Monday, 11 June 2018

Superman Lives & The Last Crusade - Lessons in drafting and redrafting

A lot changes in rewrites. Characters, dialogue, whole chunks of plot and even the order of events can shift or vanish. Long before there's a frame of film shot with which to create deleted scenes, writers must undertake their own 'editing' known as the rewrite. Key component of a rewrite: the draft, a version of your story that has been altered in some way. Usually, a script takes several before it's 'ready' for any type of submission.

If you're reading this, chances are you're a writer of some description or just interested in the craft. If so, you've probably heard all the sermons on the value of rewrites a million times now, but is there something more tangible? Where can you see how scripts change between drafts and chart the evolution of a piece?

Well today, I have two such examples: one from one of the finest adventure films ever made and another from one of the most infamous comic book films not made. I'm talking about 1989's Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, with drafts by Jeffrey Boam and Sir Tom Stoppard, and 1998's Superman Lives, written by Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy respectively.


Regarding Last Crusade, filmmaker Mike Fitzgerald already did a great breakdown of what changed between the Boam and Stoppard version. Here's the whole piece on Last Crusade, which in itself includes a link to the drafts and handy graphs mapping out the story & what went where: https://creativescreenwriting.com/indiana-jones-and-the-last-crusade-learning-from-stoppard/

Done? Told you it was good stuff. Now, onto the aborted, strange and often headscratching saga of the three Superman Lives scripts, planned to star Nicolas Cage as the Last Son of Krypton and be directed by Tim Burton.

Basic gist of the project if you're not familiar: after the success of Burton's Batman in 1989, Warners got to work, trying to bring Superman back. Drawing from the best-selling Death of Superman comic arc, Warners opted for a story that focused on the death and resurection of Superman, following a battle with alien killing machine Doomsday. However, the budget quickly ballooned, Warners got cold feet and canned it. Luckily, the internet has preserved these original drafts for our perusal.

(Links to the Smith & Strick scripts can be found here: http://www.supermanhomepage.com/movies.php while the Gilroy one is here: http://www.simplyscripts.com/s.html)

First up to bat, Askewniverse mastermind and comic's beloved FatMan, Kevin Smith (dated to March 1997. There also exists an earlier version dated to January 97, but this is the more common one):

Plot: With designs on a Kryptonian artifact known as the Eradicator, energy consuming cyber-alien Brainiac comes to Earth in his colossal skull ship. There, he finds the last son of Krypton, at the height of popularity and in a healthy relationship with Lois Lane, who is tied to the Eradicator. To this end, he forms an alliance with tycoon Lex Luthor, and unleashes the monster Doomsday on Metropolis.

Summary: Described by Smith himself as 'fanfiction', this behemoth (page count not officially known, with some pdfs coming in at 119, others at 209) does bear the typical hallmarks of such literature: truckloads of cameos and references chucked in left, right and centre (from Deadshot to a speech-centric cameo by the Dark Knight). The formatting is often off with Smith not using basics like correct aligning for dialogue or using proper scene transitions like 'Continuous' or 'FLASHBACK starts/ends'. Likewise, the plotting and structure is not very strong and often feels tedious, with hefty chunks of exposition where the film tells, rather than shows, its big ideas or themes. Such instances include Superman giving big speeches about the impact of love and life, or the Eradicator learning what it means to be human in the midst of what is supposed to be an intense battle.

Yet despite these glaring issues, there is a 'fun' underpinning the whole affair and some of Smith's strengths still shine through: his skills as a dialogue and character man hold true when it comes to Clark and Lois' relationship. Not only does he make them likeable and endearing, but also makes them feel like they've been in a relationship for some time. I even admire Smith's efforts to be introspective, having a Superman who questions his place in the world and the nature of god vs. man (reminding me a bit of what Batman Forever was originally intended to be).

Plus, despite the silly polar bears guards and alien spider, Smith still crafts fairly engaging setpieces befitting a summer movie, ranging from big slugfests and high speed hover chases, to monster fights that echo Harryhausen, be it with Doomsday or the arachnid Snare Beast. For the man who joked about his Green Hornet being fight-lite and then directing the mediocre action of Cop Out, Smith has a decent eye for spectacle here that blends 60s and 90s rather well.

Closing Thoughts: While overlong and not terribly accessible to the mass audience of a summer movie with its fangasiming, I admire the earnestness of Smith's script and with some tailoring and focus, could've made for an enjoyable Superman film, albeit not one that would've exactly reset trends the way Burton's Batman had back in 1989.

Phew, that was a big'un. Let's hop to script #2, brought to us by Cape Fear's Wesley Strick:

Plot: Same jist as before, though there's more of an emphasis on a distant, uncertain Superman who questions his origins and what his purpose is. Also new this time around is, instead of the Eradicator, Brianiac's desire is for an artificial Kryptonian intelligence called 'K', so he forms an alliance with Luthor and unleashes Doomsday on Metropolis to draw it out.

Summary: While leaner than Smith's 'fanfiction', this 117 page Lives doesn't quite compensate with substance or depth. In the place of bloated speeches and fanservice, we get a lot of tedious moping from Clark Kent as he returns to Smallville following some excavations by Lexcorp into alien tech. Whilst I admire the effort to be introspective, having a Superman who questions his place in our human world and the nature of godlike powers, Strick makes him come across as whiny and a little too naive for someone who is meant to be a seasoned reporter, as well as crimefighter. Plus, the inciting incident that leads to Superman's doubts doesn't feel strong enough and I couldn't help but wonder 'Why now, of all the times Luthor has probably meddled with alien tech or tried to tamper with something or somewhere tied to Supes' past does THIS cause him to have a crisis'?

Recall how Smith's strengths were dialogue and character, especially when it came to Clark and Lois' relationship? That's been junked in favour of dialogue that veers from robotic to goofy, with a Clark-Lois dynamic that reads more like awkward teenagers. It also resets them to 'Lois not knowing Clark is Superman', which feels more like an excuse to pad out the script and never has the weight Strick clearly wants it to by the time Supes dies.

What's more, the 'earnest fun' underpinning Smith's script is almost entirely gone, with a tonal imbalance that goes from really dour and existential with Superman's quest for answers and his reminisce on the past, to almost Batman & Robin levels of camp with the bickering duo of Luthor and Brainiac. He reads less like a cold computer and more like an alien overlord from an SNL spoof sketch. This only gets worse when the two fuse to form the even more bickery 'Lexiac', when he literally becomes a comedy of two halves. Any attempt at making parallels between Brainiac and Superman as the final survivors of Krypton and how they use that legacy is completely undermined by just how kooky the villains are.

If there are positives here, Strick's Hollywood experience does enable him to craft fairly satisfying action, as well as take more advantage of the Harryhausen-monster angle, be it with Doomsday, the Snare Beast or the new fight at a Lexcorp theme park against a water-phobic chomper monster. The film never wants for whizz-bang, going from alien worlds to street riots to the frozen Arctic. Structurally, it does feel more cohesive than the sprawl of Smith and conceptually, Strick has a lot of the right ideas here for a Superman film that makes us re-evaluate how we perceive the Man of Steel and what it would be like to have his responsibilities. It's just a shame it never amounts to much.

Closing Thoughts: I admire the earnestness of Smith's script despite the fanwank, and it felt like it was written with some passion. The same cannot be said of Strick's colder, more mechanical screenplay. In an attempt to make the film tighter and deeper, he has instead produced something imbalanced and tedious.

And we round off our superhero romp with a rewrite, courtesy of Nightcrawler's Dan Gilroy:

Plot: This time around, Brainiac's desire is vengeance upon Superman for how he was treated by his creator, Jor-El. Forming a much more literal merger with Luthor to become 'Lexiac', he unleashes Doomsday once more during a Lexcorp event.

Summary: Shorter still than Strick's, this 112 page version of Lives plays like a greatest hits of the Smith and Strick version, as well as an exercise in cost cutting. Gone are the monsters (save Doomsday) and a lot of the space elements, gone is the Fortress and instead, the introspection of Superman's identity crisis (as well as a slightly odder 'kill-happy' Supes compared to the other two) takes centre-stage. Thankfully, this is sans a lot of the whining of Strick's version, with a more level-headed Superman questioning his origins and where he belongs. The script also spends time on the Clark and Lois' relationship, which is closer to Smith's bouncier portrayal, making them seem like they have a genuine history together (even if Smith-esque bloated speeches do come back near the end just to hammer the significance home).

However, when the film is not just a mere sharpening of old elements, it's the new that leaves me scratching my head: the 'fun' of Smith is near absent, as is a lot of the surreality of the past two scripts (well, save for Luthor in a thong. Because...?). In its place, we get hacking, nukes, a few brawls and a sequence of Superman juggling three falling elevators that, given how intricate it is, would've ended up costing as much as a monster, so why bother making it more generic? Lois also gets a niece who only really matters towards the end and is more there to be cute, as is a pregnancy angle that predates Superman Returns. If there is something about family here, it's not especially well woven and ends up only being relevant when it serves the plot.

Speaking of which, while this draft handles it the best, Lives conceit of adapting Death of Superman as the first film of a new series suffers from, well, not really allowing enough time for Supes' death to mean anything, nor really explore the ramifications of that. In all three, right after the funeral, the token guardian A.I., be it Eradicator or K, comes in and revives him, so it carries no real weight and just doesn't feel tailored for a two hour film AND a franchise starter.

That's not to say Gilroy's script has no other merits, it's the best formatted of the three, and still delivers setpieces that are smaller but still fairly enjoyable in their own right, even if again, this Superman is a little more callous for no reason. Plus, kudos for taking Strick's ideas and expanding on them to try and recalibrate the film's focus on an outsider Superman as opposed to uneven camp and space theatrics.

Closing Thoughts: In conclusion, Gilroy's script is the most professional and tight, but it just feels like a regular 90s action film with some sci-fi elements. With the oddness gone, Lives just feels very routine, which really defeats the point of it being such a radical departure for the Man of Steel's screen adventures.

Final verdict: In reading and reviewing the changes between the drafts of Superman Lives, I hope you got to see an indentifiable chain of transformation as the script went through different hands. Even if you're the sole writer of your own work, you've still seen how ideas change in response to notes and shifts in focus. Some ideas were refined, some were combined and some were thrown out entirely, as will many of yours. It also, hopefully demonstrated how long some ideas can take to fully take wing or, at least, be more coherent and that little is right on the first try. That's why drafts matter.

Plus, if you're ever hired by DC to write for Supes, you already have an idea what NOT to do.