As Hitler-hunting thriller Valkyrie opens nationally, Empire talks to director Bryan Singer about the controversy surrounding the film, his experience filming in Germany — and what it’s like to smack Tom Cruise in the face with a sponge.
What’s your take on the ‘controversy’ that surrounded the film — before it was even released?
It’s not something I’m as aware of as maybe someone who reads a lot of that stuff or hears about it, although when it does reach me it is kind of odd — it’s almost like this frenzied speculation. I don’t know what it’s like for Tom, because he’s dealt with it in the past for different choices or films, but for me, it brought me back to the X-Men 1 days; with all that skepticism among fans. Here it’s just a different kind of skepticism and it keeps making me wanna say, ‘Well, don’t you wanna wait til the film comes out?’
Because no-one had actually seen it when they were trashing it, had they?
No. I think what happens is it’s something very simple — like a release date moves. Our desert pick ups, which were never gonna shoot in Germany because there’s no desert, get confused as reshoots — when in reality there were almost no reshoots, with the exception of some inserts of fingers. [Laughs] No joke. And they were my hands, actually.
Was that the shot of the Nazi burning the mosquito?
No. [Laughs] That I did in Germany.
That was very impressive, by the way.
Well thank you.
It showed how truly evil the Nazis were.
[Laughs] Yes, even mosquitoes were killed. That was my ode to the fact the mosquitoes drove me to madness when we were shooting out in the woods. And also there was some history to that — they had such a bad problem with mosquitoes at Hitler’s base, at the Wolf’s Lair, that the SS guards retitled it ‘Mosquitoville’. They drew ‘Mosquitoville’ over the sign that said ‘Wolf’s Lair’. I lived there eight months… I learned a lot.
Were the mosquitoes still around there all the time?
Oh yeah. You get your big lights going at night, particularly for shooting, and it was a Hell. And all the kids were out there — [screenwriter] Chris McQuarrie’s kids, Tom’s daughter [Suri], and they were getting eating alive. It just reminded me of summer camp. I had a whole system where I would spray myself with mosquito repellant, cover all of my body in a hoodie that I would wrap around my ears so I’d look like a Hobbit, and then I would have fans that would blow behind me to blow the mosquitoes away, and small candles that were supposed to dissuade the mosquitoes.
Who knew all that was behind that one shot?
Yeah, the mosquito itself was an actual mosquito — well, I shouldn’t talk about that because you wanna have the “no animals were harmed during the making of this film”… but in fact one animal was murdered.
You’d better be prepared for the wrath of the Mosquito Protection League.
So one of the reasons the film was pushed back was because you were shooting the African sequence?
Yeah. I went to Jordan, the Middle East… I scouted the Arabian desert, the Jordanian desert, and that didn’t work for a bunch of reasons — and it also frankly didn’t look too much like Tunisia. Then I went and scouted in Spain on another weekend, and ultimately we decided ‘Let’s just go back to the United States, cut what we have together and shoot that sequence in California where this particular part of the desert looks the most like Tunisia.’
Did the studio become more confident of the film once people started seeing it?
Uh-huh. It was positive even when the cut was rough. We cut aggressively in Germany so we could come back with a good sense of what the movie could be.
Okay, let’s take it back a little. After three superhero films in a row, was this something you wanted to do as a break from that?
Yep. I had just done the three movies back to back, pretty much, and the television projects in between — with House I did the pilot, and other things; and I produced a mini series. So much genre and heavy duty shoots. So initially my thought was, I read the script that Chris and Nathan had written — and Chris and I had grown up together, and I thought this would be a fun chance to do a small character picture, you know, another thriller with Chris, like The Usual Suspects. It was initially that. I optioned the script from Chris to produce it together and then we brought it to United Artists — and then offered it to Tom.
Was Tom your first choice for the film?
Yeah, I mean, in the back of our minds we thought, Wouldn’t that be great? He looks like Stauffenberg, he has the presence that Stauffenberg had. Stauffenberg was almost like a star in his own right as a militarist, and very respected by other soldiers. He had a kind of wit and charisma and I felt Tom would really embody that. Then I basically showed him the cover of a Stauffenberg biography, with a stunning profile picture, and said, “You gotta do this.” And Tom thought about it because of United Artists — he was familiar with it creatively, and he made up his mind about it very quickly. Having him in the picture then enabled us to have more of the facilities to make a bigger movie; and yet it’s still an intimate one to me. You know, we were in Germany shooting and there were aspects of it that felt quite independent. So it was like a mixture of that and a lot of toys we might not have otherwise been able to afford.
What attracted you to Stauffenberg’s story? It’s a fascinating one, but not that well known outside of Germany.
My first exposure to it is kind of interesting, and odd. My mother is an environmental activist and back in the early ’80s she was doing an environmental study hosted in Bonn, Germany, when it was the capital before the Wall came down, by the family of Helmut von Moltke — who was the head of the Kreisau circle, which was the intellectual wing of the German resistance. He was executed by Hitler in relation to the resistance. So when my mum came back she told me about this and she told me about the bomb plot, but that was it — that was my last memory of that. I became fascinated years later with the Holocaust, being Jewish, and having a great class on it in high school, and then I read the Stephen King novella Apt Pupil when I was 18. I was thrilled by that; it kind of spike to my fascination with the German Reich, and I got to make that film. Then in X-Men 1 I was able to touch on that a bit with the opening sequence, with Magneto’s origin. But this film was a whole other step, you know, where I was dealing with the German high command. It was like a great crystallisation of events for me. And Chris McQuarrie and I used to make World War Two movies in my backyard…
This must be like the ultimate backyard movie for you two, then.
Yep, and we would say that. Chris and I would be like, “Wow, remember when we used to go to the army navy store and get German and American army helmets? Now here we are with hundreds of soldiers, tanks, real planes and Tom Cruise.”
Were all the aircraft in the film real?
Yeah, the planes were real. Everything’s real that’s in the air and flying. The scene where Tom is leaving the Wolf’s Lair after the attempt [to kill Hitler], that was shot in the plane flying over the forest of Germany — not green screen — and I was doing Tom’s make up because there was only room for the cameraman, his assistant, Jamie Parker the actor, the two pilots, and me and Tom. It was so hot in the plane that I was smacking Tom in the face with a sponge every two seconds to dab sweat off his face, He was a good sport, because I clearly misinterpreted how to do the make up — I was literally hitting him in the face. He just kept in character and kept his cool.
That’s why he’s a professional, I guess.
Oh, he’s a pro!
What about the eye? Was that digitally done?
The eye — if you watch the movement of the glass eye you’ll see that it moves differently, and that of course had to be treated digitally because a contact lens would move in the same direction as the eye. Of course, with the exception of pulling Tom’s eye out and replacing it with a glass one. [Laughs] So there are about 800 visual effects shots in the movie but what’s interesting about that is that none of them have to do with planes and bombs and all those things — that all was live and real.
Did you and Tom enjoy the planes?
We were thrilled, we worked with great pilots — and Tom’s actually a big flight enthusiast. Before we went out to Germany he took me flying in his P-51 Mustang, his World War Two plane that he flies, and we went formation flying over the desert. We did some formation flying and some stunt flying, it was really exciting — and again, it kinda wet my whistle for World War Two.
Was there an atmosphere in the Benderblock when you were shooting there?
You think of it as moviemaking and then… suddenly we were standing in the middle of the night in this place where these people were hurriedly taken out and shot by their own soldiers, for trying to save the country. It’s one of the only monuments to people who served in the Second World War — because everything else is monstrous — but these Germans, who very early on opposed Hitler and worked their way up to this attempt, represented this notion that ‘We have to show the world that not all of us are like him’. I found it very novel as a boy when my mum said, ‘No it was German officers that tried to kill Hitler’ and I was like, ‘Really? Why would German officers try to kill Hitler?’ As a kid I was like, ‘Note to self: not all members of the army agree with the policies of the nation’. And that is a key theme of the film.
How did you find Tom worked in the role?
It was very important to keep his reserve. The thing about Stauffenberg is that he was grace under pressure and I made sure that there was only one time that he loses it; oddly enough that was the first day of shooting with Tom — other than that it was very important that this be a reserved performance. What was nice is that with Tom, he’s incredibly hard working as it is, and incredibly dedicated to the movie, and he gave me enormous trust—he had enormous trust in me and I knew that no matter how many takes I asked for, it would never be as many as Stanley Kubrick [laughs].
Originally published on Empire online