Exclusive Interview with Jake Rossen

[Date: February 19, 2008]

By Barry Freiman

Jake Rossen is the author of the book "Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon", which takes a look behind the scenes of every major Superman production outside the comic books.

The Superman Homepage would like to thank Jake for agreeing to do this interview, and for fitting it into his busy schedule.



Superman vs. Hollywood Q:†What compelled you to write "Superman vs. Hollywood"?

A: Two things: a magazine assignment and a rare moment of sustained ambition.

Prior to the release of "Superman Returns" in '06, I was contracted by Wizard magazine to research and write a truncated history of the character's difficulty in returning to theaters. I had heard of the broad strokes - Tim Burton's plans, Kevin Smith's script, the casting fiasco - but really wasn't prepared for the sheer volume of material that I kept uncovering.

As a result, my first draft of the Wizard piece was probably twice as long as the magazine's space could allow. I kept getting heartburn over what I was forced to excise, and that's when I struck upon the idea of a book.

Superman has logged nearly 70 years of being puppeteered by Hollywood; he's had his hands in virtually every form of media there is, and you can trace just about any industry personality back to him in some way. Kevin Bacon has nothing on this guy.

To encapsulate all of that, long-form narrative was the way to go.

Q: Are you a Superman fan?

A: I am absolutely, unequivocally a Superman fan. He's Americana personified.

I grew up on a diet of the George Reeves series (thanks to Nick at Nite) and I loved the first two Chris Reeve films. "Superman II" has a perpetual slot in my top ten favorite movies list. Terence Stamp as Zod is one of the most under-appreciated performances of that decade.

It's hard for me to discuss him in terms of arcana - like knowing what issue he first met Lori Lemaris, or what sort of psychological disturbance had him hitting on a mermaid in the first place - but I'd like to think I'm pretty cognizant of his persona, his place in popular culture, and that he can fry an egg with his eyes.

The book essentially comes from a place of sympathy for how he's been mistreated as a cultural commodity. I have a real affection for him.

Q: What did you expect to find out when you started this project that may or may not have turned out to be true? Did anything particularly surprise you as you researched the book?

A: I was pretty taken aback by the meager level of respect shown to the men who helped shape Superman, particularly Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and the Fleischers. I'd heard things over the years, of course, but the nuts and bolts were surprising.

From some accounts, Christopher Reeve had some trouble adjusting to his abrupt fame. That's not surprising per se, but fans - and I'm certainly one of them - tend to think of Reeve as synonymous with that character's values and behavior. It's almost unfair to hold him to that standard.

It just goes on and on. Marlon Brando saving Tom Mankiewicz from getting stabbed, the "Superboy" stunt chief almost electrocuting Gerard Christopher... and Jon Peters is almost a book unto himself.

Q: What do you think is the main reason it took 19 years to bring Superman back to movie screens between 1987's "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" and 2006's "Superman Returns"?

A: A perfect storm of poor decisions. "Superman IV" was not a good film, period. It has its moments, but ultimately suffers from vanishing funds and poor concepts. You just weren't going to find a studio that was going to fund a fifth movie with that stench sticking around.

By the time audiences had time to clean their palate, Warner had regained the rights and slowly slipped into what some people would call "paralysis by analysis." They had such high hopes for Superman that they were terrified of doing the wrong thing, and directors kept turning in budget requests that would give anyone palpitations.

Those fears just kept snowballing. Time kept passing and money kept getting poured into it. Eventually, you're too scared to be the guy to say, "Sure, here's $200 million, go string a guy up in a blue leotard."

Q: How open were the people you interviewed about the problems some of them were part of or in the middle of? Did Warner Brothers or DC Comics present any special problems to you?

A: One of the things I suspected would be a problem early on would be getting people to talk about unpleasant experiences. Is Nicolas Cage really going to be eager to talk about *not* playing Superman? Actors don't want to do that. It's like getting a fighter to talk about why they lost.

Some people were able to have perspective on it. Some weren't. More than one participant wanted to be compensated for an interview. Maybe it was to pay for therapy. I'm no Mike Wallace, but I doubt he has a roll of $50s for that kind of thing.

Q: If you could change one thing in the history of Superman in film and on television that you think would have had a positive impact on the character, what would you change and why?

A: I don't think Superman's caretakers, particularly during the period of extended development at Warner, ever truly got a grip on what makes Superman work from a storytelling perspective. Any working professional in the film industry would tell you that you can make a poor movie from a good screenplay, but you can rarely ever make a good movie from a poor screenplay.

I think most of the character's woes come from templates that don't fully understand who he is. Like most things getting grunted out of Hollywood, any future Superman movie would benefit greatly from an attentive and reverential scenarist who is allowed the time to craft something really unique.

I know Mark Millar threw his hat into the ring, and I have no doubt in my mind he would deliver something special. But Warner doesn't want to work with a Marvel-branded writer. It all comes back to politics.

Q: In all seriousness - do you attribute the problems seemingly associated with bringing Superman to life on film or TV part of a "Superman curse" or is it just a question of "no pain, no gain"?

A: A "Superman curse" makes for terrific tabloid copy, but it's pretty lazy journalism to attribute anything to supernatural forces.

Fact is, it's a daunting task to try and do what the Donner poster promised - to make you believe a man can fly. It costs a lot of money, and you have millions of people who already have notions of what Superman should sound, look, and act like. You're tethered to decades of mythology, yet people want a new experience. Not an envious position to be in.

Do actors suffer a "Superman curse"? I don't see how playing the character had any influence on Chris Reeve's love of horses. He was going to be riding them regardless.

Q: What conclusions do you think can be drawn from the morass of legal, financial, and moral issues that seem to plague attempts to bring Superman to mediums outside comics?

A: I think Superman's offscreen saga may be the best example we have of the Hollywood mulcher. With an original screenplay, it's hard to decipher what the author's intentions were compared to the final product. With comic characters, we know the basic outline, and it's easier to see where things go south.

I'd like to think of the book as a window into that process: how art -- and I do believe comics are art -- gets fed into one end of the machine and comes out the other side looking a little deformed.

Q: Why do you think Superman remains such a compelling character for film, television, and the Internet despite how seemingly difficult it is to bring the character to three-dimensional life?

A: Hollywood is obsessed with pre-digested concepts. 80% of what comes out of the town is based on a comic, a video game, a book, is a sequel to a previous success, or a remake. If you're going to risk hundreds of millions on a film, you want it to be easily identifiable.

Superman is pretty much the king of that hill. You could spend a billion in marketing and never come close to the kind of emotional investment and recognition he can siphon from audiences.

Q: Do you think we'll see another Superman movie in the next five years? If so, do you think Bryan Singer will direct it as a sequel to "Superman Returns" or do you envision another restart?

A: My feeling is that we'll see their "Justice League" before another Superman film gets off the ground, though studio plans are often predicated on holes in their schedules. If a Superman script gets turned in that can be ready for summer 2010, they'd probably plow ahead with it and develop "League" for another couple years down the line.

I don't think Warner was ecstatic over the commercial and critical response to "Superman Returns," but I think they'd be even less enthused about starting from scratch again.

Purchase "Superman vs Hollywood" from Amazon.com and check out the website for Jake's book at SupermanvsHollywood.com.



This interview is Copyright © 2008 by Steven Younis. It is not to be reproduced in part or as a whole without the express permission of the author.