Interview: Director Bryan Singer on Giants, CGI, His Career & More
by Alex Billington
March 1, 2013
He's directed numerous X-Men, Superman, Tom Cruise, Verbal Kint and Dr. House, but before getting back to the X-Men, he visited the land of giants. In theaters this weekend is Jack the Giant Slayer, directed by Bryan Singer (of Public Access, Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, X-Men, X2, Superman Returns and Valkyrie), starring Nicholas Hoult as in an epic new take on the Jack and the Bean Stalk story. I interviewed Bryan when offered the opportunity recently, as a fan I couldn't say no even though we couldn't talk about X-Men. But we did talk about Jack before his return to Montreal for seven months of work on Days of Future Past.
My interview was conducted over the phone with Bryan Singer. We were asked by the publicist to keep our questions specifically related to Jack the Giant Slayer and not any other movies. I always wish I had more time speaking with directors about so many different filmmaking areas. Singer is one of those people I have been waiting to interview and I'm glad I got a chance to chat with him, we covered a few interesting topics. Hopefully next time we can talk in a much better setting, but for now, here is my first interview with Singer.
Over the last few years watching your career you've gone some very interesting routes from, obviously, X-Men, to Superman, to Hitler, to now Jack and the Beanstalk. How did you get here? Why did you want to direct this film and why make this project?
Bryan Singer: I think I got the bug to do this one when I was visiting Peter Jackson. When I was making Superman Returns I spent a weekend over in Wellington, New Zealand and I was watching him shoot King Kong. I watched Andy Serkis perform on a motion capture stage. I think from that moment I realized I'd like to explore this space. I'd like to work…
I was always a fan of the Ray Harryhausen movies with creatures and things like that. I thought, well, this is the future—performance in motion capture. I thought this particular story, it's different than King Kong. It's different than Avatar. It's giants. And it's a new chance for me to work in this very new space. I caught the bug on the set of King Kong and it continued with my friendship with Peter and Andy Serkis and James Cameron and seeing what they're doing. I just wanted to be doing it as well, but something different. That would be the initial pull to this.
Secondly, I just wanted to do something totally different. There's a lot of film directors who make the same movie over, and over, and over again. They dress it up differently but they're always making the same movie. I'm just not like that. I always want to be doing something different. Even my Superman movie had a very different tone than my X-Men movie. And Valkyrie was a historical thriller. Apt Pupil is an adaption, more horror. Usual Suspects, crime movie. "House", medical drama. You know, there are similarities to them. But from the palette, and the tone, and the experience of making them I need them to be different or else I get very bored.
I understand. You touched on this, but are current technological capabilities a big factor in what you direct versus develop? And once you decide what to direct, how much do you personally need to get involved in crafting what the story is and working on the script?
Singer: Well, yes, the technology does drive me. I want to experience new things and learn so I have an arsenal of knowledge for the next thing. After this movie now I'll have worked in a motion capture volume and directed motion capture and captured performances and incorporated real-life characters in environments with 25 foot tall CG characters. Now I've done that. So if there's another movie that involves creatures and things like that, I've had that experience.
As for the script, I'm very involved in that. I've always been incredibly involved in the script. In this case it was a draft, there was a script called Jack the Giant Killer that I initially signed on to do. I basically got in there and it just wasn't working. I called Chris McQuarrie, my old friend, then we rewrote it from page one and then brought in another friend, [Dan] Studney, to be another writer. So I'm very, very active in scripts. That's where a lot of my work is.
I ask because, whenever you get attached to direct a film, I love to see them because I feel like you have a grasp on the storytelling more than a lot of other directors I watch. There's just something about your stories that is captivating to watch the entire way through, which was the case with Jack.
Singer: Well, thanks. I appreciate that. I do care a lot about story. Sometimes with filmmakers it's just about images. And I admire that… There are some filmmakers where I don't know what's going on in the story, but the images are just amazing, and they are visual guys and they are incredible. I like to think I have an eye, but I also come from a background of storytelling. I did a lot of writing in college. And although I don't believe I'm the best writer in the world and I prefer to work with better writers than myself, I do have a very hands-on feeling about the act of storytelling.
I used to do that as a kid. I used to just write stories and tell stories and make up stories and I just love… Even if I have an incident. Like, I was flying back from South Korea and George W. Bush was on my flight sitting next to me. And I'm telling you the boring version, but when I tell that story I'm always like, you know, "And then I felt his presence and I looked up, and thought it was a guy wearing a costume. I couldn't believe…" I love telling and making a story out of it, so you could actually see it like a film.
I noticed with this film there was almost a much darker tone to it than I was expecting. There were a lot of people who died brutally throughout it.
Singer: Yeah. Well, but there's a lot of humor, too. There's a lot of jokes around the death. You know, you're making a film for families. And certainly Jack is for kids. Adults can have fun, too, watching it. But you want to have scary stuff, enough intensity for the adults, but at the same time, it's that balance between making something scary for a child and making something upsetting. If you screened Zero Dark Thirty for a child, they will leave the theater upset. But with a movie like this, they are scared while they are watching it, but when they are done they are like, "Okay, that was a movie and everybody… most of our heroes are okay." They can feel safe.
But it must be tough to find the balance? It's finding the balance between the need for the weight of death in the story and making entertainment that the family can enjoy.
Singer: I looked for inspiration from films like Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Princess Bride. Kind of merging the tonality… you know, the acting style of Princess Bride a little bit with the violence level of Indiana Jones, with the kind of the adventurous visuals of a Ray Harryhausen picture.
Yep. What was it about Nicholas Hoult? What is it about him that makes him a charismatic lead and why did you choose him?
Singer: I was involved in casting him in X-Men: First Class. So I already knew him. I watched him work and I found him to be extremely affable. I was always a fan of his from "Skins" and from A Single Man. He's just got a sense of humor and a kind of vulnerability that I think Jack really needed. You'll either identify with the character… When you look at guys like the Hemsworths, here's some people who are just very strong, chiseled, and powerful. And then they entertain you because of that reason, but not everyone will identify with that kind of character. A person like myself identifies with…
You need to find Jack's vulnerability so that you can root for him. You want him to get off the farm, have an adventure, get the girl and… grow. So Nick has that quality, that awkwardness, if he wants it. If he wants, he can just turn on the good looks.
He does a great job. He seems to be one of those actors that is unexpectedly starring in everything because he's so likable.
Singer: I think of him as a young British Jimmy Stewart.
Perfect. Is it becoming harder or easier to work with CG characters in the mix with human, live action characters?
Singer: It's extremely challenging. One, getting the look right, the lighting right so that they're not glowing, so they're not popping off the screen. And two, so that they are interacting. I used a device that James Cameron introduced me to called Simulcam. It basically takes a crude rendering of a CG performance and puts it into the camera so I can actually see the giant in a scene playing the scene with the actor. So while the actor is acting to a tennis ball on a stick, I can actually see the giant in the scene. That really was a very helpful tool in making the movies.
Do you see there being a continued use of practical effects on sets? With all this technology, is there still an importance to blending real, practical sets with CGI?
Singer: Yeah. I think it's important. I love real sets. I find it tough… I can do it. I can work in a virtual environment. But there's nothing beats a real set, a real tangible thing for an actor to hold or to look at for inspiration. So I tried as much as possible with Jack, I didn't… whenever possible we'd have something real. Or that we could find. And only when necessary do you extended with visual effects and put in… obviously there were no giants that I could cast. But that was very important to me. When I went into making this movie, I didn't want you to think you were walking into a big CG animated world. I wanted you to feel like all this was happening in the real world. So when the giants enter the scene they look more real.
I saw you mention this, so I have to ask. What are your thoughts on 48 frames per second? And would you use high frame rate photography in the future? I know you saw The Hobbit in 48FPS, and I'm just curious what you think about HFR?
Singer: Yea I did. It seems to be very interesting and very effective for bringing out detail and eliminating certain problems that come with 3D, like strobing. Some certain people have different feelings about the look. I found it really interesting. I think there's limitations, or issues with visual effects, because you're rendering more frames, so there can be some costs involved. It probably wouldn't be practical for X-Men: Days of Future Past. But I wouldn't rule it out for the future.
Thank you to Bryan Singer for taking his time to speak to me, and Warner Bros for arranging.
Warner Bros' Jack the Giant Slayer, directed by Bryan Singer starring Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson and Ewan McGregor, arrives in theaters this week on March 1st. Once you see it, tell us what you thought.