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SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE - The Making of the Motion Picture
Bringing the Man of Steel to the Silver Screen.
By Edward Gross
February 18, 2000
© 2001 Warner Brothers
For anyone doubting the impact Christopher Reeve had on audiences in his interpretation of Superman, they need look no farther than the world's reaction to his tragic horse-riding accident four years ago. The love and support demonstrated spoke volumes and drove home one point in particular: twenty years ago you believed a man could fly.
For those of us who were there for its initial release, it may be a bit unsettling to realize that it's actually been twenty-one years since the theatrical premiere of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, the epic motion picture that reintroduced the Man of Steel to a generation who had grown up on syndicated reruns of the George Reeves television series.
What few may remember in the intervening years since 1978 is that SUPERMAN had spent years in development prior to production and that for a time it was being shot simultaneously with its sequel, SUPERMAN II. It was a filmmaking move which had been preceded only by THE THREE and FOUR MUSKETEERS and followed by BACK TO THE FUTURE Part II and Part III and the forthcoming LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.
'You never realize how big and impossible a job it is to tackle a picture, because if you did you'd probably never do it,' proclaims Richard Donner, the director who took the reigns of the first film in the Superman series and whose credits include the LETHAL WEAPON films. 'I knew I had a major picture with major problems, but you surround yourself with very talented people; you have an approach, and you're going to correlate all of those suggestions and thoughts--hopefully--into some sense of objectivity, and you go out and make it.
'We had the task of making that film out of my office. I had a secretary, an assistant and a wonderful editor. Things were a mess throughout the making of the entire film. Every time we wanted to do something, their production department would cancel it, bills weren't paid, people wouldn't deliver products, and we had to hustle, rob, beg, borrow and steal. SUPERMAN is a tribute to a lot of dedicated filmmakers, I'll tell you that. But, hey, that's showbiz!'
'Showbiz' is a term that epitomizes not only the making of SUPERMAN but the film's producers as well. By 1974, the father-and-son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind had come off of the international success of THE THREE and FOUR MUSKETEERS. Wanting to tackle another fable, they turned their sights to D.C. Comics' Superman and purchased an option to adapt the character on film. Shortly thereafter, they announced that SUPERMAN would have a budget of $20 million and that it would be shot simultaneously with its sequel. This latter point was emphasized to avoid a situation that occurred on the MUSKETEER films.
Explains Richard Donner, 'They made one picture called THE THREE MUSKETEERS but, according to [director] Richard Lester, they found they had a long film and [Richard] said, 'Hey, we can chop it in two and, adding a couple of days, we get a second finished film.' So they made THE FOUR MUSKETTERS out of the footage and didn't want to pay the actors for the second picture. Now there's a requirement in actors' contracts called The Salkind Clause, that says you have to declare how many pictures you're doing when you're shooting. When SUPERMAN was packaged, I insisted that every contract for every actor had to be drawn on the basis of two films. From the beginning we had the intention of making two films. I used to get a hernia from carrying the script.'
No surprise there, considering that the Salkinds had gone after Mario Puzo--at the height of THE GODFATHER's popularity--to write the screenplay. Completed in 1975, that script numbered an incredible 550 pages. Most people agreed that although the basic storyline was a seemingly fit one for films, its length and overall campiness made it impossible to shoot as written.
'It was a well-written script,' remarks Donner, 'but it was a ridiculous script. For one thing, here was this producer, a guy named Pierre Spengler, who was going to supervise making this film for the Salkinds, and he had a 550-page screenplay. Well, number one, I said, 'You can't shoot this screenplay because you'll be shooting for five years.' And he said, 'Oh, no. It's fine.' I said, 'That's totally asinine,' but that was literally a shooting script, and they planned to shoot all 550 pages. You know, 110 pages is plenty for a script, so even for two features that was too much.
'It was a parody to start with, in an odd sort of way,' he adds, 'but they parodied a parody and kept compounding that felony all the way through until it became much like the BATMAN television series. They had things in it like Superman is looking for Lex Luthor; he flies down and taps a bald man on the shoulder. He turns around and it's Telly Savalas, who says, 'Who loves ya, baby?' I couldn't see going that way with it.'
Neither could the first director they approached, Richard Lester, who would ultimately go on to direct SUPERMAN II and III. 'I was asked because we had worked together on the MUSKETEER films,' explains Lester. 'I said, 'I really don't think I know how to do this,' because most of the work that I try to do has a fairly firm grounding in some form of social reality from which I can take off and go in the other direction. I remember saying, 'I don't know how much Lois Lane would pay for her apartment. Or how much a pair of shoes costs in Metropolis.' That's where I normally write my gags and do my little bits, and I felt I was wrong for it. I've never had a feeling for comic books or comic strips at all. So I declined but added, 'The one thing that I think is really important is that you make sure you do it in period.' So they thanked me very much for my advice and ignored all of it. I wanted to do it in the '40s, but what do I know?'
Their next choice to helm the project was former James Bond director Guy Hamilton (GOLDFINGER) who, in turn, brought in writers David and Leslie Newman and Robert Benton to rework the Puzo script. 'The original idea,' explains David Newman, who with Benton wrote the screenplay for BONNIE AND CLYDE and the 'book' of the Broadway musical IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S SUPERMAN, 'was that Benton and I were going to write SUPERMAN, and Leslie and I were going to write SUPERMAN II simultaneously. But since we were going to write these two movies with all the same characters, we all had to begin making up the stories and the characters together, so we went to Europe where the producers were based. We wrote the first draft of the first film, and Bob got his next picture, which was KRAMER VS KRAMER, so after the first draft he couldn't be involved on SUPERMAN. At that point Leslie shifted over to SUPERMAN I; then the two of us did both the first and second film.'
The resulting plot of the first begins on the planet Krypton, where we're given some background on Superman's heritage, witnessing his father, Jor-El, sacrificing himself so that his son can survive, with Krypton exploding while young Kal-El rockets to Earth. The middle third of the film took place in Smallville, where Kal-El is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who name him Clark and raise him to adulthood. Section three has Clark come to Metropolis where he gets a job as a reporter on the Daily Planet, begins to fall for Lois Lane, reveals himself as Superman for the first time and comes up against criminal genius Lex Luthor, who has developed an elaborate real estate scheme involving nuclear missiles that will cast California into the ocean.
While all of this was at work, the Salkinds were finding it impossible to raise the financing for the film. Reflects Donner, 'The interesting thing is that the Salkinds had tried to sell this project in Cannes for a couple of years, and every year there was a helicopter with a banner that said, 'The Salkinds Bring You Superman.' But they had a tough time convincing the powers that be to give them the money, because no one was sure if they were going to deliver.'
Adds David Newman, 'They went to all these different guys who controlled distributorships around the world and said, 'Would you be interested in Superman?' And all of these people said, 'Yes, that character is well known in my country. We would love to have a movie about Superman, provided it has that character and three major international stars.' Those three stars could have been anybody playing anything.'
'Charles Bronson could have played an ashtray,' quips Leslie Newman. 'They didn't care.'
As is well known, the first actor signed for the film was Marlon Brando, whose many acclaimed credits included THE GODFATHER and APOCALYPSE NOW. Muses David Newman, 'People ask, 'Why did Brando [who played Jor-El] get $3 million for 10 minutes of film?' Because, thanks to Brando, they got the financing to make the movie, and thanks to Brando Gene Hackman came in [as Lex Luthor, a role originally designed for Dustin Hoffman], and so on. Instead of being a Saturday morning kiddie movie, it became a big movie because the world's most famous actor was in it. So it lent class to the production and made it a serious film.'
Of appearing in the film, Brando noted in the pages of THE MAKING OF SUPERMAN THE MOVIE, 'To tell the truth, I don't really remember Superman when I was a kid. Of course, everybody knows Superman, so the film has a good chance of being successful....[But] Superman is a heroic symbol to children. All children--because they're small and because they feel uncomfortable and inferior to adults--have fantasies. They enjoy themes which they can be a part of, where they can be big. They enjoy seeing themselves as Superman. So it will be a big release for them to go and see this film. And most of their parents will go too, because so many of the parents feel helpless in the face of taxes, laws, chaos, crime--the 'distress of life.' They feel helpless to do anything, so it's good for them. And, naturally, it's enjoyable. There are times you just want some kind of popcorn and happiness. We all have to find a way to unwind. All this getting and spending--it gets to us.'
At the time, Gene Hackman, who had scored so successfully as Popeye Doyle in THE FRENCH CONNECTION and its sequel, admitted, 'I don't know why they thought of me; I'm not sure I would have thought of me. But Brando had already committed to the film and I felt that his name gave a certain credibility to the project. And I had always wanted to be involved in a film with Marlon Brando. My main concern, however, was whether or not I could make the part work for me. But Lex Luthor was the best time I've had in years. Someone once said that the villains have all the fun, and Luthor is the ultimate villain.'
Following the casting of Brando and Hackman, as Donner notes, 'They ran a sign at Cannes that said, 'The Salkinds Bring You Superman....Written by Mario Puzo....Starring Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman.' Overnight they were accepted, so when I came on the picture these two guys were going to do it. I was thrilled, because neither part could have been played better by anybody. We were also married to the dates that were promised to Brando and Hackman, and that was an awesome responsibility.'
The original intention was for the SUPERMAN films to be shot in Rome, but they weren't because of Brando. Explains David Newman, 'Guy Hamilton was an Englishman with a tax problem, which a lot of English people have. A lot of guys have their residency outside of England, but they maintain their England citizenship, because if they're in England for more than so many days consecutively, they jump into a terrible tax bracket and lose like three quarters of their salary. Guy was one of these tax exiles, so he couldn't shoot in England because of his tax problem. When we got Brando, the idea was that we were going to shoot in Italy, and they were building sets. We worked the entire summer in Rome. Then Marlon Brando was cast, and Brando, they found out, because of LAST TANGO IN PARIS, had an obscenity charge hanging over him, and the charge was that if he set foot in Italy, they'd throw him in the slammer because he was in a supposedly obscene movie. So Brando couldn't shoot in Italy, and Guy Hamilton couldn't shoot in England. At that point, to the producers, it seemed that having Marlon Brando was much more important than Guy Hamilton. Hamilton said goodbye and Brando said hello, and Richard Donner became the director.'
For Donner, who had just had a tremendous box office hit with THE OMEN, the request to direct SUPERMAN came as a complete surprise. 'As was their [the Salkinds] custom, whoever was hot was who they used,' offers the director. 'THE OMEN had just come out, and I got a telephone call one morning and some guy said, 'This is Alexander Salkind.' I said, 'Yes...' 'You don't know who I am?' 'No.' 'Have you ever been to Cannes?' 'No.' I thought it was someone trying to sell me a story or something. He said, 'I'm a film producer.' I said, 'Oh really?' Who was this guy? So he said, 'Did you see THE THREE and FOUR MUSKETEERS? I said, 'Yes' and he said, 'We're doing SUPERMAN, and we want you to do it. We'll pay you a lot of money.' I said, 'Terrific, I like a lot of money, but I don't know anything about the film.' He said he would send me a script and literally 30 minutes later a messenger delivered a 500 page Mario Puzo screenplay. I read it and turned it down. Right or wrong, the way they were going was not the way I would've gone with a Superman project. They offered me a lot of money, but I still turned it down because THE OMEN had been very successful for me, and I really wanted to pick carefully. Besides, the script needed a major rewrite. They called back and insisted, and suggested they fly me out to Europe to talk to him. My agent and I flew over on the agreement that, if I did the film, I could bring in a new writer. They resisted that idea, but ultimately agreed to it. I wanted to use Tom Mankiewicz, who has been a friend for 20 years, but we'd never worked together. He also knew Benton and the Newmans.'
Explains Mankiewicz, the writer behind three James Bond movies, 'Bob Benton is a very close friend of mine--he's like my brother--and I called him up and said, 'Do you have any emotional attachment to this script?' He said he was thrilled that I was going to get involved. So Dick Donner and I took over. Our approach was to basically say that this was really happening. As to the nature of my work on the script, let's say the Puzo and Newman scripts had a scene where Superman landed on Lois' balcony at night, a two-page scene. I made it a five or six page scene and had him take her flying at the end. It was mostly building around what was there. I think most of these pictures work when you don't make fun of what's going on. The ones that are best are the ones that are done balls-out as though it's really happening. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a great adventure because everybody plays it like they mean it and they don't wink at the audience. When Superman lands on her balcony, it's a guy asking a girl out on a date.'
Richard Donner explains, 'The picture had been prepared for a year in Rome. When I came on, we had to throw out the entire preparation, because we couldn't use it. It was originally going to be directed by an Englishman and produced by two Russian-Frenchman, and yet they were doing a classic American fable without an American eye looking at it. When I agreed to do the film, I was concerned that Superman shouldn't get screwed up. I never realized what a challenge I was taking on. When I arrived at Shepperton Studios and saw the preparation, I asked them to show me the flying material. I watched it and was stunned to see a man walking along who's jerked off the ground by two wires, and then landing out of control. So that was the first thing we had to correct. Then we had to cast the role, and they wanted to use Robert Redford or something.'
Every major Hollywood actor was considered for the role, but the vast majority of them just couldn't get beyond the idea of wearing the famous Superman costume. Reflects Donner, 'We had seen just about every actor imaginable from television to motion pictures to everything else. Nobody fit the costume. Nobody could fly. If you saw Bob Redford flying, it would be Bob Redford flying. There was no sense of reality. That was the key to it, the flying. You had to believe that a man could fly. I tested quite a few of the actors, but nothing worked. The producers even sent over their dentist. I swear to God that's true.'
David Newman reveals that when writing the script for the feature with wife Leslie, they had Burt Reynolds in mind for the title role. 'We did not want to be camp,' he emphasizes. 'We had to present this character who was truth, justice and the American way, but not someone who was going to be a Boy Scout. We needed someone who you would see seriously as an action figure, but there had to be a little bit of playfulness, a wink. The take we had then was Burt Reynolds-the Burt Reynolds then, who was at the peak of his career. He had this thing where he would wink at you and say, 'I'm having fun here, folks,' but then you'd like it anyway when he punched somebody out. We're talking about the Burt Reynolds of THE LONGEST YARD. So we wrote Superman with Burt Reynolds in mind.'
Although Reynolds was indeed considered for the role, certainly the most bizarre possibility was then heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali! As David Newman explains it, when the production team was pursuing Dustin Hoffman for the role of Lex Luthor, they dealt with his European agent, Sir Jarvis Astaire, who was reportedly knighted due to his success with 'enormous betting shops.'
'He was also one of the guys who started close-circuiting boxing matches in movie theatres in the U.K. and all over Europe. In 1975, Muhammad Ali, when he was making his comeback, fought a professional wrestler, a Japanese wrestler, and it was a ridiculous fight. But it was a big deal, a big publicity stunt. Sir Jarvis Astaire had the close-circuit rights, showed it all over Europe and made a fortune. When we wanted Hoffman, the producers said, 'Let's go see Sir Jarvis Astaire' and we all flew down to Cannes. We're sitting in the bar and Sir Jarvis comes in. Ilya is the dreamer and the one who thought of the idea of SUPERMAN and SANTA CLAUS [which became another Salkind feature film]. Alex, who is Ilya's father, doesn't know anything about any of these characters. He always calls them 'Mr. Superman' and 'Mrs. Lois Lane.' Santa Claus he called 'Mr. Christmas Man.' He's wonderfully brilliant in some ways, but he doesn't keep up with things in other ways. So Ilya has to keep him filled in.
'We're sitting in this bar, and before we get down to business, we're having small talk and someone says, 'What's new, Sir Jarvis?' And he said, 'Well, I made a bloody fortune with this Ali-Wrestler fight. We made millions and millions of pounds.' Alex hears this and says, 'Who is this Mr. Ali?' And Ilya says, 'He's the heavyweight champion of the world. He's on the cover of every magazine in the world.' Alex says, 'Why he couldn't play Superman?' And there was just silence. Nobody dared speak. Part of the deal was that DC had general approval over the image of Superman. DC never really interfered, but they had some approval rights so their character wouldn't be screwed up. So there was this long silence. Sir Jarvis doesn't give a shit because it's another opportunity to make some money. He said, 'I'll get Muhammad on the phone. It's a great idea.' And finally--finally--Jarvis is halfway to the phone to call Muhammad Ali, who I'm sure would have loved to play Superman, and all of a sudden Ilya says, 'Maybe it's not such a good idea, Dad. Before he was Muhammad Ali, he used to be Cassius Clay.' And Alex says, 'Oh'--the light bulb goes off--'that's a colored fellow. Okay, not such a good idea.' I swear to you, there was five minutes there where we saw this whole project blowing up sky high with Muhammad Ali as Superman.'
Notes Tom Mankiewicz, 'We didn't know who could possibly play Superman. We had Jon Voight in the wings for a lot of money and we were trying to find somebody.'
Things were looking hopeless until Christopher Reeve walked into casting. 'I met Christopher Reeve in New York,' says Richard Donner. 'I had gotten a call from someone who said, 'There's a kid who's terrific. Would you like to see him?' He was about 20 or 30 pounds lighter, his hair was a sandy color, and he had dressed in the burliest clothes he could find to make him look good. He just had this great look, and I gave him my glasses to wear, and he looked so much like the part it was unbelievable. Nobody wanted to go with him because he was an unknown, but the idea to me was that we should go with an unknown so that you could make it believable. It ended up just that.
'I still have photos from his screen-test,' Donner laughs warmly. 'He was this stringbag, this skinny, skinny kid in blue leotards with an 'S' cut into the front of it, sweat pouring out from his arms, and black shoe polish on his hair to give it a black look. But he swore to me he was an athlete and that he could put on weight and build up, so we hired him. We gave him a given amount of time, set him up with this Olympic body trainer and poured all kinds of protein into him, and one day he flew in to our office and was perfect.'
As SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE prepared for production, Christopher Reeve reflected on his being chosen for such a significant role. 'I think it was basically because they had to have someone who could look like the public's idea of the comic-magazine character. And that is a very precise image which has existed for forty years. So the producers had the responsibility of taking the image the public had known for all that time, and then they had to 'modernize' it, bring it up to date with the seventies, because the public conception of the character has, of course, been influenced by the George Reeves television series of the fifties.
'I think that I was a pretty good compromise,' Reeve continued, 'that I do--once the make-up and stuff is complete--look like the guy in the comics. And yet, I also look like a man of the '70s, rather than a '50s person. So the reason I was selected was that I answered a very specific physical description....Well, of course they needed a good actor, too. But the public reaction on that score, I think, is fairly low. People are assuming that the actor who plays Superman really doesn't matter, as long as you have somebody who looks the part....And I think the producers would have settled for that. What I'm trying to do is give them more than they expected.'
Nearly as pivotal a role to the film was that of Lois Lane, because her relationship with Superman would be the one that locked the film firmly into reality. In other words, if you believed that this was a real man and a real woman falling in love, you'd accept everything else as well. As was the case with Superman, every Hollywood contender was considered for the role of the Daily Plant's ace reporter. According to Tom Mankiewicz, the choice was narrowed down to two.
'The two finalists for the part were Margot Kidder and Stockard Channing,' explains Mankiewicz, 'and the reason for that was that they were both so charming. We had hired Chris first, and he was so young. The way I'd written the part of Lois was that there was a goofy quality about her, and it just worked out that the best tests were by Margot and Stockard. The real truth is that if Chris had been five years older, Stockard Channing would have gotten the part. She looked a little older than Chris. Margot, on the other hand, had this total kind of naiveté about her, a goofiness, and they worked better together.'
With the rest of the cast rounded up (Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine as Luthor cohorts Otis and Miss Teschmacher, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Marc McClure as Jimmy Olsen, and Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O'Halloran as Kryptonian villains Zod, Ursa and Non), with the script being tightened up by Tom Mankiewicz, with flying sequences being perfected and sets constructed at England's Pinewood Studios, production was ready to begin, and everyone was determined to update Superman for modern audiences while never losing sight of his origins.
Points out Leslie Newman, 'Superman is one of the basic American legends. David's always said that it was our King Arthur. People asked why we were doing a movie about a comic book hero, but nobody thinks it's odd to do a movie or musical about King Arthur or Robin Hood. Superman isn't just a comic; it's a myth, and it contains elements of so many of the basic myths: the god who walks among men.'
David Newman elaborates, 'The notion of a god who walks among men disguised as a man occurs in every mythology, and there are biblical connotations in this legend as well: a father who says, 'I will send my only son to Earth to save mankind!' We all know where we've heard that story before. It has such resonance...'
'The loneliness of the god-like figure,' adds Leslie Newman.
The intention of Richard Donner was to bring a purist view to the film, keying in to the original Superman mythos and avoiding the treatment given the legend via the 1950's television series. 'I knew the Superman legend and grew up on it,' he enthuses. 'I knew I didn't want to do what television had done to it. Every kid remembers the TV show. My biggest responsibility to the project, I felt, was somehow having to find some sort of objectivity in visualizing Superman, because everybody has seen him in their own way--either in the reality of a drawing or in the fantasy of their own mind. So I had this tremendous responsibility of trying to find some sort of middle road. Also of jumping the time lap from 1938 to 1978. That was the most difficult flight of them all: not just making him fly, but making him fly through that time warp to be accepted today.
'As we got into it,' he continues, 'I saw it as three separate films. It was a trilogy in our eyes. One was Krypton, where we broke away from tradition, because when I came on to the project, their preparation for Krypton was exactly the way it looked in 1939, and I just knew that was wrong. Then a very wondrous man, John Barry, who had also done STAR WARS and died shortly after making this film, came up with a 'modern' Krypton, which we felt was crystalline, like the inside of a stone. Then came the second part of the trilogy, which was Smallville. We didn't research the comic book all that much, but we did spend a lot of time in Norman Rockwell. We just wanted to make it Kansas-Americana. When we got to Metropolis, we wanted to go back to the comic book.'
Throughout its production, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was plagued with budget overruns, much of it attributed to the fact that the filmmakers were treading new ground from a special effects point of view. Not only did this force production of SUPERMAN II to be temporarily halted, but it nearly shut the entire operation down. Lost in the chaos was a cliffhanger that would have connected SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE with its sequel, and as a result the conclusion of SUPERMAN II--the Man of Steel turning time backwards to avoid a tragedy--was rewritten for the first film.
'I did steal certain script areas from the second picture that I felt all of a sudden worked better in the first,' Donner admits. 'When the picture was finished, I had to cut an hour out of it because we had an excess amount of material. It's the kind of picture, thank God, I had an hour to cut out. If this had come in on time, we would've been in a lot of trouble, because it's got to be kept as fast and alive as a comic book. It has that bigger-than-life attitude. I also decided that if the first film wasn't a success, a cliffhanger ending wouldn't bring them in to see SUPERMAN II. We'd done what we set out to do, and there was no real way of capping it. And I felt it wouldn't hurt the love scene between Lois and Superman in the end if I went on and did that, so I just said the hell with it.
'The way the film originally ended in terms of the cliffhanger,' he continues, 'is that Superman was going to leave Hackman and Beatty in prison, fly up past the camera-- just as he does--and then I was going to pan up into the sky and pick up the rocket that he had left tumbling. You see it shut off and you see the Zone of Silence with the three villains in it; then, all of a sudden, the rocket goes past them and there's an atomic explosion, and it blows up the Zone of Silence, freeing Terence Stamp, Jack O'Halloran and Sarah Douglas. Then you see them going to the moon, where they destroy a moon mission. Then they go to Earth and start breaking up the White House and such. But I figured it was just too much like television--tune in next week. So we chopped it.'
Concurs David Newman, 'The original idea was that Superman would throw one of those nuclear rockets into space and release the villains. I loved that, too, because in order to save one thing, Superman inadvertently created another problem for Earth.'
'It was a great idea,' enthuses Leslie Newman, 'but unfortunately you had the time lapse of two years between movies. And Richard Lester said, 'Nobody is going to remember how part one ended.' So that's when we came up with the Eiffel Tower scene and the terrorists in II. The cliffhanger, which I now remember quite vividly, had the villains being freed, with us not knowing if Superman was alive or dead because of the nuclear explosion. The villains yelled, 'Free! Free!' That later became the beginning of SUPERMAN II.'
During all of this, Donner's relationship with the producers disintegrated completely, much of the blame for which he puts on producer Pierre Spengler. 'Spengler was the liaison to Alexander Salkind, and he supposedly had this knowledge of production,' Donner explains. 'My God, I've been in this business long enough to know what a producer is, and it was ridiculous for him to have taken this job. As far as I was concerned, he didn't have any knowledge at all about producing a film like that. If he'd been smart, he'd have just laid back and let us do it; but instead, he tried to impose himself. So, not only did we end up producing it, but we also had to counter-produce what he was doing. It was very difficult.
'At the same time, though, I will admit my naiveté. Because if I were producer of a film like that, the first thing I would have done was put 'X' number of dollars into proving I could make a man fly, and then go from there. Probably the stupidity on Spengler's part made the film possible, because if anybody had tried it for the money I suggested--$100,000--they would never have made the picture. Nobody knew how to go about it. It was just the blind leading the blind, all experimentation. But I was very fortunate. I was surrounded by a terribly talented group of dedicated filmmakers, and somehow or other, we pulled it off.'
As problems mounted, rumors arose and then dissipated regarding the possibility of Donner's being replaced as director. This didn't happen primarily due to the fact that Warner Bros. had taken over distribution and had directorial approval. The studio wanted Donner. 'Warner Bros. wasn't actually involved with the film for quite a long time,' points out David Newman. 'The original idea was that the Salkinds were going to own this movie lock, stock and barrel. They would make separate deals country by country, and it would be released in different places by different people and, theoretically, would make much more money. What finally happened with SUPERMAN is that it cost so much money that the Salkinds didn't have it. They gave more and more of it to Warner Bros. until it came to the point where it was a Warner Bros. picture everywhere around the world except for four or five countries.'
'There were only four names on their [the Salkinds'] director's list,' says Donner. 'It was me, [William] Friedkin, [Steven] Spielberg and maybe someone else. It was just this misplaced loyalty they had toward Pierre. That was their mistake. Monies were just flushed away--totally wasted. And that was heartbreaking to me. I hate to see money thrown away when it should've been up there on the screen. None of it was wasted flamboyantly, you know. Nobody lived big or did ridiculous things with it. It was just a total lack of knowledge--that's all. If I were arranging a picture like this, instead of hiring people that were more stupid than I was so I'd look bright, I'd have hired the brightest people in the whole goddamned world--if for no other reason than just to save me. And he did just the opposite.'
One thing that did happen was that Richard Lester was brought in as a liaison between Donner and the producers. 'I knew Dick,' points out Donner, 'so it was just wonderful. The deal stipulated that he wasn't allowed to attend dailies or be on the set unless he was invited, and he turned out to be a charming, delightful guy, and they would go through him and the same thing back from me. That was his function on the film, and we became good friends. But that turned into him taking over SUPERMAN II without picking up a phone and calling me.'
Explains Lester, 'Shortly after production began, it was obvious that there was trouble between Donner and the producers. I was then asked to come in to try and, I suppose, listen to both sides and smile at everyone. I had to serve as a liaison and tried to smooth away some of the problems, and it involved a little bit of rewriting the ending. I helped form another model unit, miniatures, just to try and help it get through. I certainly did no directing on the first one at all. I would go back at night with my face in a perpetual grin. I became Nancy Reagan before Nancy Reagan was invented.'
But could the problem be traced back to the director or the producers? 'It has to be both,' Lester emphasizes. 'They must have had some elements on which they agreed in the beginning, but by the time it was into shooting they certainly didn't have any common ground, and there was a great danger that the whole project, which was employing a lot of people, was going to collapse....maybe even because of a fist fight, which Donner would have undoubtedly won. It became necessary for somebody to try and help them carry on. I wasn't able to raise more money so Dick Donner could do things the way he wanted to, and by the same token I just tried to find a means by which they could operate. But you could see the difficulties. Nowadays you can do the effects on video in a few minutes and put it back on film. Of course none of that existed then. We had to use these bloody wires and paint them out frame by frame. Even the most basic of traveling matte was not really well developed at that time. And the double zoom front projection system hadn't been invented until then. There were problems, but we overcame them as best we could. I remember somebody had come up with the idea of having a clockwork motor and some whale bone in the cape on SUPERMAN I to try and get the cape to flutter in the right way in some of the long shots for flying. The cape moved moderately convincingly, but it looked like Superman was also going to appear in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. All sorts of ridiculous ideas were tried out. Dick Donner was very good in that, if anybody had an idea, he would listen to them and indeed tried them out. That's why he was good for the project and why the producers were going crazy. Money was being spent and they were getting months--indeed, years--over schedule.'
Despite everything, the resulting SUPERMAN film was deemed something of a modern classic, spawning three sequels and such spin-offs as the SUPERGIRL feature film, syndicated SUPERBOY television series and, indirectly, the more recent LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, the only Man of Steel project in recent years--with the exception of Superman IV--not to be produced by the Salkinds.
For Richard Donner, who justifiably basks in the success he has achieved in the 21 years since the release of SUPERMAN, it's clear that he holds the legend of the Man of Steel, and his contribution to it, in great regard.'The thing that got to me on the film,' he says, 'and that I wanted to do much more of--and I guess if I didn't have so much story I would have--is the idea of Superman appealing to our daydreams. How many of us have had a great desire to be Superman? To be impervious to pain and accomplish anything that you set out to do? Also, it seems like people are beginning to help each other a little more, and that's the whole point of Superman. He's there to help us, and wouldn't we all like to be him for one goddamned minute? It's a mythology that reaches what is real today. Most mythology, as you know, is period in its being. He just seems to have gone along with time so very well.
'As for my personal feelings? I obviously have a tremendous affection for Superman and what he stands for in my life. I owe him everything.'