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SUPERMAN LIVES, Part 2: Writer Kevin Smith
The director of DOGMA discusses his tenure with the Man of Steel.
By Edward Gross
May 12, 2000
The announcement that Kevin Smith had been hired to write SUPERMAN LIVES, following the ousting of the Jonathan Lemkin and Greg Poirier drafts of the script, seemed surprising to many. After all, Smith was an independent filmmaker whose writing credits basically consisted of low-budget projects he directed: CLERKS, MALLRATS and CHASING AMY. His name did not exactly scream out big-budget super hero epic.
Smith, who recently helmed the controversial Dogma
and has written a number of comics for both Marvel and DC, had been called in to Warner Bros. for a meeting over a few different projects which were, according to him, 'up for grabs'. Among them was a sequel to BEETLEJUICE, a feature film version of an OUTER LIMITS episode called ARCHITECTS OF FEAR, which dealt with scientists who wanted to bond the world together by presenting an alien invader that they themselves have built; and SUPERMAN LIVES.
'They had a script for ARCHITECTS OF FEAR that they felt didn't work,' says Smith. 'I read it and felt there was nothing I could do with it. With BEETLEJUICE, I figured leave well enough alone. But Superman was one that I was kind of intrigued by, because of my love for comic books and because I read the script they were working from at that time and hated it. Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope. That was the thing that bothered me about Greg Poirier's draft: they were trying to give Superman angst. They had Clark Kent going to a psychiatrist at one point. Superman's angst is not that he doesn't want to be Superman. If he has any, it's that he can't do it all; he can't do enough and save everyone. It's not enough to make him want to quit being Superman; it's enough to make the guy stay up at night so he's out doing shit constantly.'
In Smith's opinion, Poirier was 'out of his depth', demonstrating little knowledge of the Superman character or comic books in general. Smith was offered the opportunity to voice his opinion in a meeting with Warner executives.
'I said, 'Look, the script is really, really bad. It's a disservice and injustice to people who have been fans of this character for years, and just a disservice to the character himself to go forward and make this movie. What you're really looking at is if you make a Superman movie, people will show up. You're bound to make a hundred million regardless. Why not make a good one? Don't throw it away on this. It's embarrassing; it's everything that's wrong with comic book movies. There's just no understanding of Superman or the character. It's just too campy. I'm not lobbying for the job here. Hire me or don't hire me; just don't make this script.'
Thanked for his input, Smith assumed that his tenure with the Man of Steel was overuntil he got a phone call to meet with even more executives. Those who were party to his initial comments asked him to repeat what he had said.
'Eventually,' he explains, I met with [Warner's] Lorenzo DeBoniventura, a great guy, a smart guy. And Jon Peters, who isn't a really great guy or smart guy. I was fascinated by meeting Jon Peters, though, because this was the guy who produced BATMAN, and to hear him tell the story, you wouldn't think that Tim Burton meant anything to BATMAN. He says stuff like, 'You know the reason that BATMAN worked? You know that alleyway scene where he's fighting those sword-bearing guys and they're attacking him? Those guys were real swordsmen; that's why that movie made like $300 million.' I was like, 'Oh, really? All you need is real swordsmen to make a film such a hit?' But both of them dug on me, I guess. Jon's take was more from the gut than anything elseand way off base, too. He said, 'You know why you and me are going to get this project right and make a great movie? Because you and me understand Superman; we're from the streets.' I was like, 'You were a hairdresser once; I'm from the suburbs. Neither of us are from the streets.''
Smith was considerably more impressed with the WB exec, who seemed to be asking all of the right questions. For instance, when the writer was discussing Superman's origin and the fact that he was jettisoned to Earth from Krypton by his father, the exec wanted to know why Jor-el (Superman's pop) didn't just build a rocket big enough for his whole family.
'He said those were the kind of things that I should address,' Smith continues the scenario, 'as well as some fundamental questions that needed to be attacked. He forced me to work a little harder and not to just fall back on all the comics acumen I had collected over the years. He got it, too. He understood where I was going with it. We got along well. Actually, I even got along with Peters most of the time, even though he did have kooky ideas and sometimes you had to reign him in and say, 'You don't want to do that.' But sometimes you have to succumb to the stupidity, like having Brainiac fight polar bears in the Antarctic when he goes to the Fortress of Solitude. It's embarrassing. He was always saying that Brainiac should give Luthor a space dog, something from that menagerie of his. He gives Luthor a dog; Luthor is afraid of the dog, and the dog hates him. I'm like, 'It doesn't really lend to the story; why do you want that?' 'Because I need a Chewie.' This was during the time of STAR WARS' re-release, and he said, 'Chewie's cuddly, man. You could make a toy out of him, so you've got to give me a dog.' It's something I fought the whole time, and finally I guess I won him over with, 'Look, Jon, you don't need a Chewie.' He's forever influenced by the things he's seen.'
Including Smith's own work. In fact, the day after seeing CHASING AMY, Peters called Smith and said, 'That gay black guy in your movie did an excellent job; that's what we need in SUPERMAN. We need that kind of attitude, that voice. What about L-Ron [Brainiac's robotic assistant], can't he have a voice like that? Can't he be gay? I want a gay R2D2.' I was thinking that this man is either the most progressive individual in films today or just a flat-out idiot. It's a real thin line. I won some battles; I lost some. We had a great time doing it. The studio loved the script.'
Unfortunately for Smith, Peters was continually changing things and influencing the direction of the story. 'For instance,' he details, 'initially the fight with Doomsday was a huge epic. We altered it, because Jon was like, 'They have to fight in the subways and in the sewers. We've got to get down in the sewer.' Go figure. The whole movie takes place in darkness; can't we see this fight in the light of day of Metropolis? What do you want to bring him down in the muck for? Plus, then we have to cut above to see what's going on, but he still wanted them covered in muck and shit, because Jon hated the suit. Jon hates
Superman's suit. He's always talking about the costume being too pinkthat he didn't want to see him in the suit.'
Which begs the question, why the hell make a Superman movie in the first place? 'It goes beyond that,' says an exasperated Smith. 'Jon Peters is like, 'I don't want to see him fly. Look at those old movies where he's flying around with Lois Lane...it looks terrible. I don't want to see this guy flying.' So I'm like, 'Jon, you don't want him in the suit and you don't want him flying. You want to make Batman. You want a dark suit and you want a guy who can't fly, because that's not this character. This character is widely known for flying and for wearing those colors.' What was nice is that it forced me to be creative, and I went right back to Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT.
'Whenever you saw Superman fly, all you saw was a flash of red and a sonic boom. I thought they could make that work in the movie, and this way Jon Peters won't have to see the guy fly. The truth is, everyone was obsessed with doing a modern version of Superman. At one point in the script I wrote that the first time we see him, we see him from the boots up. We're in a meeting with some executives, and some guy goes, 'You just say, 'Superman shows up.' Can't you say something about his costume?' I'm like, 'What about his costume? Everyone knows his costume.' 'Can't you describe it?' 'But that's not my job. The costume people will design his costume, and hopefully it will be close to the one we all know and love.' And they go, 'But can't you just say something like, ''90s Style''? So I had to chuck in an adjective: 'we see Superman in the red and blue costume, '90s style.' Really, that's not my gig. My gig is not to tell you what the suit is going to look like. We all know what the fucking suit looks like.
'Look,' he says regarding the Superman costume, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In the comics, you can get away with changing the suit for a year because sooner or later you know he'll be back in it. Comics are a long-term business. [DC executive editor] Mike Carlin once told me, 'There's no beginning and no end in comic books. It's all middle story.' It's like a soap opera that goes on and on. You can kill the guy and you can put him in a different suit, because you know eventually he'll be back.'
He specifically refers to a run in the comic when Superman had a new costume and new powers. 'DC put him back in his old suit; everyone was happy, and it was a great event seeing Superman back in his togs,' Smith points out. 'We were all bitching and stuff about the lightning costume, but what a great thing because it pumped us up for when he comes back. You can't do that in a movie, man. There were all sorts of parameters on this project. Like a giant spider that's in the script. Peters wanted a giant spider in the third act. That giant spider to me is apropos of nothing in the rest of the script, and I had to find a way to make it work. And, because Warner Bros. didn't want it to be a spider, we couldn't call it a spider. So we had to call it something else. Mind boggling. There are certain parameters that you have to work with. For instance, when I came in, everyone wanted the 'death of' storyline and Brainiac as the villain. In the 'death of' comic book, Brainiac wasn't the villain, but that's who they wanted. I could work with that. They had a year to pull off the 'Reign of the Supermen' storyline [in the comics] and you can't really do that in two hours, so you start losing stuff like the characters of Steel and Superboy. But as a bastardized version of that storyline, I thought this worked.'
As is obvious from Smith's efforts, it's also character-rich. 'That was my gig,' he says simply, 'to write dialogue and character and some other genius was going to come in and make it look fucking great. I'm not that guy, and I don't tell you what the costumes looks like, especially when you know. My job was to flesh it out, and make it a believable world where this guy can fly, has tremendous powers and terrorists put on suits, go out and make mischief.'
Probably the most frustrating aspect of the deal for Smith, and the one that will upset long-time fans if this approach continues, is the attitude that this film is all about the merchandise it can inspire. 'That's all
they talk about,' Smith emphasizes. 'There's a scene where Superman and Lois Lane are on Mount Rushmoreprobably the best dialogue scene in the movie for me because it really sets up the disparity in their relationship and dating. Loved the scene, but I was told it would have to be cut because the script was too long. I said, 'You're insane. We can lose some lines, but don't touch that scene. It's really good, and it's the heart of the picture.' We fought about it back and forth and I said, 'If you're going to cut this scene, I'm not going to work on this project anymore.' I almost quite twice. I hate to be a prima donna, but you can't sacrifice story in favor of page count.
'They said to me, 'Kevin, what you don't understand about this is that this is a corporate movie,' he continues. 'It doesn't matter how good the dialogue is between Lois and Superman; it's about how many toys we can sell.' That was real soul-killing, man. Sell all the toys you want, but tell a good story in the process. Tell a good story, and you may sell more. And the fact of the matter is, even if the movies doesn't do well, like in the case of BATMAN & ROBIN, the toys will still
sell. And you can make toys that have nothing to do with the movie. Very often you look at these Batman action figures, and it's like, 'I don't remember him in that suit.' You can make toys that aren't in the flick, but are just tied to it. Look at the amount of Batman outfits out there; you never see him in half these outfits. So that really bothered me. My attitude was that if I was going to work within these parameters, I'm going to at least do it where I can sleep at night and it's not flat-out stupid.'
Looking for an example, Smith points to the Eradicator suit Superman wears while he's virtually powerless. 'Peters was like, 'What if it's a suit he has to piece together, so we can see him suiting up like Batman?' I'm like, 'It's not the same fucking thing. Everything can't be Batman on this picture. You're talking about Superman versus Batman.''
Smith's time with the project ran out the minute it was announced that Tim Burton had been hired to direct the film. 'Early in the process,' he explains, 'I was talking to one exec about who would possibly direct, and I suggested Tim Burton. They said, 'Nah, Tim doesn't have the right kind of sensibility for this movie,' and I said, 'Yeah, I guess you're right. Tim's kind of dark, and this movie's not about darkness.' Lo and behold, right before I turned in my second draft, all of a sudden Tim Burton comes to Warner Bros., where he's made MARS ATTACKS! which went right in the shitter, and he wants to do a sure thing. At one point he was thinking about doing SCOOBY DOO, but they handed him the script for SUPERMAN, the one I'd done, and he dug on it. It was great for the studio because they had a script they liked and had worked on for a while, and they had a director who had made them over half a billion dollars previously on a super hero franchise. Everything was looking rosy.
'As soon as Tim Burton signed his deal,' Smith adds, 'the script became fair game. Tim Burton turned around and told the studio, 'I want to do my own version of Superman; I want to go another way, and I only work with these four writers, so I want Wesley Strick to redraft it.' Now I'm on the phone with Warner Bros. I'm done at this point. I've done my two drafts. But all through the process, all the studio kept saying, and all Jon Peters kept saying, was that I would be on for the run of the show. They said I would be set writer and everything, which would have been fun. I was the one who would be writing the multiple drafts. But suddenly, that's it. At one point I had said to Jon Peters, 'Big studio movies usually have multiple writers,' and he said, 'Not this one. The director is going to be one of these MTV guys who's real in line with our vision. 'Our' vision, like he had anything to do with it. So he said, 'He's going to listen to us; we're not going to let him get out of line because we control the script.' As soon as Tim Burton was hired, all of that went right out the fucking window.
'I didn't even talk to Jon after that,' he says. 'So I'm talking to Warner Bros., and I said, 'I should at least meet with Tim Burton. At least give me the benefit of the doubt to go in there and hear his kooky ideas, and if I can do them, I'll do them. If not, he can go off and get his other writer.' But Tim Burton wouldn't do it. Tim Burton is too important, I guess, to meet with me. I don't know if it would have gone much differently, but faced with the choice of, 'Well, we've got this director who's made us a bunch of dough and has a great history with a super hero on film, or we've got the CLERKS guy whose script we love, who do we go with?' So they backed Tim Burton. Now they've gone through a bunch of scripts since I left, none of which I guess they were happy with. I haven't read them, but I met some Warner Bros. exec I'd never met before at the San Diego Comics Con this year, and he said, 'Did you have anything to do with the draft in which Jim Carrey is supposed to be Brainiac?' I said, 'Heavens no.' The exec said, 'It's so bad, so fucking abysmal.''
Since then, of course, William Wisher's script supposedly has pleased the studio, though no official announcement of a start date has been made, nor of a final choice for director. Burton, for his part, has moved over to Fox's remake of PLANET OF THE APES.
'That's my history with the project,' Smith says matter-of-factly. 'I was kind of disappointed to be off of it, but it was one of those thing where everybody loved the script, man. They should have backed the script. Stick with something that you know. Let's say that by the second draft the script was 90% there, perhaps there was another 10% to go to make it the movie they wanted to make. Fine. I'd done it this far; I'm pretty sure I could have taken it home. It's just a shame, because we were so fucking close. This movie was going to be rolling into production. God, they were talking about starting as soon as summer of '97, and we were so close
As Smith looks back at the project, he acknowledges that he was one of the few people involved with the film at the time who was not threatened by the memory of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. 'I didn't want to disown the first series and say that we were doing this completely differently,' he says. 'That those films were bullshit and we were going to do the definitive Superman. No, it's just an extension of the character. There is no definitive version of Superman. The character has been around for over 60 years, and nobody has been able to define him. No one has been able to say, 'No other version of Superman will be as good as mine.' That's the wonderful thing about the character: he can come into the hands of somebody and something rich and wonderful and new can happen with it. For me, it wasn't about doing the be-all, end-all. I just wanted to endeavor to do half the job that the guys in the comics have been doing for years. If I could have done that, if I could have gotten some of that magic up on the screenthat feeling you get when you read comicsthen that would have been good. I just wanted to make it believable. You're taking a trip; it's definitely escapist fantasy, but you make those characters real enough that you can believe that a man can fly.'
Despite all that has happened, Smith is glad to have been a part of the film, even if only briefly. 'It's truly mind-boggling,' he says. 'It's a great process to be involved in, though, because you see what happens and you see what's wrong. You watch these super hero movies and you say, 'How did they fuck up that character? How come they can't do it right?' This
is why they can't do it right, because it's filmmaking by committee. I understand there are certain needs; I understand that they have merchandising rights, and there's a pile of cash to be made, but there's nothing saying you can't make a movie really good at the same time.'