How Richard Donner Saved Superman (The Movie)
Back in 2018, Richard Donner joined the Missing Frames podcast to discuss Superman's infinite human appeal.
Nothing quite has the same feel as the Richard Donner Superman. Thanks to our recent back-to-back screening of the original movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut at the Alamo Drafthouse as well as the recent Superman 4K and Max Fleischer's Superman collections, we're in full-blown obsession mode.
Our preoccupation stirred a desire to return to an old Missing Frames podcast hosted by our friend and fellow Superman obsessive, Shawn Eastridge. In 2018, Shawn magically convinced Richard "Dick" Donner to join his show and chat exclusively about Superman: The Movie and the weirdo comedy that could have been if the director had never involved himself. Their conversation is absolutely riveting and packed with several tidbits we've never heard before.
However, there was no transcript of the show available for fellow nerds to pour over, and we felt that was a crying shame. Graciously, Shawn is allowing us to run the transcript on our site. We highly encourage that you give the conversation a proper listen on Missing Frames, but if you're like us, you'll also want quick access to the transcript below.
And when you're still aching for more Superman content, listen to our classic Superman: The Movie episode, which featured a guest appearance by Shawn Eastridge. Also, continue the conversation with Shawn by following his Twitter and visiting The Nerd Party website.
Richard Donner Gets the Superman Call
Shawn: Dick, thank you so much for being a part of this. I am so excited about this. I hope you are too.
Dick: As long as I didn't have to go to Georgia.
Shawn: We managed to make this work. I think we're good so far. I've got to say it's been 40 years since Superman was released. It's literally this Saturday, the 40th anniversary.
Dick: 40 years?
Shawn: 40 years. My understanding is that with 40 years of Superman being out, you've probably gotten about 40 years worth of questions about this movie. So I have to challenge myself to try to find something you've never been asked. I don't know if I can do it, but I'm going to try.
Dick: It's going to be tough, pal, I'll promise you that.
Shawn: Right. To start things off, this is something I've been wanting to ask you for years and years. This is the big one. Were you really on the toilet when you got the call to do Superman?
Dick: I sure was. It was a Sunday morning and I was hungover. The phone rang and this strange foreign voice ended up offering me an incredible sum of money to do the movie, and I didn't believe it and I thought it was one of my friends putting me on. And yeah, lo and behold, one of the great flushes of all times.
Shawn: I love it. So you were a big Superman fan growing up?
Dick: As much as almost everything else that was published at the time. I mean, comic books were, at the early point of my life, my literature and Superman was a very important one. We all believed in that character. And the day that my mother threw out my comic books and the original Superman comic books -
Shawn: Oh, really? Action Comics?
Dick: Oh, many of them. I had all the first editions.
Shawn: Oh no.
Dick: They went by the wayside. But yes, I was a tremendous fan of it. Grew out of it by the time ... probably in its second or third year or fourth year, then went on to something else. But Superman was a stopgap.
Richard Donner Avoids the Superman Parody
Shawn: And so you get the call, you get the script, and it's Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman. They wrote that draft that you got?
Dick: They did. The original one was Puzo. The Newmans wrote a screenplay, and it was a good screenplay, but it was being directed in an area that to me was sacrilegious. And so they wrote what they were hired to write. But when I read it, it seemed to be a parody on a parody.
Shawn: I heard stuff about Telly Savalas. That's the big one.
Shawn: And do you remember anything else? That one seems to stand out a lot because it's just so ridiculous.
Dick: But that was the intent of their material. They were told to hone in on the word "comic" in comic book. And our comic books in those days shouldn't have been called comic books, much like the illustrated books that are coming out today. They have a life of their own and they're not comic.
Shawn: Right. And this is what's interesting to me though, because you got the script, you saw that it was a
decent script, but they were going in a kind of parody direction. And this is mid 1970s. So really, the most mainstream live-action superhero was Batman, the Adam West Batman, which is hysterical, but also it is a parody.
Dick: Exactly. That's good. Nobody ever picked up on that, but you're right. Pow, bam, whiff.
Shawn: And even comic books at the time, they're not necessarily a big thing. They're kind of seen as the funny pages. Kids love them, but it's kid stuff. But then you come along and you're like, "No, we're going to take this seriously." What do you think led you to make that decision, to treat it respectfully and seriously?
Dick: Because that's the way I was brought up on him. When I was a kid, I respected it. It was serious. I believed in him. I remember I hoped he'd kill Hitler. Seriously. I mean, Superman went to war. So he was an important part of truth, justice, and the American way, if you will. And I didn't want to see that destroyed.
Richard Donner's Superman French Connection
Shawn: And you got to work with the late great Tom Mankiewicz who came in to help you do a rewrite. And you guys decided specifically, "We're going to treat it seriously, but also we're going to focus on the relationship between Lois and Superman." That's going to be the heart of it.
Dick: No, no. It was Lois, Superman and Clark.
Shawn: That's right. Thank you. No, thank you for that very important distinction.
Dick: There was a wonderful film, French film called Jules and Jim. I don't know if you ever saw it. And it was very much the same story, a trilogy - three people, two men and a woman. And Tom and I, maybe we carried ourselves out a little far on that, but that became kind of a graphic display of what we really wanted. And it was this unrequited love, a woman who is in love with or infatuated with a superhero, a super guy, and nice and friendly to Clark Kent. And Clark Kent, who was desperately moved by her and in love with her. So he had to play these roles. Which to me was some of the best acting in the world was by Christopher Reeve, when he did that.
Shawn: Oh, absolutely. It's still a delight to watch today. I had the chance to see the new 4K. Have you seen the new 4K remaster of Superman?
Shawn: Oh, it looks beautiful.
Dick: Thank you, Warner Brothers. They never even told me.
Shawn: I'll get you this action figure and I'll get you a copy of the 4K.
Dick: No, don't do that. I got plenty. [Laughter}
Shawn: To get Tom on board, you said, "We've got to do this." And you said, "Come over to my house," and you dressed up in the suit.
Dick: When I said, "I got a script, I got something I want you to get involved with," he said, "What is it?" I said, "Superman," and he hung up on me. He thought I was putting him on and I called him, and I said, "I'm serious, Tom. It's interesting. It's fascinating. We got to save it." And I said, "Come on over, let's talk." And I had to convince him.
And so just before he came, I smoked a little doobie, put on my Superman costume, which was the original one that eventually Chris wore for his screen test.
Shawn: Oh wow.
Richard Donner Assembles the Superman Squad
Dick: And yeah, Tom drove up. I came running across the lawn, my right fist extended out and trying to flap the cape. And Tom got back in the car, thought I was crazy. That's what it took.
Shawn: And it worked. You got it.
Dick: Totally. He was such a great guy and such a great writer and such a great loss. He was a dear friend of mine.
Shawn: I love this, the creative consultant, quote unquote, on Superman, because for some reason ... Explain this to me, something with the Writer's Guild, they wouldn't give him a writing credit for some reason.
Dick: The Writer's Guild is made of such a group of insecure guys. They're grossly unfair and unfair to their own people at times. And Tom should have had a "written by" screenplay credit on that with the others, because they did a good job. But his name should have been there. He was there from day one. I begged them, I spoke to them. And no, childishly, immaturely, insecurely, they turned it down.
Shawn: But I love that you created this role for him. And this role apparently cannot be ... it's not allowed to be used anymore?
Dick: No, no.
Dick: We put it in. I said, "He's got to get a credit." And I figured once that was that, it would take them so long to fight it, it would've already been out in the theaters and over and done with. Creative consultant.
Shawn: Which he was -
Dick: On top of being writer, he was with me on every single day I shot that film.
Shawn: And you also, you brought on John Barry. And did you bring Geoffrey Unsworth on board as well in addition to Stuart Baird?
Richard Donner, Superman, and the NYC Blackout
Dick: No, it was Stuart I had just done The Omen with.
Dick: And I wanted him. He was just a wonderfully creative, turned out to be a great director. And John Barry, I forget how he came on board. That's a long time ago. I would have to make up a story. But from the moment I met him, he was on the picture. There's no two ways about it. Geoffrey Unsworth, believe it or not, he was my original choice for The Omen, but he wasn't available. And quite honestly, Geoff was magical.
Shawn: There's a very distinct look to this movie. And this movie has three distinctive visual feels for each act. What were those conversations like with Geoffrey, about the look of the movie? Did you decide very early on that's what you wanted to do?
Dick: Yes. I felt it was a trilogy in a strange way, that Krypton should have a life and a look of its own, that Smallville, look kind of Norman Rockwell-ish. And then the opening of the taxi door and the blaring of horns in Metropolis took on a totally different look with a great sense of inherent energy that was Metropolis. And although we didn't put punctuation marks around that or overly emphasize them, we looked at them as three entities. And Geoffrey and John Barry were really responsible for bringing that to light.
Shawn: And Geoffrey thought he caused the 1977 New York blackout. Is that true? You guys were shooting outside?
Dick: Well, we were shooting on 42nd Street at the New York News building. The shot went from inside through the revolving doors and then outside, looking all the way down 42nd Street towards the West Side. And Geoffrey had lit it as one, and our New York gaffers used about every generator that they could get or that they could hide. And Geoffrey just wanted a little more light, top down, as Clark and Lois come through the revolving door. And he kept begging the gaffer.
The gaffer said, "Geoff, I can't, believe me." Then he said, "Okay, I'll let you in on a secret." And he walked over to a light standard, which was right there, and he unscrewed the plate down at the bottom and he said, "This is how New York gaffers steal light." And he plugged a clip into the light standard. And just for the world's greatest coincidence, at that moment, New York City had its blackout. And Geoffrey came running into me, convinced that he had caused it. He was the sweetest, gentle, most naive human being I ever knew. Good moment.
Shawn: I had the great pleasure of showing my wife Sarah 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. To get to watch that and then go see Superman in theaters not long after, and to get to see two of his great works back-to-back was just wonderful.
Dick: That's great. Somebody said they're remaking that.
Dick: That's what I heard.
Shawn: No, they better not.
Dick: They better not is right.
Shawn: So, audition process, you have Chris Reeve. He's skinny, around what, 24, 25 years old. Margot Kidder. Amazing. You said you met her, she tripped through the door and you were sold on that.
Dick: When I say, "Tripped through the door," she tripped in and fell flat on her face and just laid there, looked up at me.
Shawn: Were you sold from that moment?
Dick: Instantly. We screen tested her, obviously, but she was the character in my mind. Chris ... We screen-tested some other people. But the minute I met him, this skinny guy with blondish hair, and it turned out that he swore to me he could build his body in work out, and he did. As we prepared in England, all those many months, you could actually see almost on a daily basis as Chris started to expand not only his physicality, but his mental approach and attack of the character.
Shawn: So film production's pure chaos. I mean, it's amplified because this movie is so huge. But did you have a moment of clarity, whether it was watching dailies or just shooting something, where you had a moment where you're like, "Okay, I think this might be working. I think we might have something special here"? Was there ever a moment, or was it just too crazy?
Dick: Well, you never start a movie without kind of thinking that, "I'm going to make a film." You're not thinking about its monetary success, but you're thinking about, "Is this entertaining? Is this the direction I want to go with this?" And you have hopes, you never know.
I was very excited as scenes started to come together, as Stuart Baird would edit them, and I'd go in and sit with him and talk things through. But as a whole, I never really thought about it and what kind of success it was going to be. It was a major kind of a shock almost, when you saw it with an audience - to hear reactions,
Richard Donner and Superman's Creators
Shawn: You never test screened it, right?
Dick: No, the Salkinds wouldn't allow me.
Shawn: So the DC premiere, that was the first time you were like, "All right, let's do this."
Dick: That's the first time I saw the movie. It's what you call a "wet print." We were ready to cancel all the screenings because the Salkinds wouldn't give Warners permission to print the picture until they got a certain amount of money over some silly argument. And so it was like what industry calls a "wet print." It had just come off. There were those that did the check. I did the check on the sound, I remember that, separately. But to see the entire thing in its entirety, I was part of that audience.
Shawn: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were at the premiere too. Correct? Do you remember talking to them about the movie afterwards?
Dick: That was in New York. And not only did I meet and talk to them, but I had heard a story about them, that one of them had lost his sight. And the other, I think was still working as a postman in the postal department. Over the years, they'd gotten very little money for this incredible success.
And I went to the head of the studio, a wonderful man named John Calley, the head of production, and told him the story. I said, "I don't know if you know it, but," I said, "I'll do everything to stop this film unless they're taken care of." And he was the kind of guy that he immediately put them into a really wonderful pension. And when I met them in person was that night. It was after the screening.
I was taken into a room by the executives and there they were. And there was a figure on the table covered in a tablecloth. And I met them and they thanked me and they loved the movie.
Shawn: Oh that's great.
Dick: I was so thrilled that here's these two guys that had created this thing so many years ago and now were finally being thanked. And they liked what I did. And then they took the tablecloth off and there was this, one of three, tall bronzes of Superman they had made back in 1939 or '40.
Shawn: Oh wow.
Dick: And they gave it to me as a gift.
Shawn: That's incredible.
Richard Donner, Superman, and the Sequels
Dick: Eventually, Geoff Johns, who was my assistant and became the head of DC Comics, now has his own company. Geoff got one of them recently.
Shawn: That's really wonderful. So the movie comes out and it gets amazing reviews. I was looking through just to find archives of reviews of that time and that era. And even the ones that aren't as positive come across as snobbish, like a little pretentious, trying to find something not to like. But you know, you're like, "You guys liked it. Just shut up. You liked it." I mean, you have Roger Ebert, a four-star review, calling the movie "a pure delight."
Dick: I like him better now.
Shawn: Exactly. You're like, "All right. I agree with you every so often." But I mean, this is incredible. Were you tempted just to get all these reviews, go to the Salkinds' office and just put all these reviews up, wallpaper their office, kind of be like, "Ha-ha"?
Dick: Look, I was prepared to come back and finish my obligation of two movies. And because it was successful, they decided they didn't need me. And probably because I had banned them from the set and wouldn't talk to them. Hey, they're producers. That's what they wanted. That's what they got. I gave them everything I could and it worked out great for them. Worked out just as great for me. It's not worth it to flaunt those angers.
Shawn: Was it frustrating to see Superman II come out with [Richard] Lester's name attached? And people praising it were like, "Oh, Lester brings this stuff." And a lot of the stuff they're praising is stuff that you and Tom had come up with.
Dick: You hit it on the nose, pal. Yeah, it was a little infuriating, but what the hell? It's showbiz. And what? Give up showbiz? No way.
Shawn: Did you ever sneak on the television and one of those sequels is on? Did you ever look at it and say, "Hmm"?
Dick: You mean the other three?
Shawn: Yeah. Did you ever just happen to, just to amuse yourself, check out Superman II or III, just to see what happened?
Dick: No, no. Really. I mean, I didn't wish them any ill. I love Christopher and Margot and the people that are doing it. I didn't particularly love them, the producers. But I certainly wanted to see what we started, continue with a modicum level of success.
Shawn: And you and Tom were originally talking about ... If all had gone well in this perfect world, you guys were going to keep it going, maybe do three or four, trade off directing duties, which would've been great to see.
Dick: I would've loved it. He was a good director, Tom, and a wonderful writer. And we were creating these storylines and how they would integrate and how it would carry on for three or four. But they weren't interested. They asked Tom to come over and put his energy in the rest of them, and he graciously refused out of respect for me.
Richard Donner, Christopher Reeve, and Superman Belief
Shawn: Wow. Did you think maybe Clark and Lois might get married some day? What villains they might fight?
Dick: You'll never know.
Shawn: I tried. I tried. So now, I mean, the character's been around for 80 years. This movie has been around for 40 years. Superman's gone all over the place thematically. Story-wise, we've seen him go dark and gritty only to kind of swing back in the other direction. To you, what's the most important element for Superman to succeed, especially in this day and age, as we were talking about earlier, just all the stuff going on? What do you think makes Superman such a lasting character and what makes him so unique?
Dick: It's really very simple. And when I met Christopher and his belief in both characters that he was going to play, and when he read the line, "Truth, justice, and the American way," I mean, I don't want to bullshit you, but I really got chills up my back.
Dick: It was so believable coming from him. Hence, where is that sign? Oh, there it is. (Dick motions to the famous Superman Verisimilitude sign)
Shawn: There it is.
Dick: That's him. He had a sense of reality. Although it was bigger than life, it had its own life. And I believe Chris, with good writing, was able to bring it to its fruition as what that quote was. And that quote, I remember that quote from a comic book when I was a kid.
Shawn: It's funny because I've heard stories about when that line is said in the movie back in the day and people laughed because it's so ... he says it and everyone's like, "Oh my God." Lois's line is perfect, "You're going to run every politician out of town."
Shawn: But it's funny, watching that today-
Dick: Jesus. Hell, you got a good memory, kid.
Shawn: I'm telling you, this is on my mind. But when we watch that movie today, everyone laughs at Lois's line, but no one laughs at it when he says it because you believe it.
Dick: He made it believable. He truly believed it. I think if the power that Chris had and his belief in acting, I figured he'd be actually flying one day himself. He was such a believer.
Richard Donner Gives Thanks for Superman
Shawn: Yeah. And here is the last question. You ready?
Shawn: Do you like pink?
Dick: (Laughter) That was a wonderful Mankiewicz line. That whole scene was Tom. That was lovely. And her reaction to that was ... Nobody could have done it like Margot. I hate to see they're both gone so early in life, Chris especially, and then Margot so recently. If there's any hope, they're up there flying around right now together.
Shawn: I believe it. Watching that scene now, I believe it. And I mean, that's it. That's what I got. So hopefully, we did all right. Hopefully, I got a couple in there you haven't been asked before.
Dick: You did actually. You did.
Shawn: I've got to tell you this is ... Look, when I was a kid, there were three movies I saw that made me love, love cinema. And those three movies were Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future, and Superman.
Shawn: I want to thank you for that. Superman: The Movie, legitimized the character. I look back on this movie and I adore it. But when you look at the history of Superman, you look at this movie perfectly-timed 40 years after the character was created. It made superheroes mainstream, but it gave Superman the respect he deserves. And that's incredible. So thank you for that. I mean, Warner Brothers has so much of my money, DC has so much of my money right now. It's all your fault.
Dick: (Laughter) This was terrific, and I really appreciate it.