As you learned earlier, “Superman Returns” Set Designer Guy Dyas isn’t your average interviewee and the fashionably dressed Dyas was happy to show journalists many of the sets used in the film. We now continue our roundtable interview with Dyas, conducted last summer on location, in Sydney, Australia.
PRESS: How detailed of a map did you have to draw of Metropolis?
GD:: (almost mischievous) I’ll show you how detailed.
GD:: You always have to get pretty detailed with Bryan, and we made a street map of Metropolis with all the names. (unfolds the map) This was actually lying around in the Daily Planet, so I just knew Bryan at one point would have someone grab a map, and they did. So, I was right. So there you go.
PRESS: If you faked it, he would notice?
GD:: What do you mean faked it? What, if I used New York or something?
PRESS: Yeah, well…
GD:: Well, I wouldn’t be here today!
GD:: That’s Bryan! So there you go. We basically created an entire map.
PRESS: How much fun did you have with the road names? I see there’s countless roads.
GD:: Yeah, well, again, it’s a clearance nightmare. The design of the map took about a week, but clearing the names took about 3 months.
PRESS: I see you’re a West Ham fan, did you get any of the West Ham players in there?
GD:: No, that’s just… that’s another world. This, actually, is a great drawing. This is the illustration that Bryan actually used to pitch Brandon to the studio as Superman. There was some concern, obviously as there always is, about a newcomer, and their abilities, and Bryan basically had us create an illustration of Brandon in his costume, and superimpose his head on. This was part of the big pitch for Brandon, so that’s kind of an important drawing for the film. As you move around, you’re going to see all sorts of various things. There’s an interesting drawing here which shows the various designs of the boot. I still think Nike should contact us and do a line of Superman boots. There were some interesting conversations about the kind of boots a guy of his power would need to actually launch himself at the speed he does, the support that he’d need in his heel. It was unbelievable the conversations we had about these things. That’s just a little interesting moment there from design development. As you move around there are more pictures of “The Gertrude” yacht, and on the right over there in the corner are just more pictures of the fortress, of the set and the icy landscape. But what I’ll do right now, before I bore you all to death, is I’m going to show you some pictures of the sets, I’ve set up a little slide show.
(showing Kent Farm Pictures)
GD:: Basically it’s about… it’s a plane ride away, and then an hour by car, and it really is in the middle of nowhere. It was the flattest place I could find in Australia. Obviously if we’re trying to depict the Midwest, you have to find some place that’s pretty flat, and that’s extremely difficult to find. So, these are some of the shots of the farm, and the crew there. As I said, this was all built from scratch. You’re going to see everything from telephone poles to water pumps. We built about 6 miles of road here, just to get out to this location. There’s Bryan himself standing there, eyeing up the goat. [???something about 3 days. . didn’t get the first part???]. He got really attached to the goat, actually. The goat was called Igor, if anyone’s interested. This is looking from the Kent Farm over to the famous barn. Obviously my inspiration… look, as a Brit it was a great honor to do this classic mid-western stuff, and I looked an awful lot at Norman Rockwell and classic American artists and how they depicted farms, and obviously this has a beautiful period feel to it. There again is the Kent Farm. I went to great lengths to find this truck, and for those of you who remember the first film, you’ll see this is almost an exact match for the original family truck that they find him in when he lands on Earth. There’s another shot. I’ll spin through these. That’s an out of focus shot because I actually got this from the editors so it’s low-res, but you can see how the farm is laid out here, and how it all works. All these roads and all these crops as far as your eye can see were all grown for this film.
PRESS: They needed to be grown?
GD:: It was a desert. In fact… I don’t know if I can find a picture. If I show you a picture of this, you’ll freak out. This tree was brought in and planted here.
PRESS: How long did it take to build this structure?
GD:: This set took me, I would say, about three and a half months. I just finished “The Brothers Grimm” with Terry Gilliam when Bryan called me for this, so I have a lot of experience with building these sort of rural-type environments. In Prague we had a nice little rain. It was easy to build big long fields of grass. Out here there was nothing. We had to import so much water to grow all these crops.
PRESS: In the middle of a water crisis…
GD:: Yeah, that was tough, too! This is the kitchen. This was a big sell, but basically I wanted to encourage Tom and Bryan to not only shoot the exteriors of the farm, but also the interiors on location so that whenever you looked out the window you got all the benefit of the work that had been done there. This is the living room, just a classic, cute little farm house. That’s his bedroom. Again, some more shots of the farm… the barn.
PRESS: How closely did it match the Donner film?
GD:: It didn’t really. There’s one shot in the Donner film, which you’ll see, when he’s actually walking up the driveway with his father, and the father’s explaining “hey, you shouldn’t show off son” and all that stuff. There’s a silhouette of the farm where you have the farm house on the right hand side of the road, and the barn on the left. They’re just sort of there on the hill in silhouette. I stuck to that, in the sense that in the driveway, when you look up, the silhouette is the same from the road, from the mail box. I don’t know if they ever actually used a shot from there, but if you had a shot from there it would look exactly the same. Once you actually get inside, it’s very different. Here’s the inside of the barn, you can just get a sense of it. You can get a sense of what that looked like. Just say if you’re bored, guys. This is the only actual set from the farm that we built here on the stage. There is a hidden trap door in the barn which leads to a cellar, and I couldn’t dig that deep out there because I was going to knock the barn over. I built that as a separate set here, on the studio.
PRESS: It actually reminds me a little of the barn in “The Brothers Grimm”… in the beginning, when they’re fighting the…
GD:: Did any of you guys see that film?
GD:: What did you think?
PRESS: It was okay. .
GD:: It was okay?
PRESS: The production design was great, though.
GD:: Well, anyway. Here’s the baby pod. This was my redesign of the baby pod, again playing on the idea that it’s an organic form. So, hidden in the bottom of the cellar is the original pod that he arrived as a baby in. There’s Brandon, looking proud of the farm.
PRESS: So he has flashbacks?
GD:: Yeah. This is actually a look at the farm from a long, long way away, and you can see this is when we started to grow these acres and acres of corn. This really bizarre thing is the exterior of the interior of that pod, of the main spaceship that he travels around in. This was a really interesting experiment. When you’re shooting a film and you want to create an atmosphere with light, you use a gobo, which is basically just something you hang up in front of the light to give you some sort of reflective, interesting shape. I decided to build the crystal ship entirely out of gobos, so this is actually like a giant puppet. There are actually thousands and thousands of ropes supporting single sheets of fiberglass here, and it’s all lit internally. It was an incredibly difficult thing to build. I talked about the spaceship returning back to Earth and crashing, and this is the set we built for that.
PRESS: So these Kryptonian ships don’t have landing wheels or anything?
GD:: Yeah. There it is.
PRESS: You’d think they’d have worked that out by now.
Q2: Well they were about to explode, leave them alone.
(lots of “wow”s as Guy cycled through ship pics from the farm)
GD:: Yeah, it’s quite an interesting thing to do.
PRESS: You built that?
Q2: How big is it?
GD:: It was about 95 feet.
PRESS: Is it still existing?
GD:: No, it’s gone now. It’s really tough to build out there.
PRESS: How long and deep was that trench?
GD:: The trench was about 300 feet, something like that.
PRESS: Do you find it a bit hard to take all of these wonderful sets and creations down?
GD:: Yeah, it is a little bit. I think the Kent farm was really tough. We had animals there, and… it was really tough. Yeah, the Kent Farm was tough.
PRESS: The goat…
GD:: Well we had chickens, and geese, and all sorts of funny things. It’s just tough when, you know… and there are certain things about these sets that you’ll see if you’re there. The sun’s going down, and there’ll be moments where you go “man, why are we tearing this down?” But that’s the job, so what can I do? This is the reveal of the Daily Planet. I don’t know if you saw the scaffolding coming up.. I’m trying to build another set using the same scaffolding, that’s the kind of money-saving guy I am. Basically, that scaffolding originally supported this set, which was the entrance to the Daily Planet. That’s the model, there. We talked about that.
PRESS: Was it based on any real newspaper?
GD:: This was really based on fantasy. I spent two weeks running around in New York with Bryan, when he first got the project, just looking at architecture. He was there with Dan and Mike writing the script in a hotel room, and every now an then he’d just pick me up and say “Let’s go around and look at some buildings.” So we would just go around, and he would pick out elements he really liked, and that’s what we worked on. That’s a memorial in the park.
Joe Everett: I know you’ve got another meeting coming up, so do you want to get to the stages?
GD:: Oh, yeah, we should. Alright, let me run through these really quick, then, seeing as I can’t really take you inside. We had to have rotating doors, you guys know that. This is the inside…
PRESS: That’s the foyer that carries over into the news room?
GD:: Well, this was a freebie. I kind of…(whispers) We shouldn’t really have built this, but we did (end whispering). This is the inside of those double doors.
PRESS: Now, that’s really open to the air out there?
GD:: Yeah, this is all open air with a big tent over the tent over the top. (whispers) Don’t tell Warner Brothers (end whisper). This is a big free set we built. This is the inside foyer. Basically I just couldn’t stand the idea of cutting from a stage to this outside set. I hate that stuff, so we had to get the camera following them through the double doors and getting them out onto the street. That was a great moment. It really paid off. There you see it again. All these frieses[???], which are sort of industrial artwork… There’s the upstairs foyer of the Daily Planet. Again, the idea here is that this building was created in the 20’s, and it was made to… some modernization was done. You can see the detail that was put into the set. It’s funny, we had, as part of the whole newspaper thing, we had a bunch of these one-sheets done, which we had in all the corridors. We had things like “Lex Luthor gets life,” and we’ve got Kevin Spacey in the photograph with his bald head. We actually recreated – I couldn’t find them anywhere in the archives – all the original newspaper covers that we saw in the first films, like “Look Ma, it Flies!” We recreated all of those, and put them all down the corridor. It has a great sense of history. We mixed them with real historical events, so it wasn’t just all about Superman. There’s real history, then the odd one about Superman. We really tried to tie it into the real world.
PRESS: Did you contact the Superman Museum in Metropolis, Illinois?
GD:: Oh yeah! Boy, did I. So, there’s the elevation, the corridors. This is the entrance into the Daily Planet. This is the other side of the door, there it is.
PRESS: Doesn’t that look like Frank Lloyd Wright?
GD:: Yep, it sure does. This is greatly inspired by the Johnson Wax building. So there it is, the Daily Planet. At least what I think it should look like.
Girl: I just wanted to say we fixed your schedule, so you’re alright.
GD:: Thanks. So, I’ll just zip through these, guys. I don’t want to bore you. So this just shows some of the detail. Again, the dressing… you have to be really careful when designing these kind of sets so that it doesn’t look too contrived. This is really what the newspaper offices look like, just piled up documents. What I like about this is that hopefully it’s attractive to look at, but it has a sense of practicality to it. Here’s the board room. There’s a very big scene that happens in there. That’s the entrance to Perry White’s office. For those of you that are architectural fans, you’ll notice these drawings on the left and the right, these charcoal drawings of the 20’s architecture…
PRESS: Hugh Ferris?
GD:: Yeah, exactly. Hugh Ferris. There’s Perry’s office, and you’ll notice the cabinet in the background, if you look really closely, it’s the Daily Planet. There’s a lot of scenes that happen in here. These are the windows. Okay, this is the inside of that 777. It was a very big gimbal. If you watch the blogs, you’ll see it’s on there. That’s the bar. That is a location downtown.
PRESS: Is it called Bibbo’s? Ace of Clubs?
GD:: Ace of Clubs, yeah. Okay this is a stitched photo, but it shows the train set. There you go. We had everything in here. We had a B-29 in the air with a little bomb hanging from it with a little “slim pickin’s” on the back. We had a big zeppelin in here. There’s the Daily Planet building in there. There’s all sorts of detail. God, I hope you all see some of it in the film. It took a lot of time. This is the location which we changed into the Gertrude mansion, the Gertrude Vanderworth mansion.
PRESS: Are those real interiors?
GD:: No, no. All the sculptures are made, the bed is made, the furnishings are made. This is the yacht. This is actually the bridge of the yacht. Very rich wood tones in here.
PRESS: There’s even a Deco feel in this set.
GD:: Yeah, we tried. Here’s the outside. You’ll go and see this. This is the main gallery with the glass floor that I talked about. Everything in here was made from scratch.
PRESS: What kind of budget did you have? Was it huge?
GD:: You know what, surprisingly not. It was kind of “X2” size. That’s good, because I don’t have to tell you a number that way. You can go and figure that out. It’s a very big budget film, but because we have a character that flies around a lot, and does a lot of things which you really can’t do other than in CG, the computer graphics get a very, very large chunk of this budget. Because the sets are supposedly contemporary you just have to be really clever and inventive with how you spend your money. I hope there is a sense of richness that’s coming across to you guys, because that means we did well for the money we had.
PRESS: Was there anything you wanted to build that they said “no” to you about?
GD:: Yeah, when I wanted to build that big yacht out there! And when I said I wanted to build the Daily Planet. (jokingly) They said no, I don’t really understand why.
PRESS: In the X-Men films there was always the Danger Room, which you wanted to happen but just couldn’t do. Was there anything like that on this?
GD:: No, no, no. Bryan, Dan, and Mike had the story really done. They really had it done.
PRESS: There weren’t many drafts…
GD:: No, there really weren’t. They usually do this great thing where they have the draft, they pretty much stick to it, there’s usually a few scenes that come and go. We’ve got a couple of those right now, like the bank robbery we’re going to do.
PRESS: Does it help having them on set for that?
GD:: Yeah, it does. I mean, Bryan’s… he does everything. He’ll edit the script as he goes, and pages get rewritten, but there wasn’t really anything as important as the Danger Room in the X-Men that got cut. That was a shame. I wonder if they’ll do it in number 3.
PRESS: Please tell me you’re going to be releasing that picture of Superman in space as a poster…
GD:: Yeah, well, that was a hugely inspirational drawing for Bryan. It’s just this idea of how does… it’s kind of the same argument of “how does Father Christmas deliver toys to everyone in the world?” How does Superman save everybody in the world? How does he do his job. The idea is that there’s this listening post that’s way up there in the atmosphere. There are actually shots of this that have been done which are really spooky. You get shivers up your spine. It’s set to beautiful classical music. He’s just up there in the atmosphere, basically listening. You go into his ear, where you basically hear all the sounds around the world of people in trouble, and then he just “woosh” and off he goes. Bryan, again, nailed it. It’s exactly what Superman needs to do so that you don’t think, “What’s he doing? Save everyone in Metropolis and nobody else gets any help?” I think he’s really been able to deal with that.
PRESS: There’s the whole thing with Truth, Justice, and the American way. Is it more the global aspect, now?
GD:: Well, look… I’m sure… Superman is American. I know Bryan’s made efforts, he’s making efforts to make it a more international character. Everyone in the world knows who Superman is, but he is – and should be proud of it – he is one of the great American icons.
PRESS: I love the little thing in the blog, in Tokyo. [SuperTalk Concern] You lived in Tokyo….
GD:: Yeah, I did. That was weird. All I had to do was think about every time I turned on the TV. I’ve got a picture of that set… There’s the glass floor. So, anyway, that’s the main cabin. I think that’s pretty much it… yep. I hope that was some help.
(a short walk later)
GD:: This is stage 7.
PRESS: Is this the Fortress of Solitude?
GD:: It’s not the Fortress of Solitude. It’s something else. I can’t tell you what it is. I just wanted to show you so you can all speculate. I’m not being funny, I just can’t tell you what it is. It’s interesting.. we’ll be here probably Wednesday of next week. All I can tell you is that big crash in the ground is where Superman lands… and he’s very angry. That’s it. This is an interesting set, we have water rigged down the sides. There will be water pouring down the sides, and it’s going to look fantastic when it’s lit, but I can’t really tell you what it is. I just can’t. Alright, let’s move on.
GD:: This was the train set. Needless to say, something bad happens here. That’s all I can really say about it. This was, at one point, a really beautiful train set. The staircase behind you is what we use to marry into the location, which was Gertrude’s mansion. This is actually the basement. So the idea is that something really terrible happens here and the train set’s destroyed. We actually had duplicates of some of the train set pieces that were donated to us by Märklin. A lot of the buildings we made ourselves, and made duplicates so that we could burn them up and destroy them in this way. You’ll see the Kent Farm tucked under there. It really looked pretty good when it was together.
PRESS: This is still a hot set? This is still being used?
GD:: This is still being used. We’ve still got pieces to shoot here. I’d love to have shown you it with all the trains working and the zeppelins running around, but at least you get a sense of it anyway. Let’s head back out towards Joe… thank you.
(walking to stage 3)
GD:: This is the back portion of the “Gertrude.” I don’t know if you remember in the model, it actually has three tiers. In reality the stage wasn’t big enough, but there’s actually another tier above this, further along which is the helipad. Now, if you promise not to touch anything we can go up and have a look. Just don’t move any glasses or anything because they’ll kill me. Let’s just say a party or something’s been going on here, complete with towels with Gertrude’s emblem on them. This is the gym… They had to cover themselves so they’d not necessarily have to shoot into green screen all of the time. It’s for a pretty big scene in the film, and they needed this much of it built. To me it’s just the nuttiest thing in the world building the back end of a yacht on a stage. Anyway…
(move to interior of Yacht) [There was a ton of noise here, so I think I may have lost a little at the beginning]
GD:: Pretty much everything in here was designed from scratch. Chairs, tables, even the fabric, in this case, was actually designed and made up. The lights were my design… everything except the piano, if I’m being completely honest. The piano I didn’t design. Anyway, it’s all here. This is the underbelly of the ship now. Those windows, there, mark… just below that is the water line on the ship, and everything, obviously, below here will be below sea level.
PRESS: Are you going to have green screen or real water?
GD:: There’s green screen, and then we’ve got convex mirrors and little pools, which we’ve made, little fish tank-like things. We can reflect light into those and get some nice dancing shadows on the top when they’re in more tropical waters. This ship goes on quite a voyage around the world, gets pretty beaten up.
PRESS: Was it fun getting to work on the ocean aspects of the film.
GD:: Yeah, it was. How often do you get asked to design…
PRESS: The most expensive yacht in the world?
GD:: No, no. The most expensive yacht in the world? no. I think the highlights are probably the yacht, the train set, and the farm, for me. Maybe the Daily Planet, too. There’s been some nice ones.
PRESS: Are there any homages in here to the DC Universe?
GD:: No, this was, at Bryan’s choice, was pretty clean of that stuff. That was all kept to very specific sets: The Kent Farm, the Daily Planet, things that are really rooted in the Superman world. Anything outside of that had to be fairly realistic and what you’d expect. The design in here is based on some research. I went on a very heavy research period where I looked at some of the world’s most expensive and luxurious yachts. All the wood finishes, and the design feel of this space are quite reminiscent of that. Obviously this is a little more designed. You don’t get extravagant roof structures like this, or these ball and socket lights. By the way, here’s an interesting thing – all these lights here on these rods, including the pool table lights at the other end, which if anyone hasn’t thought of it already, what the hell’s a pool table doing on a yacht? All of these are actually on one gimbal, so even though the actual set isn’t on a gimbal, all of the lights rock back and forth very gently. You actually start to feel very sea sick in here when all of this stuff starts going. There are certain props in here that are all timed to just sway very gently.
PRESS: Could the yacht actually exist?
GD:: Yeah, absolutely. Well, if you had enough money, yeah, you could build this. Absolutely. The gimbal is designed to make the ship feel like it’s moving. If you take the camera and start jogging it back and forth like this..
PRESS: Star Trek style..
GD:: Hopefully NOT like that. And when you start moving light fittings, it’s amazing. You look at that on camera and it looks exactly like it’s supposed to.
PRESS: Do the balls on the pool table actually roll?
GD:: They roll back and forth. While they’re trying to play pool. It’s pretty funny.
PRESS: I thought Lex was a genius?
GD:: Well, he didn’t build this, remember. He just got it. He just got it free.
PRESS: [a question about the glass bottom, I couldn’t understand it clearly]
GD:: Well, there are boats for those who dive, and go out and snorkel and those sort of things, you can actually take boats out into reefs that do have glass bottoms. You can look down and see, and there are tours where you can go on boats with glass bottoms. So, it’s not an original idea, but certainly this extravagant and this size is pretty unique. It’s funny, when you work on something like X-Men and you have the plastic prison, and you’re used to walking on glass and things that don’t really look like they have any structure, you just sort of get used to it. I remember when we first brought the actors in here, they were sorta just, “okay…..” (mimics nervous walking). I hope it was conveyed in the photographs. I’m sorry the lighting crew is all off on location, and we can’t get the set lit properly. I hope you get a sense of it from looking at it. It looked pretty good. And needless to say, the spiral staircase takes you up to a corridor, which then takes you up to another corridor, then another corridor, then finally you’re up at the bridge. So it’s pretty huge.
PRESS: How thick is that glass? [the glass floor of the boat]
GD:: It’s about 2.5 to 2.75 inches. So it’s fine. We only had one piece of glass break. During construction, someone dropped a hammer. It just shattered, though. It’s safety glass, so it just shatters. It actually makes a beautiful pattern, which I’m going to use in my next project. It wasn’t right for this one.
PRESS: Do you have green screens under here?
GD:: Yep, we have green screens, which we can wheel in and out. We also have these fish tanks, which we can wheel in and out, and we also have these convex mirrors. So, the lights that are up on the walls outside the stage, they bounce light down, along underneath, and back up into the set. You basically use a series of mirrors to get the light back up into here. It’s pretty effective.
PRESS: Is there any particular inspiration for the mermaid? [windows behind the spiral staircase]
GD:: The mermaid, yeah. Now, look, the theme on this film is modern mixed with 30’s deco. I just wanted to have a beautiful glass wall with the sculpted mermaids on it. I thought it would be very beautiful, very stylish to see this ornate spiral staircase, and see the characters coming down them completely in silhouette in a really nice wide shot. Again, it’s supposed to be a really luxurious yacht. The set needed something more than just books and a few sparse pieces. We needed to give it just something that was a bit of an eye catcher.
PRESS: Are those based on your drawings?
PRESS: Could we walk on the glass?
GD:: Yeah, if you’d like.
PRESS: So the water comes up through here?
GD:: Yeah, exactly. If you imagine those mirrors I’m talking about, they reflect the light into these large transparent fish tanks. We agitate the water so it starts to move, and then you get that classic early 007 mystique.
PRESS: Did you build all of the furnishings?
GD:: Yeah, it’s all hand made. Even the fabric was made by hand.
PRESS: [question about the wood work in the ceiling, obscured by noise]
GD:: This isn’t real wood.
PRESS: It wouldn’t keep as easily, would it?
GD:: It would, but it would be expensive. You just can’t use real materials. You’ll look at stuff, and you’ll touch it and go “Oh. It feels cheap.” And it kind of is cheap. It’s supposed to look the part.
PRESS: But you couldn’t lean against it. Like on the stairs, it felt like you could run up and down the stairs, you could lean against the railings…
GD:: Yeah, you’ve got to be able to do all of that stuff. For example, the top rail on the banister right there, that’s actually just steel painted as wood. It would have cost too much to have someone whittle out this banister. It’s not interesting in your field, but the price of that rail, having it made in steel and welded onto the rest of the stainless steel there, that saves me five or six thousand dollars, right there, just by making a decision like that. Does it really matter? Yeah, if you touch it you go “oh jeez, it’s really cold.” That’s because it’s metal that’s painted, but it’s ultimately the way to do it.
PRESS: When you say “touch it,” I’m going to go over there and touch it…
GD:: Well, yeah. Most of the ship’s made out of MDF, a hardened sort of chip board.
PRESS: What’s the name of this room?
GD:: They call it “The Main Cabin,” but I call it “The Marine Gallery.” You take your pick. So that’s really it, guys. I don’t have anything else to show at this point.
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