With Man of Steel, the world’s most famous superhero is back on the big screen courtesy of director, Zack Snyder, and producers, Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder, with Henry Cavill the latest actor to pull iconic outfit of the one and only Superman, and Oscar nominee, Michael Shannon, in the opposite corner as the villainous General Zod.
“The Superman symbol is so universally known… it ranks right up there with the cross,” laughs veteran producer, Charles Roven, on the line from Los Angeles. He’s talking, of course, about Man Of Steel, unquestionably one of the biggest films of the year. “We’re in the finishing stages of the movie right now,” Roven says. “We’re showing the movie in a number of formats, so we have a lot of different delivery elements that we have to create, and that takes time. There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to get done between now and the release of the picture. We won’t be sweating it, but we’re going to need some time.”
Man Of Steel is the latest live action incarnation of Superman, the beloved superhero created by writer, Jerry Siegel, and artist, Joe Shuster, in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933, and then sold to Detective Comics (which would later morph into the publishing powerhouse and international icon, DC Comics) in 1938. Appearing constantly in print, Superman has also flickered across the big and small screens, as an iconic fifties TV serial (The Adventures Of Superman, starring George Reeves); a seventies blockbuster (1978’s Superman: The Movie, and its three sequels, starring Christopher Reeve), a contemporary mid-nineties romantic comedy (TV's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman); a youth-driven drama (TV's long-running Smallville); and a host of animated variations.
Last seen in Bryan Singer’s unfairly maligned 2006 effort, Superman Returns (starring unknown actor, Brandon Routh), the iconic superhero has laid dormant ever since, save for a lightning-brief revival when director, George Miller, nearly got his dreamed-of DC team-up movie, Justice League: Mortal (which would have featured Superman alongside Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and other superheroes), off the ground. Now, Superman is back, and this time, he’s flying out from beneath the long, dark shadows cast by Christopher Nolan’s game-changing 2005 hit, Batman Begins, and its even bigger sequels, 2008's The Dark Knight and 2012's The Dark Knight Rises.
“It all started when [screenwriter] David S. Goyer and Chris [Nolan] were crafting the story for The Dark Knight Rises,” Charles Roven explains. “When they were working together on that story, David mentioned to Chris that he had an idea of how to possibly do a reimagining or a reinterpretation or a reboot — there are all these different terms for it now! — of Superman. David gave Chris a big overview of what this could be. They then came up with what the story would be, and went to Warner Bros. They said, ‘We think that this would be a good idea… what do you guys think?’ Warners said, ‘We love it!’ That’s how it all started.”
Alter producing all of Nolan’s Batman films (as well as cult favourites such as Heart Like A Wheel, Johnny Handsome, Twelve Monkeys and Three Kings), Roven was brought on board for what would eventually become Man Of Steel. Even after working successfully with DC's Batman character, reviving Superman brought an even bigger pressure to bear for Roven. “You’re dealing with a worldwide brand,” the producer says. “There’s built-in pressure when you’re dealing with something so iconic. That said, it’s a big thrill and an honour to be able to deal with something that has had such broad exposure and meaning over such a long period of time. This year is the 75th anniversary of Superman’s introduction into the culture. He’s such an amazing, iconic character, and he was the first major superhero in comics. It’s amazing to think how many people have grown up admiring this character over 75 years. It felt like we were being entrusted to try to make him more relevant today than he’s been for the past dozen years.”
With Christopher Nolan taking his foot off the superhero pedal to concentrate on his new science fiction mind-bender, Interstellar, and taking on a co-scenarist/producer position, it fell to the team to find the right director for their reimagined Superman movie. After a brief search, they found him in the form of Zack Snyder, who’d proven himself a dab hand at comic book adaptations with 2006's 300 and 2009's Watchmen, and a master of inventive action with 2004's Dawn Of The Dead and 2011's Sucker Punch. “Zack has such a great knowledge of the genre and characters like this one,” Roven says. “He really exhibited that with Watchmen. He also has the ability to make films on a grand scale, while still making sure that you’re immersed in the stories on an intimate level. It was a natural step.”
When Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer and Charles Roven took the project to Zack Snyder and his wife and regular producer, Deborah Snyder, they were met with an enthusiastic response. A huge fan of Superman, Snyder immediately said yes, and then just as instantly became nervous. “The hardest thing was when we first decided to make the movie,” Snyder tells Filmlnk excitedly at the recent CinemaCon event in Las Vegas. “We said, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’ and then I sat there like, ‘Oh shoot, I have to make a Superman movie!’ It’s scary. I’m a fan, and l want him to work. I want Superman to be awesome. He’s the king daddy of all superheroes. He’s the first, the most powerful, and the most mythological of all the superheroes. He has all this power in pop culture. For me, that was the most nerve wracking point — how do l honour all that? The way that we did it was just to make the most awesome movie that we could: one that’s emotional, and that’s epic, and that’s cinematic. A frickin' movie movie!”
To do that, Snyder had to forget the Superman that he grew up with, forget the Christopher Reeve movies, and forget Bwan Singer's Superman Returns. He had to get back to basics. “Our approach was to pretend that we’d just found these comic books,” says Snyder. “We had to think, ‘This would be a great character for a superhero movie!’” Adds Charles Roven: “Whether it’s Bryan Singer’s film, Hichard Donner’s  film, the old TV series, or the Saturday matinee black-and-white serials, we just had to say, ‘There’s never been another Superman movie made before this one. This is the original one.’ That was the mindset. That was the best way to go into it, otherwise you’re not re-imagining it, you’re just making a sequel.”
Despite coming from the team behind the icily serious and intense Batman films, Snyder is not necessarily pitching Man Of Steel as a means to take the character of Superman into more brutal, nerve-wrecking territory. “It’s not like we purposely said, ‘Let’s make a dark Superman,’” the director says. “We made a naturalistic Superman, so in that way, he’s more complicated, and by being complex, he becomes slightly darker. He’s not black and white; he’s got some grey in there. He’s trying to figure out his place in the world. With Superman, the smallest amount of that goes a long way, because people have never seen him like that. To make him real, there have to be nuances.”
Those nuances were explored in David S. Goyer’s script, which aimed to take a more serious look at what it would mean to be a superhero today — similar to how Batman was deconstructed in Batman Begins. “When Chris and David pitched me the movie, the take immediately was grounding him,” says Snyder. “What does it mean to be Superman in our world? What would he change? How would it affect politics or religion if suddenly there was a guy from another planet who could do amazing and impossible things? If you take that seriously, you can understand how it ripples through the entire movie.”
The whole spin put on Man Of Steel revolved around the idea of modernity. Reinvention is a commonplace force in the world of comic books (with beloved characters changing enormously over runs that can last decades), and Charles Roven is adamant in stating that this new movie had to be much, much more than just another take on the character of Superman. “When it was presented to Zack and Debbie, their immediate concern was, ‘Gee, it’s a great character, but how do you make him relevant today?’ They’ve continued to nurture and develop that idea into what it’s turned into now,” the producer explains. “That was definitely the mission statement. We obviously wanted to make it fun, exciting, and emotional, but the most important thing was to make it relevant.”
Man Of Steel is a classic origin story, beginning with Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), transporting his young son, Kal-El, from their dying planet of Krypton to Earth. The young Kal-El is discovered and raised in Kansas by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), and after a difficult and tumultuous childhood punctured by his constant sense of “otherness”, grows up to be journalist, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), working alongside reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), at The Daily Planet in the hectic, teeming city of Metropolis. When his adopted world comes under attack, led by the marauding Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon), Clark – who has kept the extraordinary abilities that he has possessed since childhood a secret — has to embrace his powers, become Superman, and take on his mantle as Earth’s unlikely saviour.
At its core, Snyder describes Man Of Steel as being about the power that we all have inside us to change the world. “Clark grows up in Kansas, and Jonathan understands that he has to teach this kid to do the right thing,” the director offers. “He impresses on him the importance and significance of his existence, and teaches him that when you grow up, you have to decide what kind of man you are. That dissection of the reality of the situation makes him instantly more real and relatable. Superman/Clark Kent is this lost guy trying to find his way in the world, and trying to discover what his mark is going to be. They’re the things that everyone struggles with. We all have this potential, but his happens to be, ‘l can fly and do amazing things.’ A lot of that is a metaphor for just being the best person that you can be. That’s who our Clark Kent is — he’s us, but he just happens to be struggling with bigger problems.”
The biggest problem for Zack Snyder was finding the right man to be at the centre of it all, playing Superman/Clark Kent. After an exhaustive search, Zack and Deborah Snyder settled on English actor, Henry Cavill. “We didn’t care that much whether the actor was unknown or not,” says Snyder. “You know what it was? It was when he put on the suit. It was the difference between someone dressing up like Superman, and someone feeling like Superman. Henry came into the room in his Superman costume, and we just knew that he was Superman.” Adds Deborah Snyder: “When we did his screen test, we didn’t have the suit ready, so we put him in the original Christopher Reeve suit [from the 1978 movie]. That suit was made a long time ago, and it’s spandex, so it’s a little dated. But when he put it on, no one laughed. No one snickered, and in that moment, we just knew. Before we’d even rolled any film, he was it.”
Charles Roven agrees wholeheartedly. “When Henry walked out of the trailer in that suit, we just knew that we were looking at the guy, and he delivered,” the producer says. “We wanted a character that had strength. Not just physical strength, but emotional strength. We also wanted somebody who could create the arc of a character who questioned things. Superman doesn’t have all the answers, and he’s searching. He needed to be vulnerable, and emotional. Henry can do all that, and still be a character that could be aspirational. We wanted a guy who was relatable to us, because as much as we like to pretend, we don’t have all the answers. Then Henry just committed himself to becoming this guy — this icon — in all the ways that the script needed him to be.”
Born on the island of Jersey (fourteen miles from the west coast of France, and 100 miles south of Great Britain), the fourth of five boys, Henry Cavill has been slogging away at a professional performing career for the past eleven years. Now thirty, the young actor scored his first career break at the age of seventeen when he was cast as the teenaged swashbuckler, Albert Mondego, in 2002's The Count Of Monte Cristo. His next big role came with the steamy historical TV series, The Tudors, on which he appeared from 2007-2010. Cavill’s first major big screen role came with his eye catching turn as the buff hero of 2011's epic fantasy, Immortals.
Breathtakingly handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a quiet, humble demeanour, Cavill conveys the magnitude of the role. Surprisingly, Man Of Steel is Cavill’s second crack at the superhero pan, with the actor having been cast by director, McG. for Superman: Flyby back in 2003. “He was almost Superman ten years ago, back when it looked like the J.J. Abrams script was going to get made with Warner Bros,” says Charles Roven. Cavill held the leading role until McG was replaced by Bryan Singer, and the direction of the whole project changed. Cavill was ousted in favour of Brandon Routh, and considering how that franchise reboot fizzled with the retitled Superman Returns, the actor is likely happy with how things turned out. He’s certainly pleased with this new take on the character. “It’s the discovery of Superman for the audience. It’s also a story of hope,” Cavill tells Filmlnk in Los Angeles. “It’s about the hope of victory against adversity, which is what Superman represents.” The actor emphasises how the filmmakers have kept the original comic books as their “north star”, explaining that “we’re taking a lot from the source material and being true to it, but we’re also recreating what the franchise is, and bringing it to the modem world. There’s no particular comic book that we’re pulling from directly; we’re taking it from all the sources.”
When grilled about the specifics of Snyder’s vision and concept for the movie, Cavill is understandably cagy with his responses. “There’s only so much that I can really say without accidentally giving stuff away, but ultimately, we just wanted to make it very real,” the actor laughs. “Well, as realistic as one can be when talking about an invulnerable alien who can fly! But that was the idea here: for Zack to actually make probably one of his most realistic movies. That was our concept, and that was what we ran with.”
In visually shaping the myth, Snyder has given primary focus to the human element of his central character’s story. “That’s the most important thing: the human element,” Cavill vigorously agrees. “It’s so easy to make this a fantastic chocolate box — an exciting and hyper-coloured experience. But in fact, there’s a very real story here. It’s all about the difficulties that a being like Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman — whatever you want to call him — would go through in that situation. I mean, growing up so very different and not knowing why, would be petrifying and lonely.” Cavill believes that it’s this focus on Clark’s journey, and the human element, that delineates Man Of Steel from all other superhero fare.
Though carrying a massive film is new for Cavill, at least the young actor was familiar with one of his co-stars. Cavill met his on-screen father, Russell Crowe, on the set of 2000's Proof Of Life, when he was working as an extra, and credits Crowe for helping him on his career path. As for playing opposite the Oscar-winning thespian, Cavill has nothing but glowing praise. “It was fantastic,” he says. “He’s one of those veteran actors… and by veteran, I mean that he’s so good,” he hastens to add. “Russell’s got so much experience, and such gravitas that he brings to the role. It’s wonderful to work with him, because you get to feel him as an actor and that can be quite rare.”
Not surprisingly, stepping into the role of Superman required a brutal and dedicated training regime, which included at least ninety minutes of solid exercise daily. “To begin with, it was a lot of mass gain training, so I had to eat an awful lot of food, and lift a lot of heavy weights to bulk up,” Cavill divulges. “Alter that, when I got to a certain size, it was about paring the body down, so I didn’t just look like a big chubby person; it was trying to see the muscle structure undemeath.” The actor spent “hours and hours on end doing different types of training, depending upon what we wanted to achieve.” Says Charles Roven: “Physically, it’s amazing what he turned his body into. He’s so muscular, with so little body fat.”
So was it all about working out and only consuming lean chicken filets? “Surprisingly, no,” Cavill replies. “My diet actually consisted of a third carbohydrates, a third fat, and a third protein in every single meal. I ended up eating a lot, and I do love eating, so that wasn’t a problem. I always hear these guys saying, ‘Oh, it’s so difficult to get 5,000 calories down,’ and I’m like, ‘Really?’” He laughs. “I mean, I was having shakes after training at one stage, which were over 1,000 calories, and I loved them. I was quite sad when they were finished, in fact. It was tough. The training itself was extremely difficult, but rewarding.”
It’s been a long but ultimately worthwhile haul. As for the rumours that early in his career, Cavill lost several roles to Robert Pattinson, the actor responds seriously. “Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire, I’m not sure about,” he says. “As far as The Twilight Saga is concerned, I never auditioned for the role. I understand that when she was writing the book, Stephenie Meyer —this is what I’ve heard, so I don’t know how true this is — saw me when she was writing the character, but by the time that it came around, I think I was too old.” It’s likely that Meyer had seen Cavill in The Count Of Monte Cristo, but the actor admits that he’s not sure. So, there’s no voodoo doll of Robert Pattinson hidden in his house? “Absolutely not, no,” Cavill laughs.
And on the other side of the coin? For the role of towering bad guy, General Zod, Zack Snyder settled on Michael Shannon. He’s played villains in the past, and Snyder says that he’s so good at it because he never thinks of them as bad guys. “Michael and I talked about the why of Zod,” Snyder explains. “Once you understand the why of him, and what he wants, you understand what he does. That’s what makes him an awesome villain, because in some ways, he’s justified. Once Michael dug his teeth into that, he got it. He’s strong in all his scenes, because his point of view is so strong. He’s amazing. And tall… he’s kind of scary, a monster.” Deborah Snyder laughs. “When he’s in that mode, you forget that he’s actually super nice. He’s a super sweet and funny guy. He doesn’t break character until you’re done with the scene, and then all of a sudden, he breaks and tells a joke, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I forgot that you’re nice!’”
Indeed, playing Superman’s nemesis came as something of a shock to Michael Shannon. “It was not on my to-do list,” the actor says, wryly, chatting to FilmInk in a London hotel. “It was a big surprise, honestly. When my agent called and said, ‘Zack Snyder wants to meet with you about playing General Zod in Man Of Steel’, I thought that he was pulling my leg. I didn’t believe him.”
It’s easy to see why. Shannon maybe Oscar-nominated (for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road), a regular on the HBO drama, Boardwalk Empire, and an indie darling for his work in films like flake Shelter, The Runaways and The Iceman, but he knows his place in the pecking order. “Hollywood? I’m not some kind of superstar. I’m slowly rising up the ranks, I guess,” he says.
This may be true, although starring for Snyder in one of the year’s biggest movies should give Shannon’s profile a major boost. “We’ll see what happens when Man Of Steel comes out; that’s going to be the real game-changer,” he says. “But until it comes out, it’s an unknown quantity. It’s not necessarily what I’m hunting for. I don’t want to do franchise movies. I don’t want to do five versions of a video game. I’m not interested in that.”
So why take on a film like Man Of Steel? “The main reason was Zack,” Shannon replies. “His visual style is extraordinary. It’s completely unique. Every movie that I’ve seen of his has knocked my socks off. And I’m also getting an opportunity to work on something with Christopher Nolan, whom I have a lot of respect for. I also really liked the script — and it’s an amazing cast that I got to work with.”
It was Snyder who fought for Shannon, who had to screen test opposite Henry Cavill (an actor “born to play Superman,” he adds) before the studio would greenlight him. Unquestionably, Shannon was perfect casting. From the intensity in his body of work to that faraway stare in his eyes, there’s something unnerving about him. “It’s not something that I’m striving for, really.” he shrugs. “I’m not trying to frighten anybody.”
Admittedly, playing Zod — the ruthless Krypton villain who, thanks to his appearance in 1980's Superman II, remains a fan favourite — is no mean feat. Not least because it means trying to match up to British actor, Terence Stamp, who was so memorable in the 1980 film with his cries of “Kneel before Zod!” Shannon is all too aware of what he’s up against. “I saw Terence Stamp when I was a kid. He scared the crap out of me,” the actor laughs. “He pretty much nailed it.” He can even remember — in the run up to the shoot — walking into his house to find his partner — actress, Kate Arrington —checking out Superman II. “She was watching it out of curiosity,” Shannon says. “I saw it and said, ‘You’ve got to turn it off. I can’t watch that. I’m not worthy!’” Still, being a screen veteran of twenty years — his first film appearance was in 1993's Groundhog Day — Shannon was able to put it into perspective. “I’d be curious to know how Terence Stamp felt. He had to act with Marlon Brando; that must’ve been intimidating!”
If the 38-year-old Shannon felt that “aw ole notion” of him playing General Zod “was a little farfetched”, after an intense period of combat and physical training, that feeling evaporated. “I spent the whole summer sweating in a warehouse outside of Chicago, just doing heavy lifting and karate and all kinds of weird stuff,” Shannon explains. “So by the time that you’re standing in front of a camera, you’ve forgotten that you’re an actor at all. You’re just surprised that you’re supposed to say something!”
Psychologically, the way that Shannon approached the role was to think about what it means to be a military general. “It’s an incredible amount of responsibility, and it’s something that I’m not familiar with in my own life,” the actor offers. “I’m a very non-military person, although I have played a lot of soldiers, which is weird, because I’m very non-violent. And l would never join the army in a million years — no offence to our fighting comrades.”
Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Shannon was never a huge Superman fan growing up. “I never had any money to buy comic books,” he admits. “I didn’t buy comic books. I had two cousins that lived out in the country — Tommy and Jonathan — and they bought comic books. They had boxes and boxes of comic books. So when I visited them, I would look at their comic books. But honestly, they were more Marvel guys than DC guys. They didn’t have any Superman comics. I saw the movies, but I didn’t read the comics.”
Still, Shannon is aware enough of the Superman mythology to understand why Zod is such a good choice as Man Of Steel’s lead villain. Even Lex Luthor, Superman’s main foe, is forced to bow and scrape to Zod in Superman II. “It’s hard to find villains for Superman, because he’s very powerful,” Shannon says. “Even in the comic book series, there aren’t many people who can mess with him. Zod is one of those people. He’s a warrior — so that makes for a good match-up.”
Beyond this, Shannon is sworn off revealing too much about his character. Is he anything like Stamp’s take? He shakes his head. “I don’t have a British accent. And I’m not wearing the same costume.” So, no black PVC jumpsuit then? “It’s a little different — otherwise, why the hell would we do it?” Zod also won’t be flanked by his two companions — the cruel Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the non-verbal giant, Non (Jack O’Halloran) — who wreak such havoc in Superman II. But he does have a “very strong” female acquaintance, Faora, played by the “beautiful young German actress”, Antje Traue.
If plot and character details are scant, Shannon is more forthcoming on the reasons why Snyder’s retelling of Superman’s origin story is necessary. “Man Of Steel is a very relevant movie,” the actor says. “The fact of the matter is, it’s a very delicate time right now on Earth, and there’s a lot going on that is pretty frightening. It would be nice to believe or think that there was somebody that could pr us from that.”
Shannon’s own origin story may be less exciting than Superman’s — his mother was a lawyer, his father an accounting professor — but he didn’t grow up in a drab household. “They both had artistic inclinations,” the actor says of his parents. “My mother played piano and sang, and my father was a very good visual artist — a drawer and a painter.” He doesn’t seem surprised that he became an actor. “It was latent in the family gene pool. It was inevitable that one of us would. We were bound to have a storyteller sooner or later; every clan does.”
Set to carry on spinning those stories, Shannon has just wrapped John McNaughton’s The Harvest, with Samantha Morton, and is now working on Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones. “I play a farmer whose land has gone dry because of the drought. And I’m just trying to survive.” It might be set in the near-future, but Shannon doesn’t think that it’s so farfetched. “We already had a huge drought last year; it could be just around the corner.” He gulps. “Sorry — that’s not a good way to end an interview!”
It might be a borderline ignominious end to his interview with FilmInk, but Michael Shannon has certainly impressed his employers on Man Of Steel. “For the role of General Zod, we wanted a guy who could be fierce,” says producer, Charles Roven. “We wanted a guy who you could believe would stop at nothing to accomplish his goal. But we also wanted a guy that could make you understand where he was coming from. You understand that, for Zod, his ends were correct. Michael Shannon gives you that power. You can’t take your eyes off him; he’s just so compelling. We have an amazing antagonist, and he’s amazingly played by Michael Shannon.”
The imposing actor is just one of many elements that click across the cinematic landscape that Zack Snyder and his crew have created for Man Of Steel. When it came to the look of the movie, Snyder was determined to both shoot on film, and have 3-D. But seeing how he also wanted the film cameras to be hand-held, there was no possible way to do 3-D on set. “The camera rigs are too heavy,” Deborah Snyder explains. “We did a test, and we almost killed our operator in one day! So we post-converted the same footage, and you couldn’t tell the difference. We would have inhibited the camera work for sure, and taken longer and cost a lot more. The technology is now there, but you still need the time; it’s almost like animation, in a way.” Adds Zack: “When post-conversion doesn’t look good, it’s because they’ve tried to do it quickly. But they’re at the point now where if they were doing a shot, they’d take the character out, then build a 3-D model of him, and re-project the texture back on top, so all the volumes are there. It’s just amazing what they’re able to do now. Most 3-D that you see is post-converted; it’s so good that you wouldn’t know.”
“Plus, you have flexibility if you do it afterwards,” says Deborah Snyder. “You can change things up until the last moment. This film will reach a broad audience; you can see it the way that you want to see it. We’ll have all the options, so for people who don’t like 3-D, they can see it in 2-D. Or you can see it in IMAX. It’s great to give the theatre goer those choices.”
Whichever format you choose, Zack Snyder just wants you to enjoy the experience, and to know that he put his heart and soul into making the best Superman film possible. “Man Of Steel is an origin story done in a way that you’ve never seen, but don’t worry, the mythology is consistent,” the director offers. “We respect the mythology because it’s 75 years in the making. I want people to remember that we made a giant movie. It’s all things: it’s emotional, and it’s a spectacle, but it’s also about character. This is a story that hopefully honours who Superman is — he’s at the top of the pyramid of all superheroes. And hopefully, that’s what they’ll get!”