultimately, I’m a film director. That’s what I call my day job. I love being behind the camera. I love working with actors. But producing things like the TV show House or movies like X-Men: First Class are really exciting opportunities to foster other filmmakers and just be able to influence more things than I could simply as a director. When you direct, you can only direct one thing at a time, but as a producer I can influence multiple things simultaneously.

Who were some of your influences while you studied in New York before moving on to USC?

BS: My biggest influences as a boy were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and then as I grew as a film student, I began to really gravitate to three directors who I found most inspirational: Martin Scorsese, Peter Weir and David Cronenberg stylistically, and probably a little bit of Stanley Kubrick as far as filmmakers who inspired me early on, beyond Spielberg and Lucas.

How have your life experiences affected your work?

BS: Well I was an only child. My family didn’t have much money, so I didn’t have a lot of toys. I was forced to use my imagination when I was a kid. We’d go on long road trips and I’d be alone in the backseat of the car with not much to play with but my hands and my imagination, so I would kind of learn how to make up stories. I started writing when I was very young.

Singer at the helm.

How does directing for television differ from directing motion pictures?

BS: I think that directing for television is less about the visual style and more about the characters and the writing. I think you definitely want to have your own style, but you’re never going to be able to create cinematically the things you can do on the large screen. What you are doing is really introducing the characters into someone’s living room, so when I direct television, I tend to focus on the writing, the acting and really making sure the audience feels those characters. I won’t put them too small in the frame, so to speak.

Your long-time friend Ethan Hawke spent some time in Montreal filming over the years. Did he give you any insight into the city?

BS: No. I’ll tell you how I first became familiar with Montreal. I was going to do a movie with Johnny Depp called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I came up to prep it, and I scouted it, and the movie ended up falling apart and it was made with different actors. So I was already familiar with Montreal having spent three months prepping up here. Roland Emmerich, who did White House Down, is a very dear old friend of mine, so Roland talked to me about Montreal as well.

What stood out to you most about Montreal when you were in town?

BS: It has an incredibly diverse architecture, so when you’re shooting exteriors for movies that take place all over the world, there are a lot of different locations we could find. For shooting, it’s ideal for that. The crews are fantastic! And on a personal level, it’s a fun town. There’s a fun nightlife. It’s very diverse. Restaurants are unanimously great. In our first three weeks in the city, we went to a different restaurant every single night and each one was incredible. I’m happy we chose Montreal for the film.

Do you have any sports allegiances?

BS: When it comes to sports, because I live in Los Angeles, I’m a Lakers fan. Football, I’m a Steelers fan because my uncle lives in Pittsburgh and my cousin played football. Baseball, I’ll always probably be a Yankees fan. With hockey, it’s obviously got to be Montreal. That’s a no-brainer!

Catch Bryan’s latest blockbuster in the mutant franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past, in theaters on May 23, 2014. For real-time updates from the man himself, follow him on Twitter @BryanSinger.

This article, written by Matt Cudzinowski, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 28 No. 4.

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