So far you’ve heard from a number of the actors in the upcoming film “Superman Returns,” as well as director Bryan Singer. Now it’s the screenwriters turn. Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris wrote the screenplay based on an idea Dougherty, Harris and Singer worked on together. They were tasked with the difficult job of bringing the greatest comics icon back to the Silver Screen and returning him to box office dominance. Not an easy job, for sure, as you’ll read below in one of the funnier and more relaxed interviews from the “Superman Returns” press junkett held Friday of last week in Los Angeles.
You went back to some of the early Superman movies and referenced them with this new one. Did you do that from the get-go, or were your sources the comic book?
Before you start, could you say your names on tape?
DH: I’m Dan.
MD: I’m Mike.
DH: And this is…
MD: Coffee Talk.
DH: Well, there’s certain lines and then there’s certain bigger story ideas. A lot goes back to “Superman” The Movie.”
DH: Back to our experience of who Superman is, played by these certain actors, and we liked to watch that movie.
Donner said that you guys on “X-Men” would watch “Superman” on set. Is that true?
MD: I have a funny feeling Donner is actually remembering “X-Men 1.” I don’t know. We watched it on “X-Men 2,” but I’m not sure what he’s referencing specifically.
How much influence did Dick Donner have in the way the script took shape? Did he have any input?
DH: Not necessarily input, but we ran things by him, and Bryan got the golden stamp of approval. You know, they’re friends of ours. We’ve known Lauren [Shuler Donner] from “X-Men” for years, and met Dick through her. He’s amazing, and she’s amazing. We have such respect and reverence for him that we didn’t want to do anything that would upset him or go against what he put out there.
MD: When the project was announced, he faxed us a letter that was just three sentences. He’s such a classy guy. It just said something along the lines of “Just heard about Superman. He couldn’t be in safer hands. Love, Dick.” I got really choked up about that.
DH: It was like a blessing to go off and do it.
Did you guys save that fax?
MD: Of course!
There are some lines in this movie taken straight from the original film. Was that your idea, paying homage to Christopher Reeve?
DH: A little bit of paying homage, and also it’s fun to take lines like that and twist them, put them in a new position.
Like the fear of flying.
DH: Yeah, like fear of flying, except the flight is a lot worse this time. That’s why the joke is kind of funny to people who know it.
MD: But it’s also a respectful way of acknowledging everything that came before. I think whenever you do a Superman project, whether it’s a comic book, a TV show, or a new film, you have to acknowledge the legacy. You can’t be cocky about what you’re doing and say “Well, I’m not gonna use the theme, and I’m not gonna use any situations from previous. I’m just gonna be brand new and fresh and original.” No, you’re doing Superman. You’re part of the bigger picture, so acknowldege what came before.
DH: Obviously this character and this history is bigger than any of us put together.
You talk about referencing the past. You even have an acknowledgement of “Action Comics” #1 in the film. Whose idea was that?
[Mike points at Dan]
It’s been said about past incarnations that the only thing Jon Peters was interested in, besides giant spiders, was the merchandising. Can you talk about Jon’s involvement?
DH: Jon was absolutely amazing with us.
MD: Yeah, honestly.
DH: It’s the complete, honest truth. The guy was great. He heard the story, heard the tape. We had lunch and talked about it early on. He gave us a hug and walked off. When we started shooting he sent us telegrams.
DH: I’ve never gotten telegrams in my life.
He didn’t set any stipulations? No giant spiders?
DH: Wait, which version did you watch?
If you hadn’t seen the ’70s movies, and today’s audiences may not have, what are the dangers of referencing it? For example the “I Spent the Night with Superman” article. Do you think that’s a problem at all?
DH: I think that specific thing will help sell some bigger story ideas to people who take it at face value and not know what it refers to. I think that there’s enough… it was a careful balance of not remaking anything, not retelling the origin, and yet slipping enough stuff in there to say “This is what it’s like when he discovers his powers. This is what it’s like when these things happen in the past.” You don’t have to imagine them. They all happen if you’ve never seen them.
But don’t you also know that Superman I, II, & III are going to show on TBS and TNT in the weeks leading up to the film?
DH: Well, hopefully, yeah.
MD: But you can’t assume. I can’t assume that my 8 year old cousins have seen those films. You have to reintroduce those concepts and ideas to new audiences.
DH: Like Mike says, it’s like James Bond. In every James Bond film there’s a little reintroduction of Q. You see the car again like it’s the first time. Even though it’s a different car, it’s sort of the same car.
MD: M has to wave the finger, y’know? [;aughs]
Was it tough to switch from a franchise like X-Men with Bryan? I’m sure you had ideas for where to go in that third movie. To suddenly switch over and do Superman, was it frustrating to leave any old ideas behind with that whole other franchise that you couldn’t fulfill? And did you have any long-running Superman ideas that you finally got to explore in this film?
MD: Yes, it was very tough to leave X-Men. Not because it was a great opportunity to help finish the trilogy, but also because on a personal level we got to know that cast and crew really well. We felt like all of a sudden we had to tell them “I’m being transferred to this other school called Superman. You guys have fun.” Yes, we had certain ideas -it wasn’t a detailed treatment – but we had certain ideas that we wanted to do. That was a little tragic.
As far as Superman goes, it’s not like I was brainstorming ideas growing up. “I’d like to do a Superman movie and blah, blah, blah.” When Bryan first introduced the idea of doing a Superman film back in ’03 when we were finishing “X-Men 2,” it was just “Wouldn’t it be fun if we got to do a Superman movie some day? And we got to do this, this, and this?” Then all of a sudden the gears started turning. The seeds got planted there.
Have you seen “X-Men: The Last Stand?”
Did you say to each other “Why did they do that? I would have done…”
DH: We’re at a more Zen place than that.
DH: No, seriously. You can’t sit there and say “I would have done all that differently!” You know you would have.
Were you surprised by any of it?
DH: I was surprised.
In a good way?
MD: No, no! There were some pleasant surprises. They actually did some ideas that we were leaning towards. I remember when Jean takes of Cyclops’s visor… this was in a little email that Dan sent me one day, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Jean came back as Phoenix and took off his visor, and was able to hold off his blast?” So it was eerie to see that on screen.
DH: It would have been at the end of the movie, but…
MD: Even Magneto using Phoenix as a weapon. That was a cool concept, and a neat idea. To see that happen on the screen was really kind of fun. To know that the people who were now running with the series were kind of heading in that right direction.
Superman has always been that kind of ultimate American icon. He stands for, as the tag line says, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Why did you guys drop “The American Way?”
MD: Perry dropped “The American Way.” Perry White did it.
MD: Here’s the thing – it was a very conscious effort. We feel like the character has evolved into a global superhero. When he was first created… he is an American icon, he’s part of the lexicon, but he has evolved and been embraced by everyone around the world. It was a conscious effort to not alienate everyone else.
So the global box office…?
MD: No, not just the global box office. To kids all around the world it’s not…
DH: Let’s be honest, the term of “The American Way” means something different than it did 50 years ago.
MD: It’s grayer.
DH: Exactly. There’s no easy answer for that right now. At the same time, we want… the character’s an alien. He’s come to the Earth.
He’s an illegal alien.
MD: He’s gonna get deported!
He came all this way and he doesn’t have papers.
MD: Good luck trying to kick him out!
DH: It was in the ’40s, you were allowed to do that back then.
So is there a time frame for when you guys are going to start writing the sequel? Have you guys already started with some ideas?
DH: There are ideas, but we need a giant vacation. Or at least a little vacation. It’s been non-stop.
What are the dangers when you’re doing a sequel to not replicate…
MD: Superman II?
Yeah, to not go back. I will say, we miss General Zod.
DH: Everyone misses General Zod.
MD: Yeah, Zod for President!
How do you avoid that?
DH: Well, there are some things in this movie – you guys have seen it – that set up a different path for a sequel.
The child will obviously have an important role?
MD: I’m sorry, what?
MD: Oh, I don’t know. But…
MD: …in terms of Zod or other Kryptonians. If we were going to follow that path of other Kryptonians showing up – maybe, possibly, I don’t know – I doubt they’d be showing up in black jump-suits and knee high leather boots, blowing up small towns. Trust me, I love all that stuff, but I think in today’s day and age, your villains have to be painted in more shades of grey.
In writing “X2” and in writing this one – obviously both pressure-cookers – which one was more pressure filled? Which one had greater challenges?
MD: This one.
DH: This one, absolutely.
DH: Well, “X2” – there was a difficult part in that it was our first big movie, but there was a huge luxury where everybody already knew each other. The characters were already decided, except for Nightcrawler and Bryan Cox.
MD: The first one came out three years before.
DH: We’d seen it before, we knew them. We were directly moving off them. They all knew each other. There was a lot there already as a foundation.
What’s going on with “I, Lucifer?”
DH: Casting right now. That’s a movie that we wrote from the book “I, Lucifer” and I’ll be directing.
What is it?
DH: It’s a movie about the devil.
I gathered that from “Lucifer” in the title.
MD: It’s a black comedy.
MD: It is!
DH: It’s a black comedy where the devil retells biblical history from his point of view. And you’re being dropped in the body of a screenwriter who’s about to kill himself in London.
And you’re directing it?
Q: Who’s in it?
DH: We’ll know soon. Some excellent Scottish actors.
Oh, Ewan McGregor’s going to be in it?
MD: Yes, excellent Scottish actors who were in a Star Wars film.
When you guys were on set, was there a lot of rewriting from day to day?
MD: Yeah, but it’s not a bad thing.
DH: Some days we just kind of sit there and eat craft services, but most days they’ll stop a scene and be like, “That line is terrible.”
MD: “Fix it.”
DH: Yeah.. “Fix it right now.”
How bout the fact that you guys wrote the whole return to Krypton sequence and it was cut out?
Was that sad?
DH: It’s interesting. We published the screenplay for this movie. I’m not sure that Bryan and everybody is aware – well they’re kind of aware – but we published the full script to the movie, which is probably an hour longer than the movie is right now, so any deleted scenes that are not going to show up in the DVD for one reason or another will all be in the script. The script is a full-on, big, big, big draft.
MD: A different opening…
There are photographs of that opening scene in this movie guide [holding the official movie guide].
DH: Yep. And it’s tough.
MD: It’s not an easy decision, y’know? To cut that stuff out.
DH: And there’s a reason for it. In the movie it felt like the lingering question of where he went was better to be wondered about instead of shown right away, and then drop back into the world.
That’s going to be on the DVD anyway, right?
MD: We’ll see. We don’t know.
Did you guys do any audio commentary for the DVD?
MD: Not yet.
DH: No, there’s a wierd thing with the commentary this time where the length of the film prohibits it, but there’s going to be a visual commentary…
MD: It’s some new idea. You’ll have to ask Rob [Burnett, the DVD Producer]. Where’s Rob?
That’s probably for high-def DVD.
MD: Yeah, we’re going to project holographic images of ourselves onto your couch.
Which is really exciting!
DH: Yeah, I’m a really great couch-mate. We’ll sleep on your couch, too.