STARBURST was lucky enough to talk with producer and director Sam Liu about his career, headshots, and Warner Bros animation’s latest release; Superman: Red Son, based on the Eisner award-winning comic mini-series of the same name, which imagines the Man of Steel crashing in Soviet-era Russia, instead of the rolling fields of Smallville.
STARBURST: you went to the University of California and studied illustration, did you always want to work in comics, or did it just work out that way?
Sam Liu: It’s weird, I was a fan of comics, but didn’t realise you could make money in comics. I just liked to draw, Image comics, was blowing up at that point (founded in 1992 by Todd McFarlane and several other artists, famous for producing Spawn and The Walking Dead), that craze only lasted about 3 years. Big companies like Marvel were almost going bankrupt and I had a friend from school who was a head colourist for Wild Storm [an imprint of DC Comics also founded in 1992] and we would call each other, as we were drawing at 4 in the morning, as comic work can get kind of brutal, we discussed how this was a hard life and he had a friend who was an animation director, and she got me into animation.
So at the moment you work as a producer and director on DC animated movies, is this your full time job, or do you have anything on the side?
It is sort of my full time, right now, it is a lot of work! It is very time consuming. I am overlapped so much, with this last movie [laughs], when we were editing Red Son, I was working on another movie and doing the animatics on my time off. So I am with two different editors, and its bouncing back and forth, so what story am I working on right now, what is the story for this one? [Laughs] So the last 2 years have been absolutely brutal. It’s fun though.
It seems amazing from the outside.
It is going to get easier, I am having a break after Red Son.
Who decides what to make next when it comes to the DC animated films, is there a committee?
It is weird because there are three parties, there is home video, DC comics and us [Warner Bros Animation], and when it’s us, it’s whatever producer is up next. So James Tucker and Bruce Timm are the executive producers, and they will come up to you and say, “Hey, I have this project, do you want to work on it?” It is a loose committee. It is a loose committee, sometimes one party will push an agenda. It just kind of works itself out a little bit.
Do you get a good say yourself?
Yeah, as a comic book fan, the height of my fandom was the ‘80s and ‘90s and most of that stuff has already been done. So the material out now is all new to me. There are certain things I’m not good at, like comedy, so I usually turn those things down, I like dramatic heartfelt stories. So a lot of the time, I will like the premise and I get an opportunity to sit in during the scripting period, sometimes they will want to write ideas down in the first half, then I will come in, mix things up a bit and we will go from there. I have a lot of fun building. As long as it seems cool, let's build it!
OK then, so why do Red Son now? Mark Millar’s story was first published in 2003, what made 2020 the right time to tell this story?
It is kind of a weird process, these big name stories, are always on the table. We were going to make Red Son five times already! It is usually to do with theatrical releases or what is happening in society that will determine if it is pushed forward or back. Sometimes it is an act of attrition, we have made all these other films, what is left? With Red Son, the producers felt like it was time to push it, as they felt I could build something great. On a side note, when I made the DC Showcase short: Death [featured on the Wonder Woman: Bloodlines disc] it was using the Sandman characters from Vertigo comics, which we have had legal issues with in the past, but the idea was on the table, so I snatched it up immediately, as I love the characters and have wanted to use them for a while.
When you are adapting an existing property like Red Son, do you collaborate with the original writers, like Mark Millar?
Very rarely do we do that. Sometimes they will reach out, Grant Morrison was kind enough to speak with Bruce on a commentary track for All Star Superman in 2011. I’m not sure if there is a protocol for it. Sometimes we change it so much, I’m sure the original writers will hate it [Laughs].
They may not speak to you again.
Superman: Red Son is such an epic story. Do you think the character of Superman needs that kind of story surrounding him? People often accuse him of being boring, do you think they haven’t seen the right stories, does he need something epic to make him shine?
The fanbase of comics like superpowered people, huge fights, big explosions, epic visuals. Superman is odd that way, what’s so great about Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman is because most of the story is not about his big muscles, it is about his humanity and how he views things, his patience almost. Those are the core elements of Superman and that is what Christopher Reeve tackled so well. My introduction was 1978’s Superman, as scary as this person can be, he is a boy scout, he is polite and that takes the edge off how powerful he can be. It can be hard to tell stories like that, you need something to contrast that. He can be too predictable in his moral compass, so you have to put him in the right situation. Like in Red Son, we tried to play with his belief system, he starts and he is young and pure, he wants to fight for the people and do what is right and Stalin tells him of the pure ugliness of what is about to happen, and Superman is an idealist and says we can do it different, until he realises he has become Stalin.
It is probably one of the darkest Superman tales.
Right, he is trying to hold his moral compass, to lead these people [of Soviet Russia] but the people don’t want to do it, so he has to force them somehow - by lobotomising! [Laughs] it is like: I’m not killing anyone. Until he realises he can’t force people into a utopia. Again, it makes an interesting Superman, this dilemma.
Do you prefer to adapt a classic story like this, or make something original?
It just comes down to the sweet spot, a good plot and good characterisation, hopefully you get one or the other. Whether it is original or a famous story, some stories are interesting visually, nowadays some movies try and hold it together with an A-list actor and all these explosions, but there is no real story. What I care about are the characters. There has been a lot more of those type of movies, I need a good plot, good characters, something to work with.
What is your favourite aspect of making an animated movie like Red Son?
There is a lot about the process I enjoy and a lot I hate [laughs], the best is when it all comes together. In the beginning, hopefully the script is strong, or I can see what I am trying to build and I can see the heart of it, these are the moments I can use to make the characters stronger. These moments I enjoy, then it can be up and down. It is a weird thing because with All Star Superman, I was so happy with it and I was getting compliments from co-workers and I was thinking this is my masterpiece. When it came out it was so polarising, some people loved it and some people hated it. Even with The Killing Joke, this wasn’t Adam West, it was a dark, dark world, so the script made sense in this context and we thought this kind of works, we were happy with it. Then it came out and the one thing we did against character, in the regular world, people couldn’t get past it [the film added a prologue, which culminated in Batgirl sleeping with Batman]. I’m starting to go off on a tangent, but yes the totality of it, is what I love. So when I did Suicide Squad Hell to Pay in 2018, I was head-shotting everyone, just so there was no mistake that this was a family movie. Head’s are going to explode and people will be sliced in half.
That movie did seem especially violent and contains sex and drug references, were you deliberately trying to move away from your normal PG-13 (12A in the UK) rating?
That comes down to the producer, James Tucker loves B-movies, that’s his thing, Suicide Squad is his thing. I was just coming off Killing Joke and we normally start with a PG-13 template. But I thought that we needed to hit these tones harder, we need to set the tone of what this movie is we are watching, so I had a bone to pick. Even in the editing, they thought it was too violent, and I was like really!!
SUPERMAN: RED SON is on digital download now, and Blu-ray and DVD On March 16th.