Like his three feature films, the low-budget Public Access (which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival), his breakout 1995 hit The Usual Suspects (the movie shunned by 25 companies which won Oscars for Kevin Spacey and childhood chum-turned-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie) and the sleek new thriller Apt Pupil, Bryan Singer is smooth and focused in person, with a piercing stare and diplomatic aplomb in all things relating to the making of motion pictures.
Born 31 years ago in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, Singer began shooting 8mm films in his teens before studying at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York. Moving to Los Angeles, he enrolled in and graduated from the Critical Studies Program at the University of Southern California (taking numerous menial jobs along the way). Enlisting another pal from the old neighborhood, Ethan Hawke, Singer wrote and directed Lion's Den, an award-winning short about five high school friends who check in with each other after graduation. That got the ball rolling, and Singer today is one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood, currently sheparding Apt Pupil (adapted from the Stephen King novella by yet another life-long friend, first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce) to the marketplace and preparing the much-delayed, effects-heavy X-Men project -- which could top out at $100 million, a far cry from the $15,000 he scraped together to make Lion's Den, the quarter million it took to get Public Access (which has Boyce in a small role) made, the $6.6 million he spent on The Usual Suspects and the positively parsimonious $15 million spent on this new movie's lushly sinister look.
At a critics' roundtable amidst the hubbub of the Toronto International Film Festival (where Apt Pupil had its world premiere as a Special Presentation), Singer took a few minutes to talk about his pungent, creepy new film, starring Sir Ian McKellen as a dissolute Nazi war criminal ferreted out of his Southern California hiding place by inquisitive high school student Brad Renfro -- and the high-stakes power struggle that develops between the two.
EC: What appealed to you about the story?
BS: The part of the novella that I really liked, that really intrigued me the most, was the idea that this terrible, awful thing that happened so many years ago, so many decades ago in Europe, the awfulness of it, the collective awfulness of it, like a Golem, would somehow have crept up, across the ocean, through time, and into this beautiful Southern California, suburban neighborhood and this seemingly normal, all-American, young man. And that interested me. And it wasn't about socialism or Nazism or racism or anything. It was just about the pure collective deed, manifesting itself in the present, that really interested me, the essence of evil.
EC: How did you and screenwriter Brandon Boyce approach the novella?
BS: The book takes place over four years and covers Tod's age from 14 to 18. I didn't want to do that with the movie so I tried to localize it into a 16-year-old senior. And the book gets involved in a lot of ultra-violence and a lot of murder, a lot of things happening, I felt that although it worked so beautifully on the page, in the film world it might become a little less believable and potentially repetitive and exploitative. But again, it works fantastically in the book. The essence of the story is there; I believe this movie is horror.
EC: Isn't there a previous movie version of this material?
BS: They tried to make this movie in 1988 with Ricky Schroder and Nicol Williamson, they shot for ten weeks, and put together an hour of continuity; I've never seen it.
EC: Did you add anything to King's story?
BS: Nothing drastic. I think we made Ian more pro-active. I had Ian show up at the guidance counselor's office as opposed to having Brad convince him to. I had a few other sequential changes and alterations just to make things different. I loved it in the book, because it was the perpetuation of this evil from the past manifesting itself on the world. Trouble is, when you try to show an audience that visually, they're going to get real tired of seeing bums get whacked. So how do you end it? Here, we decided to play a psychological game.
EC: Are you worried about the Holocaust aspect?
BS: Sure, of course I thought about it, I studied it and talked to Stephen King about it. I'm Jewish, but Stephen is not. We talked about it, he experienced some resistance from his agents and Jewish representatives at the time when he wanted to publish it. I screened the film at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and it went beautifully. It was quite wonderful, I got a fantastic congratulatory letter about the importance of the picture and any support that the center could offer the movie, a premiere or something like that. I don't know if I would do that because I think the people who would attend that kind of event might be older Jewish people and that's not necessarily the first audience you want to trust in your theater with this movie.
Any time you reference the shoah in any form, whether it be in a popular entertainment form, like a horror movie like The Keep, something like that, or Schindler's List, more of a docudrama, or Apt Pupil, which is somewhere in the middle, I guess, I think it's a good thing, because it reminds you that the event happened, that it was real, and it should always be remembered. I don't think it's pro-Nazi or pro-Fascist. In fact, it's really not about Fascism at all. It's not about Nazism at all. It's not about that. It's about, this character could have been any monster who committed murder, and if not enjoyed, thrived somehow on it.
And then my father told me, when he fought in the Korean war, he was in an artillery unit, he said there were men who would opt to pull the cord, fire the cannons, they wanted to. And there were men who didn't, like him. And he said it wasn't unusual: nobody was a killer, there were just some men who wanted to do that.
EC: Was there an idea before you started that there was a backstory with Todd Bowden [Brad Renfro's character], a core of evil that was being disturbed or was he pure as the driven snow and then it all came down like a curtain?
BS: I don't believe for one minute that he was as pure as the driven snow. I think anybody could be fascinated. I was tremendously fascinated by the Holocaust and by these atrocities when I was a young man. But the capacity to blackmail an old man, obviously there's a search for something going on that's just one good hard step beyond innocence. And that was a function of Tod's character. It could have been the same thing that provoked some kid to shoplift or do drugs or something.
EC: This may sound odd, but it's striking in the film: was there a conscious effort to film Tod with his head slightly down, like an animal backed into a corner? Because it's hard to do something like that by accident...
BS: Well, it changes, you remember in the scene where [Todd] makes him [Dussander, McKellen's character] try on the uniform, the camera's actually beneath him for most of the scene. So, it depends on which scene requires it. For me as a filmmaker it's very instinctual, I literally put the camera where I believe it should go, I've been doing it since I began making movies. It seemed right to me. I actually decided that the lower angle made [Todd] weaker. For some strange reason, some weird reason, shooting him from the lower angle, where normally you would think the character would be empowered, up on high, made Brad weaker.
EC: What was your experience simultaneously directing stage-trained Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro, who described himself as very raw?
BS: I'd done this before with The Usual Suspects. You had stage actors and movie stars and standup comedians. It's just different styles of acting, and that's what makes it exciting. I love matching people together. I think if you were entertained by the movie at all, or taken in to it, that's one of the elements that might have done it, is the difference in the way they approach. It's really not how I approach them, it's how they approach the material that I think comes across.
Having to rest this film on two characters in such a conflicted setting, I like the idea that I can do that. When I talk to executives about The X-Men, this big movie I'm doing next, they say "well, you know, we're concerned about talk." I say "you don't understand, the best Bond films were the ones with all that conversation and all that relationship stuff," and then some action happened and you cared, you know?
EC: Could you talk a bit about your collaboration with John Ottman, who has worked with you now on all three of your features?
BS: He's intrinsic to it. We work very closely together. We're terrific friends and it's one of my favorite parts of the process. He's the editor and composer, the only one in the world who does both jobs. And he only does these tasks for me, he scores for other people but he does the most important and unglamorous job of editing just for me. He's just terrific. There isn't a lot of preconception about the music, he cuts the picture separate from scoring it, does his own temp tracks, his own orchestrations. He doesn't like me to mention it, but when he did the score for The Usual Suspects, he had to write the letters of the keys on the piano, he didn't know them. So he's a real virtuoso. He's like, "people won't think I'm a serious musician..."
EC: What about the thematic similarities between The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, the covering of identity? It's almost as if you're not done talking about that yet.
BS: Quite frankly, I don't think I'll ever be done talking about that, it always fascinates me, the face behind the face behind the face. I love the idea of things not always being what they seem. To me that's an incredibly exciting notion to either center a picture around or to at least incorporate into the pictures that you're making, for me that's something that just fascinates me. Every day, when you look at life, there's always a Verbal Kint passing you on the street.
What did somebody say the other day? I read a review of this movie on an internet site, because they had seen it like on videotape or something, probably with microphones bouncing in and the wrong aspect ratio. I read this review and the guy got so into it that at the end he wrote this funny thing, he wrote "Who are the scariest people? Old people! Be afraid of them, when you're walking home at night. You know why? Because they're the most dangerous, horrifying people. Why? Because they have nothing to lose!" And that was so scary, because that's what the book does, this indictment of age, decrepitness, the fingers, the nicotine on the teeth and fingernails, the alcoholism... I really love that stuff, I pushed that in the movie. I said to Ian, "You're knocked out, you're lying there, there's your bourbon, the cartoons are on, you're just this disheveled creature. You're still an alcoholic as the movie goes on, you're just a different kind of alcoholic."
EC: Did you at some point plan some erotic tension between the two of them?
BS: I never intended any between the two characters, but there is a smattering of that with the guidance counselor [David Schwimmer] and the homeless guy [Elias Koteas], which can be kind of interesting...
EC: Did McKellen want to play that up or play that down? Did you discuss that with him?
BS: No, he had no desire, he wanted whatever I wanted.
EC: Did you want him to play the character potentially with gay overtones?
BS: No, not at all, I don't think so, no. In fact he played it very straight, and that made the one scene where he falsely seduces the homeless guy quite disturbing. It's almost like "why are you doing that, that's not what you are."
EC: Have you seen that great film he co-wrote and co-produced, Richard III?
BS: That was actually a hindrance, as he'd done the uniform and that whole thing. The performance is wonderful, of course. The difference is in that movie, he was a dictator, a tyrant who killed no one himself, who ordered death and basically operated out of fear and paranoia. This is a different character, a very different character. Here, he's just getting started...again.
EC: You mentioned The X-Men; how's that project coming along, what shape is it taking?
BS: It's about these unlikely and reluctant superheroes who are cursed, if you will, with these powers. They experience a lot of prejudice while defending a world that might condemn them. Yeah, I'm excited about it. I visited the set of Titanic in Mexico, I went to the set of Star Wars in London, which was neat, a neat experience. I talked a lot with Lucas, Spielberg and Cameron as well as the heads of all these special effects companies. We've done an enormous amount of research and I'm really, really looking forward to being able to expand my imagination beyond the confines of police precincts and small houses.
Be sure to read the Nitrate Online's coverage of Apt Pupil: