Superman Returns director Bryan Singer is sitting on the wrong side of the camera. It’s an early June afternoon on Stage 17 of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, and a photographer is about to take Singer’s picture for the purposes of this article. But were you to stumble in unawares, you might sooner think that the slender, boyishly good-looking man seated in a director’s chair and sporting a distressed Superman T-shirt was an actor auditioning for a role rather than the director behind this studio’s $200 million revival of a long-dormant superhero franchise. Then again, looks can be deceiving. Just ask Clark Kent.
A few hours from now, Singer’s Superman Returns will have its first press preview — and despite weeks of round-the-clock sound mixing, color timing and visual-effects sessions, there’s still more work to be done, and more long nights ahead. “This particular film, at this particular time, was a unique grind,” Singer had told me earlier, noting that he shot Superman Returns halfway around the world in Australia while simultaneously executive producing a six-hour miniseries (The Triangle) for TV’s Sci-Fi Channel and the hit medical drama House on Fox. But today, Singer puts on a game face. He jokes with the photographer about being scrawny and out-of-shape for a guy in a Superman shirt. Then, as the session nears its end, he suddenly leaps out of his chair, picks it up with both hands and holds it proudly above his head while a few more pictures are snapped. It’s the least of the heavy lifting Singer has been doing of late.
After a decade in development hell and a revolving door of directors (Tim Burton, Michael Bay, Wolfgang Petersen and Brett Ratner among them), far-flung concepts (from the death-and-resurrection of Superman to a Superman-vs.-Batman celebrity death match) and potential Supermen (including Nicolas Cage, Brendan Fraser, Paul Walker and Josh Hartnett), Superman Returns finally took flight under Singer’s helm last spring and is now set to land in theaters across the globe on June 28, two decades after the caped crusader’s last big-screen adventure. Then, millions of fans will weigh in with their verdicts — a force, Singer acknowledges, potentially more powerful than kryptonite. “Whenever you take any kind of franchise and you play it out, it starts to go into a temporary coma,” he says, “and when that happens, it takes a while, years even, for an audience to be welcoming to its return.”
The stories are the stuff of Hollywood legend: How a charismatic (if hubristic) producer named Alexander Salkind, who made movies in Mexico in the 1940s and had a hand in Orson Welles’ The Trial, together with his son Ilya hired a plane to fly a banner over the 1974 Cannes Film Festival announcing the production of a big-budget Superman movie. How Godfather author Mario Puzo delivered a 500-page screenplay, which was subsequently rewritten by four other writers. How Marlon Brando was recruited to play Superman’s intergalactic father, Jor-El, for a then-astronomical $4 million plus 11 percent of box-office receipts. And how the arduous $50 million shoot dragged on for 16 months, with upward of seven production units filming scenes on three continents. But Superman nevertheless shot off into the stratosphere. Directed by former television director Richard Donner and starring unknown New York stage actor Christopher Reeve in the title role,the movie became the smash hit of the Christmas 1978 season, taking in more than $300 million at the worldwide box office. Among those standing in line to see it was a 12-year-old Bryan Singer.
“For a kid, it was incredible, because you saw people committing artistically as if they were making a legitimate movie like The Godfather,” he recalls. “[Uncredited Superman rewriter] Tom Mankiewicz talks about how each part of the movie was structured differently: the first act, on Krypton, was very English and Shakespearean, almost of another time and another place; then it was Andrew Wyeth, the way the farm was depicted, like you were watching Giant or a John Ford picture. That part of the movie really got to me, because I felt like I was seeing a classic movie with sincere performances.”
But despite Superman’s success, and despite having already shot more than half of what was to become Superman II (1980), Donner was promptly fired by the Salkinds and replaced by A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, who had originally been hired as a go-between of sorts when relations between Donner and the producers deteriorated toward the end of work on the first film. Lester finished Superman II and then stuck around to make the ill-fated Superman III (1983), which had Reeve playing second fiddle to a jive-talking Richard Pryor and which has few rivals in the annals of boneheaded Hollywood sequels, save for the same year’s Smokey and the Bandit Part 3. The Salkinds — to say nothing of moviegoers — had understandably had their fill. But four years later, Cannon Films schlock merchants Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — best known for their endless litany of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson action movies — secured the Superman rights and enticed Reeve back for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, in which the blue-tighted one became an advocate for nuclear disarmament. The series’ lowest-grossing and most critically reviled entry yet, it signaled an end to Superman’s big-screen career six years before the masterminds at DC Comics famously killed Supes off for real.
But as any comic-book aficionado worth his salt knows, you can’t keep a good Kryptonian down, and already by the early 1990s, Warner Bros. had wrested control of the Superman character away from Cannon and the Salkinds and had begun planning a new Superman adventure. Little did anyone suspect that bringing Superman back would make the original film’s protracted incubation look like a cakewalk. One fired screenwriter, Clerks creator Kevin Smith, complained publicly that Superman Returns producer Jon Peters was hell-bent on the idea of a “modern” Man of Steel stripped of his trademark blue tights and going mano a mano with the likes of a polar bear and a giant mechanical spider. Then, finally, in 2004, the project seemed set to go with Charlie’s Angels director McG at the helm — only to fall apart again when McG turned skittish about the film’s planned Australian shoot, due in part to a fear of flying. Reenter Singer, who had earlier been courted by Warners to take the Superman reins, but was rebuffed when he insisted on starting over from scratch with his own story idea and his X2 screenwriting team of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. This time, with Singer’s negotiations to direct a third X-Men movie stalled at Fox, the studio was all ears.
“They were going to do a retelling of the original story, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell a return story,” says Singer, who’s quick to praise Warners president Alan Horn and production president Jeff Robinov for their willingness to believe in his vision. It’s early May, and as Singer and I talk over dinner on the patio of that industry mainstay, Orso, in Beverly Hills, he offers me his pitch, much as he did to Robinov and Horn those many months ago: Astronomers, it seems, have found the remnants of Superman’s home planet, and so Superman, evidently never having read Thomas Wolfe, leaves Metropolis to take a proverbial tour of the old neighborhood. By the time he comes back, five earth years have passed. Whereupon, Singer says, Superman finds that life on Earth has managed to go on without him. “Lois Lane has a fiancé, but she’s not married; and she has a kid. Kryptonite is basic, but how do you get beyond another man who’s not a bad guy? And more importantly, how do you get beyond a child with that other man? Those become the obstacles at the heart of the movie.”
It’s a considerably more romantic notion of what a Superman movie might be than you’d expect from Singer, whose two hugely successful X-Men movies were notable chiefly for their steely asceticism. But it’s all in keeping, Singer says, with his desire to tell a story at once relevant to a modern audience and respectful of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original superhero character.
“It’s about taking a nostalgic figure and making him contemporary without losing his classical nature, his idealism or the essence that makes him Superman,” Singer says. “The time at which the movie takes place is completely modern — everyone has cell phones — but the costumes and art direction are more of a nod to the late 1930s, the post-Depression era, which was the time of the comic book. Likewise, I’m using a state-of-the-art Panavision Genesis camera to shoot digitally, but using lenses and lighting that are more old fashioned. So, the blending of old and new is kind of my technical mechanism for telling a nostalgic story today. The last thing you want to do is look at a movie that you remember fondly and have it feel really dated.”
That’s not all. Like Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Superman Returns (which I saw shortly before this article went to press) is an impassioned valentine to the classical science-fiction and fantasy films that helped to form its maker’s creative imagination and, at the same time, a movie unmistakably of this moment. It is a movie that asks whether or not the world still needs a savior and, after surveying the recent course of global events, answers with a resounding yes. For Singer is only too aware that a Superman who returns to Earth from a five-year hiatus in June 2006 had already left us by September 2001.
Between Bryan Singer and the last surviving son of the planet Krypton, there are differences. For one thing, Singer grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. But for the moment, we’re focused on the similarities. “I personally am adopted,” Singer tells me, “and as a boy, I loved the notion that Superman was the adopted son of this bucolic farm-dwelling family. Even though my parents were wonderful and great and I absolutely love them, I think as a kid I fantasized that I had some special royal alien heritage. I identify with the character on that level. Oh, and I have blue eyes and he has blue eyes.”
Still, if you’d told the director who won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival with his debut feature, Public Access, before making a much bigger splash with the dazzling neo-noir The Usual Suspects (1995),that he’d end up bringing not one but two classic superhero franchises to the screen, he’d likely have said thanks but no thanks. As Singer has often noted, he was a comic-book neophyte in the years before the first X-Men film, until his friend (and X-Men executive producer) Tom DeSanto explained to him that the fictional battle of wills between Magneto and Professor X was an allegory for the real-life ideological contretemps between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to try to figure this out and see if there’s a way for me to see into this universe, to introduce it not just to the comic-book fans who are already familiar with it, but to the rest of the world,’?” Singer recalls. “Because for all the people who read comic books, there are millions more who do not.”
For the director, that meant finding, in Stan Lee’s neofuturistic world of heroic and villainous mutants, the theme that has been central to all of his own films. Whether it’s The Usual Suspects’ criminal mastermind Kyser Soze passing himself off as a helpless cripple, the ex-Nazi Kurt Dussander hiding out in suburbia in the unfairly neglected Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil or Superman himself stumbling about Metropolis as his mild-mannered alter ego, Singer’s favored characters are all men (and women) of great and sometimes terrible power, forced to live incognito in a society inhospitable to their true identities. “Everyone has sides to them that people see and sides to them that people don’t see,” Singer says. “Sometimes, none is more sinister or powerful than the other, but people are more complicated than what we see. They choose what to reveal of themselves. Like right now I’m on tape, so I’m choosing what to reveal ?of myself.”
Indeed, in conversation, Singer is engaging but guarded, sometimes grimacing slightly as I prepare to ask a new question. You can hardly blame him. Since long before X2 and the much-discussed “coming out” scene that made explicit the idea of mutation as a metaphor for homosexuality, journalists writing about Singer, who is openly gay, have often seemed more interested in their subject’s sexuality than his filmmaking. Specious accusations of sexual misconduct on the Apt Pupil set continue to be dredged up to this day, while in the lead-up to the release of Superman Returns, publications ranging from the celebrity gossip Web site Defamer to the Los Angeles Timeshave questioned whether Singer’s take on Superman will be “too gay,” despite the lack of compelling evidence that it will be gay at all. Finally, during the Superman Returns press junket over the weekend of June 9, Singer responded to the accusations by telling Reuters that Superman “is probably the most heterosexual character in any movie I’ve ever made.” But I wonder if Singer should even have dignified the question with an answer. For it says something dispiriting about our supposedly enlightened, post–Brokeback Mountain age that so much worry should be expended on how a filmmaker’s sexual orientation will affect a cherished pop-culture icon — a discussion it is nigh impossible to imagine arising were the director in question straight.
Back at Orso, Singer has downed a gin and tonic and is starting to loosen up. Of his recurring interest in identity, secret or otherwise, he cites feelings of outsiderdom he suffered during his childhood and adolescence. “I was a tough combination,” he says. “I was a nerd, but also a terrible student. I graduated high school with a cumulative GPA of about 1.9 — my parents wouldn’t be very proud of me telling this to you, but it’s the truth.” He was also the only Jew on an all-Catholic street. “And then my parents got divorced when I was 13, so that was even more different than everyone else on my block. Those Catholic families did not get divorced.”
He wrote stories — often when he should have been doing his schoolwork — and made 8mm movies, including his little-known first foray into the science-fiction/fantasy genre: The Star Trek Murders,made together with a friend, Neil Bornstein, when both were in their early teens. Then, one storied night when he was 16 years old, Singer had his eureka moment, when the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 profiled the life of Steven Spielberg. “Watching that profile, I suddenly saw a Jewish kid from the suburbs who had lived for a short time in New Jersey, who was a nerd and who had a drawer full of 8mm movies. I immediately drew a parallel. I saw the show at a friend’s house, and literally on the walk back from their house to my house — I even know the exact moment of sidewalk on which it took place — I decided: Now I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. And from that moment, it was as though a huge weight had been lifted off me. I was ecstatic.”
According to Singer, he’s rarely been out of preproduction, production or postproduction since. He went to film school, first at the School of Visual Arts in New York and later at the University of Southern California, where he had his cinematic horizons broadened, discovering Hitchcock, Polanski, Kubrick and Lynch, all of whose influences are evident in his own work. And though Singer eventually settled in Los Angeles, as a filmmaker he has time and again turned his attention to ferreting out the aberrations lurking beneath small-town America’s carefully ordered surfaces. “Uncovering suburbia as a suburban is at the core of the things that interest me,” he says, “whether it’s the Westchester mansion with the mutants in it in X-Men or the Kent family living on this farm raising a superhuman being from another planet.”
To the outside observer, Singer is now living a film student’s dream. At 40, he’s at the top of his game, with a large house in the Hollywood Hills and a collection of high-end European sports cars to show for it. But sometimes, the view from on high can feel a bit like looking out from inside a fortress of solitude. “I was at USC, speaking after a screening of a film I made, on the very stage where I used to see dozens and dozens of filmmakers come to be interviewed,” he says. “When the event is over, the most enthusiastic students run up to talk to you. And this night, the first kid up there says, ‘How does it feel to be doing what we all dream of doing?’ He put it right to me, and he was sitting in the very row that I sat in auditing that class for three years. It was a very strange feeling, because even though this has happened to me relatively early in my life, all I see is the process of it, and ?the obstacles.”
And the sacrifices made along the way, including family and personal relationships — a dilemma Singer shares with his latest cinematic doppelgänger, who yearns most profoundly for those things which his superpowers cannot will into being.
“When you’re a film director, you have a lot of perceived power. As Francis Coppola says, it’s sort of the last vestige of the dictatorship. You can make a lot of things happen and you’re surrounded by a lot of people and you get a lot of attention. But when you go home at the end of the day — if you’re not married and you don’t have a family and film is very much your life, as it is mine — you feel an undeniable sense of loneliness. I had it in Sydney. I had an extraordinary apartment and I used it on a couple of occasions to entertain, but most of the time I would come home from a 16-hour day and be alone, standing on my balcony, looking out over the city.”
Singer is on his second gin and tonic, and for the first time all evening, he seems to fully let his guard down, speaking to me less as a potentially unfriendly journalist than as a sympathetic fellow traveler. “Suddenly you wake up one day and you’re 40 years old and you’re like, ‘Whoa! What have I done?’?” he says. “Well, on one side of my life, I’ve done quite a lot. On the other side, I’ve done nothing. On the personal side, I’ve really not evolved at all.
“I bought a house, and it had no furniture in it for four years, until someone finally said, ‘Hey, let me help you find some furniture for your house.’ Because I was happy to live like a college student, like I did in my dorm. It sounds a bit sweet and charming, but it’s actually a product of not acknowledging the passage of time. When you’re a filmmaker, you judge the passage of time in films, not in years — and sometimes films take more than a year. So I don’t realize it, but a good piece of time has passed since film school.”
Singer says his close friendships are what’s most important to him, though he admits to wanting to fall in love, even if “you know you’re going to have to make choices and it’s going to be tough for that person. It’s all that stuff — the negative side of being a workaholic and a celebrity.”
For now, though, the focus is on whipping Superman Returns into final, fighting shape.
“It’s going to be odd, I think, when it comes to an end, and it’s going to come to an end soon whether I like it or not.”
He pauses, looks up into the night sky, then adds, “In fact, I’m very much looking forward to a period of vacation.”
Sometimes, even the Man of Steel needs a holiday.