Bryan Singer wants it all. In his world, that means he wants a career making independent movies (read: final cut) inside the studio system. Don’t bet against him. At 32, his kudos already include: sharing the 1993 Sundance grand jury prize for his first feature, Public Access, and worldwide critical and commercial success (oh, and two Oscars) for his second, The Usual Suspects. “I take dark stories and bring a sense of wonder to them,” he says. Think Spielberg/Cronenberg hybrid. His new film, Apt Pupil, adapted from the Stephen King collection that spawned Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, tackles the story of a teenage boy’s Faustian bargain with an aged Nazi living quietly down the block. Amidst moving boxes, incessant phone calls and friendly housemates, we discussed his methods and his love for making movies.
Patrick Francis (PF): What was the first thing that attracted you to Apt Pupil?
Bryan Singer (BS): I read Apt Pupil when I was 19 years old. I just found it really fascinating, especially growing up as a Jewish kid, the whole notion of the Holocaust and the sheer terror behind the people who perpetrated it. Who were those people? How? Why? Mostly how. The idea of a young boy who comes face to face with a representative of that and gets to explore it first hand was really intriguing to me.
PF: The theme of perception runs though all three of your films. What is it about that subject that attracts you?
BS: Perception as a whole has always interested me. The idea that behind every face, there’s a thousand faces. Beneath the placid veneer of middle America, there lies terrors. Everything is much more complex than we like to think it is. Which is why Kurt Dussander interests me, which is why Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects) interests me. It’s almost a trick on the audience, people think there’s a purposeful goodness to this character and then he turns evil. The audience is confused, ‘I invested myself in this character as a hero, and now I don’t understand.’ Well that’s your problem; that’s what you wanted to see.
PF: At the end of your films, the audience is left not trusting the people they’ve spent the last two hours with.
BS: Yeah, in Public Access you don’t trust the man on television. And Keyser Soze, what’s to trust there? And Kurt Dussander, the neighbor next door, he could be just an old man or he could be a Nazi.
PF: The audience also questions their faith in the Brad Renfro character.
BS: Yeah. If parents knew what their kids are up to. If parents go to see Apt Pupil the may look at their kids a little differently, you know. I’m not encouraging parents to not trust their kids, but to make sure that there’s an open line of communication. In Apt Pupil Renfro becomes the ultimate…well, I don’t want to give it away.
PF: How did the look and the mannerisms of Ian McKellen’s Dussander character come about?
BS: He read the novella, we talked. The first thing Sir Ian McKellen said to Brandon Boyce (Apt Pupil screenwriter) at a party was, ‘What kind of cigarettes does Dussander smoke? Brandon was like, ‘What do I say when he asks me stuff like that?’ I just said, ‘Ask him what cigarettes he thinks Dussander would smoke. He’ll come up with something. Ian McKellen smokes more cigarettes than you do. He’s European. And besides, no matter what brand he smokes, there’s no way we’re ever going to get permission from that company to get a Nazi smoking their cigarettes, so we’re probably going to have to invent a brand.’
PF: What was the process of working with Brandon Boyce and Chris McQuarrie, both childhood friends, on Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects?
BS: The difference between Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects is that Chris and I have been writing together for a long time, so we had a shorthand that we worked off of. With Brandon, he’d never written a screenplay before, so there were certain obvious things that I liked and didn’t like that needed to be flushed and fleshed out. Once that was done it started to work out really well. Also, it was an adaptation and we were constantly fighting the novella, especially in the second and third acts. The novella takes place over four years, the movie takes place over one. For a first-time writer it’s a tall order. I’m pretty hard with writers; I’m not always pleasant, but I do seek to get the very, very best out of them, as they would expect me to give them my very best. Brandon rode with it, rewrite after rewrite until production, in the same manner Chris had done with Usual Suspects. Here we had two situations where, through the process of production, the writers realized their first commercial releases.
PF: ‘Hard on writers’ meaning honesty?
BS: Being fierce about every line of dialogue, about aspects of logic. A lot of writers think people won’t notice, or they’ll say that’s not a problem for me.’ Well, it is a problem for me! And I think it’ll be a problem for the audience and their subconscious. They don’t need it, but they desire it. And if they watch the movie a second or third time, I don’t want the writing to be transparent and full of mistakes. I want them to see the movie get better every time they look at it. And that takes a lot of work. That’s where 50 percent of my work as a filmmaker goes-if not more-in the development of the script.
PF: The fact that Chris McQuarrie worked in a detective agency, that kind of firsthand knowledge informs Suspects in a way you don’t always see.
BS: He’s got a real understanding of that stuff. I cut down his monologue where Chaz tells Verbal Kint that he’s going to send him up the river…”You atone with me or the world you live in becomes the hell you live in the back of your teeny mind. Every criminal I’ve put in prison, every cop who owes me a favor, every creeping scumbag who walks the street for a living will know the name of Verbal Kint. You’ll be the lowest form of rat, the prince of snitches, the loudest cooing stool pigeon to ever grab his ankles for the man. Now you talk to me or that precious immunity they’ve seen so fit to grant you won’t be worth the paper the contract put out on your life is printed on.” I just love that. I used to read it aloud in Chaz’s voice. He heard me doing it once and he goes (imitating Palminteri) “Singer, shut up. Stop doing that.”
PF: It’s very Mamet-like. In Glengarry Glen Ross, there’s a lot of hard ass dialogue like that.
BS: Great movie. “You see this watch? It cost more than your car.” “What’s your name?” “What’s my name? Fuck you is my name. You came to work in a Hyundai, I came to work in an $85,000 BMW. Why? Because a loser is a loser.” Hilarious.
PF: Are you someone who gives a lot of direction on the set, or is it more often adjustments to a performance?
BS: At worst I’ll act it out, but very rarely. Almost always it’s, ‘Bring it down. Tighten it up. A little quicker.’ But always with reason. Actors want to know two things: what to do and why. And ‘why’ is the key. Like if Ian McKellen is dragging something out a little too long, instead of saying, ‘Quicker’ -that doesn’t make sense to an actor-what makes sense is, ‘You’re a German; you’re a Commandant. This situation is dispensable, dispense with it.’ He said, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ Eventually that’ll become shorthand.
PF: Do you find that you speak to actors very differently or is it pretty consistent?
BS: In terms of direction, actors tend to be similar. I’ve never really had to speak to one actor dramatically different than another. I don’t always know what I want, but I definitely know what I don’t want and if that’s happening I’ll try something new. Sometimes the actors won’t understand. They’ll be, ‘Why? This seems perfect.’ All I can say is, ‘I can’t explain it to you. I’ve cut the movie in my head. I know what I’ve shot and I know what I’ve got to shoot. I need…different.’
PF: When you read a story, what makes you say, ‘This would make a good movie. I’m going to do this’?
BS: A good story. Something with a bit of irony and a lot of surprise and a whole lot of entertainment.
PF: ‘Entertainment’ is so subjective; what do you mean by that?
BS: Entertaining, to me, is something that surprises me, captivates me, keeps me from looking at my watch, wondering where I’m having dinner after the film. It’s tough these days. I see right through the movie, I see the mechanisms. It’s like, ‘Oh this the day they didn’t have enough coverage, or this is the day where the actor didn’t give a damn about the dialogue.’ All the old icons: mystery, suspense, cops, criminals-they’re just tools like cameras and lenses-but the story, the set-up, the payoff, that’s what its all about.
PF: What are your strengths as a director?
BS: I’d say script development, sound and last-minute decision-making.
PF: Not visualization?
BS: It’s funny, that’s what I get a lot of credit for, but it’s second-nature to me because I’ve been doing photography for so long. I do place the camera, I mean, I’m responsible for every frame for better or worse, but it’s nothing I even think about.
PF: How about your weaknesses?
BS: I lose my temper sometimes when I wish I didn’t. I really wish I didn’t. I’d have a lot more joy in the process if I didn’t lose my temper.
PF: At actors?
BS: More just at the general situation. I’ll never really just go off on anybody, except maybe my producing partner. Sometimes you put a lot of effort into something and when you feel that people don’t care, or there is some disregard for what you’re trying to do, it can be very off-putting. I sometimes can take it personally. I wish I could be more relaxed.
PF: In all three of your films, big chunks of the narrative take place between two people in confined spaces. Any lessons to share about that?
BS: It’s a real challenge, especially with two characters. It’s odd that I should do Public Access, where 30 percent of the movie takes place with one guy in the public access cable station. Then, in The Usual Suspects, the same amount of the movie takes place with two guys in an interrogation room. And now it’s the two guys in the house. Yeah, it’s limiting and very challenging and at the same time it’s kind of fun because you’re really making two movies. You’re making the miniature movie that takes place in the one location and you can shoot that movie first, then go out into the world and shoot the peripheral movie.
PF: How did you open up the space? Did you fly a lot of walls?
BS: In The Usual Suspects, very rarely did we fly any walls. We kept pretty confined in that room. A couple of times I needed the camera to come in from a distance, or I needed to use a particularly long lens to create an effect. There I might move one of the walls back a bit. With Dussander’s house in Apt Pupil, I asked Richard Hoover, our production designer, to build me an interior where I could go in there and think I was in a real house. You could pull the walls and the ceiling if you need to, but we almost never did. He just built it a little larger than it ordinarily would be, so we could fit equipment in there, and it really worked.
PF: Do you storyboard, or is it just instinctive as to where you put the camera?
BS: I don’t storyboard. Some scenes if there’s particular stunts or action, I’ll storyboard it. But very rarely, though. Of course on my next film, X-Men, I’ll be doing tons of storyboards because we’ll be incorporating effects. Usually I have a shot list, and I run it through my head at the technical scout prior to going to the location to shoot, but ultimately I don’t finalize that decision and I often don’t come up with the best shots until I see the actor run the scene. And then all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Wow, I really want to be underneath him for this shot. I want that light to fill his face when he comes up to that bird.’
PF: Do you shoot a lot of coverage? A lot of takes?
BS: I shoot an average amount of film, I think. Sometimes I’ll put the camera in random, odd places. It may not seem at the moment that I would use the shot, but I want to give myself flexibility in the editing room. I leave particularly long heads and tails on scenes, because you never know when you’re going to need those after-reactions.
PF: Any recollections about having an idea that you’re in love with and then realizing, once you’re on the set, that its really not going to work?
BS: Oh, all the time. Scenes that you love and then you get there and you’re like, that just doesn’t work. On Usual Suspects, during the boat heist at the end there was this
big crane palate swinging around. I guess it could have worked, but even before we were on the set it was like, ‘This is an unnecessary hassle and expense that’s going to take away from concentrating on the stuff that matters, let’s just cut it right now.’
PF: Many times in your films where the suspense comes from not showing us what we want to see.
BS: Not showing Keyser Soze. Cutting to the ceiling of this boat and you see shadows moving or a door closing and you have the sound, the piano wire, and that’s the presence of this character without seeing him. If you create a story that’s working and characters that people are getting involved with, all of the sudden the most simple, academic suspense techniques work
with flying colors.
PF: You’ve produced all of your films; what it is about the business end that fascinates you?
BS: I’m obsessed with the business end of it. Finding money, for instance. So many people look to the eight major studios. If they say no, where do you go? Well, there are 800 other places to go. I go to the film markets, festivals. All you need to make a movie is money and a distribution mechanism. And if you make a good movie with money then the distribution mechanism will evolve. Sometimes you want that set up ahead of time. Each film is different. And dealing with the Japanese is different than dealing with the British or dealing with the American studio system. Learning to deal with different personalities, observing different scenarios, can help prepare you for keeping your movie on track. Don’t sit there and rely on other people because nobody cares more about your movie than you do. MM