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6 Filmmaking Tips From Bryan Singer

The X-Men: Apocalypse director’s secrets to success.
By  · Published on May 26th, 2016

Bryan Singer doesn’t get enough credit for the landmarks of his career, some of which are landmarks in modern cinema. His breakthrough film, The Usual Suspects, remains one of the most memorable twist-ending crime films of all time, and his first X-Men helped usher in the current era of superhero movies. Maybe neither of those things sounds particularly positive, but Singer still deserves respect for making these marks with good work associated with what ultimately became bad trends.

Singer is also an interesting filmmaker for where he’s wound up. After his promising start in the 1990s with Suspects and the relatively small dramas Public Access and Apt Pupil, he went on to direct mostly comic book movies this century, four of them now in the X-Men series, including the new installment, X-Men: Apocalypse (he also produced a fifth), plus the one-shot flip to DC with Superman Returns. And then there was the Nazi thriller Valkyrie and the fairy tale adaptation Jack the Giant Slayer. An odd variety.

But a fairly successful variety when you consider he’s still going strong as a household name director. So not a bad guy to watch and pickup filmmaking tips from. Here are six such tips we’ve gathered from him over the years:

Become Acquainted With Your Heroes

In an interview he gave Venice magazine in 1998 (reprinted by the author here), Singer discusses the influence of such directors as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and how his DGA sponsors were Spielberg, Robert Altman, and John Schlesinger, and what it’s meant to be able to meet and now bond with these heroes as peers who’ve merely come before, not mentors ruling over and guiding the new generation in Hollywood.

I think exposure to these filmmakers is crucial, but I don’t know about mentoring. I’ve never really had a mentor. I’ve never really spent that much time with any of these gentlemen to consider them a mentor. But I think exposure, and conversation and questions to them are important to give, if anything, a feeling that they’ve overcome the same hurtles you’re trying to and how they did it. It can be anything from informative to inspiring.

In his earlier days, Singer has acknowledged how visiting sets like Titanic and King Kong and watching the elders work has been very instructive, as well. And the relationships he’s built along the way allow him to get feedback from such talents as James Cameron, as he did for X-Men: Days of Future Past. See the link below for that particular story.

How James Cameron Had a Hand in Changing the X-Men: Days of Future Past Ending

Treat All Kinds of Movies the Same, Seriously

In 2000, around the time of the release of the first X-Men, Singer went on Charlie Rose and talked about how he didn’t see it as different from the smaller features he’d done previously:

How would I want a director to treat my favorite universe, something I’ve loved for decades? I would simply want he or she to take it seriously, as seriously as you take any serious science fiction film with all the action and fun. It should be taken seriously. It should be looked at as a film. I looked at it as I did any other film I’d made.

Make Each Movie Different

Even though he’s directed four X-Men movies and another superhero movie and two movies involving Nazis, overall Singer’s filmography is pretty varied, and he has made it a point to make a distinctly different movie with every project he helms. He said as much in a 2013 interview with FirstShowing.net while promoting Jack the Giant Slayer, which indeed is a departure for the filmmaker:

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.

And linked below is a brief video where he states how X-Men: Apocalypse is different from X-Men: Days of Future Past:

X-Men: Apocalypse: Bryan Singer On The Difference Between The X-Men Films

Let Dialogue Be a Part of the Visual Language

Focusing heavily on dialogue may seem like a non-cinematic approach to filmmaking, but Singer sees characters’ words as a part of the visual language of his movies. It’s just that the visuals tied to dialogue play out in the mind of the moviegoer rather than being literally presented on the screen. He explains in a 2014 interview with Collider ahead of the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past:

Dialogue to me that paints a visual image, I remember we had a line in X2 describing the Adamantium and Ian McKellan says, “The metal on your bones carries his signature.” Obviously the image it paints is a guy signing his name on a femur, yet it paints a picture of pride, of ownership, and of authorship on the Adamantium, and yet it was elegant as opposed to “He put the metal in your body!” which is the bad dialogue. So I try to find dialogue that paints a picture, and for this movie, particularly speaking to audiences that may not have seen or remembered X-Men: First Class or the early X-Men movies, dialogue that will take us back to who Raven was to Charles and who Raven became to Erik, and who Logan was to all these people in the future. It’s fun when you go back and Quicksilver says to him, “Is he okay?” and he says, “When I knew him he wasn’t so young,” and immediately it paints a picture of some mature awesome dude in the future that Wolverine did whatever, but now he’s discovering this dysfunctional teenager.

Let the Actors Run Over Each Other

Another belief about dialogue for Singer is that it shouldn’t be spoken in succession, as that doesn’t allow for natural performances by your actors. Here’s a quote we highlighted from his commentary on the DVD of The Usual Suspects:

Let dialog overlap. Always. Ultimately you get the better performance when you let actors completely run with it against each other. The best part of acting is reacting, and you can’t do that when you have to stop what you’re saying for the other guy to avoid overlap.

You Can Always Fix It In Post

At least in his early years, Singer used to regularly talk about the idea of a film being written three times – in pre-production, in production, and in post-production. The belief that a movie can be reworked at each stage is part of the following answer he gave in the Venice magazine interview when literally asked for advice for new filmmakers:

Once you have a great script, get a great producer, one who can be very objective. And remember, a film is written three times: once on the page, once on the set and once in the editing room. And don’t ever be a slave to something just because you wrote it, or shot it. You have a chance to remake your movie in the editing room. Take advantage of it. If you look at any of your favorite movies really carefully you can see where they were cut, and they’re great because of those decisions. Don’t be afraid to cut.

He also references the idea in the following interview with Charlie Rose in 1996:

What We Learned

It may seem like Singer is stuck in a franchise doing the same thing over and over lately, and he has admitted he feels like Michael Corleone always being pulled back in to the X-Men business. But he at least believes in doing something unique with every job, even within the same series, and part of that effort may come in maintaining they all contain well-written dialogue and strong performances and a serious approach that gives them distinction. And all of that can come together in the editing if not during filming. Finally, make sure you know guys like Spielberg and Cameron to get their expert input during that final edit, too.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.