While visiting the set of Superman Returns late last year, we had a chance to visit with writers Dan Harris and Mike Dougherty. The duo were brought on board the film by Bryan Singer who collaborated with them on X2: X-Men United. They also happen to all be working together again on the remake of “Logan’s Run.” The online press met them at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Ironically, the writing duo arrived both wearing green shirts (one a “Star Wars” shirt). After denying that they coordinate their wardrobes, the Q&A began:
Q: So this is an original story but it takes elements from the previous two films, and the comics or no…?
Mike Dougherty: 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 weâ€™re concerned. Then Smallville is doing it again and you don’t want a third incarnation because I think that breeds confusion and also, letâ€™s takes things further versus going back and doing it again.
Dan Harris: Yeah, and for us there was a visual language that was put onto film that we all believe and trust in, and there’s a character basis in that language that we’ve used as our archetype and then we kind of built on top of that. As for taking elements from the books over the year, 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 things that you might see something and say, “Oh, that’s from issue 742 in 1983”, but it probably didn’t come from that. It’s like how many times did Superman rescue a plane, how many times did certain things happen. Y’know, lots, in lots of different ways and its been 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.
Q: Are you guys the only screenwriters that are going to be credited?
Dougherty: As far as this incarnation of the film it’s been me and Dan and Bryan working on this particular draft.
Harris: 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 than those were at all. 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.
Q: Given that it’s an original film, what elements are crucial to have in a Superman film to make it a Superman film?
Dougherty: 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 in the tone of the film that were done so right that they’ve kind of sunken 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.
Harris: Exactly. If you look at that Fortress of Solitude it is the same one that you saw Christopher Reeve land in.
Dougherty: Yeah. Even the music. But you have to have your central 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.
Harris: 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 what kind of big, terrible plan there is for the arch enemy, what Superman has to battle. All these different things have all been so far successfully kind of kept under wraps but there is a lot of cool stuff that you haven’t seen before, so in that ways it’s not a remake at all.
Q: Could you tell us?
Dougherty: Yeah, I’ll just email it to you.
Harris: We’ll send you the script and you just go from there!
Q: What is the psychological angle on the character??
Harris: 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 idea 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.
Dougherty: What’s really cool in the origin story is itâ€™s a 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, and everythingâ€™s different but the same, and you feel like you don’t quite fit anymore And it’s similar in that respect, 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 things 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 but then the group dynamic has changed.
Harris: 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.
Q: Do you find with comic book movies that the most interesting aspect is the human aspect to the character?
Harris: 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 in Superman 1, in Dick Donner’s movie, when Clark Kent stops the bullet shot at Lois. It’s when 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, thereâ€™s no antigravity. It’s normal and yet you’ve brought in your superheroes to that world and they can… they can interact in ways you’ve never imagined before, and when you get that outsider’s perspective in there, 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 they live in. It’s kind of cool, for me, hitting those moments on the way is the most exciting part.
Dougherty: It’s pretty essential. I mean cause, again you know, heâ€™s invulnerable, bullets bounce off his body. But Bryan said it best at Comic-Con, it’s essentially a love story. Y’know even superheroes fall in love and what happens when that does occur? He’s completely invulnerable except for his heart.
Q: That’s the most interesting aspect. Those human vulnerabilities.
Harris: He’s physically invulnerable but emotionally…
Dougherty: He’s a wreck!
Harris: He’s an alien. He grew up on a farm, he’s an American grown-up kid and when things change they affect him in real ways. Human ways.
Q: It’s essentially a love story, how does the main character change?
Dougherty: I think when we first met Lois… in every other incarnation of Lois Lane she has been very much the career woman, driven, 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 by doing it through Clark. 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. Itâ€™s like when you come back and you see your high school sweetheart has fallen for somebody else…
Harris: And yet, you are more important to her than anybody else so she is deeply conflicted and that becomes a major point to work with in the story.
Q: Superman hasn’t really changed in the comics very much over the years but it seems you’re really starting to progress the character of Lois Lane…?
Dougherty: We have and we havenâ€™t. They got married, and that was really interesting.
Q: How many years did that take, though?
Dougherty: It did take a long time, but we don’t have the luxury of printing comic books every week. But again that was another reason to push the story forward because if weâ€™re going to make a Superman film after 20 odd years, letâ€™s not just tell the origin again letâ€™s push it forward, let’s give the audience something new and take the characters and push them forward.
Harris: What weâ€™re so excited about here is 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 this 40â€™s feel of the universe. It’s got a really great style.
Q: You guys are rewriting as you go, how does that work with you and Bryan?
Harris: Well, this is a really special film. And we felt that ever since… it was a very easy film to get going, when Bryan and Mike and I came up with the idea for the film and how we’re going to attack it â€“ Bryanâ€™s 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 quick 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 be an important kind of movie in the cultural world when it comes out, that we want to be a part of it. We want to be around 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 tons of concerns and tons of issues, whether it be budget or schedule or who can work when, or how the set looks like. It’s always good to have somebody around that cares about nothing but the story of the movie.
Dougherty: It’s like managing time travel because even the scene that 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.
Harris: Exactly. We were in the editing room last night and Bryan was talking about a scene and how he can cut a scene down and move 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 that the montage plays out”.
Dougherty: You step on a butterfly it’ll destroy a butterfly!
Harris: And everything falls apart. It’s really good to have people whispering behind his shoulder, just to make sure that those things are heading along properly. Otherwise 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.
Dougherty: Bryan hates the idea of throwing 100 writers on a project, the 100 monkeys theory. Because if anything you get a story that tends to be more diluted and becomes decision by committee. It’s not a creator 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 you have the director/writer collaboration, if it’s not going to be the same person then it should be the closest people on the production.
Harris: There’s a Writers Guild rule that they really limit the number of writers that are credited in the end but sometimes I just wish that some Writers Guild 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 many 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 draft.
Q: How do you share the writing process?
Harris: We won’t make a bad joke about it this time!
Dougherty: Like we did in the blogs!
Harris: But usually we come up with a treatment of an idea for the movie between us or between us and Bryan and then we pick our favorite 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.
Dougherty: A lot of emailing a lot of rewriting each other but we never take it personally. It’s kind of like, y’know, if Iâ€™ll work on a scene and email it to [Dan] and he’ll put it in the document or 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!”
Q: That’s very important as a writer to have a director you trust, trusts you, is really trusting…?
Harris: Yeah, I think so. It’s helped him, it’s helped us, itâ€™s really made it so that nobodyâ€™s doing anything behind anyone’s back we all just care about the movie, we all just care about the story. If somethingâ€™s bad, itâ€™s a free open room.
Dougherty: You never take it personally, you have no ego about it.
Harris: We always said that X2 was boot camp for us, and maybe this is the first battle.
Q: How is this film relevant for 2006?
Dougherty: In terms of?
Q: In terms of the technology they use, in terms of how they relate to one another, the characters?
Harris: Yeah, I think that all 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, like 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.
Dougherty: We’re trying to avoid things that will date the film, so you’re not going to see like,
Harris: “Put it on your Blackberry, I’ll Blackberry it to you!” There’ll be none of that, it’ll feel, along with Guy’s [Dyas] art design, it’s kind of timeless and put into 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.
Q: Plastic sheets? (cellophane “S” from Superman II)
Dougherty: 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.
Harris: The good thing is it is 2005 and the effects have risen to the challenge. They did an incredible job in ’78. But now we’re even so far 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.
Dougherty: With all the superheroes films we’ve had it still seems to be a special treat.
Harris: Right, so it is a special thing to see him flying and I think it’s being done in a way that’s really…
Q: Could you talk to us about Lois/the child how the characters have advanced?
Dougherty: Heh, how do I put this? It’s a family, when Clark comes back he doesn’t just come back to find that Lois has a fiancÃ©, he finds out that 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 this guy is looking for more than anything else is after he left home he wants to start a life, he wants to be normal, he wants a wife, he wants to have a kid. It’s kind of like he’s staring at this family portrait that he can’t quite have.
Q: My concern is he’ll come across as a home wrecker?
Harris: We’re being very careful about that. He’s not a home wrecker. At the same time we’re talking about characters who have become more contemporary so Lois has moved on and made a family of her own but has not married him 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…
Dougherty: He doesn’t have the powers!
Harris: He’s like Clark Kent. Heâ€™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 knot, hasn’t gone that extra bit. So it’s a real world family, people have indecision.
Dougherty: 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 somebody after 10 years of not seeing them and not only have they fallen in love, but they have a whole family, so it’s something that you can’t touch, you can’t mess with that but itâ€™s what you want than anything else.
Harris: 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 very difficult things for the characters to deal with. We’re being very careful to be sensitive about that and not kind of step over and make people look ugly and say ugly things but still… it’s a dramatic dilemma. It adds real weight to it.
Q: Where does Superman fit in with the other superhero movies (Spider-Man: happy, Batman: cynical)?
Dougherty: In the middle.
Harris: 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 where it’s evolving, it’s really coming along great. Lex is sinister and things are a little weird with him and very funny.
Dougherty: We worked on X-Men and that is a very cynical, dark film. Itâ€™s about oppressed minorities. But this was really funny. Y’know, it’s Bryan all the sudden 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.
Q: How do you reconcile that with Gene Hackmanâ€™s portrayal (campy or serious)?
Dougherty: Again, itâ€™s 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.
Harris: He’s not Dr Doom, y’know, from the Fantastic Four movie we just saw! He is more fun than that. What great about Kevin Spacey is that he’s fun one minute and then he turns and there’s something thatâ€™s a lot scarier thatâ€™s Keyser Soze…
Dougherty: Remember the first film, it’s a classic moment, when Superman says, “How do you get your kicks? By planning the deaths of millions of people?”
Dougherty: “No, by causing the death”. That’s what Kevin Spacey is doing through this entire movie. So it’s stuff like that.
Harris: And the combination of him and Parker Posey is just sophisticated, kind of comic but very scary kind of grouping. So I think he’ll be the best of both worlds.
Q: 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.
Harris: 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 weâ€™re thrilled with what’s coming out otherwise we’d be very, very nervous and may have run back home.
Dougherty: The people taking it on, there was a moment where it was definitely… when you do a Superman project you have to respect everything that came before because he is in essence the first superhero. As we keep saying, we’re pushing things ahead, but we’re respecting everything that came before. From the comics, to the Donner films to Smallville, you canâ€™t just step all over that, you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You are a 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 a chapter of that.
Q: Don’t forget the Supergirl movie!
Harris: We have that! The newly released 2 disc version, derived from the international cut. That was awesome. Directors international cut.
Q: Will we have to see the first two films to understand this movie.
Dougherty: It helps.
Harris: But it helps, yeah. I’d recommend seeing the first film absolutely to anybody to see this film.
Dougherty: We’ve summarised things pretty quickly and easily.
Harris: 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 different way that people wouldn’t really expect.
Q: Did the extended version of Superman II (where Superman destroys the Fortress of Solitude) come into any of your writing?
Dougherty: 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 a way. Everyone 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 but as long as you have the basic knowledge of who Superman is and who the characters are you’re fine.
Harris: Yeah, exactly. We love discussing the term movie history, but it works. We want to preserve the integrity the story and the twists of the first 20 minutes. We’d love to explain exactly how we get into this movie, but we can’t. He would murder us!
Q: What lessons have you learned from other superhero movies, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four?
Dougherty: The cool thing about superhero projects, superhero movies and the comic books, is that there’s an audience for every type of superhero film. I mean, growing up, I honestly read more X-Men comics than Superman. I’ll tell you that, because I loved the plotlines about the oppressed minorities and the idea of growing up feeling like an outcast. We all have to go through that. At the same time I still love Superman, so, when you watch Spider-Man, you watch Fantastic Four, you can compare yourself to each other but at the same time those are completely different films, sometimes for different people.
Harris: For this movie you look at what’s special, what you own, 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.
Dougherty: And there’s plenty of things that Superman owns that Spider-Man and the other superhero movies can never get away with. We can show a guy getting hit with billions of bullets. Spider-Man would be dead on the ground so, or even the X-Men, so we own that, in a sense, Superman owns that, excuse me.
Q: Is there an essential difference between writing Marvel characters and DC characters?
Harris: I don’t think so, I’ve never felt…
Dougherty: Well, people like to say that Marvel exists in the real world, and because DC has Gotham and Metropolis, which donâ€™t exist in our world, they’re more in some alternate universe. But we treat it as if it is real world and Metropolis does exist.
Harris: That’s ironic for us because in our last movie we dealt with 12 or 14 people with superpowers and now we’re dealing with one and the series of humans that surround him. Itâ€™s kind of reverse when it comes to people.
Dougherty: The cool thing with Marvel, growing up reading both the books, was the Marvel characters were always painted 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 isnâ€™t really a 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” or anything like that.
Q: Have DC been involved?
Dougherty: They’ve just been very supportive.
Harris: There has been dialogue between us and them and we’ve gotten along… they heard the pitch from the beginning and were on board and they’ve been very good about it all.
Q: What did you think Kill Bill definition of Superman and Clark Kent?
Dougherty: It’s funny because the night that we as a group flew out from LA to Sydney – it was me and Dan and Bryan, our producers and Brandon.
Harris: January 5th or so.
Dougherty: 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 about 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.
Harris: The cool thing for me is that until you start looking or paying attention you don’t realize how Superman is in the cultural zeitgeist, in the minds of everything. It’s in every little 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 making the movie, 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.
Q: What about the Messianic elements. Do you see him as a God almost?
Dougherty: I think you can’t help but draw that comparison and I think it’s okay to do that. Even with the story that we’re telling it’s like Messiahs always leave and then everyone’s waiting for one to come back and we’re telling the story of a Messiah that does come back.
Harris: 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 maybe not having Messiahs in the first place? So if you’re using it as a religious allegory, you know, maybe those are some of the contemporary themes we’re asking.
Q: In the original you have Jor-El, the father sending his son down to Earth?
Harris: That’s part of the emotional core of the film. That’s what Jor-El and Kal-El, and ma, Pa Kent, of course…
Dougherty: That was like one of my favorite parts of the film Unbreakable was Samuel Jackson talking about how all our comic book superheroes are essentially just the new Gods. The story of Zeus and Hercules, I think they are just, it is the retelling of the Greek and Roman Gods for our culture.
Q: The first Superman set up Superman II. Are you guys planting the seeds for sequels?
Harris: Ah, hell yeah! I can confidently say that there are many seeds set up all the way through the whole movie for what will hopefully be a long-lasting new franchise.
Q: Will there be new villains for sequels we haven’t seen?
Harris: There’s some interesting villains and some of them are very hard to conceptualize on film.
Dougherty: At the same time you want to pick villains, 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…
Harris: Lex is a gateway villain. Superman is returning to the screen, he hasn’t been here in 25 years, Lex is our gateway villain.
Dougherty: After that, who knows?
Q: You like him in a way?
Harris: It’s already been established, people know who he is, people know what his powers or lack thereof are, what his agenda is.
Dougherty: He’s the ultimate clash between man and Superman.
Q: What elements of the comics would you like to see in a film? The Bizarro universe, Krypto the Superdog? I don’t know.
Dougherty: I personally, and 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. Again, I’m not saying this were we’re going, Iâ€™m just saying that’s always intrigued me. Again not Superman II type of Kryptonian villains that come down and, “We’re evil, we dress in black, and 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…
Q: How important is the Kryptonian heritage to him in this film?
Harris: 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 in 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.
Dougherty: 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 cours,e 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 stuff 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 why 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.”
Harris: And I just imagine Bryan, he’s adopted, but what if there was a recording of his actual birth parents talking to him, explaining things, trying to give him lessons of his life, and he could talk back and listen to those and learn from them and see the picture and how does that interact with the people who raised you? Is that your foundation or is where you come from now, is that your foundation? For us, Kryptonian heritage and the lessons and things taught by Jor-El to Kal-El are a very important and kind of a baseline for him.
Q: Do you think you’re adding an element of loneliness or pathos to Superman Returns, something that wasn’t really explored in earlier films.
Harris: I think that 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.
Dougherty: We’re trying not to make him too mopey though, so don’t get that impression.
Q: 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?
Harris: 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 once 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.
Dougherty: Except he doesn’t kill himself.
Harris: Yeah, Superman doesn’t kill himself.
Dougherty: (puts on a grim voice) Not yet!
Harris: 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.
Q: The X-Men movies changed some aspects of the comic. How do you expect Superman Returns to change the way writers approach the comic?
Harris: I don’t know. There might be a visual style that gets picked up.
Dougherty: 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 X-Men 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 that did happen.
Q: From the style of the costume in this movie, and everything we’ve seen, obviously it’s not Ma Kent’s design that she sewed together. Is that something, an element that will be explained in the movie?
Dougherty: 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.
Harris: It’s weird because in the last few years of comic movies, from Spider-Man 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.
Dougherty: We found out-takes of Marlon Brando explaining where it came from. You want to know what they are? (laughs) I think you guys might know of it. We watched all of these cool Brando out-takes.
Harris: That’s one of the best parts of this job.
Dougherty: 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…
Q: Like Nuclear Man.
Harris: How do you know about our villain? (laughs)
Q: Could you go back to the Jor-El stuff. Did you guys get the clearance from the Brando Estate before you wrote the stuff?
Dougherty: It kind of happened along the way.
Harris: 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.
Dougherty: But he’s another one of those essential elements, Jor-El. You guys asked before what are the iconic elements you have to have in a Superman film, and you have to have Jor-El.
Harris: 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.
Q: So these are takes that haven’t been seen before?
Dougherty: 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 like that. I’m sure if you used your imaginations, you could figure out where Marlon Brando might appear and what location…
Q: But the snippets you’re using are new?
Dougherty: It’s a mix. But it’s not the Superman II stuff
Harris: There’s no major discovery of Superman II unused footage.
Dougherty: Yeah, it’s not that.
Harris: The plotlines were explored before. But you know, there are things that fit.
Dougherty: There’s a pile of material, and the editors and sound guys will pick and choose what will be best.
Q: I know you’ve got a run on Ultimate X-Men coming up, would you like to write Superman in the comics?
Dougherty: YEAH! It would be fantastic. (long pause) We’re talking.
Q: How is everyone now, compared to how you imagined them when you arrived?
Dougherty: They’re better!
Harris: They’re better, absolutely! The actors in this movie 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 technologyâ€™s 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 temp 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.
Dougherty: 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 X-Men 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.
Q: Have you met Jack Larson and Noel Niell?
Harris: Oh, yeah.
Dougherty: Yeah, they were great.
Q: What did they say to you about handing you this Superman thing?
Dougherty: No, the best advice we got so far was from Margot Kidder. At Comic-Con. You talk about it.
Harris: (imitating Kidder) “It’s gonna be a ride. Your life’s gonna change. Just hang on tight and save your money.” (laughs)
Dougherty: 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.
Harris: The camera lowers and we were like “woah!”
Q: Noel and Jack are in the movie, are there any other historical Superman family cameos?
Dougherty: Unfortunately not this round.
Harris: 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.
Dougherty: 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!”
Harris: 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.
Dougherty: She still looks good.
Harris: Same with Marc McClure, who looks good. And everybody. It’s all been 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.
Dougherty: They don’t take you out of the movie.
Harris: 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.”
Q: Are there any iconic Superman lines that you had to keep in the script?
Harris: There are quite a few iconic Superman lines.
Q: Like “It’s a bird, it’s a plane?”
Harris: Yeah, there’s a twist on that.
Dougherty: 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.
Harris: 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.
Q: Is there a phone booth?
Harris: There’s always a phone booth. It’s the Matrix phone booth.
Dougherty: 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?
Harris: The Five for Fighting song.
Dougherty: Yeah, and it’s gorgeous. It shows the history of Superman in every incarnation, in every era.
Harris: It’s heart-wrenching!
Dougherty: Yeah, we showed it to Brandon, and I think he almost cried, too. And there’s a phone booth in it and it was like “S**t! Phone booth!” So that kind of spurred that.
Harris: However there will be no falling and transforming.
Q: No suit in a can?
Harris: No suit in a can!
Q: I noticed you’re knocking the Daily Planet ball off of the building again.
Dougherty: We are?
Q: I don’t know. The art on Guy’s wall indicated as much.
Dougherty: Yeah, but art gets made for things that don’t happen.
Harris: Oh yeah, the entire tour, by the way, has been created just to throw you guys off.
Dougherty: That’s right, Guy Dyas draws lies. That’s a joke. Do not quote me or he’ll kill me.
Harris: Yeah, Superman does not pose as Atlas at all during the film.
Q: 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?
Dougherty: 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 feeling. We’ve all lived in New York, so we can tell you. People do walk and talk faster.
Harris: 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.
Q: What about involvement with the Smallville stuff?
Harris: 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.
Dougherty: Yeah, we didn’t want any animosity between the two projects.
Harris: 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.
Dougherty: 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.
Q: How about the dual roles, Clark and Superman, how is it writing them?
Dougherty: It’s not that difficult. It’s not so much like a Jekyll and Hyde type of thing. It’s the same guy, it’s just different aspects of the same personality.
Read Part 10 of our visit, a tour of the art department with production designer Guy Dyas.
Superman Returns opens in conventional theaters, IMAX and IMAX 3D on June 30.
Source: Scott Chitwood