Movie : The Fiendish Machinations of Lex Luthor
Director : Sam Locke
First of all sir tell us about your love for puppets. Do you have any interesting story to share from your childhood that is related to your affinity with puppets?
Growing up I had a lot of hand me down puppets from my older brother. I loved watching The Muppet Show and the Jim Henson hour. I especially loved the episode of the Jim Henson Hour where they showed the secrets for building the muppets, though I didn’t have the supplies to try it myself, until I was older.
For a school project, I once retold a fairy tale with a hand me down rabbit puppet and a sock puppet fox that my mom helped me make.
When I was in High School I tried to make my own version of Little Shop of Horrors and made a paper mache version of Audrey two that was puppeteered via fishing line controlled at the top of a ladder (to keep the puppeteer out of view of the camera)
What according to you could be the angst of a modern puppeteer? What do you think makes puppet shows different and interesting?
I would say the most difficult thing as a puppeteer for me is making sure audiences realise that puppetry is for everyone, not just children. For some reason this has become a real stigma, when like any artform it can be adjusted for any audience.
For me the draw of puppet shows is that a performer can be anything, and anything can happen. An audience might have a hard time if I were cast as “Superman” in a film, but when I put on the alien puppet in his costume, the audience has a little easier time accepting this new reality. It’s similar to animation in that sense (while, clearly, very different in other ways)
Tell us about your decision to bring to two intriguing and gleeful concepts together, that of puppets and comic books. What was your initial plan?
The idea came to me years ago as a doodle. The image of Clark Kent as a little grey alien and his glasses still being enough to hide his secret identity was something that made me laugh.
It took eight years to get the puppet design the way I wanted it to make the short, once the puppet looked right I began to script the short. I met with my friend Dustin and he helped me find ways to punch up the script.
I felt from the start the best way to portray the character would be puppetry, as a person in a costume would just look like a person in a costume, and CGI would not allow the performers to have a physical object to interact with.
Have you grown up watching and reading about Superman and the encounters with his arch rival Lex Luthor? As it is evident that you had to understand the equation between the two in order to write the dialogues.
As a kid, my dad would let me stay up a little later than my bedtime when Nick@Nite would show “The Adventures of Superman” starring George Reeves, and I loved that old show. Later I discovered films starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, which were really my introduction to Lex Luthor, and from there Clancy Brown’s interpretation on Superman: The Animated Series. There are so many interesting takes on the characters but the one key element is that Lex Luthor thinks he’s the smartest man in the room (and sometimes he’s right.)
The dialogue for Luthor, in our short, was really enhanced by the actor Derrick Gaetke. Derrick is also a big comic book fan and was able to punch up Lex’s dialogue in the script to give him more flowery phrases which gives him a truly authentic Luthor voice.
How difficult and important was it for you to find the right balance between levity and seriousness in your dialogues?
It’s definitely important to strike a balance, especially with something like this. I often look to “Young Frankenstein” as an example of how to do this well, where most of the performers play as though they were in an actual Universal Pictures monster movie, but with jokes and asides sprinkled in.
I wanted to take a similar approach with this. The opening monologue is a mixture of the 1950’s Superman television series and the Fleischer cartoons. It’s very earnest, and we used practical effects to evoke the feeling of those opening sequences, but then you see this little gray alien in a slightly baggy Superman costume, or his Clark Kent suit with glasses. Then we switch gears to a robot attacking the city, before we get into the real plot. It was definitely a delicate balance, because if the performers went too far one way or the other the tone would be lost.
Even more so, the music was very important to achieving the tone. Lisa McQueen, who is a music director that I met years ago at the Annoyance Theatre, did an amazing job scoring the short, with music inspired by classic science fiction films, as well as the Christopher Reeve Superman films.
The conversations were full of witty one liners , jokes and ridiculous rebuttals. The gibberish utterances of Clark Kent and Superman added to the humour of the plot as well. Tell us something about the process of writing the dialogues. Was there a specific or a number of inspirations?
The process was definitely interesting. I’m involved in the Chicago improv scene, specifically the Annoyance Theatre, where collaboration is very important to creating scripted shows.
When I decided it was time to finally make this short, I met with my writing partner Dustin Levell. At this point I wanted to make sure the script didn’t feel like just one joke, Dustin had the idea to treat Lex Luthor a bit like Wile E. Coyote, and it was Dustin’s idea to have Lex produce a projector towards the end. From there I wrote a second draft and gave it to my production partner Peter Robards for notes.
As I mentioned before Derrick Gaetke really cemented the dialogue for Lex Luthor early on. My assistant director Joe McDaniel and our Lois Lane Kat Evans came up with Lois being the one to really save the day in the short. Colin Stanley really cemented the characterization of the officer he plays in the film, and did several takes where he improvised additional dialogue. The conversation between Lex and the officer towards the end was improvised by Derrick and Colin and goes on much longer than it did in the film.
Tell us something about the performances in the movie. Was it initially difficult for the actors to deliver their lines without letting loose a smirk or a cackle? Was it even more difficult to contain the laughter in the more serious scenes?
We had a few table reads of the script prior to shooting, so for the most part our actors were able to keep their laughter in check until “Cut!” was said. There was definitely laughter between takes, and moments while getting closeups etc. where the performers improvised their dialogue. But usually laughter during a scene that couldn’t be controlled was when the puppet would malfunction. Arm rods would sometimes fall out of the puppets hands, or I would accidentally pop into the frame etc.
The depiction of the initial sequence involved the use of computer graphics. Do you think it substantially helped your plot move forward?
The only computer graphics used in the film were the words on the screen for the opening titles. Everything else was completely practical.
The outer space background that Superman stands in front of in the initial sequence was a black cardboard display stand with LED lights wired through small holes, with styrofoam planets. We filmed a dolly moving away from the planets while my fellow puppeteer, Noah Ginex, held a smoke machine beneath the camera to create fog, then we ran the footage backwards, and used green screen to superimpose the puppet in front of the background.
To me, using the practical effects was essential to putting the audience into the world of a Superman story, because there’s always been an old fashioned air to the character and his world.
The story suggests the typical nature in human beings of consciously complicating the simple and looking past the evident and the obvious. Do you agree?
Oh one hundred percent. The short is inspired by the long standing joke that it’s a bit silly that people can’t figure out that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person because they wear glasses. One of my favorite parts of the short is when Colin doubles down on his reason for not believing by saying “but he has Super Vision!!”
Finally can you tell us about the need for stories to exist today in a world tormented by violence, chaos and indifference?
I’ve always viewed movies and stories as an escape from the real world. When I watch a movie I can forget for a few minutes about my troubles or the things that worry me, and focus on something else. That’s why I tend to lean towards the more fantastical and sometimes sillier stories. Additionally I think it’s important to share these moments with people you care about, because not only are you sharing in this break, but it can often let others understand you more as a person because of the kinds of stories you enjoy.