Last May, 20th Century Fox released the most ambitious X-Men movie to date, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and reaped those rewards. Between the ensemble cast, the special effects, the time period and all the various set pieces, director Bryan Singer returned to the franchise he started in 2000 – but he didn’t do it alone.
Stuntman-turned-director Brian Smrz acted as the second unit director of X-Men: Days of Future Past, his fourth for the X-Men films, and took part in the film to higher extent than most second unit directors, filming key scenes with the main cast and even directing a majority of the famous Quicksilver kitchen scene. Born in Pennsylvania, Smrz has become a veteran of superhero movies, directing the second unit for seven DC and Marvel films, in addition to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Night at the Museum and the recently completed Terminator: Genisys.
Smrz just began work on X-Men: Apocalypse, but took a break to talk with Newsarama about X-Men: Days of Future Past as it made its way to home video this week, working with Bryan Singer on three superhero films, and who he’d like to do a solo movie with as he preps to direct his own feature films.
Newsarama: Brian, what were the most memorable parts of working on X-Men: Days of Future Past?
Brian Smrz: Probably the most memorable part of the film was getting the chance to work closely with almost all of the main cast in various scenes. As far as a particular scene that sticks out the most, I’d say the kitchen sequence with Quicksilver. I ended up doing a lot of that.
Nrama: Really? I thought that’d be Singer doing that pivotal scene?
Smrz: I did most of it, to be honest. I have a great relationship with Bryan Singer, and he really let me do a lot there. The scenes where they enter, as well as parts where they’re frozen – I did most of it. It’s very time consuming, especially with the phantom camera and the rain. Bryan was there and did some of the key parts, but I did the rest.
Nrama: Would you say that’s the scene you’re most proud of?
Smrz: Yes, probably that as well as some of the stuff in the opening of the film, which was kind of interesting. It was very complicated because of the Blink character and her portals.
Nrama: This was your fourth X-Men movie, after doing 2nd unit directing for X-Men 2, the first Wolverine film and also X-Men: First Class – in addition to you doing many of the comic book to film adaptations of the past 15 years including Iron Man 3. As a stuntman, stunt coordinator and director, what’s unique about these superhero films?
Smrz: Well, to me it’s good and bad. With the advancement of special effects and green screens, it helps us tremendously – but also hurts us. So many of the films today are such big spectacles, and technology allows you to have unlimited freedom to do things like the Quicksilver scene; but for me personally, I like to have as many practical effects as possible.
But in today’s filmmaking, superhero movies being a big part of that, there’s huge set pieces done almost entirely in green screen and not as much practical effects as there would have been 10 or 20 years ago.
Nrama: Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t X-Men: Days of Future Past the first movie you’ve done second unit directing that’s been in native 3D? How does doing that impact what you and your team do with filming the scenes and especially the stunts?
Smrz: Well, actually most of what I shot was in 2D. That was a big decision process, as the plan originally was for me to shoot entirely in 3D but John Ottman, our editor, stressed that he just wanted footage as quick as possible. The 3D cameras are very slow, takes a long time to change lenses, and they don’t get into as tight as places or move quite as well as 2D cameras. The kitchen scene was done in native 3D, but most of the other stuff I did was in 2D.
Nrama: According to what I’ve read, you just finished working on Terminator: Genisys and are prepping for X-Men: Apocalypse. Can you tell us what you’re up to now, and when the big work begins for you on the next X-Men film?
Smrz: They want me to start pretty soon, on the storyboarding and stuff. I’ll be working on the next X-Men for the next month or so part-time, and by the end of the year it’ll be full-time.
Nrama: I know you don’t want to spoil anything in the film, but can you tell us maybe things you hope to be able to do in this new film?
Smrz: Well, there will be another Quicksilver scene, which I’m looking forward to; that’ll be fun.
Other than that, I can’t really say much – I’m looking forward to working with the cast and crew again. I’ve worked with Hugh Jackman four times before this, and I love the younger cast who’s already great to work with as well.
Nrama: In researching you for this interview, I realized you were at one-time a full-time stuntman and stunt coordinator before you transitioned to directing. As a veteran stuntman and now someone who films them, how do you see the effect depicting superpowers on films has challenged stuntmen more?
Smrz: The business has evolved, for the better actually. Now a lot of the guys and girls doing stunts are specialized in types of stunts; we have Cirque du Soleil people, extreme gymnasts, wire-work specialists, etc. As a director I still have to take that and make it look real, but I need superb athletes to pull off things, such as using wires, to make it look believable.
Nrama: As a guy who did it for decades, when you worked on X-Men: Days Of Future Past, what was the stuntwork that you saw as the most challenging?
Smrz: Probably some of the fight stuff. It’s so hard to make an interesting fight nowadays because it’s been done for so long. The woman we had, Renee Moneymaker, was really able to portray Mystique well; from the character bits to some great physical stuff, she made Raven’s character especially unique with her abilities.
These days with the movies so big, the stunts get smaller because some of what stuntmen used to do is handled in special effects now but other parts, more technical parts, is still stuntmen.
Nrama: So no Hal Needham type stuff anymore? [laughs]
Smrz: That’s my ideal thing, actually. There wasn’t anything in X-Men: Days of Future Past that I can really pinpoint as being that difficult. We did wirework, screen stuff, visual effects.
Nrama: One last thing before we go: directing. You’ve been doing 2nd-unit directing for years, and even directed one feature. With your experience now on big-budget films, being one of the top 2nd-unit directors in the industry, do you plan on directing more films on your own at some point?
Smrz: Absolutely. That’s what my main focus has been for the past year, and that’s the reason I haven’t done as much as I have in the past. Besides Terminator, I’ve spent a lot of time going to meetings. As you mentioned I’ve directed one before, but it wasn’t under the right circumstances so I’m only going to direct again in the lead chair if it’s the right project.
Nrama: What kinds of films are you looking for?
Smrz: We talked about Quicksilver before, I’d love to do a Quicksilver as a solo film because there’s a lot to enjoy with that character. But I’m not geared just towards superhero movies; for me it’s about great main characters, and finding movies that have that.