Superman Lives: “Clark was a bigger freak than Superman”

Director Jon Schnepp discusses his new documentary The Death Of Superman Lives

Nic Cage in The Death of Superman Lives What Happened (2)

  Superman Lives Production Art  What made you decide to do a documentary on Superman Lives?

Ever since I saw some of the early concept art that leaked in magazines. Someone suggested I should do a docmentary, and another said I should do a Kickstarter documentary.

The more I thought about it, the more I tried to find out about the film and if there was more artwork that existed, because I thought the designs for the Superman Lives project were interesting and different, especially after watching Superman Returns, which was a homage to the Richard Donner Superman. I found the idea interesting, but seeing it I was bored, so I wanted a new take on the character. If it was radical, all the better.

What did you set out to achieve in the documentary?

I came at it from an artistic standpoint: to see what else was made, Tim Burton’s vision for Krypton and Brainiac, the suit style, and how far they got with different outfits for Nicolas Cage. That’s how it started, and the more I researched and digged, the more I found out that I was at the tip of a very large iceberg. It became very apparent to me that the film was very ahead in the process of getting made.

When I first started making the film, I said that I wished I could have watched this film – good or bad, I think it would have been interesting. I really do feel that it would have been a cosmic fairy tale for superheroes – a really fun film to see. Speaking to everyone involved, they all felt the same way: how disappointed they were that the film got crushed so quickly and didn’t get made.

How did the interviews go?

It took a while to get to them. Once I did, they all had different experiences on making the film, but I feel overall, even though some of the parts of making the film were difficult, the overall feeling was that they were working on something special.

Kevin Smith was trying to make his own version of Superman, while Tim Burton was approaching it from a more artistic take: what would it be like to be an alien on this planet, to truly be an outsider? 

I personally feel that this version of Superman would have connected with kids, particularly comic-book readers, because this version of Superman was an outsider, someone who felt alone, and so many people who read comics are bullied and feel outside of the norm, especially back then.

Jon Schnepp and Tim Burton in The Death of Superman Lives What Happened
Schnepp with Tim Burton

Now, we live in the golden age of superhero movies. Back then, you’d have one movie a year maybe, so it wasn’t a super-popular genre. Millions of superhero fans don’t read comics; that’s still the norm. But I think this Superman would have appealed to a larger audience, because it sort of humanised Superman, even though he was an alien. It would have made him relatable.

Would you like to see Superman Lives released today?

No. Superman Lives is a product of its time. It was being made 1996-97. When it shut down, all those ideas became frozen in a time capsule. If it was going to be made now, it wouldn’t be made in the same way. None of the scripts were completely finished – even though they were three weeks away from filming, it still needed to get finished and polished.

To me, I see Superman Lives as a really great idea that doesn’t need to get made now. In the documentary, you see all these different versions of Brainiac, but I think that’s a really cool thing that other films don’t have; you see the creative process.

Who were your favourite interviewees?

One who stands out is Sylvain Despretz. I kept asking him to be involved, and he kept refusing. I didn’t give up because he had a particular sensibility. He despises superhero films; he thinks they’re destroying cinema, but he comes at it from such an artistic standpoint that even though I don’t agree with him, I wanted to hear his side.

He’s incredibly intelligent, and he was a very fun interview, a very funny guy, and a friend now. He even called himself an ex-illustrator, ex-artist; that’s how he wanted to be known: because of the crushing restrictions Hollywood imposes on artists.

Another incredible interview was Kevin Smith; he’s so funny and true to his heart, and it comes out in person. Tim Burton was a magical interview, because when Holly and I went to his house, he was still unsure about the interview, but said to come by.

We had to go to England to meet him. Anyway, we got on great, it was a really fun interview – he’s just a really funny guy, very smart, quick-witted, sarcastic, self-deprecating, and that comes across in the interview.

Jon Schnepp and Jon Peters in The Death of Superman Lives What Happened
Jon Schnepp and Jon Peters in The Death of Superman Lives What Happened

Jon Peters was the last person we interviewed, literally a month before the film’s release. We had to break our entire film apart and put it back together to put him in the film. When we met him we didn’t know what to expect. For the last almost two and a half years I’d been hearing stories, so that painted a picture in my head.

Upon speaking to him, a lot of the stories were dispelled, and some were reinforced, while others disappeared. What was left is the reality that is Jon Peters. He is very unique individual, but a very nice guy. 30-40 minutes into speaking with him, something clicked, and I really understood where he was coming from.

A lot of people don’t understand his mentality or ideas, but when you really talk with him, you can understand where he’s coming from. Then he put me in a chokehold [laughs]. He’s a really strong guy!

Are you happy with the reception it has received?

Incredibly ecstatic – being so close to it, it’s almost like I’m in an alternate universe when I’m reading these reviews, I literally just finished working on it the day before we premiered, so then to be hearing a large portion of the rest of the world reviewing it, even though I was still technically in my mind working on it, was very trippy, and I was happy that people for most part got it and liked it and what we were getting across.

It was like this magical transfer that I was hoping would happen, but didn’t know if it would, and the reaction people have had has really made me happy and satisfied with taking two years out of my life to make this film.

Literally, the last eight to nine months was working on this movie every day. It was an incredible amount of work, so it was very gratifying for it to pay off in this way, with people enjoying it.

Nic Cage in The Death of Superman Lives What Happened (2)
Nicolas Cage’s Clark Kent would have been “a bigger freak than Superman”

What was the most interesting revelation about the film that you discovered during the making of the documentary?

Aside from the casting of Nicolas Cage and the way he was going to be playing Superman, I think it was the way Cage and Burton wanted to portray Clark Kent. They were going to make him a bigger freak than Superman – a character unto his own that no one would ever think  would be Superman.

It wasn’t like the mild-mannered reporter, it wasn’t Superman hiding as a human being; it was this extreme character, and no one had tried to do yet, and I think that would have played out really well with some of the casting choices: Kevin Spacey as Lex, Christopher Walken as Brainiac.

There was this idea that Tim Burton was working on right out of the comics: Brainiac fuses with Lex Luthor, this version of the movie they were going to fuse together. How this was going to be visually portrayed was still being worked out, and at first when I first saw the concept art, it was like the incredible two-headed being, where both of their heads are fused together.

Seeing the artwork, it makes me really wish that version would have existed, because it would have been really fun to see. It reminds me of Mars Attacks!: Sarah Jessica Parkers’ head attached to a dog, like when you first think about that – when you see it it’s incredible!

The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? will be screening at MCM Comic Con from 22-23 May, and will available to download on VOD on 9 July. For more on the biggest superhero movies, pick up the latest issue of SciFiNow.