How do you make your mark on a project that has been done before while honoring the elements worth keeping? No one has confronted this issue more than the creative team behind Superman’s latest iteration, the big-screen Superman Returns, which debuts June 30. To better understand Superman’s evolution, Bryan Singer, the film’s director, whose previous hits include The Usual Suspects and X-Men I and II, talked Warner Bros. into first producing a documentary that traced Superman’s history. The process helped him decide where to stay loyal to the mythology and where to experiment. “I’m not trying to sit here and say, ‘Well, he’s going to be my Superman!'” he says. “The character is going to exist long after I’m dead.”
With so much history behind the film, Singer, 40, faces a real risk: Any major changes may generate a backlash among Superman’s loyal fans. So he has been careful to consult his creative team at every critical moment. “I surround myself with people who understand me and aren’t afraid to tell me when I’m straying,” he says. “They’re not sycophants, they’re friends.” In the following pages, Fast Company asks five of his intrepid allies what it takes to breathe new life into a 70-year-old superhero.
Los Angeles, California
Lee, 49, rose through the Hollywood ranks from script reader to president of production at Columbia TriStar Pictures before becoming an independent producer in 1998.
“After Bryan called me, I went out and bought $400 of archived comic books. The guy behind the counter asked me if I was doing a thesis. Some producers are nuts-and-bolts line and budget guys. I’m a creative producer, someone who’s involved with the story, casting, everything. With casting, some people felt the first film got too campy. Lex Luthor and Otis, his henchman, had this theme music, ‘The March of the Villains.’ We avoided that completely. The challenge was to surprise people. Sure, we picked veteran actors, but we were very selective until we got to the unexpected choices, like Parker Posey [as Kitty Kowalski].
Another concern was the longtime fans. We wanted to find a way to communicate with them that this film was legitimate and authentic. We wanted them to know that we pay homage to the genesis of Superman, but we didn’t feel we had to tell the same story all over again. We needed one outlet that the fans already knew; it was important to us that we not put anything on a corporate site. We checked out a bunch of existing sites, and I met with Justin Korthof, who runs the fan site BlueTights Network (www.bluetights.net). We worked out a situation where we backed up his servers and provided movie blogs. It’s a fan boy’s dream come true. It has been a great relationship for us, because the fans have a lot to say. If you look at their comments and the homemade trailers they make and post on the site, they have carried the torch for this film far longer than we have. Yes, they’re very particular about certain things, but ultimately, they just want to be entertained.”
Perez-Mansill, 42, has designed sets representing everything from Mars (Red Planet) to Zion (for the second and third installments of the Matrix trilogy).
“For us, the richness and level of detail to the sets were ways to distinguish the film. When you’re art-directing a film, you start by breaking down the script with the production designer and looking for ways to create a concept that will appear throughout the film. It’s a process of discovery. What materials will we use? What will the space look and feel like? Granted, all we have to start with are two-dimensional images of sets. Giving them depth is a trick we have to have. (I’ve got an architecture degree, so that’s part of why I was brought into the film.)
The Daily Planet office is a good example. We looked at art deco buildings and offices from the 1920s and 1930s, then we started thinking about what contemporary materials we could bring in. We started with a very open office plan, with marble and glass. We did research on all different types of timber veneers. Meanwhile, it had to be a working space for a journalist in 2006, so you need monitors on the walls with news flying by–even business cards and Daily Planet screen savers. But once you introduce all that technology, you inevitably date the film. In five years, we’ll have different monitors and cell phones. It’s a balancing act.
Another concern before building the sets is understanding how the scenes will be filmed. With Kent Farm, people who’ve seen the original film will say, ‘That’s not it! The design of the house and barn are different!’ Yes, the relationship between the rooms is different. But our changes were based on the action. It was essential that the lounge was next to the kitchen. Of course, the farm was more sacred than the Daily Planet office, so we only changed what we had to.”
Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris
Los Angeles, California
Dougherty, 28 (left), and Harris, 27, currently have six films in some stage of production, including a remake of Logan’s Run, due next year. Singer, who has tapped them for multiple films, counts them among his “most valuable assets.”
DH: “There are certain things that make Superman Superman. He’s about truth, justice, and the American way. You can’t change those things.”
MD: “We laid down certain commandments. There are things you have to do, such as show him getting shot with bullets, which bounce off. And as tempting as it might be to have Superman show up and turn the Daily Planet into a dotcom, you don’t do that. It was a matter of taking all these classic moments and making them original. There have been a lot of times when we come up with something, and we pat ourselves on the back. Then we realize it’s been done before.”
MD: “The significant changes we decided to make had to do with the complexity of the love story. I made it my personal goal to do what earlier Superman films haven’t done as much of–surprise people with the emotional content of the film. I wanted grown men to cry. Early tests show they will.”
DH: “All we did was change the world [Superman] was accustomed to.”
MD: “For example, say he disappeared and came back to where the  film left off. What if Lex Luthor had gotten out of prison? What if Lois Lane fell in love with someone else? What if she had a kid? Essentially, we took a classic and nostalgic character and placed him in a modern world.”
DH: “A world that has learned to live without him. Then we asked, ‘How does he use those traits we all admire?'”
MD: “There are times in your life when the world changes, and even someone like Superman has a hard time with that. At the same time, the legacy goes on. It would be a dream come true if, years from now, some hotshot kids reimagine all the things we did.”
Los Angeles, California
Mingenbach, 42, has been a regular on Singer films since 1995. While previous Superman pictures had about a year for preproduction, with Superman Returns, Mingenbach got two and a half months.
“Sometimes that need to put your stamp on something is a recipe for disaster. In earlier scripts, people had gone too far to be different. It’s an ego thing. Warner Bros. has a big prep house where they do all the early work for big movies that began with Batman 20 years ago. There are a lot of skeletons and bones lying around that graveyard. In the Tim Burton version of Superman [never made], the theory was that, instead of blue tights, he’d paint his skin blue. The character was in a suit,and blood was pumped through these exterior veins. Don’t even ask. It was crazy.
Our goal was to consolidate all the Supermen. So when I first got the job, we did big boards of Superman in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and so on. The character had worn high briefs that looked like diapers. He’d been drawn with a big barrel chest, the ideal male body type at the time. By the 1970s the S got huge; it almost wraps around Christopher Reeve’s armpits. You look at Reeve and you think, ‘Wow, look at that towel down his back and those Peter Pan boots! That would never fly. Literally.’
In our case, we decided to raise the S on the uniform and remove the S shield from the cape. We went through 80 different Superman suits.
I also wanted the characters to look like they belonged to a timeless world. So we pulled out a crazy and wonderful selection of street clothes from the 1930s through the modern era. But we didn’t want any of it to stick out too much, where people would say, ‘Oh, women don’t wear white gloves anymore.’ But Kate Bosworth, who plays Lois Lane, really looked great in the 1940s suits. They gave her a serious, womanly toughness. If you’re careful and thoughtful, you’ll always leave your mark.”