Dawn Jones (DJintheUK) was one of a handful of U.K. based Superman fans who were chosen to submit questions to various cast and crew on "Superman Returns". The Superman Homepage is pleased to present DJ's exclusive interview with Guy Hendrix Dyas, the Production Designer on "Superman Returns".
Look for more exclusive interviews with Brandon Routh, Dan Harris and Mike Dougherty (Writers), Neil Corbould (SFX Supervisor), and Louise Mingenbach (Costume Designer) in the next few days.
Q: "Superman Returns" must surely be the Holy Grail of projects for a Production Designer. What excited you most about working on this project, and what was your favorite set?
Guy: My favourite set is the 'Fortress of Solitude', not necessarily from a design aspect but for what it represents: it's the only place where Superman can have an intimate contact with the land and spirit of his fathers. I think that Superman is an endless source of inspiration for film makers and artists because he has all of the characteristics of a classical mythological hero. Strangely enough, I can't say that I used to read a lot of Superman comics growing up as a kid in England, but I do remember becoming very hooked after I saw the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. It was great to get the chance to work with Bryan [Singer] on "Superman Returns" and try our hand at dealing with such a huge icon. It was also interesting because we knew that we'd be able to push the envelope in terms of the effects and the visuals thanks to new technologies that have become available since the last Superman film.
Click "read more" below to read the complete Guy Dyas interview.
Q: Did you base your 'Metropolis' on any real life city in any way?
Guy: It's a fictional city but it's true that it resembles many real places around the world including New York City. In Greek 'Metropolis' means 'mother city' and in the late twenties Fritz Lang used the word to describe the sense of awe he felt looking at the New York City skyline. It's also been said that in 1939 Joe Shuster modelled his 'Metropolis' on cities like Toronto and Cleveland. These are all things that we took into consideration when designing "Superman Returns". Personally there's one concept that I've heard of and that seems to sum it up, it's that metaphorically speaking Superman's 'Metropolis' is New York city during the day whereas Batman's 'Gotham' is New York at night. This confirms the instinctive notion that we all seem to have which is that Superman represents light, while Batman evokes shadows. In "Superman Returns", 'Metropolis' is firmly placed geographically on the East coast in New York state. But that said, I'd like to think that 'Metropolis' is still a symbol, a hint to every large, up-to-the-minute and exciting city in the world.
Q: To date, all of the Production Designers of the Superman movies including yourself have been of British origin. Do you feel this coincidence has contributed anything to the look of the franchise?
Guy: Well actually I hadn't really thought of that but it's an interesting notion. Still, I'd like to think that as Production Designers we can pretty much design equally well a wide range of films regardless of our origin and Nationality. It's mostly down to each individual, their aesthetic, their experiences and what they enjoy designing. As a Briton I have no doubt that I've been extremely influenced by the culture of my country however I think that design, like art and music, knows no borders. With "Superman Returns" I knew that as long as I loved the subject matter I would be able to do the designs justice. If anything it's probably my nostalgia and love for all things vintage that sparked my creativity the most when it came to this film. I usually value something by it's enduring appeal so I had to honour the fact that Superman is an enduring character, he's iconic and he's deeply rooted in American culture the way Elvis, baseball, or jazz is. My interpretation of that when conceptualizing the designs was to study the work of many influential American artists like Edward Hopper, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Henry Sullivan.
Q: In an era of digital imaging and 3D set enhancements, do you feel your job of production designer is made easier compared to the Superman films of the optical era?
Guy: Absolutely, having access to new technologies and ever improving visual effects is a wonderful advantage for Production Designers, it gives us so much more freedom to create on a large scale. But at the same time those advantages don't necessarily mean that the overall job of Production Design has become easier than before. Today's audiences expect so much more visually from a film and it's interesting how technologies and our expectations of them always seem to grow proportionately. Over the years audiences have developed a trained eye and are keen to spot every imperfection on the screen, whether it be with the Visual Effects, the sets, the make-up etc. Designers oversee the look of a film as they did in the past but they also have to be a lot more vigilant, especially when it comes to execution and details. It became even more true for me when it was decided that "Superman Returns" would be shot using the new Panavision Genesis camera which offers unparalleled clarity.
Q: In the trailer there is quite a lot of destruction. Was it hard to watch sets be destroyed or was it just cool?
Guy: It was cool because that's what they're made for. Having designed X-Men 2 as my first feature film I was quickly trained in the art of building 'breakable sets' and not becoming too attached to what happens to them after I walk away. Actually it's a lot of fun planning action scenes with the stunt crew and helping them determine the best scenarios. It's sort of masochistic in many ways because the Art Department plays a huge part in destroying it's own sets. At the end of the day it's either smashing the sets on camera or waiting for the construction crew to dismantle them after the shoot. Everything we create for a film is temporary, it's a backdrop for a performance and then it's gone, that's the beauty of it.
Q: How challenging was it to bring an all-American city like Metropolis complete with people, buildings, vehicles, hot dog stands etc. to Australia?
Guy: At first I thought it would be extremely challenging because based on my few trips to Sydney I could immediately tell that there simply wasn't very much there in terms of existing architecture and skyscrapers that we could use. I knew that every location we found would have to be hugely altered and that we'd have to build most everything from scratch. Time also wasn't on our side. Bryan and I had been working for several months on bringing Logan's Run back to the screen when literally overnight it was decided that we were moving on to 'Superman'. Part of the deal for me was being able to stick to an incredibly tight pre-production schedule, we had something like eight weeks to conceptualize the designs and then twelve weeks later we were shooting in Sydney. By all standards this is very unusual for a film of this size and this complexity, but we rose to the challenge and I was fortunate to have a great crew working with me. We didn't get cold feet, we just concentrated on the huge task at hand and built 'Metropolis' from the ground up. Each film comes with its own challenges, sometimes it can really test your abilities and the resources you've been given, but for most designers it's also stimulating. Personally I love huge undertakings, something that offers a challenge usually triggers my imagination.
Q: Was there one thing from any of the sets of "Superman Returns" you were able to keep, any prop or particular item you were able to hang onto and if so what?
Guy: Well there are lots of things I'd like to keep from each film that I work on but I try to restrain myself. Everything belongs to the studio and is usually put to good use after filming is completed. Props and set pieces are shipped around the world for promotional events, exhibits and museum displays. Sadly things don't get a lot of exposure when they're just sitting in my garage in Los Angeles! But to answer your question I think that my favourite mementos from films are the iconic props or set pieces and not necessarily the most valuable things. On "Superman Returns" we manufactured beautiful Kryptonite props. Clark Kent's glasses and Lex Luthor's briefcase were great pieces too. Actually, knowing myself, I would probably try and keep something architectural if I could and therefore really unpractical, like one of the huge elevator doors from the Daily Planet building. Picture that, the Daily Planet elevator in my house!
Q: The Fortress of Solitude and the crystals are clearly influenced by Superman: The Movie. Are there any other nods to the movie we should look out for in the production design?
Guy: Yes, there are many nods to the 1978 movie. Starting with the Kent Farm and its general layout as well as specific vehicles like Martha Kent's old truck. You'll notice that we tracked down an identical model as in Superman: The Movie and we painted it exactly the same shade of red. There's also the Fortress of Solitude of course, it follows a similar template as in the previous films. It's a crystalline structure, a vast cathedral-like edifice created by a crystal Jor-El enclosed in the ship that brought Superman to earth as a baby. It also contains 'memory crystals' that can be used to access holographic recordings of Jor-El. I think we've improved on the original design but it's undeniable that ours is based on the previous films. Actually during early pre-production our 'Fortress of Solitude' design was shown to the creators of Smallville perhaps so they could duplicate some aspects of it for their TV series. I think there's a real desire on Warner Bros.' part to create 'a tight-knit' and cohesive world for Superman. With "Superman Returns" we tried to acknowledge previous existing designs only when it felt absolutely right to do so. The Christopher Reeve films resonate among an entire generation of movie buffs so we couldn't have ignored them completely. Remakes and sequels are tricky for film makers because if you change too much you may lose the essence of what made something appealing in the first place and if you change too little you may miss out on improvements and opportunities to create new excitement.
Q: With regard to the design of Metropolis, is it a strictly Art Deco rendition or will we see any of the futuristic City of Tomorrow elements from the comic-books?
Guy: We wanted 'Metropolis' to be a contemporary city so there aren't any references to the comic-book's futuristic 'city of tomorrow' in "Superman Returns". We added the Art Deco touches that you mention because it was logical to ground some of the buildings in history. In the film you'll notice that 'Metropolis' is a mix of many landmarks, styles and periods as are most modern cities. The Daily Planet is an important landmark in 'Metropolis' so we've given it a lot of stature and at times it's vaguely reminiscent of the Art Deco style of films like 1932's 'Grand Hotel'. Our entrance plaza is also influenced by early-mid twentieth century architect Raymond Hood, who designed Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and the Daily News building. We didn't want to make "Superman Returns" a period film but we wanted to keep it classic in tone, that's why everything looks a bit more formal and refined than it may seem in our ordinary, day-to-day lives. More futuristic designs appear in the film with Superman's crystal ship and elements relating to his birth planet Krypton, that's where the divide happens visually. Perhaps next time Superman will be set in a more futuristic world but for now we wanted to concentrate on his character and retain the charm that comes with making Clark Kent, the mild mannered reporter, and Superman, his alter ego, seem as contemporary and realistic as possible.
Q: How similar/different are the Kryptonian elements (Fortress of Solitude, spaceship etc.) in this film to the classic Christopher Reeve movies?
Guy: We all felt a strong emotional connection to the Christopher Reeve films having watched them as kids so they did influence us when it came to doing "Superman Returns", notably with the 'Fortress of Solitude'. It's not like we specifically set out to duplicate things, we just felt that it was wrong to simply discard great concepts for the sake of wanting to put our stamp on everything. Superman: The Movie has stood the test of time and it's still great to watch almost thirty years after its release. It's undoubtedly one of the best comic-book adaptations ever made so by making that film the template for "Superman Returns", Bryan set a high standard for everyone working on the film. For me it meant that I had to walk a fine line, I had to make sure that we held on to great visual moments from the past while not going too far the other way and duplicating things that couldn't possibly look good anymore. For example, with Superman's crystal ship I knew that we had to take a huge leap forward with the design, we needed to really explore what it would be like to be Superman and use a crystal based technology to build something. I wanted his crystal ship to have an unearthly quality to it and glow internally like the deep sea creatures that have light-producing organs and translucent shells. We worked mostly in 3D to render that concept because I knew that it would save us time when it came to building the set on stage, it was like assembling a giant puzzle.