Son Of Krypton
by Mike Russell
Read the print version here.
Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty worked 24/7 to help Bryan
Singer resurrect the Man of Steel, pitting Superman against
his mightiest foe:
return to the big screen is one of the most convoluted — and expensive — development
stories in Hollywood history.
After 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” cold-cocked
the franchise that Richard Donner launched so reverently
in 1978, the Man of Steel went into a 17-year development
The behind-the-scenes saga is long, silly
and mind-bogglingly pricey.
There were abortive drafts (including a few by “Clerks” writer-director
Kevin Smith) that tried to adapt the 1993 “Death of
Superman” comic-book storyline, with producer Jon
Peters allegedly suggesting the inclusion of giant spiders
computerized archvillain Brainiac fighting polar bears
at the Fortress of Solitude.
• Tim Burton (“Batman,” “Planet of the Apes”) subsequently
developed a version that reportedly jettisoned both the classic costume and Superman’s
ability to fly, with Nicolas Cage donning whatever replaced the cape and tights.
Wolfgang Peterson (“The Perfect Storm”) developed a “Batman
vs. Superman” film.
McG (“Charlie’s Angels”) and Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”)
were at different times attached to direct a controversial script by J.J. Abrams
(TV’s “Alias”) that completely re-invented the Superman
mythos against the backdrop of an interstellar war.
Enter director Bryan Singer — and Michael
Dougherty and Dan Harris.
Dougherty and Harris had some experience with
chaotic superhero franchises: They cut their teeth as a screenwriting
on the set of “X2” — working
around the clock to help director Singer find a third act mid-shoot.
And when Singer came up with a clever (and
more traditional) idea to resurrect the “Superman” franchise in 2004, he brought Dougherty, Harris
and much of his “X-Men” production team with him.
With Donner’s blessing, Singer chose to continue, rather than re-boot,
the “Superman” series — aiming to capture the spirit (if
less of the slapstick) associated with “Superman: The Movie” and “Superman
II.” The film follows Clark Kent’s (Brandon Routh) return to Earth
after a multi-year trip to the cold remains of his original home, the planet
Krypton. He comes back to a more complicated world — one where Lois Lane
(Kate Bosworth) has a fiancé (James Marsden) and a son, and where a
just-out-of-prison Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is plotting an elaborate revenge
that may or may not involve technology stolen from Superman’s Fortress
In Focus talked with Dougherty and Harris
about Superman, the late Marlon Brando, Lex Luthor, Bryan
Singer, Richard Donner, 24/7 screenwriting — and whether “Superman
Returns” really is the unofficial “Superman III.” An
edited transcript follows.
FOCUS: Okay. We've read in the official release that Superman's
adventure “takes him from the depths of the ocean
to the far reaches of outer space.”
DAN HARRIS: And that’s literal.
Q. The depths of the ocean?
MICHAEL DOUGHERTY: Well, you know, he has to perform certain
kinds of rescues and go underwater.
DH: Just wait and see. We’re taking him places he’s
never been before. We have the technology.
Q. It must be tough to talk about this film and not be able
to say anything.
MD: Actually, it’s kind of fun.
Everybody wants to open their Christmas presents early
Q. The online production documentaries have done a nice
job of showing us a lot without telling us everything.
MD: Mm-hm. It gives people a lot of small
appetizers. But it also calms people’s fears — because
there was definitely a concern that we were gonna take
some weird, wild direction after all the other incarnations
[of this project].
Q. Superman’s a tough character to write interestingly.
Because he's essentially invincible, his best crises on film
tend to be spiritual — whether or not to use his powers
for selfish ends, his love life, his adoptee status. What
are his spiritual struggles in your movie?
MD: Well, they’re not so much spiritual as they are
emotional. That’s what we realized very early on: We’ve
seen Superman go up against every imaginable villain, weapon
and obstacle in the movies, TV shows and comics. So we knew
we had to attack him from an emotional point of view — to
give him an emotional obstacle to overcome, in addition to
What makes him this identifiable character,
and not this god, is the fact that he has very real, human
he’s dealing with [in “Superman Returns”]
is that he’s come back to a world that’s changed
in his absence — and what’s worse, the person
he wants to build a relationship with, Lois Lane, has moved
Q. And has a kid.
MD: And has a kid. It’s a situation that completely
throws him for a loop. It’s something he’s never
dealt with. There’s a certain amount of confidence
that we have, and he has, that he can go up against bank
robbers and chase planes. But this is new.
DH: We have this problem, where the guy’s indestructible
and stands for “Truth, Justice and the American Way”:
very strong moral values that aren’t necessarily outdated,
but we’ve seen them before. And you can’t change
that about Superman — [those values] are as indestructible
as he is.
So making a story about that kind of character
seem totally relevant, or easy, or that interesting to us.
But the world has evolved since Superman was last on the
big screen — it’s more contemporary, edgier and
scarier. It’s in dire need of a hero more than it was
in the ’70s.
It was Bryan’s big idea to send him away for a number
of years, then bring him back — and have the world
kind of move on and change with him gone. Bringing Superman
back into a world he doesn’t fit in was the heart of
Lois Lane has moved on. His mother has moved
on in certain ways. He comes back to situations that aren’t cats
in trees. So he has to become a hero by kind of riding the
middle line and getting at his own “Truth” — and
not stepping on people’s toes.
His motto is “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” But
what is “Truth”? What is “Justice”?
What is “the American Way”?
DH: It’s been distorted in the last 20 years. That’s
at the heart of Superman’s struggle.
And he has an emotional story with Lois: What
do you do when you come back to someone you love and they’ve moved
on completely? He’s a good person who doesn’t
lie — he doesn’t break up relationships. It’s
the problem that’s almost impossible for him to solve,
and that’s what makes the story interesting.
Q. When a character is invincible, how do you keep his actions
MD: Well, I think that comes more or
less from his father — both
sets of parents, really.
The Kents taught him that he had to use his
powers for good, that he was put here for a reason — which is a line
we actually have in the film. That’s backed up by Jor-El’s
teachings, which are that he can serve as an example to humanity.
You have a character whose sole reason for
being here is to make the world better — backed up with the traditional
all-American values he was raised with. That Kent-farm upbringing
provides the motivation. If Jor-El had sent him to Earth
and he’d been raised by the wrong kind of people, we’d
have an evil Superman on our hands.
Q. There’s a great alternate-universe comic where
he’s raised by the Russians —
MD: Yeah. “Red Son.” That’s
a great read. No matter what Jor-El taught him, the fact
that he was raised
by this humble farm couple made all the difference.
DH: And I think you have fun toying with
his motivations. His motivation in this one isn’t entirely the same
as it was in “Superman: The Movie.” He’s
a man with history this time around. He’s been through
years of fighting Lex Luthor. And he’s been away, so
he’s lost his sense of identity — his place in
the world. He’s lost his motivation to be who he is,
and he has to re-discover it.
Fans of the “Superman: The Movie” were gobsmacked
to hear that Marlon Brando’s in “Superman Returns.” How
important was it to have him in the film?
MD: It was really important to us. Bryan’s original
pitch involved bringing Brando back. He was such a strong
foundation in the original film, it wouldn’t feel right
to have some other actor or sound-alike appear as Jor-El.
DH: He was so iconic — Brando as Superman’s
father. If we could work him in without faking or denigrating
anything, how special would that be?
MD: For people familiar with the original
film, they know exactly who that is. And for some 8-year-old
never seen “Superman,” it’s such a strong
performance that I think it’ll resonate.
Q. Did it take a
lot of negotiating to get the Brando footage?
MD: There was the typical hassle, but
it wasn’t a
drawn-out process. I think we were all surprised how quickly
things worked out.
Q. Did you have to write around the old
Brando footage, or?…
DH: There’s no faking or voice-alikes. There won’t
be any of that.
Q. But he does speak in the film?
DH: Uh, in a sense. It’s very cool the way it’s
done; I can’t really get into it. It’s partly
things we remember Jor-El being part of.
Q. Well, if Superman
is sort of the comic-book Jesus, then Jor-El is God. You
don’t re-cast God.
DH: Is Marlon Brando not God?
Q: Is “Superman Returns” the unofficial "Superman
MD: [sighs] Okay, um, it’s funny — I
think Bryan and Dan and I need to sit down and discuss
this answer before
we talk to too many other reporters.
My personal belief — and I know Bryan has been quoted
as saying differently — is that this is not “Superman
III.” I don’t feel like it’s appropriate
to discount “Superman III” and “IV,” because
a lot of people put a lot of hard work into them, and even
if you don’t like them or don’t think they’re
up to a certain quality, they’re still “Superman” movies.
DH: It’s complicated. If this is a sequel to “I” and “II,” then
everything in “I” and “II” happened.
But if we’re picking and choosing what we want — which
is what I think is what happened, using our memories of “Superman:
The Movie” to build our back story — then I can
guarantee that it’s not the specifics, but the broad
strokes of those movies that are part of the “Superman” we’re
MD: The comparison I like to make is
closer to James Bond films. We had a series that starred
Sean Connery, and then the torch is passed to another actor,
all the way up to Daniel Craig. But they don’t call
a sequel “James Bond 19,” and they don’t
necessarily refer to events that took place in the previous
film. But you do have certain conventions and supporting
characters that you’re expected to use well. There’s
always the opening with the iris and the theme song.
So I think we’re kind of taking a different franchise
in the same direction. We’re not going back to square
We’re not doing a remake. We push the
DH: Except we’re not working with a villain of the
day, or a villain of the movie…. It’s a “Returns” story.
What does that mean? We’re trying to have our cake
and eat it too — we’re remembering things we
loved about “Superman I” and “II,” and
moving forward at the same time. And we’ve used a big
plot device to let us do both.
MD: But I think I have to sit down with
Bryan and discuss this with him, because he went to a comic-book
and said, “Yeah, I guess you could think of this as ‘Superman
III.’” I just slapped my head and said, “Oh!
Q. Have you seen the new so-called “Donner Cut” of "Superman
II" heading to DVD with the restored Richard Donner
MD: I haven’t seen the one they’ve
DH: I don’t think it’s finished
MD: I got a bootleg [of the “Restored International
Cut” of “Superman II,” a fan-made edit
that incorporates some footage broadcast on European TV]
at a convention... [laughs] It’s really fun to watch.
Any time you get to see an “Ultimate Version” of
something you were raised on, it’s a fun bit of eye
DH: But the bootleg is not Donner’s cut — it’s
a different thing.
Q. Is Brando in the bootleg version?
MD: Not in the version I saw.
Q. I think he’s in the official version that’s
coming out on DVD.
MD: That’s possible.
Q. Dan, you've said of Singer: "Bryan
works with people who develop 24 hours a day. The idea of
the draft goes out the window." Has that applied to "Superman
Returns"? Any 3 a.m. writing sessions?
MD: Oh, God, yes.
DH: [snorts] God, have we had any 3 a.m.
I spent two birthdays in Australia working, and the majority
of those nights were 3 a.m. sessions. And, you know, we’re
all better people for it.
Q. And you’re on set, right? Which
is very unusual.
MD: Yeah, it’s very rare. But when you’re working
on a film like this, anything can happen, and you have to
be available 24/7. Even now that we’re in post, there
are always new ideas creeping in. I’m not surprised
if I get a random phone call.
DH: For us, the thing is flexibility — this idea that
things will always change, there will always be problems….
It’s part of our job to always be on-call to solve
What’s the secret to keeping your energy up for
that — particularly when you’re commuting to
MD: Red Bull. It’s that simple.
Red Bull, Red Bull, Red Bull.
DH: The good thing about “Superman Returns” — and
the difference between it and “X-Men 2,” or “Logan’s
Run,” for that matter — is that the three of
us nailed out the story of the movie very early on.
We took a vacation on July 4, 2004, and we
started coming up with the idea for the movie. And we were
all in such agreement — and
there was such a weird symbiosis going on — that it
all kind of poured out at once. We put together 80 or 90
percent of the movie in three days. It was supposed to be
a relaxing vacation, but it turned into work.
We worked all weekend, and on the plane ride
home, we worked on the treatment. And within a day or two,
was done — 25 pages, single-spaced. That was the document
that Bryan took in to the executives that got everybody the
The good news is that it really hasn’t changed much
since then. What we had was pretty special. We had a strong
backbone. So from one draft to the next, it wasn’t
like “X-Men 2,” where we were constantly re-writing
the third act. It’s mostly character work, trying to
get our story as clear as possible, trying to get our dialogue
as witty as possible.
But there was still constant development.
Q. Sometimes the project dictates the level of chaos.
DH: Yes. A lot of the … challenge of “X2” was
that you were writing 12 mutants — this giant ensemble — and
everyone has to have their allotted screentime and resolution.
That is really hard work.
And ultimately, Superman isn’t just one character.
You’re not just writing for Superman. Superman is different
from Clark Kent, who’s different from Kal-El. There’s
Superman at the farm and Superman alone. And when he’s
alone, what’s the voice in his head? He’s not
just a politician who puts a suit on, and he’s not
just “bumbling Clark.”
Q. The scene I’m most looking forward to seeing is
the one featured in the teaser trailer — where he’s
floating alone, above the Earth, listening to the planet.
DH: Yeah. It’s
turned into one of the more iconic moments in the movie.
It was in the
The question was, “How does Superman know who to save?
Let’s clarify those rules.” And so we decided
he has a perch where he goes, high above the Earth, and he
hears every single sound on the planet all at once, and he
whittles them down by importance, basically — until
he finds that once sound he’s gotta go after.
It solved a logic issue for us, and became a beautiful
kind of metaphor for the reason he’s there.
THE JOY OF LEX
Many people love the first hour-and-a-half of "Superman:
The Movie," which is somber and reverent — but
have mixed reviews for the more overtly comical second
half. Which leads me to ask how you guys are handling Lex
MD: That was always one of the hardest parts about the film,
finding the right tone for Lex.
Q. I can imagine.
MD: Because as much as we enjoyed Gene
there was a large segment of the population that — even
though they enjoyed it — was like, “Can we get
a more serious and menacing villain here?”
DH: That’s one of the most fun parts of this movie — getting
into Lex Luthor’s head. We know Hackman’s classic
performance, and when he was on, he was really on — but
some of the comedy doesn’t work nowadays. It’s
a little dated and over-the-top. How do we change that character
and move him forward?
Well, Lex Luthor’s been in prison, because of Superman,
for five years — and it’s really hardened him
and darkened him. There’s still that hint of witty
Lex, but this time around he’s a sadist out for revenge.
It’s a much scarier side of Lex Luthor.
MD: He’s much more menacing — but at the same
time, he enjoys what he does. You want to like the guy. You
want to hang out with him. He’s not as grim as someone
like Magneto, say, or as serious or heavy-handed. He’s
a little bit of everything: We have a bit of the scientist
and a bit of the politician. Definitely the criminal mastermind.
DH: He’s still a capitalist … but there’s
a lot more that comes with his plan — and the way he
interacts with Superman.
MD: And we had to throw in a dash of
comedy — but
Q. That’s where Parker Posey’s “Kitty
Kowalski” character comes in?
Q. She’s sort of a dark-comedy version of — not
MD: — Miss Teschmacher. We definitely wanted to give
Lex a foil within his own ranks, and figured that people
tend to date the same kinds of people over and over. We figured
if things went south with Miss Teschmacher, he’d find
the next young thing — someone similar, but different.
Q. Some recent comics have explored Luthor’s motivation
a little more, and given him a very valid point of view:
Superman is an alien being. Maybe we shouldn’t trust
DH: Yeah. In this movie, someone says, “Well, you’re
not a god, Lex.” And he says, “No, I’m
not a god. Gods are selfish little beings who fly around
in red capes and don’t share their powers with mankind.”
Q. Is Spacey doing an homage to Hackman’s performance
at all, or…?
DH: He’s taking it his own way. It’s hard for
me to talk about Kevin’s motivations, but I know what
ended up onscreen. It’s a hardened, scarier Lex. We
see hints of the Lex we love, but there’s a darker
side. Something changed this guy, and he’s a real threat
now. Not that he wasn’t before — but I think
people are going to be afraid for that confrontation between
Superman and Lex Luthor that finally happens, because it’s
so built up.
We can’t talk about it right now. We should be doing
these interviews after the movie comes out.
Q. [laughs] Maybe they’ll give
you guys a commentary track.
DH: Yeah. We’ll say, “Remember when this line
was there and we changed it?” That’s what writers
tend to talk about — drafts.
Michael, with your animation background, the Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoons
have to have been somewhere in the back of your mind as
you were writing this.
MD: Yeah, they were — all throughout the production.
Fleischer had a way of making Superman move that I don’t
think we’ve ever seen on the big screen in live action.
Only now, with today’s technology, can we make him
move as fluidly as Fleischer did.
Q. How does Superman move differently here than in previous
MD: It’s more graceful. There’s a certain … ease
that he has when he’s flying in this film.
Donner did an amazing job with what he had
in the late ’70s — but
Superman was almost always flying in kind of a straight line,
or landing, and that’s as far as he got. But getting
that sense of stopping in mid-air, and then darting in an
entirely different direction? We can do that now.
Q. It’s great to have a former
animator writing this.
MD: We’d be watching the pre-viz — which is
kind of an animated storyboard — and I kept finding
myself giving criticisms or advice. Bryan would say, “His
takeoff doesn’t look right!” And I’d say, “That’s
because he has no anticipation. — that’s when
a character bends his knees before jumping in the air.” That’s
an animation term. “His cape needs more secondary action.”
Q. Rumor control: According to the IMDb,
Singer had General Zod removed from the script —
MD: No. Not true.
DH: Not in this movie. I mean, we love
Zod. Zod is very cool. But there’s no time.
Q. We only saw him fall into some sort of dry-ice chasm.
He could still be around.
DH: He could be.
VIVID COLOR AND RIGHTEOUSNESS’
Q. One thing I always thought Christopher Reeve
was really, really good at was shifting his persona between
the Kent and Superman personas. You've seen Brandon Routh
do it. How does he do it?
DH: Well, he does it with his own Brandon
Routh flair. He’s
not imitating anyone, but he is an amalgamation of all the
previous Supermen out there.
And the Brandon we know is not Clark or Superman — he’s
somewhere in-between. He’s such a nice guy. He was
the right guy for the movie.
MD: Brandon is definitely adding something
of his own, but I think his performance was inspired by
quite a bit. The way he described it was, “Every actor
taking up the torch of Superman takes a little bit from the
actor who played him before.”
Q. From the production stills I’ve seen, it looks
like this might be the first “Superman” movie
where Superman and Clark Kent actually look like two different
a first. Yeah.
When we dealt with Brandon on-set, it was
like we were dealing
with two different people. When he was Clark, he was approachable.
But when he was Superman, he had such an imposing presence,
it was hard to make eye contact with him or even talk to
him. I think we felt like the characters in the film — Superman
is this celebrity who makes you nervous.
DH: We were sitting in the makeup room,
waiting for Brandon to come in with the suit for the first
time. We’d seen
the suit on a model, and we’d been working with it
in our minds for a while. But the second he walked in the
makeup room — and he had the curl done already, and
he was like 6-foot-6 with the boots — we all went, “Gad.
Holy shit. It’s Superman.” He was this tower
of vivid color and righteousness in that all-white room with
grey floors. Ever since then, it’s been a whole other
All of a sudden, the Brandon who plays video
games that I know isn’t there any more. I felt myself reacting to
a character, not an actor. Which is really weird, because
we’ve seen a lot of actors. I think the only other
person I’ve felt that way around was Patrick Stewart
as Xavier. There was something reverent about Patrick in
GEEKING OUT on the DONNERS
Q. Sam Raimi said he turned to the first
hour-and-a-half of “Superman: The Movie” when he was looking
for inspiration for “Spider-Man.” Richard Donner
created such a template.
DH: Oh, absolutely. It’s gorgeous.
MD: Yeah. And we took the same approach.
We watched Donner’s
movie quite a bit.
Q. Were there other
films you turned to for inspiration on “Superman Returns”?
MD: Well, no, to be totally honest. There’s “Superman” and “Superman
II,” and so many TV shows and comics. If I had to get
excited about writing an action scene, I’d pop in a
DH: It’s not that we worked in a vacuum, but that
so much of the story came out so quickly. When we came back
[from our working vacation], we started looking for iconic
inspiration. We looked at things like Cavalier & Clay.
Q. I know how important the word “verisimilitude" was
to Donner while he was making "Superman." He had
it engraved in wood in his office. What did that word mean
for you on a day-to-day basis?
MD: Well, Bryan never used that word —
DH: We’ve been working with Bryan for so many years,
it doesn’t need to be said …
MD: But that’s always been Bryan’s mandate — that
everything be believable. You don’t rely upon movie
logic: “Oh, it’s just a movie. We can do anything.” There
has to be a rhyme and reason. You can’t assume people
know what Kryptonite is, or where it comes from. You have
to explain it.
Q. Have you had any conversations with the Donners about
MD: A few,
here and there. They actually sent us a very nice letter
when the project was announced.
It was very short,
but it was something to the effect of: “Just heard
about ‘Superman.’ It couldn’t be in better
He’s such a classy guy — it was
a great stamp of approval.
DH: We’re friends with the Donners. We know Lauren….
She was up there in Vancouver with us [on “X2”],
and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. They’re
film legends — and yet they live around the corner
from us and like to have us over for dinner and watch movies.
There’s nothing more fun than that.
I know that Bryan asked Dick’s permission to make this
movie, and told him his idea behind the film — and
if Donner was not on-board or happy with that, I don’t
think we’d be making the movie.
I mean, he directed “The Goonies.” Nothing is
READ MY LIPS:
NO NEW POWERS
Q. One problem I had with the "Superman" sequels
as they went along was that they kept adding ridiculous new
powers to the Man of Steel's repertoire. I'm thinking specificially
of that big damn cellophane "S" he threw on Non.
Q. Was there a conscious effort to pare down of that sort
of thing for this film?
MD: There was never any effort to pare
down his powers — but
we definitely did stay away from trying to introduce any
new ones — like, say, telekinetic finger rays and cellophane “S”es.
His powers are being used in, I guess, a realistic fashion.
So no. No strange new abilities.
Q. No magic amnesia kiss?
DH: We’re pretty classic with the powers we’re
sticking to. It was more a question of what his powers are,
and how can we work a story around that — rather that
having our story and pulling new powers out of him.
Q. Singer had a yen for explaining every
comic-book convention in his “X-Men” films — even seemingly silly
elements like Magneto's helmet always had a purpose. I'm
dying to see how he explains the Super-suit and the “S.”
MD: Well, you know, we didn’t really try to go out
of our way to do that. The suit, we all agreed, has a Kryptonian
origin, but we didn’t go into detail about that. And
as for the “S,” it’s definitely a family
Q. Yeah, that was pretty clearly established in the first
MD: In fact, I believe that was Donner’s
idea. And we just continued that.
DH: They aren’t conventions we necessarily had to
manipulate or create. I think a lot of it was there — it
was just a matter of exploring it. When we see the “S,” is
it just something we saw on a tinfoil suit? [laughs] Was
it part of the architecture somewhere? What does it mean?
Thank God there was that swath of fabric in
pod [in “Superman: The Movie”]. That’s
the suit. He didn’t make it himself.
Q. Yeah, Donner laid a lot of good groundwork. He really
was the man for his time and place.
DH: He really was. And in our development of this movie,
we happily echoed what he was doing.
Famously, he was handed a draft of the script in which two
men tap a bald guy on the shoulder, thinking it’s Lex,
and he turns around and it’s Kojak. That was in the
script that Dick was given. And it was his work with Tom
Mankiewicz that turned it into an iconic story — this
Q. Other than your own, what are some of the greatest superhero
movies ever made?
DH: Well, “Superman: The Movie”…. It’s
a tough question — I keep thinking of things that we
haven’t loved. Of course, I love what Sam Raimi’s
done with Spider-Man. I love the way that “Blade” carved
a persona outside of the comic book.
MD: Burton’s “Batman.” I actually liked “Batman
Begins” quite a bit, too. The first “X-Men,” which
I didn’t actually work on. [laughs]
THE NEW GODS
Q. What is it about superheroes that they lend themselves
so nicely to re-makes and re-imaginings?
MD: Well, I think they’re our current
gods. Back in the day, they had Achilles and Hercules and
all those mythological
characters, and these are ours.
You can call it escapism — and I think there’s
an element of that — but I think it’s also people
looking for characters to guide us. They serve as examples.
We look for characters we can shape our own lives after,
whether it’s Wolverine or Batman or Spider-Man or Superman.
DH: I think there’s a mix of nostalgia for the characters — remembering
what we liked when we were young, when we first saw them — combined
with the chance to introduce those characters into a new
There are always stories to be told when you mix up the world
of characters you know so well.
Q. Dan, what's the difference between
writing a superheroic (or supervillainous) character and
writing something more
dramatic — for example, Sigourney Weaver's character
in [Harris’ 2004 writer-director effort] “Imaginary
DH: You know, we talked about this a
lot on “X2” — and
there’s not really a huge difference.
The characters come out of the story you’re telling,
and they need to service certain things, and they have their
own idiosyncrasies. But that doesn’t change whether
you have Superman coming back to a married Lois or Sigourney
Weaver confronting the truth that her husband doesn’t
There’s an icing on the cake in superhero movies, where
people have powers — which helps us in terms of plot
and making things a little more complex. But to me, what
makes Superman interesting in this movie is the emotional
situation he’s been put in — and it’s a
very human situation. The fact that he’s indestructible
and can fly is the fun part, but the heart of the movie is
JOHN OTTMAN, MEET JOHN WILLIAMS
Q. As a film-score geek, I have to ask
if you've heard anything about what John Ottman is coming
up with as he writes the “Superman
Returns” score. I hear it owes a lot to the Williams
DH: Well, I’ve heard a lot about what John’s
coming up with, but I’ve not heard what John’s
coming up with….
MD: I’m a huge film-score geek also. The entire script
was written with John Williams playing in the background,
every day. And when I had to write a certain scene, I’d
cue it up to a certain track. There’s a scene with
Lois and Superman on the roof of the Daily Planet, and I
kept going back to three tracks: “The Terrace,” “Lois
and Clark” and “The Flying Sequence.” Because
our scene is meant to be an homage to that.
DH: Absolutely. You listen to that soundtrack,
in that world. You’re writing a Lois scene? Time for
Q. Not so much “Can You Read My Mind?,” however.
MD: Not so much. As for what Ottman is
doing: The main theme you don’t change. So that will be intact. And other
themes from the Williams score will find their way into the
film at the appropriate moments — some more than others,
and some updated and more contemporary. But they’ll
Q. How do you handle the pressure of being the custodians
of a mythological character? Does the responsibility ever
get to you?
MD: Well, you always feel it, to this day.
But I think being as familiar as we are with the character
and being fans,
in our hearts there is no fear.
If I were setting out to do a movie about
a topic I was completely unfamiliar with, I’d be much more nervous — like,
if I was going out to do a football film. I’m not a
sports guy. If I were writing a movie about a sports figure
like Babe Ruth, I’d be terrified.
But when it comes to Superman, I know his
history. We all have the Donner film in common. And I know
the things that
need to be part of a “Superman” film — as
well as all the things I’ve always wanted to see in
a “Superman” film. It kind of wipes away the
DH: It becomes day-to-day work — and the grind of
getting every line as good as it can be is more stressful,
immediate and urgent than the worry about what we’re
If you think about that [responsibility],
or notice that every fifth car has a Superman bumper sticker…. I never
really thought about that until I got home. We were all just
motivated and excited by the big idea.
MD: But you feel the pressure. Some of
that pressure is good, because then you know how many eyes
are gonna be watching
you — so there’s never a time when you slack
You go, “A lot of people are going to see this, and
unless I want my house covered in toilet paper, I’m
going to make it really good.”
Q. On some level, shooting in Australia might have helped,
because Superman is such a fundamentally American character,
you might gain a little perspective by traveling overseas.
DH: I think so. It forced us to really
think about it, and not to get overwhelmed. We went to
a foreign land to make
something that was in our hearts. There’s something
very interesting about going to the middle of the Outback
and re-creating Kansas — the desert, but with acres
of corn and barns.
to the PLAN (WE THINK)
Q. Where would the Singer-Dougherty-Harris "X3" have
DH: Whew. I don’t think we’d totally agreed
on that ourselves — but we had a lot of ideas. It’s
hard to say. I wanna see the movie first.
not like we had some thought-out outline in detail. We had
ideas, but no detailed treatment.
We’re still friends with a lot of the people on “X3.” And
funny enough, a lot of the stuff we’ve seen so far — surprisingly,
I think they’ve actually accomplished quite a few of
the ideas I wanted to pursue. For better or worse.
Q. Working Beast into the story, I’d
MD: More the “Dark Phoenix” stuff. Phoenix is
definitely my personal favorite. I had very solid ideas as
to where I think she should go — namely, the idea of
Magneto using her as a weapon. And based on what I know,
I think they’re doing that.
That’s actually kind of cool to know — that the
people who are in charge of it actually know what they’re
doing. They’re taking it in the right direction.
DH: Yeah — the biggest idea, for us, was setting up
Phoenix. And the idea that in “X-Men,” the war
is coming. “X-Men 2,” the war has begun. And
in “X-Men 3”: This is the war. The war is here.
And that’s something that I feel bad about not being
able to be a part of. It was such a payoff to the big ideas — a
darker, scarier, more intense “X-Men.” It looks
like they’ve captured that.
HORROR ANTHOLOGIES and DYSTOPIAN ROCK OPERAS
Q. Michael, you've said: “I just want to make one
good horror film before I die.” What’s up with
your “Trick or Treat” horror project with Stan
MD: I’m actually working on it with Bryan right now.
It’s an anthology horror film — kind of like “Creepshow” and “Twilight
Zone.” It’s four short stories on Halloween night
that all intertwine and criss-cross.
Q. We’ve haven’t had a good ’80s-vintage
horror anthology in a while.
MD: When I sat down to write it, I didn’t
want to create one of these teen slasher horror films that
over-reliant on CGI or have a guy in a mask running around
slashing people. I wanted something that was full of surprises.
Q. Will you be directing?
MD: That’s the idea, yeah.
Q. Tonally, what decade of horror will you be focusing on?
MD: I haven’t really nailed it yet. But I do miss
that late-’70s to early-’80s horror — you
know, that era where you had “Alien” and “Poltergeist.” Even
some of the more comedic stuff, like “Gremlins” or “The
Howling” and “American Werewolf.”
I think we’re in this era of horror right now that’s
very similar to the mid-’80s, where it’s very
dark, grungy, tortuous kind of horror — [remakes of] “Texas
Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes.” It’s
just unrelenting. And the answer to that, I think, are films
like “American Werewolf” that let you laugh just
a little. As terrifying as they were, they were also fun
movies to watch.
Q. There’s a real writer’s
voice in those films, as opposed to some of the more producer-driven
MD: They had a sense of humor. Even the
on Elm Street,” which introduced us to that serial
killer who had fun with what he was doing. It was absolutely
terrifying, but there were moments that were so funny — with
a dash of black comedy. That’s what I miss. And that’s
what I’d like to do.
Q. And Dan, you may have been joking
when you said you wanted to make “a big budget musical about dystopia, the apocalypse,
and the death of God.” But since you told IGN “I’m
not joking!,” I have to ask what it’s about.
DH: I want to make a rock musical — that’s my
goal in life. It’s definitely about dystopia.
There was a script I read a long time ago
about the death of God. It was called “The Sky is Falling.” It
was about two priests who found physical proof that God had
died at some point about four or five hundred years ago.
And they carried this proof around in an orange fanny-pack.
And because they lost their faith, they went on this killing
rampage. There’s this amazing scene where the two priests
are sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, shooting down
Q. That sounds like “Preacher.”
DH: It’s completely bizarre. It
was one of those things where you read it and you knew
it was never gonna be made.
So that was probably on my mind at the time [I said that].
Q. The large, pretentious rock musical
revisited in far too long.
DH: What happened to the big rock musical?
Pink Floyd broke up and grunge hit…. But everything comes in cycles.
I’m waiting for my moment.
THE HARRIS-DOUGHERTY METHOD
Q. You two have worked (or will be working)
together on something like seven films. I'm curious how
you split up
the labor — and what you consider the secret to a longish
DH: The secret to a longish professional
partnership is definitely not taking things personally — that it’s
MD: Well, at first, we were friends,
which I think is key — that
just kind of created a shorthand and a familiarity. I know
that I can call Dan up at 11:30 at night and I won’t
be offending him, and when we’re hanging out and being
social, we can bang around some ideas. I don’t know
many other writing partners or how their relationships started.
But we were friends first.
And we realized we had similar but different
tastes and talents, which compliment each other really well.
In terms of the
types of films we enjoy, I’m kind of a horror/genre/sci-fi
nut and Dan loves quirky family dramas, black comedies, and
character pieces. So when you put those together for a “Superman” film,
they work really well together.
DH: The first thing we learned on “X-Men 2,” our
writers’ boot camp, was that nothing is precious — nothing
you write is, you know, gold. Everything you write can be
erased, read incorrectly, or re-written, or saved for a different
script. Everything is disposable, and you need to keep on
your toes, and never take anything personally. Once you accept
that, it gets a lot easier, and you can exchange drafts and
get back something that you love.
And for us, the way we do it is we get together
in a room and we talk things through out loud. We talk structure
work it out together. And then we basically take scenes that
we love — like, I’ll say, “I really want
this scene with Lois and Clark,” and he’ll say, “Well,
I want the next scene with Lois and someone else” — and
we go off and write in our rooms. And we e-mail them to each
other, and we re-write each other, e-mail them back to each
other, and re-write each other again. And at some point along
the way, we start assembling the script.
And, you know, disagreements are always fun.
much easier to handle when we’ve got someone like Bryan
around — when we’re working for a director. We’ve
sort of learned along the way that it’s much more fun,
and you get a lot more out of it, to write for a single mind — somebody
who knows what they want to make.
Q. Dan, you've said, “Mike is a big horror-based person
and I am a drama-based person, so things come together.” Does
one of you spend more time on the action and one of you more
time on the love story?
MD: I think it started that way — on “X2” especially.
But we taught each other a lot. By the end, Dan could say, “I
want to take that action sequence,” and I’d have
no fear or worry.
That happened on “Superman,” as well. There’s
an action sequence involving Kitty Kowalski that was completely
Dan’s invention and execution. And then there are certain
dramatic beats that I kind of took over. And no matter what,
we’ll revise each other.
DH: There were incredible character beats
and moments with Perry White that are absolutely Mike’s.
MD: At first, I’d say, it was pretty evenly split:
I would handle the action and spectacle stuff, and Dan would
handle the emotional. But it’s definitely more intertwined
DH: People who know us think they can
go in and point out who wrote what — and they’re
usually off, or get it half-right.
LOGAN and ENDER
Q. Is "Logan's Run" still happening after "Superman"?
DH: I think so. That’s Bryan’s. He’s
really the man behind that.
Q. Dan, you've said, "It's not a remake of the movie.
It's a remake of the concept of the movie plus the book." Care
to elaborate with any specifics?
DH: Well, Bryan’s developing that — and you
never really know which direction he’s moving. Those
are words that came from his mouth, originally.
MD: What Bryan’s doing is similar to what he’s
doing with “Superman” — he’s taking
the concepts presented in the film and the book and doing
his own spin on it. There are elements from the film he’s
definitely using — but at the same time, he’s
throwing in his own original concepts and taking things from
the book, as well.
Q. Do you think the forever-in-development “Ender's
Game” [to which Harris and Dougherty are attached as
screenwriters] will finally happen with Wolfgang Petersen?
MD: That’s a good question. Anyone’s guess.
Some day I think that film will be made, but I don’t
know under what circumstances.
DH: That’s a story that’s
very important to me and very, very close to my heart.
Nothing would make me
happier than to see that movie get made.
Q. The weird thing about that book is that it grows with
you. You read it as an adult, and it has a whole different
There’s a whole sociopolitical layer that
you don’t get when you’re a kid.