BURBANK, California — Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” a call to action that will forever govern the mission of Spider-Man.
Bryan Singer might not be a superhero himself, but he certainly surrounds himself with plenty of them. Sucking down some caffeine during his final days assembling the film that returns Superman to the big screen, the bleary-eyed director took a step back from his editing machine to confess that he is haunted by that perceptive phrase. (Click here to watch our exclusive interview with Bryan Singer on Overdrive.)
“I’m bouncing back and forth from here doing the mix, to the old Warner Hollywood studios, the lot, where we do our visual effects,” the 40-year-old said of his intense schedule, which he’ll conclude later this summer with a well-deserved vacation in his beloved Hawaii. “I go back and forth all day long. Some of our visual-effects vendors are in L.A., some are in London, and some in Australia. We work around the clock.”
Singer and his enormous crew have been burning the midnight oil for several years now, overseeing what is arguably the largest film production in cinematic history. After a decade of development, numerous directors and stars, and a budget believed to be in the hundreds of millions, “Superman” finally is ready to take flight. Singer knew what he was getting himself into when he accepted the high-profile gig, and he has since been driven by responsibility.
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“When the opportunity came to make this movie, I always had a vague idea of what kind of Superman story I would tell with it. I sort of seized that opportunity,” the comic book fan said. “I’ve always been a fan of Superman since the George Reeves television series, seeing reruns as a kid, and then the Christopher Reeve/ Richard Donner classic from 1978. It was the ‘Superman’ films that paved the way for the notion of making large-scale comic book adaptations that are taken seriously, and they were a big inspiration to the making of the two ‘X-Men’ films.”
Singer shockingly abandoned said “X-Men” franchise after 2003′s “X2,” hailed by many as the greatest superhero film ever made. Once the world’s most powerful superhero suddenly became available, the lifelong Superman fanatic was instantly struck with inspiration.
“I always regarded the ’78 Donner film as a classic, and I knew I didn’t want to retell that origin story simply with bigger and better visual effects,” he recalled. “Everyone under the age of 25 knows that show ‘Smallville,’ or at least has some understanding of the history of ‘Superman.’ Anyone over 25 has an awareness or a memory of the first film — so I thought I would tell a return story.”
That concept launched a mission nearly as arduous as Kal-El’s rocket trip to Earth, with Singer finally discovering his leading man during a refueling trip to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a West Coast java chain to which Singer is unapologetically addicted.
“I always knew from the very beginning I was going to cast an unknown,” he said. “There was never any question about that. Superman has to feel and look and sound as though he stepped out of your collective memory of who that character is, whether it’s from the George Reeves television series, the comic book or Christopher Reeve.”
Singer and 24-year-old Brandon Routh met at the Coffee Bean on Sunset for a little while. The director then flew off for a pre-production flight to Australia, fully convinced that he had found his caped crusader. “I had to find someone who had the physical ability, who had the talent and also had Superman and Clark Kent in their innate personality. I found that in Brandon.”
The obstacles kept coming, however, and Singer continued to battle them as if Lex Luthor himself were trying to throw a wrench in the works. One such controversy emerged with the revelation of a romantic subplot taking the storied character of Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) and transforming her into a world-weary single mother.
Winning back Lois’ heart “is an obstacle that even the Man of Steel finds insurmountable,” Singer said. “I had to find something other than Kryptonite that would pose a true obstacle for Superman. We have physical obstacles in the picture, a lot of action and adventure, but there had to be something more emotional. And [Lane's] fiance, who’s not a bad guy, and a child is something that even Superman with all his virtue and honesty can’t seem to navigate around.
“Particularly,” Singer added, “because he is so virtuous and honest.”
Another eyebrow-raising decision involved the resurrection of a deceased screen legend as Superman’s dad. It got some fans howling, but Singer still stands behind his moment of inspiration.
“He was scanned for a video game,” Singer said of Marlon Brando, the deceased actor given a wholly new performance as he once again plays Superman’s father. “I never met him, but in judging him as a person, he seemed to have a great sense of humor about the iconography that he put forth over the years. What I did was I went back and found the original footage … and found things he said and images and reassembled them in a sequence in the Fortress of Solitude and other parts of the movie as the patriarchal figure of Superman. To be able to have Marlon Brando, to have his presence in the movie, is not only nostalgic, it also carries great power. It’s something I just very much wanted to do.”
Any ethical issues were overshadowed, Singer insisted, with moments like the scene in “Returns” that has Brando interacting with a double-Oscar winner from another generation. “Kevin Spacey has a scene where he interacts with him in the Fortress of Solitude, and it was quite odd because Kevin is, not entirely but kind of, half-playing a scene with Marlon Brando!” Singer marveled. “We would talk about it. Now, as the scenes are coming together, it’s not a big scene. It’s kind of a small moment, but it’s surreal.
“It does start to trespass into that other world where filmmaking is going,” Singer conceded. “One day actors will be crafted in a computer.”
As Singer hovers over his own computers during these final days, making the flick that will redefine an icon, he finds himself increasingly identifying with the story of an outsider saddled with great power and responsibility.
“I’ve always felt like an outcast of some sorts myself,” he said. “I was an only child, I was adopted, I was the only Jewish kid in my neighborhood, I was picked on a lot, and I was a terrible student. Even as a film director, you feel like a bit of an outcast — it’s lonely at the top. Even now in my career, as a film director, you find yourself surrounded by a great many people because it takes an army of people to make a film, particularly a film of this size. Yet at the same time, you feel a weird sense of loneliness. Your burden is unique.”
Offering a fatigued goodbye and heading back to his editing board, Singer once again embraces a burden that will finally lift once “Superman Returns” hits theaters June 30. In the back of his mind, he dreams of a well-deserved upcoming vacation that returns him to his own far-away land. There’ll be palm trees, ocean waves and, oh yes, the first Hawaiian Coffee Bean, which recently opened just minutes from where he’ll be staying.
Talk about a Fortress of Solitude.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Superman Returns.”
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