INT: Bryan Singer
Like almost everyone here, I was immediately a fan of Bryan Singer's after watching THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Of course his work on X-MEN and X2 (still what I consider to be one of the best superhero movies) solidified his reputation as a top-notch director. After SUPERMAN RETURNS he decided to return to his roots with a character-driven thriller. Of course this thriller, VALKYRIE, just happens to star the biggest movie star in the world - Tom Cruise.
I was lucky enough to spend just short of an hour talking with Singer after Thanksgiving and the man is nothing short of a savant when it comes to WWII history (I timed one of his answers and it came in at 9 minutes and 23 seconds). We talked German history, Nazis, having Tom Cruise star in your movie and, as a die-hard STAR TREK fan, whether or not he had seen JJ Abrams new TREK movie (though he was invited to, he hadn't seen it yet). Check out my chat with Bryan below and make sure you get a chance to see VALKYRIE in theaters this holiday season.
Yup. We were making WWII movies in my backyard.
New Jersey is like the new Hollywood.
[Laughs] Not quite...
As I was doing some research after seeing the film, I couldn't believe how historically accurate the majority of the film was.
There was a lot of time spent researching. Nathan and Chris [the co-writers] did an awesome job research the script and when we got to Germany, everything from meetings with members of the Stauffenberg family to sitting down and having lunch with Hitler's bodyguard [laughs].
Yeah. And being in Germany and realizing the importance of the story to German people. Accuracy suddenly became even more paramount every day that we were there.
How far had Chris and Nathan gotten in the script when they presented it to you?
They had a draft of the script. I had read a few things that Chris had written over the years and this one appealed to me for a variety of reasons and I optioned it from Chris basically with the understanding that we would produce it together. We took it to United Artists and set up a deal to make it with them thinking of it as a smaller, character driven film. That was how we envisioned the film. The deal was closed with that in mind.
It was only after the fact, having meetings with Tom and seeing his enthusiasm for the project and his physical resemblance to Stauffenberg as well as who he is as an actor did Chris and I begin to think, "Wouldn't this be neat?" And then there was a photo of the cover on one of the Stauffenberg biographies that was very provocative and I kinda looked at Tom and Tom looked at the picture and it was like, "You wanna do this?"
And rather quickly he came on board as an actor. Then he switched gears and went from studio head to actor. And then we started assembling the rest of the cast.
What are the complexities that arise when Tom Cruise signs on to star in your film? How does that change the make up of the production?
What it brings initially, which is positive is the fact that it opens up a whole other market for the film. A whole new interest level for the film globally. That opens up an opportunity to have a little bit more money and to then work out a schedule and work out the economics to get all the cast members you want as well as shooting in a lot of authentic locations and actually being able to represent the historical aspects. Which are expensive. Costumes, very expensive. We're using real aircrafts, live explosives and then 800 visual effects that you don't even see that have to do with the removal of his hand, fingers and eye.
Almost certainly without Tom as an actor in the center of the movie we wouldn't have Tom and I think he's really wonderful in the picture and you wouldn't have all those toys [laughs].
It must be frustrating though that with those positives comes a certain amount of scrutiny.
Yeah... It was something that I think took all of us by surprise, including Tom. Yet...it's something that Tom and I, on some level, Tom probably more than I, have experienced before. It's not uncommon. I remember huge skepticism before I did X-MEN 1. Nothing was right. The costumes, the characters... Nothing I did or tried to do was right until the movie came out. Here, we get it for different reasons that I don't even understand. I don't understand how they get started.
See how European tabloids translate over into American mainstream news is very bizarre. The only safety from it was that we were making the movie. Every day we were making the movie and worrying about the movie and enjoying the experience. All that stuff was happening off our set. We weren't sitting there with the Enquirer or whoever was scrutinizing. It's just frustrating that you move your release date the media interprets that and the media interprets the subject matter...everything. It kinda was odd. But I remember having those feelings before with X-MEN and getting used to them.
I think Tom has had them with everything he's done. You should talk to Tom cause he's better to talk to about this than me. He's made a lot of challenging choices that people have told him were crazy and wrong and bad and his gut instinct is that he's very driven by good characters and good stories and good filmmakers. If you look at the legacy of filmmakers he's worked with, that's quite apparent.
Are you ever tempted to pop up online somewhere and just refute all these rumors in one fell swoop?
There are definitely moments you want to do that. Once I did that many, many years ago where something I said in a class, speaking at NYU, got misinterpreted by a student and posted on the internet. It sounded hurtful to an actor but what I said was completely misreported by a student and somehow became a news item. I remember going online and saying "This is me and I'm clearing it up..." But I've learned to just do it through the movie. Don't try to explain your way out of people's prejudice, just do it with the movie. Do it with your actions. As opposed to doing it by proclamation.
But no doubt there are moments where you just want to go, "What are you talking about?! Where did you hear that?!" It was fascinating though too. My apartment was two blocks down the street from where Tom's hotel was so occasionally I would get his spillover paparazzi [laughs]. You get a little sample of that. It's interesting. It's a whole different world. He does it with a lot of grace. A lot more grace that...some other actors.
I've only met him once but he was easily the nicest actor I've ever met.
I had a lot of friends, both Chris and I, we had a lot of friends visiting the set with family and people who were complete strangers to Tom and there was nothing but complete openness. To the point where we were here shooting in the desert, we camped out. We had a bunch of buses and we camped out. We had barbecue and tons of my friends he had never even met and after the initial shock of "Wow that is Tom Cruise sitting there and there's Suri and Kate and we're all here!" it's just a bunch of people hanging out. For me as a filmmaker, it's a blessing. To have someone at the center of your movie that is that nice and hardworking... I knew that no matter what I could never ask for as many takes as Stanley Kubrick so...[laughs].
It makes my job so much easier and a more pleasurable experience. And he cares about the movie a lot. He's very proud of it as Chris and I both are as well.
Besides Tom, the majority of the other actors in the film are British. Was that a conscious decision or just a byproduct of trying to find the best actors?
It's simply looking for the best actors. We had two actors - Christian Berkel and Thomas Krestchmann - who are German and Carice van Houten is Dutch... I felt that there should be a European sensibility in the way that Tom speaks the Brits bring their accents into a mid-Atlantic and the Germans take down some of their German and in a way create a European feel. But the reality is, especially with my history with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart on X-MEN, I have this obsession with working with the entire National Theater.
The characters are all German and they'd all be speaking German so their dialects to me, it was definitely just getting the best actor. I've made films based on comic book characters and while they represent fictional characters, we had to make these real people who really lived and looked and spoke and wrote a certain way. The more research you do, the more real these people become to you. The more casting becomes essential to you. And with casting I'm pretty... Even Hugh Laurie, I cast him in "House" and I didn't even know he was British! That was a surprise. I watched him on tape and thought he was American.
Tom bares a resemblance to his character in real life but did you look for that physical resemblance in casting some of the other roles?
That was part of it but it was more the essence. Something in the eyes and the demeanor. A little bit physical, that's part of it. The real Tresckow was bald and Ken Branagh isn't but I'd rather have one of the greatest actors. But Branagh, if you look at Tresckow's energy, he had an honesty that Branagh has. So if you look at the images, if you go on the website, I hate to say "Look at our website!" but if you look at the VALKYRIE website, the character of the actors is represented. And that's what I looked for. It's weird and intangible but the casting process is like half my job quite frankly as a director.
A cynic could say that some of the members of the uprising were looking after their own post-WWII future. Do you believe these men were completely altruistic in their efforts to overthrow Hitler's government?
The movie focuses on those events and how those characters were involved in those events but I'll tell you, we produced a History Channel documentary and there's an interview with Baron von Boeselager, the oldest living member of the resistance who passed away shortly after the interview and he talks about Tresckow and he said, to give a sense of what these characters were thinking, the Nazis were murdering 16,000 people a day. This does not include war casualties. These are the murders and this is just in the scope of what they were aware of. There were probably more. They weren't at Auschwitz and didn't see the true level of it.
So while it's impossible to define the true motives of each member of the resistance because only they truly know what they were, in the knowledge that we have through the writings and letters, these characters and their disdain for Hitler, his war and the extermination of the Jews, was at the forefront of their mind. It's something that we know and it's something that emerged more and more as we researched.
And I'm a Jew who's very sensitive about absolving anyone of those terrible crimes, there is a great distinction between people who served in the military and served their country and how they feel about the policies of their government. That's the very heart of this story.