Christopher Nolan takes flight with Superman: ‘We have a fantastic story’
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This is a longer version of my story that is on the Wednesday cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section...
The topic at the Batcave on Monday night was the future of that other superhero — you know, the one from Metropolis. “It’s very exciting; we have a fantastic story,” Christopher Nolan said while sipping tea in the sleek editing suite that fills the converted garage next to his Hollywood home. “And we feel we can do it right. We know the milieu, if you will, we know the genre and how to get it done right.”
Nolan was standing next to his wife, producer Emma Thomas, his partner in all of his films — including “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” the grim franchise that pulled in more than $1.3 billion at theaters worldwide — and he was explaining their plan to take on a challenge that has frustrated Hollywood for two decades: getting another Superman film franchise off the ground.
Nolan, speaking about the Superman project for the first time, is pleased with the excitement stirred but, like the magicians in his 2006 film “The Prestige,” sees no value in revealing all of his tricks before the curtain goes up. Still, he wanted to answer some of the early questions about his plans for Superman — as well as his third visit to Gotham City.
There was a spasm of fan excitement when word leaked last month that Nolan, who is now viewed as the Hitchcock of superhero cinema after his two Batman films, would be the “godfather” for a reboot of the Man of Steel, acting as producer and mentor to an as-yet-unnamed-director who will be making a movie based on a story by Nolan and frequent collaborator David S. Goyer.
The Internet flurry included reports that, according to Thomas, might be better described as fan fiction. The dispatches revealing that the film will be called “Man of Steel”? And feature Lex Luthor and Brainiac? Or the one about it being a period piece with something like a low-fi version of the hero?
“I don’t know where this stuff comes from,” Thomas said with a chuckle, although, as with any good poker player, it’s hard to say where the bluff starts and ends.
This much is certain: The couple are completely focused on the movie-of-the-moment, which is “Inception,” which opens July 16 and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a dream thief of sorts in what may be Hollywood’s first metaphysical heist film. The movie is the most complicated undertaking of Nolan’s career — it was shot in six countries and tells a tale that flips between reality and three levels of dream-time — and, well, all things considered, he’d rather Superman stay in his Fortress of Solitude and off the front page for a while longer since that project is a matter for 2012 or 2013 at best.
But of course Superman, first superhero of them all, is an American pop culture icon on a par with Mickey Mouse and Elvis. But after the close of the Christopher Reeve era with “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” in 1987, the property became one of the most frustrating in Hollywood. A dozen different reboots were started through the years with names attached such as Nicolas Cage, Kevin Smith, J.J. Abrams, McG and Brett Ratner, and plans were trotted out to kill Superman, strip him of his powers or pit him in battle against Batman.
Finally, director Bryan Singer, who had earned credibility with comic book fans with his two “X-Men” films for Fox, delivered with “Superman Returns” in 2006 starring Brandon Routh. But the finished product was viewed as oddly lifeless by many critics. The $200-million film finished its theatrical run with a respectable $391 million worldwide but it wasn’t heroic enough to earn a sequel.
Nolan said that he admired Singer’s film, especially the way it connected to director Richard Donner’s version of Superman and the first two movies starring Reeve. Nolan added, though, that this new movie will stand on its own.
“A lot of people have approached Superman in a lot of different ways. I only know the way that has worked for us that’s what I know how to do,” Nolan said, emphasizing the idea that Batman exists in a world where he is the only superhero and a similar approach to the Man of Steel would assure the integrity needed for the film. “Each serves to the internal logic of the story. They have nothing to do with each other.”
Still, it was a frustrating moment in the Batman franchise that led to this new Superman revival. Nolan and Goyer, a key collaborator on both Batman films, were at a story impasse on the third Batman film (which is now picking up steam as well) when, as a distraction, Goyer gave the filmmaker a daydream version of how he would tackle a story about the last son of Krypton.
“He basically told me, ‘I have this thought about how you would approach Superman,’” Nolan recalled. “I immediately got it, loved it and thought: That is a way of approaching the story I’ve never seen before that makes it incredibly exciting. I wanted to get Emma and I involved in shepherding the project right away and getting it to the studio and getting it going in an exciting way.”
Goyer is now writing the screenplay and Nolan is keeping it close to the vest.
It’s interesting where inspirations originate. Nolan put together an especially deep cast for his Batman films — the first one, for instance, featured Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman and Tom Wilkinson in supporting roles. That, he said, was an idea imported from Metropolis.
“I went to the studio with the analogy of ‘I want to cast the way they did in 1978 with ‘Superman,”’ where they had [Marlon] Brando and Glenn Ford and Ned Beatty and all these fantastic actors in even small parts, which was an exotic idea for a superhero movie at the time. It really paid off too. As a kid watching ‘Superman,’ it seemed enormous and I realized later by looking at it that a lot of that was actually the casting, just having these incredibly talented people and these characterizations. And Marlon Brando is the first guy up playing Superman’s dad. It’s incredible.”
Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was an instant success when he arrived on the publishing scene in June 1938 and he more or less created the American comic book and its signature concept, the superhero. Superman made the leap to radio in 1940 and then to the silver screen in 1948 when Kirk Alyn became the first of many actors to wear the cape. George Reeves was the face of Superman on television for 104 episodes in the 1950s while Reeve and his work in the 1970s and 1980s may be the definitive version of the hero for most fans. But the youngest fans have a view of the hero shaped more by the award-winning animated series in recent years and “Smallville,” the CW series that just got re-upped for a 10th season, making star Tom Welling the Clark Kent with the longest tenure.
Nolan, for the record, also won’t confirm that he is actually directing the third Batman film, but, well, of course he is -- however “Inception” isn’t in the can yet and it’s against his code. He can’t be easily tricked, either. Asked if Superman as a franchise has to overcome a deficiency of truly great villains, unlike, say, Spider-Man and Batman, he won’t bite. “That’s a very sly way of asking a question I’m not going to answer.”
Nolan says he has no idea who will direct the Superman film (there has been conjecture that it may be his brother and frequent collaborator, Jonathan Nolan) but his role appears to be comparable to Peter Jackson with “District 9,” which was directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp but benefited greatly from imprimatur of “The Lord of the Rings” auteur. Jackson is also stepping into a similar role in Middle-earth as Guillermo del Toro takes over as director for “The Hobbit” films.
Nolan established himself as a bold and cerebral filmmaker in 2000 with “Memento,” has made a specialty of rooting stories of the fantastic in a gritty reality with psychological undertones and an emphasis on using practical effects and stunt work as opposed to the magical paintbrushes of the CG era. All of that made him an ideal filmmaker for fight-time in the brutal gutters of Gotham but it doesn’t make the filmmaker the first obvious choice for flight-time amid the gleaming citadels of Metropolis. Warner Bros. executives seem confident that he is -- and they need him to be the right man with the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise -- and perhaps Batman -- nearing an expiration date.
Sitting in his edit bay, which is decorated with posters of Ledger as the Joker and has a skylight that rolls shut with mechanical screeching that adds to the Batcave ambiance, Nolan said he knows about storytelling and it’s difficult to dissect his work beyond that.
“We’re approaching it in a not dissimilar way in terms of trying to find an incredible story in a way that audiences can engage with it the way they engage with contemporary action films,” Nolan continued. “I think David’s approach is a very good way of doing just that.”
And that third Batman film? Jonathan Nolan is “now doing the hard work” of writing the script based on the story by his sibling and Goyer. “My brother is writing a script for me and we’ll wait to see how it turns out.... He’s struggling to put it together into the epic story that you want it to be.”
“Batman Begins” was the origin and back story of the hero, while “The Dark Knight” found the hero reeling as his Manichean, good vs. evil worldview was upended by a new villain, the Joker, who was a wild-card agent of chaos going up against order, be it a police department or the mob. The second film ends, literally, with Batman on the run, a fugitive.
So what happens next?
“Without getting into specifics, the key thing that makes the third film a great possibility for us is that we want to finish our story,” he said. “And in viewing it as the finishing of a story rather than infinitely blowing up the balloon and expanding the story.”
Nolan said the key surviving characters from the two first films and the actors who play them will be back. “We have a great ensemble, that’s one of the attractions of doing another film, since we’ve been having a great time for years.”
Perhaps. But the great challenge is to find a villain (or villains) who can not only match up with the Caped Crusader but also with Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of the scabby, demented Joker. Fans have churned up the rumor mill for months now (Johnny Depp as the Riddler? Angelina Jolie as Catwoman? Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Penguin? Ben Kingsley as Hugo Strange?). But Nolan, no fan of letting cats out of the bag, declined to play along.
His villain choices to date have steered clear of strongly supernatural or super-science characters (no Man-Bat, Mr. Freeze or Poison Ivy, for instance) but he shook his head when asked if that was a trajectory he would continue. He did however concede one tidbit: “It won’t be,’ he said, ‘Mr. Freeze.”
Batman has been throwing punches in the pages of DC Comics since 1939 and as the decades passed, much of the core of the character stayed the same even as Bruce Wayne’s sideburns or the profile of the Batmobile changed. Not so with film.
“I’m very excited about the end of the film, the conclusion, and what we’ve done with the characters,” Nolan said.“My brother has come up with some pretty exciting stuff. Unlike the comics, these things don’t go on forever in film and viewing it as a story with an end is useful. Viewing it as an ending, that sets you very much on the right track about the appropriate conclusion and the essence of what tale we’re telling. And it harkens back to that priority of trying to find the reality in these fantastic stories. That’s what we do.”
-- Geoff Boucher
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[UPDATED 11:11 a.m.: An earlier version of this post had the incorrect release date for ‘Inception.’ There were also some sections that had been garbled due to an imperfect importation of the story from The Times system into Typepad.]