How Hollywood idiocy almost killed Richard Donner’s Superman
It’s now considered a classic, the noble progenitor of the costumed-hero blockbuster. But the late Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film was rewritten from scratch, passed around every A-list actor in Hollywood, and became a battlefield over which its creators fought, bloodily, and are still fighting. The story of its production makes the meathead punchbagging of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice look like a minor squabble in the school canteen.
The years between Donner’s film and Zack Snyder’s 2013 reboot, Man of Steel, saw all sorts of attempts to get Clark Kent in and out of the Daily Planet’s revolving doors. There were three direct movie sequels of incrementally deteriorating quality; several TV series, including Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-7) and Smallville (2001-2011), an aborted film called Superman Flyby, from a script by currently ubiquitous tentpole magnet JJ Abrams, which either Brett Ratner or McG was in the frame to direct around 2003; and the underachieved comeback of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006), which failed to match commercial expectations, perhaps because of its very loyalty to Donner’s original.
Springing fondly off that picture, and even using archive footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El, Singer’s movie struck what he’s personally conceded was a “nostalgic and romantic” tone, which he thinks disappointed fans hoping for a rollicking, and more forward-looking, summer joyride.
Meanwhile, Donner’s film, in which Christopher Reeve squeezed into spandex for the first time, remains the definitive gold standard. Adjusted for inflation, it nestles at 65th among the top 100 grossers of all time, a little above Close Encounters of the Third Kind, slightly below Back to the Future.
Its cultural impact in launching the era of the modern superhero franchise has been debatably bigger than either of those, but what’s perhaps forgotten now is that, on its release, the stars hardly seemed aligned for Donner’s movie to be a massive hit. In fact, it could be ranked alongside Titanic, Jaws and Gone with the Wind as a test-case triumph over the received wisdom that “troubled productions” tend to sink at the box office.
Donner was a proven commercial entity when he was given the project, having just had an enormous (and shamelessly enjoyable) smash with the first Omen (1976). So it was that the producers – Ilya Salkind, his father Alexander, and their partner Pierre Spengler – handed him a 550-page monster of a script by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo, and assigned him the job of directing not only Superman, but Superman II, which they intended to film at the same time.
This kill-two-birds production strategy has been fairly common practice in the decades since – it happened with the Back to the Future sequels, the Matrix sequels, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the second and third Pirates of the Caribbeans. James Cameron is doing it with Avatars 2 and 3. But it was really breaking new ground in the 1970s, when the very concept of the numbered sequel was in its infancy, and it seems to have caused teething troubles from start to finish.
Donner claims that absolutely none of the preparatory work that had been done on the two movies was any use to him, and insisted on going back to the drawing board, bringing in a fresh writer, Tom Mankiewicz (son of Oscar-winning Hollywood legend Joseph L). According to Mankiewicz, “not one word of the Puzo script was used”, but the Writers Guild of America refused to allow him a credit for the rewrites.
In the end, the opening credits proclaimed “Story by” Puzo and the “Screenplay by” Puzo, the husband-and-wife writing team of David and Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton, and credited Mankiewicz simply as a "creative consultant". Nevertheless, Puzo sued the Salkinds for a greater share of the profits; Ilya was served with the lawsuit as he walked into the Superman premiere.
The list of actors approached to star is pretty much a Who’s Who of bankable stars in the late Seventies. Before Reeve was hired, Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds were both in the frame, and Sylvester Stallone was certainly interested, as was a post-Pumping Iron, pre-Conan Arnold Schwarzenegger. Paul Newman was offered his choice of Superman, Jor-El or Lex Luthor at $4m a pop, but turned down all three parts.
Even after Donner steered the casting towards smaller names, the likes of James Caan, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte and Jon Voight were bandied around. But casting director Lynn Stalmaster kept coaxing them to look at Reeve.
Then 25-years-old, Reeve had only made his Broadway debut in 1976, and his film debut in the tiny role of a junior officer in the submarine disaster movie Gray Lady Down (1978), opposite Charlton Heston, but, despite the large sweat patches emanating from his costumed armpits, he aced his screen tests and thankfully prevailed. (Padding and industrial-strength deodorant would take care of the sweat.)
Production was a costly brouhaha of creative squabbles. Millions were lost on testing different ways to make Superman fly before a frame was shot; Gene Hackman's wardrobe and wigs alone cost $52,000 a day; and the production had to endure outright mockery from top-billed Marlon Brando.
Brando's total takings from salary and share of the gross eventually amounted to some $19m, but this didn’t stop him proposing to the Salkinds that Jor-El ought to be depicted as either a bagel or "a green suitcase" with his voice coming out of it, to spare him the bother of actually turning up on set.
At Donner’s entreaties, Brando agreed to 12 days of shooting, but had his dialogue laid out on cue cards and placed in his eyeline, sometimes on his co-star's forehead, so that he didn’t have to learn it. This was a trick he’d repeat for Apocalypse Now soon afterwards.
Somewhere along the line, panic struck. The budget and schedule became so stretched that the producers took the decision to forget about Superman II, and asked Donner merely to concentrate on finishing the first one. Donner protested that he’d already shot the vast majority of the sequel – as much as 80%, according to his own highly-contested estimate. Relationships between him and the money men frayed further and further.
The release of Superman, originally scheduled for June 1978, was pushed back until December, but shooting dragged on until October, giving editor Stuart Baird mere weeks to beat it into shape.
It’s frankly a miracle after this much floundering that the movie was as successful as it was, not to mention as good as it was. Thanks particularly to the fizzing chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder, the ingenious designs on Krypton, and John Williams’s rambunctiously mythic, deservedly Oscar-nominated score, it remains a delight. The gamble to postpone completion of Superman II seemed to have worked, in that public demand for a second one was instantly voracious.
But Donner refused to have anything to do with it if Pierre Spengler was still going to be attached as producer. In the event, Donner left and Spengler stayed, hiring Richard Lester, who had been brought in as a temporary co-producer and more or less marriage counsellor between the first film’s bickering creators, to direct all the new material required. Picking up on the banishment of Zod (Terence Stamp) and his cohorts, the story feels very much of a piece with its predecessor, even if the tone began a gradual slide into winking camp.
Pleasingly, the conflict between Donner and his producers is not one of those face-offs in movie history that’s been officially buried, or laughed-off in the wake of success. It survives quite visibly if you buy the DVD of Superman II, which includes a “Richard Donner cut” that is radically different from the “official” Richard Lester one, featuring 15 minutes of extra Brando scenes within a narrative that’s reshuffled right the way through and uncompromisingly rejects as much of the Lester-shot material as it feasibly can.
Unsurprisingly, Spengler and co declined to hire Brando’s additional services when they started up again, turning to Susannah York instead (as Superman’s mother Lara) to film a scene giving their hero her all-important blessing.
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and seemingly able to leap logistically nightmarish production obstacles in a single bound, the Man of Steel has survived worse threats to his existence. In the short term, the gravel-voiced seriousness of Snyder’s attempts might carry on sucking all joy out of the Superman brand, but his continued immortality feels assured.