Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Tell me about The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened.
Jon Schnepp: It’s basically a documentary feature film about the Superman Lives project that was going to be directed by Tim Burton. It was going to star Nicholas Cage as Superman. Kevin Smith had written a draft of it. It went on to get written by Wesley Strick and then lastly Dan Gilroy. It was produced by John Peters. It had a string of incredible artists. Colleen Atwood was the costume designer. Rick Heinrichs was the production designer. Amazing concept artists like Slyvain Despretz.
Holly Payne: So this is the first time we would have seen the Superman film since Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. So this was the first sort of attempt at rebooting the franchise in that length of time. With the success of Tim Burton’s Batman films, John Peters tapped Tim Burton to direct the Superman film because he had the rights to Superman.
CB: So many talented and well-known people were attached to the film.
CB: Why did we never get a chance to see it?
Schnepp: Well, I think there was a combination of those kinds of things. The Internet was just really starting to swell up at that time. We kind of relate it to the trolls that we have now. It probably would have shut down Batman because Michael Keaton being cast as Batman caused a lot of ripples throughout the comic book fan community.
There was a fear of change. They are not making the film. They just know that it doesn’t look what they want Batman to be. That is still the take on Nicholas Cage: “That’s not my Superman” or “He doesn’t look like Superman.” Or they take a still that they saw from the Internet and judge the entire film on that. So that’s the problem that I see in our culture. It’s a reactionary ability to personally say, “I hate this,” without really even having any knowledge of it.
Payne: That’s just one angle, too, to why the film was pulled. It was partly to do with the fact that Warner Bros. had a string of really underperforming films at the time.
CB: What year was this?
Schnepp: This was 1997-98. That’s basically when the actual production had started. It was a combination of things. Warner Bros. at the time, as she said, their films were not performing. They were just not making the money. Also at the same time, there was some talkback about Nicholas Cage being cast. People were questioning that.
Payne: They were questioning Tim Burton, too.
Schnepp: They were questioning Tim Burton: “Is it going to be too dark or gothic?” without actually exploring what he was doing. “Hey, here’s all the art. We are doing this.” They had already made up their mind, even without looking at it. They were like, “No, we are going to cancel.”
CB: Also there was a whole series of superhero films that bombed or just had not done well: Stallone’s Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, the Spawn live action film. None of those did especially well.
Schnepp: Well, Spawn live action was after. A lot of these films came after.
Payne: There was The Phantom. There were a lot of other ones.
Schnepp: The Shadow. Those films they were just testing the waters I think, trying to figure out if we don’t have a Superman, if that is dead. A lot of people were just like, ‘What comes next?’ I think the only one that really kind of blew up was the year that Superman was supposed to come out, Blade. That was 1999.
CB: Yeah, the shocking kind of premiere of Blade. Big things happened. So you decided to chronicle all of this. What made you decide to kind of obsessively make a film about it?
Schnepp: Well, just for years I was aware. Just the production art to me reminded me of a science fiction, Heavy Metal, cosmic adventure with Superman. Like I’ve said before, the iterations of different Superman movies, to me is just an exploration of the comic book. It doesn’t have to be like the comic.
It’s like Elseworlds. Movies to me are Elseworlds of comic books. So I don’t mind if they change the costume. I love the X-Men the way Brian Singer made the movies. They all have these cool, black leather outfits. They don’t these giant, candy colored outfits. Those are leftovers from the old color presses from the forties.
When you just start to release your mind from the constraints of what people are used to… That’s why people wear underwear on the outside. That’s why all the characters have underwear on the outside. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s like long johns and a strong man.’ It’s like 1920’s circus people. They’ve just got to break out of that and be free about imaging.
Schnepp: Yeah, evolve. So it takes a while for people when they get stuck on a certain way of something looking that way. They are like, ‘Well, that’s the genre.’ Well, it’s the genre in your mind until you let it evolve.
CB: Right. Well, Superman evolve from strong man, exactly. There was a book that came out two years ago or so that chronicled that very directly. So there was some fan outrage. But at the same time, some were very interested. I still remember the buzz about Superman Lives. I think there was a lot of fear.
Schnepp: I’ll tell you this as another reason. As I was saying, I saw the artwork. Of course, I saw the Kevin Smith thing talking about John Peters and the giant spider. It was a very funny tale of him trying to write the script. Then Superman Returns came out. At first I thought it was a good idea to do homage to Richard Donner’s Superman, because that’s the Superman I grew up with. I grew up with George Reeves and then Chris Reeves.
Payne: Chris Reeves.
Schnepp: And it was like going to be a good amalgamation I thought. They are going to use the John William’s score, all that kind of fan stuff. I kind of fell into, “Yeah, let’s check it out.” But to me, (I think a lot of people feel the same way) it didn’t hit any of the chords that you want in a Superman movie. It was ultimately very boring. It was basically Superman lifting things for like two and a half hours. She had to wake me up twice in the theatre.
Payne: Yeah, he was snoring in the theatre.
Schnepp: I fell asleep in the movie theatre at a Superman movie. And I think Brian Singer is an amazing director. I just think the idea of doing homage was what was cool and that’s it. And then when you are actually stuck in that universe and you are like, ‘Well, what are we going to do while we have to do these tropes and Lex Luther has to be buying land.’ It’s like why is he obsessed with land? None of the stuff ever made sense to me. Right after I saw that movie, I instantly thought, ‘What about that Tim Burton Superman?” This was 2006. I was like, ‘That at least would have had Brainiac. The designs were really cool.’ So I started researching it. Every couple of months I would look online and try to find something about it.
Payne: What’s interesting, too, is that Jon had combed together all of this artwork that was on the Internet. He dug deep for it. But even that was about five percent of what actually exists for concept art for Superman Lives. When we got the access to Tim’s warehouse, which he gave us directly, it was like that Raiders of the Lost Ark scene where it is just aisle after aisle of just boxes of props. It took us two days to shoot everything that was related to Superman Lives.
CB: Wow. So they got very far into production on this.
Schnepp: Very far.
CB: So there’s a lot of sunk cost in this.
Schnepp: There were miniatures. There were costumes. There were sets being built. They had already production scouted Pittsburgh. They had offices set up. They had Lex Luther’s building and the Daily Planet building; all this stuff was all set up.
CB: And then they just got cold feet at some point.
Schnepp: Well, it is cold feet when it is a business. People sometimes forget that in entertainment, you have to make money; that’s what it is all about. It’s a business. So it wasn’t necessarily cold feet. It was literally like, ‘Look, we’ve just had a string of movies that fell apart and we can’t bank $300 million on something that so many people are having trepidation about. Is he going to make a goth Superman? Is Nick Cage right for this role? We don’t feel the script is where we need it to be. We need to cut the budget of the script and we are going to go into production in three weeks.’
They already had this other movie they wanted to rock on. It was called Wild, Wild West. So they go, ‘Look, we’ve got Will Smith attached to that. He’s a big star. Let’s rock with that. Let’s put Superman on ice right now.’ And then we all know what happens.
CB: Yeah, right. So they are not going to come back to it. Not after that film. First of all, the Blu-ray has many bonus scenes.
Payne: Oh, yes, ten-plus hours of bonus features. We basically extended all the interviews- not all of them, but a good chunk of the interviews that we did. We edited them together so you can see more of the whole rounded conversation. So you’ve got that.
We’ve got a featurette, which has a lot of extras that didn’t make it into the film. We have a Nicholas Cage reaction sequence. We talked to people at WonderCon and got their impressions of Nicholas Cage in the Polaroid and then Nicholas Cage in the final camera test, which is in our film, but isn’t in wide release yet. So that’s a really fun extra. What else do we have? We have Jon talking to comics artists, writers, and fans.
Schnepp: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff as we were actually developing and making the film that ultimately didn’t make the cut of the movie. Because it’s a documentary, you are like, ‘I don’t know how many different people…’ I had an act one, act two, act three structure, but it constantly kept evolving. As we got more access to more of the people who were actually involved in Superman Lives, it just spread the film out until it was like four hours. You can’t have a four-hour documentary. Technically you can, but no one is going to watch it. They’ll say, “I’ll watch it,” but they are not going to.
So we had to go into the constraints of what is possible. Within that, we had to make some hard cuts. Ultimately the luck of being able to have things now digitally as a digital download or a Blu-Ray, you don’t have to lose anything. It’s like, ‘Hey, this part, even though it didn’t fit into the narrative structure of our film, it’s really important and we’d love to share it.’ So that’s the ability to be able to share it.
Payne: Yeah, the other thing is too what’s cool is people say Blu-rays are phasing out. I have to say that it is our biggest seller right now. But part of that is if people do buy Blu-rays now, there aren’t that many extras on it anymore. We put our heart and soul into the extras on this Blu-ray and on the super pack digital download. That’s what you want when you like a movie and it is exploratory and you are trying to learn more about a subject. We didn’t want to leave anything out. We wanted to have everything in there.
CB: So what’s the one thing you learned making this movie that you love that you want to share with people?
Payne: Well, to me I think it really goes back to the artwork and the creative impulse to try to take something and reimagine it and rework it and give back something new. It’s a little bit of the same, a little bit of something brand new. To me, seeing all the different artists’ concept designs, even though the film didn’t get made, it’s kind of the best of both worlds because I get to see five different Doomsdays and seven different Brainiacs. I get to see the creative process of where they were going, where it stopped, and where they tilted it.
So that to me was really exciting and fun. Also sad, but the sadness is dispersed by the ability to show the work. I think it’s also a good statement on just the creative process in Hollywood. A lot of people don’t understand how films are made and they don’t understand what goes into making everything that we see. This process that we’ve explored goes into every single other production that you are ever going to see. This process happens. So it is a lot of work. It’s kind of like how things happen and why they get actually made. It really comes out almost luck sometimes. The reason you are watching that film has all these different reasons. So that’s kind of for me the final thing. What about you?
Schnepp: I would say the artwork definitely. Also getting to know all of these amazing creative minds that were so diverse, from the writers (Wesley Strick, Kevin, Dan) to all of the incredible artists that were working on it (Mike Jackson, Bill Boes). All of them had different styles. We were able to share this film with them on our premiere night and they got to see their own work on the big screen and get that appreciation for all the toil that they put into it. And then also piece together for themselves what happened after they left the project. So that was really gratifying.
Payne: It made them feel good about it instead of hiding and feeling like, ‘Oh, that project no one wants to talk about.’ No, embrace that and then look at all the cool stuff that you and all these other people did.
Schnepp: And they were really glad to be a part of it, too, which just warms our hearts.