Dan Harris & Michael Dougherty Interview

The writers discuss how the Richard Donner film set the tone, choosing The Man of Steele over X-Men and what scenes they were most excited to write

Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty have a pretty impressive record working with Bryan Singer. Thus far they have only worked on two produced films together, X2: X-Men United and the highly anticipated Superman Returns. If that isn't batting at least 1000 then I think we need to redefine our terms.

The early word on Superman Returns has been overwhelmingly positive and while Bryan Singer is surely going to get the lionshare of the credit, he is certainly a director who wouldn't have gone forward with the film if the screenplay wasn't top notch. In a business that often makes writing a thankless job (aside from the hefty paycheck), Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty should be right in line to receive credit for not only reviving the Superman genre, but infusing the film with more character depth than is usually the case in "comic book" movies.

How important was it to embrace the Christopher Reeve version of these films?

Dan Harris: I think it was the most important thing from the very beginning. The three of us agreed from the very beginning that it was our visual bible and reference, that everything that we remember as kids about Superman has kind of come from that movie. We didn't want to deny that at all. We wanted to move forward from that and use what we loved about it.

Michael Dougherty: I think the Donner film set the tone. It raised the bar and defined what a Superman film should be. If you try and deviate too much from it then everyone who remembers the Donner film, whether they like it or not, it might be kind of jarring for them. I gave an example earlier where if we had all of the sudden created a Fortress of Solitude, which is a big metal dome and didn't quite look the same, yet we were using the John Williams music I think people would be kind of thrown; in not a good way.

You weren't uncomfortable with lifting lines from the original script?

Michael Dougherty: No, I think that was part of it. I think whenever you do a Superman story, whether it's a comic book or a tv show or a movie, you have to acknowledge what came before. You can't start completely from scratch. Even Smallville has, on occasion, used bits and pieces of the John Williams theme. Their Fortress of Solitude looks like the Fortress of Solitude from the movies. By doing that you're acknowledging that Superman is a classic character and that you're simply part of a larger legacy.

Dan Harris: And for the lines that are repeated, they're just kind of fun for us and fun for fans. They're little easter eggs here and there because we repeat them, but the context has been totally changed.

Was there a time crunch to write this screenplay?

Michael Dougherty: Yeah, it was a huge time crunch because everything started moving forward in mid-July into August. By the time October hit we had a first draft, very rough first draft, but we were definitely under the gun.

Dan Harris: We started working the day we decided to do the movie together; the three of us Mike, Bryan and I. We were on vacation in Hawaii the day we decided, "Well, I think Superman's the one over X3 or Logan's Run." That's the day we started working. We haven't stopped since.

Michael Dougherty: This'll be two years by the time July hits.

Is Superman more universal in your movie?

Michael Dougherty: When it comes to the "American Way", I think it's tricky.

Dan Harris: I don't think the American Way means what it meant in 1945.

Michael Dougherty: Yeah, it's not quite as defined these days.

Dan Harris: There was a concerted effort to make this an international Superman. Yes, he landed in Kansas. Yes, he was raised by Americans but he is an alien. He is from Krypton. He has come to the Earth to be kind of a savior for this world. Not for our country.

Was all the Christian imagery in the movie a conscious choice?

Michael Dougherty: It's existed as part of the character since he was created. Moreso in that he's a classic mythological actor. It's Judeo-Christian. Christianity has it's roots in the Jewish religion. These two guys created a character which is non-denominational. It embraces and uses elements from Greek mythology, Christian mythology... it cherry picks ideas.

Dan Harris: Superman shows up to the earth ala Moses. There's a great deal of discussion in the movie about Greek mythology... the nature of Gods and what Gods are. Then it kind of moves into Christian mythology.

Is Lois a bad mom for taking James into danger all the time? And what is he allergic to?

Dan Harris: Lois Lane it's her character. She's not a bad mother at all but she's feisty, she doesn't always think before she acts.

Michael Dougherty: Also, I think she's overprotective in how she takes him everywhere she goes. In a sense, I think she's a good mother in that she doesn't like to have him out of eyesight very long.

Dan Harris: We just think that Lois as a kid was probably prone to allergies and all kinds of problems. That's why she became the neurotic person that she is now. So her son would clearly have those traits.

Why doesn't the kid respond to the kryptonite?

Michael Dougherty: No comment. (Laughs)

Dan Harris: There are things like this that we really want to save.

What was the most exciting thing for you guys to write?

Dan Harris: For me it was the moment when Superman overhears Lois and Richard and then flies high into the sky. You hear Marlon Brando's voice... and gets to a perch high above the sky and hears every sound on the planet and whittles them out and decides to go after one thing. Because it's very mythological. It's very powerful as an image and it also captures all those little bits of the story we're trying to tell. Looking for his place in the universe saying he is not alone and yet he is not one of them, but he's there for a reason and the reason is this. It's kind of complex and sad.

Michael Dougherty: For me it was that scene on the Daily Planet rooftop between Lois and Superman. I think that's a very classic type of Superman scene. Whether it's the comic books, the tv shows or the previous films. Just any kind of a pointed conversation between the two of them. It's so important. It's the heart of the story. You can have him finding a billion supervillains left and right, but unless you have a shared moment between those two characters your Superman story is never going to work.

In your writing did you imagine how Christopher Reeve might say a line or Gene Hackman?

Dan Harris: I think that our memory of the movies was so strong that if we wrote a line that didn't feel right, it was probably for that reason. We never openly thought about it. Lex was a different situation because we knew Kevin was doing the movie, and we felt that this has been years forward and he's been in prison and he's gotten darker and scarier. How do you take Gene Hackman's version on the page and make it more evil. There's a reason behind it.

Michael Dougherty: It's tough. It's that balance of trying to create something new and contemporary, while not ignoring the previous film. Obviously, we're taking our cue from the original film. When writing certain scenes, I had the John Williams' music playing on my iPod. You wanted to capture the spirit of it without getting caught up in the details or minutiae of speech patterns and lines like that.

This movie seemed to have more setups did you write it like that?

Michael Dougherty: Yeah, but I don't think it was so much trying to capture the '70s as much as it was trying to capture good storytelling. Brian very firmly believes that you have to setup and you have to bring your audience into the story vs. just throwing things at them.

Dan Harris: Yeah, no offense to it but I watch a movie like Fantastic Four and things happen for one reason or another, and you never know the motivation. "Is he at a bike race because they're trying to promote the bikes? Or, because he actually wants to ride." These things keep happening and it's so fast that by the time you cut you're in the next scene, the next scene, the next scene, the movie's over. What I remember from my childhood and Superman and these big movies that stuck with me, were the moments where people took time to establish things and took time to think about things.

Did the studio want more action?

Michael Dougherty: No, Warner Bros. was fantastic. I have to say it's been amazing because they're so filmmaker friendly. Of course they give suggestions, we welcome suggestions, Bryan believes that if you embrace all notes or ignore all notes, you're doing it wrong. What he basically means is, "Listen to everyone and weed out the bad notes from the good ones." But yeah, Warner Bros. never had any kind of a mandate of, "Cut the jibber jabber! Just get to the stuff blowing up." There was never anything like that.

Dan Harris: We had a little bit of that ourselves. We were like, "You can't stay forever with these people, you do need some Superman fun.

When you were writing this who was the actor inside your head?

Dan Harris: Christopher Reeve.

Michael Dougherty: That was a voice that we let speak as we were writing.

When you first saw Brandon Routh did you know that it was him right away?

Dan Harris: Bryan knew. And we needed to be convinced and we got convinced on the screentest. The more we saw it the more we knew he was right. Bryan knew right away, though.

Has there been any concern about the length of the movie?

Michael Dougherty: There was a longer cut.

Dan Harris: Things got cut to come into this length. We kind of felt this was appropriate and we felt like, "Yeah, audiences are used to MTV flash cutting stuff," but in the end did we want to do that? To sell out to people by making a movie that would play more often in a theater?

Are you directing I, Lucifer?

Dan Harris: Yes, and Mike will be directing Trick or Treat which is based on a script that he wrote about Halloween. I, Lucifer is about the devil. It's another big icon but the flipside. He's very wicked, he's not a good guy.

Superman Returns opens nationwide on June 28th, 2006.