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“How You Bring a Story to Life Is Just a Question of Your Imagination”: Editor Otto Burnham on Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story

A still of Christopher Reeve as Super Man.Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story , courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Archival footage and previously unseen home movies lend a new perspective of Christopher Reeve’s rise to stardom in Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story.

Editor Otto Burnham shares his approach to cutting Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s doc, which makes it Sundance 2024 debut in the festival’s Premieres section.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor questionnaire here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job? 

Burnham: I was rollerblading badly in East London on a bright, chilly January morning in 2022 with director Ian Bonhote when he cryptically told me, “I’m directing the new Superman movie…” We had been looking to work together again since Rising Phoenix in 2020, and once he told me about his plans with Peter Ettedgui for a Christopher Reeve biopic, I was sold. We were in the edit about a year later. 

Super/Man is our third film together as a trio, and I think the factors that led to me being hired are to do with creative trust, a shared vision and project ambition. I work well by myself. Ian and Peter give me space to experiment and develop ideas, but we work incredibly well together, democratically—everyone trusting the others’ instincts. They switch between being my parents and brothers in the blink of an eye.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Burnham: I wanted Superman to rock. I grew up watching Chris as Superman—not the first time around, as I was born in 1984—but certainly during the ’90s on VHS. My memory of Chris and the way Superman made me feel—his authority, the music, the flying—t’s crazy to think that it’s actually 45 years old. I really wanted to convey the way it felt to me as a kid.  

Peter, who wrote the story for Super/Man, wanted the film to run two narratives consecutively, pre-accident and post-accident. Both provide obvious highs and lows, but the journey of his post-accident life was the one which really provided the biggest emotional swing and opportunity to really get inside who Chris was. 

Transitioning between the pre- and post- portions of Chris’s life as an emotional journey—not just a conceptual one—was a challenge. Each segue between these narratives required a continual story flow, but I didn’t want them to feel predictable or require any kind of device to achieve. Some needed to feel abrupt to offer maximum emotional contrast between Chris’s “two lives,” and some wanted to just keep the emotional rollercoaster ride going. They ended up being very satisfying to overcome in the edit, and hopefully enjoyable to watch!

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur? 

Burnham: Endless sketching and doodling while trawling the archive, master interviews and Chris’s spoken autobiographies Still Me and Nothing Is Impossible. Sometimes a phrase would spark an idea or a piece of music would do it, but I would file these little nuggets to one side and then slowly patch work ideas together which then as a trio we would refine together. 

Memory and reflection were a constant theme. In his autobiography, Chris spoke so much about looking back at his life post-injury with a kind of longing—being “whole again.” I wanted the film to reflect this. Glimpses into what he has lost and now has to figure out how to get back after his accident in 1995. In many ways, this is an editor’s dream, because it affords you the ability to convey loss, grief and longing through love. You can play with the pacing of these “memories” in a number of ways, often juxtaposing the past over the present and vice versa. 

A big one was trying to modernize the presentation of Superman, a little like watching the film through rose-tinted glasses. Offering snatches at the start to give you that Superman feeling is a particular favorite. I hope the reverence I feel for Superman is reflected in our film’s depiction of it.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work? 

Burnham: All my influences come from movies and video games—their use of story, character, music and editing style. I love the power of cinema to manipulate and overwhelm you emotionally. Documentary, however, provides the incredible starting point of a blank slate, story-wise. How you bring a story to life is just a question of your imagination.

I spent time in Los Angeles with my uncle, who runs a camera rental business, after I finished university. He was an inspiration and helped me believe I could find a path in film. In London, I climbed the greasy rungs of post-production—MCR op, assistant editor, online editor and, finally, staff editor. It took a long time and a lot of night shifts, but gave me access to equipment I couldn’t afford to edit as well as grading music videos and short films in my spare time.

So much of where I have got to has been a journey of gaining trust and respect from people and taking opportunities with hard work and creativity. I love drama, I love tension, I love crying, I love excitement, I love being scared. I love editing! I see the edit suite as an opportunity to bring a vision to life—helping a director (or directors) realize their dream in the edit while bringing (I hope) flair and strong ideas to the party is incredibly satisfying.  

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Burnham: Avid, because in the UK, it’s the documentary to go-to. I use Premiere plenty, but not usually for long-form projects.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Burnham: Probably the end. To say why would probably spoil things, but managing the emotional flow and payoff of any story is a challenge, and cracking Chris’s was particularly hard. 

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?

Christopher Reeve’s story is not one people are familiar with, but is a name that for many people is synonymous with Superman.

When the film was announced to premiere at Sundance, we received an email from a long-time fan of Superman and Chris who had been paralyzed (like Chris). He spoke of how when he was first lying paralyzed in a hospital bed considering what his life would be now, he received a letter from Chris. The comforting tone of the letter, encouragement given and promise that he would not rest until a treatment or cure was found was truly inspiring. It was like after everything everybody said, here it was all embodied in that one letter from Superman himself. I think what I’m trying to say is I came to the film knowing Chris was and always will be the Superman, but after working on it, I realized that he actually was

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