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Take A Long Look At The Amazing Nic Cage/Tim Burton Superman That Almost Was

In the decade between the 1987 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and 2006 Superman Returns, Nicolas Cage was supposed to don the red cape in Superman Lives. He never did. Now, a new documentary looks at what happened and reveals the concept art behind the film that might have been.

Take A Long Look At The Amazing Nic Cage/Tim Burton Superman That Almost Was
[Photos & Stills: Courtesy of Jon Schnepp and Holly Payne]

It’s a plot worthy of a comic book. In some alternative universe, Nicolas Cage might have have been Superman.

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Back in the ’90s, Warner Bros had greenlit Superman Lives, a moodier take on the Man of Steel mythos to be produced by Jon Peters, directed by Tim Burton, and starring Cage, then hot off an Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas. The team caught the fascination of the comic zeitgeist, until an unfortunately-timed shot of a droopy-eyed Cage in superhero garb leaked and fan support soured. Two years, three scriptwriters, and a slew of concept art and costume tests later, the project was dead.

Now, two filmmakers—writer/director Jon Schnepp and producer Holly Payne—have pieced together the demise of the film in the 105-min documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? through interviews with Burton, Peters, screenwriters Kevin Smith, Dan Gilroy and Wesley Strick, comic writer Grant Morrison, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and numerous concept artists, including Steve Johnson and Sylvain Despretz.

The couple (Payne proposed to Schnepp at the film’s LA premiere last month) will release the film through its website July 9, as San Diego Comic Con gets underway, and hold court at booth 3915, plus panels Thursday and Friday.

The leaked Polaroid that started the negative spin.

The film addresses both “what happened?” and “what if?,” offering an irreverent tale of development hell, disconnect between suits and creatives, and contradicting recollections, as well as a treasure trove of concept art that makes you wonder what kind of wild ride a fully realized film might have been.

“Every person we talked to gave us a little more of the puzzle,” says Payne. “The most we learned was from the artwork. We didn’t know what had been put into the development, and the diversity of artists, and seeing it was mind-blowing. This was not what we expected. They were taking risks we hadn’t seen in a superhero film at that point.”

(L-R) Jon Schnepp, Kevin Smith, Holly Payne, technical producer Christopher Graybill, and editor Marie Jamora at a May American Cinematheque screening and Q&A.Photo: Margot Gerber for American Cinematheque, courtesy of Holly Payne and Jon Schnepp

The proposed 1998 Superman Lives was an attempt to revitalize a franchise that petered out after the less-than-stellar Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. Burton, tapped for his success with Batman—a superhero associated with night and shadows—seemed an odd choice to reinterpret a superhero so associated with the sun and light.

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“All the elements gripped people,” says Payne. “They couldn’t give a shape to it in their minds. And no one had seen the art, except for one horrible Polaroid of Nicolas Cage, exhausted, taken during a costume test.”

When Schnepp ran into the film’s concept artists at comic conventions, “There was a sense of sorrow and resentment of everyone making fun of it without knowing the context,” says Schnepp.

Nic Cage in costume test footage from Superman Lives. See extended footage of the costume test here.

He used a Kickstarter campaign to gauge the level of enthusiasm for a documentary. “It exploded,” he says. “We raised $35,000 in the first weekend. I thought the film would take eight months to make, but it was just really difficult to get all the interviews, because people were so busy, and production artists didn’t want to talk until Tim did.”

Two and a half years later, the $325,000 film came together—barely. While Payne worked a day job, Schnepp, who’d worked for shows like Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse prior to the documentary starting up, helped pay the bills with with animation directing jobs, hosting AMC’s Movie Talk, and selling artwork on the convention circuit. “We went broke four times, had to do multiple crowdfunders, get some independent investor help,” says Schnepp.

“The watershed moment was when Tim Burton agreed to be interviewed and opened up his vault of the film’s concept art, then getting access to all the artists who did the art,” he adds. “Finding these people was very satisfying on an artistic level, because you saw how they pushed the boundaries within a commercial world.”

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

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