Interview: Bryan Singer & Tom Cruise (Valkyrie)
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.
“Hitler is not only bad for the world, he is bad for us Germans. Let’s kill him and get over with this endless war”. That was the ideology that brought Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg to join one of the most famous, and closest of attempts to kill the German dictator in the middle of WWII. There is no surprise in announcing that he and his co-conspirators failed, but at least they tried. Bryan Singer was instantly fascinated with the subject two years ago, when he read a script called Valkyrie — about Stauffenberg’ story co-written by Nathan Alexander and Christopher McQuarrie. Of course, the script didn’t need to make the rounds as McQuarrie a high school friend of Singer and the person who wrote the acclaimed The Usual Suspects.
Initially his idea was to take a break from big budget productions and go back to something with a far smaller budget than the first two X-Men films and Superman Returns. But after he took it the project to United Artists for financing, Tom Cruise, now an executive producer at that company decided to jump on board not only as a producer but as the main star of the movie. After two difficult years in which the online media reports contributed to bashing the film (it was responsible for magnifying one lawsuit that saw eleven extras get injured on a shoot to the many location difficulties caused by the connections of Cruise and his Scientology beliefs, the film has finally made it into theaters. Be forewarned: this isn’t another “Holocaust movie”, in fact, it is a thriller, with a hero (in Cruise) and is drenched in suspense.
Despite all the negative buzz about its possible failure, the movie manages to keep afloat all this despite the fact that audiences know the denouement….the possible “good guy” does not win in the end. Singer’s cinematic skills provide for a narrative hat pans out into a good two hours of entertainment which is exactly what the filmmaker and his lead were looking for and which they cited repeatedly during their press conference together last week in New York. Here is a transcription of that get 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 I read this script and I thought, ” How much of this story is actually true?” From sitting down with Bryan and finding out it was a true story, I just thought it was a great story.
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. You know, as a child, I grew up thinking, “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.
Cruise: When Bryan wanted me to come on board and we started working with Chris and Nathan, 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.”
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. 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.
Q: 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.
Singer: The nice part about Tom’s interest in the project, as well as position at the studios, it is that 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. 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 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.
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.
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: 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.” 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. I learnead a lot about 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.
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?
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. 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.
Q: 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: 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. 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. 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.
Valkyrie gets release into theaters today.