Bryan Singer: X-Men has always been a little bit of the bastard stepchild of the comic book universe
Talking to Bryan Singer on the Set of X-Men: Days of Future Past
On Nixon’s place in the film -- villain or just pawn?
He’s Nixon. [laughs] But yeah, not all that speech [that he’s making today] is going to make it [into the finished film]. There’s two parts of the speech, which I’ll use the rest as kind of a filler because we cut away from the scene to this ominous thing that’s happening. You hear it on the radio, so I just asked him for some filler dialogue. It was a bit draconian, he’s not so “raaaar.” He’s just nervous.
What we can expect from the relationship between Xavier and Magneto this time around.
I just shot some… yesterday we did James’ first scene, not his very first scene but the scene that follows it promptly. When we come upon him, he looks like a homeless guy. [laughs] I mean James, he’s really found a great character for where he’s at. That’s kind of fun. When I made X-Men one and two, Patrick and Ian always had questions about where they came from, what their relationship was, what was their friendship. And so First Class was a beautiful way to explore that, and now this is the story of them slowly becoming, on the journey to becoming Patrick and Ian. So it’s nice to have Patrick and Ian in the movie as well to remind us where we want them to go.
Are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s performances informed by their younger counterparts at all?
Perhaps a little, but I think they know their characters. And also their characters are in a different place in this movie than they were at the end of X-Men 3.
On why he chose Days of Future Past over the many other X-Men comic-book sagas.
Well, this one because of the notion of the time travel element of it. It enabled us to find a way to incorporate both casts, and we really wanted to do that. And as the story structure was coming through I suddenly, I believe, cracked the time travel, the logic of it. And then once that happened it was, “Oh, this is the story worth telling, this will be fun,” Especially for people, people like my mother who are not particularly X-Men fans. Those are not her favorite movies of mine, but the moment I told her what it was, she was like, “Oh, I love time travel.” Because a time travel movie is very specific, whether it’s Back to the Future or Time Machine or Looper, there is something eternally fascinating about going back and affecting the past and future, multiverses, and all that stuff.
Since he has to make these films for audiences like his mom, and not just the comics fans, is his mom the reference point?
No! [laughs] If I was doing it, you would not want to see that movie. “Oh, there’s so many explosions and it’s so loud. Frank and I can’t understand.” Oh, but she loves Hugh Jackman. I take her to see his plays and backstage. But no, I care primarily about the fans. I know you’re never going to please every fan because it’s such a struggle -- it’s a movie, and you’re bound by [that].
On the X-Men’s popularity versus Marvel Studios’ characters.
I am conscious of the audience outside the fan base, particularly with X-Men. Because if you really compare the success of the X-Men films versus the Marvel films, you see Marvel’s reach is so much greater. My mom, everyone knows who Hulk is and Spider-Man -- well, that’s Sony, but it’s still Marvel. But X-Men has always been a little bit of the bastard stepchild of the comic book universe. It’s its own thing, it’s very rooted in… it sort of exists on the outside. And it’s not instantly… I didn’t initially know who Wolverine was or any of that, but I knew who Spider-Man was and who Batman was. So it’s important to help make a film that… what I hope with this one, because it deals with so much more and our cast is pretty big, that I can reach a little outside the X-Men bubble of exposure and interest.
On being inspired by ensemble films from the 1970s.
Well, I’ve always been. Those are my favorite movies from the ’70s. But no, I think I’ve grown. I think from The Usual Suspects I’ve grown to like ensemble features, because there are more things to shoot and more characters to cut to.
The difference between the technology of making this movie and the first X-Men.
Yeah, there is so much more technology. We re-watched the first X Men film, and the optical effects… We didn’t have computer stuff the way we do now. It’s just very different; this is a much bigger film. You do less physical [action when shooting]. You leave room for effects because you can do more, more with. But then there are some stunts you do as much practically as you can. Just bigger and more stuff.
The films and TV that he enjoyed as a kid.
Star Trek. I loved Star Wars and I loved Star Trek. Every night I would watch Star Trek with my friend on squawk box in his house. [I was] Kirk. I had two friends, one of them was Spock and one of them was McCoy -- Rob was Spock, Jeff was McCoy, and I was Kirk. I was the one who said, “We’re doing this and it’s going to work!” They were like, “You’re going to break something.” And I was like, “Get a hold of yourself!”
Would he jump into the rebooted Star Trek franchise as director?
I don’t know. That’s scary. Jumping into someone else’s franchise scares me. … [J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film] is a time travel conundrum, so you know it didn’t inspire this film necessarily, though I did look at how that’s done.
How he scratches his sci-fi itch in Days.
They just pre-vized the landing of the X-Jet for me, and it literally looks like a Klingon Bird of Prey. And it just doesn’t look like anything but that now. And I thought I was being, “I want the nose like the Concorde, and I want this to be that, and they’ll buckle up.” And then I saw it and I was like, “F#@k, it looks like the Bird of Prey.” [laughs] … You know, it’s funny. When [Patrick Stewart] is in the future piloting the X-Jet, he looks… it’s a little, “What movie are we in?”
On his cameo in Star Trek: Nemesis and how his character died.
I think I got sucked out of the front window. [laughs] I lasted 19 frames in that movie. I was at the premiere and Halle Berry was sitting in front of me, and I remember my 19 frames came on, and she actually turned around, “I saw that!” And I have a Star Trek trading card.
The superpower he would like to have.
I’d be Superman. All the X-Men mutations have all these problems and flaws. She can do this but she’s claustrophobic, he can do this but he’s in a wheelchair. Wolverine, every time they come out there’s agony. [Superman] can just fly, and that’s cool. Although some of my X-Men characters are flying now.
On maintaining a calm directorial approach on set.
I have an ulcer on my vocal chords right now, so I think this is the loudest I have spoken this week. I had to direct two days last week with no speaking literally. I wasn’t calm those days! Because I kind of lost it. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to communicate and you’re hitting your phone and everyone is reading it, and you realize how many people who work for you need reading glasses! But I think I’m particularly relaxed on this movie as we’re a day ahead of schedule, I love my cast, and I feel good about the story. It’s going well, so I’m not frustrated and the studio’s been lovely. They seem to be quite happy.
How he works with John Ottman, who edits and scores many of Singer’s films.
Now the party starts. Now I have banked enough footage where we have sections of the movie cut, so I’m up there every day bothering him. He creates a temp [music] track so some musical decisions and ideas are laid out [at this [point], but no, [the scoring] is a separate process. He literally stops editing at one point -- we have a second editor -- and he goes and writes the score. So it’s not something we get too much into yet.
On the thematic strengths of the X-Men world.
It’s a really great universe with a great set of characters, and the word I was thinking of earlier was “thematic” -- it’s steeped in… the theme interested me, about a bunch of outsiders. [This film continues that theme by establishing] that certain villain characters may have been right in their fears, and it confronts the notions of hope and second chances. That makes no sense out of context, but I think it’s about characters trying to find themselves that are lost. In X-Men one and two, those particular characters knew who they were, and these characters are all lost and they are trying to keep it together.
How Days connects to The Wolverine.
I saw The Wolverine sitting between [director] James [Mangold] and Hugh Jackman. It’s really good -- it’s an intense movie. It’s very much its own modular [thing]. I think what they intended to do, what they really wanted to do with X-Men Origins, was sort of a half Wolverine movie. This is a true Wolverine movie. It takes place in Japan and it’s very much about this character and it’s wonderful that way. But we respect its lineage and are mindful of it too.
On how big Days of Future Past will be.
In terms of sale, it’s the biggest X-Men movie. There’s lots of carnage and powers!
Is directing an X-Men film different now than it was when he made the original films?
Yeah, I think so. Well, I produced X-Men: First Class. I was involved in the development and execution of that, so I feel that I was recently involved in the universe, but directing it’s like, it’s weird; it’s a different cast of people. The ensemble of it is kind of unique and that feels very familiar to me, so now I guess it’s more familiar than other films I have directed. I feel more comfortable going back into it than doing something new.