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How to Make a Superhero: The Original Sketches from SUPER

Making the Crimson Bolt a unique-looking superhero was one of our most difficult tasks in SUPER. SUPER is chock-full of shifting tones – from grindhouse film to arthouse film to action film to comedy: so we needed a costume that could play dark in some scenes and light in others. The Crimson Bolt needed to look real; this was a real guy making his own costume, not a superhero with a professional tailor like more superheroes seem to have.   There needed to be some humor to his costume, but it was also important that there was an underlying creepiness and insanity to the way he looked.  The costume needed to play in different ways depending on the angles and lighting we used in each scene, as well as how the performance of Rainn Wilson, the man inside the mask, influenced thing tonally.

The one thing I knew for sure was the insignia:

When I first wrote the script, back in 2002, I sketched this little picture of the Crimson Bolt’s insignia, which comes as part of his initial psycho-spiritual vision in the film.  I have a big bulletin board in my office, and this little sketch hung there for the next seven years while I finished many other projects.  (The other thing from SUPER that stayed on my bulletin board for seven years were extremely tiny storyboards of Frank Darbo’s entire spiritual revelation – they’re almost exactly the same as what’s in the movie today.)

Years later, this insignia was one of the first things I drew and colored and sent to costume designer Mary Matthews.  I remember having a lot of anxiety about switching the direction the mask was facing – it seemed right, but it wasn’t my original vision (these are the kinds of things I get worked up over).

I still think it’s funny that the Crimson Bolt wears a sketch of his own mask on his chest.  R ainn Wilson and I started talking about the insignia this weekend and laughing hard, as no one ever seems to notice how weird this actually is.  In an early draft of the script there was a scene between Libby and Frank, where Libby questioned why he had his mask on his chest when people can just look at his face and see it there, and he becomes befuddled.

Costume designer Mary Matthews sent me a few initial designs that weren’t working for me, so I tried to draw what I thought the Crimson Bolt’s mask would look like.


As you can see, this is pretty close to the eventual mask.


I really wanted to have the chin strap. We tried it on many early versions of the costume but it just didn’t seem to work.


As Mary Matthews was designing the final version of the costume, the words I kept using were “Frankensteinian.”  I’d see the character of Frank putting his all into creating a superhero costume, yet he has absolutely no tailoring ability whatsoever.  He would continually be chopping it up trying to make it fit right.  But it would be too tight, and he’d have to add another piece of cloth.  Or it would be too loose and he’d have to add another cut.  Eventually he would find out the tailor didn’t have any more of the original cloth he was using, and he’d have to add other material of a similar color.

Every time the costume folks would bring me a new version of the costume I would say it wasn’t fucked-up enough – more cuts! More patches!  I honestly would have kept going, but we eventually needed to start shooting and use what we had.

As for the character of Libby/Boltie, played by Ellen Page, I never drew any sketches.  I did, however, often bring up the look of “Mikaela” in my XBox short, Sparky & Mikaela, which was also designed by Mary Matthews.


Mikaela’s look was made up of articles of clothing basically found in American Apparel.  I wanted Boltie’s look to be similar.  (Incidentally, Mikaela Hoover, above, can be seen in very funny turn in SUPER as one of the Holy Avenger’s pals, Holly).

Libby would make something sleek, sexy, and totally inappropriate for fighting crime. I also, strangely, didn’t want too much thought to be put into it as it was something Libby would be making in a day or so.  (And we didn’t put too much time into it – I think I saw the costume once, a day before shooting! I made a couple of changes, and away we went.)

Libby’s costume needed to clash with Frank’s in every way: it’s sleek where his is a mess, it’s bright and colorful where his is dark. Nothing looks more ludicrous beside Batman than Robin, and I think Libby would be into this.

Our third superhero in the film is the Holy Avenger, played by Nathan Fillion.  We haven’t yet released any photos of this Christian TV hunk (star on the All-Jesus Network) – we will soon – but we do have this screen grab from the trailer:


It’s important to note that the idea for the long hair was 100% Fillion, who suggested it on his first costume fitting.

My sketch for the Holy Avenger is somewhat different from the final product, especially in color choices, but it too is “inspired by” the real-life Christian TV star “Bibleman” played by former Eight is Enough actor Willie Aames.

And, before I leave you, here, one more time, is the trailer:

Best,

James

PS For those of you at South by Southwest, be sure to come by the screening Saturday night, March 12, at 10 pm. I will be in attendance, along with stars Rainn Wilson and Ellen and Page! We’ll do a Q & A after the film.

Be sure to see SUPER in theaters this April, starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, and Nathan Fillion, written and directed by James Gunn.

Is SUPER playing in your town? Check out the list of U.S. playdates HERE.

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