A prolific director whose resume over the past two decades has encompassed The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, X-Men, Superman Returns, Valkyrie, Jack the Giant Slayer, X-Men: Day of Future Past and most recently X-Men Apocalypse, Bryan Singer was a surprise announcement of the Edinburgh International Television Festival, yet his small screen production credits include House, Dirty Sexy Money and two forthcoming series set within the X-Men universe.
In conversation with his friend of twenty five years, Peter Rice, currently chief executive officer of Fox Networks Group having worked within the Fox group for thirty years including time at Fox Searchlight and Fox Television, it was a relaxed and entertaining hour within the main auditorium of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre’s wood panelled Pentland suite.
His second time in the capital, Singer confirmed he had been to the city twenty years before while promoting The Usual Suspects, his entourage ferried around in three green Daimlers, leading him to say that he “felt like royalty.”
Recalling their first communication, Singer’s Public Access had been shown at Sundance where it was joint winner of the Grand Jury Prize; wishing to contact him in the days before widespread mobile communication or email, the then-junior executive Rice penned a “flattering letter” which he left in Singer’s drop box, allowing them to arrange a meeting in Rice’s small office where they bonded over a framed poster of the Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing.
Dismissing the belief that directors and their masters are necessarily at odds, the perceived division between studio and “auteur,” Singer expanded on the idea: “It begins with the studio’s faith in you to give you money to make big movies, but in the end you both have the same goal, to make a successful movie.”
Dressed in his customary checked shirt, on the collaborative process of receiving feedback from executives, Singer said “I try to put myself in the head of the person giving me notes – why would he think I should do that? I don’t put on an actual suit as that would be too uncomfortable, but I do that mentally.”
While he now has access to much larger budgets than at the start of his career, Singer stated he now operates with self-imposed limits which he does not want to go above, yet still make the best film he can, with Rice agreeing: “You want to cut the budget but you want all the good stuff. Cutting the budget means cutting the script.”
It was Rice who approached Singer with the desire to make X-Men, having loved The Usual Suspects and thinking that he would be right for “an ensemble with character and action and mystery,” and that it was the right time.
Singer – who showed the audience his newly inked X-Men tattoo – recalled that the biggest battle he ever had to fight was over that original X-Men movie as there was no template for a modern superhero film; having managed to wrangle their estimate down to $78 million the studio then requested further cuts to take it down to $75 million.
Having made his name with The Usual Suspects, Singer was happy to be working with a large ensemble again on X-Men (“There’s more to cut to!”) but was aware of what was invested in it, recalling an anxious conversation with Rice while he was struggling with the edit, and the Zen-like response of Rice: “If this movie fails financially and artistically I will never get to make these kind of movies again.” “Well, I hope it doesn’t.”
The struggle continued in the second film, with Singer’s favourite scene, with Wolverine and Mystique in the tent, a particular point of contention, which the studio saw as nothing more than a colossal $600,000 on what they regarded as a minor character moment.
On his track record, Rice was sanguine. “There are a lot of bad movies in the world. Everybody goes into them wanting to make something great.” Aware that it was important to only engage with material he believed in, he admitted that the only project he had been unhappy with was one where he felt “I don’t like it but the audience will,” but realised “they are much smarter than that and they find that cynicism.”
Singer said one of the smartest things he had ever been told on set was from the then-teenage Ethan Hawke who starred in Singer’s short film Lion’s Den between Joe Dante‘s Explorers and Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society: “Actors equal production value.” Carrying that forward to all his films, he has always put the cast first and foremost, never trying to gloss over an absence of character with explosions even though he is most often associated with action films.
Working with Patrick Stewart for the first time, Singer was asked why Professor X was confined to a wheelchair, and even then he had the notion that it was related to an incident with his sometimes friend, sometimes enemy Magneto, but dissatisfied with the vagueness Stewart asked what the comic book said, leading Singer to explain that there was an incident in Tibet with an alien who dropped a rock on him. Stewart stopped him directly: “I like your version better.”
Working with Rice on both the television show Legion and developing another yet unnamed X-Men spin-off as well as a new version of The Twilight Zone for CBS, Singer discovered early on that “television is not a director’s medium, it’s a writer’s medium,” and he has learned to stop trying to get the perfect shot and instead step back and concentrate on the actors, that it’s less about what the audience is seeing and more about what they are hearing.
“What we’re doing now with Legion and the other X-Men spinoff will relate to the features, whether it’s Deadpool or future sequels, and the earlier films.” Aware they couldn’t make something which would compete with the production values of the feature films on a television budget, “we wanted to make a show that would link but not depend [on them],” but offers “an ambitious, fun and unique storyline still connected to that universe.”
Justly proud of what his previous shows have achieved, Singer said “Contrary to he news side of the business, Fox Entertainment is very progressive. We got away with a lot.” Of the changes in the medium and in viewing habits, Singer admitted he was as guilty of binge watching as anyone else, “six hours of Boardwalk Empire, then I need a Family Guy or American Dad to come down – which can be more violent.”
Firmly stating that “storytelling is storytelling,” Singer had no objection to people watching his films on iPhones or similar. “If you have the headphones in, the definition on that device is better than the VHS tapes we watched in the dorm in the New York School of Arts.”
Rice also praised the shift from entirely episodic television to highly serialised shows, the new “freedom of format,” singling out American Horror Story which he called “an amazing hybrid” where “you get to follow these actors you love playing these wildly different characters.”