We visit the Plano, Illinois set of Man of Steel and speak with writer David S. Goyer and producer Charles Roven
When I first arrived on the Plano, Illinois set of Man of Steel, there were none of the usual indicators that told me I was, in fact, on a movie set. There were no bright yellow signs pointing us in the right direction, or even a crew bustling about. There was just one solitary woman guarding the entrance to Clark Kent's boyhood home in Smallville. As it turned out, they hadn't been shooting in this particular location for awhile, but they kept the entire farmhouse set and the barn fully dressed, just to show us. I had that warm and fuzzy feeling that this day was going to be very special right from the get-go, and I was right.
I would hope that, by now, I shouldn't have to set up the story for Man of Steel, hitting theaters June 14. At this point, our faithful readers have been inundated with Superman videos and photos leading up to this highly-anticipated release, and I hope I'm not being too presumptuous in assuming that you already know more than enough about the story. However, when we arrived on the set back in late August 2011, there wasn't much we knew about the story, except the primary cast and, you know, that it was about Superman.
The first person we met on the set was producer Deborah Snyder (and wife of director Zack Snyder), who gave us a tour of these very detailed sets. The land they shot on is owned by an actual soybean farmer, although Zack Snyder wanted corn, so they planted their own. When we walked around the side of the house, that was our first real indication I was on the set of a Superman movie. We saw an old truck flipped upside down, going through the house. When we arrived at the barn, there stood the spacecraft that Jor-El was sent to Earth in, which Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) has kept hidden for all these years. The ship was approximately 10-12 feet long, and it looked just as cool on set as it did in all the trailers we've seen.
When asked about how much this reinvents the Superman story, Deborah Snyder revealed they were staying true to the canon, but making it more relevant for a modern audience.
"Superman is beloved and has such a history. I think it's a balance of being true to that, but also about modernizing it and making it relevant. Like, for instance, Clark, I feel like he hasn't been so relatable, and I feel like if you can relate to him even just as a person of someone who's struggling and trying to find himself or whatever, I feel like you get a lot more, you care about him a lot more, you know? He's the kind of guy that you can watch a football game and drink a beer. I think that's a big deal."
While we all know that Man of Steel will be presented in 3D, at the time, Deborah Snyder said they were planning on a 3D post-production conversion, but an official decision had not been made yet. Still, they were already planning out how to go about the 3D conversion, on Day 24 of a 121-day shoot.
"That is the plan, that we will be converting it. But I think, given enough time and enough planning, I mean, the thing that we're doing that a lot of people don't do is we're gathering a lot of information on set with our witness. You know, because also the visual effects, but also on shots that aren't visual effects, we're shooting all kinds of reference. We're taking a lot of written reference of lensing and everything, but also photographically. So, the problem is, it's the stuff that you can't see, and we're capturing all those images. So I feel it's just our approach to the conversion is slightly different because like, rather than it being an afterthought, it'll be planned for, you know?"
When Zack Snyder was announced as the Man of Steel director, there were some who wondered how his stylized approach would mesh with a highly-kinetic movie like this. Deborah Snyder revealed that the director is shooting the whole movie handheld.
"The whole movie's handheld. That's something completely different. He just wanted to approach this film in a different way. I mean, so I think you are going to see something that's new. I think you're going to see something that's more organic. Again, we're shooting more on physical locations than we ever have before. It was very important to really put him in our real world, so that's kind of-I think all those decisions led to how he's operating the camera. It all kind of-when that's your end goal, you make certain choices to get to that goal."
After our tour of the farmhouse set, we were driven to the primary set in Plano, which has a very Main Street U.S.A. feel to it. In fact, on our way to there, we drove past a local hardware store, which had a hand-painted Superman logo on the window. When we got to the actual set, however, there was destruction all around us. The remnants of a half-destroyed 7-11 was at the edge of this area, and the street was littered with what appeared to wreckage from a military plane crash, remnants of fuselage and jet engines strewn about this normally-idyllic street.
We also got to watch a scene where Kryptonians (i.e. actors in motion-capture suits) were ganging up on Superman (Henry Cavill). We could instantly see very kinetic pace that Deborah Snyder alluded to earlier.
Our press corps set up shop in a local pub named Dave's Tavern, which became our own "base camp," so to speak, for the rest of the day. This essentially provided us with a quieter environment to conduct our interviews, since they were shooting scenes with helicopters outside (more on that later). We were also joined by screenwriter and geek God David S. Goyer, who, along with director Christopher Nolan, brought Batman back to life with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises. Ironically enough, the writer's initial idea for this Superman tale sprung from being "blocked" on the script of The Dark Knight Rises, in what has to be my favorite part of any interview that day.
"Chris (Nolan) and I were working on The Dark Knight Rises and we reached writers' block. Chris said, 'Let's break for a week and just clear our palettes and then come back.' I was tooling around in my office and I just picked up some old Superman comic books, started reading them. For about an afternoon I just had this notion for a Superman story. At this point, I think they were developing another version with someone else anyway, so I just randomly wrote a couple of pages, maybe three or four pages of a Superman movie. Without giving too many spoilers away, it just occurred to me that the story that I was interested in seeing was the story that was about - we knew Kal was an alien, but what made him actually assume this Superman identity and put on a costume? What made him decide, 'Oh, I'm going to actually present myself to the world and be a superhero?' I realized that if the world became aware that Kal existed, it would be a first contact story, and in many ways, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history. It would change the world forever, just the sheer fact that he existed on the planet and then subsequently, the knowledge of what he could do, it would force the religions of the world to respond. There would be fear. There would be awe, just the sheer fact that he existed would be the biggest story that ever happened in human history. I realized at least cinematically they'd always just kinda jumped over that, you know? I loved the (Richard) Donner film, but in the Donner film, he sorta walks up into the north and he throws a crystal and then he comes out of the fortress and he's in his costume. Then it's like, 'Oh, there's a guy.' Everyone just is like, 'Oh, that's cool. This guy can do all this fine.' Then, Superman Returns just assumed that you knew all the Donner films as well, and they just jumped over what I thought to me would literally, like I said, be the single most important event in human history. So I had more of the idea worked out, but that was the initial starting point. So I came back to Chris and he said, 'So did you crack it?' We were having a problem with the third act in The Dark Knight Rises. He said, 'Did you figure it out?' I said, 'No, but I have this idea for Superman.' He said, 'Oh, all right, fine, what is it?' So, I spent about 20 minutes telling him this story and he said, 'Wow! That's really cool. Do you want me to produce it?' I said, 'Oh, I don't even know that they're doing something else.' He said, 'Well, let's call 'em up.' He literally called (Warner Bros. Pictures president) Jeff Robinov up and said, 'Goyer just pitched me a take for Superman. We have to do this. I want to produce it. He wants to write it. We need to come in and tell you it.' We came in in a couple of days. I told Robinov and Alan Horn at the time what I told Chris. The next day they scuttled all the other plans that they were doing and made me a deal and I started slowly writing. From that point onward, Chris and I then started doing what we did on-what we do on the Batman films. We use index cards for the movie. So that's about a two month process. Chris and I do really extensive index cards and we meet usually three times a week and we just do board after board after board of index cards where Chris and I beat everything out. Then I went and wrote a treatment and then I started writing and that was the movie. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but it was really about-this story centers around the fact that the world finds out that Superman exists and he then has to-when we refer to him as an alien, we refer to him as Kal, and when we refer to him as a human, we refer to him as Clark. He then has to grapple with, in effect, does he want to be Kal or does he want to be Clark? That's his sort of cross to bear in this story. It's the story of two fathers Jor-El and Jonathan."
While it isn't quite clear how much of the planet Krypton we will be seeing, David S. Goyer spoke about creating the Kryptonian language, and how this alien planet truly differs from Earth.
"You may see more of Krypton than you've seen in the other movies. We've had both someone who's working on the spoken language and a whole department that's been working on the written language in developing the glyph system has been something that (production designer) Alex (McDowell) and his team have been working on for six months. There's been a lot of back and forth on that. Even getting into the S, which isn't an S, which is one of the Kryptonian glyphs, and what it means. It's kinda cool because you'll see that in other iterations throughout the movie. But one of the things that we tried to do was depict Krypton as a legitimately alien world. So we decided that on Krypton, aside from the fact that it's got a different gravity, it's got a different atmosphere than we do, it's a mega gravity planet, so gravity there is anywhere from four to 10 times the gravity on earth. If we went to Krypton, we couldn't breathe its atmosphere. The sun radiates in a different spectrum of light. Different radiation and things like that, a lot more UV radiation on Krypton. All these things come into play and they also explain why Superman has the powers that he has. But, we also decided that Krypton has a much more formalized and socially stratified society than we do. So we liken Krypton to if you'd taken feudal Japan, but they had never encountered the West and then continued on in that system for the next 150 years, that's kind of what we imagined Krypton would be like. It's very formalized."
"He has an enormous amount of conflict that he has to deal with in this movie both on a moral, personal level and on a physical level. But, he's also given a couple of choices in this movie that are terrible, terrible choices where either decision he makes, a lot of people are going to get hurt. So, one part of the fun and the challenge for us in this movie was for a guy that can supposedly do anything, can you put him in a situation where there may not necessarily be a right answer? Or, where even somebody who can do anything maybe can't do everything? I think we have come up with a legitimate threat, but the thing that we really, really, really focused on in this film was wanting the audience to identify with him, which for me, was always the challenge with the Superman character was I identified with Bruce Wayne or Batman. It was easier to pretend I could be him, but it was a lot harder to pretend I could be Superman or identify with him. He's a guy that seemed like he didn't have a lot of problems because he could do anything. So, I think we worked really hard to get you to identify with him and to get you to identify that he has a tremendous weight on his shoulders and a tremendous responsibility. Sometimes that could make him lonely, but like I said, it's not just coming up with the physical threat, but he's presented with a couple of choices in this movie that are terrible choices that I think hopefully people will identify with and emphasize with."
The screenwriter also teased that there may be some new super powers that haven't been seen on the silver screen before.
"He's got a pretty deep rolodex. So, I won't say that we incorporated all the things we know. We handle a lot, and I'm pretty sure we're depicting a couple in this movie that haven't been seen on screen before, maybe. I'm not positive. I think our approach would be he might develop more as he goes on. We kinda came up with the approach the longer he is on Earth than the more exposed to our sun and our atmosphere, the more things he might develop."
After our chat, we stepped back outside to watch new scenes being filmed, where Superman and the Kryptonians are being shot at by a military helicopter. Why? We have no idea. As you can imagine, there were several questions that would not be answered by anyone, and, surprisingly enough, most of those questions still remain unanswered today, just a few weeks away from its release, which, in this day and age, is quite impressive. Some set visit I go on, we get most of the whole movie spelled out for us, except for maybe the ending (sometimes not, though). I did not expect that to happen on this particular visit, I was still insanely impressed with what I saw, while still dying to know more.
We were later joined by producer Charles Roven, who, like David S. Goyer, worked with director Christopher Nolan on The Dark Knight trilogy. While a bulk of the production took place in Chicago for Metropolis scenes and Vancouver for the heavy CGI sequences, Charles Roven spoke about coming to this small town of Plano, to capture Clark Kent's hometown of Smallville, and why Man of Steel was the right choice for the title.
"It is called Man of Steel because that's the right name for it. Man of Steel needed to have a real Americana sensibility, at least if we were going to deal with any of the part of the story that had what shaped Clark. So, we wanted to make sure that we shot it in a place that gave us that sense of Americana and small town. Smallville has always been a small town. We needed to find that kind of a place. We also needed to find a place that was extremely film friendly, ideally would give us a rebate of some sort. You know, all the factors that go into picking a location. I would say one of the most critical aspects is finding a community that's going to let you do what the great people from Plano did, which is let us take over the center of their town and turn it into our town and be happy that they were doing it. So, Plano hit off every one of those marks. When you think about it, and other places didn't, so that's what brought us into Illinois. I've made two other films in Chicago. Chicago has been just an amazing film friendly place and we felt that, once we decided that we would be in Illinois, we thought about where we were going to get another big city look, which we had to have. We had to have a place that would be Metropolis, Chicago just seemed a natural fit. I've had previous good experiences shooting here. Chicago has just got a great skyline that could be altered to fit what we want Metropolis to look like. It's 45 minutes away, an hour away. Then finally, Vancouver, the Snyders have had really a lot of success shooting films in Vancouver. They really also like the crews there. They think they're really great. We did need a city where we could get some weather looks that was around a filmmaking center as opposed to like, just say a place like Los Angeles, although it's tough to shoot in Los Angeles these days, or down in Louisiana where there is a lot of shooting, but you don't get a lot of different weather looks. We wanted to have a number of different weather looks and Vancouver afforded that and also again it's a film friendly city. You get a number of different potential rebates and it doesn't really matter what sized budget you're working with. All of those soft money issues become increasingly more and more important."
The producer also spoke about how the filmmakers and producers are ultimately striving for this movie to feel as real as possible.
"We want the film to feel that it could be real. We really do. That's really important to us. We want the drama to play real. We want the character's emotional choices to play real. So, in everything that we've done from the way that Zack is shooting the picture to the way we decided how to do our best to make sure that you're feeling like you're there both in terms of the production design and in terms of the visual effects, in terms of the practical effects, we've really tried to do our best to deliver that real feeling in every aspect of it. So, we're really mindful of that thing. I don't want to compare us to another movie. I don't want to say we're going to do it different than that, but our goal is to make things feel real. We know that the more real elements we could figure out a way to put in there, like that craft that you saw in the barn, it's going to make you feel like, 'Gee, we're emotionally connected to the drama.' We feel that's really important and we want to deliver that."
"We certainly went into the shooting of the film with a script that we all felt was essentially locked, not that you don't do tweaks and whatever as you go through the process of making the movie because the actor brings so much and you realize you might need actually a little bit less of this and a little bit more of that. The same thing as you do in the action. So, the script was really essentially locked before we started to shoot. While we didn't do 100 percent of the storyboards before we started shooting, the vast majority, Zack's storyboards, all of them I'm sure Deborah mentioned to you, he storyboards everything, not just the action, he storyboards everything. It's how he gets to focus his mind's eye on what it is that he wants out of each scene. So, this is really a film that did have quite a lot worked out before we started shooting."
We had two more interviews that fateful day on the set, with star Henry Cavill and Zack Snyder, which are so fascinating and wide-ranging I thought they should be pulled out separately. CLICK HERE for the next part of our Man of Steel set visit.