One of the greatest ‘what ifs’ in genre cinema is a movie by the name of Superman Lives. To be directed by Tim Burton, starring Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel and with Kevin Smith amongst some to tackle the screenplay, the film was planned for a 1999 release. Only it never happened. The film was sadly scrapped by Warner Brothers shortly before principal photography was to begin. In the years since, Smith has openly talked about the failed project and various pieces of concept art and test footage have surfaced online.
With a career that has taken in the likes of Metalocalypse, The Venture Brothers and The ABCs of Death, Jon Schnepp decided to explore exactly what happened to Superman Lives, taking to Kickstarter to fund The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? and managing to get the thoughts of Burton, Smith, producer Jon Peters and many more. Ahead of the film being shown at this weekend’s MCM London Comic Con, we were lucky enough to grab an hour with Schnepp (complete with cameo from producer Holly Payne) to discuss the film and some of his past works.
STARBURST: So, starting from scratch, how did you first hear about Superman Lives?
Jon Schnepp: Well, like other people, I heard about it through the trades. I can’t remember where I heard about Kevin and thought he looked really familiar, and I was like “Oh man, he made the Superman suits!” So when he came back I asked him, and he looked kind of uncomfortable. Later that night with Holly Payne, the producer and my girlfriend, we went over to this restaurant and we’re hanging out with some friends, and I told them about this, I told them about my interest in this project and how I’d been collecting artwork on it. One of my friends said that I should maybe make a documentary, and another of my friends said I should maybe raise some money on Kickstarter. So that was the idea. Then that idea would not leave me alone. I was like, “You know what? I wonder if I could find enough to make a documentary. I wonder if I could just devote time to this and research it, if I could uncover more facts about it.” So in the following 3 months later, I started the Kickstarter in January 2013. I raised money to make a feature film about what happened to Superman Lives. And I was shocked. In the first weekend we raised, like, $35,000! It was like, “Wow! People are really interested. There’s more people out there like me than I thought.” That there began the journey, which I foolishly thought it would only take maybe 8 months. I was like “Yeah, I’ll get it done and I’ll premiere it at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013.” I was completely wrong. For me, I was used to directing live-action television shows and cartoons, where you have a lot of control on the project through casting and hiring, going over storyboards, and then you just start making it. So with a documentary, you’ve got really zero control and no power. You have to ask people if they wanna be in your movie and they can say no.
You managed to get some major names from Superman Lives involved in this project, such as Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, Jon Peters, etc. How eager were people to get involved with the documentary when you first proposed the idea to them or were some hesitant in doing it?
Yeah, none of them wanted to do it at first. I started off just trying to find different ways to contact them because it’s not like you can just call them up. I’ll have a list of phone numbers and agents and all these buffers and “Here, I’ll pass it along” and then they never pass it along. So it’s a really long process. Then a lot of people were like, “Man, Kevin Smith will be easy. He loves talking!” And I’m like, “Yeah, but he’s also super busy! He does like 5 or 6 podcasts a day, he’s working on movies constantly, he’s got a TV show, and he’s got his family, and his concerts.” So it’s not like he’s just got 4 hours free tomorrow for you to go on over. But when I made contact with him, it took about 8 months to get him locked down. It was funny, because when I got Kevin I literally… I’d also been working on getting Tim Burton, and someone from Canada e-mailed me. I had a lot of moles who were interested in the same thing. They were like, “Hey, did you know about the flying footage?” I was like, “No, do you have it?” They’d be like, “No, I don’t have it but I’ve worked on it.” And I’d be like, “Well what about your friends, do they have it?” So I started finding out about what did exist even though people didn’t have it, so I was trying to hunt that down.
Jon talks to Kevin Smith in The Death of Superman Lives
And did you ever get chance to approach Nicolas Cage? He’s not directly a part of the documentary apart from in archive footage, so did you ever get anywhere with him or was that simply never going to happen?
Well here’s the story as far as that goes. With Tim Burton, I got contact through someone who was working on the set and said here’s the production manager’s number for Big Eyes , the DP over at Warner Brothers. We tried reaching out to Nicolas Cage, and when I started the Kickstarter he was still talking about Superman. Some of the audio clips I have are from the interviews he’d done at that time. Also, at the time that I started doing the Superman Lives Kickstarter is when the Internet went into overdrive on memes of Nicolas Cage. The Internet went crazy on making fun of Nicolas Cage. The Internet, and I mean everyone who is a troll or who likes to make fun of people, somehow Nic Cage become a focal point of their poking fun. His face was on a cat. His face was on a man’s chest. Literally, every day there’s like 10 to 20 brand new Nicolas Cage memes. There’s edits of him from “Not the bees, not the bees!” So it became a real obvious thing to me that millennials never saw him in his past roles. Their reference is National Treasure. Anything before that they’d never seen or cared to look up, so he was kind of like a jokey guy who was in a bunch of bad movies and someone you should make fun of from Wicker Man and these other movies that maybe didn’t turn out that great. I’m from a time where I’m like “Nicolas Cage is an incredible actor!” He’s in Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona, Face/Off, Con Air. The list goes on and on. Obviously he won an Oscar the year he was cast as Superman, so you would’ve had an actor who won an Oscar portraying Superman. It was different than just trying to get an unknown person to portray Clark Kent and Kal-El. It was getting someone who was bringing their own unique take to the character, which he was going to. Long story short, we reached out to him and talked to his manager. I even showed his manager a cut of the film about 6 months ago, and he just declined to be interviewed because the following year and a half, after all these memes exploded everywhere, Nic Cage just said “I don’t wanna talk about the past anymore.” He made it clear to every single person that he will not talk about anything from the past, including Superman Lives. I totally understand it coming from his perspective. If you were that person who woke up every day and there was a brand new picture of you on the Internet a hundred times a day, you would probably withdraw a little bit and just kind of focus on the now because anything you do or say is gonna be made fun of. It’s one of these horrible things, but when you see the film we’re not doing that at all. All of the people involved in the film - myself, the producer Holly Kane, my co-editor Marie Jamora, technical producer Chris Graybill – we’re a small crew who have been working on this film for the last 8 months, almost non-stop every day until 2 in the morning, and we were never out to make fun of Superman Lives, not out to make fun of Tim Burton, not out to make fun of Nicolas Cage or Jon Peters. My goal as the director of this film was to spotlight the creative process and the artistic process, because there was something there that I knew was very, very interesting. And it was also to spotlight the creative process of a Hollywood film; how do you make something like this, how do you get this far and it still falls apart. That’s what became obvious to me as I got more and more of this amazing artwork and as I get some of this test footage of Nic Cage. Though we didn’t talk to Nicolas Cage, we got an incredible amount of test footage of him trying on different outfits. The footage that we have is kind of being fly-on-the-wall whilst Nic and Tim talk about their process, so you’re hearing Nicolas talk about how he’s going to portray Clark Kent while he tries out different Clark Kent looks. Really Tim and Nic had a synergistic approach to Clark Kent as well as Superman. They looked at him as an alien, this outsider who at first doesn’t fit in. Clark Kent was actually going to be the regular guy who no one would believe that this guy was Superman when they looked at him. He was wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, he had a weird blue jacket. He was definitely like a geek version of Clark Kent.
Most of the stuff that we’ve seen over the years, it’s rare to see the Clark Kent side of the character, with the pictures seen largely focussing on the Superman side of the character. So you take a look at the Clark Kent element of the character in the film then?
Oh yeah, that’s a big chunk of it. It’s a key element. What’s really, really crazy is just that in the last year, where I’ve released these trailers, now if you search Superman Lives then the majority of the artwork is from my trailer. Basically Tim Burton gave me the keys to his Wizard of Oz/Raiders of the Last Ark vault with all of the Superman Lives art. It was fantastic! We were in there for 2 and a half days photographing non-stop. There’s such a voluminous amount of work. Truly, the somewhat sad part of this film is not only that all of the people I interviewed really wanted see this movie made, not only is there a misinterpretation of what this film would’ve been from the outside from the public… it’s so wrong and so off that when we actually see what they were making, everyone who’s seen the film so far - and it’s kind of what I wanted so I feel good about it, and I didn’t mean to do it, there’s no manipulation of it, I just placed all of the facts in order - it feels like even if they didn’t like the idea of Nicolas Cage as Superman, that they realised that this would’ve been a really interesting film and they wish it got made. And that’s kind of the end result when you walk out of the film, after you’ve seen the film is so loaded with creativity and different ideas and imagination, and we really did see a very unique and interesting film forming and it just gets beaten down. And there was a lot of different concept art. For me, a lot of people ask me “Shouldn’t there be a Superman Lives made now or would you like to make a Superman Lives movie or should there an animated version of Superman Lives?” And my response is no, because there isn’t a Superman Lives movie and there can’t be a Superman Lives movie because it got shut down in 1998. It’s not like there’s a film that got made that can be released or the finished idea is all there, completely mapped out so that someone can execute it. That doesn’t exist. All that exists are 20 different versions of Brainiac from 3 different studios, 30 different looks of Doomsday, all these different set ideas, some of which were actually being built, the Skull Ship actually got built, Lex Luthor’s penthouse suite actually got built. Certain areas got built up or sets were being built as they were 3 weeks before shooting when the plug got pulled. They were actually going to start shooting some principal photography in Pittsburgh. When you think about it, they didn’t even have Lois Lane cast yet and they were 3 weeks away, but yeah, they were only about to start principal photography. Maybe they were going to do inserts, maybe they were going to do Clark Kent scenes, you don’t know what they were going to shoot first.
Tim Burton with Nicolas Cage as Superman
You touched on it earlier, Superman Returns. That was one of those films that seemed to peak after 10 minutes, after the airplane rescue, and then became formulaic and a little too centred on the love story of Superman and Lois. Superman Lives certainly sounded a little different to that. We know he’s a huge fan of Superman, and his son’s even called Kal-El, but do you think that Nicolas Cage would’ve made a good Superman?
I think he would’ve knocked it out of the park, I think he would’ve nailed it in a way that no one was prepared for an actor like him to nail a character. I look at Nicholas Cage’s Superman as how I look at Michael Keaton as Batman. Michael Keaton’s Batman in 1989, the film wouldn’t have happened if we had the Internet because people would’ve complained so much about the guy from Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice as Batman. Warner Brothers would’ve just gone, “We’ve gotta recast. Shut this down!” That’s exactly what would’ve happened. But that’s fan culture though, that’s what happens with everything that involves superheroes or just fan culture in general, like “I liked that band before they were famous.” It’s the thing that you hold close to your chest, like “I don’t wanna change Superman’s costume. I wanna keep the red underwear.” Then they get rid of the underwear and people don’t even remember that he ever had red underwear! The casting decisions are exactly like that every time that someone is cast as a character and every time a photo is released of that person as that character, like Heath Ledger as The Joker and now with Jared Leto, it’s the classic story of fans being like “Don’t ruin my story, don’t take over my character!” And then the movie comes out, and most of the time right now we’re batting pretty good. We’re betting around 85. Back in the ‘90s we’re not batting at all! We had to wait 3 or 4 years for a superhero movie and most of the time they sucked. Look at 1997 or 1998, there were no superhero movies that came out. Oh wait, Batman & Robin came out.
We guess there was Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with David Hasselhoff in 1998…
Yeah, but what turned it around was Blade. That was a character that no one expected to even make a blip on the radar, that nobody even thought of as a Marvel movie, that people just thought of as a vampire movie. And that was a lot of fun. So when that kind of thing was happening, I think Nicolas Cage would’ve been fantastic as Superman; he had a take on it that was really unique and special and fit in with fanboys more than they would ever know. Superman is that kind of character that’s so powerful that it’s hard to figure out how to humanise him, and Tim Burton humanised him by making him just like a fanboy who was reading a comic book at the time in high school. He was an outsider, he was laughed out and kept apart from other people, like “What, are you reading comic books?” So I think of anybody, nerds would’ve identified with this more than any other Superman because he would’ve been a Superman that people could identify with. He was an alien but he also had the human traits that he had to deal with.
Jon exits for a moment, and in enters producer Holly Payne for a cameo of sorts…
During the experience of making the documentary, did your thoughts on the actual Superman Lives movie change at all?
Holly Payne: Yes, sure. I was less familiar with it than Jon was because Jon had this fixation on it for years, but I was obviously raised on Christopher Reeves’ Superman. I wasn’t a comics nerd, not mainstream comics anyway. So my inception to Superman was stuff I saw as a child and Christopher Reeve. That was the idea I had in my head for Superman. But knowing Jon and knowing comics and all of the iterations of various characters in the comics world, finding out about this story it was so much more intriguing to me than any other story we’d ever heard about Superman or Clark Kent or Kal-El. It was his struggles and making it an off-Earth experience for most of the movie, that was something that we’d never seen. I thought that was a really exciting take and also something Tim Burton could’ve played a lot with. So yeah, it was unfortunate.
And what’s the response been from the guys who got involved with the film?
You know what, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. We had many of the people at our red carpet premiere that were involved in the movie. We had Wesley Strick, we had many of the concept artists that worked on it, we had a production manager, we had a lot of people who worked on it in some kind of way before it was pulled. It’s been a long time for them, they haven’t really thought about it much. In fact, many of the people we spoke to, when we interviewed them they hadn’t seen their own art for 15 years and were like “I don’t remember doing that!” because it had been that long. There’s a lot of humour in this movie too, which you’ll see, but it was a trip down memory lane in a very positive way for all of them, even for Wesley Strick, who was one of the screenwriters. He’s more in the Hollywood scene, so for his perspective it was more looking through the curtain at how Hollywood development works and how things blossom and then got pulled and changed due to too many chiefs. And the risk factor is huge. Warner Brothers at that time were on a really bad one, so they had had multiple, multiple failures and it was a risk that they weren’t prepared to take all of a sudden.
Holly and Jon at a previous MCM event
And if we remember rightly, was it yourself who was involved with Jon on The ABCs of Death?
That was me! I had an eyeball ripped out.
How was that to work on then?
Well here’s the thing. That was with Jon Schnepp as well. Jon’s the director of multiple things; he directed Metalocalypse, he directed The ABCs of Death…
The Venture Brothers!
The Venture Brothers. So it’s one of those things where people pigeonhole you and think you can do just one thing. But both of us, Jon in particular, do a lot of different things, but for that he did the short W is for WTF. That was fun. I had my face bitten and my eyeball ripped out by an insane clown, so that’s exciting.
And just like that, faster than a speeding bullet, Holly exits and Jon returns to continue where we left off earlier…
A question that we asked Holly earlier, but when you were making The Death of Superman Lives did you find that your personal thoughts on Superman Lives changed at all?
Jon Schnepp: Yes, quite a bit. When I first started the film I was really just interested in the concept art. I was like “I wanna find out more about the ideas that were behind this.” As I found out more and as I interviewed, not only Kevin Smith, but Tim Burton… he was the big interview. He unlocked so many people. It was like trying to talk to someone’s boss. Nobody felt comfortable even though the project was so long ago because they still work for him, he still hires the same people. Everyone wanted to feel good about it. Above and beyond the incredible designs and artwork, I think this would’ve been like a cosmic fairytale version of a superhero. It would’ve been a lighter version of something. It wouldn’t have been a gothic version of Superman, it would’ve been a light, fun film and it would’ve had some amazing sequences with Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Christopher Walken as Braniac with their heads together, arguing with each other. Stuff like that, when you think about it that could fall into Batman & Robin territory, but done in the right way, and Tim Burton had just done Mars Attacks! with Sarah Jessica Parker’s head on a dog, and it could’ve fallen into that territory where it could’ve been weird and strange. I started thinking more about what this version could’ve been. I really would’ve liked to have seen it, I really would’ve like to have had the chance to see it, but my feeling about it now is that you don’t need to see it because we have all the versions and different possibilities. And we don’t even know if that stuff would’ve made it into the final film, that was just a draft. Then later it became Lex Luthor and occasionally Braniac’s head would pop out of Lex Luthor and start yelling about stuff. So we don’t know what the final outcome of it would’ve been. I think it would’ve been a very unique and interesting Superman, and not using those words in a bad way but using those words in a good way, getting a different turn on the character that I think would’ve sent audiences in such a different way that they would’ve really responded to it. I think this actually would’ve been, if this film happened, it would’ve changed the course of most superhero movies. Remember, it would’ve came out in 1999, the same year that Blade came out. Marvel were bankrupt in 1999 and DC were thinking of buying Marvel Comics in 1999, that was what was going on. If Superman Lives came out in 1999 and was even a moderate hit… but people just didn’t see, especially the corporate people. They saw money. They were losing money, all their movies were losing money, and the more risk they felt about people responding badly to Nicolas Cage, people were responding badly to Tim Burton, they were getting a lot of bad press, the script’s not done yet, and they needed to pull the plug. It’s this thing that you can see from a business side, but from a creative side it’s like “We’re ready to go” and then they’re pulling the plug. So it is something I would’ve loved to have seen, but I feel with this movie I’ve captured so many of what the possibilities you could’ve seen that you’ll kind of come away from the film having seen it in a sense. It’s kind of the Elseworlds type of universe, it’s round about Planet 9 or 10 or 13 or whatever and the suit in this movie did come out, you would’ve had Michael Keaton as Batman and Tim Burton and then a team-up in 2001 and then all these different movies would’ve happened. It would’ve been a different universe that we live in now in 2015, populated with a different type of superhero film. You would definitely have had a Justice League, probably in 2004. Now it’s like 2015 and you’re not going to see the Justice League for 4 more years or something.
There was George Miller’s Justice League round about 2006 that is another movie that got totally axed, even though a whole cast was put together and shooting was ready to start in Australia.
I know! That’s incredible. They had all their costumes made, those guys were all training for 6 weeks over in Australia, they had sets built, they had the Hall of Justice built, they had the bad guys’ sets built. They had all these sets completely built and a 45-minute animatic completely done of the film, all the big scenes, full colour, 3D versions of all the characters storyboarded doing their shit. I mean that’s the one, that’s the one you wanna see. If you could see that 45-minute thing…
Maybe a next project for you? A nice follow-up to The Death of Superman Lives?
Yeah, but there’s just not enough of that unfortunately. For me, my interest in doing Superman Lives really came down to the artwork and the ideas and people behind it. To me, George Miller was definitely into it and he’s an incredible director, but like I said the story of that is not as interesting. The story of that is simply that DC decided it didn’t wanna have two Batmans. They already had Christian Bale and they were gonna go with another Batman but didn’t. I’m like, “Look, they do it on TV. They’ve gonna have two Flashes, two Green Arrows. Why not have multiple versions of Batman?” Then there was the same thing with J.J. Abrams’ Superman: Flyby. They had all of the auditions for Henry Cavill and Brandon Routh, I have the footage of all that, I have the animatics from that movie, literally 30 or 40 minutes of animatics. You can see, it would’ve been a pretty interesting take on Superman because Krypton never blew up and Superman gets in a pod at the end of the movie and goes to fight in the Kryptonian Wars. It would’ve been a totally different take on Superman, and that’s kind of exciting. I think I might put that together as a Blu-ray special feature on my film. I don’t think it has enough there to be a whole feature, but it was this film that I covered more and more and I was fascinated to find out what they had made and where they were going.
Away from The Death of Superman Lives, you’ve worked on some truly awesome shows, such as Metalocalypse, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Space Ghost and a personal favourite of this writer’s, The Venture Brothers…
I was really just sitting in for Jackson Publick , he was really burnt out and I was just finishing Season 2 of Metalocalypse. He called me and was like, “Would you please come out here and help me get Season 4 started?” They were redoing the first 3 episode for 6 months! That’s why you always have to wait all those months for Venture Brothers, for them to reenergise.
Could you ever see yourself going back to that sort of work?
Yeah, for me doing this documentary was actually just a reason to do something and refresh my creative juices by doing different things. I think for myself, I have been writing two different scripts right now and I have an animated script for a feature that’s sort of in the realm of heavy metal. I wanna do an animated film for adults with modern technology. I would like to do that but unfortunately it’s impossible to make an R-rated animated film in 2015, yet somehow they were able to make Heavy Metal in 1980. How can you make that and then now we’re so advanced that you’re saying there’s no money in adult animation? Alright. That was my first Kickstarter, it was gonna be an 11-minute cartoon.
The only adult-themed animated movie of recent years that comes to mind really is Rob Zombie’s The Haunted World of El Superbeasto…
There is that, but then that never got released properly, it just went straight to Hulu or something. So there’s that, and then I’m probably going to focus more on doing a live-action, actual real movie. And I’ve got a horror musical that I’m working on, all original stuff that I’m working on. That’s the next thing I’m gonna push myself into. I’m probably not gonna do another documentary, and if I did then it’s probably not gonna involve superheroes. A couple of people have approached me and been like, “Hey, would you be interested in doing something with this?” It’s funny as what you’re doing now is what people think you do. I’m like, “Well, I’ve been directing TV shows for 15 years.” I do one documentary and people want me to do other documentaries. I’ve had people tell me that I could look at Justice League: Mortal or Darren Aronofsky’s Batman movie , and I guess it’s a possibility to do all those things but it also takes a lot of your time. This one took 2 and a half years and the last 8 months have been every day non-stop. It’s a very consuming job. So my future is gonna be doing other creative stuff and who knows, but that’s what I’ve always been doing. But I’m really happy with the response to this documentary, not only from people who thank me for making this but I’m also happy with the response after they’ve seen it. That’s the most important thing to me, not just the idea of making a film but the execution and the finishing of the film, which I think caught a lot of people off guard. If they come from a Hollywood background then they might have thought I was making fun of it, but I’m definitely not doing that. The intention was never there, so the input and the final product is not there either, we’re not making fun of it. We look at the development process of a Hollywood feature film that happened to be a superhero film.
Holly Payne in The ABCs of Death
It certainly sounds a lot more time-consuming than just doing a segment on The ABCs of Death. How much fun was that to work on?
That was great, and it seems like they picked all the right guys to do all these different things. For me I was W is for WTF, which was a lot of fun. And the Soskas, I really liked their film American Mary. But yeah, it was great to work on The ABCs of Death. None of us worked together, the other directors, but when we had the premiere we had almost 25 other directors, almost all of them came, and it was great to talk to them not only about films but about life in general and just hang out. It was such a cool thing to create that anthology.
The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? will be shown at MCM London Comic Con on 22nd and 23rd May, with a VOD and US DVD/Blu-ray release on July 9th. A UK home release has yet to be confirmed.
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