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SUPERMAN LIVES, Part 3: Nicolas Cage
Our look at the unmade film concludes with comments from the star and Tim Burton.
By Edward Gross
May 19, 2000
Tim Burton's joining SUPERMAN LIVES pretty much knocked screenwriter Kevin Smith out of the creative process. Although actor Nicolas Cage was still signed for the lead role, the eccentric director had his own ideas for screenwriter. He chose Wesley Strick (who at that time had most recently penned the big-screen version of THE SAINT, starring Val Kilmer). Although nothing is really known about the Strick draft, his version had apparently gone over budget and some of his ideas were...well, different. Strick was discharged and Warner Bros.unwilling to allow this hoped-to-be-born-again franchise fade into oblivion and desperately clinging to the death of Superman storylineturned to writer Dan Gilroy.
For his part, Gilroy turned out two drafts, until he, too, was let go. Next on the list was a spec writer named Alex Ford, who penned his own version, submitted it and was lucky enough to get paid because the studio and producer Jon Peters liked aspects of his scenario. Despite the fact that he was only involved briefly, Ford was there long enough to develop a distinct impression of the people in charge of Superman.
'I can tell you they don't know much about comics,' Ford said in an online interview, echoing the viewpoint of Smith, who had come to realize that Peters had no respect for the readers of the Superman comic book titles. 'What they are working with is the public's general perception of Superman. If you ask the general public if the Hulk can talk, they'll tell you, 'No,' and I can guarantee if they make a Hulk movie tomorrow, he won't talk because that's what people expect. The last Batman movie was the way it was because their audience isn't you and me who pay $7.00. It's for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It is a business, and what's more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?'
After that, the bottom fell out of the projectagainwhen Warners put the brakes on, and Burton departed to film SLEEPY HOLLOW. 'I had been working on the project for a year, and it didn't happen,' says Burton. 'I basically worked very hard. I made the movie; we just forgot to film it.'
The rumor at the time was that part of the problem was the casting of Cage. Burton refutes this. 'No,' he says, 'that was a done deal. I mean, that's why I wanted to do it. I love him. That's what people said about Michael Keaton for BATMAN. You'd have to ask Warner Bros, but I thinkand this is only my opinion, of coursethat it wasn't filmed because it was going to be an expensive movie, and they were a little sensitive because they were getting a lot of bad press that they had screwed up the Batman franchise. Because of the corporate environment, all of the decisions are basically fear-based. So I think one of the aspects that lead to their decision was that somehow they were going to fuck up another franchise.
'If they'd just allowed us to make the film,' adds Burton, 'I think that we could have done something interesting. And, you know, it was going to be an expensive movie. They made a choice. They had this, SUPERMAN, and WILD, WILD WEST, and they opted for that and canned this one. It's frustrating. I like to be positive, but I really feel that I wasted a year of my life. That's a terrible feeling. You never want to feel that in anything you do.'
And at that point, it seemed that SUPERMAN ceased to live, but then TERMINATOR 2's William Wisher was given a shot at the screenplay. The result reportedly blew the studio's corporate socks off, and rumblings began anew that the film would be moving into active production. In fact, Oliver Stone (PLATOON, WALL STREET, JFK, ANY GIVEN SUNDAY) was supposedly intrigued enough to consider directing. Unfortunately, nothing has happened since, although if the film does eventually get produced, its greatest hope for success probably rests with its most controversial aspect: the casting of Cage.
Appearing in a number of off-kilter roles over the years, Cage redefined himself as an action hero in such films as THE ROCK, CONAIR, FACE/OFF, and the soon-to-be-released GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS. He is also the same actor who took home the Oscar for his starring role in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, and could, conceivably, force the film to move beyond serving as merely an advertisement for a new toy line.
'It's certainly not Christopher Reeve, is it?' muses Jonathan Hensleigh, the writer of THE ROCK. 'I think Nic will certainly be the most interestingboth physically and psychologicallySuperman. I think it's a very bold move, because Nic brings with him an intensive, comprehensive knowledge of his character. More importantly, knowledge of his character that is not necessarily reflected in the script pages when he takes the role on. In other words, he gets his character very firmly set in his own mind, and then he'll do whatever he has to do to his appearance, to his voice and to the script itselfthe dialogue or situationsto get the role to conform to what he has in his mind's eye, which is an extraordinary ability not every actor has. That's why his performances are so rich and nuanced, because he brings his own creative energies to the creation of the role.
'I'm not saying he doesn't respect the script or the director's direction,' Hensleigh adds; 'he just brings with him the world of Nic Cage. I think he'll bring to Superman humor, psychological depth and humanness. I mean that in this sense: all human beings are eccentric, and a lot has been made of Nic's eccentricities in his roles, but I just see that as humanness and reflective of the natural quirks of most people.'
Hit-meister producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who took on both THE ROCK and CONAIR, shares Hensleigh's enthusiasm. 'Nic's a brilliant actor,' he notes, 'and he brings a lot to the party. He was instrumental in creating the character in both THE ROCK and CONAIR, taking scripts that were interesting and making them more
interesting. That's great when you have a creative partner who doesn't just show up and say, 'What do I say? Where do I stand?' He works very hard on the script and comes up with ideas. For instance, in CONAIR, it was his idea to make the character a U.S. Ranger to give him automatic dignity for the audience and heroics that come with that Ranger badge.
'I think these films were a nice transition for him into an action hero,' Bruckheimer continues. 'In THE ROCK, he played this kind of nerd chemical expert who comes in and saves the daykind of a boy becoming a manand it was a stepping stone to CONAIR. To tell you the truth, I wasn't surprised about Superman. Nic is very chameleon-like and can do anything he wants. As an actor, he creates characters in whole and will making a very interesting Superman, something you haven't seen before.'
For his part, Cage is amused by the fact that he has to defend his choice to play this character to people who believe it's somehow beneath him, particularly following his Academy Award. 'My attitude is nothing
is beneath me,' he says matter-of-factly. 'My attitude is, 'If this movie is an action movie, let's make it the best damn action movie we can make. If this is an independent movie, let's make this the best damn independent movie we can make.' I've made it my purpose to sort of embrace every style and expression in my acting. It's kind of my purpose to not only change my character but my genre, and the one genre that I haven't really done is the biggest of them all, which is the comic book genre. That seems to be our main export, if you will, so I haven't really found a way to morph into that dimension. The bottom line is that I don't want to do what is regarded as the 'important' movie. I believe that a movie like LEAVING LAS VEGAS has an important value, and I believe that a movie based on Superman has an important value as well.'
Although he brings enthusiasm to each role he plays, Cage is particularly excited about being given the opportunity to play the man from Krypton. 'The death of Superman and his resurrection will be a part of the story,' he says, 'but I have other points that I want to address in the Superman character that haven't really been examined before. Superman is a great story. It's one of those phenomenons that operates on so many different levels that still haven't been explored. One of the things I like about Superman is the notion of nurture versus nature. Is he more Kryptonian, or is he more the Kents, his adopted parents? These are big issues that we're thinking about, like genetics and scientific things of that nature. So Superman is a remarkable achievement. These two guys [Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster] were considered nerds, who were from Canada, and they wore glasses, which back in the '30s was a big deal. These two guys who were oppressed invented the alter ego concept, of being a super man. And everybody said, 'Oh, don't do it; it's ridiculous.' But they knew they had gold, and they held on to it for four years. Then, as soon as it came out, it was an overnight sensation. So there's something there, and I saw it for me as an opportunity to reach a lot of kids around the world and say something positive.
'On occasion,' he continues, 'I've tried to make movies that make a difference. I think CITY OF ANGELS is one of them. If you really want to make a difference, if you really want to do something positive for the world, then you've got to start with an impressionable age. I've never really made a movie for children before, but to me, Superman is an opportunity to reach children all around the world, and to say something to them that I believe. I guess I'm trying to take the judgment out of the way kids treat each other. To me, this project is very important because it's going to affect children around the world. What do I want to see happen to children around the world? I can't claim that I'm really going to be able to do this, but at least I can try. Which is if I can play up to Superman's feelings of being an alien, feeling different, feeling weirdbasically feeling like the kid I felt like when I was in schoolthen I can maybe get that little boy to stop teasing that little boy because Superman is different. That's my
thought process. Maybe that's a little too weighty, but at least it's positive.'
Rumors have abounded that the film would feature Cage in a new take on the Superman costume, but he doesn't feel that that will be the case. 'I think the Superman costume will still be the classic costume,' he says, 'because I, like many people, am a fan of Americana and pop culture. I like the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle. I think they should stay true to the Superman costume. But my main concern is to use my acting to convey what it means to be an alien living on Earth. And all these heroic deedsmight they not be a compulsion to do good so that he will be loved? 'Will you love me if I do this?' That's sort of what kids do with their parents: 'If I could save my parents' lives, they'll love me.' So that's sort of what I want to convey with the character. How it will manifest, I can't tell you.'
The only thing Cage is certain of at this point is the fact that his Superman will be quite different from Christopher Reeve and every other actor who has played the role. 'I like the fact that I don't look like Superman,' he smiles. 'I mean, I've always felt that I'm everyman, and I believe that everyman can be Superman. That's the beauty of the character, in my opinion. Anybody can be Superman in their own mind'
Well, at this point it remains to be seen if anybody ever will be another Superman on the big-screen. SUPERMAN LIVES is currently residing in development hell, and even the strength of the Man of Steel might not be enough to remove the project from that state of existence.