X marks the plot

Filmmaker Bryan Singer started out making 8 mm movies as a kid. Now, he’s the creative force behind the X-Men film franchise, and he visits town this Friday to deliver the keynote address at the Sacramento Festival of Cinema.

Using futuristic technology, the director of <i>The Usual Suspects</i> and <i>X-Men</i> makes his way to Sacramento.

Using futuristic technology, the director of The Usual Suspects and X-Men makes his way to Sacramento.

Bryan Singer knows how to get an audience’s attention. At age 28, he directed The Usual Suspects, a 1995 reinvention of a classic thriller, which earned two Oscars and boosted Kevin Spacey and Benicio Del Toro along their paths to iconhood. Less than a decade later, Singer’s reputation has only grown, first with Ian McKellan’s disturbing portrayal of the Nazi next door in Apt Pupil and more recently with the wildly successful X-Men films. So, when Tower of Youth (TOY) founder Bill Bronston was looking for speakers to fire up this year’s audience of aspiring teen filmmakers, signing on Singer turned out to be a coup.

“I think the film industry has been opening up tremendously,” said Singer, who will be a keynote speaker at TOY’s seventh annual North American All Youth Film and Education Day, which will kick off the Sacramento Festival of Cinema this Friday at the Crest Theatre. “There’s an ever-present interest in new and fresh talent, and I think there always will be in the arts.”

Singer will be talking to students from across Northern California during the annual film career day, which also will screen student films from across the country on the Crest’s big screen. The event also gives Singer an opportunity to look back on his own genesis as a director who was bitten by the filmmaking bug when he and a friend collaborated on their first flick at age 13.

“The two of us used his 8 mm windup camera—not Super 8, but 8 mm, where you have to flip the film halfway through the roll,” said Singer, talking on his cell phone while driving through the streets of his ancestral homeland in New Jersey. “We made a movie called The Star Trek Murders. And his mother made us Star Trek uniforms, and we actually used ketchup for blood.”

Claymation, horror and Shakespearean efforts soon followed. “I kept making tons of 8 mm films and eventually borrowing a friend’s Super 8 camera,” Singer said. “I was always borrowing cameras; I never really got my own until late.”

It was at age 16 that Singer began to realize his hobby was, in fact, a calling. “I was watching the show 20/20 at a friend’s house, and they were profiling the life of Steven Spielberg in the wake of his making the film E.T.,” Singer recalled. “And I saw similarities between his history—being a nerdy Jewish kid from the suburbs who didn’t have very good grades. I got terrible grades in high school; I think I ended up graduating high school with a cumulative [grade-point average] of about 1.9. But that night, as I walked back home, that was when I decided, ‘That’s what I’ll do with the rest of my life.’” (In homage to Spielberg’s Jaws, Singer would go on to name his production company Bad Hat Harry, a reference to an obscure line in the film.)

Though Singer’s school had no film equipment and not much in the way of video equipment, he continued to borrow cameras for class projects. In fact, it was one such high-school project that launched the acting career of a young Ethan Hawke. “He was a young kid living in the neighborhood, and I made him one of the leads in this film for a school project,” said Singer. “Ethan was probably about 13 at the time, 12 or 13, and it was called Mothers Against Shakespeare. Ethan Hawke plays this kid who’s reading a Shakespeare book in his brother’s car, and then his brother starts reading it, and he gets into a car accident—that was the joke.”

In spite of his 1.9 grade-point average, Singer managed to get himself into film school. “I first went to a school called SVA, the School [of] Visual Arts, in New York. They had a budding film program, and they were really looking for new students. So, they were able to kind of overlook my bad grade-point average and instead really scrutinize my creative work, through some of my writing and the short films I had made.”

Learning production technique and improving his academic record at SVA, Singer was then able to transfer to the University of Southern California. “At USC, I tried for three semesters to get into their production school and could never get in, so I opted to become a critical-studies major, which I think ultimately was the best decision that someone else made for me.”

Having already gotten a lot of vocational experience, Singer was able to focus on film history, international cinema and, of course, postmodernism. “You learn about the origins of film language and, also, what’s already been done, which inspires you to either do something original or take from what’s been done and do it differently.”

For his final semester at USC, Singer moved up to 16 mm for a film called Lion’s Den, which he described as the “semi-autobiographical story of five friends who meet in an all-night diner after their first semester out of high school and realize in the course of the evening just how far they’ve grown apart.” Hawke acted in the film, playing a character based on Singer’s friend Christopher McQuarrie, who went on to win an Oscar for The Usual Suspects’ screenplay. Dylan Kussman, who acted alongside Hawke in Dead Poets Society, also appeared in Singer’s senior film and, more recently, in X2.

Asked if he sees a thematic thread in his work, Singer (who is gay, Jewish and adopted) said it would have to be identity. “I’m a pretty open person, but I’m fascinated by mysterious people, and I like to make films about them,” he said. “In Public Access, it’s a psychotic and dangerous man who comes to a small town masquerading as a talk-show host. In The Usual Suspects, it’s a criminal mastermind disguised as a helpless cripple. And then in Apt Pupil, it’s the Nazi war criminal disguised as the old man next door. And in X-Men, it’s people living as outcasts in disguise—their names faked, their identities secret. So, [the theme of] identity is something I’ve noticed, although it’s not something I strive for.”

And though the X-Men franchise has been praised by critics for its championing of difference in a world of conformity (as evidenced by a scene in which a mother asks her son, “Have you tried not being a mutant?”), what Singer really strives for as a filmmaker is good storytelling. “If ideas or messages or moral tales can be told in the text or the subtext, then so be it,” he said, “but my first priority as a filmmaker is to entertain and tell a story, and probably always will be.”

As his cell-phone batteries began to fade, Singer had time for one last question: Is it true that, when the director and his associate producer were asked to come up to Sacramento, they initially asked for a private jet?

“Did we really ask for a private jet?” Singer repeated in what sounded like disbelief. “Who said that?”

That had been the word from TOY’s Bronston. (The irony, of course, is that Bronston’s group’s primary funding comes from the California Arts Council, whose budget was cut 95 percent this year. Bronston insisted everyone was nice about it once they understood that wasn’t possible.)

“Somebody told them I’m used to traveling in a private jet,” Singer said, as a companion laughed in the background. “I don’t even know how to answer that kind of thing. I mean, I’ve flown American Airlines, but I cannot speak for anyone I’m traveling with.

“No, as long as I’ve got orange juice, I’ll be fine.”