SUPERMAN LIVES: Nicolas Cage as Superman - From the Archives
Written in 2000, this article is being presented now in the form it was written then.
Tim Burton's Superman Lives has been in the news again this week with a Kickstarter campaign launched to raise funds for a documentary looking at the aborted project. For this reason, we've dug into the archives and retrieved this piece.
Written by and Copyright Edward Gross
Tim Burton's joining SUPERMAN LIVES pretty much knocked screenwriter Kevin Smith out of the creative process. Although actor Nicolas Cage was still signed for the lead role, the eccentric director had his own ideas for screenwriter. He chose Wesley Strick (who at that time had most recently penned the big-screen version of THE SAINT, starring Val Kilmer). Although nothing is really known about the Strick draft, his version had apparently gone over budget and some of his ideas were...well, different. Strick was discharged and Warner Bros.unwilling to allow this hoped-to-be-born-again franchise fade into oblivion and desperately clinging to the death of Superman storyline turned to writer Dan Gilroy.
For his part, Gilroy turned out two drafts, until he, too, was let go. Next on the list was a spec writer named Alex Ford, who penned his own version, submitted it and was lucky enough to get paid because the studio and producer Jon Peters liked aspects of his scenario. Despite the fact that he was only involved briefly, Ford was there long enough to develop a distinct impression of the people in charge of Superman.
"I can tell you they don't know much about comics," Ford said in an online interview, echoing the viewpoint of Smith, who had come to realize that Peters had no respect for the readers of the Superman comic book titles. "What they are working with is the public's general perception of Superman. If you ask the general public if the Hulk can talk, they'll tell you, 'No,' and I can guarantee if they make a Hulk movie tomorrow, he won't talk because that's what people expect. The last Batman movie was the way it was because their audience isn't you and me who pay $7.00. It's for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It is a business, and what's more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?'
After that, the bottom fell out of the project againwhen Warners put the brakes on, and Burton departed to film SLEEPY HOLLOW. "I had been working on the project for a year, and it didn't happen,' says Burton. "I basically worked very hard. I made the movie; we just forgot to film it."
The rumor at the time was that part of the problem was the casting of Cage. Burton refutes this. "No," he says, "that was a done deal. I mean, that's why I wanted to do it. I love him. That's what people said about Michael Keaton for BATMAN. You'd have to ask Warner Bros, but I think, and this is only my opinion of course, that it wasn't filmed because it was going to be an expensive movie, and they were a little sensitive because they were getting a lot of bad press that they had screwed up the Batman franchise. Because of the corporate environment, all of the decisions are basically fear-based. So I think one of the aspects that lead to their decision was that somehow they were going to fuck up another franchise.
"If they'd just allowed us to make the film," adds Burton, "I think that we could have done something interesting. And, you know, it was going to be an expensive movie. They made a choice. They had this, SUPERMAN, and WILD, WILD WEST, and they opted for that and canned this one. It's frustrating. I like to be positive, but I really feel that I wasted a year of my life. That's a terrible feeling. You never want to feel that in anything you do."
And at that point, it seemed that SUPERMAN ceased to live, but then TERMINATOR 2's William Wisher was given a shot at the screenplay. The result reportedly blew the studio's corporate socks off, and rumblings began anew that the film would be moving into active production. In fact, Oliver Stone (PLATOON, WALL STREET, JFK, ANY GIVEN SUNDAY) was supposedly intrigued enough to consider directing. Unfortunately, nothing has happened since, although if the film does eventually get produced, its greatest hope for success probably rests with its most controversial aspect: the casting of Cage.
Appearing in a number of off-kilter roles over the years, Cage redefined himself as an action hero in such films as THE ROCK, CONAIR, FACE/OFF, and the soon-to-be-released GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS. He is also the same actor who took home the Oscar for his starring role in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, and could, conceivably, force the film to move beyond serving as merely an advertisement for a new toy line.
"It's certainly not Christopher Reeve, is it?" muses Jonathan Hensleigh, the writer of THE ROCK. "I think Nic will certainly be the most interesting, both physically and psychologically, Superman. I think it's a very bold move, because Nic brings with him an intensive, comprehensive knowledge of his character. More importantly, knowledge of his character that is not necessarily reflected in the script pages when he takes the role on. In other words, he gets his character very firmly set in his own mind, and then he'll do whatever he has to do to his appearance, to his voice and to the script itself - the dialogue or situations - to get the role to conform to what he has in his mind's eye, which is an extraordinary ability not every actor has. That's why his performances are so rich and nuanced, because he brings his own creative energies to the creation of the role.
"I'm not saying he doesn't respect the script or the director's direction," Hensleigh adds, "he just brings with him the world of Nic Cage. I think he'll bring to Superman humor, psychological depth and humanness. I mean that in this sense: all human beings are eccentric, and a lot has been made of Nic's eccentricities in his roles, but I just see that as humanness and reflective of the natural quirks of most people."
Hit-meister producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who took on both THE ROCK and CONAIR, shares Hensleigh's enthusiasm. "Nic's a brilliant actor," he notes, "and he brings a lot to the party. He was instrumental in creating the character in both THE ROCK and CONAIR, taking scripts that were interesting and making them more interesting. That's great when you have a creative partner who doesn't just show up and say, 'What do I say? Where do I stand?' He works very hard on the script and comes up with ideas. For instance, in CONAIR, it was his idea to make the character a U.S. Ranger to give him automatic dignity for the audience and heroics that come with that Ranger badge.
"I think these films were a nice transition for him into an action hero,' Bruckheimer continues. "In THE ROCK, he played this kind of nerd chemical expert who comes in and saves the day - kind of a boy becoming a man - and it was a stepping stone to CONAIR. To tell you the truth, I wasn't surprised about Superman. Nic is very chameleon-like and can do anything he wants. As an actor, he creates characters in whole and will make a very interesting Superman, something you haven't seen before."
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