One of the holiday movies that has been shrouded in secrecy for a good part of the year is Bryan Singer’s WWII suspense thriller Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an injured German soldier who became an active part in the covert German Resistance to take down the Nazi Party. After being injured on the front, the disgruntled von Stauffenberg returned to Germany and became the frontman in a plan by the Resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler and throw a coup, just as the American invasion of Normandy seemed to foretell imminent doom for Hitler’s reign.
It’s another impressive cinematic achievement for Singer, who explores some of the Nazi themes from his earlier films Apt Pupil and X-Men, but from a very different angle, assembling an amazing cast around Cruise, including Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh and Terence Stamp.
United Artists and MGM finally opened the floodgates last week giving movie writers a chance to see the movie and talk to the cast and crew at a series of press conferences in New York. ComingSoon.net attended the following press conference with Cruise and Singer, a surprisingly casual affair as Cruise strolled in with hands in pockets, greeting everyone and shaking hands without the normal entourage of bodyguards and publicists surrounding him, before sitting down with the director for a good 45 minutes of questions and answers about the movie they made together.
Q: What was it about von Stauffenberg that made doing this movie so irresistible?
Tom Cruise: When I read the script, I first just thought how incredibly suspenseful this was really a great thriller. Bryan is someone I’ve always wanted to work with. We met first when I saw his film “The Usual Suspects” and we met actually at the premiere of “Mission: Impossible” the first one. And I said, “Man, I want to work with you.” Then when I put (this script) down I thought, “This can’t be true, this story. How much of it is actually true?” From sitting down with Bryan and finding out it was a true story, I just thought it was a great story. I’d never heard it before, and I wanted to work with him, and off it went.
Q: Do you think this is an important movie in terms of coming out at the same time as other movies about Germany and the Holocaust. Do you think it’s important for a movie to educate the public about this aspect of WWII?
Cruise: I think it’s an important story because I didn’t know it, but I also felt that I want to entertain audiences, that was a bonus really for the film, but it’s something that, Bryan and I, we’ve both spoken about that it’s important to know of course that it’s not everybody that felt that way and fell into the Nazi ideology. That to me was surprising. I grew up wanting to kill Nazis, wanting to kill Hitler. You know, as a child, you’re looking at it and I think, “Why didn’t someone just shoot him?” To take this story that it’s also here and it’s such a massive comprehensive story we could’ve made this a five-hour or ten-hour miniseries. And Bryan was always specific: “This is a suspense thriller about killing Hitler.”
Bryan Singer: Yeah, this is not a Holocaust movie. There are movies that happen to take place in this subject matter that are coming out around this time, it’s a coincidence, but this is far from a Holocaust movie. It’s a conspiracy thriller about assassinating Hitler. As Tom was just saying, the bonus is that it happens to be true, it happens to be gripping. Even things that you might think are Hollywood conventions that happen in the movie, some of the twists and turns actually really did happen.
Cruise: We spent eight months working Bryan spent more time than that before but when Bryan wanted me to come on board and we started working with (screenwriters) Chris (McQuarrie) and Nathan (Alexander), every time we started talking about the Holocaust and the different characters and trying to put as much into that story as possible, Bryan always went back to, “This is a piece of entertainment. This is a movie, a suspense thriller about killing Hitler.” Throughout the film, the more you know about the history and the more you study it, there are so many moments that we were able to put those things in there with his children, the moment where his daughter’s saluting him. Of course on the day July 20th, you know, and when you know the story there’s his children, his son was indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth. Now, knowing Stauffenberg who despised the Nazis, as a parent looking at this and these little moments that Bryan wanted to seed in there, but never varying from the picture that he wanted to make where his daughter’s saluting him and him having not being able to have that conversation with his children, you know, down in the bunker and looking at his family. It’s both the tension and falls into, of course, he’s thinking of Valkyrie, he’s gotta come up with the idea. But, little moments like that for people who understand the history, I think the Germans who really know story intimately and thoroughly they understand that. But it’s also there for a broad audience. We wanted to bring this movie to a broader audience.
Q: This character seems very well matched for you, so what were some of the challenges and rewards playing him?
Cruise: Well, the rewards are that I thought it was a very exciting film. I wanted to work with Bryan Singer; I loved Chris his script. Reading a script like this, rarely do you sit down where you’re just turning the pages like this, and also there’s a story I’d never heard of before, and to be able to work with these actors. That’s the reward every day going and having that challenge and also for me, as I said, to entertain an audience. I thought it’d be a very compelling story and a fascinating film. That’s what I like. That’s what I’m looking for in a film. I’m making movies it’s about us, it’s not about me. It’s about the journey that we all take together. To have those kinds of conversations, you know, to be there. We got to shoot in locations that these people were and where they died, which was very powerful to be there and to see that, and to see the world. I grew up wanting to travel the world, you know, I wanted an adventurous life. Sometimes a little more adventure than I had ever bargained for (laughter), but this was something I didn’t want to pass on. You know, I grew up playing with the neighborhood kids in the yard wanting to kill Nazis.
Singer: Chris and I used to make war films in my backyard.
Cruise: And I saw the world at war, and also, the way that this film was told and directed, as I said, it’s not like anything that I’ve seen. You know, these films that I greatly admire, “Schindler’s List” and “Paths of Glory.” This is very different.
Q: Tom, do you see this as some kind of a comeback?
Cruise: No, I don’t really see it that way. I’ve just been making movies. You know, my daughter was born, and I’ve been making films I did “Tropic Thunder” and worked on this.
Q: Got a Golden Globe nomination?
Cruise: Yeah, that’s fun. That was incredible. (Laughs)
Q: Can you talk about the relationship you two have as co-producers and as director to actor?
Cruise: I have great respect for him as a filmmaker as a storyteller and that’s the way it is when you’re going into a film like this. Out of a scale of one to ten, I think this film is a twenty, as a challenge to make.
Singer: The nice part about Tom’s interest in the project, as well as position at the studios, we have the freedom to spend a lot of time working together, working with Chris and Nathan, and talking about the project. We moved to Germany, we learned more information. So now we’re having more and more meetings about it and discussing it as collaborators. And then once we get on the set…
Cruise: I want to be directed.
Singer: Yeah, he becomes an actor.
Cruise: I enjoy that.
Singer: And I become a director and for my experience there was never any difference. I knew that no matter how many takes I asked him to do it would never be as much as Stanley Kubrick did on… (laughter) And we tried, we experimented and it was phenomenal because anything you’d ask anything, you’d be like, “Let’s do it.” There was never a lack of wanting to try and never a lack of trust. And then afterwards, the full support of an actor it’s a rare opportunity with Tom where as a director you always feel like nobody cares about the movie as much as you do. And the partnership what you probably see here is a relationship with someone who cares about this movie as much as I do, and I think that’s where that’s what you’re seeing here.
Cruise: And he loves cinema. So there’s stuff where Bryan and I…
Singer: We have a lot of fun taking meetings. We’ve had meetings at Tom’s house twelve hours long. We’d throw in some movies, we’d order some drinks…
Cruise: Friends come by, and we’re screening films, and we’re getting into history and…
Singer: And tangents, and we had some good experiences. We camped out in the desert when we were shooting the desert sequence, and everyone’s families were there. So you’re seeing a little bit of that too. It’s been a really great journey, but one that comes from caring about the project.
Cruise: And as an actor, I do like to be directed. I don’t stand outside myself and direct myself.
Singer: He doesn’t come to the monitor and look at it and say, “Oh, there’s none of that,” which some actors do. There’s none of that.
Cruise: Because we’ve already done the research and I just like to go on the scene. As an actor, getting direction from him, he gave great notes on behavior and we were just tracking. I like that in a movie where as an actor I’m tracking with the director, and I think you see the performances that he gets, they’re always very interesting and I have a lot of fun doing it.
Q: Could you talk about the creative decision from an actor’s and a director’s standpoint of not going with the accents?
Singer: We didn’t want that to be what the movie was about. It’s a thriller, an assassination thriller. It should be exciting and the audience should be taken on a ride through the film. The actors speak wonderfully the way they do in their current dialects and the characters are all supposed to be German anyway. So to have everyone putting on an affecting German accent… we have an international cast: American actors, Dutch, German, British. To have everyone approximating German accents when in reality they’re supposed to be speaking German, I promise after the first twenty minutes, you’d be sick of it. It would ultimately sound silly, and it would distract from the drive of the plot. So the decision was made pretty quickly. They could do it. He’s speaking German at the beginning of the movie, that’s Tom, but it would ultimately be not as fun for the audience to ride with the actors, once it’s established that they are Germans.
Q: I understand the eye patch initially gave you unexpected balance problems, Tom. Could you talk about that?
Cruise: I was surprised. For a few hours and a few days, when we started working on it, yeah it did, especially when it was dark I lost depth perception and balance. Also, from visual cinematic storytelling, it was a challenge I think for Bryan. I really respect Bryan’s staging and his composition and his storytelling. When I look at his movies, it’s very cinematic, it’s classic storytelling, but it’s cool. I think that he understands cinema storytelling. And with the eye patch, he also understood it’s a different story depending on where that camera is on my face. So, different profiles, shooting with the patch and the hand because of course, part of the research, you know, we researched nineteenth century, twentieth century all the research that we did but also his injuries. And what Stauffenberg did and how he lived with that, and the eye patch itself and the hand, it was a challenge always going into a room, or, you know, which angle we shot…
Singer: And staging a scene if you’re staging a scene on a set, and you really want to shoot out the set and make it look pretty, and position the actors in relation to one another, but if this side you can’t this side’s one thing and this side’s the other thing, he can’t see the other actor. So then that reverses where they are, that could end up reversing where the camera is in the room, which could end up reversing what part of the room we’re shooting in. So in the morning you’d have to work these things out in relation or something as simple as, “Yeah, you put your hand on his shoulder.” “What hand?” “Okay, you put your three fingers on the other hand.” You know, it was quite a… and even though all that’s removed and done digitally, Tom’s performance had to inform all of that long before we got into the visual effects and be cognizant of it.
Cruise: And there are moments that, when you’re making a film like this, where the tension you know, you’ve got to take the audience along and build that tension, build that tension. And every scene you have to move that story along, but every scene you’re revealing more about the character and the characters. So there’s certain things very early on that Bryan, you know, this scene with Tom Wilkinson where he says, “I’ll hear you say it Colonel.” There’s certain things that Bryan knew from a story sense how you want to build to those moments because you know and I love movies like this that there’s little pieces that build to a moment. There’s rhythms and structure to a movie that I love as an audience. When I read a script, when I’m seeing a movie, I see it by an audience and not necessarily as a filmmaker, particularly when I get caught up in the picture. So that moment is something that was very, from the director, he knew what he wanted from that moment. So, even subtle things like physically, you don’t see the hand necessarily until that it’s, you know, you see that it’s missing, but the reveal of that is what it is. They build to that so you see it in the bed, and there’s certain moments in how he shot it, and he was very specific about doing that. And you know, that kind of stuff is a lot of fun working on and building towards that.
Q: The cinematography and layout of the film is pretty amazing, quite ominous and very precise. Can you talk about that?
Singer: Well, just, you know, studying a lot of war photography. There was a huge amount. One thing Hitler did is he filmed everything so we had the benefit of a lot of motion picture film both color and black and white of that era, so it was important in recreating both the dimensions of that, which is why I shot 1:85 aspect ratio. Also, we were in Germany so we shot with Aeroflex cameras and the Zeiss Lenses. I wanted to mention giving a sense of the vibrance and the color, so it would look like it did back then to people who lived back then as opposed to trying to approximate black and white and muddy the film or de-saturate it. Then, in terms of the pageantry and the military aspects of it, we have those references, thanks to all that recorded film material. So that’s primarily the stuff that I looked at, then we worked with the military advisors who knew the history and who could help us with the movements and the salutes. We could have authenticity regarding the difference between the way a Colonel would salute to a Major or would salute to a Field Marshall or the Fuehrer.
Cruise: And specifically at that time period.
Singer: Yeah, which changed after the assassination attempt. Certain things were more mandatory, a Fascist salute and things like that. That’s what made the scene where he throws up his hand so much fun. If you were missing a limb, you wouldn’t put it up and give the Heil Hitler salute. That’s why it’s interesting that he does.
Cruise: I know from a production standpoint from the choreography of this. Doing a lot of these films, this is a film that right in the beginning, when Bryan kept saying, “Look, this is a suspense thriller,” it needed that kind of dynamic choreography to go in and you had to be very specific because in editing these pieces together, they weren’t just thrown together. That was all very thought out. From top to bottom of the production we really had a lot of help and support from the Germans their production, the stuff that they gave us. Even the wardrobe itself, the look of the film. A lot of attention and time went into how to do this. When you talk about colors, the reds and to make it something that is gonna be what a Bryan Singer film is and feel authentic. The whole point is to try to give that audience that visceral feeling of being on the edge of their seat even down to the wardrobe because we went through and studied a lot of films and wondered, “Why does it look sometimes like people are wearing wardrobe? It looks like wardrobe.” So sitting down with Tom Sigel, the kind of film that he used, the lighting that he used, and also wardrobe with Joanna Johnston, the kind of fabrics, and also studying the fact that each guy – how certain people would make their own uniforms. The level of detail in the film, from top to bottom, you know, even down to Hitler’s signature when he signed it was to the best of our knowledge exactly the signature that he signed at that time period, and the same with Stauffenberg. I mean this is the kind of stuff that we film geeked and history geeked out on. You know what I mean?
Singer: People were taken blindfolded to people’s homes who collected Hitler’s furniture so we could see it and know the furniture of the Berghof, at his summer house. There’s these strange people who collect this stuff secretly in Germany. I had lunch with Hitler’s bodyguard; he wouldn’t.
Cruise: I wouldn’t. He needed that. I didn’t need it. I’ll read about it.
Q: Did either of you with the research find anything new about Hitler and his followers?
Cruise: I did. I know a little bit about history, I enjoy it. I fly warbirds, I fly the P-51’s myself, and by the way, all the airplanes, there’s no computer-generated airplanes. All of those planes are real.
Singer: And we’re really in them, too.
Cruise: Yeah, we’re in them.
Singer: The scene where he’s fleeing the Wolf’s Lair we actually shot in the Yunker and there was only enough room for the actors and myself and the pilots and the cameraman. So they gave me a quick lesson on how to do makeup.
Cruise: Thirty seconds before we got on the airplane because we were losing light.
Singer: So it’s a hundred degrees in there and he’s sweating and I’m like spotting his face with this little pad.
Cruise: In getting back to learning, the scene where Stauffenberg goes to Hitler, it’s challenging because for Bryan, I was thinking, “How is he going to direct this?” I was interested in the focus on Hitler because I’ve grown up with the footage of Hitler at rallies, and to see him, and particularly during that time period where he wasn’t so obviously… I mean, obviously he was insane and utterly insane and they’re all insane, but it has this eerie, terrifying feeling in that sequence. Just all of the detail where Goebbels is looking at Göring, all these little looks, that’s really set up when you look at “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and he talks about what it was like during that time period. Bryan was totally accurate to the behavior and what was happening during that time period.
Singer: That meeting actually took place between Stauffenberg it was his first time meeting Hitler and the Big Six. It was the day after D-Day and the thing that Stauffenberg noticed, and went home and told his wife–it’s not in the film–but we keyed off this testimony is that Göring had on makeup, there was this distrust between them, clearly the allies were at their door. Hitler was detached from what was going on, and the only one that seemed to have a clue was Speer, but he was just an architect along for the ride. It’s interesting, and what he did is he walked over and held Stauffenberg’s hand and acknowledged his injuries and his heroism as a way of mocking his own people. And he would do that. He would always play one against the other. It was how Hitler rose in politics through flattery, promises, and backstabbing. He did it with Stalin and he did it with the German people, and eventually that’s how the war ended. So it was nice to put hints of that kind of detached, laconic Hitler that the people didn’t get to see in the Berghof scene. That scene genuinely happened, and all the specifics of that leading up to you know, the reason that we have such detail, particularly in the third act of the film, is because the Gestapo did a very stunning investigation into this assassination attempt, and trials were held and filmed. So we have the benefit of all of those facts, and all of that information to inform our story as well as the research we’ve done, and actually talking to a lot of people who were with Hitler.
Cruise: Like Stauffenberg at the beginning, it might seem like a movie convention, him upbraiding the General, but he did that. He had those conversations with Generals exactly in that way and would have those kinds of conversations. Which is why he ended up in Africa because he actually had court-martialed friends of his for war crimes. His uncle was concerned for him, arranged for him to go to Africa, and he was that outspoken with Generals because he was a supply officer. He was on the front lines, but he was behind saying, “What’s happening? How can this happen? Why is this happening? This guy’s a liar. This is not the country that we want, that I’ve wanted.” The amount of desperation and pain for him, because he loved his country, he wanted a moral country, but one that was part and participated in the world, not annihilating, not the Holocaust, not world domination. He was a man that was able to really think for himself within all of that propaganda and recognized very early on that insanity. At first thinking, “Well, someone’s gotta stop him. Let’s overthrow him,” and then, “Someone’s gotta shoot that bastard,” is a quote of his. Then, you know, as early as 1938, and then suddenly being moved into the place after Africa, his uncle sending him away. It’s ironic that those injuries actually put him in the position of high command where he got on the inside and realized that the only way to stop this is from the inside. Really recognizing that it wasn’t just enough to kill Hitler, you had to have something that’s going to put people in a position where they’re gonna follow you because you have that oath which as an American, it’s just to open the film, that struck me. It’s so creepy to get people to not be able to think for themselves.
Singer: Because the army was compelled to give an oath. An army of ten million people in Germany was compelled to give an oath to Hitler himself personally.
Q: How about people knowing how this movie will end since it’s based on a historical fact?
Cruise: You look at “Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” any film that’s made out of a book, people know how it’s gonna end. I had an idea when I read it, of course, but when I read it, I thought it was so surprising to me this story, the details, and I was surprised in reading it that I was that caught up and I was whipping through the pages…
Singer: And I think to say we know how it ended, I don’t think audiences… you might if you know history, but I don’t think audiences know the full degree of how this particular story ends, and that’s an important thing.
Q: Could each of you talk about what you consider your definition of success?
Cruise: (To Singer) Go, man. (Laughter)
Singer: Freedom to be able to do the work that you want to do. Sometimes that comes with money financial freedom. Sometimes it comes with trust and having trust in the people in your community, in your creative community. Either of these things give you creative freedom. So, if you’re at a point where you can, as a director, I could speak, not as an actor, but as a director, if you’re at a point where you can do what you want to creatively then you’re successful, really successful. I mean, that’s a blessing.
Cruise: I have to agree with Bryan for as far as the making films. You know, I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life and to have the ability to make the kind of films that I’ve been able to make, and work with the people that I’m able to work with. I just love movies, so it’s something that, as I’ve told people before when I was making “Taps” or “Risky Business,” there’s moments where you’re there and you think, “I just wanna enjoy these moments ’cause I don’t know if it’s gonna end right here.” I’ve had the opportunities to work with Paul Newman, to work with Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, Scorsese and Oliver Stone and Spielberg, you know, the people that I’ve been able to work with, and Bryan Singer, that kind of creative freedom that I’ve been privileged enough to have is something that on that level I’m really proud of that. So many times I know there’s been a few things written about this film before people have seen it just a couple (laughter)… (laughs) and we’re going through it.
Singer: We read them all… out loud… To our folks. (laughter)
Cruise: (laughs) We’ve read them all.
Cruise: So many times I’ve been through this, and certainly I think the internet has accelerated a lot of this kind of drama out there. So there’s a perception out there versus what we’re doing artistically. Even when I think people see the film, even our friends who have seen the film were like, “Oh, this is a suspense thriller.” That’s what we kept saying. I don’t know what to say. But, so many times in my career, even early on, people have said, “Why are you doing that?” Even when it was early back when I was gonna do “Top Gun” or “Born on the Fourth of July,” the things that Dustin and I went through in “Rain Man,” with that film we went through four directors, and two years to make. And of course, “Interview with the Vampire” was one also. I’ve always chosen things that I felt would be challenging, but I always wanted to entertain an audience. I feel very privileged to do that, so I feel that I’ve been fortunate in having that kind of success. Personal success for me is raising my kids and my family and that to me, as much as I love movies, has always been the priority. I feel also happy my family’s happy and healthy and doing well. So that’s the most important thing and always has been for me.
Q: The movie was moved around a lot before plopping down in the middle of awards season with all these other WWII movies. You both have so much control over this project, so why put it out at this time of the year but not screen it for critics and awards groups?
Singer: Originally the schedule of completion had to do with that. It was gonna come out a lot earlier, but then there was a sequence the Tunisia sequence which took time. I ended up scouting Jordan for a location, and then Spain, and those two locations didn’t work out both aesthetically and economically. Then we figured we would just see what movie we had when we got home, cut it all together, and then go back and go to California where the location we found is it looks far more like Tunisia. We would have the equipment and resources, and we would sort of drop and pick up. And then that moved our intentions of release day, and then it was a crowded Christmas, and we didn’t know where we were at finishing the movie, and then we felt… I mean, is that pretty much as you remember it?
Cruise: You know, we were making a film not for a release date to be honest with you.
Singer: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Thank you.
Cruise: I mean, I know today everything is about a release date, but I…
Singer: “The Usual Suspects” we made it and a year and a half later it was released.
Cruise: February was never a firm date. This is a film that’s made for a broader audience. We also never wanted to say, “Hey, we want to put it in awards season.” That’s not even why we moved to Christmas. Christmas is a great time for audiences. It’s the biggest time of the year for people to go (to the movies). You want to put your film in a place where it can have the opportunity to have it available to as broad an audience as possible because that’s the nature of the film. As I said, we could’ve taken this film and made it two and a half, three and a half, four and a half, you know, it could’ve been very different kind of movie. And this right from the beginning this is a suspense thriller, and yes, actually, when you know the history these events occurred. They really did occur. When I read the script I thought, “That had to be a movie convention.” Stauffenberg going to Hitler the day after D-Day and, I went, “Whoa.” It’s cool. And then you find out it really happened. These was actual dialogue in the film that I discovered were from letters and from journals that Chris and Nathan had studied. So always for me and I get this opportunity to work with Bryan and we’re going through it and the most important thing is the film because as I said, I want to entertain an audience, and when I’m making a film, that’s so important. It’s important. I’ve always felt that you want to get it right. And within the limited amount of time and economics, you want to do the best that you can for the audience, for the subject matter, whatever it is.
CS: Do you find that Tom Cruise the actor ever has to compete with Tom Cruise, the businessman who’s heading a studio like United Artists, especially when it comes to financing your movies?
Tom Cruise: Well, you know, I’ve produced a lot of films. “Mission: Impossible” was the first film that I produced and then I went on and I produced all the “Mission” films, “The Last Samurai.” You know, I’ve just produced a lot of movies beforehand, so there’s always the balance of art and commerce, and the challenges of that that I like to look at that as opportunities as opposed to with restriction, so that aspect of it has always been there. And as a director Bryan faces that. And it’s not just having talent in making a film, it’s also important to know to surround yourself with great people. I own a piece of United Artists and we’re starting it up and, you know, we had the writers strike, we have a pending actors strike. And you know what? It just comes down to I’ve got very good people that I work with. I’ve always tried to surround myself with people that I respect, that I enjoy working with, and that’s what we have. We have great people that we work with. I’m very happy to have these guys on board (laughs) with MGM, Vollman, Terry, the gang we have. At the studio it’s actually a very exciting time with Mary Parent who’s come on at MGM and it’s interesting. But I am an actor first and foremost. The thing is that, even with the way we’ve set it up, I’ve never had an exclusive deal as an actor with anyone ever, even as producing films. I produced “The Last Samurai” at Warner Brothers, I produced “The Others” with Miramax and I have always been very careful not to say, “I am just going to be with one.” And I am an actor. That is my love acting and so that’s first and foremost for me.
Q: Do you know what you’re doing next?
Cruise: You know, I’m waiting for things to come in. I’ve been working with writers and filmmakers, and just going to decide.
Valkyrie opens nationwide on December 25.