Coming off “The Omen,” Richard Donner was the hottest young director in Hollywood when the father-son production team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind offered him a million dollars to direct “Superman.”
The granddaddy of today’s big-budget superhero movies — streeting Tuesday on Blu-ray for the first time — starred Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, and grossed over $300 million worldwide in 1978.
Here, Donner recalls his phone-smashing fights with the Salkinds, casting Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando, and spawning a new genre.
Can you talk about laying down the paradigm for the genre? “Superman” is the first big-budget superhero movie.
I didn’t know what I was making. Simply, it was a comic book, don’t forget it’s a comic book. But it’s got to have its own sense of honesty. It’s got to have its own sense of reality. You can laugh with it, you can’t laugh at it. And the characters had to have some true emotions. I tried very hard to have the love story because if there’s a love story you’d be committed to the two of them and therefore you’d care about him and you wouldn’t want to see any harm come to him, which made Lex Luthor heavier. But then we gave Lex Luthor Oits, which lightened that up. But it was a thin line we walked. We didn’t know what the walk was, but we walked the walk. And it happened to turn out, much to our surprise, to be well accepted.
Can you talk about casting the movie? I understand they were considering Paul Newman or Robert Redford, which sounds hilarious.
Can you talk about some of the other names and how casting played out?
That was before I came on board. They were preparing this film for two years. But when I came on board, I wanted an unknown because I thought it’d be pretty tough convincing an audience to see Redford in a Superman suit flying. Not that he’s not a great actor, but I figured an unknown could make it work. And when we met Chris Reeve, you’d never think of him as Superman cause he was 20 or 30 pounds lighter than he was when he played the role and he had honey brown hair. But he was an actor and he convinced me that he could do it.
Can you talk about bringing Brando in and didn’t Chris Reeve insist on having a line with him?
I was as star struck working with Brando as anybody else. And Chris wanted to have a scene with Brando. There was something that he had to do with Marlon. There was one line …
I think the line was, “Who am I?”
Yeah, “Who am I?” or something. We told Marlon all about it, and I think Marlon stopped and looked at Chris and said, “Is that the way you’re going to read it?” And Chris went white! And of course it was a put on.
He put you on too when you guys went to talk about the character?
I was warned Brando was tough, and his toughness was simple: if he convinced me that he didn’t have to be in the movie, but he’d be paid for it anyway, that’s the way he’d like to work. A wonderful man named Jay Kanter was Brando’s agent and he warned me of this. Then Coppola also warned me, he said, “Marlon loved to talk.” And he says, “He’s very bright. And if you really listen, if there’s anything adversarial, he’ll talk himself out of it.” And so between Jay’s advice and Francis’, I was pretty much prepared for it but when the time came, he threw me, even. He was brilliant. If he could convince you that his character could be a green suitcase or a bagel and you would photograph that bagel, he wouldn’t have to come to work. But he would come in for the voice over somewhere at his pleasure. But he ended up a delightful guy; wonderful, very funny, very bright, very witty, very well read, a delight to work with.
How difficult was it with the Salkinds?
The who? Salkind, I know the name… Look, at a given point I was making a different movie than they wanted to, so we didn’t get along that well. You just kind of persevered.
At what point did that relationship begin to go south? Was there a pivotal thing or was it a gradual downhill slide?
I think Ilya wanted to make a movie. I think his father and everyone involved that they had brought in production-wise, they wanted to make a movie but they wanted to save every single penny they could. And you don’t make a movie of that sort at that time, pre computers — we had to have the money to do things. So in the very beginning the fallout started. In pre-production, I’d have something organized, then I’d go to do it and it was changed and I’d go ballistic that they had changed it without my knowing. So it kind of started at the beginning.
In the commentary there are some mentions of you smashing up phones during production. I assume those were phone calls with the Salkinds?
It just was always a handy thing around. I’m anything but a temperamental guy. I was ready to walk out so many times I can’t tell you. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t abandon it. But it was tough, it was tough. Yeah, the phones took the penalty of my temperment, a lot of them hit the walls.