Last week at San Diego Comic-Con, I had the chance to interview Jon Schnepp, director of The Death of ‘Superman Lives’ What Happened? and producer of the film, Holly Payne. In this interview, we talk all about the film, what went into getting the documentary done and how it was like for Schnepp to pick the brains of the legendary Tim Burton.
Chris Salce: First, I’m glad that you guys came out with this documentary because I’ve been hearing about ‘Superman Lives’ for years and finally, everybody will now know the story of why it didn’t happen. What made you guys want to tell that story?
Jon Schnepp: Well I got interested in the concept art back in the early 2000’s, when some of that was released online and then when Kevin Smith obviously told the story about the giant spider and it was incredibly hilarious, and then it really started for me after ‘Superman Returns’. Obviously, I knew it was an homage to the Richard Donner film but upon seeing it, it was just lacking what I really wanted, which was actually something new. I realized that I didn’t want to go back in time and see Richard Donner’s take on Superman because I already had it as a kid. I didn’t need to see it redone. I needed something that just had something different and Brainiac was going to be in ‘Superman Lives’ and the concept art that I saw was like science-ficiton, heavy metal style inspired, different than from what everything else has been. So for me, it was really honestly the exploration of just a different iteration of what Superman could be on screen. I ran into special effects artist Steve Johnson at a show and I went out to dinner with Holly [Payne] and a bunch of other friends and I was just telling them how I’ve been collecting this stuff for years and they all sounded really interested in it. They said ‘You should make a documentary about it! It sounds great’ And I was like ‘I don’t make documentaries.’ Normally for the last fifteen years I’ve been directing episodes of cartoons and TV shows, so I was like ‘I’m not really a documentary filmmaker.’ Then someone said how they just raised money on Kickstarter the year before to do an animated short, I was like ‘eh no, no.’ The idea wouldn’t leave me alone for like the next two months.
Holly Payne: I remember the moment that you [Jon] said to me, actually saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it Holly. I’m going to make it.’ And I was like ‘F-yeah!’ I was onboard from the get go because of his passion about it and honestly, I don’t know if there was anybody that was collecting that stuff for as long as he [Jon] had. He had really dug deep to find the concept art online and whatever you see out there now, is ninety percent from our trailers and our film.
Schnepp: Literally, we had like three to five percent of what existed. I didn’t know what else was made, I just knew what I had or what I had seen, I was interested in and I wanted to explore it. So we did the Kickstarter, it was a giant success. Of course I had never made a documentary and was like ‘Yeah, it’ll take me like eight months!’
Payne: I never made one either but I knew that that was wrong [laughs].
Schnepp: Well I thought that after making television for so long, I was like ‘yeah, it’s procedure, I’ll do this, this and this.’ What I wasn’t counting on is like not being able to get in contact with some of these people involved and also people saying no and key people saying ‘no’ unless I got to somebody who’s higher than them. I had to get Tim Burton and it took awhile.
Payne: And these people want to keep working so if they are going to say something without the approval of someone that they are going to be working with again, they can be shooting themselves in the foot. So once we got Tim Burton was really when the floodgates open and we got to talk to all of them.
Schnepp: You know what? I’ll say that it was unparalleled nerdiness for myself, being a big Tim Burton fan and really liking a lot of his films. It was a great opportunity to ask him a lot of questions that not only I had thought about but as an avatar for all of the rest of the nerds out there to be like ‘Hey, so what were you thinking about with this’ or ‘what were your opinions on this?’ To really delve in deeply, he was very open and he was very, very fun to talk with and incredibly fun guy, super sarcastic, highly intelligent.
Payne: Very, very funny and very disarming. He was very forthright with us and I think it was in a way a catharsis for him to talk about it. What was also really cool was that, and you can kind of get this when you watch some of the extras included, I was behind-the-scenes watching the two of them talk, but I got the sort of impression that Tim Burton was like ‘I don’t even understand why you’re into this,’ you know what I mean? [Laughs] but at the same time, once he started talking and he remembered stuff, he started to really remember what that was like but he was distant enough from it not to feel all the pain all over again.
Chris: Was ‘Superman Lives’ something that Tim Burton really wanted to do and had his heart set on?
Payne: His heart and soul was in this film.
Schnepp: He was all in one hundred percent.
Payne: Yeah, all in. He knew that he could do a different take because he could relate to the character in a way that’s not necessarily in being a comic book fan but relating to the world as sort of an outcast.
Schnepp: And also having done Batman, he was taking that hiding to a brand new level. It was like nuclear hiding. It’s like, you’re hiding an alien, you’re Superman and you’re hiding that you’re Clark Kent, you’re Clark Kent and you’re hiding that you’re a creature from another planet…
Payne: And that’s something that he would have really focused his attention on.
Schnepp: The outcast, the feeling of not fitting in, those things that Tim was able to bring to a lot of his other films, was that he was able to apply that.
Chris: Gave him more of a soul?
Schnepp: Yeah! He applied that to the Superman character that even up until now, is a little bit too powerful, too much of a God floating in the sky and he was able to add an humanity to it and also apply something that all of us nerds have always felt, as being outcasts, being alone, not being understood, being a freak for liking these weird things. That’s what fit perfectly.
Payne: That’s why the casting of Nicolas Cage was so perfect ’cause at that time, he was an amazing character actor but also just an amazing actor in his own right and he had a grasp of the character because he was a fan of the comic books but also, he appreciated where Tim was coming from this and he invested himself whole-heartedly in it. If you see the film, his take on Clark Kent, it’s just…it hurts to watch sometimes because you’re just like ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that Clark Kent before.’
Chris: Is just the what if factor…
Payne: Yeah! And I’ve seen our film so many times at this point and honestly, it doesn’t get old because you can put your mind in that place and time because of that footage and actually see that personal interaction between Tim and Nic, really working out the points in the character. You don’t need us telling you about it, we can show you, you know?
Chris: I’m definitely going to pick up the blu-ray, I’ve heard there’s tons of extras included with it.
Schnepp: Ten hours! Over ten hours of extra footage and it’s like extended interviews, deleted scenes, there was so much there that we were going to do a featurette, then that became something that we had to make deleted scenes out of and then with the interviews themselves, there was so much amazing conversation with people that have been producing films and making art and it was like we wanted to share all that. We really put it upon ourselves to get all that cut together and it’s on there for everyone to enjoy.
I could have went on for hours talking about this film and everything nerdy with both Jon Schnepp and Holly Payne but I had to get going to interviews and I know they had a lot of more interviews to do as well.
The Death of ‘Superman Lives’ What Happened? is on available on DVD/Blu-ray only at TDOSLWH.com. Be sure to follow them on Twitter @TDOSLWH.