BRYAN Singer is recalling the moment he thought his career was over. It was back in 2000, not long before the first X-Men film came out.
“I’d run a version of it,” he recalls, “and it was so slow, it put me to sleep.” Having signed on to direct the mutant superhero extravaganza shortly after The Usual Suspects made him the latest Sundance kid (after Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and David O Russell) to emerge from the fringes of the burgeoning American independent film scene of the late 1980s/early 90s, his first big-budget studio feature had been so difficult to shoot he could no longer see the wood for the trees.
“I walked through the parking lot with Peter Rice, the studio executive in charge at the time, and said to him, ‘You realise, Peter, that when this film fails critically and financially I will never be allowed to make one of these movies again and that’s very sad to me.’”
How long did he feel this way? “Oh God, until the opening Friday night when I got a call saying ‘Your movie just made $21 million in one day.’” He laughs. “Other than that I thought it was the end.”
Singer is reflecting on the perils (and pearls) of blockbuster filmmaking, not so much because his new fantasy film Jack the Giant Slayer is about to open (although it is), but because I’m curious if he thinks his career is emblematic of a sea-change that’s taken place in Hollywood over the last 15 years.
Before X-Men, for instance, comic books were considered a bit of a joke by the film industry and blockbusters had become the preserve of journeymen directors. When Singer – then only 35 (he barely looks any older today) – confidently began that first X-Men film with a scene set in a Nazi death camp, and talked up its “mutant civil rights” themes in terms of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, its subsequent success not only ushered in the current “Golden Age” of superhero films, it made it desirable for studios to seek out other edgier, independently minded directors such as Sam Raimi (who made the Spider-Man films) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy) to take charge of their biggest franchises.
“Yeah, it’s amazing to think about that,” nods Singer. “It’s like why the 1970s was such a cool era for movies. When no-one has anything to compare it to, when no-one knows what they’re doing, you just do something and you get more original stuff. When I was making X-Men, the only thing that I drew an analogy to was the first act of Superman: The Movie, which took itself very seriously and was inhabited by actors like Glenn Ford and Marlon Brando. I just knew that if I was going to do a comic book movie, it was going to have great actors who are going to take the world really seriously – and I guess a lot of movies followed that.”
Singer certainly got a taste for this type of filmmaking, directing the highly regarded sequel X-Men 2 before jumping ship from the franchise to make Superman Returns. In the years since he’s made high-end television (executive producing the hit medical drama House) and the relatively modest – for a Tom Cruise film – Second World War drama Valkyrie. But it is with Marvel’s mutant superheroes that his name is now synonymous. Having successfully rebooted it again as the co-writer and producer of the recent 1960s-set prequel X-Men: First Class, he’s about to get back in the director’s chair to helm X-Men: Days of Future Past, due next summer.
Before we get to that, however, there’s the small matter of Jack the Giant Slayer, a big-budget update of Jack and the Beanstalk starring Nicholas Hoult as Jack, Ewan McGregor as a knight and a motion-captured Bill Nighy as the leader of some fairly gnarly giants. It was the chance to realise the last of these things on the big screen that proved the main attraction for Singer. “I love to see giants,” he says simply. “I wanted to see giants I hadn’t seen before: ones that were leaner, meaner, faster. I’ve seen the big oafish giants. I wanted to see these cool, scary giants, and I wanted to see that beanstalk.”
Given his past commitment to character-driven storytelling, this reasoning is perhaps why the film feels like a bit of an anomaly on Singer’s CV. He certainly wasn’t in thrall to the actual story of Jack and the Beanstalk, turning the oral origins of the folktale instead into a plot point in the film.
“It was told to me as a kid, maybe, but to this day I’ve not bothered to read it. Is there an actual written story?”
If he sounds cavalier about the details, he reckons the challenges were similar to adapting a comic – although he does concede there are lines you just can’t cross with the latter. “You don’t want to give Wolverine two claws – you need three claws – but you don’t want to worry too much about who is related to who, because then you can be in a situation where you are limiting what you can do because of the comic book lore, which often changes a lot.”
That seems like an extraordinary thing for Singer to say given the lengths to which he went to ensure his 2006 film Superman Returns synched up with Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie. I ask how he feels about that film now, particularly with the imminent arrival this summer of a completely revamped version in the form of the Christopher Nolan-produced/Zack Snyder-directed Man of Steel.
“You know, if that had happened a few years ago, I probably would have felt uncomfortable about it,” says Singer, candidly. “But it was so long ago now that I’m able to enjoy the movie as a fan.” He pauses. “Because I am a big Superman fan; in fact, I’m probably too big a Superman fan, which is why there are parts of my film I’m very proud of and parts that I’m not. I felt it was a bit nostalgic.”
As he gets set to start shooting X-Men: Days of Future Past, though, Singer seems to be relishing the chance to feel both nostalgic and forward-thinking about the series for which he’s developed such an affinity. Based on one of the most popular storylines in the comics, the plot involves an element of science-fiction and time-travel that will allow Singer to combine the principal cast of his first two X-Men films with the younger cast that James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender led in X-Men: First Class.
“To be able to work as a director with the new cast and bring back old friends like Ian McKellen, Patrick [Stewart] and Hugh [Jackman] is a thrill,” he beams. “It’s also exciting, because it’s not going to be just another X-Men film. There’s a certain technology that we haven’t seen in an X-Men film yet, related to the notion of time and how time affects destiny.”
And does he have all the time travel paradoxes worked out? Apparently so.
“I pitched it to James Cameron and he was like, ‘Yep, that makes sense.’”
• Jack The Giant Slayer is in cinemas from 22 March