Screenwriter Michael Dougherty, along with frequent collaborator Dan Harris, earned their fan boy stripes as writers on Twentieth Century Fox’s critically acclaimed as well as box office summer hit, “X2: X-Men United” (2003). The success of this film helped forge a prolific relationship with director Bryan Singer, leading the co-writers to pen Singer’s much anticipated superhero film, “Superman Returns” (2006).
The now 26 years old Harris was raised in the small town of Kingston, PA. He loved movies as a child, but never took seriously the idea of working in film because it seemed so impossible. After high school, he enrolled at Columbia University, with aspirations of becoming an artist, photographer or a writer. But upon landing a job as production assistant on the 1998 Woody Allen film, “Celebrity,” he discovered his true calling – to merge all his interests by becoming a film director.
By his sophomore year in college, he interned with Paramount mega-producer Scott Rudin (“A Civil Action,” “The Truman Show” and “Sleepy Hollow,” among many others), which shored up his interest in storytelling. It was while living in Los Angeles during the summer internship that he met director Bryan Singer. This inauspicious meeting would pay big dividends later. Determined to make his own films, Harris put together $4,000 to make a short film. After that, he managed to raise $50,000 to make another short film, “The Urban Chaos Theory” (2000), which won a prize at the No Dance Film Festival.
After graduating with a film degree, Harris moved permanently to L.A., where he made yet another short film – this one for under $1,000 – called “The Killing of Candace Klein” (2002). This film was accepted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. At the same time, he continued writing scripts, including “Imaginary Heroes,” the story of a dysfunctional family told from the dual points of view of mother and son. The script opened two doors – a commitment from actress Sigourney Weaver to star in the film, and the interest of Singer, who was looking for writers for the follow-up to his 2000 surprise hit, “X-Men” (2000).
Meanwhile, originally from Ohio, the Halloween-born Dougherty was interested in art and animation, as well as horror films, while growing up. Using rudimentary materials and technology, he made several short animated films, often utilizing crayons and 16mm film. In 1996, Dougherty created a four-minute animated short entitled, “Season’s Greetings,” about a Halloween night gone awry. Even after his eventual film success, he continued to dabble in darkly comic horror illustrations, especially on his website.
Dougherty attended New York University, graduating with a film degree. Not long thereafter, while living in NYC, he met his future screenwriting partner Harris at a party. The two hit it off, agreeing to stay in touch. After both moved to L.A., they were surprised to discover they had both moved to the same neighborhood. Dougherty originally found work with an internet company, developing an aversion to the countless writers he encountered throughout the city. But when the dot.com went out of business, Dougherty found himself diving into writing anyway. On top of researching various screenwriting how-to volumes, he also tore apart his favorite horror films, reducing them to outline form just to see how they worked.
Thanks in part to his screenplay “Trick Or Treat,” Dougherty was offered the opportunity to pitch ideas for the third installment in the “Urban Legend” horror franchise. He invited Harris to collaborate with him. They landed the job, and the film, “Urban Legend III: Bloody Mary,” was eventually released straight to DVD in 2005. With the newfound clout from the “Urban Legends” job, and having already met and hit it off with director Singer in New York, Dougherty and Harris next scored a dream screenwriting gig – re-writing the X-Men sequel, a story conceived by Singer, executive producer Tom DeSanto, screenwriter Zak Pen and original X-Men screenwriter David Hayter.
Harris then directed “Imaginary Heroes” (2004), which had secured independent financing, and actors Jeff Daniels and Emile Hirsch. The film garnered critical acclaim for both actors and director.
Following the success of the “X-Men” sequel – a film that many viewed as superior to its predecessor – Dougherty and Harris were already putting together ideas for the third X-Men installment. As they were following up on storylines they had just established, there was a sudden and drastic change of plans: Singer dropped out of the series, having been given the reigns to his dream project, a new Superman movie at Warner Bros. During a trip to Hawaii, Dougherty and Harris outlined a story idea with Singer, and they swiftly wrote up an outline for “Superman Returns.” The story, which told of Superman returning to Earth after a long absence, only to discover that Lois Lane has both a new love and a child, and that the world has found a way to live without him, got the green light from the studio. In anticipation of the film, Dougherty, Harris and Singer collaborated on a series of comic book tie-ins, published by DC Comics shortly before its release.
After such high profile success, the writing team had in their hopper, several projects at various stages of script development. These included: “Ender’s Game,” based on the popular science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card, about children of the future being unwittingly trained for interstellar combat; “Logan’s Run,” a remake of the cult 1976 sci-fi film where a society keeps its population growth under control by ordering anyone over the age of 30 to be executed; “Charlie Chan” and “I, Lucifer.” Dougherty and Harris were, not surprisingly, probable contenders for a likely “Superman” sequel. (biography courtesy of Yahoo.com)
The pair, wearing identical green shirts and looking obviously tired from many long hours at work on the film, sat down and spoke at length about their work on the movie together:
Question: So this is an original story but it takes elements from the previous two films, and the comics or no…?
Mike: We’d kind of describe it as a pseudo-sequel in a way because Dan, myself and Bryan were so in love with what Donner did that it felt like a mistake to go back to go back and remake the origin story. Everyone knows the origin story. Donner did it perfectly, as far as I’m concerned. Then Smallville is doing it again and you don’t want two different incarnations as it breeds confusion and also it takes things further versus going back and doing it again.
Dan: Yeah, and for us there was a visual language put onto film that we all believe and trust in, and there’s a character basis in that language that we’ve kind of used as our archetype and then we kind of built on top of that. Plus we’re taking elements from the books over the years. There’ve been so many incarnations of Superman, Superman’s been around for so long, there have been so many different plotlines and so many kind of thing were we might say, “Oh yeah, that’s from issue 742 and 1983”, but it probably didn’t come from that. It’s like how many times did Superman rescue a plane, how many times did this happen. Y’know, lots, In lots of different ways and repeated different times. It’s just an amalgam of all different inspirations from that and moving on from the old movie and the old books.
Question: Are you guys the only screenwriters that are going to be credited?
Mike: As far as this incarnation of the film it’s been me and Dan and Bryan working on this particular draft.
Dan: There have been other writers, JJ Abrams did a draft of Superman for McG and Brett Ratner years ago. Before that there was Kevin Smith and, I mean, you guys probably know the history of all the different drafts involved. But this story is so different. It’s a really different Superman movie. It never took from those drafts and kind of moved on them or changed from them, it’s a different… y’know I don’t want to use the word “take”, but it’s a different take on this kind of movie and it’s a different kind of film.
Question: Given that it’s an original film, what elements are crucial to have in a Superman film to make it a Superman film?
Mike: Well, it’s weird, I mean for us, at least. Again, going back to what Donner did there are things that he did, either in the design or the tone of the film that were done so right that they’ve kind of sunk into the public consciousness. Y’know, it’s funny if you watch Family Guy or Saturday Night Live, if they parody Superman they’ll parody the Fortress of Solitude that Donner did.
Dan: Exactly. If you look at that Fortress of Solitude it’s that exact same one that you saw Christopher Reeve land in.
Mike: Yeah. Even the music. In terms of you have to have different characters. You have to have Clark and Superman and Jimmy, Lois, Lex, umm, Perry White. I think if you left one of those out it wouldn’t be a whole Superman film.
Dan: At the same time there’s an original story behind it, there’s an original plot. Which is, pretty successfully so far, been kept under wraps of what is actually going to happen in this movie and kind of big, terrible plan there is from his arch enemy, what’s he meant to have to battle. All these different things have all been so far successfully kind of kept under wraps but there is a lot of stuff (??) you haven’t seen before, so in that ways it’s not a remake at all.
Question: Could you tell us?
Mike: Yeah, I’ll just email it to you.
Dan: I’ll send you the script and you just go from there!
Question: Psychological angle on the character??
Dan: Because this movie’s a return story, and for better or worse Superman’s been gone for a few years and come back to the world, just the simple fact that the world has changed in ways that he didn’t expect. He comes back to a new set of rules in the Superman universe.
Mike: What’s really cool in the origin story is the man who discovers who he is and kind of goes from the small town to the big city and kind of finds his place in the world, and what’s happening in this is a man… when any of us go home, a lot of times you leave home, you go off to college, you start your life and come back to your childhood home as an adult, umm, everything that’s different is the same, you feel like you don’t quite fit anymore And it’s a similar aspect, he’s gone for a period of time and comes back and finds that his place in the world and with the people he cares about – some thing’s haven’t changed, the Daily Planet’s still there Perry White’s still running it, Jimmy’s still a photographer, Lois is still a reporter and the group dynamic has changed.
Dan: And the world at large has changed so it’s kind of a rediscovery story. He has to rediscover the world that he left and how it changed, rediscover about himself and what his place in the world is.
Question: Do you find with comic book movies that the most interesting aspect is the human aspect to the character?
Dan: For me it’s when the human element interacts with the superhuman element. The little things, like in X-Men 1, Cyclops looking down at the little boy in the train station and the boy just looking up at him with the goggles and the little (??) And in Superman 1, Dick Donner’s movie, when Clark Kent stops the bullet. It’s the human world that you’ve established in reality, y’know this is not a crazy universe, this is like cars drive down the street, it’s normal an yet you’ve got your superheroes in that world and you can… they can interact in ways you’ve never imagined before, and when you get that outsider’s perspective, I mean, y’know the audience is an outsider, they have lived in a real world – they get to see something magical happen inside this world that hey live in. It’s kind of cool hitting those moments on the way is the most exciting part.
Mike: It’s pretty essential. I mean cos you know… Bryan said it best at Comic-Con, it’s essentially a love story. Y’know it’s like even superheroes fall in love and what happens when that does occur? He’s completely invulnerable except for his heart.
Question: That’s the most interesting aspect. Those human vulnerabilities
Dan: He’s physically invulnerable but emotionally…
Mike: He’s a wreck!
Dan: He’s an alien. He grew up on a farm, he’s an American kind of kid and when things change they affect him in real ways.
Question: It’s essentially a love story, how does the main character change?
Mike: I think the… in every other incarnation of Lois Lane she has been very much the career woman, has been too busy for a love life, too busy for Clark Kent, for anybody else. In this version she’s still that character to a certain extent but she has fallen for somebody. And so in a way I think the audience has to get used to that idea. It’s like Clark all of a sudden finds out that this person he’s been in love with and partially hoped to be reunited with when he came back is with somebody else, and I think when you have come back and you see your high school sweetheart has fallen for somebody else…
Dan: And yet, you are more important than anybody else ??? and that becomes a major point to work with in the story.
Question: Superman hasn’t really changed in the comics very much over he years but it seems you’re really starting to progress the character, of Lois Lane…?
Mike: They got married, and I think that’s really interesting.
Question: It took a long time!
Mike: It did take a long time, but we don’t have the luxury of printing comic books every week so again that was another reason to push the story forward because if you’re going to make a Superman film for the first time in 20 odd year, lets not tell the origin again lets push it forward, let’s give the audience something new and take the characters and push them forward.
Dan: I think it’s successfully a retro film in the way you feel about things and yet it’s so contemporary in the themes of the movie and what’s happened to people. It’s so contemporary, it really is the real world today and yet it fits in the spou(??) feel of the universe. It’s got a really great style.
Question: You guys are rewriting as you go, how does that work with you and Bryan?
Dan: This is a very special film. And we felt that ever since… it was a very easy film to get going, when Bryan and Mick and I came up with the idea for the film and how we’re going to attack it — the initial idea of how he’s going to do a Superman film, the basic plot of the film and the story came through in days. It was really ink to paper and a long treatment as Bryan said before in a matter of a few days. It hasn’t changed dramatically since then it’s been real tight but it is such an important movie for us we think it’s going to mean a lot in the cultural world when it comes out, we want to be a part of it for everything, y’know, we want to be part of what Bryan calls his “creative core”. On a practical level we’re good for him to be around because a movie this big has tonnes of concerns and tonnes of issues, whether it be budget or schedule, who can work when, or the set. It’s always going to have somebody around that cares about the impact of the story, of the movie.
Mike: It’s like managing time travel because even the bit we’re shooting today, it’s like small bits and pieces but if you change one little line of dialogue (??). All of a sudden that creates a million different effects throughout the rest of the script. So somebody has to be keeping an eye on it.
Dan: We were in the editing room last night and Bryan was taking about cutting a scene down and moving it a little bit, and we’ll remind him, “no, you can’t because that has to happen at this exact time because the way the montage plays out”.
Mike: You step on a butterfly it’ll destroy a butterfly!
Dan: And everything falls apart. It’s good to have people whispering behind his shoulder, just to make sure that things are heading along properly. I think that reshoots are not fun for anybody. To help fix problems, we’re there to fix so we just bill them for what reshoots normally cost.
Mike: Bryan hates the idea of 100 writers on a project, 100 monkeys. Anything you get, the story becomes even more diluted. It’s not a creative driven project it becomes a studio driven project. The closer you are with your writers the better. Peter Jackson has the same relationship obviously with Fran [Walsh] and Phillipa [Boyens], and he likes that director/writer collaboration, if it’s not going to be the same person it should be the closest people on the production.
Dan: There’s a rule that they really limit the number of writers that are credited in the end but sometimes I just wish that some writers would just let everybody be credited so you guys or the public at large could see some of these movies that don’t work so well but how man writers have been added…! We’ve seen cover pages of movies that we won’t mention that had 20/25 writers listed on for the same storyline the same director.
Question: How do you share the writing process?
Dan: We won’t make a bad joke about it this time!
Mike: Like we did in the blog!
Dan: Usually we come up with a treatment for the movie between us or between us and Bryan and then we pick our favourite scenes, separate and write them, email them to each other – rewrite each other, rewrite each other, rewrite each other, present to Bryan. Sometimes two choices to Bryan, sometimes 4, 10 choices to Bryan for a scene idea and then it just gets whittled down.
Mike: A lot of emailing a lot of rewriting each other but we never take it personally. It’s kind of like, y’know, if I work on a scene and email it to [Dan] and he’ll put it in (the vacuum??) and vice-versa and I’ll rewrite him and he rewrites me and then I get it back and I’ll put it back in. Sometimes I’m like, “oh, that’s actually better, I’ll just leave it” and vice versa. You never take things too personally, then Bryan reads it and goes, “crap, crap, crap, crap, crap!”
That’s very important as a writer to have a director you trust, trusts you, is really trusting…?
Dan: Yeah, I think so. It’s helped him, it’s helped us, nobodies doing anything behind anyone’s back we all just care about the movie, about the story.
Mike: You never take it personally, you have no ego about it.
Dan: We always said that X2 was boot camp for us, and maybe this is the first battle.
Question: How is this film relevant for 2006?
Mike: In terms of?
Question: In terms of the technology they use, in terms of how they relate to one another, the characters?
Dan: Yeah, I think that al of us believe the film is going to be anchored in a timeless kind of time. I was trying to say before there are contemporary themes, this is not a movie that is directly relatable to 9/11 or other things, we’re not taking any major political stances in the movie.
Mike: We’re trying to avoid things that will date the film, so you’re not going to see like, “Clark, have the story ready for the website in 10 minutes!”.
Dan: “Put it on your Blackberry, I’ll Blackberry it to you!” There’ll be nonce of that, it’ll feel, along with Guy’s [Dyas] art design, it’s kind of timeless, a place where you can’t put your finger on when it occurred. At the same time we’ve moved our relationships forward, so certain things that may have been taboo or not really explored in the ’78 film, it’s a freer more liberal society, we think.
Question: Plastic sheets? (cellophane “S” from Superman II)
Mike: There are certain things you don’t change you don’t try and introduce invisibility, the ray beam from the finger that can levitate that bottle.
Dan: The good thing is it is 2005 and the effects have risen to the challenge. They did an incredible job in ’78. Now we’re even further beyond that. He’s gonna do stuff that people are going to be blown away by. We haven’t seen a great deal of flying in movies lately even though the technology is getting there and the visual effects are getting there. This movie is a bout a man who can fly and using it to his absolute fullest potential.
Mike: With all the superheroes we’ve had it still seems to be a special treat.
Dan: Well it is a special thing to see him flying and I think it’s being done in a way that’s really…
Could you talk to us about Lois/the child how the characters have advanced?
Mike: It’s a family, when Clark comes back he doesn’t just come back to find that Lois has a fiancÈ, it’s a family unit. So in a lot of ways when he is watching Lois and Richard interact he’s seeing what he could have had had he not left. It’s not just the fact that he could’ve stayed and maybe fallen in love with Lois and started a family. I think that’s what, inside, he wants most. He wants to start a life he wants to be normal, he wants a wife he wants a kid. It’s like he’s carrying the family (??) that he can’t quite have.
Question: My concern is he’ll come across as a home wrecker?
Dan: We’re being very careful about that. He’s not a home wrecker. At the same time we’re talking about characters that have become more contemporary so Lois has moved on and made a family of her own but has not married yet. James Marsden’s playing Richard White and because he’s like the “almost-Superman”. She came back and got the guy who’s almost Superman, he’s almost her ideal guy but hasn’t fully…
Mike: He doesn’t have the powers!
Dan: He’s almost the guy but he’s not quite it. She’s fully committed and has this great relationship with him and had a child with him and yet hasn’t tied the know, hasn’t gone that extra bit. It’s a real world family, people have indecision.
Mike: It’s a real situation that any of us can probably relate to. Again I talk up the high school sweetheart and you meet with someone after 10 years of not seeing them and not only have they fallen in love, they have this family, so it’s something that you can’t touch, you can’t mess with that even though it’s the thing you want more than anything else.
Dan: Maybe there’s a little bit of him holding out for you, but you still can’t mess with that because you’re not a home wrecker. These are big, difficult things for the characters to deal with. We’re being very careful to be sensitive with that and not make people luck ugly and say ugly things but still… it’s a dramatic dilemma. It adds real weight to it.
Question: Where does Superman fit in with the other superhero movies (Spider-Man: happy, Batman: cynical)?
Mike: In the middle.
Dan: It’s in the middle. I think it’s in the middle or closer to the happier side. We’ve seen this after watching a lot of the movie cut now, it’s evolving, it’s really coming along great. (??) Things are a little weird with him but very sunny.
Mike: We worked on X-Men and that is a very cynical, dark film about oppressed minorities. But this is really funny. Y’know it’s Bryan who in a way restarted the superhero franchises by creating X-Men 1 which was sort of a concentration camp. Now he’s hooked everything around and it’s not that the tone is going to be exactly the same as the first film which was a bit brighter but it is less cynical. It is like Dan said, when you have Lex he is a good mix of that darker villain who enjoys what he’s doing.
Question: Luthor’s portrayal (campy or serious)
Mike: Again, he’s the Lex Luthor… He won’t be as campy as the Gene Hackman version but he’s not the dark, brooding, “I must destroy Superman” Lex Luthor either.
Dan: He’s not Dr Doom, y’know! He is more fun than that. What we’ve found with Kevin Spacey is he’s become one man then he turns and there’s something a lot scarier than Keyser Soze…
Mike: Remember the first film, it’s a classic moment, when Superman says, “How do you get your kicks? By planning the death of innocent people?”
Mike: “No, by causing the death”. That’s what Kevin Spacey is doing through this entire movie. So it’s stuff like that.
Dan: It’s the combination of him and Parker Posey. This sophisticated, very comic but very scary kind of grouping. So I think he’ll be the best of both worlds.
Question: Can you talk about the responsibility of taking on this franchise? There’s dark superhero movies then there’s Superman and you guys are picking it up with all these expectations and responsibilities. Not to screw it up basically?
Dan: Fingers crossed, thank God we can go into the cutting room and see stuff cut and see the film moving along and we can really say for real what’s coming out otherwise we’d be very, very nervous and may have run back home.
Mike: The people taking it on, there was a moment when it was definitely… when you do a Superman project you have to respect everything that came before because he is the (???) superhero. As I like to keep saying, even though we’re pushing things ahead, but we’re respecting everything that came before. From the comics, to the Donner films to Smallville, you can not just step all over that, you can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. You area part of that legacy and so we had to acknowledge, even Lois & Clark, we had to acknowledge those things, even The Adventures of Superboy, I guess! We’re just the chapter after that.
Question: Don’t forget the Supergirl movie?
Dan: The newly released 2 disc version, derived from the international cut. That was awesome. Directors international cut.
Question: Will we have to see the first two films to understand this movie.
Mike: It helps.
Dan: It helps, yeah. I’d recommend seeing the first film absolutely to anybody, uh, to see this film.
Mike: We’ve summarised things pretty quickly and easily.
Dan: There’s a very interesting way that the film unfolds in the first 20 minutes, we’d love to tell you but we can’t. It’s told in a way people wouldn’t really expect.
Question: Did the extended version of Superman II (where Superman destroys the Fortress of Solitude) come into any of your writing?
Mike: Bryan likes to say “vague history” and that’s kind of, I know it sounds repetitive and it keeps coming up but it’s true. I mean, I like to talk about James Bond in way. People know that James Bond is a spy, his codename’s 007, he meets up with M and Q every now and then and gets the details of the next mission and that’s kind of all you need to know when you go to a James Bond film and to a new James Bond film. It doesn’t have a lot of direct references to the films that came before it but sometimes they do, and this is very similar to that. Pushing things forward put as long as you have the basic knowledge of who Superman is and who the characters are you’re fine.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. We love discussing the term movie history, but it [the term] works. We’d love to explain exactly how we get into this movie, but we can’t. He would murder us!
Question: What lessons have you learned from other superhero movies, Spider-Man, Fan 4?
Mike: The whole thing about superhero projects, superhero movies and the comic books, is there’s an audience for every type of superhero film. I mean, growing up, I honestly was more X-Men comics than Superman. I’ll tell you that, because I loved the plotlines of oppressed minorities and the idea of growing up feeling like an outcast. What kid doesn’t love that(??) At the same time I still loved Superman, so, when you watch Spider-Man, you watch Fantastic Four you can compare yourself to each other but at the same time they’re completely different films, sometimes for different people.
Dan: For this movie you look at what’s special and you exploit it in the best possible way. Superman is invulnerable to everything but Kryptonite, he can fly, the great thing is there’s years and years of history, of foundation with him and Lois, with him and Perry, with him and Jimmy – all these kinds of things. That’s what you own as a movie and when you own those concepts nobody else has done them so you can just push every idea to its furthest — how far can you go before it breaks and it turns into a movie you don’t want to tell? — and then we take those ideas and try and work them together.
Mike: And there’s things that Superman can get away with that Spider-Man and other superhero movies can’t get away with, we can show a guy getting hit with billions of bullets whereas Spider-Man’d be dead on the ground so, or even X-Men, so we own that, in essence, Superman owns that, excuse me.
Question: Is there a difference between writing Marvel characters and DC characters?
Dan: I don’t think so, I’ve never felt…
Mike: Well people like to say that Marvel exists in the real world, and because DC has Gotham and Metropolis doesn’t exist in our world they’re more in some alternate universe that is a real world and Metropolis does exist.
Dan: That’s ironic for us because in our last movie we dealt with probably 14 people with superpowers and now we’re dealing with one and the series of humans that surround him.
Mike: The cool thing with Marvel, growing up reading the books was the Marvel characters were more tangible, they would be portrayed more realistically, you would always have superheroes with very real human vulnerabilities. I think at the same time DC has adopted that mindset as well with Batman and with Superman. So there’s not really a big difference between DC and Marvel, y’know it’s not really, “this is a DC project so we have to make it bigger than a Marvel character”.
Question: Have DC been involved?
Mike: They’ve just been very supportive.
Dan: There was a dialogue between us and them and we’ve gotten along… they’ve been very good about it all.
Question: What did you think Kill Bill definition of Superman and Clark Kent?
Mike: It’s funny because the night that we as a group flew out from LA to Sydney – it was me and Dan and Bryan, the producers and Brandon.
Dan: January 5th or so.
Mike: Yeah, we walked into the lounge at the airport and there was Quentin Tarantino just sitting there. So we saw it as a good omen and Brandon got to meet him and talk to him and just, everyone was kinda like, “Wow, we watched the film, we watched the monologue, we’ve had it emailed to us a billion times”, so it’s great, you can’t help but listen to it. It’s cool to know that there are other people think about this as much.
Dan: The cool thing for me is that until you start looking or paying attention you don’t realise how Superman is in the cultural zeitgeist, in the minds of everything. It’s in every bit of the universe. We’ve been to Comic-Con for the last 5-6 year, ever since I moved to LA and have been in the movie business and to have always, every year, seen more Superman t-shirts than any other symbol. Now that we’re a part of it you start to see it everywhere, in people’s logos, Shaq’s tattoo, and their face paint. It’s just amazing! I mean for us that “S” is so powerful, it’s everywhere.
Question: Messianic elements. Do you see him as a God almost?
Mike: I think you can’t help but draw that comparison I think it’s okay to do that. Even with the story that we’re telling it’s like Messiah’s always leave you and everyone’s always waiting for one to come back and we’re telling the story of a Messiah who has come back.
Dan: We’re asking the question, is reliance on Messiahs a good thing and what happens when they leave you and they come back? Is it better that you’ve lost the ability to do things for yourself? Is it better not having Messiahs in the first place? So if you’re using it as a religious allegory those are some of the contemporary themes we’re asking.
Question: In the original you have Jor-El, the father sending his son down to Earth?
Dan: That’s part of the emotional core of the film. That’s what Jor-El and Kal-El, and ma, Pa Kent, of course…
Mike: That’s one of my favourite parts of the film Unbreakable was Sam Jackson talking about how all our comic book superheroes are essentially just the new Gods. The story of Zeus and Hercules, they are just, it is the retelling of the Greek and Roman Gods for our culture.
Question: The first Superman set up Superman II. Are you guys planting the seeds for sequels?
Dan: Ah, hell yeah! I can confidently say there are many seeds set up through the movie for what will hopefully be a long-lasting new franchise.
Villains for sequels we haven’t seen?
Dan: There’s some interesting villains yet some of them are very hard to conceptualise on film.
Mike: At the same time you want to pick supervillains, I mean the thing with Lex is everyone knows Superman and Lex Luthor are the guys that go head-to-head… Batman and The Joker…
Dan: Lex is a gateway villain. Superman is returning to the screen, he hasn’t been here in 25 years, Lex is our gateway villain.
Mike: After that, who knows?
Question: You can rely on him????
Dan: It’s already been established, people know who he is, people know what his powers or lack thereof are, what his agenda is.
Mike: He’s the ultimate clash between man and Superman.
Question: What elements of the comics would you like to see in a film? The Bizarro universe, Krypton the Superdog? I don’t know.
Mike: I personally, I’m not saying this is where we’re going or anything, I love the idea of other Kryptonian survivors. I think that’s the ultimate event. I’m not saying this were we’re going, that’s always intrigued me. Again not Superman II type of Kryptonian villains that come down and, “we’re evil, we dress in black, we’re evil!” But the idea that you think you’re the last survivor of your race and all of a sudden you meet someone else or other people who might be…
Question: How important is the Kryptonian heritage to him in this film?
Dan: For me it’s the voice in his head. His Kryptonian heritage is very important physically in this movie because he explores it and it’s a huge motivation tool for his character and how his character returns to our universe from where he’s been and how he feels. That’s the quickest way of saying it.
Mike: It’s something he’s dealing with. I think any of us feel that in our lives. If you grow up in America, people go “what are you?” and you’re like “what do you mean?”, “are you Jewish?”, “well my grandfather was French and blah, blah, blah”. It’s something that a lot of us have asked ourselves and it’s something that he, of course is dealing with and is an issue with me, my mother is Vietnamese and my father is Irish/Hungarian and growing up that always made me feel like the little freak who happened to be here and people were always teasing me growing up and there was like a point where I didn’t know anything about my family background, I didn’t know anything at all and it kind of drove me crazy. Y’know and Bryan is adopted and I think that’s where he relates to the story because it’s not so much about being an alien as, “who are my parents, where do I come from? I don’t know anything.”
Dan: And I just imagine Bryan, he’s adopted but what if there was a recording of his actual birth parents talking to him, explaining thing, trying to give him lessons of his life, and he could talk back and listen to those and learn from them and see the future and how does that interact with the people who raised you? Where’s your foundation, where you come from now, is that your foundation? For us, Kryptonian heritage the lessons and things taught by Jor-El to Kal-El are a very important baseline for him.
Question: Do you think you’re adding an element of loneliness to Superman Returns, something that wasn’t really explored in earlier films.
Dan: I think there’s a very contemporary idea that it’s lonely at the top. In the sense that if you are a god, and you’re the only god on Earth, you have nobody to actually relate to, and your history – your Kryptonian heritage – has been destroyed. It doesn’t exist anymore, and all that’s left are recordings for you of a dead civilization. That’s a lonely place to be.
Mike: We’re trying not to make him too mopey though, so don’t get that impression.
Question: Dan, you just directed a movie called “Imaginary Heroes.” Do you feel that’s a compliment to the work you’re doing in superhero films?
Dan: I just think I’ve had a preoccupation with the idea of a hero, and the idea of putting people on pedestals, whether or not they deserve to be, and what it’s like when you’ve been given the title of God or the greatest swimmer of the universe in [Imaginary Heroes], or the greatest this, or the greatest that, and what it feels like to reject those ideals, or embrace them. In that movie it was about a person who rejected the things that he was good at, and people thought he was a god simply because he was good at what he was good at. That movie came a lot out of the death of Kurt Cobain, and the idea of putting people on pedestals, and then they remove themselves from that very quickly, and how does that affect all the people of the world that he was their god. In [Superman Returns] there’s a little bit of that, too.
Mike: Except he doesn’t kill himself.
Dan: Yeah, Superman doesn’t kill himself.
Mike: (puts on a grim voice) Not yet!
Dan: He becomes a messiah for everyone, and how does that change once he leaves or comes back? It changes the people greatly when people put so much of their hopes and fears and their life into somebody else’s life.
Question: The X-Men movies changed some aspects of the comic. How do you expect Superman Returns to change the way writers approach the comic?
Dan: I don’t know. There might be a visual style that gets picked up.
Mike: I think you’ve already seen that to a certain extent. I’m trying to remember what it was I picked up the other day, but it showed Superman’s crystals growing up out of the ground, and I thought that was such a neat thing because as far as I know, that was Donner’s invention. It’s interesting how you mention how the XMen films changed the comics, like now all of a sudden, every time you see Cerebro in the comics it looks like Bryan Singer’s Cerebro. We don’t know. That’s not for us to mandate, but I think it would be interesting and inspiring if it did happen.
Question: From the style of the costume in this movie, and everything we’ve seen, obviosly it’s not Ma Kent’s design that she sewed together. Is that something, an element that will be explained in the movie?
Mike: No, it’s more of a mystery. Even in the first film he just kind of shows up and he’s wearing it. You don’t see Phyllis Baxter on a sewing machine.
Dan: It’s weird because in the last few years of comic movies, from Spiderman to Fantastic Four (and actually, I think we’re partially responsible for some of that Fantastic Four costume-making stuff), but in Batman there was an entire sequence devoted to the building of the suit. I don’t know, maybe it was just a trend for a few years, like it was really important to see exactly how these things were made, and now in our film we’re just taking it for granted, and putting it in part of the history.
Mike: We found out-takes of Marlon Brando explaining where it came from. I think you guys might know of it. We watched all of these cool Brando out-takes.
Dan: That’s one of the best parts of this job.
Mike: All these bloopers where he’s swearing like a sailor. But there’s a monologue where Clark first goes to the fortress, he explains who he is, and blah blah blah. But he says ‘Your mother placed three swatches of fabric – red, yellow, and blue – into your pod, and when these are combined together, they will form a suit which will protect and make you… well, not make you invulnerable, but…
Question: Like Nuclear man.
Dan: How do you know about our villain?
Question: Could you go back to the Jor-El stuff. Did you guys get the clearance from the Brando Estate before you wrote the stuff?
Mike: It kind of happened along the way.
Dan: Yeah, after. Frankly, it was one of those ideas very early on, like “Oh my god. Wouldn’t this be an amazing way to give weight to this movie and to link it with the old movie,” and yet use somebody like Marlon Brando, who, unfortunately, we never got to meet, but is such an icon, and such a legend.
Mike: But he’s another one of those essential elements, Jor-El. You asked before what are the iconic elements you have to have in a Superman film, and you have to have Jor-El.
Dan: Right, and for us there’s no other Jor-El than Marlon Brando. So we used what we knew of that existed in our early version, then we kind of chased it down, and legally got it done so that we could use it, and then we went from there.
Question: So these are takes that haven’t been seen before?
Mike: Well, we’re not creating the whole… I think Bryan talked about it at Comic-Con, so it’s okay… We’re not creating the CGI actor who’ll be sitting down and having lunch with Brandon or anything. I’m sure if you used your imaginations, you could figure out where Marlon Brando might appear and what location…
Question: But the snippets you’re using are new?
Mike: It’s a mix. But it’s not the Superman II stuff
Dan: There’s no major discovery of Superman II unused footage.
Mike: Yeah, it’s not that.
Dan: The plotlines were explored before. But you know, there are things that fit.
Mike: There’s a pile of material, and the editors and sound guys will pick and choose what will be best.
Question: I know you’ve got a run on Ultimate X-Men coming up, would you like to write Superman in the comics?
Mike: YEAH! It would be fantastic. (long pause) We’re talking.
Question: How is everyone now, compared to how you imagined them when you arrived?
Mike: They’re better!
Dan: They’re better, absolutely! The actors are fantastic. They’re unbelievable. John and Elliot are doing such a great job cutting the film that this is the most advanced cut during a film that I’ve ever seen. The way technologies come now, the Avid is so clear, and so good-looking, the machinery they’re using is so good, and John comes from composing movies, so he’s so good with music, and so good with sound effects that we shoot a scene, and two days later we’re looking at a nearly finished version of the scene and the way it cuts into the movie.
Mike: But what you always look for is the constant improvement. It exists in one form on the page. You write a scene, and then when it’s storyboarded, you want the storyboard artists to add something to what’s on the page that makes it better. Then when the pre-vis guys do it, there’s this constant adding of layers so that by the time you shoot it, and by the time you get to the editing, it’s… you never want to see it get worse. The worst thing is when you write a scene and you see the actors do it, and see how it was directed and cut together and it’s like “this is ten times crappier than how I imagined on the page.” What’s been great about XMen 2 to Superman is that it just keeps getting better. One of my favorite things is Sam Huntington. He has brought something to Jimmy that – I’ll be honest and say – he’s added something to it that’s made it funnier and more lively than I even personally imagined it.
Question: Have you met Jack Larson and Noel Niell?
Dan: Oh yeah.
Mike: Yeah they were great.
Question: What did they say to you about handing you this Superman thing?
Mike: No, the best advice we got so far was from Margot Kidder. At Comic-Con. You talk about it.
Dan: (imitating Kidder) “It’s gonna be a ride. Your life’s gonna change. Just hang on tight and save your money.”
Mike: But she was great. We went to Comic-Con and we met… Oh, we were getting our photos taken with Margot Kidder, and you just hear this voice going “Hang on, let me get a pic!” and this flash goes off – and this is all true – the flash goes off, and the camera lowers, and it was Marc McClure. Y’know, it’s Jimmy Olson.
Dan: The camera lowers and we were like “woah!”
Question: Noel and Jack are in the movie, are there any other historical Superman family cameos?
Mike: Unfortunately not this round.
Dan: The way the characters work, they are cameos, Jack and Noel, but they’re actually roles. They’re key roles, but they’re older people, so it just kind of fit perfectly. We needed an older woman, and we needed a bartender – you know, ‘Bo the bartender – and they just worked perfectly.
Mike: And it’s been so much time since you’ve seen them on the big screen that they’re almost unrecognizable. Whereas if you do Margot it’s like “oh!”
Dan: If you do Margot it IS Margot Kidder. Margot Kidder still looks like Margot Kidder. She’s a little bit older, but she’s is Margot Kidder.
Mike: She still looks good.
Dan: Same with Marc McClure, who looks good. And everybody. It’s all be very recent. For us, Noel and Jack were this great… they haven’t been on any kind of screen for fifty years, and they fit our parts, and they’re good actors.
Mike: They don’t take you out of the movie.
Dan: Yeah, the don’t take you out of the movie at all. You guys will all recognize them, and maybe 5% or 10% of audiences will, but most people will just go “oh, that’s Gertrude.”
Question: Are there any iconic Superman lines that you had to keep in the script?
Dan: There are quite a few iconic Superman lines.
Question: Like “it’s a bird, it’s a plane?”
Dan: Yeah, there’s a twist on that.
Mike: We try to use it in ways that aren’t predictable. As far as people pointing at the sky saying “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” No.
Dan: Most of our iconic Superman lines are either ironic, as in terms of that, or they’re very poignant and move the story forward or add something.
Question: Is there a phone booth?
Dan: There’s always a phone booth. It’s the Matrix phone booth.
Mike: Or so we’ve heard. Two days before we started shooting a certain scene it’s like “we need a phone booth.” There’s a great video online of – I forget the guys name, the guy who did it. I think he’s an editor or a cinematographer or something – but he cut together a six minute video of… what song is it?
Dan: The Five for Fighting song.
Mike: Yeah, and it’s gorgeous. It shows the history of Superman in every incarnation, in every era.
Dan: It’s heart-wrenching!
Mike: Yeah, we showed it to Brandon, and I think he almost cried, too. And there’s a phone booth in and and it was like “Shit! Phone booth!” So that kind of spurred that.
Dan: However there will be no falling and transforming.
Question: No suit in a can?
Dan: No suit in a can!
Question: I noticed you’re knocking the Daily Planet ball off of the building again.
Mike: We are?
Question: I don’t know. The art on Guy’s wall indicated as much.
Mike: Yeah, but art gets made for things that don’t happen.
Dan: Oh yeah, the entire tour, by the way, has been created just to throw you guys off.
Mike: That’s right, Guy Dyas draws lies. That’s a joke. Do not quote me or he’ll kill me.
Dan: Yeah, Superman does not pose as Atlas at all during the film.
Question: Did you feel that there had to be a certain tone for certain parts of the dialogue, like if you’re in the news room, etc?
Mike: Yeah, it’s kind of funny because something that the Donner film is known for is how it almost feels like three different films, or sometimes four different films. You have your space opera at the beginning, then you have your rustic western prairie film, then you go to Metropolis and it becomes this big city, fast talking thing, and I think we’ve kind of done that. It wasn’t really planned necessarily, but it just kind of became that. You know, if you go to a newspaper room, a press room, there is that sort of feeling. We’ve all lived in New York, so we can tell you. People do walk and talk faster.
Dan: But the aesthetic is different. You’ll notice this time the aesthetic of the Daily Planet is very Art Deco, very Frank Lloyd Wright, and kind of the 40’s. And so is the costume, and the design, and kind of our time. You look at Donner’s film and it’s great, but you can feel that that news room is a 1975 news room. So for us, dialogue and everything is a little bit more… like Kate’s been using Katherine Hepburn as an example of a way to speak, and so it’s a little bit like if you take Hudsucker Proxy, which was the ultimate in which people in that kind of way talked, we’re pulling that back more. So it’s a little bit like that, but still it will feel like it’s own universe, you know? It’s own time.
Question: What about involvement with the Smallville stuff?
Dan: Well, we’ve become friends with Al and Miles, and when this all started we wanted to make everything cohesive and to talk and make sure nobody’s stepping on each others toes, like Bryan’s said. We don’t want to step on their toes, they don’t want to step on our toes. Frankly, they’re doing a… Smallville is a period in Superman’s life that we’re not totally exploring. So they all kind of work together.
Mike: Yeah, we didn’t want any animosity between the two projects.
Dan: At the same time we want some visual cohesion. So anything that they might possibly want to move into, we want it to look like our thing so it’s all the same gigantic world of different interpretations.
Mike: Yeah, they keep us up to date with what they’re doing, and it’s kind of fun, because I kinda know what’s going on.
Question: How about the dual roles, Clark and Superman, how is it writing them?
Mike: It’s not that difficult. It’s not so much a Jekyll and Hyde type of thing. It’s the same guy, it’s just different aspects of the same personality.