The DC cinematic universe is now taking shape, having been established with 2013’s Man of Steel. This will be followed up with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squadin 2016, with an upcoming full slate set to include movie outings for characters such as the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg as well.
Somewhere in time and space, there is an alternate universe where the landscape of DC movies and indeed superhero movies in general would have been vastly different. Superman Lives, a Superman movie which would have been directed by Tim Burton and which would have starred – wait for it – Nicolas Cage in the title role, was set for a 1998 opening and just barely missed coming to fruition.
For years, the extent of most fans’ knowledge of this intriguing project was the anecdotes related by writer and raconteur Kevin Smith, who was hired to pen the first draft of the screenplay. He would recount how infamously eccentric producer Jon Peters laid down certain specific stipulations, including that Superman not actually fly, not wear the iconic red and blue outfit with the cape and that he had to battle a giant spider in the third act.
F*** sat down with director Jon Schnepp and producer Holly Payne in San Diego during Comic-Con, where the team were promoting their documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? The partially crowd-funded documentary peels back the layers and deciphers the fascinating enigma of this lost Superman movie, including not only interviews with Burton, Smith, Peters, and other writers and producers, but stylised, animated re-creations of scenes that would have been in the film. The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?also contains unearthed concept art and rare footage of Cage’s costume tests. Schnepp and Payne reveal what the process of piecing together this lost cinematic history was like, reflecting on just how Superman Lives fell apart and the bizarre, wondrous Superman movie that could have been.
If you could narrow it down to one thing about Superman Lives that was so fascinating it made you decide to make this documentary, what would it be?
Jon Schnepp: For myself, it was the artwork, there’s a few things, but for me, it was a different take on the characterization of Superman and the artwork that I saw looked so different from anything else that I’d seen cinematically or on television or from the Superman mythos, the mythology of the comic book character, that really interested me, especially knowing that it was Tim Burton’s take on Superman.
Holly Payne: For me, it would be both the artwork and the casting. I would have love to have seen Nicolas Cage as Superman…I can’t pick one! Christopher Walken as Brainiac would’ve been amazing, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, which we ended up seeing in Superman Returns, but which I would probably prefer to see him in Superman Lives.
Were you able to find out who, other than Nicolas Cage, was considered to play Superman?
Holly: Yes. There was a list from Peters Entertainment, some of the names were Skeet Ulrich, Matthew McConaughey…help me out here…oh gosh, all of these 90s actors, some of them you can’t even remember who they are now, they’ve kind of fallen off the face of the planet…
Jon: Cage was always at the very top of the list.
Was there an interview subject in the film you initially thought you wouldn’t be able to secure and were pleasantly surprised when he or she agreed to appear in the film?
Jon: Most definitely, and that is Jon Peters. We were working on the documentary for over two years at that point. Everyone we had talked to didn’t have the greatest things to say about Jon Peters, I myself had developed a slightly negative thing like “I don’t know if I want him to be in the film…”
Holly: I forced him to do it.
Jon: Holly persisted in me staying at trying to find a connection, someone who knew how to talk to Jon Peters. Eventually I found a connection through his lawyer, his attorney. I just cold-called his attorney and told him who I was and what I was trying to do, he responded greatly, had him laughing in about 10-15 minutes, he felt at ease, talked to Jon Peters. Originally, Jon said no. A week later, he said yes. A week after that, we went and interviewed him, and it was fantastic.
Holly: It was a really fun time.
Jon: Great interviews, he’s a great person, really fun to talk to and he shed a lot of light, not only on all the opinions about himself and his take on things, but just on producing in general.
What was it like getting Tim Burton to open up, because he’s been cagey about this project and it’s hurt him quite a bit?
Holly: We caught him at a good time. Basically, we flew out to London not knowing whether or not we were going to get an interview. We flew out to meet Tim Burton. The pre-interview was about 10 minutes long and then he agreed to do it because he liked our vibe and we’re all artists, so we got along. Honestly, I think that if we had even come to him [just] two years prior, I don’t think he would have said yes. I think that enough time had passed that that wound had healed just enough for us to explore it with him. Even in the film he says “is there any cyanide I can take, why am I still talking about this?” but he had a great sense of humour about it and I think it was cathartic for him too, ultimately.
Dan Gilroy spoke out against comic book films at the Independent Spirit Awards. Do you think the experience working on Superman Lives had something to do with his attitude towards comic book movies?
Jon: No, not at all. You know, Dan Gilroy is just talking as an independent filmmaker and a lot of independent filmmakers feel the squeeze and it’s not about superhero films, to point the finger at superhero films, it’s about blockbuster filmmaking in general. The studio system and the need to be able to spend over $100 million in promotion, globally…cinema is different than it was in 1996 which is way different that it was in 1985 which is different than what it was in ’75. The idea of what independent film is, is someone spending a hundred grand, making a film, putting it on YouTube, that’s an independent movie. Anything else is not an independent movie. The idea or the words “independent film” just don’t exist anymore. There is no “independent film”.
Was there something you learned about the film that was so bizarre you didn’t believe it at first?
Holly: Yeah, the first thing that I would say was looking at the casting list, seeing the possible casting choices before Tim Burton even came on. One of the names on the list for Brainiac was Howard Stern. My jaw dropped on the floor. Then again, Private Parts came out around the same time so he was a real hot ticket at that time.
He was being looked at for Scarecrow in the fifth Batman film…
Holly: That’s right, you are absolutely right, you know your s***. [Laughs]
Jon: His name was on every list. After Private Parts came out, he was the hot guy. Sure, he’s an incredible funny guy, but right then his star was popping. For myself, finding out that Christopher Walken was going to play Brainiac blew my skull off. I was like “what?! That’s amazing!” And it really made me so much more want to see the combination of “Luthoriac” or “Lexiac”, whatever it was going to be, it was going to be Christopher Walken as Brainiac, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and then [their] heads combined arguing about stuff. That’s classic and I wish that would’ve happened.
Holly: If I ever run into either one of them, I gotta ask them that question.
What do you think the current landscape of comic book movies would be like had Superman Lives been made?
Jon: The Superman Lives movie, my personal feeling about it, is that it would’ve been a big hit. I think it would have changed the perception not only of Nicolas Cage whom everybody was boo-hooing about, it would have been the same thing as Michael Keaton as Batman, it would have changed the perception of Superman, it would have been a light-hearted cosmic fairytale, it would have had humour but it would also have had that Burton touch to it. It would have been like that Mars Attacks! movie that has that flavour to it. I think it would have spawned several sequels, it would have made a Justice League movie that much more possible, I think Michael Keaton would have eventually returned as Batman, we would have had a Batman/Supermancrossover, maybe with World’s Finesthappening in 2002. I think the landscape that we live in, if we peek into the alternate dimension where Superman Liveswas made, it’s a whole other dimension of superhero movies.
Holly: A parallel universe
A Bizarro World, if you will.
Jon: Yeah, for sure.
Do you think the performance of Batman and Robin had anything to do with what happened to Superman Lives?
Jon: Most definitely it did. Even though he had nothing to do with Batman and Robin, he was linked as a producer. So even though he did nothing on the film, his named was linked…
Jon: Smeared, basically, by that film. It was like association destruction.
Holly: Collateral damage.
Jon: They were already worried about Nicolas Cage, they were already worried about “is Tim Burton’s take on Superman going to be too dark,” “here’s this movie that crapped out that lost all this money” and not only is it a box office bomb, it’s a critical bomb and every fan who saw it hated it. It’s different though, for people who grew up watching it, who saw it when they were 3 on TV, some people have a soft spot for it – “I like the colours!” Yeah, I get it, garbage looks cool when you’re a child.
What were the major differences in the drafts of the screenplays that existed?
Jon: The biggest difference was the tone. Kevin Smith’s two different drafts had a little more of a comical tone and definitely a more nuanced knowledge of the characters of the comic book series. He was able to put a lot of cameos in there, he was able to squeeze to squeeze in a lot of references that true comic book fans would have appreciated…
The geek cred.
Jon: The geek cred was all over Kevin Smith, both of his drafts, the story stayed the same. When Wesley Strick came on, he’s admitted he’s not a comic book fan, he hasn’t read comics, he’s not into it, and that shows in his draft, it’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek, the jokes are a lot cornier. The most different of all the drafts was Wesley’s. He didn’t have a lot of time to work on the script as well, I think he worked on it with Tim for about four or five months before he was taken off and they replaced him with Dan Gilroy. Dan Gilroy came in with a little more of a focus on Clark Kent and focusing on like the whole idea of Superman being an alien also transfers over to Clark Kent. He’s also an alien, he’s also a guy hiding the fact that he’s an alien. Superman’s hiding the fact that he’s Clark Kent. Clark Kent’s hiding the fact that he’s an alien.
Masks behind masks.
Jon: Yeah, multiple masks, that is something Tim Burton is great at exploring, with Edward Scissorhands, with Batman, all of his characters in all of his films, the façade is there, and that is something Nicolas Cage wanted to bring to the character as well, his portrayal of Clark Kent and his abilities. How weird would it be to have these powers and hear a comedy club comedian like a mile away, laughing at a joke while you’re talking to someone else? Just those kinds of things, being a comic book fan, is something that Nicolas Cage brought to the character, he was able to add these nuances while they were developing the character.
Some of the footage that we got, being a fly on the wall, of Tim and Nic doing the costume tests, their talking about their interpretation: what does the cape mean? What does the costume mean? Clark Kent, how are we going to portray this character, what are we going to bring to it? When you see this, you hear where they’re coming from, from footage from 1997-98, it’s very inspiring to see what they would have done.
Any time there’s an adaptation, particularly a film adaptation of a comic book, there’s always the war of “iconic imagery vs. original thought” and that war seems to have been raging very fiercely in Superman Lives.
Jon: Yeah, I like that war because to me, all movies are “Elseworlds” of comic books. Every movie or TV show is not the comic. Guess what? You’ve got the comic. That’s all you really need. To validate a movie as being like the comic, I don’t need anyone to validate a comic book to me at all. I don’t care if the movie was terrible, I have the original comic. If the original comic was great, that’s all that matters. The movie is a different take, you don’t just pull the storyboards and then make a movie, it’s a completely different beast entirely. Television, spread out over time, is a soap opera. A movie is act 1, act 2, act 3, it’s a finite thing. That’s why you have superhero characters’ and their villains’ origins tied in, because it makes it a lot simpler and cleaner to be able to tell that story within a 90 minute context. So for myself, it doesn’t matter that the X-Men didn’t wear yellow outfits, it doesn’t matter that Wolverine didn’t have the bright colours, it’s like a different take on the perspective of the material and that’s what all these movies and TV shows bring us as comic book fans, people who love the superhero films and the genre who don’t read the comics will never get that take.
Finally, we’ve seen Lex Luthor on screen many times, Zod onscreen a couple of times and Superman Lives would have had Luthor but would also have had Brainiac. So, is there a Superman villain we haven’t seen before in a Superman movie that you’d like to see?
Jon: Definitely not Mr. Mxyzptlk.
Holly: I was going to say Mr. Mxyzptlk!
Jon: I always hear people say that and I’m like, “that’s boring”. Number one, he’s too powerful, he’s from a different dimension, and you’ve got to trick him into saying his name backwards, how lame is that? I would go with Metallo. He’s a fun character. I would throw in the Parasite, I would chuck him in. They’ve played out the Kryptonian Phantom Zone characters quite a bit so I don’t really need to see them return. Bizarro would be a lot of fun. But once you bring in Bizarro, that brings in that bizarre comic [element], like “I live on the square planet!” “Me am Bizarro” I don’t know about that, so I would take Bizarro back.
Holly: For me, I would go with Mr. Mxyzptlk, I have to go against Jon. Maybe just as an ancillary villain, not like the main villain.
To give it a trippiness.
Holly: Exactly! Exactly.
Jon: If they could do Mr. Mxyzptlk the way Alan Moore did Mr. Myxyzptlk in The Last Superman Story Ever Told, where he was like literally a freakish demon from another dimension, twisted, then that’s the way to play it.
The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? Is available for purchase exclusively at www.tdoslwh.com.