Exclusive: Director Bryan Singer & Nicholas Hoult on Jack the Giant Slayer
February 22, 2013
Director Bryan Singer has created quite a career for himself as a popular genre filmmaker with his early films The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil which led to him bringing Marvel's mutants The X-Men to the screen for two hugely popular movies. That was followed by a revamp of DC's Man of Steel in Superman Returns, which harked back to Richard Donner's classic from the '70s.
One would think Singer could do anything at this point and some may have been scratching their heads when he decided to share his take on a classic fairy tale with Jack the Giant Slayer, but in some ways it's the logical next step to see Singer make a movie that's even bigger than superheroes as it literally involves giants as its bad guys.
Singer's Jack is played by Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, About a Boy) as the unlikely hero who encounters a princess named Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) and gets his hands on a bag of magic beans that creates a beanstalk that soars up to the heavens taking Isabelle with it. Jack is suddenly on an adventure with some of the king's knights, played by Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan and Ewen Bremner, to the world of Gantua that's inhabited by fierce and furious giants who see humans as being good for only one thing… food.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Singer and his star last week while they were in London for the movie's junket. We'll start things off with Singer himself who answered our questions about the movie, but the most interesting moment was when he told us about his connection to a filmmaker who also has a fantasy epic coming out next month.
ComingSoon.net: You already produced "X-Men: First Class" with Nicholas Hoult and he's going to be in the sequel you're directing as well so how did you decide to cast him as Jack?
Bryan Singer: I was always a fan of his from "Skins" and "A Single Man" and I was instrumental in casting him in "X-Men: First Class." He's just a really terrific actor and he's got a good sense of vulnerability. He's sort of like a younger British Jimmy Stewart to me, and he's delightful to work with so I'm looking forward to having him on the set of "Days of Future Past." I'd make every movie with him - he's just lovely. Very talented, very smart and very funny.
CS: I'm sure you've been talking a lot about the movie over the last couple days, so what was it about this project that made you want to do it? There've been a lot of fairy tales turned into movies lately. I understand this was a passion project for you that you wanted to do for a while?
Singer: Well, it's something that I got involved in about four years ago. It was a script that existed that which ultimately I changed dramatically, but I thought it was a chance to play with the new motion and performance capture technology and also take images that we've only seen in animation or in storybook art and actually make them real and physical. Plus also introducing giants that are different from the ones we've seen before. Usually giants are these lumbering and oafish and in this case, they're lean, mean and fast. I thought that would be something cool, and then from there the story just evolved.
CS: When you think about a movie involving giants, you might think of just having humans playing the giants and use old school camera trickery or FX to make them bigger, but you had actors performing all the giant parts?
Singer: Yeah I didn't want them to just be big people. They had to be humanoid, but I didn't want them to be big monsters and I didn't want them to be people. I wanted them to be something in between, so I informed that performance through actors and performance capture and designed them to specifically be what they are.
CS: When you were a kid and first read or heard "Jack and the Beanstalk," was that an experience that really stuck with you and were you already imagining what that might look like even back them?
Singer: I think the image of a beanstalk climbing up into the sky was very provocative to me as a kid basically because it's a gateway somewhere and you don't know what's up there, kind of like "Brigadoon" - "Is there a world up there in the sky someplace that's hiding from us?"
CS: There's been different versions of the fairy tale over the years, some darker than others. When you went into this, did you know the crossover point in having something that's suitable for kids but also can appeal to older moviegoers?
Singer: I wanted it to be scary but fun scary. I wanted kids to be able to go see it and be scared but not upset, so I introduce a lot of humor into the film and a kind of tone that's a little like "Princess Bride" in a way. I call this "Princess Bride's bigger, angrier, meaner step-brother."
CS: That's very good. I was curious where the middle ground was for this one since you've done Superman and X-Men which were both PG-13 and they weren't necessarily kids' movies, but they could be see them, too.
Singer: Yeah, I did a movie that was meant for the whole family, more than for people to bring their kids to.
CS: Was it hard to find that middle ground?
Singer: Well, some things had to go, some images, a couple shots I even rendered I just decided to remove just because it wasn't worth freaking parents out. (chuckles) It's all about the humor and making sure that there's a lot of humor to off-set what I call the "adventure violence."
CS: I don't want to spoil it but some of the giants have some questionably gory deaths.
Singer: Yeah, but they're giants (laughs). We don't like them so we're okay with them getting arrows in their tongue and their heads popped.
CS: If I was still a kid, I think I'd be pretty excited to see that happen.
CS: One of the things that I liked about your Superman and X-Men movies was that they were grounded in reality. You always found something in the real world to ground those superheroes so when you started this one, where do you find that reality because it is a fairy tale with pretty fantastical elements.
Singer: I didn't want it to feel like the characters were interesting the CGI world. Sometimes I had to use visual effects to extend the sets and create an environment, but I really wanted to create as much physical stuff as possible, so it felt grounded, so when the giants were introduced, they'd feel just as real, so I used locations, I built sets, and then when I had to I'd extend them, but I tried to keep the sense that it's not just a bunch of CGI.
CS: How many different versions of the fairy tale did you or Chris McQuarrie read to put together this definitive version for the movie?
Singer: It really started with Chris coming in to do a major rewrite and us ramping up into pre-production and then after Chris left, Dan Studney came in and was my pre-pro and on-set rewriter and you just come up with stuff and disregard stuff as you start to see how things are evolving and shaping up. So it was a pretty organic process.
CS: Maybe I'm mixing up my fairy tales, but I seem to remember there being a hen with a golden egg and other things.
Singer: Yeah, the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" is really a guy who goes up a beanstalk, steals a bunch of stuff from a giant and then comes down the beanstalk typically, and I always had sympathy for the giant, seeing that Jack was basically stealing his sh*t and murdering him so I wanted that if this movie is going to be called "Jack the Giant Slayer," I need these giants to be baddies, so that we root for Jack.
CS: So do you feel that stuff like the harp and the golden egg would be saved for a sequel? Was that how you felt about that?
Singer: Well, there were little homages to it. You see a golden harp and we use the egg as a prop, that little Fabergé thing, so I have little nods to the story, and it's a story about storytelling and how stories get changed over hundreds of years and how things are faded into legend, and you see where the movie ends, obviously without spoiling it.
CS: If you watch the commercials, they're very humorous, but then when you see the movie there's all these huge battle sequences with hundreds of giants. Was having such a giant climactic battle something that was in the story from the very beginning?
Singer: Yeah, I also like the false ending where you feel like the adventure is over and he didn't get the girl then suddenly, the real conflict begins. It's a two-part adventure. There's the adventure where the humans go to Gantua and then the giants come to the humans.
CS: It's interesting that Sam Raimi has a fantasy movie coming out a week after this one, and I thought there were interesting parallels between your two careers, starting out with small genre films, then doing big superhero movies and now venturing into fantasy.
Singer: Well, what's even more interesting is that Sam Raimi is instrumental in starting my career. I made a short film called "Lion's Den" with Ethan Hawke and I put together with two other filmmakers a screening of three short films at the DGA and to attract attention to it, I asked Sam--who had just made "Darkman" at the time I believe and he was in the middle of making "Army of Darkness"--I asked if he would host it because I knew his brother Ted and Sam agreed. So Sam actually hosted a screening of my first short. So yeah, it's ironic. I wish we were a little further apart in our release dates, but hopefully there'll be enough appetite in the market place.
CS: Well, he doesn't have any giants in his movie, just witches…
Singer: Yeah, oops. Should have had giants, but we don't have witches.
CS: Do you think you'll ever go back to making smaller movies like "Usual Suspects" and "Apt Pupil" after doing such big movies?
Singer: I certainly will. I'm looking for a good horror film to direct, which would be smaller. "Valkyrie" was meant to be that movie and then it got bigger because I cast Tom in it, but yeah I love great actors saying great dialogues in rooms and that's just as exciting for me as giants. (chuckles)
Next up, we have the star of Jack the Giant Slayer, Nicholas Hoult, who is just coming off the huge zombie rom-com hit Warm Bodies and is continuing a burgeoning career following his introduction in the Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy ten years ago. Since then, he's appeared on the BBC show "Skins" and in movies like A Single Man, Clash of the Titans and of course, X-Men: First Class, playing Dr. Henry McCoy.
ComingSoon.net: I just spoke with Paul Weitz a few days ago and we were talking about how well your career's going with this and Warm Bodies, and he's really proud of the fact that he didn't screw up your life with "About a Boy."
Nicholas Hoult: Yeah, I had dinner with him in L.A. and we had a good catch-up. He's a top guy and I'm so glad I'm still friends with him.
CS: It's great seeing you playing more grown-up roles as well as leading roles. Now, you worked with Bryan before on "X-Men: First Class," which he produced, so at what point did he throw this out as a possibility to play Jack?
Hoult: You know what? Around the time that "A Single Man" was coming out I think I met with his casting director in the States and read the script then, but that was a long time before it went into production but was obviously interested in it then. And then while we were filming "X-Men" I met him at the read-through and he was prepping for this and it took a long time to prep this because it was so complicated with all the special FX and stuff. At that time, I was meant to be filming "Mad Max" while they were shooting this so there wasn't much of a discussion there about me doing it. But when "Mad Max" got delayed, obviously it popped up again. I missed the first round of auditions, but fortunately they didn't find anyone they liked and then managed to get in there and do a few auditions with Bryan. He had said that he always wanted me to play this role from the start, but we had to convince everyone else that I was the right person for the job. Yeah, I feel very fortunate to have worked with it and to have worked with Bryan and I'll be working with him again on the next "X-Men" again.
CS: It must be great as an actor to have a director you can work with many times and build the relationship. Since he didn't direct "First Class," how did you find it was working with him as a director?
Hoult: It was fantastic. We have a similar sense of humor and we see the ridiculousness in filmmaking and what we do, but he's also so talented in the storytelling, so knowledgeable about film and what he needs to craft a good story. So he's very clear on all that and also the technical side of it, he's really skilled but particularly for me, having to do so much green screen and to be able to time working with things that weren't really there and stuff, he was a massive help in that. I just think he makes really good films.
CS: I think everyone's heard the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" when they were kids, so did you have any preconceived notions of what the character of Jack was like or expectations of him from before you read the script?
Hoult: Jack in many ways, he's thoroughly an everyday guy. He's an unlikely hero. He's someone who has tried his best and is good but things don't always go his way. He's honorable but hasn't been blessed with a great childhood or a fortunate upbringing so he's someone who wants to get out in the world but doesn't have a lot of opportunities. Obviously, he meets this princess and he instantly cares about her and wants to look out for her and try to save her and is just very brave, having to conquer a lot of fears to do that.
CS: The giants are such a huge part of the movie, no pun intended, so what was it like working with them and what were you interacting with on set? Did you already know what they would look like while you were shooting?
Hoult: Yeah, we had pictures and stuff of what the characters would look like and we did the motion capture at the beginning of the film so we knew what Bill Nighy would sound like and have a rough idea, but still, I must say that as much as a little bit of imagination can help picture what will be put on screen, it was a real treat watching the movie because I think what the visual FX team have managed to create is stunning and the giants have real personalities and character and they're fantastic to watch.
CS: What about working with some of the others in the cast? You have Stanley Tucci and Ewan McGregor and a lot of real veterans and an interesting cast. There's an interesting tone that's dark and funny as well.
Hoult: It was great. Bryan referenced "The Princess Bride" at the time. It can be scary but it's a real family adventure film, and the cast are all a real treat to work with. Obviously, being a lead in a film of this scale can be quite intimidating but to have Bryan as a director and then people like Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Ewan McGregor and Eddie Marsan, and this fantastic cast and Eleanor Tomlinson playing the leading lady, it was a lot more relaxed and easy-going on set.
CS: So Bill Nighy was actually there while you were shooting the whole movie?
Hoult: They did all the motion capture for the first couple of weeks and then they did this thing called Simul-Cam so once we shot on the live set, we kind of get playback and have a rough image of where the giant would be and their movements so you can see how the timing works.
CS: It's interesting how your career has evolved as you've been doing a lot of big franchise movies like "Clash of the Titans," the "X-Men" movies and "Mad Max." Even "Warm Bodies" is a big movie - it could be a franchise. How did that happen that you ended up doing all these bigger, possible franchise movies?
Hoult: I don't know. They're scripts that I really enjoyed and characters that I liked and I've just been trying to work with good directors and a mix of people of different ages and that's kind of my main aim is to do different things. Fortunately, so far I've been pretty lucky to be cast in films that work.