The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is one of the many reasons it’s an amazing time to be a nerd. In the late 1990’s Tim Burton was hired to bring Superman back to the big screen with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. The project, titled Superman Lives, was based on a script by Kevin Smith and has the been subject of intense fan curiosity since its inception.
Personally, I’ve been obsessed with everything about this film since I originally heard about the Nic Cage casting, and was dying to see anything from what seemed destined to be a trainwreck disaster for my favorite superhero of all time. Director Jon Schnepp and producer Holly Payne have brought fans as close to seeing what might have been as possible with The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? and sat down with me in San Diego during Comic-Con 2015 to discuss the film.
I am a life long Superman fan and I followed the project since the original announcement, so when I heard about your film I got extremely excited. When did you decide this was something you wanted to pursue?
Jon Schnepp: Literally, probably three months before I launched the Kickstarter. I had been, just like a lot of other people, interested in this film for many years. I started this little file on my desktop called “Superman Lives Concept Art,” and every couple of months I would search for it online and see if new artwork dropped in.
And the reason I was interested in it was that it was a science fiction, heavy metal take on Superman. A different iteration of the character and how it had been explored in cinematic terms. So after a couple of years, Superman Returns came out, which was like a Richard Donner homage, but unfortunately to me, I just didn’t like it – which brings me back to Superman Lives, which would have been totally different.
And years passed. I ended up meeting [visual FX legend] Steve Johnson. We all went out, talked about it. A bunch of friends said, “Why don’t you make a documentary. Why don’t you do it on Kickstarter?” I had just done a Kickstarter the year before and the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. So I had to trust my gut. I wanted to try something different – I’m known as a director of television and cartoons [Metalocalypse]. I just wanted to explore and try something different, and this seemed like a great thing. I’m a comic book nerd, and I went for it.
Holly Payne: I was fascinated by the idea of Nicolas Cage as Superman. But I was also a huge Nicolas Cage fan and a huge Tim Burton fan, so the combo of those two was really exciting for me. But as we got further into the process, once we started seeing all the concept art, then I was just blown away. It took it to another level for me after that because I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I wasn’t one of the haters and all that. That wasn’t me. So when we saw that artwork, that’s when I was like, “Wow. We are doing something really unique here.
I think one of the things people are most excited about with the documentary are the unseen Superman Lives footage and concept art. How did you get access to all of those materials and is all of it given away in the trailers?
Jon Schnepp: Yo, tip of the iceberg, son. That’s what I’ve learned, don’t give it all away. Basically that footage that went all the way around the planet [the week before Comic-Con 2015] is literally a very small fraction of the five or six different test suits. And a bunch of other designs, as well as designs that were done by a bunch of other studios at the time. We wanted just give a flavor of what people can expect. That test footage, as well as some other test footage, was very thankfully given to us by Tim Burton and Derek Frey and his executive producer, and a lot of other artists gave us some of their artwork that they had worked on. We were given the keys to the Raiders of The Lost Ark-like tomb of all the concept art, and we were there shooting all the photos for over two days.
Holly Payne: You know what’s interesting, you’re talking about the clip that just went around, that clip of Nicolas Cage in the suit. We had a similar reaction, just a long time ago. What’s happening now is this like, internet swell of, “Oh my God! Have you seen this?” That’s exactly how we felt when we saw the 45 minutes of footage that we have access to. Seeing all the different incarnations, all the different suits, and also Clark Kent, was probably the most impressive thing.
Jon Schnepp: Yeah, you really get the understanding what Tim and Nic were trying to do with the movie. They were in simpatico, as far as the idea of what their version of Superman was going to be. It was all about hiding and not feeling like this character belonged here. With that type of approach, with Superman hiding the fact that he’s Clark Kent and Clark Kent hiding the fact that he’s an alien, it created a sympathy for the character, and that’s something that has been hard to get with someone who is invulnerable, and has like eye laser vision. It’s hard for a normal person to sympathize with this character, but I think that’s something that Tim and Nic were going to bring to the character.
Working on the film was there anyone that specifically didn’t want to talk to you? Or was everyone excited about getting this out there?
Jon Schnepp: Well, no one was really excited for the first year. Most of the people said no, because I hadn’t talked to the big guns yet. They said, “Well, have you talked to Tim?” Who they had been hired by, so they were not going to talk about something, if he didn’t want to talk about it.
So once people like Kevin Smith and Tim Burton, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, once they got involved it opened the flood gates to all these other people, and in fact Jon Peters was our very last interview, like a month before we had already locked the picture. I was really not that into getting him because of all the negative stuff that most of the concept artist, and everybody [had said]. But Holly was like, you’ve got to get him.
Holly Payne: And the other thing is too, that people ask us of lot which is, “Why is Nicolas Cage not in the film?” Well, he is in the film. He’s in costume test footage that you will never see anywhere else. At the time he was going to play Superman, so it puts you in a time and a place. It puts you in a context.
Was there anything that surprised you while you were researching and finding out all the background details?
Jon Schnepp: Hmmm, you know there were a couple of those moments. I think one of the ones was when we first got into Tim’s archives and saw all of that – and also, when we talked to Tim – but actually seeing the artwork of Christopher Walken as Brainiac was when I was like, “Wow!” It was one of those things I wish could have happened.
Holly Payne: They had a mock-up, it was sort of a Photoshop-esque image of it. It’s in the film, so you can see it in the film. But yeah, we didn’t know that, so when we uncovered that it was like, “Oh my God!“ Because up until that point the rumors were like Tim Allen [for the part of Brainiac], and I don’t know who started that. But that was not on any of the casting lists that we saw, so that was a big surprise.
Another casting choice was Howard Stern for Brainiac. Before Tim Burton came on, he was one of the top of the list, and I can’t even imagine – but at the same time he had been big with Private Parts at that time. He was very popular.
And he’s a big superhero fan.
Holly Payne: Yeah, yeah. But ultimately I would say the incredible volume of art and the diverse styles that were so gorgeous. Each individually, completely different. That was really so inspiring to see that Tim and the whole crew was like, we’re gonna come at it and just basically get the best of the top, the cream of the crop. And then get their ideas and their concepts, and have them draw the crap out of everything. And that’s what’s in the film. You’re not going to be able to see Superman Lives, but can see the ideas that were going into it.
Jon Schnepp: I really like the idea that some of the artwork for Krypton was just different. I mean, that’s the main thing they were like, “Let’s not do the ice castles kind of thing. Lets go with a whole different methodology. What would it be like to be on this planet?” So they had these circular bubble buildings and little cities and it just looked really cool.
It wasn’t just mimicking what Donner did, like Superman Returns. It had a completely different style. And I think that’s what people are going to be excited about most when they see this film. To see this different vision that never came to fruition. Like, Christopher Walken as Brainiac? Mind blown. People are going to lose it!
Holly Payne: To add to that, the fact that there was even a “Lexiac” idea. It was going to be a Lex and Brainiac fused.
Jon Schnepp: I wanna see this!
Holly Payne: Yes, a man with two heads.
Jon Schnepp: I’m gonna wanna see that.
Holly Payne: And imagine Christopher Walken, and can Spacey do that? Kevin Spacey does an incredible Christopher Walken impression. Which is one of the things Tim talks about in the film. You could have seen the back and forth, which would have been incredible. Jon Peters would have said, “It woulda been amazing!”
Well, that’s fantastic! Thank you guys so much!
If you would like to purchase The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? on DVD/Blu-Ray head over to TDOSLWH.com.