Superman Returns / 2006 Composed / Edited

Superman Returns / 2006
Suite from Superman Returns
# Title Duration
Main Titles 3:49
Memories 3:07
Rough Flight 5:13
Little Secrets / Power of the Sun 1:43
Bank Job 2:21
How Could You leave Us 2:38
Tell Me Everything 3:13
You're Not One of Them 2:22
Not Like the Train Set 2:00
So Long Superman 5:31
The People You Care For 3:27
I Wanted You to Know 2:56
Saving the World 3:12
In the Hands of Mortals 2:11
Reprise / Fly Away 4:15

John's Thoughts

Where Was I?

I was just beginning rudimentary work on Fantastic Four when Bryan (Singer) called one night informing me that he was faced with big decision that was making him sick to his stomach. He would have some news for me in a few days. Click. Eeeek. Somehow I sensed this meant all the assumptions about beginning pre-production on X3 were a little pre-mature. But my focus was to start thinking of themes for F4, so I just went along doing my thing. You always remember where you were when something traumatic happens – like when Kennedy was shot. Well this can hardly compare, ok. But a few days later I got the next call. I was standing in my studio staring at the bathroom door – just happened to be the direction I was standing. Ironically the X2 poster was to the left of it. Me: "Hello?" Bryan: "John …" (in that strained, "something is up" tone) "I'm doing Superman Returns. And you know what that means musically." I'm not sure what my first words were, but I know I had a wide-eyed spooked look as I calmly uttered, "Okaaaaaaay." Then I think I might have asked, "Whhhhhyyyyy??" Bryan began talking about the project, but soon his words morphed into the gibberish you hear in a Charlie Brown episode as the off-screen adults speak. While listening to whatever he was saying, I felt my brain racing, not even interested in his enthusiastic words, but instead I was already doing a million calculations about what the hell I was going to do about the music. A dark cloud was instantly forming around me. I went to bed that night in a daze, and for the next few MONTHS, I would wake up in the middle of the night and the mornings with the Superman themes tormenting me in my head. I knew this was a new film, and so I had to write a new score. But I also knew it would be selfish and just immoral to abandon the main theme that, to me, IS Superman. I also felt the doom that I was walking into a musical slaughterhouse. No matter what I did, I was going to be burned at the stake. And I was already getting hate e-mail months before I even wrote a note. Eeeh gads. Would I be shot in public?! Also this was going to be a long haul, being that I'd also be in editing jail for a year. Boy was I looking forward to THIS one.

Are you done yet?? The plane is waiting!

I had to try and put this dread aside, because I really wanted to have fun on Fantastic Four. Goodness knows this was to be the last fun thing I'd do for awhile! Yet it was a lot of work, and because of constant picture changes, the recording dates kept pushing later and later. To my dismay, Superman's preproduction went without a hitch. They were right on schedule. Shit! My other editor, Elliot Graham, already in Sydney, was calling me every couple days, "Are you done yet?" When are you getting here?!!" Soon Bryan was calling asking when the heck I was coming – they were already shooting. Shit! My being a couple weeks late was turning into ten. I was barely done mixing the music to Fan 4 and drove directly from the mixing studio to LAX to catch the 11PM flight to Sydney. Thus began my brief 14-hour vacation on the plane. When you arrive in Sydney, it's early in the morning. So you have the whole day ahead of you to drop your stuff, and get right to work. (On the personal side, re-locating is a bitch when you're also in a relationship and building a house at the same time. This was yet another strain throughout the 5 months in Sydney. I also started getting the emails from my music editor in LA that they re-edited Fan 4 so much that the score was being chopped into shreds. But I had to remember Jerry Goldsmith mentioning that once the score is delivered, it's out of your hands. Well, this time it was at least.)

I wasn't there more than a few hours in the editing room, when the comments were already coming … "We're really looking forward to what you're going to write." Blah blah blah. I hadn't even started cutting yet. It would be eight months before I could even start writing.

Sydney was a great city (although when you're in an editing room you don't see much). I found the Australians to be a wonderfully "unaffected" genuine people, liberal, and always kind-hearted. We also had some great assistants in the editing room I miss terribly – Brett (who's a master at lending his voice. In fact, we kept his voice in the film as the fighter pilot), Phoebe, and Tamara who were brilliant. I could never remember Tamara's name. I just kept thinking it was "Tamarak", which is sort of the Romulan version of her name. So that's what I called her. Phoebe, who I called Fi Fi, got me hooked on Vegemite on toast, which grossed out Elliot. I found by mixing marmalade and Vegemite together (discovered that on the plane) you get that perfect blend of sweet and sour. I digress. After five months of shooting and editing, we returned to LA to begin honing in on the editor's cut of the film. There was one big area of the film ("Metropolis Disaster") that was still in flux. The original idea had to be scrapped for logic and cost reasons, so we had a big hole in the film. All we knew is that Superman had to be shown doing SOMETHING heroic to imply he saved the city. After three weeks in LA we were just getting over the jet lag, when we had to return to Sydney to figure out what to do for the sequence and also get some pick-up shots for other scenes, which hadn't been done yet. After we scripted out the beats for the Metropolis sequence, the film went into immediate pre-production to shoot it. It would require instant location decisions, and last minute CGI planning. The bank job was a scene that was also approved late in the schedule, so it too had to be shot. This was another hole in the film. A month later, we returned to LA for good to get the cut together tight enough so I could feel comfortable beginning to write the score.


After months of anticipating the looming task, it was time to begin writing. To make a long story short, once I got into the groove and got my feet wet writing, I realized that I would be crippled if I kept worrying what people would think. My job was simply to do what was right for the film and listen to my own inner voice to tell me what to do. If I set out to do a Williams sound-alike, it would be a disaster. I just had to approach it as I would any other assignment and use my own sensibilities and approach while weaving in the Williams theme, as being the main theme of the film. This essentially set me free, and then the ideas began to flow.

Diving in, I realized that I was looking at writing about two hours of music in the time I would normally have to write 80. It was almost like scoring two films. Plus there were always editorial issues that were a distraction. Then there were some dreaded cues, which I knew were coming. I never remember the "M numbers" of cues, only their titles - EXCEPT those cues I'm dreading or become a thorn in my side. Those M numbers you never forget! In Superman Returns it was 3M12 ("Rough Flight"), 7M3 ("Metropolis Mayhem") and 8M4 ("Saving the World"). The latter two were more thorns in the side. But approaching a cue that's been looming is all about mental preparation much like a fighter psyching himself up to go into the ring. The only difference is he probably doesn't load up on Starbucks just before he walks in.

New Themes and Tourettes

The over-all challenge was coming up with a new central theme for the film that reflected the personal side of Superman; one that could reflect his personal turmoil and sadness. But at the same time, this very theme had to suggest a shimmer of hope and love, as my idea was to eventually pass the theme to Jason, Superman's son. I wanted them both to share a musical identity. In the film this theme is usually characterized by the celli, with choral support. (For Jason, the celli gets pretty much replaced by the clarinet, and the piano motif within the theme becomes the more child-like celesta.) When I came up with the theme, this kept me up at night too, because it was such a departure from the temp score. I had to sell it to Bryan. I knew there had to be an emotional through-line for Superman, which would also add a grace and elegance to the film. The challenge with a film like Superman Returns is to lay out how a central theme will evolve and where it will have a pay-off – a sort of grand scheme. The pay-off for this theme is when Superman leaves Lois in the seaplane and rises into the sun to rejuvenate his powers. At the apex of this moment I used the choir to carry the theme's "answer", and it came out way beyond my expectations.

Lois too needed new music, but I couldn't get my traditionally disciplined head around how I could justify this! She HAS a theme. But the original Williams theme was not designed for this new chapter in Lois' life, and did not work by itself. I needed her to have new music to convey her conflicted love and pathos. I'm not sure what to call it, but one night while doodling on the keyboard with the flying sequence I stumbled upon some chords that to me elegantly brought out the feeling I was searching for Lois' new life. Thank God when that happens! You just kind of go, "Ooh, that's cool. Hmmm, I like that," … and go from there. The fear is that you just don't' come in the next morning, hear it, and wonder what you were thinking. Once I fleshed out the melody I knew it would carry well with her throughout the film. But I also didn't want to deep-six her original theme, because, to me, it's the signature sound for the character. So, not surprisingly, I scored the sequence with the new music while weaving in her original theme almost like a tease. I'm still not sure what to call the new music I wrote for her, but, in the words of the King in Amadeus, "Well, there is it."

In lieu of synthesizers, it's always full-filling if you can somehow come up with colors or odd overtones using the acoustic instruments. I wanted Kryptonite to have a bizarre and freaky musical feel. For its introduction in the film I simply used the woodwinds in two's, holding notes atonal to each other. I started with two bassoons in their higher register, then staggered in two clarinets in another range, followed by two flutes flutter-tonguing. Under this I did the 'ol super ball rubbed-on-the-gong trick. This first incarnation of the Kryptonite motif is not on the album, but is heard in the boat scene where Lex examines the Kryptonite shavings. I then added a light finger tapping on the roto-toms. But the grand experiment for the Kryptonite motif was in later sequences when I wanted it to get more disturbing. I kept thinking how freaky the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey felt with the weird random choir. I wasn't sure what Ligetti did to achieve that, but I didn't want to know what he did just so that whatever I attempted might sound a little different. So I wrote random lines for the men to quiver in varying ways with random accents. I instructed them to act as if they had Tourettes Syndrome! Damon, conducting, rolled his eyes back at the booth at that comment. But, it worked. I was afraid when we started recording it would sound ridiculous, but as we worked on it, it ended up sounding great. And with choir, it's all about how it's mixed within the orchestra. A little too loud can be cheesy; buried too much, it can make the cue muddy.

The other fun theme to write was Lex's. He never really had a theme in Superman, as the music reflected his sidekick, Otis. (I miss Otis!) I wasn't originally going to write a Lex theme until I realized that the motif I came up with when he takes his wig off in the opening scene seemed to work in so many areas that followed. As it turns out, this descending chromatic brass motif, supported by aggressive low string ostinatos, ended up being a strong thread in the film – the best being when I was able to interweave it with the Superman march in "Saving the World" – the infamous cues that was written four times.

Shuffling the Deck

Superman Returns was the first film I'd done with Bryan where he asked not to make drastic editorial cuts or restructuring until we lived with a longer cut. Usually in the past I tried to anticipate future issues and make aggressive edit decisions ahead of time, along with delivering a cut that resembled the final film. This was always the safety net to ensure that when I went off to write, we had a film that worked. But this was a slightly different approach, and it certainly drove me a little nuts. The initial 3-hour cut eventually became 2:30, but within that 2:30 a lot of re-conceptions in the first act were to occur – as I was writing the score.

Exactly how the film was going to open was always unclear. There were multiple ideas. This was especially worrisome when I looked at the calendar and the looming recording dates. But I also had to keep thinking that my agenda was not to just get through the music, but to make sure the film worked as well as it could, no matter the hell it would cause me musically. For the longest time, the film opened with a comic book opening ala the '78 film, then a long prologue from Jor-el over images of the first movie (which was odd), then we went into the four-minute title sequence, only to lapse into an extravagant six-minute journey through the wreckage of Krypton, then the crashing into Martha's yard, yadda yadda yadda. I wrote music to all of these scenes except the Jor-el opening. By the time the first line of dialog came, it was about 20 minutes into the film. Lex wasn't even introduced for at least a half hour. I guess about a month or so into writing the score, we came up with a new idea that was not only to make truncations in the first act, but also to make Lex's introduction the first scene of the film. This served to initiate a plot line right away. The new scene order wreaked havoc with what I had written, but the new way of beginning the film made a huge difference. Also, by having Lex's intro be so early in the film (when he takes off his wig), it allowed me to have a clear introduction of his music.

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Todd-AO is a great scoring stage. The only thing is that I had only recorded a couple cues there ten years before (for Cable Guy). When you get comfortable recording in a certain environment, you tend to orchestrate for it through the experience of knowing how the score will sound. Going to a familiar recording stage (in my case, Fox) is a good security blanket, which is desperately needed when facing a high-pressure project. And this was one high-pressure project. BUT, my engineer, Casey Stone, thought the larger Todd-AO would be a good stage for Superman, and Fox was booked up on our dates, for, ironically, X3. My core team besides Casey is Amanda Goodpaster (music editor) and Damon Intrabartolo (chief orchestrator/conductor/best friend). Bless their souls; my mood tends to affect them very symbiotically, because they care about my well being. I was apprehensive not only because of the pressure of the project and the score, but going to a new environment. I was also walking in knowing I STILL had more cues to write in the evenings when I got back from recording – and that really is enough to damper any good mood. You just feel like there is no end in sight. So, needless to say, the negative energy flowed from me through the bodies of Damon and Amanda. Then it seemed as if it had permeated the entire room. It was surely our imagination, but the first couple days there felt odd. The balance wasn't what I was used to, and we were going slower than our normal lightning-speed pace. It felt as if a gloomy aura hung over the stage. As Amanda put it, "We just don't have our mojo." Thankfully the room was not stacked with execs and producers. I think that was also much of the anxiety – the fear of some bigwig walking in and causing nerves to fray even more. Fortunately few ever came! Also, the Todd-AO control room is also small, and my long legs were always crunched behind the desk. It's the little things you know! But the staff at the place was wonderful – namely Tommy, the second engineer, and Kirstin, the stage's manager – oh, and Sara Routh (Brandon's sister), who's not only a kick in the pants – but she gave great shoulder rubs. She had me in stitches one night where she said a nod I did of the Superman theme reminded her of Mighty Mouse. I told her to keep that to herself, but every time we got to that part of the cue, we looked at each other and I would crack up. On the third day we picked up the pace and were learning the room better. It was also nice to have a larger orchestra, as we began our first couple days with a smaller group. A larger string section definitely raised our spirits. The room was sounding great. First "whew."

We hadn't yet put up the main theme, however. One of the biggest fears was that it wasn't going to sound correct. I don't know what we were all so worried about. It's not like it was suddenly going to sound like "Mary Had a Little Lamb," but it all seemed so momentous that we feared perhaps the original scores would be riddled with booby traps or who knows what – some evil plot by Williams. So you could cut the tension in the room with a knife when Damon picked up the baton. As it turned out, the day we slated to record the Superman theme was also the day my parents came. Of all gigs, Superman Returns was not the one to invite a lot of guests, but I realized that in all the years I'd been recording scores, my parents never attended a session. So I invited them to come down from Northern California. I also thought, maybe it would be a good idea, because if Bryan freaked out at a cue he would have to be on better behavior with my parents in the room! Anyhow, the baton rose and we held our breath. But, 30 seconds into the main titles, Bryan looked around at me with an obvious expression of massive relief and approval. Whew! Of course, my mother, being a mother, was disappointed that the two days they were there, were mainly spent recording the Williams material along with a goofy oom-pa-pa cue I wrote for the train set, and the music for the Genesis Project presentation in the plane! But they enjoyed it, nonetheless.

After we were done recording the score, we went to the good 'ol Warner Brothers Eastwood Scoring Stage to record two days of the 60 member choir, a guitar cue for Martha's kitchen radio that Damon wrote, and then a week and a half of mixing the score. It's a comfy control room and I love the guys (and gal) there. And my food soul mate is there, techie Ryan Robinson, as he prefers Weinersnitchel hotdogs and Taco Bell over more sheik cuisine.

Human Yo-Yo

The plan to mix the music at Warner Brothers was partly so that I would be in close proximity to the final dubbing of the film, which was starting across the lot at the same time I was mixing the music. The final dub is intense and long, directing the mixers on the balance between dialog, music and effects. It's also loud! There are literally hundreds of fader moves being programmed every hour, so it was imperative that I be on that stage as much as I could so that the mixers weren't going down roads they would just have to undo. So for the first week of the dub I was running back and forth between the music and dubbing stage. After the week of music mixing, it was nice to FINALLY be on the dubbing stage full time. Even though we were in the final of all final processes of making the movie, we were STILL making picture adjustments for last-minute effects shots that were coming in. Also, sitting back and watching the film on a big screen with polished sound we had a greater objectivity watching the movie. The reality is that you just can't change much in the final phases because of color timing issues and the hardship on the sound team when you change picture. BUT … once again we could feel that in a certain section of the film – we called it "The Living room Scene", the film wasn't working the best it could. For the second time during the final dub, I went back to the editing room to tinker with this scene to try and have it serve the film's story better. About this time (the second week of the 3 week dub), we finally had a locked down visual sequence for the Planet Krpyton opening sequence. Unfortunately no music had been written for it.


So we had a quick morning recording session at Warner Bros. about a week before the final dub was complete to record the Planet Krypton opening cue and a little cue for a scene we added of Clark waking up in bed. There was also one cue in the film I wasn't particularly happy with when Clark arrived at the daily planet. It was already dubbed into the film, and I just got that vibe from Bryan that it didn't particularly thrill him either. The iffy vibe from him was all I needed to confirm my own iffy feelings about it. That was enough for me to go re-write it. The only thing is that I didn't tell him, so I could just put it in the film and see what he thought. At that point you're all so tired, the last thing I wanted to deal with was cue approvals, etc, There was just no time. So I just wrote it recorded it anyhow.

Things Happen for a Reason

A couple days later I was in the editing room trying to figure out re-cutting that damn living room scene. The idea for the new ending of the scene had us cut from Clark to an exterior of the city then directly into the Daily Planet. So I put the new Daily Planet cue I had recorded into the Avid to make a scene transition. Fortunately I recorded the percussion tracks separately, so for the transition I pre-lapped the percussion from Clark over a shot of the city, then into the Daily Planet as the orchestra came in. When Bryan came into the room to see the new cut, he looked at me depressed and said, "Whatever that music is, I like it." (Implying that what he thought was temp music was better than the score.) I grinned, and told him I had just recorded that the other day as a surprise, never knowing it would also help with a new out for the scene. Also as fate would have it, a portion of a new cue I wrote for Clark waking up in bed was also used in the living room. I had scored a very long different conversation between Clark and Martha, and a portion of that cue was used in the re-cut scene and then we cross-faded to the "waking up" cue sans choir tracks for when Clark discussed where he had gone.

It's always a weird feeling after such a long haul when you're at the final day of the final dub and everyone looks at each other realizing it's over. It is a huge relief, but it's always sad to say goodbye. But the memories of the mayhem always remain. 

Then we had the premiere at a crappy theater in Westwood where the sound sucked. The End. :)