For a 40-year-old gay director who has made his name with movies about misfits, loners and outsiders, Total Film finds Bryan Singer to be a man with the quiet confidence of a person who knows he has Hollywood at his feet.
Bryan Singer: I’ve always identified with him. I was an adopted child, an only child, and I’m an American, just like Superman. In a way he’s the ultimate immigrant. He’s very proud of his heritage, where he comes from, and he carries it with great pride.
A character like Wolverine is a very cynical character, but Superman is very idealistic and gets hurt sometimes because of it. Superman represents America and what America is. It would be great if he really existed.
Singer: It began when someone mentioned they were making a Superman Vs Batman film. I was talking to [co-writer] Mike Dougherty about what I’d do if I had these two superheroes in a movie, and I started thinking, “What if I was just making a Superman movie?”
Then I thought that I wouldn’t want to touch the first one because to me it’s a classic, so I’d make him gone for a while. In fact, a lot of Superman Returns is about what happens when old flames re-enter your life and the complications that arise from that.
How important was it for you to receive the blessing of Richard Donner, director of the original Superman film?
Singer: I’m not sure that I would have wanted to make this film without his approval. So I met with Richard and his wife, Lauren Shuler-Donner, who I’d worked with on the X-Men films.
I explained my vision for launching a new franchise; I told them I wanted to cast a new actor in the lead, like Richard had done. I also explained that I didn’t want to retell the whole legend from the beginning, but have some continuity with the first two films. Richard liked my ideas, which made me happy.
So much of the film rests on Brandon Routh’s shoulders. When did you know he was your guy?
Singer: Superman was always going to be played by an unknown, so that meant going through a lot of tapes. I had seen a tape of Brandon that intrigued me.
I figured I’d know in 20 seconds if it was a no-go, and 20 seconds later I’m thinking, “It’s still working for me!” I started to feel good about him, so after 10 or 15 minutes I said, “Do you want to go outside?” He stood up, and up, and up, and I went, “Woah!”
Singer: I first became aware of Kate through Beyond The Sea, the film Kevin directed. Her chemistry with Brandon was extremely good, very appropriate for the role.
For her young age – she’s only 23 – I felt she could carry the maturity and experience of a woman who’d been a reporter for a period of time and also had a child of four or five. The combination of chemistry and the ability to carry that off impressed me tremendously.
Singer: It began when myself, Ethan Hawke and Brandon Boyce, a friend of mine who adapted Apt Pupil, were at a dinner in Los Angeles at four in the morning. And Ethan suggested: “We should make a movie. It should be about us. A bunch of guys like us!”
So I went home and wrote it. It took us a long time to raise the money and make a short film, but we did – it was called Lion’s Den. That film got me Public Access, which won a prize at Sundance in 1993, and that got me The Usual Suspects.
Public Access was a great calling card, but it was Suspects that put you on the map. When you were making it, though, did you ever feel you might lose your audience in its labyrinthine plot?
Singer: That’s why we made it on a very low budget; it cost £5.5m and we shot it in 35 days. After about nine drafts, the script got to a stage of complexity where I thought, “How can I open this up?”
One, shoot in ’Scope and literally open the screen up; two, cast actors who are different and striking; three, create a rich, thematic score; four, create images that are iconic; and five, have a narrator.
Your next project was Apt Pupil. How involved was Stephen King in the production?
Singer: Stephen had seen The Usual Suspects and had a great deal of trust invested in me. I think he felt, “I’ll let this guy take my story and see what he comes up with.” So that’s how it worked. I talked to him on the phone many times, but I didn’t really have any interaction with him until he saw the film.
Having been brought up Jewish, did you get any stick making a film about a Nazi war criminal?
Singer: As a Jew who lost his entire family history in the Holocaust, I am of the belief that any time you reference that event, whether it’s in comedy, in music or art, it’s a good thing.
Even if it’s a Roberto Benigni comedy like Life Is Beautiful, it’s important because it acknowledges that it happened and that the atrocities were not invented. There is a lot of guilt in Germany and concerns about perpetuating the German stereotype. But as a Jew I say, “Sorry, I think it’s important so it doesn’t happen again.”
Apt Pupil fared poorly at the box-office, but you still ended up at the helm of the $75-million blockbuster X-Men. How aware of the comic-book were you before you took on the movie?
Singer: I was not familiar with X-Men. What inspired me initially was the idea that they were reluctant superheroes, living in a world that hates and fears them. That struck me as very interesting, a little more depth than just revenge or fighting for the sake of it.
The idea of being born the way you are, searching for acceptance – it’s what every adolescent experiences at one point or another. It’s what I experience every day.
The pressure must have been very intense, particularly when Fox brought the release date forward six months. Did that impact upon the finished product?
Singer: Naturally, I would love to have had more time. It was very difficult trying to split myself between many places and try to finish the movie quickly, and also maintain the level of quality that we were going for.
I would have liked more time if I was to do it again, but no, I don’t believe that anything was either sacrificed or harmed. In fact, there are some wonderful blessings that occur when you’re forced to be quick.
The X-Men films and Superman Returns are heavily reliant on special effects. Was there ever a danger of these effects taking over?
Singer: Special effects are like lights and cameras: they’re tools for creativity. I’ve got a relatively active imagination, and they enable me to visualise and telegraph aspects of it. If movies are driven by special effects, I think that’s a problem. Movies should be driven by story.
So is that the case with Superman Returns – that it’s driven by story, not special effects?
Singer: Definitely. Superman’s pretty much done everything he could possibly do in terms of the comic-books and the previous films, so we had to think of something new. At the same time you have to acknowledge and pay tribute to the legend that’s existed in the past.
How has your take on Hollywood and the filmmaking business changed over the years?
Singer: When you’re a kid, Hollywood is this magical place where you can play with giant toys and tell wonderful stories. But when you enter the film business, you realise it’s like any other business.
If, however, you’ve managed to establish yourself as a strong, independent filmmaker who can keep budgets at a level that’s economically manageable, you can maintain control.
With a pair of massive hits under your belt, though, do you feel a bit more secure?
Singer: I never feel settled. I approach each film as if it’s my first and last, so I still have that feeling of, “What am I doing here again?” But I’ve improved my shorthand for getting results and understanding the way things work emotionally and structurally. I’m also better able to make huge decisions quickly.
Is that a holdover from the days when you didn’t have two pennies to rub together?
Singer: The remarkable thing is, you’ve got 800 people on payroll, immense amounts of equipment and support, and it’s all to create a piece of celluloid that can physically fit in a couple of cans.
Which is why I find myself the most stressed when I’m shooting a close-up. I’m thinking: “Shouldn’t we just be doing this in my backyard?” In The Usual Suspects, 30 of the close-ups I got in my backyard. Keyser’s foot, Keyser’s hand, the burned-up skeleton... Those were the days!