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Superman Returns Bryan Singer Interview with if Mag.


Legendary Hero
Apr 1, 2005
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Director Bryan Singer on the set of SUPERMAN RETURNS
(C) 2006 Warner Bros.
In a candid three-part interview with iF MAGAZINE, the filmmaker discusses the evolution of SUPERMAN, the stamina needed to create a film of this scope and casting James Marsden as the perennial nice guy hero who has trouble holding on to the heroine’s heart

Editor in Chief Published: 7/3/2006
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Flying high this weekend at the boxoffice, SUPERMAN RETURNS took in over $52.2 million in five days, no doubt resulting in a collective sigh of relief from Warner Bros. who invested many years in their attempts to re-launch the Superman character on the big screen.

The key to the success was nabbing X-MEN helmer Bryan Singer. His radical re-invention of the Superman mythos was not to re-imagine and change him for the 21st Century, but rather take a more retro-approach in linking his vision with that of Richard Donner’s who was the brainchild behind the first two SUPERMAN movies in 1978 and 1981 respectively.

The 40-year old Singer has his own fondness and connection with the material since he himself was adopted (much like Superman was adopted by the Kent family) and it was a theme that certainly resonated with him both as a young child growing up in the late ‘70s and now as a filmmaker in charge of multi-million dollar studio franchise.

After a whirlwind of publicity, Singer granted iF Magazine an exclusive interview last week, a day before SUPERMAN RETURNS hit theaters. In part 1 of this candid three-part story, the filmmaker talks about the evolution of the film and the grueling nature of helming a complicated film such as SUPERMAN.

iF MAGAZINE: One more day, I bet you’re relieved.

BRYAN SINGER: I am, I think. I just finished the film not very long ago, so I guess it is a relief.

iF: You’ve said before how exhausting it is to do these films. Can you elaborate for those who don't really grasp the gargantuan effort it takes as a director to prepare, shoot and do post on a film of SUPERMAN RETURNS’ scale

SINGER: Normally on a film, the focus would merely be on script development and casting, and that’s what you do leading up to the making of a film. With these types of films, there’s so much involved in the storyboarding, pre-production design and pre-visualization, it’s so overwhelming and time consuming. Combined with the script development and the casting, by the time you’re done with it, you’re completely exhausted and almost ready to finish. You feel like you’ve completed a large task and suddenly now you have to begin shooting the movie. And unlike a normal movie, which takes 12 or 13 weeks to shoot, this takes over five months to shoot. By the time you’re in the middle of that aspect of it – 75 days into shooting – there’s just a physical fatigue of shooting that many hours. Plus I spent a lot of time in the cutting room, combined with keeping the whole story, the plot and emotional aspect of the story in your head over that period of time, you’re very fatigued in every single way. And when that’s over, you can’t just chill in the editing room and put together the movie, because you’re rolling out visual effects by the hundreds every day. So by the time you’re done, it’s this two-year, non-stop commitment and it’s very unusual and kind of unlike any other process. You’re almost amazed when you step back and actually go, "oh wow, it came out kind of like I thought it might." It always is a miracle to me.

iF: Occasionally you’ll see a film by a filmmaker who you can tell doesn’t really connect with the material and the end result is usually disastrous. When you see a film like that, does it make you acutely aware, that every project you do as "Bryan Singer" has to be something that resonates with you otherwise there’s no point in spending all of this time on one film?

SINGER: Absolutely. I cannot comprehend spending this kind of time and effort on something that is merely a product for distribution. Whether it does well or not, is nothing I can really control, it’s in the hands of the audience. I have to have some belief in it. There has to be something thematic or in its core a reason to make the movie. The pitfall is, as you start caring about it so much, it cuts into your enjoyment factor of making it – because I’m always so stressed in the process. One day I think I’ve made a terrible mistake and the next day I think, "Oh wait, this is really something." And that becomes the emotional gruel. You have the physical gruel, the mental gruel and an emotional gruel because you actually care about the thing. There is a weird kind of military campaign, making these pictures. And it involves an enormous amount of people too.

iF: The SUPERMAN sequel had stalled for many years before you came on board. Once you finally got the job, how do you distill all this rich history into a cohesive movie that not only ties into the other films but also expands upon them?

SINGER: Had I not made the first two X-MEN films, I don’t think I would have been as prepared to take a very popular sort of and universe and be able to isolate the elements that have gathered wind and speed over the years. In SUPERMAN, it meant a lot of things to a great many more people. He’s a bigger iconic character, he’s been around longer, and he’s the first superhero. So there’s a lot of expectation attached to it. I even produced a documentary about the history of Superman – LOOK, UP IN THE SKY: THE AMAZING STORY OF SUPERMAN – and for me it was very cathartic. I was able to step back and take a look at this entire history. For instance in the original comic, he didn’t fly, he jumped from building to building. Luthor was a scientist, then he became the capitalist Lex Luthor. And a lot of the aspect of the music, the bumbling Clark – a lot of that came in the 1978 film as well as a lot of the Kryptonian legacy. In looking back over the decades, it’s a mixture of seeing the cream that has risen to the top of the history of Superman and simply taking aspects of his long history that I liked and that appealed to me. In the case of this movie, it was actually a few lines Marlon Brando spoke in the original film that just completely set me off. One of them is when his mother Laura is placing Kal-El in the spaceship and she says, "he will be isolated and alone" and Marlon Brando holds up a crystal and says "he will not be alone, he will never be alone." And he places this crystal into this spaceship and as a kid, when I saw that, what powerful reassurance. How do you send your only son off to another world, another place, forever and you’re never going to see them again and yet give them that kind of reassurance. That really spoke to me as a kid and that always lingered in my mind over the years.

iF: I guess it’s safe to say, since you’re a product of the ‘70s that, two of the most defining moments for you must have been seeing STAR WARS and SUPERMAN all within a two year period..

SINGER: Yes, for me, particularly as an adopted, only child. Superman and Luke Skywalker are two adopted, only children who find out who they really are and their true destiny. They’re two of the great offspring of 20th Century fantasy mythology. Both of them were great heroes clearly in the ‘70s when both of these movies came out back-to-back really.

iF: One of the things I appreciated about what you did with SUPERMAN RETURNS is capturing that sense of wonder audiences felt when they saw that first SUPERMAN movie in 1978, but it was updated enough that it works for modern audiences. And I think that’s why some of the later SUPERMAN movies failed, because they forgot what SUPERMAN was about. It’s not really about the villains per se, it’s more about this doomed romance that can never be satisfied between Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

SINGER: Someone was asking me this the other night. Superman is Superman, but Lex Luthor is a human obstacle, how are you going to treat that. But Luthor has always been mind over muscle, he will find a way [to battle Superman], but the real obstacle has always been this 70-year romance from across the newsroom between this kid Clark who went to become a reporter and this woman Lois Lane. The fact that he happens to also be a superhero is almost an impediment because that’s who she naturally falls for. What’s fun about this movie is both characters come into emotional question and that and the notion of his isolation were the two things that appealed to me -- besides the fact that I’m a huge Superman fan.

iF: After the X-MEN movies where you had James Marsden as Cyclops fighting to keep Jean Grey’s heart, you seem to be casting Marsden again in a similar role as Lois Lane’s fiancé who is trying to hold on to her heart.

SINGER: It’s a tough role to play "that guy." He’ s not a bad guy. Like in X-MEN, Cyclops is not a bad guy, he’s actually a really good guy and I always had affection for those guys. Ben Stiller made a movie with Ethan Hawke, REALITY BITES. I love Ethan Hawke and I’ve known him for years, but I was rooting for Ben Stiller’s character. My heart went out to him. Just because he drove a Saab, he’s a nice guy and he loves this girl, and there is always that emotional conflict in relationships. They’re never as simple as a commitment, a marriage or a sweetheart. They always go through these ups and downs and are much more complex and this is that kind of movie.

iF: Did you realize you were doing that with him – putting him in a similar type of role/

SINGER: I think I was very conscious of that. And I think he’s played this role a few times. I mean, [he did it] in THE NOTEBOOK. He can play that guy. I love working with him, but he certainly is no stranger to the role and we joke about it very often. "Why don’t I play ‘the guy’ instead of ‘that guy.’ He’s fine. He likes playing "that guy."


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