Exclusive Interview with Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty

Six U.K. based Superman fans were chosen by Warner Bros. to submit questions to various cast and crew on "Superman Returns". Most of those chosen are Superman Homepage members, and we're pleased to present their exclusive interview with "Superman Returns" script writers Dan Harris and Mike Dougherty.

Q: It seems that Superman, as a character, is criticized for being somewhat two-dimensional. Was there a conscious effort to try and add some greater dimension to the character, for example, Superman having to cope with Lois moving on with her life in his absence?

Writers Mike: I think it's easy to write Superman off as a two dimensional character because he always seems to be a "big blue Boy Scout" who always does what's right without much personal conflict, but if you look deeper, you'll find he's a very tragic hero dealing with issues any of us can relate to. On an almost mythic tragic level, he's the only survivor of an alien race, sent here by his father to guide and inspire us. On a more personal level, he's an all-American kid who grew up on a farm, and is still trying to figure out how or if he fits in, plus trying to win the heart of a woman who only seems to love part of him. The themes of identity and finding your role in the universe are things we can all understand, so in that respect I don't think he's two dimensional at all. If anything, he can be just as conflicted as Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men, but in his own way.

Dan: To me Superman has always seemed two dimensional because he's able to overcome any obstacle - therefore there isn't the usual kind of struggle a person has trying to overcome something. In our movie we made some big changes to his relationships and realized that we could put him in a situation with Lois and her family which could not be overcome with his brawn; therefore he has to deal with very human emotions and becomes really fully realized.

Q: It seems that a lot of Superman fans have desperately wanted a dramatic, epic and emotional Superman film. The trailers indicate exactly that, but what were your initial dreams for a Superman film and do you feel they have been realised in the final film?

Mike: I'm happy to say that I think the film is a great mix of nostalgia, drama, romance, and action, which is pretty much what we set out to do. Superman is inherently a nostalgic character, so you have to acknowledge his history, and I think we've done that by making it another chapter in his story versus doing another origin. We've also made the love story between Lois and Superman the main thrust of the film, which provided the foundation for all of the emotion and action, especially when Lois and Lex cross paths. It's interesting, because with X-Men, we found ourselves juggling a lot of different characters and storylines, but with Superman, the juggling act was more thematic. You have to carefully balance the romance with the action, and the contemporary tastes with the right amount of nostalgia. It's very tricky, but all the ingredients are in there.

Dan: I think we've accomplished our goal - this movie is huge, classic, epic, and very emotional. It's hard to balance the amazing set pieces and necessary action that will give the movie kick, but the story between our characters is so strong that it will get the extra touch. Initially we just wanted to tell a great Superman story and it spiraled into the complex, heart-wrenching one we've now finished.

Q: Did you use many previous comics and graphic novels as inspiration and if so, which?

Writers Mike: There were a few laying around the office that we'd flip through for inspiration. Anything by Alex Ross for starters. He just has a way of capturing the visual essence of Superman, or any other superhero for that matter, that makes them seem REAL.

The other work that really touched us was Superman for All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. It did such an amazing job at making the character human. I remember opening the book and the first images you saw weren't typical stuff like Superman fighting off some giant robot or massive evil villain - they were his baby photos, just images of Clark Kent growing up over the years. Of course all the Superman action is important, but it's pointless and hollow if you don't capture the heart of the character, and that book really nailed it.

Dan: Not really - the story came pretty fast, and if anything was based on Superman: The Movie. We do however have a lot of moments or ideas that later we realized are already in previous comics - but that's what you get when you have 60 years of comic books - everyone's thought of Superman in one situation or another!

Q: What are your writing methods? Do you outline first? Do you go straight into a draft?

Mike: We start working very closely by crafting a detailed treatment, and then we'll split that up and go off on our own to flesh various scenes into the screenplay. It becomes this process of emailing scenes back and forth, editing each other, and compiling everything into one document. Some writing partners will work on each and every line together, but we found that didn't really work for us. Splitting sections up helps the process move faster, and also gives us more objectivity since we're constantly editing each other's scenes until we have something we're both happy with. It can be a fun surprise to see what Dan adds or changes to my stuff, and if either of us tries to change each other drastically, we'll always talk about it.

Dan: Mike and I outline openly with Bryan and just talk out ideas, then we go back and do a very complete outline. Bryan reads it, makes changes with us, and when it's approved, we lock ourselves away. Usually 3-4 weeks later the first draft makes its way out of the printer.

Q: Which scripts have inspired you?

Writers Mike: I'm kind of strange in that I like reading a mix of good and bad scripts. I've collected the screenplays for a lot of my favorite films, like THE EXORCIST or ALIENS, but also a lot of bad ones. Either way, I love reverse-engineering. I'll read the scripts, compare them to the final film, see what worked, what didn't. It can be interesting to see how things turn out, for better or worse. I think it goes back to when I was a kid and I'd take apart electronics to see what makes them tick, then try to put them back together again.

Dan: When I was in college I interned for Scott Rudin, the producer at Paramount, and I was able to read every draft of THE TRUMAN SHOW as it came in and went into production. It should be published as a screenwriting course in itself - because they were all brilliant, but all so different. Over the course of a few years it was a totally different film and yet the same film. So much changed that I learned how re-writing makes a difference and how nothing is sacred. Other than that, the scripts for THE SIXTH SENSE and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH blew me away.

Q: You've added new mythology to the Superman universe with Lois being a mum in a new relationship after Superman returns from exile. How hard was it to reign yourself in and not add too much and go too wild with one of the most popular and powerful superheroes?

Mike: Giving Lois a kid wasn't a casual decision. It wasn't like we were trying to think of things to change just for the sake of shaking things up. If anything, we were well aware of how antsy the fans get when the comic book canon is altered, so everything was done very carefully. We made sure that everything felt like it was drawn from people's collective memory of Superman - the Kent farm, the characters, the Daily Planet, the romance with Lois, etc.

At the same time, we didn't want to just tell the origin again. The Donner film and Smallville have already done it really well, so a third version just felt unnecessary. The only option that really left us was to tell a new story that pushed things further - a story about a hero returning to his former life, only to find out how much things have changed. It's almost a bit of Rip Van Winkle tale, and when you craft a story like that, one of the key themes you have to address is how people move on with their lives, which is why giving Lois a child becomes a fundamental part of the story.

Dan: We're fans, first and foremost. We know how to push things only if they will serve the story and push it forward. We've changed the mythology a tiny bit with Lois, but that is what our film is about - we're dealing with it very seriously and would never callously just change something for the sake of changing it.

Q: Were there any moments where you guys, as a duo, just didn't agree with when writing. Is there a particular scene where it's just Dan's scene or just Mike's scene?

Mike: We always argue and debate scenes, but that's a healthy part of the process. If either of us were to just roll over and accept each other's ideas all the time, it means something is wrong. Bryan always questions ideas throughout the process, and we've learned how to fight for the things we're passionate about. It's sort of like survival of the fittest. If we CAN'T make those arguments, then we know it's probably not the strongest idea and it needs to be better.

Dan: There are always moments like that! The great part about the team here is that we can provide Bryan with both scenes and let him choose!

Q: When writing the film and perhaps laying ground work for possible sequels is there any mention of other characters from Superman lore hidden in the film for the eagle-eyed or eared viewer to look out for?

Mike: When we first started brainstorming, I really wanted to have another Kryptonian for Superman to go toe-to-toe with, but Bryan wisely said that it might be too much for this outing. It was going to be hard enough to reintroduce audiences to the current roster of characters, including the main villain, Lex Luthor, so throwing in yet another bad guy would've been overkill. With that in mind, I think there's a natural progression the film series would have to take. After all, you can't have Superman going up against just Lex for three films, or saving people from natural disasters or crashing airplanes over and over again. One of Superman's biggest issues is the fact that he's supposedly the last of his race - but what if he wasn't? I'm not talking about three Kryptonians busting out of the Phantom Zone looking to start a fight, but if Kryptonians were such an advanced civilization, then space travel would've been easy for them, so I don't see why there couldn't be other survivors out there.

Dan: There are easter eggs, and sadly some of them have been cut out of the movie (though they're still on the script) - and there are hints for what's coming next, but it's really a big setup and less of a puzzle hidden throughout.

Q: Was there anything the actors/actresses brought to their roles that you didn't expect or predict when writing the script?

Mike: It was always fun to see how the actors took what was in the script and just elevated it. They added their own special flourishes, and Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen is probably a great example. I never imagined Jimmy could be so "alive", but Sam brought such an amazing energy to the character. I remember shooting scenes with him and sometimes it was near impossible not to laugh. All the actors did that. Brandon was equally heroic as Superman and vulnerable as Clark; Kate brought a level of maturity to Lois that I never realized was in the script; and Kevin added a layer of cynicism and sadism to Lex that makes him distinctive from Gene Hackman's portrayal.

Dan: Kevin Spacey's Lex is amazing, and yet far more sinister, scary, and sadistic than I thought he was originally written. But that's a great thing! Lex has been in prison for years, and this time he's out for blood!

Lex Q: Apart from revenge on Superman for his jail time, can you tell us anything more about Luthor's motives in this film?

Mike: On the surface, Lex is just the ultimate capitalist, and in his mind, the ends totally justify the means. His plans might seem outlandish and far-fetched, but I think there's a vendetta beneath the megalomania that is really fascinating. In our film, he's exploiting the Man of Steel's technology, something Jor-El left for his son, and corrupting it to change the face of Superman's adoptive world. He's making a point by adding insult to injury.

Dan: Let's just say that Lex secretly wants to be a god on earth, and really the only god on earth is Superman. There is a lot of resentment for a lot of reasons behind Lex doing what he does to Superman with the method in which he does it (god that sounds vague). Let's just say Lex wants to hit him where it really hurts.

Q: Will the audience learn what Superman was doing during his absence?

Mike: Yes, but it's not shown, at least not in this version. It's in the screenplay, and it was shot, but a lot of tough decisions are made in the editing process. With any luck, it'll end up on a DVD someday.

Dan: Yes, it's a major point of Superman's emotional journey in the film.

Q: How relevant do you think a quintessentially American icon like Superman can be in a post 9/11 world?

Mike: I think he's more relevant than ever. If anything, he's needed more than ever. What's interesting is that Superman has always been the most popular during times when the world was facing its biggest challenges, especially the Great Depression and World War II. Even Superman: The Movie was a film that came out of the post-Vietnam era, so I think he always seems to return when we need him the most.

Dan: More relevant than ever. The world is a difficult place, but more than that, the boundaries between good and evil have blurred. People no longer know who to trust and what to believe. What we need is a hero who can never lie and is always around for the good of the world - that hero is simply Superman.



Who are the six UK Superfans?

'Dharmesh'. Founder and Chief, Superman Cinema (UK-based site), based in Birmingham.

Dawn Jones. UK-based moderator for Superman Homepage, highly active member of Devoted to Smallville, Devoted Fans Network and other Superman sites, based in Central London.

Robert O'Connor. Highly active UK member of Superman Homepage, imdb, lcfanfic (Lois and Clark Fan Ficton) and other Superman sites, the youngest of the crew at 16 and based in Dublin.

Matt Fisher. Highly active UK member of Superman Homepage, Channel 4 forums and imdb, based in Birmingham.

Alistair Corbett. Highly active member of Empire Online, particularly in the Superman forums, based in South Wales.

Luke Barnard. Highly active member of Total Film forums and a regular poster on all things Superman, based in Reading.



Messages from the six UK Superfans:

'Thank you so much for this opportunity, you have no of how much of an honor this is!'
Robert O'Connor

'Thank you, thank you, thank you for your tireless work'
Dharmesh

'I'd like to say thank you, this is so very exciting!'
Alistair Corbett

'I'd just like to express my thanks and gleeful delight at this opportunity, to yourself and everyone at Digital Outlook and Warner Bros because as a huge Superman fan this is such a buzz.'
Luke Barnard

'Thanks for answering! I can't wait to see the movie!'
Dawn Jones