The director's auteur style changed Hollywood's approach to superhero movies forever, but his on-set tantrums, a cast mutiny and, later, allegations of sexual abuse have left a tarnished legacy as the franchise turns 20.
In the spring of 1999, Bryan Singer and a group of X-Men producers and crew were working out of the old Fox offices near Olympic and Bundy when Michael Jackson walked in the door. Wearing sunglasses and refusing to shake hands, Jackson was visiting the industrial space to meet with Singer to discuss the prospect of playing Professor Xavier in the upcoming film.
"I said to him, 'Do you know Xavier is an older white guy?' " X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner recalls. "And Michael said, 'Oh yeah. You know, I can wear makeup.' "
With that, Jackson queued up an elaborate presentation complete with the short film Ghosts, in which the pop star morphed into a 60-something white mayor railing against a well-meaning performer who entertains local children with magic tricks. Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind the film, never seriously considered Jackson for the role, which eventually went to Patrick Stewart in a turn that enabled him to be known for a popular character other than Star Trek's Captain Picard. As one former executive remembers, "Michael was already in the thick of all his allegations by X-Men."
For fellow X-Men producer Ralph Winter, who met Jackson during the office visit (Shaquille O'Neal visited another time), it was just another day in the Singer vortex, in which nothing was predictable, impulsivity reigned, and there was always an entourage.
"Bryan always had a lot of friends around. And after a while, you don't pay attention," says Winter. "He generally would introduce all of them. 'Oh hey, come over here. I want you to meet Ralph.' So he was always very kind and generous about that. But I didn't have time to keep track of all his friends and who they were."
But friends also sometimes meant trouble. And with no franchise was that adage more true than X-Men, which transformed Singer, then 34, into that rare double threat: an auteur who could make mountains of money for a studio. On the flip side, he began to earn a well-reported reputation for costly absences as he partied with an ever-changing inner circle. As the film turns 20 years old this month, it's impossible to deny its groundbreaking contributions, ushering in the era of the comic-book-based studio tentpole, spawning eight films and five spinoffs that earned $6 billion worldwide. But in the years since its release, Singer's on- and off-set troubles have clouded its legacy.
"X-Men was a truly pioneering film. You have to remember, this was before Spider-Man. It was the first major Marvel adaptation to reach mainstream audiences," says Sony film chairman Tom Rothman, who was then Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman. "The seriousness with which it treated its themes of otherness, discrimination and alienation gave commercial action filmmaking a jolt of emotion and purpose."
But for some, like GLAAD, which championed the film for its trailblazing exploration of the mutant experience as an allegory for the gay experience, it's also incomplete to view X-Men and the subsequent franchise without considering the public allegations Singer has faced — namely, multiple minors have accused him of various forms of sexual misdeeds including rape. (Singer has denied all allegations of abuse and misconduct.)
"It's critical when analyzing Bryan Singer's body of work that we center the experiences and trauma faced by his victims and put their continued well-being first," says GLAAD's Mathew Lasky. "GLAAD stands for the protection of LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ youth, and those who would wish to do them harm are no friend of the LGBTQ community."
Behind the scenes, crises raged, including drug use, tantrums and a writers' feud. Adding to the drama, one of the film's actors filed a civil suit four months after production wrapped, claiming that he was raped by three of Singer's friends and business associates — although none of them were involved with X-Men.
For many who worked on the film, X-Men offers the origin story for the director's troubling on-set conduct and, given the lack of consequences, put him on a path that saw him morph from wunderkind to pariah.
"It's a weird business, the film business," says Shuler Donner. "We honor creativity and talent and we forgive the brilliant ones. Unconsciously, we probably do enable them by turning a blind eye to whatever they're doing and taking their product and putting it out to the world."
Or, as another exec involved with the film notes, "His behavior was poor on the movie. We accommodated him on the first movie, and therefore we can accommodate him on the second movie. And on and on. And it created a monster."
Back in 1994, Shuler Donner began developing the X-Men property with Fox, just as Singer's career was about to take off after his debut film, Public Access, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. As Shuler Donner was working on X-Men with few expectations, Singer became one of the hottest directors in town with the 1995 release of his sophomore effort, The Usual Suspects, a film that saw writer Christopher McQuarrie and Kevin Spacey win Oscars. Not long after, Fox production executive Peter Rice approached Singer to direct X-Men, even though the director was unfamiliar with the comics. But Singer's producer, Tom DeSanto, was an X-Men obsessive since childhood and wrote a treatment that co-creator Stan Lee and Marvel's Avi Arad approved. Singer was formally attached to direct in July 1996. Over the next three years, a who's who of writers tackled the script, beginning with Ed Solomon (Men in Black) in August 1996. Solomon delivered his first draft a month later and a rewrite around Christmas. Then came John Logan (Gladiator), followed by James Schamus (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who was brought in specifically to flesh out characters, previously unheard-of for a comic book movie.
At that point, there was no reason for anyone to doubt the working methods of Singer, who began shooting the $14 million drama Apt Pupil in February 1997. But on April 15 of that year, two boys — one 14 and one 17 — filed a civil lawsuit claiming that they were ordered to strip naked for an Apt Pupil scene. At least two other actors made similar allegations in separate civil suits, with one claiming that he would be fired if he refused to perform nude. Singer was one of several defendants named in the suits, which reportedly were settled for an undisclosed sum, with the plaintiffs bound by confidentiality agreements.
But Fox didn't blink, and by summer 1998, X-Men was greenlit at a $75 million budget, with McQuarrie brought in to do a three-week rewrite. Still, writer drama ensued, and by October of that year, McQuarrie hadn't delivered his draft, and Fox rescinded its greenlight. At that point, DeSanto and Singer worked on the script and were given the greenlight again, just before Christmas. Joss Whedon came in late for a rewrite. ("It was so good," says Shuler Donner. "It had humor in it. Bryan wanted this movie to be much more serious and more dramatic.") Only two of Whedon's lines made it to the shooting script.
Several sources say the story meetings were unprofessional, even by eccentric auteur standards. "Bryan would bring people to story meetings who weren't involved in the movies. Young guys. A different person every time," says one source who was present.
Despite a lineup of A-list writers, David Hayter, who served as Singer's assistant and was answering phones in the production offices for $500 a week, received sole credit.
Hayter had recently produced and starred in the Slamdance feature Burn and was an avid X-Men fan. Singer began to rely on Hayter for his comic book knowledge, and eventually, had him writing new scenes.
“[Singer] started taking me to script meetings with Peter Rice and Tom Rothman, and he would say, ‘Just sit there, take notes, don't say anything and don't tell anyone you are writing the script,’” says Hayter. “Ralph Winter knew and he asked me to highlight everything I'd done in the script at that point, and it was about 55 percent of the script. Ralph went to Peter Rice and said, ‘Look, here's the deal. David, the phone guy, has been writing the script. You have to make a deal with him or we are in serious legal jeopardy. Peter called me into his office and offered me $35,000 and said, 'That's all you'll ever get. Be happy with that.’”
But other project insiders say Solomon and McQuarrie wrote the majority of what wound up onscreen, with contributions from Hayter. Sources say McQuarrie was so angry at the studio for the tortuous process that he persuaded Solomon to remove his name, along with his own, from the film. McQuarrie declined to comment. A WGA arbitration ensued, and Solomon and McQuarrie agreed that they wouldn't publicly take their names off the movie if the WGA wouldn't force their names on it. (After a ruling is made, writers are barred from speaking about the arbitration process.)
"At the time, I no longer wanted my name on a movie if it wasn't entirely my work," says Solomon. "It came more out of immature self-righteousness than anything else, and, in hindsight, it was a stupid move."
It wound up being an expensive decision. "Chris gave up at least $1 million the first year in residuals and credit bonuses," Hayter notes. "Same with Ed. It's unheard-of."
Singer spearheaded the film's casting, a strange mix of Shakespearean-trained Brits (Stewart and Ian McKellen), a supermodel (Rebecca Romijn), a pro wrestler (Tyler Mane) and Halle Berry before she won the Oscar and became a bankable star. It was Rothman's idea to cast Hugh Jackman, a then-unknown who became a box office force and critical darling thanks to X-Men.
Many of the smaller and extra roles were peppered with handsome young men.
At the time, Singer was dating Adam Robitel, who has since become a director of note after helming last year's horror breakout Escape Room. Singer cast Robitel, then an undergrad at USC, in a cameo role — a move that was common in the '90s but would be frowned upon today.
But a number of young men, including some who were minors at the time, have claimed in published interviews that Singer dangled X-Men auditions and roles in exchange for sex. One on-set source disputed the idea the Robitel casting was anything but professional, noting that the two had been dating for three years at that point.
In hindsight, some project insiders say one piece of casting should have prompted a red flag, at least subsequently: that of Alex Burton, an 18-year-old who played the bit part of Pyro. No one remembers how Burton, who had no previous credits, was cast. One source says Burton told him, "Marc [Collins-Rector] and Bryan [Singer] created that role for me." Another source says Burton was flown up to the Toronto set from Los Angeles, an unheard-of move given the size of his role (studios typically cast locals for talent with one or no lines). Eight days after X-Men's Ellis Island premiere on July 12, 2000, Burton filed a civil suit against three of Singer's friends and business associates in the Digital Entertainment Network venture, a youth-skewing multimedia dot-com and precursor to YouTube — Collins-Rector, Chad Shackley and Brock Pierce (Pierce was later dropped as a defendant) — claiming that he had been plied with drugs, sexually assaulted by the trio at the DEN outpost in Encino, held against his will and threatened with physical harm between July 1999 and May 2000, a period that encompasses X-Men's six-month production. According to the suit, Burton also was an employee of DEN during that time frame. The suit, which did not name Singer, also declares that Collins-Rector "threatened to use his power and influence in the entertainment industry to prevent Burton from gaining employment in the field of entertainment."
Although the suit generated press at the time, there was little discussion about why Burton did not return for the sequel, X2: X Men United, in which Pyro's character was expanded and played by actor Aaron Stanford. (Burton, who has changed his name, has never appeared in another Hollywood project.)
According to one project insider, the only recollection was, "He wasn't very good." A rep for Singer says: "Alex Burton was a terrific day player as young Pyro. But when it came to doing the sequel, Bryan needed the character of Pyro to appear older and go through a darker transition where he ultimately becomes a villain. Since 'movie time' had elapsed since the first X-Men, Aaron Stanford was the right choice." Another source says Collins-Rector and Shackley visited the set at least once. (Months earlier, the former had been hit with a civil suit claiming that he sexually abused a 13-year-old.)
Burton, who was joined by two others in the DEN suit, was awarded $6 million. The amount was never paid, and, in November 2019, Burton's lawyer filed a renewal of judgment against Collins-Rector and Shackley, citing an additional $4.8 million in accrued interest.
"Why have we accepted that the exploitation of women is outrageous and fair game to confront but are not willing to when it's gay men exploiting young men or boys?" says attorney Daniel Cheren, who has represented Burton since the suit was first filed in 2000. "The ability to exploit is exactly the same. Who is more manipulatable than a teenager?"
What did raise hackles was Singer's tempestuous nature. In interviews at the time, he conceded that he was taking pain medication for a bad back. Others on set characterized his drug use as problematic, leading to late arrivals to the set, mood swings and explosive tantrums. Some of the characters, like Romijn's Mystique, required hours of body painting before filming. On a whim, Singer would decide not to use her in a scene. Marvel chief Kevin Feige, then a young executive working for Shuler Donner, was dispatched to ensure that someone was keeping Singer in line.
Nevertheless, X-Men blew away expectations, earning $54 million in its first weekend en route to a $296 million worldwide haul. The critics raved, with The New Yorker calling it “the most beautiful, strange, and exciting comic-book movie since the original Batman.” If there were any private reservations about Singer among Fox executives, it didn't interfere with the studio's desire to bring him back for X2, which began production in June 2002 with a budget that was $50 million more than X-Men.
But some questioned the company Singer kept. Friends like Broadway producer Gary Goddard frequented the X2 Vancouver production, according to one on-set source. (Like Singer, Goddard was a DEN investor who was subsequently accused of sexual assault by multiple men when they were minors, among them ER actor Anthony Edwards. Goddard denied the allegations.)
Singer's behavior grew erratic and destructive, culminating in a fight between the director and DeSanto that shut down production. Sources who were present say DeSanto attempted to halt shooting when he learned that Singer was incapacitated after taking a narcotic. Some crewmembers had taken the same drug, and DeSanto became fearful that someone on set could be injured. All of the main cast, with the exception of McKellen, were in the scene that day, which takes place in the X Jet and comes near the end of the movie. But Singer was defiant and continued shooting, leading to a botched stunt that left Jackman bleeding on camera (no stunt coordinator was present because the scene was supposed to be shot the following day). Winter, the X-Men producer who had the authority to stop production, did so. But the next day, the studio appeared to side with Singer and told DeSanto to return to Los Angeles. That prompted the main castmembers, minus McKellen and Romijn — all dressed in their full X-Men costumes — to converge in Singer's trailer and confront him, threatening to quit if DeSanto left. That's when Berry famously said to Singer, "You can kiss my Black ass," a line that has been oft-reported in the years since but never with the correct backstory. DeSanto declined to comment about the fight. A rep for Singer says that "nothing like that ever happened."
Once again, Singer had a hit on his hands — this time bigger than the first X-Men. The film earned $408 million worldwide, and from there, the helmer's career appeared to be Teflon. Fox brought him back to direct two additional X-Men movies: 2014's Days of Future Past and 2016's Apocalypse. All the while, the accusations and lawsuits mounted (he and Goddard were accused in a 2014 civil suit of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy after the 2006 premiere of Singer's Superman Returns in London). And still, he landed the coveted gig of directing Fox's megahit Bohemian Rhapsody, which began production in September 2017. But by November 2017, when Hollywood had its #MeToo reckoning that toppled the careers of Harvey Weinstein and others, Singer suddenly became vulnerable. His reported absences on the set of Bohemian led to the studio firing him (he still earned some $40 million for the film). WME quietly dropped him as a client.
He was subsequently hired to direct Red Sonja at Millennium Films but was replaced in the wake of a 2019 Atlantic exposé that detailed the claims of four Singer accusers.
Some of Singer's defenders suggest that the media's fixation on him stems from homophobia. But another Fox executive says Singer instead enjoyed a lack of scrutiny. "Everyone was afraid to say anything because the feeling was, 'Would we say this to a straight director who was a womanizer?' "
Over the years, at least two pieces that delved into Singer abuse claims were killed: a 2001 Details piece by John Connolly and a 2018 Esquire story by Alex French and Maximillian Potter. (The latter was later published by The Atlantic.)
GLAAD, for one, now looks at X-Men and Singer's films through a different prism. The organization removed Bohemian Rhapsody as an outstanding film, wide release, nominee at its 2019 Media Awards in the wake of the Atlantic allegations.
“It’s worth noting,” says GLAAD’s Lasky, “that there have been many other cast- and crewmembers on Singer’s productions whose talents were essential in creating positive LGBTQ representation on films that he directed. We hope that those cast- and crewmembers will continue
to fight to tell LGBTQ stories in Hollywood on projects with other directors.”
Ultimately, for many involved with X-Men, Singer's eventual implosion began on that set — a casualty of his unprofessionalism.
"He was very nervous and he would act out when he was insecure, as many people do. But his way of acting out would be to yell and scream at everybody on the set. Or walk off the set or shut down production," says Shuler Donner, who declined to attend the X-Men premiere out of frustration. "You have to understand, the guy was brilliant, and that was why we all tolerated him and cajoled him. And if he wasn't so fucked up, he would be a really great director."
Winter takes a slightly less critical stance when it comes to Singer and his current persona non grata status in Hollywood.
"I think X-Men will stand the test of time," he says. "And hopefully Bryan will survive some way in his career and his work as a filmmaker and artist. But I don't find the movie tainted in any way because of whatever all the other current events are about Bryan. To me, that stuff doesn't matter."
Aaron Couch contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.