Bryan Singer Reveals Secrets Of 'X-Men: Apocalypse' [On Set Interview]

Bryan Singer has shepherded the X-Men franchise from its origin through to this year's latest installment, X-Men: Apocalypse. Well, there was that little break in there for X-Men: The Last Stand, but with that exception Singer has been intimately involved with the core series films in a major capacity, typically as director.

This latest film gives Singer the chance to do a few things he never go to do the first time around, such as detail the early years of Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It also features what could be the series' biggest and weirdest villain to date: the body-hopping, power-amplifying, centuries-old Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac).

Oh, you didn't know about the body-hopping part? That's one of the details Singer explained in a very long interview when we and a few other sites visited the set of the film in Montreal last year. Below, read the first half of this giant talk, in which Singer goes deep and gets candid about the history and future of the X-Men.

What makes now, seven, eight movies into the franchise, the time to tell the Apocalypse story?

Bryan Singer: Because it's just so different. We've always treated this theme of mutants vs. humans, and Apocalypse has two aspects that make him such a different character than I've traditionally explored in the universe. One is that he makes no distinctions between humans and mutants. He's interested in the Earth as a whole and the purity of civilization and the strongest [beings]. And secondly it deals with ancient mutantism, or the origins of the mutant state, or the origin of gods and religion. The X-Men universe has never touched upon any of those things and that stuff I loved when I was a kid. I read Chariots of the Gods when I was a kid, and I was fascinated with religion as a kid and cults and things like that.

Can you describe your version of Apocalypse?

To me he is the God of the Old Testament and all that comes with that. If there isn't order and worship then I'll open up the Earth and swallow you whole. That was the God of the Old Testament.

I started from there. When Oscar and I met we began discussing, since he isn't really God, he's the first mutant perhaps, he's imbued with certain unique powers. Some of them may or may not be from this Earth. Then we started looking at cults and the nature of cults. True cult leaders develop god complexes, and the old God always traditionally had four horsemen. So I thought a cult has traditionally four factions to it that interest me. It has a political faction, and I'd always felt Magneto could fill those shoes. It always has a military faction, so Archangel could fill those shoes as the guardian. There's also a youth faction, those that you're trying to seduce and grow into your cult, the young whose minds are malleable, and lastly the sexual component because cult leaders tend to sexualize their position and have sex with half the people in their cult. And the Psylocke character was a very bright character in the comic but is always looking for guidance and leadership. Always trying to find the right guy, so she starts with one and ends up with Apocalypse in this one. I always thought there was a mixture of ancient religion and cultism combined in the character of Apocalypse.

How did you settle on the look of Apocalypse?

Whenever I can go physical I try to. It gives the actors something to play with. What did Jack Nicholson say when he played the Joker? Let the costume do the acting? There's a lot more that goes into it than that but nonetheless it makes it real.

Once the people at Legacy could prove it to me that they could pull off [the costume] — it was very complicated how to do that. Once I saw a few key designs, I was like "Okay that's the guy, lets build it." Let's make it real. If the character is a strange size or something then maybe you have to do CG, although we do get into a little of that.

For Angel, we didn't build the wings because they're twenty feet long. He's two characters, he's Angel then he's Archangel. [Both] are very complex and [the wings] we clearly make room for but we always have to be careful. I'm telling my cinematographer "Leave negative space for the wings!" It's like, "Let's do an over the shoulder shot," but "No, you're blocking them with wings!" So you have to use your imagination and have a great guy like John [Dykstra, visual effects designer] who can run in there and remind you.

mutant fight club

With Apocalypse having so many powers over the years in the comics, how did you decide just what he'll be able to do in the movie? We've been told he can somehow amplify other people's powers?

He does, he has a number of different powers that he's acquired over the years as he's moved from body to body, accumulating these various abilities. One of them is to imbue other mutants and to highten their powers and abilities. Secondly, he can shield from psychic powers; he can form shields so that it makes it harder for a psychic like Xavier to tap in and get to them. He's not a psychic himself though. He can amplify your power, transform you as a mutant but his ability to physically damage, destroy, or build is in the non-biological world. That's in the physical world, he can change the inorganic molecules of things. These are some of the powers that we're exploring and there are some epic things that he does towards the end of the picture.

I have to say in the end, his greatest power is the power of persuasion. The ability to know what he needs and who he needs it from and to get it from them as he does with the horsemen, and as he has through civilization after civilization for tens of thousands of years.

When you say persuasion, do you mean charisma?

Charisma, pure persuasion. Finding people at a time in a moment when there's an emptiness, when there's a need. The hardest one is Erik. That's a big one. The journey that Erik takes in this movie; the last movie was very much the journey of Charles. He was an older man who made a mistake, now he's in this post-apocalyptic universe and he wishes he could go back in time. He can't, his body can't make it, so he sends back Wolverine, who's not the best psychiatrist, to right his wrongs he had with Raven, and that's that story. It's really the story of Charles.

In this one the journey of Erik Lensherr is a very big part of this movie. I think the two biggest journeys are the journey of Erik, perhaps the journey of Raven, and on the younger side the journey of Scott and Jean and their story as young characters. One of the biggest challenges, and it's very emotional and it's somewhat dark, is getting Erik to that place where he would follow Apocalypse. Because Erik is a supervillain. He's dropped stadiums on the White House, and to get him to a place where he's ready to go there with this character, with Apocalypse, was one of the biggest challenges. There's a scene [MichaelFassbender does with this movie... you always wonder what's going to make the cut, but he did something that [had us] pulling the Kleenex out in the tent. I've never had that happen on the set.

There's some really funny parts too, I'm not making it sound like it. We rekindle romances, there's three romances we start together. One that I didn't really explore in Days of Future Past but I did when I wrote the story for First Class between Hank and Raven. We've got Jean and Scott. Suddenly Xavier and Moira start getting reconnected, so that's all starting to happen.

So there are a lot of rebirths. Ultimately this movie – this doesn't answer your question but I don't want to forget to mention because I did forget to mention at the Comic-Con panel and I felt bad about it because you only get one shot to say one thing and then you're done — but this movie is about the story of the formation of the team. That's really what this is.

Speaking of the Comic-Con panel, you had some interaction with Hugh Jackman at that panel that was very entertaining and in the end was a little difficult to decipher.

I know, we also ran into each other in the elevator, which was even more bizarre. In my hotel I went down to the basement. Suddenly the door opens up and Hugh walks in. It's like "Oh, I'll see you later? Maybe? I don't know?" So we played it all out on the elevator before we even went on stage.

I pointed out that there's not been an X-Men film that has not featured Hugh Jackman, and he pointed out that he appreciated the opportunity I had given him years ago and it was very emotional. We actually were side by side watching that video. We were next to each other next to the stage, sort of arm in arm looking at each other and listening to it and remembering those days. It was very emotional and we pointed this out to each other. There are a lot of characters, it's a complicated movie, it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Your story has big ideas and god-like people, so how do you focus on specific characters and their personal journeys?

You just make sure that you understand each character arc and where they're coming from. I make sure I always have an answer for every actor. Lucas Till says, "Okay, I left Vietnam, it's the last time you saw me. I'm the brother of Scott Summers. What do I do for a living?" I'm like "Well, you live in Omaha, you're an executive at Berkshire Hathaway. You've cleaned your life up. Your brother doesn't like school, he's the opposite of the Cyclops we're going to get to know. Now he's discovered he's got this problem."

So you start with, whether you put it on screen or not, I have to understand where each character is in their life. Who just broke up with them, why they're angry, how many parents they have, where they come from. Then who you focus on, that's just where the story takes you and when you realize you want to recruit. This is a hard question to answer because each one has its own journey.

I knew I wanted to explore two things. I wanted to tell us the story of whatever happened to Raven and Erik when they left that stadium. When they both just left. I knew I wanted to tell that story, like when I first came up with First Class and I wanted to tell the story of Xavier and Magneto, I knew I wanted to tell the origin of Jean and Scott and Storm.

As you asked that question I've now realized the two principal stories that I entered the movie saying "I have to tell, the audience wants to know." They know Hank, they know they're going to rebuild the school. Hank and Charles know where they're headed but we don't know where those two [Erik and Raven] went, and I desperately wanted to have the opportunity to do what I did with Charles and Erik on First Class as a writer/producer with Jean and Scott.

X-men 2

Is it right to assume that on the original X-Men movie there was some resistance to the very concept of the film, or to doing that movie at all?

There was no concept. There was no template for it. Comic book movies had died, there was no concept of one as anything but camp. I took it on because the themes were interesting to me. I saw Xavier and Magneto as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X characters. I'm gay or bisexual, whatever, so that probably factored into it a bit because mutancy is discovered at that age in puberty when you're different from your whole neighborhood and your family and you feel very isolated. So that probably factored into my decision to do it to some degree at least. I wanted to get involved in action-adventure and this was an avenue to do it.

The studio had always wanted to make an X-Men movie. Andrew Kevin Walker wrote a script, a number of scripts had been written, but after I met with Stan Lee who was wonderful and lovely, I just started to research the characters. I found them so compelling and their relationships with each other were so interesting that I thought "I can make this universe really cool, and I can see it through Wolverine's eyes because he kind of doesn't buy it."

This is where I will probably out myself as a non-comic book person, but I did not come from reading comic books. So for me I was very cynical about it. Like "They call themselves Cyclops, Storm, Sabertooth." But I said I can be Logan and by the end of the movie I can embrace this universe, so I can tell this story. Through him I can make this movie and I can make it like a film that happens to be based on a comic book, that happens to have action sequences in it, but it's still to me a film. It's not just genre. It's a film. Like Usual Suspects or Apt Pupil or whatever films I had made at the time.

The reason for the question is that some aspects of this film seem like things that could not be done at the time. Telling Scott and Jean's story is a thing you're doing now but that you weren't able to do at the time.

I wouldn't have thought to do it at the time. I really was focused on the X-Men people knew mostly from the animated series, I kind of used that as my template to be honest. I took the characters that were most popular from that series and I used those as my main primary characters.

You are one of the godfathers of the modern superhero movie. We've seen that genre evolve like crazy throughout the years; all these other superhero interpretations exist now. Have those affected your approach?

It's weird, they affect me all the time! This makes a billion dollars, and this tonally is so light and this is fun and this is a gag, and the other side is [Christopher] Nolan, it's dark. But when I go to make an X-Men movie I'm like "Well, the last thing I can do is start to try and make an X-Men movie look like Dark Knight or The Avengers." If I start doing that then I'm going to fuck it all up. I will fuck it up. You would not have had Days of Future Past, you would have Days of Avengers Knight something. So when I go into the making of it, it doesn't really affect me, but when I'm in-between I'm like "What am I supposed to be doing?!" That's how it happens. Yeah, it's weird. I do think about it.

People seem to say "Well this copied what they did, and copied what they did," but you're still doing the same thing 15 years later, more or less. Well not the same thing—

Hopefully we're doing different gags.

Your approach to story and tone and character are what remain intact.

Kevin Feige and I had a conversation about this recently where he felt when he saw Days of Future Past that the tone actually reminded him — because Feige worked as an assistant with us on X-Men 1 – he felt... I rewatched X-Men 1 and 2 to remind myself what sort of tone I have to maintain. If I'm going to see a Star Wars movie or a movie from a franchise I love, whatever it is, I'm going to want to see that tone maintained. If that tone shifts, I'm like whoa, whoa, that's a different movie. It might have shifted a little because a different director did First Class, but I'm still very proud of First Class. Matthew [Vaughn] is brilliant, and it was a minor tonal shift. And Matthew's obsession was to not shift tone, he was the one that was like "I'm going to open this in Auschwitz," he was the one saying "I want this to be in the canon of your X-Men movies."

Dark-Phoenix

In X2 you teased building up to the Phoenix story but we never got to see you execute your version. Now that Jean Grey is back on the board, do you have any desire to play out a Phoenix story of your own?

The full Phoenix story, I have no idea. I would have to re-explore that. If it's already been explored, to re-explore and retell it. Plus the Phoenix story in the comic book has the Shi'ar Empire and the moon.

Right and there are the Celestials and space.

With that you never know, but as far as the idea of that brewing within her, without giving anything away I would say absolutely that interests me and you may find a piece of that in this film.

The message of X-Men and X2 is clearly applied to all different parts of society and different people, but we have a megalomaniac who says "Forget all that, this is just strength or weakness." Where does that decision come from to say "Let's show that none of this matters any more?"

Because when [Apocalypse] came about, in my mind, men were savages, crushing each other with rocks, for a piece of meat, and he brought order to the world. And he believes with his heart that that order is the only thing that's going to save humanity, and he will provide that order at any cost. The problem is with any civilization there's always going to be discontent, there's always going to be different ways of thinking, revolt, often rebellion and for a person who begins as a unifier and then grows in power.

What's the old expression about power? Power does what? And what does absolute power do? Things just never go right, so that civilization goes down and he starts a fresh one. In this movie, something happens, he thinks he's figured it out finally. But, oops, [that] didn't really go well, he gets kind of buried and then wakes up. Now he's in a different situation than he's ever been before. Suddenly he wakes up in 1983, now the world's connected with television and radio. We see it as different civilizations, we see it as "super powers" as he says it. But to him it's all just one giant interconnected, overly militarized screwed-up civilization that worships false idols and is self destructive and needs to be refined and saved from itself. So in a way he's just doing what he does, he's done it before, he's just doing it on a different scale, which means he needs different people with different powers.

You said that we could expect some real destruction in this film. Could you elaborate on ideas behind some of the bigger set pieces and living up to the "Apocalypse" name?

Yeah, it's global, it's a global situation. He wants to make a massive global change. I don't want to tell you what he's going to do but it's visually unique. He's going to do something really bad to the Earth that's going to cause a lot of people to not live and those that survive will be the strongest.

Are we going to see Jean and Scott as still discovering their powers?

Oh yeah, they're a mess. We came up with a scene the other day that was really funny, I don't know if I should give it away, but I was just on the set. They're in a battle scene and Scott keeps taking off his glasses but he can't see what he's trying to hit because he doesn't have a visor, he doesn't have any technology. So finally I was like "Okay, okay, wait, wait." So Jean just grabs the back of his head and starts moving him around. She's trying to hit the enemy, I don't want to say who the enemy is, she's just trying to use them as target practice. So suddenly we did that and we started playing with that and having fun with it and then we were like "Oh shit, we have to service that and film the other side of it. It's a scene now! We're running out of time!"

They're kids! They don't know what to do! She's trying to figure out her psychic powers, which are much more powerful than she realizes. There's some heartbreak, beautiful and climactic, again I don't want to give anything away. But that was one beat that on the day I'm watching him do this and I'm like "You can't see shit, you don't even know what you're hitting," so I said "Grab his head, use them for target practice." It's so cute and it brings them together. There are many scenes that bring them together but that's one that was like the video game version. You get Sophie Turner grabbing Tye Sheridan and using him as a point and shoot.

Something that came up when we were talking to both Simon [Kinberg, producer] and Hutch [Parker, producer] is that the success of something like Guardians of the Galaxy, which might not have worked ten years ago, is changing the landscape of what people can expect to see. What kind of weirdness can you now pull off thanks to something like that?

Not a lot, because that tonally automatically sets you up for a farce. You've got a raccoon with a machine gun. You've got a guy that's like 'Nothing gets over my head!' That's my favorite line. I love James Gunn, he's fucking amazing, hilarious. You have a tone of that movie that is a tone, once you've got that tone you can do all kinds of stuff like that. Or Deadpool, you can do that if you're rated R, whatever it is you can do certain things.

Here, this universe is taken quite seriously so yeah we have our fun, we have side jokes, and we take the edge of certain scenes to lighten them up a bit but we certainly, I can't alter the tone of the movie because a movie like that is successful. I can just embrace and go see it and laugh my ass off. That's almost a different genre, I know it's a Marvel movie but it's a very different genre. Very different genre than other Marvel movies. It's almost it's own weird kind of standalone.

What was it like to recreate 1983?

It was fun for me because that was my year. I graduated high school in '84 so for me it was awesome. For instance they had some name for the arcade, we have a scene where some of the mutants decide to play hooky while Xavier is off at the CIA. They steal one of his really nice cars – and an important thing about '83 is it's 10 years after the day that the world discovered mutants. So the world now embraces mutants and accepts them as part of society, so they can go to the mall. Obviously the instigator, Cyclops, who has only been there for like a day, convinces Nightcrawler, Jean, and Jubilee to play hooky, grab a car and go to the mall. It happens to be on a day that something bad happens... What was your question again?

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Was it a dream come true to get to make 1983?

Oh, so what I got to do was there was an arcade scene and they were calling it something else and I said "No, no, we're calling it the Space Port where I played. And guess what? They're all coming out of Return of the Jedi." This is going to be my 1984. The clothing, the everything, the whole vibe. A lot of it, once we get into the action, we're all over the world, with a lot of the movie from Westchester, New York to Cairo to everywhere. It's different parts of the world, but there is a little taste of what I remember from that period. I won't ruin one debate, they do have a debate over which is better: Empire or Star Wars.

Do you have a visual approach to make this film distinct from previous X-Men films? In Days of Future Past you had fun with the news reels.

Yeah we did and it was a big decision in the last one to make them 3D, too. I always loved those ViewMasters and I decided, 'Fuck it let's just go full 3D'. I shot a lot of that stuff myself with an 8MM camera. In fact I went into '70s clothes myself. There was a cameo yes, my fatter self. But also I went into the crowd and shot a lot of the material myself which I really enjoyed doing, it was a real throwback to my film school days.

Here, this is a darker story so as you might have noticed from some of the cinematography that was going on in this dank, creepy location. There's some brightness to it, there's some fun, and as I said they go to the mall, there's some fun and romance but there's also, this is going to be one of the most elegantly lit films that [Newton Thomas Sigel, cinematographer] has shot for me, period. I won't say X-Men films, I would say films. This will be the most elegantly film he's shot for me, and I would include the dramas we've done together.

You mentioned something earlier about Apocalypse waking up in a new body...

Yeah, he moves from body to body. Apocalypse himself is not a physical form, he's an energy. I don't know what he is. What he does is accumulate powers over the millennia by moving from body to body. What's wonderful is he thinks in the beginning of the film he's found this great body. I don't want to give away what the power of the body this mutant has but it's a familiar one that you've seen a number of very famous mutants have. It kind of ends up being the wrong one because he gets stuck in it for a long time, but then suddenly he has this opportunity and that becomes his agenda. So it's another interesting thing in the movie, the villain always has their agenda.

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We'll have part two of this huge interview tomorrow.

X-Men: Apocalypse opens on May 27, 2016.