Screenwriter Stan Berkowitz guides another classic DC Comics graphic novel to animated glory in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.
Berkowitz brought Darwyn Cooke’s landmark Justice League: The New Frontier from pages to screen in 2008, and this year he’s converted the words of Jeph Loeb into a summer popcorn-style blockbuster with the crafting of the script for Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.
In Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, United States President Lex Luthor uses the oncoming trajectory of a Kryptonite asteroid to frame Superman and declare a $1 billion bounty on the heads of the Man of Steel and his “partner in crime,” Batman. Heroes and villains alike launch a relentless pursuit of Superman and Batman, who must unite – and recruit help – to stave off the action-packed onslaught, stop the asteroid, and uncover Luthor’s devious plot to take command of far more than North America.
Berkowitz has been actively writing for 30 years, focusing his efforts on animated properties for the past dozen years. His animated credits range from Superman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series to Justice League, The Batman and Legion of Super Heroes, with stops on shows like Static Shock, Batman Beyond and Spider-Man along the way. Prior to moving into the animated realm, Berkowitz garnered credits writing episodes of T.J. Hooker and the latter-day versions of Dragnet and Adam 12.
Berkowitz pushed the keyboard aside to discuss the differences between his film and Loeb’s initial take on the tale, the importance of great voice actors and a fine director, reaching into the DC vault for his childhood memories, the little things Alan Burnett does to make a big impact, and the ideal writing environment. Read on … Stan Berkowitz is speaking.
Why was this story right for you?
I love the political aspect of it. In the comic book that Jeph Loeb wrote, it was assumed that everyone knew the backstory to how Luthor got elected President. But we needed the movie to show an audience, who might not be familiar with the comics, exactly what would have to happen for Luthor to be elected. I sort of envisioned Luthor ascending to the Presidency somewhere around 2012. I didn’t quite predict the catastrophe we’d be seeing in 2008. But I figured that something bad would happen, and then Democrats would be elected in 2008, they wouldn’t be able to solve the problem and, in 2012, a tough, Ross Perot-style third party bid would be the one who’d be elected.
It was kind of fun for me to envision the political atmosphere that would have to take place in order for that to happen. And I also had a wonderful time going with Jeph’s depiction of Luthor’s descent into insanity – always keeping in mind that Clancy Brown would be enacting the dialogue. It was just great to write that.
Superman/Batman: Pubic Enemies follows Justice League: The New Frontier as your second DC Universe film adaptation of a classic DC Comics graphic novel/com series. Are there specific challenges to adapting a well-known story?
SB: Each adaptation is different, and presents different challenges. In New Frontier, the challenge was compressing all the material into a coherent 75-minute story. In Public Enemies, the challenge was making the thematic concerns concrete because the comic author had the luxury of a narrator to talk about the themes. And when we did the screenplay, we had to show the themes in action, having things happen to illustrate those themes.
For Public Enemies, there was also the issue of credibility. We were concerned that if a person who vaguely knows Superman and Batman grabs this off the shelf and sees Lex Luthor as President, he might think, “hey, what’s going on here?” It might just put them off, or make them think this was an alternate world story. And that’s not how it’s advertised. The other credibility issue is that in the comic, Luthor believes that the meteor is coming to Earth because of Superman. As a reader, I could not get past the fact that the public buys Luthor’s explanation. I didn’t believe an audience watching this as an animated production would buy Luthor’s explanation. So Alan (Burnett) and Bruce (Timm) and I had to figure out an alternate way for Luthor to frame Superman. I think it worked very well.
What makes Lex Luthor such a great villain?
SB: I think anytime you do a story, you have to ask yourself, “What does the villain want?” And the more complex the villain, the more unusual a thing it is that he wants – and, thus, the better the story will be. In Luthor’s case, he’s like Salieri to Superman’s Mozart. Salieri would have been the era’s greatest composer had it not been for Mozart, and Salieri knows this. In the same vein, Luthor would have been the leading light of our generation except for Superman, and there’s nothing that he can do about it. He’s cast into the shadows, and that’s why he has that pathological hatred of Superman.
You’ve written Batman, and you’ve written Superman. Now you’ve gotten to write them together? What’s that dynamic like to combine them and use that chemistry to bring out the personalities?
SB: Well, Batman and Superman are opposites. Superman has always been presented as the character from the light, the daytime; Batman from the nighttime. They have decidedly different outlooks. Superman is the ultimate kid from Kansas, who had a real healthy upbringing. Batman is the tormented orphan. In a way, Superman’s outlook is too sunny, and Batman’s is too dark. The two of them work against each other, trying to temper each other’s attitude.
Superman wants to cheer up Batman to a certain extent, and Batman wants to make Superman aware that there is a darker world under what Superman normally sees. It’s fun to create banter between them. It was also fun to adapt the banter that was in the graphic novel, and we used a lot of it. Jeph’s words were so good, we just pulled dialogue directly from the pages of the novel.
Are you thinking of the cast’s voices when you’re writing and, if so, does that help you write?
SB: I’m definitely thinking of the actors’ voices. Not to denigrate Superman and Batman, but this is Luthor’s story. Luthor has more dialogue than either Batman or Superman. And frankly, I actually gave him even more dialogue in those long speeches because I was hoping Clancy Brown would get the part, which he did. It’s so pleasurable to watch – and hear – Clancy do those Luthor lines, to watch Clancy’s descent into madness. It just brought me back to the days when I got into this medium in the first place. Suddenly, I was just a 13-year-old with a movie camera having fun with my friends and doing these little movies. It had that same visceral pleasure for me. Tim (Daly) and Kevin (Conroy) are sensational, too – those were also the voices I had in mind while I was writing. But this really is Clancy’s vehicle this time.
Do you remember your first experience with Superman and with Batman?
SB: Easily. The reason I remember this so well is that when I started working on the show Superboy in Florida, I was flown to New York to meet Mike Carlin and Andy Helfer at DC Comics. And we talked for most of the day about the Superboy show and then they just casually mentioned, “Oh, by the way, we happen to have a library here of all the comics that DC has ever done.” Well, I got to go see it. I went into that library and found the very first two comics I’d ever gotten. One of them was an issue of Batman Detective Comics with a character called Garth, and it involved a crossbow being used to kill someone in an empty room. The strings had been held back by a cake of ice. And when the ice melted, the crossbow let go and killed the guy sitting in this deserted room. And the other one was a Superboy Adventure Comics from August of ’58, where Superboy played all the positions on a baseball team, thanks to his super speed. And I remember I’d been sick in the evening, and my father went out and got the medicine for me, and also picked up those two comic books. So it was kind of cool, almost like reaching into a time capsule, because I hadn’t seen the comics in over 30 years.
What is your strength in this industry?
SB: I think part of my strength is work habits. One of the lessons I learned from my very first job after film school was from Russ Meyer. He said that from the time you wake up ’til the time you go to sleep, when you’re on a show, the show owns you. You don’t own the show. There’s no going home at 6:00 at night. I have no idea if there’s any creativity involved (he laughs), but I’m fairly certain that the conscientiousness might explain some of the longevity.
Which presents more challenges: writing an original Stan Berkowitz story or adapting someone else’s work?
SB: Doing an original presents more challenges. The adaptations are already there – the studio knows they want to do it. In both the case of New Frontier and Public Enemies, I was approached by the studio and asked if I wanted to adapt them. Getting your own thing off the ground is much, much more difficult because even in our little world of animation, the, pre-selling is an important factor. And in both the case of New Frontier and Public Enemies, you had best-selling comics that the fans already knew.
What’s the perfect environment for you to write in?
SB: I like an empty room, and that’s all I really need because there are absolutely no distractions. No TV, no internet, just a quiet room. It works for me. And it helps me to work faster. From the day they decided to do Public Enemies until the day that the first draft of the script was ready, it was exactly 60 days – which is really, really fast for a feature-length project.
When I started writing in film school, I’d have the TV on. Now I can’t even have music on. It just has to be dead quiet with nobody around, nobody coming to bother me. It’s all about concentration. I can go for about two hours before I need a distraction, then I come back and go for another two hours. If you plan your whole day carefully, you can get in eight hours of work and probably six to seven pages of finished screenplay a day. There are other writers who can do 10 or 12, but they’re probably burned out after about a week or two.
Beyond the narrative, are there any other key differences between Jeph Loeb’s version and what we’ll see in the movie?
SB: I think the largest one involves what Superman is framed for. We just didn’t find it credible that the American public would believe that Superman was somehow drawing the meteor to Earth. We thought we needed something that made a little bit more sense.
My first instinct was to have Superman accused of an attempted murder on Metallo, and then have this whole thing where ultimately Metallo plays a key role by donating his skeleton to be the nose cone of the rocket. That didn’t work, and then Alan (Burnett) suggested having Metallo murdered and framing Superman for that. Then Alan asked the next question and answered it himself. “Why would anybody believe that Superman had killed Metallo?” And the answer that Alan gave for why people would believe that Superman would kill was that Superman’s mind was already being affected by the kryptonite radiation coming from the approaching meteor. Suddenly, the public is afraid that a crazed Superman could just go off the handle and kill anyone. I felt that that was a very effective way of framing Superman.
What’s the influence of Alan Burnett on the DC Universe films?
SB: Alan Burnett has become an uber editor of all of the DCU DVDs, and hopefully that remains his role from now on. I started working for Alan in 1996 and, in my opinion, you could not ask for a better guy in that position. He’s almost always one of the few adults in the room. Inevitably, he’ll come up with something that seems really small, but then changes the whole story and makes it work. The radiation effecting Superman’s mind is a perfect example. I never would have thought of that. But then here’s Alan sitting quietly and then saying something that fixes everything. That’s what Alan does. His criticisms are always constructive. And you never, never see much ego involved – at least I haven’t in the past 12 years.
What it’s like for you to hear your words take life in a recording session?
SB: It’s fun, but it makes you appreciate just how good everyone else involved really is. For starters, Andrea (Romano) makes it look very, very simple, but I urge anyone who thinks it’s simple to actually try to direct actors. It’s hard. Very hard. They speak a different language. We were working on an episode of Justice League, and I happened to get to the recording session early and the only other person there already was the lead villain. We started chatting and, of course, the conversation turned to “How did you see this guy?” So I tell him my concept of the character. I swear to God, it took Andrea an hour of recording time to undo the damage I’d done because I spoke to him from the wrong perspective. An actor wants to know the internal emotional aspect of how the character feels, and I was describing the character from the outside, as how you would see him.
I’ve been blessed in that Andrea is one of the few dialogue directors I’ve worked with since 1996. When you hear an actor – who’s either bad or who’s badly directed – doing your dialogue, you start thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a terrible writer.” And then you hear your words being directed by good director, working with good actors, and you say, “Hey, I’m good. I can write dialogue.” That’s the pleasure of being in a recording session for one of your scripts.
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Special thanks to Gary Miereanu
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