The documentary The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? aims to decamp the mystery surrounding the cancelled 1990s Superman reboot Superman Lives. It contains interviews with the likes of Kevin Smith, Tim Burton and producer Jon Peters, as well as some never-before-seen archive footage of Nicolas Cage’s costume fittings for the title role.
If you’d like to hear what we thought of the film, our review is online here.
Shortly after seeing the film, we chatted to its writer-director Jon Schnepp (familiar to many online-savvy film fans as a regular on AMC Theatres’ Movie Talk YouTube series), alongside producer Holly Payne and executive producer Robert Pierce, covering everything from meeting Tim Burton to casting their own Superman, and even the upcoming Justice League: Mortal documentary that seeks to follow in their footsteps.
So you can visualise this conversation in your mind’s eye, here’s a picture of Holly Payne, John Schnepp and Robert Pierce [left to right, as you may have guessed] at their UK premiere at Sci-Fi-London earlier in the year…
Jon, what initially got you interested in Superman Lives?
Jon Schnepp: Well, for myself, it was the artwork I saw online. That’s what interested me in the project. Years later, after hearing Kevin Smith’s story and then after seeing Superman Returns I became more interested in Tim Burton’s approach to Superman. And also, the unique casting of Nicolas Cage – I became interested in it, because I think Cage is one of our greatest actors. I think he’s an amazing performer who gets in and creates a character out of every role. So, I wanted to see what he was going to do with Superman.
And then a few years later I met one of the special effects artists, Steve Johnson, the guy who made those laser suits [the film has laser suits, folks!]. And then some friends and I were out for dinner, and I was telling them about the stuff I’d collected on my desktop, y’know? I used to check every couple of months for concept art, to see if new stuff popped up. So someone suggested I should make a documentary, and someone else said to do it on Kickstarter, and a few months later the idea would not leave me alone.
So I was like ‘maybe I should… I bet I could make a cool documentary, and no-one else is gonna do it!’ Who else is gonna do this bullshit idea? Um… so I ran it on Kickstarter, and it exploded across the whole globe – we had articles in Moscow about it, so obviously there’s a lot of interest. We raised the money to make it, and then we found that it was a lot harder to actually make than… I’m used to scripted television. So making something, having to ask people permission…. It’s a waiting game.
And was there a moment, between all the waiting, where it clicked together and you knew you had a movie?
JS: There were a couple of moments. I think it was like… when we raised the money we were all like ‘wow, alright, we’re gonna make this’ and then there was a bit of a lull as we tried to contact different artists. It was very difficult to contact them. About a year and a half into the actual production, we got contact from Tim Burton’s executive producer. And this was all the friends’ network of the internet. People would reach out and say ‘I’ve got a friend, who has a friend.’
So I would be, like, following leads left and right. So it really was like mini Batman detective work. Bruce Wayne – trying to find out what happened to Superman! That’s how I would imagine myself… Maybe, not really. But yeah, I think it was when we finally got Kevin Smith and then Tim Burton.
Holly Payne: It was like a stepladder effect – you got one, then you got the other. And then more of the story started to piece itself together. Even with the concept artists, you didn’t have this piece of the puzzle yet. But then the next interview, just by pure serendipity, they would have that other part. And it was just like piecing it together.
By the time we got [notorious Superman Lives producer, formerly involved in Batman and Batman Returns] Jon Peters, that was only like two months ago. But that was a really big ‘yeah, we’ve got a movie now,’ you know? Because you have to have everybody’s input to tell the most democratic documentary story that you can. So, having him in it was like ‘now it’s well-rounded, now it’s got its full shape.’
Speaking of Jon Peters, were you expecting him to be the villain of the piece?
HP: Yeah, for a long time, when we were talking to these concept artists who work in the creative department, they were making art and then to have this big personality producer come in to tear through the art department and try to ‘build morale’ [in Peters’ words]… they would say some pretty disparaging things about him.
So, for a while, Jon [Schnepp] had this idea that Jon Peters was this bad guy. But I wouldn’t let it lie, or let it go, I was like ‘we have to have him in it, if we don’t, then we don’t have the whole story.’ So, yeah, we were persistent, then we got in touch with Peters’ lawyer who was really receptive. At first, Peters said no – then I think his lawyer worked on him a bit, and said ‘this is actually a good thing for you’ – and then he said yes.
And it was great, his house is like… Bruce Wayne’s manor.
JS: He is like an old school Hollywood producer, he just kind of has the bigger picture type thing, and he might butt heads with the creatives because he’s also creative – specifically he wants to feel creative. So he’s like, I have these five things, these are my five ideas – you must put them in.
So that’s why people were like ‘we’ll figure out how to put a spider in…. we don’t know exactly, maybe Brainiac will be the spider.’ You know, there are creative ways to figure that stuff out.
So, where his mind was, though it was always in the right place, it’s harder to describe it to everyone else because he was coming in like ‘I want Superman from the streets! I want kids to identify with him! Just like they identified with Batman, because he fights real people, with real weapons.’
Real ninjas, as he says in your film!
JS: Yeah, he really feels like that. Like that’s one of the reasons it cuts through. Like it really cuts through to the kids that he’s fighting with a real sword. I mean, I can see where he’s coming from. But at the same time you’re like, ‘that’s why we have stunt men…’ There’s a rational part where you might be like ‘can we make the ninjas into androids? It’s Superman! Can’t we make them like 25 feet tall?’
But, to him, its like ‘I want kids to relate to that,’ and at that point in time, ninjas are bad-asses. Why can’t he fight them and show how tough Superman is by fighting thirty ninjas?
HP: And even down to the dialogue, too, there’s a scene in our film where he says “at one point, I wanted to have Batman say ‘I’m Batman, motherfucker,’ not just ‘I’m Batman.’” And he says it, because the kids would go ‘YEAH!’ So that’s his attitude towards it, he wants the audience to be entertained and that’s what he would be entertained by. But it was awesome interviewing him.
[Here’s our first exclusive still, of Jon Schnepp directing his Superman, played by costume designer Matthew Hiscox, for a script recreation. Photo credit to Nick Flohr.]
We’ve spoken about the concept art a bit, but when did the idea to actually physically stage some scenes from the various Superman Lives scripts come into play? Because those scenes are really cool…
JS: It was always an idea, from the original get-go. We didn’t raise enough money when we did the original Kickstarter, but I was like ‘hey, if we make enough, I’ll recreate some scenes.’ Albeit, not from one specific scene, but like, a melding of amorphous ideas of what Superman Lives would have been, and when we ran our second crowdfunding we raised a little bit more. Just enough to film a few scenes.
And as it is, these productions always take more time and money than you expect, so, I was determined to make sure we got some off those special additional scenes. You had to do them within Fair Use, which is how we didn’t break the law. We don’t own any of these characters, but by doing the recreation we’re talking about what the actual screenwriter is talking about, or what Tim Burton is talking about. So we’re using their words, and bringing their words to life, from the drawings and the concepts.
To me, I always knew I could never match a million dollar budget, so I tried to do it creatively: ‘so let’s do one scene, in stop motion. Another in animation. Let’s do this!’ So, it’s a fun way of envisioning what Tim would.
HP: But with a minimal budget.
JS: A very minimal budget!
[Here’s our second exclusive still with (left to right) Amanda Rae Troisi in her Lois Lane garb, Jon Schnepp, Matthew Hiscox as Superman, and Holly Payne. Credit again to Nick Flohr.]
So, who was your Superman? And what was the process to choose them?
HP: That is a very good question!
JS: That process was very, very organic. Just like so much of the film was. I would have something in my head, but I never was like ‘it has to be like this!!’ I would say ‘this is what I want to do’ and then it would just turn clockwise. And I’ll be like ‘alright, that will work as well!’
So, with this process, we had done a casting call. We found a guy who could do Christopher Walken imitations.
HP: And he was very squirrelly!
JS: [Laughs] Well, yeah. And we found a guy who looked a lot like a younger Nicolas Cage, and we were gonna go with that when we were finally ready to do our recreations. It took a lot long time to sort out that area, because I wanted to make sure I could legally do it. I had to clear all of my recreations with a lawyer first, and I cleared all of them, so I’m like ‘now we’re gonna do them.’
And then, the guy who was making the actual Superman Lives recreation suit for us…
HP: … He came into the office, and we couldn’t find the contact details for the potential Nic Cage actor from many months before when we had auditioned him. But this guy called Matthew Hiscox came in, he’s got the suit, and… He looks kinda like Cage! I said ‘that’s our Superman! Right there!’ And he wasn’t an actor, but he’s really enthusiastic about all of this stuff. And knows all the ins and outs of every suit, in any superhero film ever made.
Robert Pierce: I remember seeing him for the first time, on camera, and his efforts were spot-on! He was really good.
HP: You couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic person.
JS: Plus, it had a fun little element of Ed Wood. Where it’s like, the suit already fit him, so Holly’s like ‘what about him!’ and I’m like, ‘can he act?’, he doesn’t even need to act! He can just stand there, as Superman. And then he actually could do some acting.
HP: He was really good!
JS: He was good, yeah. And his enthusiasm really helped sell a lot of those fun things. He was way better at doing stuff that a normal actor wouldn’t do. I’d be like ‘dude, just jump!’, I’d say stuff like, because we were just on a green screen. I’d be like, ‘look, man, now you’re just gonna jump for a couple of times… just jump up like you’re flying off.’
And he was such an avid Superman fan that he would just do it [mimes Christopher Reeve-esque arm movement]. He’d do it, and we’d be like, ‘that eighth take is the one.’
HP: He was having fun with it. The other thing is, his dedication was such that he actually tracked down the original Superman Lives belt. The belt. And made a model of it, a casting. So the belt in the actual film is based on the original suit.
That’s awesome… Jon, how big a deal was it, for you, to turn around all the pessimism that follows Superman Lives around online?
JS: A very big deal, and I’ll tell you why, because when I started this project, to me, it was all about the art. And, in a certain sense, about artists being suppressed. Like, you know what, I wanna see… I know there’s something under that rock, and it’s gonna be like a giant… iceberg. Okay, I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to see what it was. And when I discovered it, and we all started working on it, it became very obvious that the perception of this film was wrong.
The outside perception of this film is simply wrong. And, by not having to put my own viewpoint on it, just letting everything talk, letting it fall into the piece, and not letting it tangent off – because, with documentary things go off and tangent, but we had to work them in and keep that storyline – that was the biggest difficulty of getting our doc. Keeping it smooth, and tracking….
But ultimately, everyone’s story told that fact – that when people leave the theatre, they say ‘oh, I wish that movie would be made, it would have been special and it would have been different’. And it was artistic, and it was Superman.
And what about changing the perceptions of Nicolas Cage, specifically?
JS: Oh, I think it’s all of that. It’s changing the perceptions of Tim Burton of being a spooky, creepy director.
HP: Of Jon Peters being this Doomsday figure –
JS: – a mad man! It’s like, all of those things were there, and are self-evident when you watch the film, and so is Nic Cage’s enthusiasm. Of not just Superman, or Kal-El, but of Clark Kent. And what he was gonna bring to the character of Clark Kent, when you just see him and Tim riffing and he’s like “and he’s laughing! Because he hears a joke from a mile away! But he’s with these other people!”
He could see why, if you were actually hanging out with Clark Kent, what a weird experience it would be. Because, he’s an alien in hiding yet he doesn’t really know how to deal with all of this madness. When you have an actor like Nicolas Cage… He would have fucking nailed it.
RP: It’s interesting, because you touched on the three characters that are in the film – the need to reveal them, to make them somehow humane – Jon Peters, Tim Burton, and Nic Cage. Each of those characters have a moment in our film where they become so much more tangible, so much more accessible.
Tim especially. My God, some of things he says are just gold! Anybody in that audience can say ‘I want to have a pint with that guy, I want to hang out with that guy!’ Jon Peters, he turns to the camera after being on the phone and he says ‘life goes on!’, and you’re just like ‘that’s him! That’s a real guy!’ And Nic Cage, when you’re actually getting to see him just being him, and he’s like ‘this cape has been handed down… My father wore this cape…’
JS: [still quoting] ‘- a lonnnnng line of Kryptonians!’
RP: And you’re just like ‘this dude’s a phenomenon!’ These waypoints, and with these characters. Sure, the memes will continue, but to be fair, there’s absolutely no place for that shit in this film because we really do put it right forward. It’s easy, it’s tangible, it’s right there.
Speaking of that footage, when they’re riffing about being Clark Kent… Where on Earth did you find that? Because if that’s ever been online, I’ve never seen it.
HP: Yeah, nobody has! It actually came direct from Derek Frey, Tim’s executive producer, and he’d had it in a vault for years.
JS: It’s one of their own personal tapes.
HP: It’s from their personal archive, and it had never leaked because they kept it very tightly under wraps. And I think it was only until we met with them and they got a sense that we were on the up and up, and that this could be a really good documentary about this project, that they trusted, then Derek gave us the holy grail of footage.
Which is incredible. You know, we were here I think, in London, when we saw that footage, and our jaws just hit the floor.
JS: Yeah, we were in a little flat, we’d just downloaded this Quicktime and we were like ‘oh my god!’, so much fun!
HP: There’s 45 minutes of it!
JS: It’s so much fun, because it’s a like pay-off when you’re working on something. And it’s, like, a validation moment.
JS: It really was, it was a validation moment, because you see them talking about their identities, what they were gonna do.
HP: I think I cried a little bit!
JS: And they were not so far off, they were not too distant from what the character is. It was reinterpreting. It was refining it, and asking ‘why does he wear a cape? Why this? Why that?’ – asking questions that anyone who’s making a film should be asking. Don’t just go ‘uhh, it’s ‘cause it’s in the comics!’ – what about ‘why? And can we add to it? How can we make it better and more significant?’
I mean, those are the kinds of things that every single person involved in this film was trying to do.
HP: You get that sense, with [costume designer] Colleen Atwood or any of these other players… At the heart of the movie everyone’s saying ‘it would’ve been really cool to see what this would have been.’ It’s a heaving exhale of ‘what if?’
And you get that everyone involved was invested in this, and they all believe in the project, so it’s really cool for us to be able to have the opportunity to shine a light on that.
Do you ever think how all that passion could have turned out completely differently? How different do you think things would be if that finished picture of Nic Cage’s costume had leaked instead of the blinking prototype latex picture?
HP: It would be a totally different perception!
JS: It would be a totally. Different. Story. Entirely. That’s the rub, there, because it’s like, as you’re in the creative pipeline, and in the process, you could be blindsided by what is also a part of that process – which is business.
So, you always have to be side by side with that, you have to be like ‘GET THEM THOSE PICTURES, NOW! THAT’S THE FIRST THING!’ Really, the documentary, what my walkaway from it was, as a director and a maker of content: you’ve got to ride that line and be smart about both of those things [the creative and the business side].
Not to say that they weren’t smart. But they weren’t tracking along with it [referring to other Warner Bros films, which were flopping left and right at the time]. They were like ‘who cares what Sphere makes?!’ But when you’re in a company when everything matters and everything ties together, and if all those things fall apart, then your giant risk becomes a giant risk to them.
So, ultimately, that’s what did happen. But it would have been a smash hit. It would have been fantastic. It would have changed comic book movies and, in a way, everything that we live in now. Everything, the way it is now [gestures to the comic book shop we were in, Orbital], would have been completely different.
HP: It would have been one of those trailblazing films for comic book movies, if it came out.
And finally, before I get ushered away, how pleased are you that the Justice League: Mortal documentary, inspired by you, is happening? Is it good to have started something?
JS: Can I be honest with you? I am glad, but at first it irked me a little. Because this was very copycat-ish, even the way the text was. It was a fan, who watches a lot of my shows.
HP: The guy who’s making it is a huge fan of Jon’s.
JS: Right, so it felt a bit like ‘well… you know?’ But, to be honest, it was less concerning of my ego and more concerning of ‘well, it’d better be good. You’d better put the work in. Because I just put in two and a half years of my life, I don’t need someone else copycatting me and just quickly running for the money.
And that’s truthfully where me irk came from. If I was gonna do it, I could easily do the Justice League: Mortal film, I already have all the contacts. I have the access to the footage, and things like that.
Just like JJ Abrams’ Superman; Flyby, a lot of people are asking me to do that because I have all the access, I have all that stuff. And, I’m not saying I won’t do that, I might actually do that in another form, not as a film. I might do a YouTube series. I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I found it very pleasing for myself to do this and share with fans. Just like I’m a fan, I’m a giant comic book nerd, and I have been my entire life. So, to be able to share and explore these things, and show people ‘look what you missed!’ or ‘here’s something that – thank god – didn’t happen!’ who knows what some of these might be! You know, Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One… it’s countless! There’s twenty, thirty different projects that have gone all the way to the ‘almost getting made’ and then fell apart.
So, to me, as long as people are earnest, and really care about what they’re making, I hope that any of these additional documentaries, that are following us, put the work in. That’s really what I care about, because if I see the Justice League: Mortal film and it feels like they’re just copying me, it’d be cheap. It’d be a cheap thing, like ‘ah, well, there you go.’
The reason I did Superman Lives is that I really cared. I knew about Superman: Flyby, Justice League: Mortal, all these other films, but the reason I did Superman Lives is because there was a story there. And I knew there was something there, that people were always laughing and making fun of it, and it was like, you know, there must be something more to it. Every time I see artwork, every time I see anything leak, it interests me. So that’s what drove me to do the documentary.
Jon Schnepp, Holly Payne and Robert Pierce – thank you very much.
The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? is out now at www.tdoslwh.com
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