Years before Christopher Nolan drastically altered the modern superhero genre, the late 1990s powerhouse trio of Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, and Nicolas Cage were poised to do the same. Unfortunately, Hollywood pulled the plug before the general public could get a glimpse at their cinematic vision—a radical reinterpretation of the Superman myth.
Director Jon Schnepp (Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros) and producers Holly Payne and Heather Piper are determined to lift the veil on what could have been the greatest Superman iteration that never was. In The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?, he interviews everyone from Burton, writer Kevin Smith, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and all of the people in-between who poured years of creativity into a project that never saw lift-off. I recently caught up with Schnepp to chat about the game-changing ability of Superman Lives and the heartache of Hollywood.
VICE: What makes this documentary subject matter appeal to you? What about it drives you to tell this story?
Jon Schnepp: The real basic reason was that I personally wanted to know why this film didn’t get made. I always trust my gut when I write or direct anything—I always know that if I like what I’m doing, my nerd brethren will get exactly what I’m doing and that motivates me. I couldn’t stop thinking, Why did a movie that got so far in its production suddenly go cold? I mean, we’re talking about Tim Burton—the guy who reinvented Batman, who put superheroes back on the map as not camp. Then having it star someone like Nic Cage, who back then was a top star—he went from an incredible character actor to being an action hero: The Rock, Con Air, then it would’ve been Superman.
I had been following the art releases every couple of months. I’d randomly do a search for Superman concept art and one or two drawings would always show up. Over the years, more artwork went online—MySpace, Facebook. The artists who worked on it would drop their illustrations just out of the blue. Then Kevin Smith came out with his version of the script, and Jon Peters unleashed the design for the movie’s giant spider. More and more glimpses from the movie surfaced. Then Steve Johnson uploaded a video of the light-up rainbow suit: It had a diamond, reflective S!
What’s the most common question people ask you when they hear about this project?
“Tim Burton—was he weird?” Everyone wants to know! He was actually a really nice guy—great sense of humor, really smart.
Jon Schnepp interviewing Superman Lives director Tim Burton. All photos courtesy of Jon Schnepp
You’ve been an animation director for a while now, but never made a documentary before. Besides the subject matter, what prompted you to take the leap into this kind of filmmaking?
I went to a Die Antwoord show at Meltdown Comics and ended up meeting this artist, Steve Johnson, just by chance. This guy was the creator of Slimer! He’s incredible. I knew I recognized his name, so when he went to the bathroom I quickly googled him, and when I saw he worked on Superman Lives, I got super weird with him about it. He came back and I just started asking all these questions. I could tell he was like, “Uhhh cool.” But then me and my friends all went to Rockin’ Thai, across the street from Meltdown, and I couldn’t stop talking about the light-up suit he made. I kept describing how amazing it would’ve been, from what I saw online. At one point my friend said, “Hey man, you sound like you’re really into this stuff—you should make a documentary.” But at the time I was like, “Nah.” I didn’t know how to even start with something like that. But then later, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head—this was around November 2012. I started thinking, Hey, maybe I should make a documentary! It wasn’t so much a feeling of, How hard could it be? But more like no one else was gonna make it.
So you took to Kickstarter and got the ball rolling.
Yeah, it was perfect. It was around this time I was ready to take a mini-break from animation—you know, directing cartoons can be very time-consuming, so I decided to move into this project. We put together a pitch, found a bunch of images online of what the movie could’ve been, and put together the Kickstarter page. Surprisingly, in the first weekend we got $35,000! It was really then that I thought, Oh man, people really wanna see this! But then Kickstarter became this whole headache. It just consumes every hour of your life—constantly having to remind people, asking all your friends, relatives, all these people you know in the business, and asking them to put it on their Facebook. It ended up being just a ton of work having to answer questions like, “Why should I give you $25?” And all I could say was, “Cause this thing's gonna be really cool!” But all in all, Kickstarter was the best way to go. It’s a weird thing, but I really like it. It allows you to have this flexible, creative medium.
Jon Schnepp interviewing Superman Lives producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura
What were some of the things you learned the hard way putting together a documentary for the first time?
Well, at first I thought it would take only seven months to get it done—it’s month 18 now and we’re still filming interviews. On top of that, we have three more months of heavy production every day. I kept saying, “I’ll have it together by Comic Con, man!"
Then we ran out of money and had to do another crowd-sourcing project. I was actually completely out of money by the time we flew to England to interview Tim Burton. Also, we didn’t even know if he was gonna be game to film with us! He just told us to come out and “see.” But after about five minutes of talking, he was game. Yeah, by the time we got to England, it took us that long from the start of the project to finally get Tim Burton and Kevin Smith to talk to us.
So what are your next steps for completing the film?
Well, I could’ve slapped together the film a little while ago, but I want to do it right. I still haven’t interviewed as many people as I want—people who were real important parts to it—which is why I ran the second crowd-sourcing campaign. With that, it was tough to convince people to support us again. Other people came in and out of production and would ask, “What’s the quickest way to finish it?” See, right there, that’s not the person I want to be dealing with. I want someone who asks, “What’s the way it’s supposed to be made?” And then we deliver. That was a big wake-up call. I don’t want to compromise.
I get that.
After that I spent 45 days on Twitter, Facebook—constantly doing conventions just to keep the word out. Now that’s 45 days not working on the project, but I still managed to get two interviews in doing this.
One of the most interesting things being involved in media is constantly explaining how things work. I remember when I did a music video back when I lived in Chicago: I was given $12,000 to get the job done. I remember all of my friends hearing about that and going, “Whoa, drinks on Schnepp!” But I didn’t make any money. I had to take that $12,000 and divide it up between the cast and the crew. For me, with this documentary, the big question was, “When are you gonna get Kevin Smith? When are you gonna get Tim Burton?” It just wasn’t that easy at first.
Jon Schnepp interviewing Superman Lives costume designer Colleen Atwood
Do you think there's any chance that this project could be revived? If, say, Tim Burton were open to it?
I don’t think this film could exist in the modern age—it’s a product of its time. It was produced in the late 90s where, at the time, there were very little superhero films besides Batman, Batman Returns, and then, of course, Batman & Robin. I don’t think it would get made now. I think the place we live now is all filled with nostalgia.
Also, here’s the thing: There’s no definitive version of Superman Lives. There are three separate working scripts that all have the same core story, but are individually very, very different. Kevin Smith wrote a script with Jon Peters, and then when Tim Burton came on, he hired Wesley Strick. Meanwhile, the artists were using Kevin Smith’s script as a jumping-off point for their designs. Each version is different, but [Lex] Luthor is in there and there’s a giant thing that blocks the sun, so they have similar plot points. For me, with this documentary, it’s more about, “This is probably what the movie could never be, an amalgamation. It's a take on all the takes—what it could’ve been, would’ve been.”
I approached that with how I talked to everybody: It’s a time travel. We’re both from the future, but let’s talk about something from 15 years ago—you’ve lived a whole lifetime of experiences, so you bring that to your perspective on it. I sat with Colleen Atwood, who, since working on Superman Lives, has won three Oscars, been nominated for ten. She’s moved on and done cool shit. The sadness is, here’s one of the things most of the people who worked on it completely believed in it. They thought it would be cool and all regret it didn’t get made.The fun part, for me, is talking with them about it—hearing their experiences on the film and the creativity involved. It was kind of like a purging. This is what it could’ve been.
Well, that's Hollywood—nothing is ever 100 percent until the last minute.
Burton worked on [Superman Lives] for two years. He told me, “I basically made the movie, it just never got shot.” As a filmmaker, I can totally relate. You make the storyboards, designs—actors were cast, sets were being built. There’s such a heavy amount of pre-production. Films are such a collaborative medium. When you’re making something with all these different people, it becomes a transformed thing.
I can tell when I read some of these early drafts of Superman Lives... things would’ve changed and transformed, especially when you see the designs that came even from Kevin’s script. If the film came out in '99, it would have been a hit. It had a lighter feeling that [Burton's] other films didn’t have. He wanted to show flight how it had never been seen before. And Cage had all of these great ideas of Superman as an outcast—what nerds feel like. It would’ve touched upon that in ways that no one had ever touched upon in any other superheroes.
Superman was more like a kid in the corner who got laughed at all the time, but taking that to the extreme—being a visitor from another planet. You see that in all of Tim Burton’s movies. He said, “I always felt like I was an alien, growing up in Burbank,” and that was exactly what Nic Cage saw, too. People laughed at Nic Cage from the costume test footage, but, in the final costume, Nic Cage looks badass. I had a picture of it on my phone and would show it to people, and every skeptic says, “You know what, that’s not bad.” It makes me happy. You get that flip-flop.
It’s so hard to get through to those guys at conventions, people love to hate things so much—but to battle that with just genuine sincerity, you almost can’t argue with that.
Right. My whole approach to this film is “I‘m not making fun of it." The more I found out about it, the more I realized this would have been a really special film. It’s so easy to make fun of stuff. I want to transform the opinion that exists for no reason that “this film would have been horrible.” I wanna encourage people to open their eyes and say, “Look at what this could’ve been!”
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