Making any movie can be a demanding task, but Bryan Singer really had his hands full with Jack the Giant Slayer. Not only did he take on the pressure of having to appropriately adapt a beloved fairy tale, ensuring the story stays in tact while also giving it new dimension, but then he loaded up on technical challenges to such an extent that each and every shot was so expansive that Singer had to be sure even the most minute details were in prime shape before rolling. Tough work for Singer, but his keen understanding of the material, the opportunity to work with previz and SimulCam, and some wonderfully elaborate sets helped guide the actors through a production that couldn’t really coalesce until the digital elements came together in post.
When we weren’t frolicking through the marshes of giant world or watching brigades of horses race into Cloister, Singer and stars Nicholas Hoult (Jack), Ewan McGregor (Elmont), Eleanor Tomlinson (Princess Isabelle), did the same for us visiting journalists, offering up thoughtful anecdotes about their experiences so we could put the practical and digital pieces together, and have a sense of what the completed Jack the Giant Slayer will have to offer.
Read on for highlights from the four interviews.
You’ve been working on this film for a while now. What was it that made you need to do this movie?
Bryan Singer: This is long before Alice in Wonderland or any of that; I wanted to see a fairy tale brought to life on a full grand scale. What if a beanstalk grew miles high in the sky? What if giants were real? I wanted to see a fairy tale done on a large, large budget as a big fantasy film. This was a way to take the simplest fairy tale and embellish it, and kind of make an original fairy tale, but one that echoes one that I read when I was a kid. That was the first thing. Secondly, I wanted to explore this new space of fully rendered CG characters, creature characters, performance capture. It’s a part of the craft that interests me that I wanted to explore. And I also liked the essence of storytelling. That interests me. Story’s always interesting. If that’s a story you told your children, where did that story come from? What if it came from some real thing that happened? What if that story came from another story? In the movie you’ll see it. There’s a tale about the giants, which is just legend, myth, and then suddenly the reality hits them and then you see how that tale gets told.
How long did you spend previz-ing the movie?
Singer: Months, I guess. It was what I expected. I just tried different scenes out. These kind of effects are very expensive because of the nature of rendering fully real looking CG characters. It’s the most expensive kind of visual effect, so I had to be really judicious about how many shots involve giants and be really careful about what I was doing, so I previz-ed things that I would cut and re-previz and just really be sure of my shots and that’s why the SimulCam really helps, too. I worked with Third Floor; they’re a good company. On “X-Men: First Class,” our average shot cost us like $25 to 30 grand. A movie like this they’re like $80,000.
Can you tell us about the design of the giants? Anything you’ve seen that you might want to avoid?
Singer: Usually giants in movies are very lumbering, “Urghhh” kind of things. These are very agile, very fast moving, almost athletic. Some are different sizes and shapes, but definitely the agility and the movement was something that’s different.
With previz and being visual effects heavy, how much freedom do you have on set? Can you make alterations if something isn’t working out?
Singer: During shooting I knew I was scheduling some post-cap, post capture. I could change things and then I would have the actors come in and post cap. But the other day, even in this sequence, there’s a big beat that I just decided to change because it’s just a cooler, more fun beat, and for that either I have Bill [Nighy] and John Kassir, the two heads, come in and do another capture session or I’ll just rely on the key frame animators to animate. So you have the freedom that they’re animated characters. You’re not slaves to the performance capture, but you are a slave to the plates, meaning what I did on a live set. That you can’t change, so those are your commitments, and your 3D. You’re committed to your interaxial.
What do you have to say to audiences that might be expecting a friendly “Jack and the Beanstalk” kind of movie?
Singer: The giants are not friendly, but they weren’t friendly in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” [Laughs] In fact, it was a brutal tale of I go up, steal your sh*t, and cut it down. It does have some violence in it and some scary bits, but there’s kind of a wink to the audience and a humor to the characters, and all the characters are quite heightened a bit in a fairy tale sense. They’re very whimsical characters so it kind of takes the edge off the body count, so I think younger people and parents will be okay with it, provided I pull the camera away from certain things.
You’re using the same camera Peter Jackson is using for “The Hobbit,” but I know he’s shooting that in 48 frames per second. (Note: Interview was conducted in August of 2011.)
Singer: We didn’t do that and, ultimately, he is going to be in a place where to project at 48 will exist down the line somewhat for Hobbit 1, but more maybe for the second part. For us we’re coming out six months before that; there would be no benefit. If we shot 48 we’d just be dropping frames, so then you’d be watching it at 24 so we chose not to do it. If I was making a movie to come out two years from now, I would definitely have been like, We have to do this!’ But it would be like making a 3D movie, 3D drama, a year before “Avatar.”
What’s your Jack like?
Nicolas Hoult: He’s a dreamer. He’s a young farmer. He hasn’t had an easy upbringing and then he’s kind of catapulted onto this epic mission and falls in love with a princess. He’s an average hero – well, average guy who becomes a hero. He’s a good guy, which is nice, playing a good guy for once, but he’s fairly laid back and understanding of the princess’ situation, wants to become a Guardian and protect her. He has to overcome quite a few of his fears, [fears] of heights and thunder and all these sorts of things along the way.
What about Jack’s princess? Is she a damsel in distress at all?
Hoult: No, she’s a headstrong, fiery young princess who isn’t too happy being cooped up in the castle and she goes on these little escapes occasionally. The first encounter they have, there’s actually a pantomime going on of “Jack and the Giant Killer” and they’re both watching in the audience and he sees her getting accosted by some drunks and tries to do the heroic thing, the good thing, as we all hope he would, and step in to try to help, but that doesn’t quite go to plan and he gets knocked out. [Laughs] So their first encounter is him trying to help her and later on, she turns up at his house. He’s a bit surprised basically. She gets caught out in a storm, ends up there and then this whole adventure begins.
We saw some previz of the beanstalk going up. Can you talk about the challenges of filming that sequence?
Hoult: Ah, yeah, that sequence is really cool. They built Jack’s uncle’s house in the studios and then had it on a rig where the whole house would shake and the floorboards would explode. There was a ram in the floor. I would be running to try to get to Ellie and it’d hit me in the stomach, lift me up and then I get thrown out through the roof. It was a lot of fun to do all that and there’s a bit of dialogue in that scene as well. So that was that sequence and then the princess is trapped inside the house with the beanstalk growing and lifting up into the sky, so Jack’s trying to get in to save her and help her. I’m giving away quite a lot of the story. [Laughs]
Do you have a lot of scenes with Ian McShane?
Hoult: I’ve got a few scenes with McShane, generally after I’ve come back down the beanstalk and he’s aware that there’s a slight romantic connection between his daughter and me. McShane’s funny. He’s a funny man. He likes to rip me a little bit. Just test out the younger actors a little bit.
Is there an intimidation factor with Ian? He’s got a strong presence.
Hoult: That’s a tricky one. Is it rude to say no? [Laughs] No, I don’t find him too intimidating, but obviously, at first, with any actor, like with Ian, Ewan and all those guys, when you’re first on set and you’ve seen them in the films and respect their work and look up to them, there’s always that intimidating thing, but while you’re there they don’t make it feel as though they’re judging you, but obviously part of your brain is going, “They’re judging me,” [laughs] so you want to do a good job and make them like you.
What first attracted you to the role?
Ewan McGregor: I was sent the script and I was a little dubious about it to be honest because I didn’t know quite what I thought about trying to retell a classic fairytale. I kind of approached the script feeling a little bit like, “Well, I’m not going to like this,” but I did! I really liked the script. I liked the humor in the script and the characters in it were strong. In a film that’s this technologically based, I think that’s really important that you have clear and well-identifiable characters and I felt that that was the case. It reminded me a bit of that film “How to Train Your Dragon.” I love the feeling of that film and the humor in it. This felt somewhat similar to that. I’m not sure that it’s become that, I’m not sure how much of the humor we’ve captured or not because it’s impossible on a film that takes this long to shoot.
There’s the work that we do and then there’s many, many other elements, where on other films, you shoot the scenes and that’s kind of what ends up being the film. And of course that can change with editing and music and everything, but on a film like this, there are so many other elements like the giants and the motion capture capturing the giant’s movements, turning the giants into real giants. Our interaction with them is all the unknown, really.
What’s Elmont’s relationship with Jack? Does he welcome him with open arms?
McGregor: No, he’s a bit dubious about Jack to begin with. My character’s main job is to look after the princess during peacetime, that’s my main lookout. It strikes me, and I’ve never discussed it with anyone, but the Guardians are kind of the royal soldiers, the top knights. During the peacetime, at the beginning of the film, they’re in charge of the security and safety of the royal family, so myself and Eddie Marsan’s character, he plays Craw, it seems that we are in charge of looking after Isabelle, the princess.
My first encounter with Jack is when she’s given us the slip. At the beginning of the film, there’s a pantomime going on about this fable of the giants who live in the sky. It was really nicely put together by Warwick [Davis] who has an agency of small and very big people, so he used all his actors and he directed this pantomime that we shot in this lovely, old circus tent. So we find Isabelle there, she’s watching the show and at that point, when we come into the tent, everyone bows down because we represent the king except for Jack who doesn’t bow down because he’s taken by surprise. So my first introduction to him is that he’s somebody who’s not very respectful to us and I’m a bit dubious about what he’s after with the princess as well. Once the beanstalk has appeared and the princess has disappeared, [Jack] comes along with us, with the Guardians, the search party for her, and slowly, he keeps proving himself over and over.
What specific things did you have to do to train for this film?
McGregor: Mainly we did horse riding. Stanley Tucci and myself have a fight in the film, so we would ride for an hour or two and then we would work on the fight. For three weeks, that was our rehearsal block. We never got allowed to ride a horse in the film; we just got to sit on them. So it was just kind of a waste of everybody’s time. [Laughs]
Can you talk a little bit about working with the 3D cameras? I know it slows things down a little.
McGregor: I don’t think it’s as slow as people think. This film has been very slow, but you couldn’t blame the 3D for it. Early on maybe there were more problems with it. Though sometimes there are problems because each camera is, in fact, two cameras and sometimes one eye will go out. I don’t pretend to understand it all completely, but each camera represents our eyes so it’s a slightly different angle on the scene and they have to play with the perspective of that, so there’s the focus, but also the convergence and occasionally one of the eyes will go out, but really not that much. I haven’t found it to be that slow. In actual fact, that seems to be the nature of it. Again, I’ve never discussed this with anyone, but it seems to me that we do less coverage on a scene because with the 3D, you have more of a sense of everybody in the scene, so if there’s a shot with four or five people in it, you’re already all sort of in your own shot because of the 3D feel. It seems to me that we’ve had less close-ups and less coverage. If this 3D is slower, which I don’t think it is really, then we save time with the lack of coverage.
How is it working with the CGI and the giants that aren’t actually there?
McGregor: There’s only very few moments where we actually are physically interacting with each other. There’s a couple of moments where I’m picked up and I’m carried upside down by the giant and then laid down on the floor, so the picking up and the laying down we did with a harness and cables. And then there’s another moment where a giant rolls me in pastry to put me in the oven and the actual rolling in pastry was a technical challenge for the special effects team. They made a body mold of me and then made the back mold that I could lie in and then the front mold clamped over me, Velcro’ed over me, so I was held in place on an arm and then that was lowered onto the pastry. As the giant rolls me over like this, the rig rolled over and then the pastry wrapped around me. So that was more for the special effects people who did a really good job. And also, on this film we’ve got the technical ability to match the motion capture stuff that they’ve done of the giants before. They can overlay it onto the same frame that they’re seeing live from the camera, so they can actually frame up on the giant. So if there’s a shot of the giant over my shoulder, they can literally put the camera looking over my shoulder and they can see where the best place is because they can see where the giant’s going to be, and that’s quite new, I think.
Would you say your character is a stereotypical princess?
Eleanor Tomlinson: She’s definitely not stereotypical at all. That’s what I love about her. She’s got this side to her, which is really fiery. She didn’t want to be a princess. She was just born into this life and as amazing as it is, it’s not necessarily what she wants. She feels a bit trapped, I think. Her relationship with her father, after her mother died, is coming under a lot of pressure, because he is the king and he doesn’t understand her. She just wants to be a normal girl. She wants to fall in love for love and not for the kingdom. She’s got that temper, that spark about her, which is different from other fairy tales.
We saw some of the sides with dialogue between you and Jack. It seems like he really idolizes you and the throne. Can you talk about that dynamic?
Tomlinson: He’s brought up as a farm boy. He’s come from nothing. He’s really poor, and he knows of royalty as some kind of unimaginable life. It’s completely untouchable for him so when I stumble into his life, he’s just like, ‘Wow. Unbelievable!’ He does kind of have us on that pedestal, and, as the film progresses, it’s about that relationship, and how we break it down. I want to be treated normally. I don’t want to be treated as either the damsel in distress or the future queen of Cloister. It’s interesting that dynamic, how it changes throughout the film, because there’s mutual respect. He grows in her eyes and she grows in his as well.
Did anyone in particular inspire your performance, like another actress or character?
Tomlinson: Yeah, that’s one of the things that we had to talk about when we first started with Bryan. I remember I was having this conversation and names like Sigourney Weaver came up, because she’s got that individuality, she’s got that strength. She’s feisty. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and she’s not going to be pushed about. We liked that attitude that Sigourney Weaver has. Names like that came up, but I wanted to make her individual to me, just to see how different it could be as opposed to just basing it on someone.
How would you describe Bryan as a director? What have you noticed about his style that really speaks to you?
Tomlinson: I’m just completely in awe of Bryan. Working with him has just been incredible. It’s so interesting to watch him, the way he works, the way he visualizes things. You set up the scene, but until he sees it, you can’t really visualize what it’s gonna look like, so we spend a lot of time changing things around, but it’s worth it in the end because what we get is great footage that he seems very happy with it. I think he’s got so much on his plate and yet he doesn’t forget his actors. It’s still about performance as well as bringing in all the CGI and special effects and stuff. To have someone like that who is that understanding of performance as well has been really good.
Can you talk about filming the beanstalk scene?
Tomlinson: Wow, that sequence went on for quite awhile, but I think we’ve hit that point where we’re all happy with it. It was great fun shooting that. I think we shot that in the first week of starting the job. It’s a big scene to shoot in your first week. We had quite a few script changes, which is always interesting to juggle, but I think we’re very happy with it.
That is kind of the basis of how the story then evolves because he has to fall in love with her in that moment enough to risk his life and climb a beanstalk and fight giants to save her. It really had to be sold in that moment. I think that we captured it.
Is this experience kind of like the little girl fantasy of being a princess come true for you?
Tomlinson: I was quite a tomboy as a little girl so wearing the armor with the dagger and the crown, it’s been great. I’m the luckiest girl in the world. It’s amazing.
(Bryan Singer Photo Credit: Nikki Nelson / WENN.com)