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June 01, 2011

Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve did

Posted in: Movies

richard donner Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve did

Richard Donner in Burbank in May 2011 (Carl Samrock)

The character of Superman endures through the decades like, well, a Man of Steel. In comics books, on television, in film, in video games, even on Broadway  and beyond, the famous red cape flies on and on, even when the textures and attributes of the hero fluctuate for the era and the audience. For many fans — especially those under 50 — their mental image of Superman is the face of Christopher Reeve and the film universe of director Richard Donner.

superman anthology Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve didOn Tuesday, our Geoff Boucher sat down with Donner to chat about “Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006),” which arrives as a new Blu-ray boxed set from Warner Bros. on June 7, and about his upcoming appearance at the Hero Complex Film Festival. Donner directed the 1978 film starring Reeve and also shot footage for the sequel, 1981’s “Superman II,” but never finished the film after a bitter split with the producers. In 2006, a version of that could-have-been sequel was released on DVD as “Superman II: The Donner Cut,” which will be given a rare theatrical screening on June 11 at the festival.

GB: Superman, the character, persists, but every generation finds its own version. Of all those versions, I’d say none of them loom bigger in the modern imagination than yours. That must be very satisfying for you. 

RD: Yes, it is satisfying. I don’t think about it, but when you say it like that or ask it as a question, well, yes, it is satisfying. It was a shock too. Any movie you do, it becomes the most important movie of your life, the most important year or two of your life. You never know what it’s going to turn out to be or how it’s going to be received but, in their life, some of them mean more to you than others. And that’s very important. Some of them change your life.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve in the 1981 film "Superman II." (Los Angeles Times archive)

GB: A million decisions go into making a feature film the size of “Superman.” When you look back, what would you say were some of the essential choices you made on the film that you are proudest of? Be they about tone, casting, your approach, the story, etc.

RD: That’s simple. It was Tom Mankiewicz. I had known him since he graduated Yale as an “intellectual writer” who found himself writing James Bond [with his scripts for the 1970s films “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Live and Let Die” and “The Man with the Golden Gun“] but always wanted to write something that was going to change the world. When we read what we had and we got permission for rewrite, I approached Tom and told him I was looking for two things: One, we have to convince the audience that a guy can really fly; the other is that this has to be a love story. The minute he heard that, he cottoned to it and decided to make the movie. I have a little cutout of Superman, it shows him flying in the cloud, and he was dragging a word on his cape: Verisimilitude. It came from Tom. We wanted to do this — and it’s a comic book, but it had to have its own sense of reality. You don’t parody it. That was the most important decision.

GB: On June 11, we’re going to be showing “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” and I’m curious how you view that 2006 release now. It’s a fascinating and unexpected artifact …

RD: That’s what I say, actually — it is an artifact. It was almost 30 years, and it was laying, rotting in a can, for so long. I never thought it would see the light of day. It was like a gift to me when it was finally out there, a gift that somebody gave to me. And that somebody was Michael Thau, who I’m hoping will be there [at the screening]. He should be on stage. I hope he will be. He’s the one that persevered, the one that said, ‘There’s a groundswell, all the fans want to see this.” I told him he was crazy but he pushed with Warners and there were enough fans, and he got it made. He did a great job, just a great job. There’s footage that, probably, if I had ever finished the film, I would have reshot because it was done in such a hurry because we were trying to get the first and second movie done together. But it’s all there. When we did the first movie, we didn’t have an end in mind. Tom and I would drive to work every day trying to come up with the end of the film, and finally one day, I don’t know who came up with it, it might have been the driver, who said, “Why don’t you use the end of ‘II,'” which was Superman turning the world back. So we did; we figured that when we went back to finish making “II,” we would come up with something else. But the brilliant Salkinds [the father-and-son producing team] did what they did.

superman gallery2 Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve did

GB: It’s hard to describe how much Christopher Reeve meant to people in this role. I imagine you start thinking quite a bit about his life and his death when these revisitations to “Superman” come along.

RD: More than that. Many years ago, when “Superman” came out, there was a half-body cut-out on the side of the sound stage up here [on the Warner lot in Burbank], and it had the logo and everything. Years later, I was over in either the sign shop or the prop shop, and I looked up and I saw it there. I said to the guy there, “Can I have that?” and he’s says, “No, no, it belongs to the studio.” About two years later, Michael Riva, the production designer, was doing something, and I knew he was over in the prop shop and I told him, “Mike, just steal it, you’re a designer, nobody’s going to ask you, just take it.” So he took it down, he delivered to my house and put it up on the side of a hill next to my house. It looks like Chris is coming out of the hill. Shortly thereafter, Bob Daly, who was chairman of Warner, came for dinner at my house and saw it and said, “Where did you get that?” And I said, “You gave it to me, don’t you remember?” And he said, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” So I was good. But the point is I think of Chris all the time. This thing is right next to my pool, and I get in the pool a lot and I look up there and I think about him a lot. There’s nobody that could have played that role the way he played it. I don’t think anyone will ever come along and play it like he played it — others will have to play it different — and on top of that, he was a really special individual. A great kid, a great person, loving and devoted, a great sense of humor and the personification of a good friend. He also made my career. I think about him an awful lot.

— Geoff Boucher

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