Tom Cruise and Hitler's Very Special Christmas
Yes, 'Valkyrie' is good. Here, director Bryan Singer talks Scientology, bad buzz, and—yes—Superman
by mickey rapkin
It’s tough to pinpoint the exact moment we smelled trouble for Valkyrie, but we’re pretty sure it started with the tag: Tom Cruise’s $100 million passion project about a plot to assassinate Hitler. That photo of the star dressed as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg—complete with Nazi military dress and eye patch—didn’t help. Nor did the fact that the studio played drunken roulette with the film’s release date. By last fall, Valkyrie was said to be so radioactive it would take Cruise and his studio, United Artists, down with it.
Well, Valkyrie may still do that, but not because the movie’s bad. Shockingly, it’s a beautifully shot, tightly wound thriller that plays like a low-tech Mission: Impossible, with Cruise as a traitorous underling to der Führer. Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, and Eddie Izzard (all excellent) fill out his Dirty Dozen, placing bombs in Cointreau bottles and whispering around corners. Sure, the film has its odd moments. It’s a Holocaust-era flick without a single shot of barbed wire. But as director Bryan Singer points out, it’s not like you really need any backstory: “He’s Hitler, right?”
Singer is no stranger to bad buzz. (Halle Berry once walked off the set of his X2, reportedly telling him to “kiss my black ass.”) When we ask him to explain Valkyrie’s delay, he’s armed with talking points like “There are 800 visual effects!” And “I wanna say it’s Tom Cruise like you’ve never seen him, but unfortunately that was Tropic Thunder.” Still, he will own that the public’s allergy to Cruise is a marketing “challenge.” “In the ’70s, the public didn’t worry about the budget,” he says. “Or tabloid snafus. You didn’t worry about an eye patch.” Or Scientology jokes.
Here, in an exclusive interview with GQ.com, Bryan Singer talks bad buzz, Superman, and Scientology.
Tom Cruise. Eye patch. German accent. Did you ever think, What am I getting myself into?
It didn’t come in that order. First, it was the script and an opportunity to work with Chris McQuarrie—whom I grew up with as a child and worked with on a number of occasions, including The Usual Suspects. United Artists agreed to make the picture, which we always thought would be a smaller film. And then I put it out there that Tom bore a strong resemblance to Stauffenberg, and wouldn’t it be neat if he played him?
So it was your idea to enlist Cruise?
It was undeniable. Stauffenberg was an incredibly handsome charismatic guy, dark hair, 36—which Tom can easily pass for. In the developmental process, the eye patch and all the other aspects…the reality of all the challenges set in.
When did you first sniff the bad buzz?
Having made the first two X-Men movies and Superman Returns, I’ve had a lot of experience with negative speculation. And so it wasn’t something that I paid an enormous amount of attention to.
Let’s set the record straight: Was Tom ever going to speak with a German accent? There’s a rumor that he had to dub the entire film because the accent played so poorly.
Never, never. We discussed—for about a second—the idea of Tom’s having a German accent. I remember that conversation very clearly. I was in the sitting room of his house, and I basically just said, “I don’t want to do that. You don’t want to be listening to that.” To have Tom do a German accent—and he can do a flawless accent—then you’d need all the Brits to have German accents. Can you imagine what that movie would be like? With all those people putting on German accents?
The film was originally set for summer ’08. Then it was bumped to February ’09, and then up to Christmas. What gives?
I never understood all those moves.
OK. Then what happened?
We had a desert sequence that we were originally going to shoot in Jordan or Spain. We scouted, but neither of those locations really worked—either as locations or economically. So it looked like we would be coming back to the States to shoot that sequence. Then there was an issue of timing: Could the film be finished in time? Tom’s character is injured, and to manifest these injuries we used a lot of visual effects. There are 800 visual effects in the movie. He’s missing his right hand, he’s missing two fingers on his left hand, and that all had to be removed. And he’s in the movie a lot!
The production feels kinda cursed. You wanted to shoot on location at Bendlerblock—a landmark where the plot against Hitler was hatched—but the German Finance Ministry said no. And then…
Here’s what happened. We shot two nights in our much disputed Bendlerblock location. It was an emotional night—it was a successful night—shot in the very spot where the events took place. It was a weekend, so our schedule was shuffled up to be able to accommodate the Memorial to the German Resistance, which of course makes up part of the Bendlerblock. A couple of days later, my cinematographer and my executive producer sat me down. These guys are old friends. They sat me down and said, “Bryan, we need to tell you something.” I thought someone had died. But they said the lab messed up half the night’s work from the Bendlerblock, as well as two other movies that were shooting in Berlin at this time. I was relieved no one died. But then I processed it.
So they overexposed the film. Nice. Did you throw one of your trademark fits?
We got an insurance claim, went back and reshot the material that was damaged. It wasn’t tough to get back in. To this day, I must say, I’m not quite sure what really happened with our initial blockage from that location.
Some said it had to do with the fact that Tom Cruise is a Scientologist, and the Germans consider Scientology a cult.
I remember reading that, but I’ve never actually read the quote from the person who said that specifically.
There’s something strange about this film: It’s a Holocaust-era movie with no signs of the Holocaust. No barbed wire. No concentration camps. No sense of why these guys are hunting Hitler.
That’s quite intentional, actually. In the beginning of the picture, you get a little small sense of it. But he’s Hitler, right? Also, there have been so many movies made—so well—about that subject and history.
But your movie X-Men opens at a concentration camp!
I even felt that touching upon it in X-Men...probably if it hadn’t had been a comic book film, [I wouldn’t have done it].
You were raised Jewish, but you went to Christian Youth Camp as a kid. Why?
I’m Jewish. But, yeah, I did. My best friend, Jeff, and I went to a Christian Youth camp. We didn’t really study Christian youth stuff so much as we enjoyed the activities. We mostly did sports and some camping. But, yeah, we were the only Jews. I was quite a challenging kid.
In what way?
I was always fascinated by different religions, and I was always asking questions. There was never any discussion about our being Jewish. When you’re a kid, nothing feels weird except being a kid.
As the release date approaches, do you worry about the marketing? Is it possible to get over “Tom Cruise in an eye patch”? Is that your Sarah Palin?
I don’t know what to say. My biggest movie-loving period was the mid-’70s. In the mid-’70s, you just showed up for a really cool movie. You didn’t worry about the budget. You didn’t worry about an eye patch. Is it challenging? Of course. There’s the eye patch. Sometimes he has a glass eye. I want to say it’s Tom Cruise like you’ve never seen him, but that was Tropic Thunder.
So Tom Cruise is back?
This is a thriller, and there’re not a lot of thrillers this Christmas. And I think people have invested a lot of money in Tom Cruise over the years. They have a great proprietorship for him, and even though there may have been a snafu with the tabloids or whatever—I’d like to not underestimate that faith. He’s kind of the audience’s son in a way. They’ve raised him in a way through these movies, and I’d like to think they’ll be happy to see him in this movie. This is the kind of movie I’d like to see Tom Cruise do.
At one point, you were set to direct the Harvey Milk story. Was it tough to watch someone else tackle it?
I felt that I was betraying a wonderful story and a wonderful character by being too busy. So I’m just happy it’s made. And it’s being made by people I know and people I like and people who are quite passionate about it.
What’s the latest with Superman? Is there going to be another one with you directing?
I imagine there will be. I just don’t know. I just finished the final mix on Valkyrie, and then I’m taking a break. I couldn’t talk about what I’m going to do directorially next. I have a lot of projects for my company that are brewing. Doing these things while I’m abroad is very difficult. So now that I’m back, I’m going to focus on Superman for a little bit.
Sounds like you’re hedging.
I can’t tell you. I wish I could. But it probably will, it probably will happen. In the end, the first one did well.
It made $200 domestically—and another $190 million internationally. Are expectations out of whack?
I think they are. It actually did quite well [laughs]. I’m trying to be modest about the whole thing.