Exclusive Interview: The man behind the X-Men

Producer Bryan Singer talks X-Men: First Class, 3D and playing with comic book mythology

'When I first conceived the movie it was before the 3D craze. Suddenly now everything is in 3D but it never felt like this needed to be in that format. Jack The Giant Killer, which I’m directing now, does lend itself to the 3D format more. It’s a fantasy film and the pace is a little bit slower, whereas when you get into all that frenetic movement it changes the way you shoot. There would have been no physical way to pull it off and I never felt it was necessary and nor did Matthew [Vaughan]. We were never like ‘Damn, I wish we could be doing this in 3D’.  How you shoot does change somewhat when you’re shooting in 3D, I’ve discovered.'

Why did you decide not to direct it yourself?

'I was already committed to doing Jack The Giant Killer and I also saw this as an opportunity to produce something. My company [Bad Hat Harry] has done a number of things but nothing this big. It was such a great opportunity to make this the first big studio picture from Bad Hat Harry and from me as a producer. I thought if I could find the right filmmaker who understood what I wanted out of it and who had reverence for the first two X-Men pictures, which Matthew had – he was very much keyed off those movies and we got along. I realised it could be a really fun experience to see ideas I had come to life without me having to sit there every day on the set going ‘Aaargh’, which can often be the experience on an aggressive schedule like the one Matthew had making an X-Men film.'

Were you in any way a co-director of the film?

No, not at all. It’s his movie. I wrote the story and I worked with writers to develop it, I brought Matthew in, I worked with him through the casting process and design ideas, but then I was very pleased with the rewrites he and Jane [Goldman] were doing. As a director I am not going to hover over another director; that’s not the way I would want to be produced. I help in any way I can, then in post-production I give my notes and he honoured as many as he could or wanted to.'

Was the cast all your first choices?

'Pretty much, yeah. There were a few people we looked at before we knew other people were available, then suddenly people we really liked were available and we got them. I had to fight for Michael [Fassbender] because he wasn’t as established as James [McAvoy] but I just said ‘This guy is it’. That was the one time where Matthew said ‘I need your help to get this done’ because we both saw his audition tape and agreed that he was the guy.'

Is it true you didn’t want James and Michael to study Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s performances in the other films?

'Yes, that’s true. This was a time when they were different people, they were different characters. This was a time when Erik/Magneto was a very angry, vengeful victim of the Holocaust but also had enormous charisma and sex appeal. And it was a time when Professor X was much more naïve and idealistic and young, a time when they were romantic, a time when they hadn’t yet hardened into the characters. So the last thing we wanted them to do was sound like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.'

The mutants are a very diverse bunch….

'It’s a little like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. We were very conscious this would be a much more international X-Men picture set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You’ve got Russia, the United States, the CIA, all that stuff. Plus there’s always a desire to show that the mutant phenomenon is a global one and the X-Men have always been multinational. There’s always been a lot of great stories involving mutants from other countries.'

It’s so much more than a special effects movie, isn’t it?

'I’m most proud of the fact that while a lot of these movies descend into visual effects mayhem, even though the effects do ratchet up at the end of this one so does the story and the emotion. In that way it felt very much like X-Men 2 to me.'

Were you already fascinated by the Cuban Missile Crisis?

'Somewhat. I thought the movie 13 Days was cool and the fact we were on the brink of nuclear war and guys like General Curtis LeMay would have nuked Cuba in a second, the fact Castro said he would have advocated an exchange of fire even at the cost of his entire island, the very emotional telefax Krushchev sent over that night… it was quite a gripping time. Because there were no cameras around, there was no Internet and no embedded journalists we don’t really know exactly what happened in the ocean at that time and I thought ‘What a great staging area for some big mutant thing that happened but we may not have known about'.'

Did you have any worries about playing with the comic book mythology?

'No. Just as a writer who gets tasked to write a new X-Men comic wants to bring their own ideas to it, as a moviemaker it’s the same thing.  You’re making a movie based on these characters and you want to make sure you capture the essence of them, but you can’t be a slave to the timelines. You try to use logic, like I was able to bring Mystique and Beast into this movie because they look so different they could be old souls in the other movies.'

Why do you think the X-Men movies have proven so popular?

'I think at some time in everyone’s lives they feel ostracised, like an outsider. That’s inherent in who the X-Men are. Also, unlike other superhero movies, it’s an ensemble and there’s always some character you can cling to. You can always attach yourself to and favour one of them or think one is sexy or something. That gives an audience more to bond with and connect with. The films stay true to those themes and they stay on-story so there’s an emotional component; you actually feel something emotionally, you’re not just titillated and entertained by the visuals.'

How do you feel about criticisms of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine?

'It’s hard for me because I’m very sensitive to the fact those movies were made under certain circumstances that didn’t afford the directors all the protection and control that maybe Matthew had on this movie and I had on the first two. There was a certain tone that may not have translated and it may have been because of those limitations. When Brett [Ratner] came on to The Last Stand he was already attached to a script and pre-visualisation that had already been done. The movie was half-made. When I make a movie I start from scratch; if I want to use something someone else developed that’s fine but I don’t have to.  But Brett had so little time and he was under such parameters. With Wolverine I believe there was a certain tone but then it got kind of changed a bit, but if I’m not involved it’s hard for me to speak about it and if I am involved it’s hard for me to be objective.

How do you feel the Blu-ray format benefits a film like X-Men: First Class?

'It’s the best way to see a movie at home as it would look in the theatre. For the visual effects that are all perfect then Blu-ray is great but the ones that maybe got done at the last minute, er…. [laughs]'

What’s your home theatre set-up?

'I just bought the house next to mine and am building a home theatre in it, and a very sophisticated one. It won’t be done for a few months yet.'

And how do you feel about the fact films aren’t just watched in cinemas? Thanks to advances like Triple Play packages they’ve watched at home on Blu-ray and DVD, on laptops and iPads, even on phones…

'My favourite movies I discovered sitting in a little crappy dorm room at the YMCA watching very low quality VHS tapes on a tiny TV. I re-watched Jaws and discovered Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and the stories and characters were so compelling I didn’t mind it. I remember seeing American Beauty with Kevin Spacey at the premiere in Toronto on a big screen and all that and I was like ‘Wow, this is really good’ but it wasn’t until I watched it again on an airplane that I ended up in tears. But now people are seeing films in much better quality at home, with giant flat screens and all that.'

Finally, what's it like watching the Superman franchise carrying on without you?

'My movie made a good deal of money but I think in the end it was a bit long and a bit nostalgic for a summer audience. It would have been weird a couple of years ago for me to see another film being made, but now it’s fine – I’m so distant from it, I feel happy to be back with X-Men, Henry Cavill is a friend and he was my second choice for Superman, so seeing him play the role is exciting and Zack [Snyder] is so talented.'