Great Conversations: Bryan Singer

05/28/2015 09:39 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016


I interviewed filmmaker Bryan Singer for Venice Magazine in late 1998 to discuss his Stephen King adaptation, Apt Pupil. It was somewhat awkward for me, as Bryan and I had been classmates at USC and he was both the first contemporary and first film school comrade I'd ever interviewed. Any apprehension on either side disappeared almost immediately and we became two film buffs talking shop. Singer's films are available online on sites such as Amazon, Netflix and


Bryan Singer was born in New York in 1966, and raised in suburban New Jersey. Following the path of his idol Steven Spielberg (Singer's production company Bad Hat Harry Productions, is a direct reference to a line from Jaws, his favorite film), Singer started making 8mm films in his early teens, as well as experimenting with still photography. After graduating high school in 1984, Singer spent two years at New York's School of Visual Arts before transferring to the University of Southern California's prestigious School of Cinema-Television after being accepted to its Critical Studies program. Singer quickly made a name for himself at USC among his classmates as the one to watch in his class. His 8mm films stood out from the pack with their bold visual imagination and polished presentation.

After graduating from 'SC, Singer wrote and directed Lion's Den, an award-winning short chronicling the lives of five high school friends who come together after graduation. It starred Singer's childhood friend Ethan Hawke, and was shot on 16mm for the bargain price of $15,000. With the success of Lion's Den, Singer found financing for Public Access, which he co-wrote, produced and directed. The film, a thriller/character study, told the story of a mysterious drifter who arrives in a small town and sets its inhabitants against each other by means of a public access cable talk show. The film took the Grand Jury Prize at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, which opened the flood gates of opportunity for the young filmmaker. Singer broke ground in Hollywood in 1995 with the double Oscar-winning thriller The Usual Suspects, which had the world asking "Who is Keyser Söse?" and quickly established Singer as the leading filmmaker of his generation. Singer's latest is an adaptation of Stephen King's novella, Apt Pupil, a thriller about an all-American boy (Brad Renfro) discovering that a Nazi war criminal (Sir Ian McKellen) lives in his neighborhood. In exchange for keeping the old man's secret, the boy demands that the Nazi teach him all he knows about the war, Nazism, and the nature of evil itself. Apt Pupil boasts virtuoso filmmaking from Singer and top-notch performances from its stellar cast, including chilling turns by McKellen and Renfro. Produced by Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy (Natural Born Killers), the Tri-Star release hits theaters October 23.

In person Bryan Singer is the antithesis of the self-absorbed, pretentious filmmaker. He appears much younger than his 32 years and carries himself with a humility that is refreshing, becoming animated and passionate when discussing his greatest love: film.


All three of your features have rather dark subject matter. Have you always been drawn toward that sort of material?

Brian Singer: Yeah, I think so. Most of my little student films I made were filled with despair and had these unhappy endings.

How did you come by Apt Pupil?

I read the story when I was in college and I always thought it would make an interesting movie. I think the thing that most interested me is that the terrible deeds that occurred so long ago could somehow manifest themselves into contemporary society.

Was it difficult adapting the story?

Very, yeah. The book takes place over four years and involves a lot of reoccurring violence from both characters. I found that as I was adapting it and trying to bring it to the conclusion that the book had, I found it very difficult. Although it works very well on the page, the written word allows you more room for imagination, whereas on film the experience has to be more believable, I think. If I had shot it like it was in the book, it would have come off as repetitive and exploitative, which was definitely not the way to go given the subject matter. So I tried to capture the essence of the book, the theme of the book, the terror of the book and celebrate that. It was difficult, though. We went through a lot of different drafts (of the script) and explored staying closer to the book, but in the end it took some time before we came up with something that worked. But I love the book. I'll always love the book.

The thing I always loved about the book was that it was a perfect metaphor for how easily innocence is corrupted by evil.

Yeah, I agree. And the other thing is, it's important to realize that this film is not about fascism. It's not about racism. It's not about Nazism per se. It uses that as a device to talk about evil or evil deeds. I think that the character of (the Nazi) Dussander easily could have been a serial killer, a degenerate, Pol Pot...or any number of incarnations. It's about what the character represents.


It must have been interesting working with a relatively new actor like Brad Renfro and a seasoned veteran like McKellen.

Yeah, it wasn't that much different from doing The Usual Suspects, where I had actors coming together from different backgrounds and levels of experience. It's what made (Apt Pupil) exciting to me: that mixture of oil and water, the coming together of two completely individuals is what intrigued me most about the book, so why not try to recreate some of that energy in casting? I auditioned a number of young people and I found Brad to be, by far, the most real and raw, and simultaneously, the most intelligent and talented. With Ian McKellen, we were actually introduced by a mutual friend early on. I had a list of a number of the sort of obvious older, European actors...I wanted, like with Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, to have this character played by someone who wasn't as familiar to mainstream audiences, which Kevin wasn't at the time. I also thought that Ian brought a degree of British charm and flamboyance to this otherwise stoic German character.

Do you generally give a lot of direction to actors, or just sort of let them go and watch it happen?

It depends on the actor. It depends on the day. It depends on the moment. It depends on the shot. Sometimes the actor isn't aware of where the camera is, or how important the blocking for a scene is. Sometimes the actor might forget where we are in the course of the movie. They feel where they are in terms of the arc of their character, but they don't see the movie in their head the way I do. So sometimes certain things are called for which I try to fill in, but otherwise I try to give them as much freedom as possible.


How much do you rehearse?

I don't rehearse. We do a run through with blocking and on this movie we did a read-through with part of the cast to see how it sounded. Richard Dreyfuss was nice enough to read Ian's part, who couldn't make it because he was in London doing a play.

What's the trick to adapting a book for the screen?

The trick is your movie is separate from that book. Do whatever it takes to make the story make sense on screen. The biggest mistake a filmmaker or screenwriter can make is to get mired down in details from the book that don't work on-screen. A film is written three times: once on the page, once on the set, and once again in the editing room. You're constantly recreating what that movie is every time you go in to work with those materials.

How did you become interested in film?

My neighbor was a photographer for the high school yearbook and he was really cool, so I thought it'd be cool to be a yearbook photographer. That's how I started.

Who was the filmmaker who inspired you initially?

Steven Spielberg. Actually, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but it was really when I was 16 and E.T. came out I was blown away by the film, then they profiled Spielberg's life on "Nightline." And all of the sudden a personality was given to the man who made the movie that moved myself and so many people. Here he was a Jewish kid from the suburbs, like me, sort of a nerd, like me, a drawer full of 8mm movies...and I thought, hey, maybe I should do that too. It was such a relief because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, even though it wasn't being a pilot, or marine biologist, like a lot of the people I'd grown up with.

Have you met Spielberg?

Yeah, he had seen The Usual Suspects before it came out, and I got word when I was at a film festival in Thailand that he wanted to meet me and (screenwriter) Chris McQuarrie. So Chris and I went to Amblin', he walked into the room...for twenty minutes I was nervous, then I was completely comfortable, felt like I was talking to a fellow filmmaker. I mean, I'll always be starstruck around him. I saw him at Deauville a couple weeks ago and it was still like "I'm talking with Steven Spielberg!" He's been great to me. He, Robert Altman and John Schlesinger are my DGA sponsors, which was amazing! I also went on the set of the new Star Wars film when I was in London, which was an incredible experience, because I'm doing this very effects-intensive film next (X-Men). I also got to go down to the Titanic set in Rosarito and watch Cameron work, which was a real treat. I learned a lot. All these people have been very accommodating and helpful to me. It's good to talk to those sorts of people about these sorts of movies because they have a better sense of how to do them. They also don't let the effects govern them. Story is always the most important thing to them. Then of course, you forget everything you've heard and make it your own! (laughs)


Do you think it's crucial for young filmmakers to have a mentor?

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.

How was your experience at USC?

It was great. I was exposed to so many great films. It's been really great being an alumnus. I was down there recently for a ceremony, and afterwards myself, Randal Kleiser (Grease), John Milius and George Lucas went over to the film school and surprised the kids who were up all night editing their final thesis projects. It was a real thrill to be able to waltz into the editing area with these people and watch the kids react. Lucas and Milius just poured out the stories to the students. Each finished the other's stories, it was great. A once in a lifetime kind of thrill. I felt kind of in the middle. I've only done a few films and these guys are like, history! So I just sort of stood back, listened and enjoyed the moment. It was one of the best nights I've had.

What's surprised you most about success?

I guess the fact that you think it will change everything for you, and it doesn't. I went back to my high school reunion thinking I'd be "Ha, ha, ha, look at me," and it just wasn't like that. I sat at the same table the whole night with the same three geeks who I was best friends with. For the first twenty minutes there were people who talked to me who'd never talked to me before, then there were others who just ignored me, thinking it wouldn't be cool to talk to me at all. It's hard to know how to act in situations like that, I guess. I never had any real bitterness or resentment. I just tried to stay focused on the work. But success doesn't take away any of your fears, or anxieties. Those things stay put, regardless.

Any advice for first-time directors?

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.