Bryan Singer studied film at the New York School of Visual Arts and USC School of Cinematic Arts. After graduating, one of his short films caught the eye of a production company who funded low budget films. He then wrote Public Access with childhood friend Christopher McQuarrie, which he then directed as his first feature film in 1993. Two years later, he had his breakthrough with The Usual Suspects, which caught the eyes of critics at the Cannes Film Festival before ultimately becoming profitable in theaters. Next, Singer adapted a Stephen King novel for the screen, directing Apt Pupil (1998). That film received mixed reviews and was not a financial success. Singer was then hired to direct X-Men (2000), the first in a franchise that he would spend most of his career working on. This first film became a blockbuster and was well liked by critics and audiences alike. He directed the sequel X2: X-Men United (2003), which was even more of a commercial hit with similar feedback from critics. He turned down the chance to direct the third X-Men movie as he was offered the chance to direct Superman Returns instead. That 2006 film was fairly well received by critics, but did not resonate with audiences, although it did make a profit in theaters. Singer took a break from superheroes to direct the WW2 thriller Valkyrie in 2008. Valkyrie received moderate praise from critics, and was also profitable. He also wrote and produced X-Men: First Class, but did not direct. In 2013, he directed Jack the Giant Slayer, which did not impress critics or audiences. He returned to the X-Men franchise to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014, which was his most acclaimed and profitable X-Men movie to date. His latest film is in theaters now, another in the X-Men franchise; X-Men: Apocalypse.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Bryan Singer film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Bryan Singer’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
***WARNING – SPOILER ALERTS BELOW (No spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse, though)***
From any number of the mutants in his X-Men films, to the sly Verbal Kent in The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer’s films tend to feature characters that are alone in some way. In isolation, it is easier for a character to become someone unique. By focusing on what sets a character apart from the rest, Singer makes that character more interesting, and in some cases, easier to cheer for. In Superman Returns, the titular character is conflicted about his place in the universe. He wants to live as part of humanity, but can never be accepted completely because of his abilities. Similar is the story of Wolverine, in Singer’s X-Men films. Wolverine does not understand where he came from, and as such, has a difficult time figuring out where he belongs. In Valkyre, Stauffenberg is a successful Nazi officer who believes that the Nazis are ruining Germany. This is an opinion that he must keep close to his chest, which causes him to have to be secretive and make great sacrifices. Verbal Kent in The Usual Suspects is the atypical criminal. He seems smart, but his physical disabilities keep him distant from those he works with. Ultimately it is a brilliant ruse, but nonetheless he has to take extra precautions in order to keep his true identity secure.
A common storytelling technique is to begin at the end of a story, where a character is on the verge of completing a story arc. The plot of the film then takes on the task of filling in the details of what had led to that point, typically through flashbacks. By introducing the audience to the story at the end, they are thrown directly into the action. It is an easy way to create interest and have the audience start asking questions about what is happening so that they become more involved in the story. Bryan Singer is a director who often uses this technique, starting with The Usual Suspects. In that film, the opening is a horrific fire on a ship of which the implications are not immediately known. A majority of the remainder of the film is retold through the interrogation of one of the survivors, as flashbacks.
X-Men: Days of Future Past uses the same technique, starting in the future, only to have a majority of the film take place in the past before returning to the same scene. In X-Men, the technique is reversed, with the opening being a flashback to a concentration camp, and the rest of the film being a sort of explanation of those events and their effects. X2: X-Men United uses flashbacks to fill in the motivation and story of Wolverine as he explores his encounters with General Striker. Superman Returns features a pseudo-flashback where Marlon Brando is resurrected as Jor-El with unused footage and CGI. It’s a tie in to the previous films in the series as well as a method of storytelling.
Frequent Collaborations (“SOS”)
Bryan Singer is one of those filmmakers who often works with the same people more than one time, (and not just because they are cast as the same character in sequels). In front of the camera, he has worked with Kevin Spacey twice (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns), Ian McKellan four times (Apt Pupil, and all of his X-Men films), Nicholas Hoult three times (X-Men films and Jack the Giant Slayer), and also James Marsden (Superman Returns and X-Men films). Behind the scenes, Singer has worked with writer/director/producer Christopher McQuarrie on four films (Co-writer on Public Access, Producer/writer on Valkyre, writer on The Usual Suspects and Jack the Giant Slayer) and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris on three films. His films, though, are really a collaboration of the work of three people; himself, composer John Ottman, and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Ottman has provided music for all of Singer’s feature films except for the original X-Men, and Sigel has worked on all of Singer’s films except Public Access.
In Singer’s films, his antagonists are not as clear-minded or even clearly defined as we would find in traditional film. In all the X-Men films, Professor X serves as the traditional protagonist, but his actions rarely drive the plot. Instead, Singer uses Wolverine for that purpose. But again, Wolverine is not a traditional protagonist, having conflictions and different (base) motivations than Xavier in all of Singer’s X-Men films so far. On the other side, Magneto serves as the antagonist figure, but as a former colleague and friend of Xavier, is far from a straight-up villain. Instead, Singer focuses on him enough so that his own motivations are established logically and thus there may be some confliction in the audience in regards to who they should cheer for.
In The Usual Suspects, the protagonist also turns out to be the antagonist in one of the greatest twists in any film. In Superman Returns, Superman is deeply conflicted at the beginning of the film, leaving to reflect on his home planet. This leaves Earth questioning his commitment to being their hero, and in doing so, the audience also questions what is expected of the protagonist in a traditional manner. In Apt Pupil, the film may start off with a clear distinction as Todd being the innocent protagonist who unveils a dark secret about Arthur, casting him as the antagonist, but as the film progresses the distinction isn’t as black and white. Through the efforts of Todd, the audience may ultimately feel sorry for Arthur, and through Todd’s unhealthy interest in Arthur’s past, he becomes less and less innocent.
Multiple Important Characters
While the casts of Singers’ films tend to be large, they are not what we would typically call “ensemble” castings. Instead, each film clearly has a main character, but supporting characters often have a larger-than-typical role. All of Singers’ X-Men films are a good example of this. He does not use the typical storytelling technique of focusing only on the perspective of one protagonist. Instead, you have the same story told from different characters all with their own perspectives. This plays into the atypical protagonist/antagonist as mentioned above, and also the isolated hero aspect that he frequently focuses on.
Despite having a cast of characters often working together to achieve something, Singer focuses on many of them individually. They have separate, unique motivations and become greater than just a typical supporting character. The struggles of each character are not always enough material to make a complete film, but when combined with other characters, there are common themes and concepts that create the tone of the film. In X2, for example, Wolverine is exploring his past while many of the other characters struggle with their future. Here, Singer is tackling the central premise of the film (struggle for peace) from two angles via the issues these individual characters face. Valkyre, is another good example, as it features a large cast, with many different characters coming in and out of the picture, even if there is only one “main” character (Stauffenberg).
The main characters’ motivations regarding the problems of Nazi Germany are based on how he perceives his own children will remember him. The others that he works with to sabotage Nazi Germany have different motivations; for example wanting power for themselves, frustration with lack of promotions, or wanting peace before economic struggles cost them their ways of life. By showing more than one perspective, Singer is explaining the true cost of war and giving his audience motivation beyond the most obvious.
Want more Directors’ Trademarks? Check out the last installment: