EXCLUSIVE: When Bryan Singer came to Comic Con to promote X-Men in 2000, he arrived in San Diego all by himself, one of the first filmmakers to tub thump a superhero property. Now, it seems like if you threw a rock here at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp District that is overrun by Comic Con, you are likely to hit either an actor playing a superhero or a fanatic dressed up as one. Overstatement? Consider that when Singer had a spare moment and took an elevator to the ground floor, the door opened and he surprised to find himself face to face with…Hugh Jackman.
Singer spent a few moments with Deadline before his Hall H panel to introduce X-Men: Apocalypse, and our solitude was invaded by the noisy cast of Fox’s Fantastic Four, with Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara and Jamie Bell bouncing in for their own interview. And with superhero cross pollination all the rage with Disney’s Marvel and DC and Sony’s Spider-Man offerings, Teller offered to send Singer a list of his character’s special skills, and his own best camera angles in case he was needed for X-Men duty. Singer is as savvy at connecting with X-Men films as any filmmaker, but he seems to lament the price: Every move is dissected by hard core fans, making it all but impossible for him to surprise everyone the way he did with his breakout film The Usual Suspects. He intends to try any way. He’s developing a project similar in spirit to that one, but wouldn’t be specific, preferring to keep it close to the vest, he said.
DEADLINE: You started the X-Men franchise with the first two films, then came back with the First Class spinoff, and now you’re fully back with X-Men: Apocalypse. What was most gratifying thing about returning?
SINGER: To be able to go back and explore the origin story of Professor X and Magneto, which was the core of First Class. Now, to be able to take that story further, that was the most gratifying thing. I’d always be talking to Patrick and Ian about their histories, and then finally I got to go back and actually shoot their histories.
DEADLINE: What about Apocalypse?
SINGER: It’s the cast. Just a great cast, and they have been in a really great mood with each other and with me, even though the schedule has been a real grind. It’s a big movie and we are pushing through very rapidly. We’re a little over halfway through.
DEADLINE: I read you purchased your childhood house. I hate change. Are you a guy who just doesn’t like to let things go?
SINGER: It’s true. The first six years after I purchased my home in Los Angeles, I had no furniture. My housemate, Vanessa, who’s a schoolteacher, she actually went to a garage sale and bought two sofas for $50 because she was so sick she had nothing to sit on. I guess I felt like remaining a college student. Finally, I got furniture and grew into the house. Then, we sold our house in the 80s from when I was a kid. We sold it to this family and they lived in it for awhile and then rented it out, and then I heard a rumor they would sell it and I called the owner. He remembered me and said, they were living in Connecticut, and said it was hard to sell a house from far away. I said, allow me to make this the easiest thing you’ll ever sell in your life. Tell me what you want and I will buy it. I bought it back and my mom, who’s 81 now, we took a tour of it. Went down the basement, where my darkroom was when I was 11, my ping pong table that I played on as a little kid was still there. Nothing much has changed, including the trees my father planted.
DEADLINE: What do you do with it?
SINGER: I’ll rent it out. It happens to rest within walking distance of two schools and a train station that takes you to New York, Philadelphia and D.C., so while it was an emotional buy, it’s not exactly a bad investment either.
DEADLINE: How high is the ceiling on the X-Men franchise before you have to ask yourself that question, am I repeating myself as an artist by not being able to let go? Might this be the last movie for you?
SINGER: It will all depend on the story. If I can find a way to tell a different story in that universe than what I’ve told before, then I’m not opposed to returning. The X-Men universe is every bit as big as the entire Marvel universe itself. It is huge. What’s great about Apocalypse is there is such a different kind of adversary, a different kind of conflict, one that doesn’t distinguish between humans and mutants, and one that comes from ancient times. It’s so different that it’s got Raiders of the Lost Ark elements in it. It has apocalyptic elements, and things I haven’t explored yet. Last time was time travel and robots. This is new stuff. As long as there’s something new, I’m okay with going back. But I’d also like to do some different things. I’m not going to live forever.
DEADLINE: Are there characters or arcs from the X-Men universe you’re dying to figure out a way to cover in a movie?
SINGER: Yes. I finally have a chance in this story to explore the origins of Jean Grey, Cyclops and Storm. These three characters, their origins, I’d been working toward exploring them with as much care as I had in Xavier and Magneto when I was developing First Class.
DEADLINE: Your first X-Men movie was a terrific film, but also such a well-constructed foundation for future character exploration. Serious themes about exclusion, alienation. When you were a kid, was this the comic the spoke to you?
SINGER: I didn’t read comics when I was a kid. I learned of X-Men late. I met Stan Lee later, but I wasn’t a Marvel Comics guy at all. But I went and watched all 70 episodes of the X-Men animated series, I became fascinated by the universe and the themes within that universe. They spoke to me very strongly.
DEADLINE: We have all the Marvel films coming through Disney, we have the X-Men films and spinoffs and now DC is here with a slate of films. We don’t seem to be able to get enough of these. Why?
SINGER: Because these are modern day mythologies. They’re finally coming into their own and they are our modern day heroes that got us through hard times. Superman got us through World War II. The X-Men got us through the Civil Rights movement. They were there for us as mythologies in our modern times and now we have the visual effects and the cleverness to bring them to the big screen.
DEADLINE: Was it the development of visual effects? For a long time, these properties were marginalized.
SINGER: Well, I’ll take a little credit there, for taking the X-Men universe seriously. When I approached that first movie, I’m not going to make a comic book film, not just an sci-fi action movie. I’m going to make a film that has comic book characters and sci-fi action elements in it, but it is going to be a film. Just as I approached The Usual Suspects, or any other film. The end product was this idea that you could possibly take one of the universes seriously and making something credible out of it. With real actors who wanted to rock up and play these roles. And now many more of them do.
DEADLINE: I can still remember being surprised that you wove in serious issues and history including the Holocaust in Europe.
SINGER: I always wondered if people would see that opening scene and look at their ticket stubs and say, are we in the right theater, honey? Wait till you see Apocalypse, we go there…I don’t want to say exactly what happens, but it’s intense and emotional and powerful and in some moments, quite devastating.
DEADLINE: We’re seeing Sony’s Spider-Man character joining Disney’s Marvel universe by appearing in Captain America: Civil War. I understand this has to do with Fox controlling X-Men, but have you pushed for the opportunity for your characters to be part of that Marvel cross pollination?
SINGER: I only believe that’s worthwhile if it makes story sense. If you’re doing it for the sake of doing it, and you’ve run out of stories and have to find another way to keep that box office going, then that can get messy. If done right it can be magnificent. I’m not opposed to it. It’s a wonderful idea and there’s precedent for it in the X-Men comics, just like there was precedent for time travel with X-Men: Days of Future Past. I just hope it’s done for the right reasons.
DEADLINE: I recall breaking most every story about you, and then you became infatuated with this thing called the internet…
SINGER: Well, the Instagrams and the Twitter…
DEADLINE: What has been the biggest benefit to you as filmmaker with this escalating relationship you have, being able to communicate directly with your fans?
SINGER: Two things. It affords the fans a personal relationship with a filmmaker. Not a real personal relationship but one that allows them more of an inside connection. It also allows me some measure of control and I’ll give you an example. I was making the movie Valkyrie with Tom Cruise. There was a ton of speculation about why we were returning to America to shoot. The movie was in trouble! We had to go back to America and save it! When in reality, the film was perfectly on schedule and was going fantastically. We just had to go back to America to shoot a three day desert sequence because there happens to be no deserts in Germany! The press kept talking about this ridiculousness about…nothing! At that time there was all this speculation. I don’t have the time or energy to call a press conference about something to insignificant. If I had Twitter or Instagram, I would have written, “Film actually going fine! I just couldn’t find a desert in Germany so we’re going back to shoot in Victorville. LOL.” That would have been the end of it, so there’s control.
DEADLINE: Star Wars came here and showed some footage of props, and how they looked when captured in scenes of the film. I recall Daniel Day-Lewis telling me how much he disliked lifting the curtain, and that you rob the audience of believability in the illusion, if you show them how the trick is done. Isn’t that a downside to sharing so much with your fans?
SINGER: It’s a very good question. If you notice the way I present things on social media, what I choose to show and not show, I think if you go to Hall H later, you’ll notice a certain playfulness to the imagery I do reveal. I make sure nothing I reveal will harm the experience of actually watching the film. It will only enhance it and make it fun. I’m very careful about what I choose to reveal and not reveal and I can do that because I know my movie better than anyone. When I Instagram, it’s a very personal thing I do myself, and not have a publicist do it. I choose angles, moments and images that are fun and playful and inviting and provocative but never ones that would harm the emotional resonance of the film, or a story point that I think needs to play on the screen. Certain things are just inevitable. An actor shaves his head and goes out in public, people are going to see, so you might as well have some fun with it and get ahead of the paparazzi.
DEADLINE: Comic Con is such a menagerie of devoted fans. What does coming here mean to you?
SINGER: It’s gratifying to see the enormous fan ship of these universes. It’s a little tough here because we’re right in the middle of the intensity of our production. We’re shooting in Montreal, so I literally walked from my studio, from my set to a helicopter to a jet, to San Diego. Go to sleep, wake up after an incredible day of work. Do these activities and get right back on a plane and go back to work. It would be much more fun if it was five weeks after I finished the movie, but it just didn’t work out that way.
DEADLINE: How does it compare with the first time you were here?
SINGER: For the first film, I did it alone. I believe it was the first time anything like that had been done. I don’t remember what they called the hall but it was 2000 people and just me on stage. Second time I did it, I showed some footage that got good reaction from 4000 people. Now, there are 7000 people. We try to move the needle, like last year.
DEADLINE: That was one of the most rousing Hall H panels, your return and the smashing together of both the original cast and the younger version from First Class.
SINGER: Do you know what it reminded me of? The Usual Suspects, because one month we shot the future, with the original cast, and then Hugh Jackman. Then they all left, and that movie was over and the young actors came. But like Kevin Spacey, Hugh stayed. The Usual Suspects, we shot the interrogations first, they left and then we shot the flashbacks. But Kevin Spacey stayed and like Hugh Jackman, provided the continuity. And today, I ran into Hugh in the elevator today, of all things. It dropped to the basement, the door opens, and there’s Hugh Jackman! Of all the people here! I guess this happens here.