The Outsider

5.14.2014

By Shana Naomi Krochmal

Director Bryan Singer on not really coming out, the queer allegories of superheroes, and the power of Ellen Page

Photography by James Dimmock

Editor's Note: This story went to press just as a lawsuit alleging Bryan Singer sexually assaulted a teenager in 1999 was announced. Singer declined additional comment to Out beyond this public statement released last month: “The allegations against me are outrageous, vicious and completely false. I do not want these fictitious claims to divert ANY attention from ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past.’ This fantastic film is a labor of love and one of the greatest experiences of my career. So, out of respect to all of the extraordinary contributions from the incredibly talented actors and crew involved, I’ve decided not to participate in the upcoming media events for the film. However, I promise when this situation is over, the facts will show this to be the sick twisted shake down it is. I want to thank fans, friends and family for all their amazing and overwhelming support.”

 

As a miserable teen, Bryan Singer’s parents sent him to a shrink. The therapist offered to have a colleague step in, one who more often worked with kids struggling with their sexual orientation, but Singer resisted. “My sexuality is not what is tearing me up inside,” he insisted. “I’m in love and he doesn’t love me back and it’s killing me. I need relationship advice!” Later, floundering his way through an affair with a friend who was far less confident in his identity, Singer called his mom, heartbroken and crying, needing a sympathetic ear. That’s as close as they ever came to having a big coming-out moment. “I’ve never felt the need to be declarative,” he says.

After the indie-noir whodunit The Usual Suspects became one of the most talked-about movies of the mid-’90s, there was only one kind of project Singer wanted to direct next: a sweeping, epic science fiction movie. Major studios came courting, and though he’d been more of a fantasy geek than a comic book nerd, Singer signed on to adapt the story of the X-Men, Marvel’s group of mutant superheroes.

He just wanted to make one very important, if allegorical, update. “[X-Men cocreator] Stan Lee saw the mutants as children of the Cold War,” he explains. “What would atomic weapons do? Mutate us and create super-humans?” But there was also what Singer calls the “logical parallel”: Say there were these outsiders who first discover they’re different as their bodies mature during adolescence. They long to be normal, but instead become scapegoats in a fearful society in which laws are passed to identify and criminalize anyone who is different.

Is this a story about mutants? Or is it the modern gay civil rights movement?

Singer posed that question directly to Lee. “I just asked, ‘Back when you were creating this, did it ever occur to you that there was a parallel?’ He said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ ” (Singer also used this angle to persuade Sir Ian McKellen to step away from his Shakespearean roots and play the supervillain Magneto.)

It was a fresh approach to a genre in desperate need of a facelift. At the time, long before The Avengers broke every box office record in history — before Robert Downey Jr. so much as smirked at an Iron Man suit — comic book movies had stagnated, becoming time capsules.

When Hugh Jackman was cast as Wolverine in Singer’s X-Men, he was coming off of a West End production of Oklahoma! and showed up a little soft around the edges. There were scenes where Wolverine was injured and unconscious — and shirtless. “We were shooting around his body — a lot of lovehandle hiding,” Singer says. By the time the production had worked its way back around to the film’s opening sequence, in which Wolverine, still shirtless, fights a series of cage matches, Jackman had buffed up.

Singer had planned to have him wear tight leather pants and a tank top. “He said, ‘No, mate, I really want to go shirtless.’ He showed me his body and I was like, Oh, I’ll shoot that. That’ll work.”

This is basically what much of Singer’s gay audience expects of him — hot guys — and it generates a predictable mix of gratitude and questions about his type and his process. Singer knows this. “On screen, it’s different. People I cast, oddly enough, are not my type. People always assumed [otherwise] — like when I did Superman Returns with Brandon Routh. Not my type at all. Handsome guy, don’t get me wrong. He reminded me of Christopher Reeve — also not my type.”

Tentpole Hollywood movies are always flush with copycats, but there’s a certain obvious style — a swagger — that emerged among male superheroes after Singer and his undeniably queer gaze made his mark. (Before: Michael Keaton as Batman. After: Chris Hemsworth as Thor.) Fifteen years in, the X-Men franchise seems likely to be Singer’s longest, most enduring, and queerest legacy. He directed the first two films, distanced himself gracefully from some poorly handled sequels and spin-offs, and after producing 2011’s First Class prequel, neatly stepped back in to pick up directing where he left off.

X-Men has always appealed to people who felt like outcasts,” Singer says, “but I also understood it had a universal appeal. Even the most popular person, or the best-looking, or the straightest, has times in life where they feel different and like they don’t belong.”

X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest film in the franchise, is a have-your-cakeand-eat-it-too Marvel universe moment in which the earlier, more established characters coexist in the same movie as their younger selves, thanks to a Terminator 2–like quest to keep history from veering off track.

With a few notable absences, it’s a double-ensemble dream cast. Jennifer Lawrence resumes her First Class role as the spiky blue shapeshifter Mystique. Original alums Jackman and Halle Berry are back. And, alongside Patrick Stewart and McKellen, who play older incarnations of the same characters, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender return as Charles Xavier and Magneto, whose falling out will eventually render them mortal enemies.

Back in March, a 10-second teaser trailer posted online generated hundreds of blog posts and a deluge of passionate reactions from Marvel’s most devoted. No matter how loud the vitriol might get — “X-Men fans everywhere HATE Bryan Singer to his very core,” said one fan on Twitter — it’s clear that most of these armchair critics still have an insatiable appetite. “They expect them to keep going,” Singer says. “They don’t want them to stop.”

He can relate to the heightened emotion. “I waited in long lines around the block to see my favorite scifi/fantasy films,” he says. By age 13, he was wielding an 8mm camera and crafting his own mini-movies. When he took on X-Men at 30, he was suddenly in charge of Fox’s big blockbuster hope. Singer was scared shitless, lashing out at everyone around him.

As he hunkered down for the editing process, everything seemed wrong. “The movie was slipping away,” he says. He went for an anxious walk through the lot with a Fox executive, ranting about an inevitable critical and financial failure of the franchise. “This was my big shot, and I felt it crumbling around me.” Only one outcome seemed possible: “I will never be allowed to make one of these again.” The executive told him not to be so sure. “I was really sure,” Singer says.

Spoiler alert: He didn’t fail.

That first X-Men movie grossed $157 million in the U.S.; when counted along with its five franchise follow-ups, Fox has taken in more than $1 billion.

Today he operates out of a modern new building on Fox’s sprawling lot on the west side of L.A. While still finishing post-production on X-Men: Days of Future Past — and planning for its pre-emptively greenlit sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse — he’s also directing the pilot for Battle Creek, a CBS drama from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. Another series he’s producing, Black Box, airs on ABC.

Tags: Movies, x-men
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