June 9, 2006: “Superman Returns” Press Junket

Roundtable Interview with Paul Levitz (Head of DC Comics)

Press: So you really would like me to give this a good review.

Paul: Yes, I think so.

Press: So Paul, we have Batman Begins last year that opened well, and kind of took comic book movies to a whole different level, and now Superman Returns, I think it's going to do the same thing. What other DC properties are you coming up with?

Paul: There's a ton in development. We have a Wonder Woman script due momentarily from Joss Whedon, Flash with David Goyer working on it, we have a lot of discussions on Green Lantern though not a definitive plan; Shazam over at New Line, I think they just announced Pete Siegel signing on on that on director about a month ago...

Press: What do you think is likely to be the next film that will actually get made? I mean, Wonder Woman's been talked about for years, I mean, these are all...

Paul: The good and the bad news of these projects is that they are astronomically difficult to put together in the first place.

Press: Financially, or artistically?

Paul: Artistically. In part because no one wants them to go wrong, so you really look at these, both the size of the bet that the studios have to make, the complexity of making the films, you really look at it and you want a script that you absolutely believe in, the right talent behind the camera, and the right talent in front of the camera, and if it doesnÕt feel like it's all coming together you say, "OK, not yet. And this has always been the case, it took us almost 10 years to make the first Batman film in the Tim Burton cycle, and then it took us almost 10 years to make the first one in the Chris Nolan cycle.

Press: And it also took you a long time to get a Superman off the ground. (a few laughs)

Paul: Oh, absolutely, I have the lovely note in my file somewhere from Warner Brothers turning down producing Superman in the early 1970s and saying, "Go license it out to Alex Salkind, we don't think anyone will care." (laughter)

Press: Why do you think the time is right now for Superman returning?

Paul: What happened last year is when the last development project tanked. Bryan and the writers happened to be in the same place at the same time and they were all sitting around and said, "We could do that. That would be fun." And they, as creative people are prone to do, played a day or two of can you top this, tossing ideas around...there was an enormous sincere affection for Superman in that room, and knowledge of the character, and they came up with something that would work, rushed into Warner Brothers, and the combination that the idea was so well thought out...Bryan's credibility coming off the X-Men films as being appropriate for this kind of project, and the enthusiasm that Warner's had built up for doing a Superman movie as an event project, all came together and they said, "OK, take it, run with it, make it happen." You guys got to the screening last night, I hope, so I think you saw the result, and...it's real."

Press: How do you like Brandon?

Paul: I think Brandon works wonderfully. What I like about him now, having gotten to spend a little bit of time with him is I think the Clark Kent comes very naturally to him. There's a genuine sort of midwestern kid grown up into it, and he fills out the suit and does the heroics pretty solidly.

Press: Were you disappointed that they cut out the return to Krypton? We hear the original Donner dome was supposed to be floating in space...

Paul: There's some real cool stuff that didn't make the film but it'll make a hell of a DVD set. (laughs) I think we're living in a different time. I'm an enormous Lord of the Rings fan. And I love what Peter Jackson did with the film, having read the books, I don't know, twenty times in my life. And then when the DVDs came, and it was, "OK, now I get to see that scene that I always wanted, that didn't make it to the film." I was there the first day for it. I think that's a natural part of the buff's role at this stage.

Press: But were you disappointed?

Paul: I've seen it, so... (laughter)

Press: But how is it for you, having been at DC as long as you have, through the ups and downs of television film production, to see DC properties back to where they are today, and the success of Batman Begins, and this is presumptuous, but the success of Superman Returns?

Paul: Given my life, to sit there in a movie theater and watch the DC symbol to come up at the front of a film that is as good and as true to the character as Superman Returns or Batman Begins, or for that matter V for Vendetta, or Constantine, is just an enormous thrill. I have the privilege, very rare in life, of running a company whose projects have been important to me since I was four or five years old, of seeing it grow to new heights. And when you look at DC today, it's not only the last year we had three major motion picture successes across a wide range, we had six television shows in production. If you look through the history of creative companies, not to take anything away from any other business, I'm not sure you can find another creative institution that has spawned as wide a range of projects in as short a period of time. We've had everything on the air last year from Krypto for preschool audiences on cartoon network, the little guys who can't even read, on up to MadTV running on Saturday nights at 11 on FOX for obviously a very college and young adult audience, to things like V for Vendetta and Constantine with hard R ratings. We've really been showing that comics as a medium in America can be a source of material for any kind of story.

Press: Are these economic windfalls for DC in the same way as Marvel has generated a lot of revenue for itself, or does this kind of fall under just Time Warner?

Paul: Well, we're owned by Time Warner, so it's all a piece of the same thing...we receive credit on our books for the royalties and the fees that are appropriate so that our participants can share in them properly, so we've had some astounding financial years. We're budgeted for another record year this year with Superman.

Press: How much say do you, as the head of DC comics have, on the movie Superman Returns?

Paul: Whether it's DC or any other company that has the underlying intellectual property rights, you can't make the movie good. That's the director's job. If you have a great movie of a character or a great movie that's an adaptation of a book, the director is the one that's taken the essence of the creative properly and brought it along. On some of our films, we've had enormously involved roles going back and forth on many different things, from research to kibbitzing along the way...

Press: For example?

Paul: It really depends on the collaboration. On others, much less so. In the case of Superman Returns, Bryan had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. And he knew the character, he knew the material he was drawing on. He didn't need a lot of help from us.

Press: How much input do you have in the upcoming sequels both to this and to Batman?

Paul: I am involved in all of these projects. The ways in which I'm involved really vary with what the director needs from us. Sometimes the most constructive thing you do is help point out when a project shouldn't happen. I've had to roll on those as well.

Press: When you do a sequel to Superman Returns, how do you avoid repeating yourself in terms of what happened in the '70s movies and in this first Superman film?

Paul: I think it is easier to avoid the challenge of the '70s movies in a second film than it is in a third or a fourth. That gets to be a progressively more difficult challenge. I think a lot of what went wrong in the '70s films had to do with the business structure of those films. They were extraordinarily complicated arrangements between the Salkinds ultimately, the Canon films people...(unintelligible) Filmmaking is an economic enterprise, and occasionally the business stuff overwhelms the creative stuff, and I think that was the case there. I think that, had Donner stayed on all the films, we might have had a Superman 4 and a Superman 5 that was as good as Superman 1, and the first thing I would hope is that Bryan hangs around for several more films to come.

Press: (unintelligible)...crossovers with the property, just because it's all with one studio?

Paul: We developed a Batman and Superman film a couple of years ago, I think Wolfgang Peterson was slated to direct. I think it would have been a mistake to do it at that time, because I think it's a much better thing to do on a firm base of several successful movies of each character...then you've sort of built the anticipation up. But that's certainly a viable thing to do at some point, if it makes sense to the studio and to the filmmakers.

Press: You do mention it in the movie. Gotham. A little nod.

Paul: It's a connected universe. (laughter)

Press: With WB not picking up the Aquaman pilot, do you think that maybe now you might rethink, that instead of doing a TV show, do a full feature?

Paul: We have had several pitches over the last few years for an Aquaman film. None of them have gotten the studio excited about it, enough to be willing to proceed to script.

Press: And the TV series as of right now is dead?

Paul: It didn't get picked up, so we've gotta find a home for it or start all over again.

Press: I realize you're prejudiced, but you're also the guy who can answer this question. Why is this character worth six films, cartoon series, TV series, comic books, everything else, enduring...

Paul: I think there's a prejudiced and an objective answer. If you look back over the last 65 years or so, I guess Superman has now been out...67 years. Out of those 67 years, there have been only about 15 where there hasn't been a new Superman creative work in whatever the dominant medium of the time was. He was a radio show for 11 or 12 years, he was a television series for about nine, the serials, the theatrical cartoons. Objectively speaking, you have at least three generations that loved Superman when he was done well, and starting on a fourth. I think when you look at anything that has been able to transcend the time in which it was born...most creative properties are of a moment. They capture something in the zeitgeist, it works with that moment, and it disintegrates fairly quickly in the culture. No matter how important I Dream of Jeanie was in the moment it was there, it was of that moment, and of that actress, and probably that writer, and all of those things together. Superman has transcended the people who worked on him, the people who played him. There's something about it that lives on.

Press: So what is it?

Paul: To me, I think, that there's an intrinsic power in that basic formulation that says, "You look at me as Clark Kent, but hidden in me is Superman." I think there is a very fundamental human moment there. I can't speak for the other half of the human race, but certainly the male half of the human race, no matter how successful you are, if you're, if you will the Superman side of success, you're sitting there and saying, "I wish she would see me for the dopey Clark that I am, and not just love me for the fact that I've got the black American Express card, and the supercharged car and all the mortal versions of superpowers, and if you're Clark, you're sitting there saying, "There is some Superman in me, won't you look?" I think that humanity has been a vital part of why people have continued to care about the character.

Press: Do you think the world needs a savior now more than they did when the first films were made 30 years ago?

Paul: Each time has its own madness, and certainly 30 years ago we were living in the cold war, and the doomsday clock on the front of the bulletin kept ticking further along, and I'm of the generation that was coming of age then and I remember being taught to hide under my desk so that it would save me from the atom bomb. (laughs) We're certainly living in a time today where we know that America's moat doesn't work, and we're living in a world that has an enormous number of people living in poverty, has an enormous number of people living in anger. The combination of those things...I think the world needs all the help we can get.

Press: What about the American way being taken out?

Paul: I don't think it's taken out, I think it just disappears from the one Frank Langello line. We still use it. (No, a couple lines)

Press: How do you feel about the child, and is that something you could see bringing into the comics...superbaby?

Paul: We've done a bunch of explorations of what would happen if Superman had a kid. I'm sure there will be others.

Press: But, in continuity, it would never happen.

Paul: Never's a long time. (laughs) I would have bet we would have never married Superman and Lois, but when Lois and Clark did, we went along with it, so who knows?

Press: Who worked on the logo? The custom logo?

Paul: I'm sorry, you'd have to ask the filmmakers. I think we helped along the way from our team, but fundamentally it would be their team.

Press: Going back to the whole American way thing, was it because of where America stands today in the eyes of some parts of the world?

Paul: You'd have to ask the film guys. We've not moved away from that as one of Superman's basic slogans. They just played with it for different lines in the course of the film.

Press: But you don't object to it?

Paul: I think it's done right, in context.