SUPERMAN: RED SON Exclusive Interview With Director Sam Liu
We recently caught up with Superman: Red Son director Sam Liu (Batman: The Killing Joke) to talk about the upcoming DC Comics adaptation, his interest in helming a live-action superhero movie, and more!
Directed by veteran filmmaker Sam Liu, Superman: Red Son takes us to a world where the baby Kal-El's rocket landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas. Along the way, we're introduced to completely different takes on heroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, the movie also boasts an impressive voice cast led by Jason Isaacs as the Man of Steel.
Liu has worked on a vast array of DC animated movies, including Batman: The Killing Joke, The Death of Superman, and Wonder Woman: Bloodlines, so we had plenty to ask him when we recently had the opportunity to sit down and discuss Superman: Red Son.
We obviously want to say a huge thank you to Sam for taking the time to talk to us, and you can check out the full interview below!
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What is your process of adapting a story like Superman: Red Son in terms of the moments and characters you decide to use, and those you don't?
It's interesting because adapting comic books, which are serial things because they're made up of multiple issues and chapters, is always challenging. When you make a movie, it has to have one big climax, and not one at the end of every "issue." Structurally, movies feel weird if there are too many climaxes unless there are smaller ones that build to something bigger. You have to build towards one big point, so certain things have to get shaved down or be omitted entirely. That's the biggest challenge; figuring out what to pare down and focus on.
I loved how the movie addresses Wonder Woman's sexuality and was wondering what the thought process was behind that, especially as Diana has feelings for Superman in the comic book?
I think that was something Bruce [Timm] and J.M. DeMatteis came up with, but it made sense on an island full of women. I'm not sure who thought it up actually, but it wasn't me.
The comic book ended in a definitive manner, and without getting into spoilers, it feels like more stories could be told in this animated world – is a sequel something you would be interested in?
From what I remember of the ending in the comic, I felt like it put a definitive answer on something which we thought was clever, but that made it specifically a certain thing where it was a continuous loop of events. So, it got us thinking, 'Does that mean everyone is locked into their fate?' or in what circumstances does it change and Superman isn't Lex Luthor's son? I think we just wanted to leave it a little more open-ended. It's tricky, but I think it ends in the uplifting, hopeful way that we agreed upon. We didn't go as far because I wanted to leave it on a hopeful message which didn't lessen the focus on Superman and become more about the puzzle. By throwing a cog into it, we made it more about Superman and Lex, and what Superman did for the world.
I thought Jason Isaacs was a phenomenal Superman, but what for you made him the right choice to play the hero here?
We've worked with Jason before, and he's been great. Obviously, he's amazing and has so much character. There's a lot of wisdom and kindness behind his voice. Also, I think he did a really good Russian accent [Laughs]. We wanted to make sure we found someone who wouldn't make it too cheesy or stereotypical. It's funny, because when we were doing the preliminaries, and he was talking about his knowledge of it and how certain parts of Russia were more like this or that, and we thought it was great how he was familiar with the ins and outs of what the language sounds like.
We've seen Dave Filoni, for example, move from a show like Star Wars Rebels to The Mandalorian, so is working on a live-action DC TV show or movie something that's on your radar?
I'm older now, and I'm kind of an introvert too, so I like working with animated things. I would love to move on to something that has a bigger budget and more time to work on it before it comes out. But sure, I would love to work in live-action, but there's a trust thing, and it's not esy getting to work on a TV series or movie. For such a long time, I told myself, 'No, no, no, I like this autonomy that we have' in that there are less big hands in the kitchen, and we're allowed to do our initial take on things. Of course, we always get notes, but not as much as some of the stories you see in film or TV. The bigger the project, the bigger the spotlight, and the more people you have getting involved. We've had it pretty good, so I don't know, it's hard.
At this point, you've adapted a lot of major DC storylines, but are there any left on your bucket list which perhaps aren't so well-known or do original stories interest you more?
To be quite candid, I haven't read a comic in decades so even in some of the new ones coming across my desk now, they're new to me and completely original as a result. So, sometimes, I'll just put a spin on that which makes sense to me and is original. I'm guided by the comics, but not as much as with the classic ones. My time in comics and when I was a fan was the 80s and 90s, so there's a lot I'm familiar with which have a nostalgic feel because I read it and can then get across how I felt about them. With a lot of the newer ones, I read the story, and then I'm trying to figure out what in it is speaking to me and how it makes me feel.
Does having that fresh point of view help you? I know when our readers see your name, they always say 'This is going to be good,' and I'm guessing it must be quite freeing?
I hope so. It's always hard to tell. For me, the dilemma is, 'Are people going to respond to the fighting, action, and big explosions, or are they going to respond more to what's going on with these characters and what they're feeling? Am I getting something honest from them?' I choose to focus more on the character dynamics and their emotions, and the personal story. A lot of times, even if you're a character focused director, it feels like what we do is a little bit invisible sometimes, people like it or they don't, and don't think about why they like or hate that person. I focus on the things which I think sometimes people aren't really focused on; it slips into the consciousness a little as we're highlighting that, sometimes in a subtle way as it's an invisible art. I'm just glad that people are responding to it in a positive way.
With that in mind, do you find it freeing as a creator to do different things with characters like Batman and Superman in an alternate reality like the one in Red Son without having to hit the expected plot beats people expect?
It is. I feel like it's a similar discipline, but it's fun. The first time you work on a Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, you're playing with these guidelines and you can't go across certain things because that's not their character, or there are certain things you need to remember that have to come up. So, when you're playing with these characters, and they're different, it's fun because you still have these rules. With Superman: Red Son, on the surface, he's just a Communist Superman in an alternate dimension like Spock with a goatee and it's flipped where he's evil. However, he's not evil. He's still Superman with Superman's morals and sensibilities but with a different philosophy. So, we still had to play him like Superman, but he just has a Communist sensibility now. He loved Communism and truly in his heart believes it's the right thing. Again, it's fun, but it's different because it's just a different set of rules. It's okay for him to kill people, but they have to deserve it. There are still some rules for it.
Finally, these animated features seem to have taken on a life of their own. How much does it mean to you seeing how much fans love them and the merchandise they've spawned?
It means a lot. I was a fan before this. I remember Batman: The Animated Series, and in the past, people would only know these characters through comics but that's changed. I think it's great that some people's whole knowledge about someone like Batman is through cartoons and not comics. It's really interesting and flattering that their introduction to the Justice League or Teen Titans is here, and then seen as their canon. It's great and I always say that as hard as this job is, and it sometimes feels like it's thankless as you're spending so many hours on it, hearing that they enjoyed it, I don't feel like I could get that from a different job. I love it when people come and talk to me and say that the films brought them so much joy. That's the best and the actual reward from all this, and the best part of it.
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