HT Talks To . . . Richard Donner
After years in television—The Twilight Zone, Gilligan's Island—director Richard Donner went on to launch several major film franchises, starting with The Omen in 1976. Two years later, his Superman made Hollywood history. But few knew that he'd completed much of what wound up on screen for the sequel, Superman II, even though he would be abruptly replaced by director Richard Lester. Donner has finally returned by popular demand to complete his version, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (on DVD from Warner Brothers) and make every Superfan's dream come true.
So why did you leave the Superman project in 1978?
I didn't leave it; it left me. We were doing Superman and Superman II together, and we realized at some point that, if we were going to deliver Superman, we'd better shelve II until we were ready to come back to finish it. And I didn't get along with the producers, to tell you the truth. I think they thought more about the money than the quality of the film. Then we finished Superman, it came out, and it was a hit. I think, if it had been a failure, they would have demanded I come back. But, since it was a hit, they decided they didn't need me to finish II, and, one day, my agent got a telegram that said, "Your services will no longer be needed."
I was floored. There was so much in II that I wanted to go back and do. But that's show biz.
What's one additional scene you wished you had filmed back during principle photography?
Where Margot [Kidder, as Lois Lane] shoots Clark Kent. I wish I'd had the opportunity to really shoot that as a scene between two great actors—in role, in character, and in continuity. But, on the DVD, it's two screen tests cut together. To tell you the truth, I'd like to have shot the whole damned film! And I'm sorry I had to use a lot of footage—we cut it down—that wasn't mine.
Did you see Superman II in the theater, back in 1980?
No, no, no. I could have brought that to the Director's Guild and forced them to use my name. So, they ran it for me and got up to a point where some stupid thing happened where they went to the Eiffel Tower. And they didn't have the scene where Margot sees Christopher as Clark Kent, starts drawing him, and starts to realize, "Oh my God, it is the man, the same!" How could they not use that scene? So, I just stopped the projector, called them, and said, "You can leave my name off it."
Is there Any bad blood between you and Richard Lester?
Well, I don't know. He never called me to say, "They want me to direct it, do you mind?" or "Do you have any thoughts?" There's no bad blood, but certainly no respect, either.
Richard Donner on the Set of Superman
When did you decide to present this new cut as a complete motion picture, not simply an archival assemblage of your footage?
I didn't. Michael Thau—he used to work for me—used to call me and say, "Why don't we finish your version of II?" I said, "Oh, for God's sake, that's years ago [laughs]. I don't even know where the footage is. And the studio certainly isn't going to put up the money to do that." And then he said, "Do me a favor—go on such-and-such a Website," and there were all these people nicely saying they'd love to see my version.
This version more closely matches the script you were working from?
Oh, gosh, yes. When Tom Mankiewicz and I were finishing Superman, we were unhappy with our ending, so we stole the ending of II. It's now back on II, but, if we had done the second movie, we would have come up with a whole new ending for it.
I think, once the humor of the first film drew the audience in, that gave you license to go for the more serious tone you wanted for II.
You know, versus the stupid cops in [Lester's] II. I said, "That's just silly slapstick." Anyway, don't start me! [both laugh]
Was it difficult for you to pore over all that great Christopher Reeve footage again, now that he's gone?
Terribly hard. Terribly hard. Yeah. He was a special kid. A special guy.
Christopher Reeve as the Man in Blue Tights
Some say, despite the magnitude of the movies, that three people deserve the most credit for making both of the first two films the successes that they were: you, Christopher Reeve, and John Williams.
Well, that's lovely. John Williams certainly deserves it. I mean, his score was mesmerizing. Christopher Reeve, as far as I'm concerned—and this is not because he's gone—but, at the time, there was nobody who could have played Superman but Chris. Chris lived him. Chris was him.
To this day, he's spellbinding, both as Superman and as Clark Kent.
There was this character named Superman who had to come down to Earth, then take on this other role, and act that character. So Chris was really acting as one person acting as another person, and, God almighty, as an actor, what a wonderful job he did.
If you had been allowed to finish Superman II your way in 1980, would John Williams have written a complete musical score for it?
Oh, hell yeah!
Was the Superman experience the hardest job you've ever had?
I loved doing Superman, but it was tough. You're right, because we did it with Band-Aids and bailing wire, you know? It took us almost a year to have a shot where everybody applauded and cried when we saw Christopher fly for the first time.
In the Fortress of Solitude?
Yes! And he goes past the camera and banks. And that was Chris doing it. We had tried front-projection shots. We had rear-projection shots—and, with those, the wires would always jiggle and weave, the tracks would never be right, and the body wouldn't hold up, or the cape would look wrong. Then, one day, it was 100-percent perfect, and we went berserk.
How different would the process be if you had made the movies today, with modern technology?
Today, you can do anything you want to do, which is kind of beautiful, but I think it's being overused. There's a competitiveness. They have this thing at their fingertips. It just takes dollars and a little bit of time, and you can do anything. Anything.
A Scene Donner Shot for Superman II That Was Not in Richard Lester's Version
The way that people absolutely cherish the Superman movies, what has that meant to you?
Well, you know, when you make a movie, it becomes part of your life, and, when it's over, it's over. But, when it goes on, I mean, Superman, The Goonies, and Lethal Weapon shocked the daylights out of me—that they went on to be anything more than, hopefully, well-accepted films. You realize, "Wow, this is going to go down in history."
Why is it that, in an industry where entertainment is so often "for the moment," your movies, and even the TV shows you've directed, are so enduring?
[pauses, chuckles] Wow, that's very flattering. I don't know. I put my heart into things. I look to the audience when I make anything and try to feel the emotion that I want them to feel—the laughter, the tears. And I'm not a prestidigitator. But I am an illusionist, and I love creating those illusions, you know? When you say it like that, I'm very gratified!
* Many thanks to Karen Penhale and everyone at Carl Samrock Public Relations.