'Reptile' director Grant Singer talks Benicio del Toro, working with the 'incredible' Taylor Swift and why he'd 'love' to helm NSync's next music video

The filmmaker breaks down his new Netflix thriller, which reunites Del Toro and Alicia Silverstone, and signature music videos with Swift, Ariana Grande and The Weeknd.

Grant Singer's directing career includes Reptile with Benicio Del Toro and music videos for Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift. (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Photos (from left): Ariana Grande via YouTube, Kyle Kaplan/Netflix, Taylor Swift via YouTube)
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Attention '90s kids: The new Netflix thriller Reptile features a very important Excess Baggage reunion that reteams Benicio del Toro and Alicia Silverstone for the very first time since that 1997 Blockbuster staple. And for that reason alone, you've got to — in the words of another song from that late-'90s era — praise first-time feature filmmaker Grant Singer like you should. But the music video director-turned-narrative filmmaker tells Yahoo Entertainment that he can't take all the credit for bringing Del Toro and Silverstone back together as, respectively, small-town detective Tom Nichols and his wife, Judy.

"Benicio and I were talking about who could play Judy, and he mentioned Alicia," recalls Singer, who was 17 when Excess Baggage drove into theaters. "Having worked with her and known her for so long, he was aware she could inhabit the role in a really interesting way. Alicia brings such a vulnerability and strength to that relationship — she's really the emotional anchor of the film."

Excess Baggage stars Del Toro and Alicia Silverstone reunite in Reptile. (Daniel McFadden/Netflix)
Excess Baggage stars Benicio del Toro and Alicia Silverstone reunite in Reptile. (Daniel McFadden/Netflix)

Meanwhile, Del Toro brings the heat... and we mean that in the Michael Mann sense. Tom is a former Philadelphia cop who left his previous job after an investigation into his corrupt partner. Freshly relocated to New England, he gets tangled in another web of deceit that originates with the murder of a local real estate agent — potentially by her partner, played by Justin Timberlake — and stretches back into Tom's new department. Eventually, the world-weary cop who just wants to stay neutral has to pick a side, even if it means upending the quiet life he promised Judy.

"We wanted to evoke the feeling of being deceived, and play with this idea of the hunter being the hunted," Singer says of the inspiration for Reptile, which he co-wrote with Benjamin Brewer and Del Toro. Additional inspiration was provided by films like Serpico and The Conversation, not to mention the work of another one-time music video auteur, David Fincher, whom Singer calls "one of my favorite living directors."

"But I'll be honest — I was just trying to do me," he adds. "This is my first film, so I was approaching it as: 'What do I want to do? What is my style?' I think it's ultimately about this balance between formalism, where things are very graphic and composed, but also the feeling that you're within a scene and the camera becomes invisible."

Reptile arrives on Netflix after premiering at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival, which Singer attended without his cast due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike. But Timberlake made some noise just as the festival was winding down, announcing his own long-awaited reunion with the NSync crew, which released their first album the same year that Del Toro and Silverstone loaded up their car with Excess Baggage. And Singer says he'll happily helm any music videos that the boy band might decide to do in the future.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 08: Grant Singer attends Netflix's
Singer attends the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Reptile. (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for Netflix)

"If they hit me up, I'd love to do it," Singer enthuses. "I'm so grateful to have collaborated with Justin on Reptile. You can tell once you meet him why he's one of the world's greatest entertainers. He responded to my vision for the movie, and brought a lot of his own ideas. And that's all you can ask for as a director."

(Coincidentally, NSync dropped its new single, "Better Place," on Friday — listen here.)

While he hasn't directed an NSync video (at least, not yet), we spoke with Singer about some of his past collaborations with such major artists as The Weeknd and Taylor Swift, and why he has no plans to retire from the music video game, even if Reptile becomes Netflix's next viral sensation.

"Lost in My Bedroom" (2014) — Sky Ferreira

Singer's first major music video collab was with Sky Ferreira, who parlayed early MySpace fame into a successful singing and acting career. The duo made six videos within the span of a single year, including "Lost in My Bedroom" off of her EP Ghost. The evocative three-minute piece plays like a long lost found footage clip from the late '90s, when The Blair Witch Project was all the rage.

"Sky and I had been roommates in L.A. and we talked about making a lot of videos for that album cycle," Singer recalls now. "'Lost in My Bedroom' was shot at another friend's house with no budget. I took a VHS camcorder and over there, and we shot a bunch of stuff in the middle of the night. And then I used this really cool technique of where we processed the footage through a TV screen and looped it back. It had this very surreal feel.

"That era of making music videos was very much about making stuff with friends and having fun," Singer continues. "We were making things for the sake of making them. Looking back, those were some of the happiest times of my life because it was coming from such an innocent place."

"The Hills," "Can't Feel My Face," "Tell Your Friends" (2015) — The Weeknd

The year after his Fierra series exploded in a big way, Singer directed an explosive trilogy of videos based on three songs featured on The Weeknd's blockbuster sophomore studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness. And if you notice certain recurring scenes and characters — specifically Rick Wilder as a devilish figure — in all three, that's definitely by design.

"Story is too strong a word, but there were linked themes and ideas we were playing with in those videos," Singer says of how he and The Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye, conceptualized the series. "Things like the idea of the self and the idea of the devil. We wanted to let the imagery and feeling speak for themselves. Abel and I have a very similar taste in films, and we were always talking about movies during those videos. We made them within five months of each other — it was like bam bam bam."

And, for the record, Singer says that he was a fan of Tesfaye's controversial HBO series The Idol, which was canceled after one wild season. "I was so happy for him," the director says. "I love to see him act, because he's a phenomenal actor and a great person, so I'm glad to see that he made a TV show."

"Let Me Love You" (2016) — Ariana Grande, featuring Lil Wayne

Nobody puts Lil Wayne in a corner. When the rapper appeared alongside Ariana Grande in the video for their Dangerous Woman track, he mostly directed himself. That was certainly the case for the final scene of the video where Wayne blows a puff of smoke in Grande's face mid-lyric and she starts cracking up.

"That was a spontaneous moment," Singer confirms with a laugh. "When Lil Wayne comes on set, you just let him do his thing! Then you get out of the way, film it and call it a day."

Even when he's working with two major recording artists at the heights of their careers, Singer says that he approaches the task of directing the same way. "For me, it's always about having conversations where we articulate our ideas," he explains. "When you have two people like that on set together, it's still just a conversation. I wouldn't come over and give a note or direction unless I felt like I had an idea. It's all very informal — like three friends talking about ideas."

"I Don't Wanna Live Forever" (2017) — Taylor Swift and Zayn

Speaking of superstar pairings, Singer was behind the camera when Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik took a walk on the dark side — Fifty Shades Darker to be exact. The duo recorded the chart-topping single for the trilogy-capping Fifty Shades installment. It was another smashing success for Swift, just ahead of her Reputation era.

And Singer found that Swift more than lived up to her reputation as a creative dynamo. "I don't have enough nice things to say about her," he raves. "Taylor's one of the sweetest and inspiring artists, and so down to Earth for being the biggest celebrity on the planet. I'm so grateful she called me to do that video."

And Swift plans to add "feature filmmaker" to her résumé as well. The singer — whose upcoming concert film, The Eras Tour, is on track to break box-office records — struck a deal with Searchlight to helm a narrative feature from a screenplay that she wrote. (Swift previously directed the short film, "All Too Well," which screened at TIFF's 2022 edition.) "She's going to be a phenomenal director," Singer says. "Taylor's a once in a generation talent, and I can't wait to see the movie she makes."

"Green Light" (2017) — Lorde

After the lush visuals of "I Don't Wanna Live Forever," Singer embraced simplicity for his first collaboration with breakout New Zealand singer, Lorde. The director pulled out a 16mm camera and headed to L.A.'s MacArthur Park neighborhood with his star in tow. "We wanted the video to feel timeless and that area almost looks like an artifact from the past," he says. "It's not specific to L.A., either — it could be Ohio or somewhere in the Northeast."

The grainy 16mm visuals added to the video's timeless aesthetic, not to mention the saturated green colors that permeate the frame. "I also love the amber light in that video," Singer recalls. "There are these shades of color that feel very painterly. 16mm film oozes feeling — it's a little more pink and a little bit rougher and that felt like a nice counterpoint."

"To Die For" (2020) — Sam Smith

Singer may be the credited director on the video for Sam Smith's haunting ballad, but he credits the non-binary English singer with originating the idea of a mannequin head being the main character. "That was entirely their concept," the filmmaker says. "I can't take credit for it — all I did was execute it."

Part of that execution was finding the right visual references for the storefront, references that included vintage photographs and famous paintings like Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. "Above all, I wanted that video to do justice to the song," Singer notes. "Sam's song is so moving and emotional and a little bit harrowing, so the video needed to be that as well. I approach directing through feeling and emotion, and specifically with that one I was trying to capture a very particular feeling."

"To Die For" was also the last music video that Singer directed before he turned his attention to Reptile. But he vows that it's not his final word on the form. "I took some time off to make this movie, but I'd like to make more music videos for sure." And Singer found a way to acknowledge his music video past in his feature filmmaking present by casting Sky Ferreira in a small Reptile role.

"The first day of shooting was a scene with Sky and Benicio," he says, proudly. "I put her in the movie because I started my career making music videos with her. It was great to see how far we've both come."

Reptile is currently streaming on Netflix.