Today, Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” screened to viewers at the Glasgow Film Festival. Among those in attendance was superstar comics artist and self-proclaimed Superman fan Bryan Hitch. To bring some historical and personal context to the evening’s events, Hitch was asked to introduce “Superman” to the assembled crowd, taking a close look at the trials and tribulations involved in bringing the Man of Steel to the silver screen and his own connection with the film as a young boy.
Bryan Hitch was kind enough to provide CBR News with the full transcript of his introduction for the Glasgow Film Festival’s showing of “Superman” where he details the origins of the film itself, the rocky path the filmmakers went down while finding an actor to fill Superman’s tights, the turbulent relationship between Richard Donner and the film’s producers and the artist’s own belief as an eight-year-old that a man with red underwear and a flowing cape could fly.
by Bryan Hitch
In the closing days of the 1978 Christmas holidays, one of my sisters’ flowing red nighties, along with a pair of her red knickers, went missing, and it was all Richard Donner’s fault.
It was Richard Donner’s fault too that my eight year old self firmly believed that tying a girls nightie to my neck whilst also wearing her knickers, somehow gave me the power of flight.
I can share with you now the absolute truth that it did not.
As I stood there, balancing on the top railing at the front of our house, nightie flapping heroically in the winter sunlight, it did however give Brendan Rogers from across the street, an excellent reason to kick a football at me until I had a nosebleed. Since I truly hated football, my own personal Lex Luthor had somehow found my Kryptonite.
Richard Donner is to blame because he made me believe. I had watched a familiar story unfold, as Jor-El sent his only son to Earth to be a force for good, to show us ‘the way.’ I’d been brought up a strict catholic, an altar boy, a future priest and the messianic elements were clear and recognizable. If there was to be a modern Jesus, my eight year old self reasoned, he was surely to be dressed in Red and Blue, always tell the truth, fight for truth, justice and the American Way and have a thing for Lois Lane’s pink panties.
Released in December of 1970, Superman was a blockbuster in every possible sense. Critically very well received and a huge commercial success, it took over 300 million at the worldwide box office, which may not sound like much at first but adjusted for inflation that’s one billion, forty-two thousand, eight hundred and one dollar, twenty-nine cents. Give or take.
It almost didn’t happen, at least not like we’ve seen.
Originally, Illya Salkind sought the rights to Superman from DC Comics in 1973 and it took him, his father Alexander and their partner Pierre Spengler more than a year’s negotiating to purchase them.
DC wanted approval and so requested a list of actors being sought for the lead role and agreed with the Salkinds choices completely. After all who wouldn’t want to see those blue tights filled be any of James Caan, Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman or Muhammad Ali?
It was decided that, like the Salkinds previous hit “Three Musketeer” movies, “Superman” 1 & 2 would be written and filmed as one production to save on studio builds and production costs.
William Goldman was initially approached to write the two films but in the end Godfather writer Mario Puzo was given both the job and $600,000 Dollars (Two point eight million in today’s money) to bring the Man of Steel to the Silver Screen.
Whilst he set about the story, the Producers looked for a director. Steven Spielberg was Illya Salkind’s first choice but his father wanted to wait and see how his “fish movie” did before committing to the future King Of Genre Cinema. Following the success of “Jaws” however, Spielberg was indeed offered the job but turned it down, preferring non-Kryptonian aliens with “Close Encounters.”
George Lucas chose to blow up Alderaan with his “Fully Operational Death Star” rather than Superman’s home, so it was to be left to another director to bring our Strange Visitor to Earth.
Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Richard Lester and Sam Pekinpah were all in discussions, though Pekinpah was dropped when, possibly as a negotiation tactic, he pulled out a gun during a meeting with Illya.
Finally a director was found and production began on Puzo’s 500-page screenplay with Guy Hamilton calling the shots. Hamilton had originally turned down the first James Bond movie “Dr. No” but went on to direct “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds are Forever,” “Live and Let Die” and “The Man With The Golden Gun” so certainly didn’t lack for experience with big movies.
Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were signed to play Jor-El and Lex Luthor with Brando taking $3.7 million and 11.75% of box office gross to total a whopping 73 million today, for just twelve days work. With two such huge actors of the day on board it helped lend production a good deal of credibility.
Meanwhile in Rome, sets were built and unsuccessful test flights were underway, including the shooting of both clothes store dummies and later stunt men from a large canon. In fact the question of just how to make Superman fly was to be a long term problem not solved until much later into a very different production. Here however, two million dollars of the movie’s then modest budget was spent in Italy trying to have Superman take flight.
Though solid, Puzo’s opus was considered a little straight and so Robert Benton, David and later Leslie, Newman were brought in to inject a little fun. What they injected was a hundred pages less, some high camp and Telly Savalas in character as Kojak.
With a warrant out in Italy for Brando’s arrest on Sexual Obscenity charges following “Last Tango in Paris,” production moved to Pinewood studios in England late in 1976 but owing to tax exile status, Guy Hamilton could only spend 30 days in the country each year and so dropped out, still insisting he be paid in full. The film was already costly yet nothing had been shot and the sets in Italy were struck.
So Superman had a father and an archenemy but no director and still no lead.
Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford and Paul Newman turned it down. Sylvester Stallone was interested but got nowhere. Neil Diamond and Arnold Schwarzenegger worked hard to get the role but were ignored. James Brolin, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Waggoner, Jon Voight, Christopher Walken and Charles Bronson were all considered. Either the muscles couldn’t act or the actors hadn’t got muscles.
In one man though, the producers all felt they had finally found their perfect Superman and, following the release of The Omen, their director. Richard Donner recalled that he received the Salkind’s offer whilst taking his Sunday morning dump, conducting the entire conversation from his toilet, trousers at his feet.
It was to be a fee of a million dollars for two movies and star Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Nick Nolte.
The first problem Donner tackled was the script, bringing in Tom Mankiewicz to do a complete rewrite. Though they both stated that nothing had been used from the Puzo-Newman script, Mankiewicz was denied a writing credit by the Writers Guild of America and so appears on the film only as “Creative Consultant.”
It was Mankiewicz who suggested the individual Kryptonian Crests on each of the council members to justify the “S” emblem on Superman. It was he who created the whole Judeo-Christian aspect of the Superman mythology, with Jor-El as God who, after casting out Lucifer/General Zod’s evil, sends his only son to earth; extending the metaphor further in the second movie as Superman gives up his power, dies, for Lois only to be resurrected three days later.
Donner was determined that though the film could and should be fun, it should also be serious. It should feel real. The production’s buzz word was verisimilitude; the appearance of truth or reality and with Mank’s new script and Production designer John Barry extraordinary sets, the film was in good hands.
There was still no Superman, though. Nick Nolte’s desire to play Clark and Superman as a true split personality didn’t fit with Donners vision and so once again the tights were empty and the hunt for Kyrpton’s Last Son was on!
More than two hundred unknown actors were auditioned and such was the level of desperation that both Batman comic artist Neal Adams and the Salkind’s dentist also tried out.
Though Christopher Reeve was suggested very early by casting director Lyne Stalmaster, Donner initially rejected his picture for being too skinny. Only after so many had been seen with no result did he allow a screen test. All present at the audition recall how Reeve amazed them with the conviction of his performance, reading from the balcony scene where Superman is interviewed by Lois Lane. From his first line of “Good evening, Miss Lane” the part was his.
Almost as difficult was finding the right Lois Lane. Some work had been done prior to Reeve’s casting and he screen tested with the final few. It came to a choice between Stockard Channing and Margot Kidder and Kidder got the role.
Together, Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are the heart of the movie, delivering a completely engaging love story that even the kids can stomach. They also give complementary performances that sell the idea that Clark and Superman are two different people. Kidder’s Lois is something of a jaded character who doesn’t believe in relationships and has been around the block a few times. Superman shows her the world again, as though for the first time and it’s a place of wonder.
It isn’t just Reeve’s impressive physical performance that makes Superman Taller and more square-jawed than Clark or his voice richer and deeper; Kidder’s Lois looks at Superman like a young girl in love for the first time but barely even glances at Clark. She might see Clark but she never notices him. After Superman’s initial rescue of Lois and the chopper from the top of the Daily Planet Building and his short lecture on the safety of flying; I’m never quite sure whether she faints because she met the man of her dreams or because she nearly fell to her death.
The balcony scene that brings them fully together is a delight that moves from interview to date and ends in a love scene disguised as their first flight. Even though Lois ridicules Superman when he tells her with absolute conviction that he’s there to fight for “truth, justice and the American Way,” she is wearing an evening dress white enough to go with his red and blue. It’s a lovely design touch that suggests their togetherness and shows that you don’t need, as might have been done elsewhere, to hammer your point home.
The finished film neatly divides into three. There’s the science fiction opening, the pastorale of Norman Rockwell’s Heartland of America and the big fun of the first true superhero epic.
Every great Hero needs a great Villain and Lex Luthor is Superman’s biggest. Gene Hackman throws everything he has at the part and though often funny, he shows the darkest heart there is when he needs to. Whilst he did shave his mustache for the role, he preferred to keep his hair and though you have to wait for him to be dropped at the state penitentiary by Superman to see it, when he takes his wig off in introduction to the warden, it’s like a panel taken from right the comics of the day.
Like “Star Wars,” shooting around the same time in many of the same English studios, special effects had to be either reinvented or created from scratch to achieve results that matched their directors’ visions. Superman’s flight was achieved by various technical means; wire work, blue screen and rear projection as well as several miniatures. What is often overlooked is Reeve’s physical performance as he uses subtle movements of his body to convince you he was really doing it.
On one occasion whilst filming in Brooklyn at night for the scene of Superman rescuing Frisky the Cat from a tree, Reeve was flying on wires fifty feet in the air. As a traffic helicopter came around for the nightly news, the reporter is heard telling his listeners about it, believing that Superman was real and flying around the suburbs of Brooklyn Heights.
Production on “Superman” was still troubled with Donner and the producers not even on speaking terms. Running ever later and with spiraling costs, it was decided to put further work on the scenes for “Superman 2” on hold to concentrate on completing the first film. Though around 75% of the second script had been shot, Donner’s later public criticism of the Salkinds and Spengler meant that he wouldn’t then be invited back to finish it.
The two films had originally been conceived as one larger story. As Superman catapults the first nuclear missile Luthor had hijacked for his Californian land grab into orbit, it was to have released General Zod, Ursa and Non from the phantom zone, ending the movie with their arrival. Lois wouldn’t have died until the end of the second film and Superman would have turned the world back then, not only to save her but to undo the world shattering damage the Phantom Zone criminals had caused before destroying his Fortress of Solitude.
As it was, bringing some of those elements into the first film gives it a completeness it may otherwise have lacked and taken on it’s own merits it’s a wonderful blend of big ideas and personal moments.
Jerry Goldsmith was originally to have written the music for the film having already scored Donner’s “Omen” movie. As the schedule shifted, he was unable to do the work in time although some of his score from “Capricorn One” can be heard on the first trailers. It was John Williams who gave us the sound of “Superman.” Although better remembered for his “Star Wars” score of the same period, “Superman” is a remarkable piece of cinematic music. His sound takes us from sterile Krypton, through space to the great open landscapes of Kansas. He gives each character a musical voice and, though never used in full during the movie, a moving and wonderful love theme. His “Superman” march is William Walton, Morton Gould, Korngold and John Phillip Sousa; marching band Americana on a majestic scale. The sweetest touch, however is that three note theme that spells the name, “Superman.”
In the days when there was no home video, DVD probably stood for Deadly Venereal Disease and Blu-ray must surely have been an Aquaman Villain, movies could play for months at the cinema. There was no obsession with an opening weekend. We could go and see Superman fly at the local cinema every weekend as seasons past us by.
Comics were my underage drug of choice, my habit and right next door to the cinema was a newsagent that sold them. I could roll out of Superman and grab a handful of comics on the way home if I’d moaned at my mum long enough for an extra thirty-six pee. But as that love of Superheroes was taking hold, Superman the movie came and made them real.
I’ve been drawing comics for a quarter of a century and this movie is the DNA of that career. Not just as a choice but in how I approach it. I’ve had labels such as ‘cinematic’ or ‘widescreen’ given to my work in past years and if such labels fit it’s because I learned them here first. The design, the environments, the big ideas are all here but so are characters you care about. The big picture, yes but the eye for storytelling detail, all rendered with absolute conviction.
Awe and Wonder certainly but heart and truth in equal measure with a John Williams fanfare to herald it.
I’m both proud and honored to introduce tonight’s screening of “Superman the Movie.” It not only holds a place in my own history and geek heart that most others my age have given to “Star Wars,” it’s a touchstone almost every day I work.
It was a game changer. Before was the “Batman” TV show and all the public knew of Superheroes was Adam West and Burt Ward dancing the Batoosi. There was no precedent, no other comic book movie to show the way. The world had laughed at superheroes.
Donner gave us a hero to believe in and, though any new attempt at a Superman movie may better it for effects, design or technical achievement it could only ever equal the cast and story of this, The Original. A majestic and soaring movie about a Great American Myth.
This is the first chance I’ve had to see the movie on the Big Screen for over thirty years and to do so was why I travelled all the way from darkest southern England tell you why it’s worth it.
I wore that red nightie with pride and I believed, with all my heart, that a man could fly.
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