Tim Burton‘s Superman Lives is one of the great “What Ifs” of film history. While today the concept of Tim Burton directing a Superman movie starring Nicolas Cage seems insane, keep in mind that around the time the movie was planning to shoot in 1998, Burton hadn’t descended into self-parody and Cage was riding a wave of action film hits (The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off) following his 1995 Oscar for Best Actor. Also, the superhero movie landscape was very different, and while a film like Batman Forever would be soundly rejected today, it was the 2nd-highest grossing film of 1995.
We’ve seen costume sculpts, screen tests, and concept art for the toys, and there’s even a documentary, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, on the way. Now, with his excellent debut feature Nightcrawler opening October 31st, we got to speak with writer-director Dan Gilroy, who was the screenwriter on Superman Lives. During the interview, Gilroy talked about the specifics of Burton’s vision, how it compares to Man of Steel, and how close they were to production. Hit the jump for more.
Tim had this tremendous idea. The premise was that Jor-El did not have time when he put little Kal-El into the meteorite, he didn’t have time to explain to him what was going on. So Tim’s idea was that when we come upon Clark Kent in the present day, he doesn’t know what any of this is. He doesn’t know how he fits in. He’s going through an emotional crisis in his life. He has a relationship with Lois Lane, but he can’t really pursue it because he’s unsure of his own identity. And Tim was really exploring or deconstructing in a brilliant way the psychological aspects of what it’s like to be this character.
So why did it fall apart? Dollars and cents:
Unfortunately, what happened was we were working at Warner Bros. at the time and as we were developing it over the period of a year, Warner Bros. just had one misfire after another. Films that were coming out were not doing well, were not performing, and money became an issue, and at the end of the day they just felt the budget was too big and didn’t feel like they were in a place where they could greenlight the movie.
Reading Gilroy’s description of what Burton had intended—the alienation of Superman due to his ignorance regarding his origins—it sounds slightly on the same wavelength as Man of Steel, but Gilroy explained how the two differ:
As much as I like Man of Steel, as you know, Tim’s sensibilities are very specific and lend themselves to—I don’t want to say “whimsical” because that doesn’t ground it in the weight of what Tim really does. It was a mix of psychological exploration and Tim’s sense of humor. I think Man of Steel, great as it was, you couldn’t really look back on it and say there are a lot of funny moments in it. I think human reality and the human experiment, which Tim really embodies, is that humor’s a part of it. And as weighty as the character is and as weighty as the character’s dilemma is, which Clark Kent would be going through, that to bring the humor into it, and bring the oblique observational direction that Tim looks at things, I think it would have been very special.
I remember the scenes between Clark and Lois, and obviously they’re very far along in their relationship, but he can’t take that next step in their relationship of commitment because he didn’t know who he was. And in Tim’s movie, when he finds out he’s in alien, it’s an utter crisis. This is the worst news possible. This is like my biggest fear: that I’m an alien! You walk around thinking it’s a pathological thing; maybe I have a tumor that gives me strength. But to find out you’re an alien, that you’re not of this planet, I smile when I think about it because I so enjoy thinking about it and working with Tim and what it could have been.
It’s definitely fun to consider what could have been and if Superman Lives would have changed the direction of superhero movies. The production was put on hold in early 1998, but Gilroy says they were ridiculously close:
They built tens of millions of dollars of sets. When they pulled plug, this was very far along. The day they pulled the plug, I went out to the valley where the production facility was, and I walked through a building with several hundred people working in it with sketches and set designs. It was very far along. We were weeks before shooting.
Here’s the part of the interview with Gilroy talking about Superman Lives. Look for the full interview next week.