Updated: Oct 10
As director Grant Singer was prepping his first feature, he suddenly found himself thinking about The Wiz. As a child, he had been cast as Toto in a summer camp production of the musical. "All I had to do was bark on stage," Singer remembers with a laugh. "It was… not great." It's important to note that getting into theater wasn't even his idea. He had, in fact, only done it to please a family member.
"When I was 10, my grandfather said, 'You know what, Grant? You should be an actor.' He insisted. So, I enrolled in an acting camp," Singer explains. "The day before our performance, he died." The tragic twist of fate added a sudden layer of sadness to Singer's turn as Toto. "I was really heartbroken that he wasn't going to get to see me in The Wiz, because I'd only done it for him in the first place.... I never acted again after that."
Cut forward, and Singer was in Atlanta preparing to shoot his feature debut, the crime thriller Reptile, when he was suddenly taken aback by the film's leading man, co-writer, and executive producer, Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro. "I was at Benicio's house and he said to me, 'All right, let's do the scene.' He wanted me to play one of the other characters so he could rehearse," Singer says. "I was like, 'Um, okay. No pressure, I guess.'"
"Benicio is such a disarming actor. He catches you off-guard, and when he looks at you, he looks right through you. It's like working with Michael Jordan," recounts the director. "I remember thinking, 'The last time I acted was when I was barking on stage as Toto in The Wiz. Now, I'm acting against Benicio Del Toro."
In Reptile, Del Toro stars as a police detective hired to investigate the grisly murder of a real estate agent — a case that becomes more and more treacherous the deeper in he gets. The film is the culmination of a life's work for Singer, who spent years cutting his teeth directing music videos for artists like Lorde ("Green Light"), Troye Sivan ("My My My!"), and The Weeknd ("Can't Feel My Face"). "It takes a series of miracles to get a movie made, and I don't take any of it for granted."
A.frame: How did Reptile start for you? What was the original idea that inspired the film?
I wanted to make a movie that evoked the feeling of being deceived. I wanted to create a film where there's a multifaceted sense of deception, both in the experiences of the characters and in the storytelling. I was really drawn to the idea of making something that toyed with the concept of the hunter as the hunted. Mostly, though, I wanted to try to evoke a very specific feeling of betrayal. I approach directing through emotion, and the feeling created in Reptile was really paramount to me.
When you make movies, and especially your first film, there's so much pressure on you. I really wanted to execute and do the best that I could and make something that was very good. In order to do that, I felt that I had to really articulate a specific feeling in the film, because people might not remember every little detail about the movie, but they will remember how they felt when it was over.
How did your initial idea evolve or change as you were writing and developing the film?
The heart of those really early drafts is still there, but the film definitely evolved into something else that I think is beautiful. Working with Benicio and Ben [Brewer] on the script was an amazing experience, and Benicio brought so much to the table. I really think that each movie is its own living thing, and when you first start to develop your film, that's when your baby is born. The final film is when your baby's 18 and going off to college. It's the same person, but it's also a different person, you know? I forget who said it — I think it might have been Altman — but there are three movies you make each time you make a film. There's the film you set out to make, the film you make when you're shooting it, and the film you make in the edit. That holds true for all movies, and certainly for Reptile.
What was the hardest part of transiting from music videos to feature filmmaking?
It's a complete pivot, really. It's not like, "Oh, I'm just gonna jump from this building to the next building over." It's almost like you have to start from scratch basically. Unfortunately, I think there's definitely a little bit of a smirky attitude among some people toward the idea of being a music video director. It's unfortunate that some people don't take that work as seriously as they should, because it's such an amazing [opportunity] for young filmmakers who, like me, come out of film school ready to start making stuff with their friends. That's how I started. My friends were musicians, and I started directing their videos because I was the film guy of our friend group. It's a really great way to get some practice in, learn one's style, get comfortable directing, and develop an understanding of production.
Some of my favorite works of art are music videos. But it took a lot of work to make the jump from directing music videos to features. Getting Benicio involved in the project was huge, because he got the movie made. It's really hard to get something made and I wish it was easier, because you don't see many people really make the specific jump that I have. It used to be more common during the days of David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry — it used to be somewhat common — but it's taken a dip. But it feels like such a natural progression to me to go from film school to shooting music videos. It feels like it should be more of a direct pipeline to go from that to making features, but I don't know if it really is right now.
What was something that making those videos taught you or proved invaluable during the making of Reptile?
Firstly, just the actual practice of filmmaking. It's like, if you're going to be a basketball player, you have to shoot hoops every day. It's not something you do just when you have to actually play a game. Just the practice of directing on set, working with artists in front of the camera, and working with crews is indispensable. It's good to familiarize yourself with the structure of filmmaking. I'm also very intuitive with how I approach directing and how I work with actors and envision scenes, and it's important to practice your process as much as possible.
Doing that helps you develop a better understanding of how films are made, right?
Definitely. You know, I've been asked if there were any films I studied in order to find out what to do and not to do within specific genres, and to be honest, I am a student of film. I love movies. I watch them over and over and over again, and there are certainly films that I’ve seen many, many times — from Vertigo and The Shining to Zodiac and Night of the Hunter. But that all goes away when you actually make a movie. It's a bit like speaking, because you might watch a million videos on YouTube of people giving speeches, but at the end of the day, how you speak is how you speak.
The general belief among filmmakers seems to be that watching movies isn't about finding specific things to steal or notice so much as it's just about exposing yourself to as much visual storytelling as you can.
Exactly. Film is architecture, and if you see and experience enough beautiful architecture, it's going to subconsciously influence the way you see things. There are so many films and directors that I'm sure have influenced me on a subconscious level, and then there are, of course, some that I'm more aware of the mark they've made on my work. Kubrick, for example, does something that I really love where an actor will walk 10 feet and then they'll stop, and the camera will stop and the music will stop at the same time as them. There's a symphonic connection between what you're hearing and what you're seeing in his films that I love and that I've always been drawn to. I definitely had that in mind when I made Reptile, because I love the symphonic connection present in that kind of filmmaking.
Benicio is an actor who makes every character he plays feel like they were written for him. Did you write Reptile with him in mind, and what was it like working with him?
The first draft was not written specifically for Benicio. When we went out to him, it was partly because my producer had worked with him before, and she asked me what I thought of Benicio and I said, "Are you kidding me?!" [Laughs] That prospect was beyond my wildest dreams. It was a life-changing opportunity, so when he responded to the script and expressed his interest in my vision for the movie, we started to really work with him on it. The film evolved a lot from that point on, and it evolved in terms of character and story and how everyone saw it. Once you work with Benicio long enough, you begin to think about film differently, because he really talks about and pulls from his own experiences.
Alicia Silverstone plays Benicio's wife in the film, and the two of them have worked together before [on 1997's Excess Baggage]. What was it like directing their reunion?
I still remember the first rehearsal we did with Alicia so vividly, because when I'm rehearsing scenes as a director, the thing I'm always asking is, "Is the scene alive? Aside from the script and everything else, does what I'm watching seem real?" And I remember watching Alicia and Benicio do their scenes together in my office, no camera rolling, and thinking, "This is f*cking good!" It was so immediate and instinctual. She brings so much to her character, and she's got such great ideas. She's like this silent assassin who comes in and kills everything she does. Some of my favorite sequences in the movie were the ones where I got to direct her and Benicio together. I love what she brought to the film, and I know Benicio does too. It was a pure joy to work with them, and it's a real gift to get to work with actors of their caliber.
Now that you’ve made your first film, do you think that music video directing is still a viable entry into the industry for up-and-coming filmmakers? Would you recommend it to someone else who is just starting out?
Absolutely, and I hope that myself and other filmmakers can prove that it's a viable path. To me, it's a no-brainer, because whether you do or don't go to film school, if you want to make movies the first question you ask is, "How do I break in?" It's so hard to do that, and the easiest way to do it is to make stuff with your friends and musicians you know. It's easier to get your foot in the door that way, and it's a great way to practice filmmaking. Honestly, I just think it's important to encourage people to make stuff. Just make things, because it's so hard to make a movie and it's easier to start out by taking baby steps. Start by making a music video or a short — just make something visual. All of which is to say: Do I think making music videos is a viable path for aspiring filmmakers? Yes, I do, and, hopefully, I’m proof of that.
By Alex Welch