One of the common themes found in Superman stories written over the last 75 years is the complicated way in which the hero relates to humanity. After all, he’s an alien from a distant planet who has abilities that far exceed any of our own. It’s a defining part of the character and a point that must be stressed in order to be understood. So when David Goyer first started developing the screenplay for Man of Steel he made sure that audiences knew exactly where the superhero was coming from. And he did so by literally showing the audience exactly where the superhero came from.
With the new Superman film in theaters nationwide this weekend, I recently had a chance to sit down with the screenwriter and pick his brain about all things Man of Steel. Read on to find out how the story developed in comparison to working with Batman as a lead, the choice to use non-linear storytelling, and how this movie’s version of Superman is really able to fly and lift heavy objects.
Warning: There are some minor, minor spoilers in this interview. We please ask that you judge your own sensitivity.
Just as a reference point, you are coming off of the Batman trilogy, and he is this completely morally, thematically, and tonally different character from Superman. To go back to the beginning of this project, I’m curious just about cracking the story of this film, versus where you were when you were working on Batman Begins and figuring out the proper direction to take this character.
Well, Batman is a character that is born out of violence and born out of conflict, and even though there’s conflict in Clarks’ story, you know, his initial years, yes he’s different, but in his initial years, there is no violence. It’s very idyllic. It’s the opposite of Bruce Wayne’s childhood. His mom’s still alive, Bruce lost his parents very early on and that informed all decisions he made subsequent to that. Clark got to have his parents around at least until he was 18 or 20 and his mom is still alive and then he gets to speak to his Kryptonian father’s ghost .So he... It’s interesting though that they’re both orphans.
And at the same time completely different kinds of orphans.
But they are. They are both orphans. I think that’s interesting. I love what Debbie [Snyder] said about Superman, it’s the best adoption story ever told. I completely lost track of the original question.
Just finding the nut of this story, figuring out exactly what it is.
The nut of the story, this is a man with two fathers. It’s nature vs. nurture. Am I the person that is in my DNA or am I the person who I was, the son of the man who raised me? Which man am I? And in the end, I think he decides that he’s a combination of both of them, which is why we leaned in the direction, up on Krypton, you know, you’re not born in the womb and you’re designed to perform certain functions. He was a natural birth and he was different, and he was. Jor-El wanted him to have a choice.
One thing that I really liked about the approach to this story is that it’s kind of the story of Kal-El, not necessarily the story of Clark Kent. It’s Kal-El learning his true origins, who he really is. In terms of structuring the story and in terms of kind of figuring out which part of the character you want to focus on, where did that really come in?
Well, it was important to me that we spend a lot of time on Krypton, more so than any of the movies had before. We wanted to highlight Kal’s alien nature and we wanted Krypton to not just be Earth with cooler production design. We wanted it to be an alien world with an environment that if a human were transported to Krypton, they would die. They wouldn’t be able to breathe in the environment. The gravity would crush them. To a human it’s a very hostile world. We wanted Krypton to have different society, different religions, different things that were socially acceptable on Krypton would not be acceptable on Earth and vice versa and so we spent a lot of time, I spent a lot of time designing Krypton and I think in the first draft we were on Krypton for 35 pages. A long time.
That’s a long time! Were you working with Snyder at that point?
I did a draft of the script before Snyder came along and then all of the subsequent drafts I did after Zack came along. And we still spend a lot of time on Krypton. At one point the studio said, “Why are we spending so much time on Krypton?” I said, “Because it’s important.” I think for this audience for this story for them to understand that he truly, he looks human, but he’s not human. There’s a kind of grand history in literature and film and other things, of it takes an outsider to make humans get in touch with their humanity, you know, a stranger in a strange land, the Heinlein thing, which is also a quote in the bible. I think that that is also an essential part of the Superman story, he is an outsider but he shines, he reflects a light back on us.
I also love the fact that you guys went for a nonlinear narrative, because it actually, in many ways, it reminded me of Batman Begins too, because it’s very similar in the sense of having the character’s history informing the present. We’re you consciously thinking about how you guys approached Batman Begins when you were working on this script or were you completing treating it like a separate entity?
I mean, it was a separate entity, but Chris and I both have done a lot of nonlinear storytelling. I mean, I worked on Flash Forward and Da Vinci’s Demons, is completely nonlinear right now. It’s just that kind of storytelling that we are comfortable with, that we enjoy and especially when you’re dealing with a character that is so iconographic, where some of the lore has already been told, I think if you can tell a story in a nonlinear way, it liberates you and it can be kind of more encompassing and so, even very early on, I thought it would be interesting to cut from Krypton to 33 years later and just jump over those intervening 33 years and then kind of dip your toe back into them later on in the story.
Was also part of it that you didn’t want to have that chunk of backstory and exposition that veers into familiar territory?
Well, some of it is the story we’ve seen before, but I would also argue that a lot of the stuff that we portrayed we’ve not seen before. But we were cognizant of the fact, I had the same experience, and Debbie has spoken about this as well. Zack and Debbie took their kids to the 2006 Superman Returns and that movie assumed that everyone in the audience knew the whole story and a good chunk of the audience didn’t. Certainly, my kids didn’t. And I think it’s easy to fall into the trap that everyone just knows the story. Here we are in 2013 and by far, I don’t know, 60 or 70% of our audience won’t have been alive when the Donner films came out and my kids haven’t seen the Donner films. So, they don’t have that point of reference. They don’t know the John Williams score. The Superman score that my kids know is Hans’ score, because I had his demo eight months ago and I would play it in our car. They would say, “Play the Superman score,” and it’s Hans’ score. It’s easy to forget that.
I also want to ask about the kind of hyper-reality that this movie is set in. That’s an idea that was used a lot in describing your Batman movies, and I think that element exists in this film as well. You do feel the world in this film could be real, even with these intense sci-fi elements.
Well, we wanted the phrase that Chris [Nolan] has used - or the word Chris has used was, “relatable,” which I think is really important. Real is relative, especially when you’re dealing with a character that comes from an alien world, that can fly, that can lift buildings and things like that. Real is relative, but relatable, I think, is important, because if he’s not relatable, there won’t be any heart to the story. I’d seen 300 and I’d seen Watchmen and Zack told me early on in the process that he was thinking of shooting the bulk of the movie handheld, and I thought, “Wow,” and I’d seen some early camera tests and that completely liberated everything because it was just an incredibly smart decision on Zack’s part, because if you shoot it in a verite style, it makes all of these fantastical things suddenly seem more real. And he spoke in the press conference about the fact that he wanted the camera to be imperfect. I remember we talked about some of the cameras that were mounted outside, you know, the Gemini rocket going to the moon and you see how shaky it is and Zack talked about how if there were a camera tracking Superman as he was flying, it would be like that. It would not be perfect, and I think the idea that we could even shoot all of this crazy stuff on Krypton handheld, it was a really liberating experience, because it instantly grounded the film in a way I think people found arresting, and I know when Warner Bros. released the first teaser trailer, people were kind of shocked. They were comparing it to a Terrence Malick film.
Not to get too geeky and detail oriented, but there are actually some parts of Superman lore that I’m curious about hearing your explanation for. The first is Clark Kent’s glasses and the idea of keeping his identity secret even when the world knows his face. The other, and this is kind of weird, but if Superman jumps to start to fly, as we see in this movie, how does he move faster when he’s in the air?
Well, first of all, with the glasses, and people have asked us about that, and when you see the film, you understand that we were able to kind of artfully sidestep that issue up until the end and that will be, if there are other films, a problem for the next people to handle. So, it wasn’t really an issue in this, but you know, I thought it was interesting, even in the first script, Clark has a beard when you first see him, which I thought would be cool.
Moving faster when he’s flying.... well, I can’t even remember if it made it into the final draft, but Clark doesn’t know. Kal doesn’t know how he flies. He doesn’t even know that he’s capable of flying until he speaks to Jor-El’s ghost. In our minds, he manipulates gravity waves and in one of the early drafts, some of the scientists, when they have Kal in custody, theorize that that’s how he’s able to do what he’s doing and also if you think about it, that’s probably how he’s able to lift things that are very big, to be able to manipulate mass.
That makes a lot of sense. It would also make sense why his super-strength doesn’t just lead to him destroying everything he touches.
Exactly. He’s able to manipulate mass and manipulate gravity waves.