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'Smallville' co-creator Alfred Gough on the 'Superman' challenge

According to New York Magazine's Vulture blog, "Insiders say the closely-guarded script for 'Superman' suffers from major third-act problems, and the studio faces a ticking clock on that franchise, legally speaking; if a Superman film isn't in production by 2013, Warner Bros. loses the rights to the entire Superman franchise and would have to re-license it from its original creators — the estates of Detective Comics writers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — at great if not prohibitive expense."

For an interview in tomorrow's Live, I recently spoke to Alfred Gough, who co-created TV's "Smallville" with Miles Millar (the two also wrote the script to "I Am Number Four"). He reminded me of Superman's changeable screen history -- and how hard it is to establish a new identity for the Man of Steel and still please fans of Superman comics.

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"We were approached by Warner Bros., where we had an overall deal to develop TV shows, literally ten years ago ('Smallville' finishes its TV run in May). Literally we're about to go off and shoot the 'Charlie's Angels' pilot in Miami and ten years ago we were shooting Smallville in Vancouver. They had gotten Superman from the feature division. They were like, 'we want to do Superman in high school, how do we do it, how is it not cheesy?' Remember this is pre-superhero movies. The first 'X-Men' hadn't come out yet and the last generation of Superman had been 'Lois and Clark.' How do you do make it and how do you ground it?

"We realized, going back to the roots, that what's interesting about Superman is that he has been adjusted for every generation. In the Forties he fought the Nazis. Then he was sort of a G-man for the Fifties, the George Reeves Superman doing Clark Kent with the coat and the hat, very matter-of-fact and practical. Richard Donner did the films in the 1970s and made it all epic. Then in the Nineties, with 'Lois and Clark,' he was kind of a yuppie. So it always fit the times.

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"Our challenge was, how do you take the guy everybody knows, who's the squarest of superheroes, not cool like Batman, who's not Peter Parker feeling responsible for his uncle's death -- Clark never having had that kind of angst -- and go back to the basics without re-doing what Dick Donner did with the help of [screenwriter] Tom Mankiewicz on 'Superman.' (We loved Dick -- when we had worked on 'Lethal Weapon IV,' we had talked to him about his 'Superman.')

"So we came up with the idea of him crashing to Earth in a meteor shower for a very practical reason -- if a space ship crashes in 1989, how does every satellite in the world not pick it up? Also, if you're Clark Kent and you have these superpowers and you're in a small town, what are you fighting every week? It can't always be social injustice in the cafeteria.

"The idea that kryptonite gave normal people powers was an idea that sustained the series -- also, that Lex Luthor was in Smallville as well. At the time we were burned in effigy on the Internet. I went back to my old high school a year and a half ago and there were seniors who had started watching when they were eight or nine -- and this show had become this generation's understanding of Superman.

"Of course, the next people who start it up will be hated at first, too. I mean, when they took the first Superman film to Comicon, they hated it. There's a certain level of Superman fan you're never going to please.

"But when they screened the pilot of 'Smallville' for the DC writers in New York, and they really liked it, you felt you got a seal of approval. When they finally saw it, the editor of the comic book at the time, Jenette Kahn, said a lot of them were saying, 'Why hadn't we thought of that before' -- the highest compliment to get from people that live and breathe Superman on a daly basis and have for decades."

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