The X Factor

I shouldn't even be talking about this," Bryan Singer says. It's late on a Sunday night, and the 37-year-old director of "X2: X-Men United," is nursing a vodka and tonic at Orso, in Los Angeles. Two hours ago he made his final tweaks to the $120 million movie, and he has every reason to celebrate. But there's a trashy story about the making of that movie--it begins with his taking a painkiller and ends with Halle Berry reportedly telling him to "Kiss my black ass"--that's been dogging him. "Some gossipy freaky person decides to embellish a story and some idiot calls the New York Post, which is a tabloid, it's not even a f--king newspaper," he says. "It's not relevant enough for me to sue them, although I could. The fact that anyone's talking about this has nothing to do with what really happened and everything to do with, 'We've got to have something to talk about because we're bored.' Unbelievable."

It seems that Singer's bad-boy reputation in Hollywood has risen right along with his star. With only five movies under his belt, he's considered one of the most versatile, visionary directors of his generation. His second film, 1995's "The Usual Suspects," scored Oscars for screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and supporting actor Kevin Spacey, effectively launching the careers of everyone involved. Singer followed that triumph with "Apt Pupil," the dark tale of a suburban boy who discovers that his neighbor is a Nazi war criminal. Then came the mutants. The original "X-Men" grossed $295 million worldwide and reignited the comic-book genre, inspiring "Spider-Man" and "The Hulk." It also proved that Singer could infuse even a summer spectacle with complex characters and a meaningful narrative. The sequel, which opens May 2, finds the X-Men battling a powerful bigot named Stryker (Brian Cox), who's intent on destroying their race. This time around, the set pieces are bigger, the visual effects slicker and the character development deeper. Fan response from advance screenings has been ecstatic. "I'm very pleased," Singer says. "I haven't felt that kind of unanimous good will since 'The Usual Suspects'."

But for every accolade, there is an anecdote about his volatility. Stories about Singer's sudden explosions--kicking chairs and screaming at crew members--pop up almost every time he makes a movie. His outbursts have become a running joke with his crew and collaborators, many of whom have nonetheless worked with him on multiple films. "It's an urban legend," says "X2" screenwriter Dan Harris, laughing. "But seeing it firsthand is a different story." Yeah, deadpans another screenwriter on the film, Michael Dougherty. "I've read about Hiroshima, but have I ever stood in the middle of an atomic bomb?"

Some believe Singer's flare-ups are simply stress-related: the cast and crew on "X2," after all, numbered nearly 2,000. "It's just hard to orchestrate that many people," says Famke Janssen, who plays telekinetic telepath Dr. Jean Grey. "You have to deal with daily frustrations because nothing is ever done, nothing is ever ready. I don't have a problem with it." She laughs. "I happen to like chaos." It should be noted, in fact, that every person interviewed for this story spoke about Singer with real affection. His tirades, they say, are about his drive for perfection, and fueled by the exhaustion of working endless 16-hour days, as well as an occasional touch of insecurity. "I always say to Bryan, 'I love you, despite yourself'," says producer Lauren Shuler Donner. "When he starts up, I just either roll my eyes or I start laughing. In his heart he's a good guy, but honestly, he can't help himself sometimes."

Singer will joke about his short fuse--to a point. The rumors imply, inaccurately, that he's out of control. The New York Post story stated that he was taking pain pills that prevented him from being able to shoot, a claim he emphatically denies. He was, however, in pain for the entire shoot because of a hip injury. On the day in question, a crew member gave him a single pain pill. "I took no drug that made me woozy and unable to work," he says. "In fact, that day, I not only wrote one of the more interesting moments in the picture, but I shot it and was in the editing room all evening." Meanwhile, his longtime friend and executive producer, Thomas DeSanto, reprimanded the pill-dispensing crew member. When Singer found out, he lashed out at DeSanto. The argument escalated. Singer "fired" his pal. DeSanto refused to leave the set. The standoff caused production to shut down for one day, and irked the cast, Berry in particular. "It was resolved that evening," Singer says. "That was nothing. Tom and I, God, we've have had some real fights."

What bothers Singer most is all this ink dedicated to his temper rather than to his craft. "We could talk about filmmaking, the technical aspects of it and the storytelling aspects," he says. He pauses. "It's weird. I even wonder if it's that interesting. Sometimes I actually feel boring. I think about Ben and J. Lo and I think, 'That's what people are interested in, and I don't have that'." What he has, instead, are rare gifts for a blockbuster director: a deft hand with poetic images and a nuanced take on human nature. "The Usual Suspects' " Keyser Soze is a vicious criminal disguised as a twitchy wimp; the X-Men are mutants who, though feared and despised, are, in fact, heroes. "I seem to be fascinated with identity, with people not being what they seem," he says. Heck, he's an authority on the subject.