"How Many At-Bats Do You Get?": Why Fox Hired (Then Fired) Bryan Singer on 'Bohemian Rhapsody'
The troubled filmmaker’s on-set chaos, penchant for disappearing and general bad behavior had concerned executives long before he was let go from the new Queen biopic.
For executives who had worked with — and suffered through — Bryan Singer, the question was: Why? Why give him a shot at making Bohemian Rhapsody when the director had such an established reputation for causing chaos on set? What won the argument, sources say, was that this was Singer's passion project. Given his enthusiasm, taking a risk even on a deeply troubled talent might have led to rich rewards for 20th Century Fox.
But apparently, artistic rewards were not delivered in this case. Reviewers are praising Rami Malek's portrayal of the late Freddie Mercury, but the movie is at just 55 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes at press time. Still, powered by Queen hits, the film looks to open strongly. And even before those numbers are in, Avi Lerner's Millennium Films already is prepared to take another gamble on Singer, who is in talks to direct a Red Sonja reboot.
Nevertheless, the price for Fox was high, at least in psychological costs. Not only did the studio have to take the extraordinary step of firing Singer with weeks left to shoot, but in the run-up to Rhapsody's Nov. 2 opening in the U.S., Fox has been cringing in anticipation of an exposé of Singer's personal conduct in Esquire.
Reports of Singer's erratic behavior on set go back more than a decade, but Fox lived through some of the worst of it on 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse. While Singer, 53, had some good moments, one insider says, he was "emotionally very frail," often unprepared and late to set. If challenged about his behavior, he sometimes cried. Meanwhile, there were the usual distractions, this source says. Singer had visitors constantly coming and going — "People flying in and out of town, put up in hotels, all on his dime." Given all that, this person adds, "I was kind of shocked when they went forward with Rhapsody. How many at-bats do you get?"
Fox's decision to make the film begins with showman-producer Graham King, who had labored for years to bring Freddie Mercury to the big screen and had managed to win over the surviving members of the band if he could secure the right director. Though some critics have argued that the film should have been dark and R-rated, King set out to make a PG-13 celebration of Queen that would not dwell on drugs and Mercury's 1991 death from AIDS.
King hadn't worked with Singer when they had a general meeting a couple of years ago. He wasn't exactly an X-Men buff, but when the conversation turned to Mercury, Singer's eyes lit up. After that, the director was obsessed with the project, calling and texting relentlessly. (While the film was in production in London, Singer's hotel room was covered wall to wall with images of Mercury.)
The surviving bandmembers were won over. And Malek was already keen to play Mercury; at one point, he recorded an impressive interview in character as the rock legend. Singer presented a strong pitch to Fox executives, who could imagine that maybe this time things would be different. Besides, Fox wouldn't be on the hook for the whole budget — in the $55 million range — as it split the cost with New Regency.
Still, Fox chairman Stacey Snider had reservations based on what she'd heard about Singer's behavior on Apocalypse and other projects. Before approving the deal, she and studio vice chairman Emma Watts sat down for a talk with Singer and King, according to multiple sources. Snider didn't mince words, telling Singer: Don't break the law. Show up to work every day. Failure to comply will bring consequences.
Snider's admonitions had no effect. "From the beginning, he was up to his old tricks," says a project insider. "He would shoot, he'd be exhausted, [cinematographer] Tom Sigel would shoot." (Sigel had shot in Singer's place on previous films.)
There was great tension on the set, caused in part by Singer's tardiness and absences. Malek, taking his seat in the makeup chair at 6:30 a.m., would find himself and other cast and crew waiting around for a director whose work ethic fell short. Tom Hollander, who plays Queen manager Jim Beach, was said to be so upset with Singer that he quit the project briefly.
Tensions escalated into an on-set altercation between Singer and his star (by all accounts, one of the nicest actors in the business). With reports of a piece of electrical equipment thrown by Singer (though not at anyone), a complaint — apparently from Malek — prompted Fox to dispatch several execs to London. Singer's conduct was deemed not actionable. With principal photography about two-thirds done as the holidays approached, the studio hoped to power through. Singer now tells THR in a statement that, "Any discussion about fights between myself and Rami Malek are simply an exaggeration of a few creative differences that were quickly resolved. This is normal on a film set. And I think the work speaks for itself."
Around Thanksgiving, Singer declared that he needed to return home — for several weeks. He asked the studio to pause the production. Snider admonished him not to get on a plane; he left anyway. "He said he was exhausted and something got thrown in that his mom was not well," says a source involved.
Production was shut down Dec. 1 and Snider fired him soon after. A studio source now notes that despite his claim at the time that he hadn't been permitted to care for "a gravely ill parent," Singer — whose 85-year-old mother lives in New Jersey — was in L.A. just days later. Fox hired Dexter Fletcher to shoot the final couple of weeks. While Singer is still credited as the director, Fox stripped him of producing credit.
"I put over a year and a half of my life and passion into the film Bohemian Rhapsody,” Singer says. “I’m also extremely proud of the finished product. There was a period at the end where I asked the studio to allow me to go home to deal with a parent who was sick. This was also affecting my own health. I felt we could finish up the few remaining days in January. The studio did not."
Whatever happens with Rhapsody at the box office, was the harrowing experience worth it? One executive involved in the project says no. Still, this person says risks can be worth taking on even troubled talent: "There are artists we work with who are complex and raw in their behavior. Do we tolerate any of that kind of behavior going forward? I don't think Bryan is an interesting debate anymore. There are a bunch of other people who are."
But King remembers who launched this project, however troubled it turned out to be. "Bryan Singer got this movie greenlit for me," he says. "There's no doubt about it. For that, I'll always be grateful to him."
This story appears in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.