If you’re experiencing déjà vu as you await the release of The Snyder Cut of Justice League, there’s a good reason for it. Movie fans, and specifically Superman fans, have been here before.
The theatrical release of the 2017 superhero film followed news of director Zach Snyder stepping down and Josh Whedon stepping in to finish the project. Movie fans experienced the same thing two generations ago, when director Richard Donner was unceremoniously replaced before he could complete the sequel to the wildly successful 1978 opus Superman: The Movie. Donner, along with a superb cast that included Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, along with Margot Kidder and relative newcomer Christopher Reeve in the title role, had made us all believe a man could fly.
In doing so, Donner & company blew the mind of the 13-year-old version of this writer. It is not hyperbole to say that in making me believe that Superman could change the course of mighty rivers, Donner’s film changed the course of my life. I have never looked at a motion picture the same way since. Donner also directed hits like The Omen, Goonies, and the Lethal Weapon Series, but for this writer, Superman: The Movie is his masterpiece.
I’m far from alone in my love of the film. Forty years after Superman: The Movie’s debut, Fathom Events held anniversary screenings in select theaters nationwide. The film was screened at three separate events during Black Friday weekend in Sacramento two years ago. All three events sold out.
You can’t imagine the effort it took to calm my heart as I began an exclusive interview with Donner, now 90, by phone from his office in southern California. I’ve been waiting for decades to write just the headline to this piece. (Die hard fans of the film will get that reference!)
I started out telling Donner what should be obvious to you by now: Superman: The Movie is my all-time favorite film.
“You know what, Mike,” Donner warmly said. “You’ve got great taste!” The director’s quick reply was emblematic of our conversation: it was friendly and inviting, and a dream come true.
I asked Donner when he knew that he had made a film that was going to have a profound impact with millions around the world, and still revered decades later.
“I certainly didn’t know it when we were making it,” Donner said. “I was just trying to make the best movie I could make. I think it was during the first showing I attended — not the opening, but a regular screening in a theater, in New York. I watched the audience experience that movie and I was very moved, very excited.”
Donner’s on set mantra was “verisimilitude.” He told me that of his accomplishments with the movie, achieving that is the one of which he’s most proud, over 40 years later.
“Before I came on board, the script was kind of a parody of a parody,” Donner remembered. “It had been really well written by three or four really good writers, but they had been directed by a couple of Hungarians [producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind] who saw it as a comic book rather than a piece of history. Their script didn’t have any respect for what the character stood for, since I was a little kid.”
“Tom Mankiewicz and I had known each other for years, and we’d always talked about working together, so I presented him with the problem,” Donner continued. “I asked him to bring a sense of reality, or verisimilitude, to the story. I wanted to be able to prove that a man could fly. Tom rewrote the entire script.”
“Years before, there had been a French film called Jules and Jim, a great film. Two guys fall in love with the same woman. That’s what Superman was: two guys in love with the same woman. It happened to be that the two guys were the same guy, but not in the woman’s eyes. I asked Tom ‘How do we make that into a love story?’ He just fell right into it.”
Mankiewicz is credited as the film’s “Creative Consultant.”
Audiences fell right into it, too. From the film’s opening frame, viewers realized they were in for something different, especially for a comic book film. The movie’s first spoken line, delivered with gravitas by Brando as Superman’s Kryptonian father, is “This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination.”
“That was certainly by design,” Donner replied, when I asked if I’d had spent over 40 years reading too much into his picture. “I was trying to let the audience know that they were not looking at a comic book, or what had been done with Superman over the ages. This was the true story of Superman.”
“In my eyes, when I was a kid, he was real. And he was in Tom’s eyes, too. We decided that’s the way we wanted the movie to be.”
With the film’s vision in place, Donner set about the daunting task of finding his celluloid Superman, an actor who could breathe life into him. It was no easy task, as Donner first had to leap, in a single bound, the hurdle that Warner Brothers had placed in his path: the studio wanted the director to cast a known actor in the title role.
“When I came onboard, Warners had been talking about great actors, like [Robert] Redford and [Paul] Newman, taking on the role,” Donner recalled. “They were great actors, but I had to convince an audience that a man was going to fly, and I thought it would have been kinda rough to do that with those people. It’s hard to think about those actors in leotards, flying over a city, without almost laughing! So I was searching for an unknown.”
“When Christopher Reeve came into my life, that was it for me,” Donner continued. “The minute we met him, he was the guy. There were no two ways about it.”
“The same was true with Margot [Kidder}. Again, we looked at a lot of names, and they were good actresses, but it was kinda hard to see them with Christopher and believe the fantasy that had become a reality with our new script.”
“Margot was perfect for the role. I screen tested her with Christopher, but I didn’t have to. She was everything I was looking for.”
Superman: The Movie became a phenomenon, breaking box office records worldwide and ultimately winning an Academy Award for Visual Effects. The shots were truly groundbreaking at the time, an era long before computers would make a director’s job a whole lot easier.
“Those are the scenes I’d like to reshoot: the optical work. The trickery,” Donner said. “We had no computers, and that was a great liability to us. We had to make those Goddamned shots look believable, to make the audience believe that everything onscreen was real. It took us a year of preproduction for our first flying shot to be accepted. One whole year!”
In addition to the screenwriters, cast, and crew, Donner credits the equally legendary John Williams for writing the inspiring score to Superman: The Movie. To this day, I listen to the movie’s main theme at least once a week. It gets me up many a morning, and has gotten me through many a workout at the gym…and many a trial in my life. I’ve always thought of the film’s brilliant score as a seminal part of experiencing that movie, either on the big screen, or at home with the volume turned way up!
“That music is so important,” Donner agreed, “and it’s so brilliantly done. That music is as important as the photographs of the actors in the actual film. It all boils down to all of the pieces: music, effects, dialogue, and everything that goes into a film. It’s so important. It’s extraordinary.”
While Donner wasn’t allowed to complete his work on the sequel to Superman: The Movie, over twenty-five years later a fan-led campaign would ultimately convince Warner Brothers to commission the director to reassemble the elements he’d shot for Superman II: The Donner Cut. Fans finally got to see his vision for the sequel in 2006.
As enjoyable as the theatrical version of Superman II was back in the day, The Donner Cut confirms that Donner’s take would have been superior to it. I can only hope that Zack Synder’s cut of Justice League, due in 2021, will be as good.
As Donner and I wrapped up our chat, I asked him how he’d like Hollywood — and the world — to think of him 100 years from now, as nostalgic movie fans are enjoying Superman: The Movie.
“As a good husband, who married a really great woman, and had a really great life,” Donner said. “It’s almost a fantasy, it’s so beautiful, but that’s what it’s about to me. This whole business, this industry, has been so good to me. I’m a happy guy.”
This feature is the first of a series on the architects of Superman: The Movie. Look for upcoming features on producer Ilya Salkind and actors Jeff East (“Young Clark Kent”) and Jack O’Halloran (Kryptonian villain “Non”).