EXCLUSIVE: The filmmaker talks about "Lethal Weapon," the state of Superman and getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:
Richard Donner, who directed and produced all four "Lethal Weapon" films but found himself excluded from the recent plans to make a fifth, now says that his old friend Mel Gibson has walked away from the franchise revival.
"Mel turned it down," Donner said. "I would like to think that Mel turned it down because I wasn’t involved. Knowing Mel, I would like to think that. Would that be the kind of thing he does? It sure would be."
I checked with Gibson’s camp on Sunday night and while they were reluctant to make any official comment, I left the conversation with no doubt in my mind that Donner’s account is accurate. The 78-year-old filmmaker should have pretty good insight into Gibson; in addition to the four "Lethal" films, Donner directed Gibson in "Conspiracy Theory" and "Maverick" and until recently, the two were pursuing another collaboration, "Sam and George." The pair have a famously mutual admiration society and why not?
For Gibson, the first "Lethal Weapon" in 1987 propelled him to whole new Hollywood heights while for Donner it added luster and longevity to a resume that already included "Superman," "The Omen," "Ladyhawke" and "The Goonies." The "Lethal" franchise eventually grossed $488 million at the U.S. box office and the last installment, released in the summer of 1998, topped $130 million domestically.
In recent months there was a ramping of expectations that, like Indiana Jones, Rambo and John McClane, Gibson’s volatile cop-hero Martin Riggs would be back on the screen to remind moviegoers of 1980s cinema glory. Those expectations began when word got out that Shane Black, who famously wrote the screenplay for the first "Lethal Weapon" and co-wrote the first sequel, had a script that would reunite Gibson’s Riggs with his old partner, Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh. He brought it to producer Joel Silver, another veteran of the "Lethal" franchise, who wanted Black to also direct it. (Black made his directorial debut with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" in 2005.)
The news of the Silver and Black project stirred press coverage and considerable blogosphere interest this summer, especially after actor Columbus Short said he was up for a supporting role and that the project was being fast-tracked. (And, no surprise, there were plenty of people who groaned at the mere mention of another "Lethal Weapon" movie.) It was all frustrating for odd-man-out Donner, who with a separate team had come up with a sequel concept of their own. Donner, who had a falling out with Silver a few years ago, didn’t enjoy being excluded from a franchise that he considers his signature work.
"Joel Silver tried to ace me out of it. He tried to put it together but made sure he didn’t do it until my contract was up. You know, it’s typical of the man. A guy who wasn’t even around at the beginning when we started on the first one. He came in late."
Donner went on: "It’s too bad, actually, because Channing Gibson, who wrote the fourth one, and Mike Riva, a designer on three of them, and myself and Derek [Hoffman, an associate at The Donner Company] had an incredibly strong story for the fifth movie. But we weren’t given the opportunity and I think maybe I could have convinced Mel to do it. But Warners chose to go with Joel Silver."
Silver and Donner have plenty of history (in the photo on the left you see Silver, Julia Roberts, Gibson and Donner at the "Conspiracy Theory" premiere in November 1997) and I don’t think trying to untangle it here serves any purpose. I will say that by all accounts that I have seen, Black wrote his "Lethal Weapon 5" script as a spec project and then brought it to Silver, so the producer’s timing may not be as calculated as Donner believes. Also, "Lethal Weapon 4" was not exactly a universally acclaimed film so I could certainly understand Warner going in a new direction with the well-regarded Black writing and directing as opposed to giving Gibson and the venerable Donner another crack at it. I gave Silver’s people a call this morning but he’s in London and not avialable today. I’m hoping to talk to him sometime soon and get an update on all his projects, including this one.
I’m not sure about that last point. In talking to Gibson’s people, my sense is that even if Donner had been part of the planned revival, it was a hard sell; Gibson’s career compass these days is pointing in a very different direction than "Lethal Weapon."
"It’s true, Mel and Danny, they’ve done it and to get them back, to provoke them and get some excitement from them to do a fifth one after all this time, you really have to come up with something so solid and so unique and so dedicated to their characters," Donner told me. "Without that I can see their view of, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ "
You could understand if Donner had the same view. His directing resume dates back to 1960 when he started piling up credits on shows such as "The Twilight Zone," "Perry Mason," Route 66," "The Fugitive" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." His most recent film was the taut and bleak 2006 cop film "16 Blocks" with Bruce Willis and, looking ahead, he has a project he’s pursuing now that has a long and surprising history as a property. He told me a bit about it off the record but said it was premature to do more than that.
What’s he most excited about? He chuckled when I asked him. "This Thursday my favorite producer in the world, Lauren Shuler Donner, and I are getting stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame." Lauren Shuler Donner, of course, is the wife of the director and a considerable force in Hollywood after many years of producing major films, among them all of the "X-Men" movies, "Dave," "Bulworth," "Free Willy," St. Elmo’s Fire," "Pretty in Pink" and "Mr. Mom." Her newest project is "The Secret Life of Bees," opening this month. The couple have been married since 1985 and getting the star in a tandem ceremony is, according to Richard Donner, surprisingly affecting.
"It’s the kind of the thing that when you are an actor or director in New York in the theater, and you hear about the Walk of Fame you hate it. It’s L.A., it’s Hollywood. What do they know? Then one day you get a call from your agent and he says ‘I got a ticket for you to go to Hollywood.’ And you say, ‘What time’s the flight?’ It’s the same thing with the Walk of Fame. It’s somewhat inconceivable that we’re getting it and that we’re getting it together. It’s extraordinary. We’re excited."
Like so many people, I was a huge fan of Donner’s 1978 "Superman" film and, in fact, I wrote a lengthy piece for the Los Angeles Times back in 2006 when the filmmaker got to go back and re-cut the sequel, "Superman II," which reached theaters in 1980 in a very different form than Donner planned. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the future cinema life of the first and greatest superhero, so I had to ask Donner what he thought of the talk that Warner Bros. would like to take the Man of Steel into darker terrain.
"I do think you could probably take Superman into some other areas today. I think maybe it’s ready to break the mold slightly and bring a little greater sense of reality into it. Not contemporizing it to like today. Just making the heavies — and the situation that is the tension piece — a little more broken away from the comic-book character. It would take some tricky writing, some good acting and some good directing."
Bryan Singer’s 2006 film, "Superman Returns," felt like a valentine to the Donner work on Superman and the older director received it with fondness. "I totally enjoyed it. I saw it just that once. I went to the theater not knowing anything. Bryan and I had spoken many times before but I didn’t want to know anything about the film. I went as the audience. And I thought, ‘Wow, he really nailed it.’ There’s that one scene, when that piano slid across the floor on the boat? I was startled. It was great."
What would Donner like to see next for the Last Son of Krypton? He didn’t hesitate. "I’d like to see Geoff Johns take a crack at Superman…I think he would be startling. Did you read his comics? There it is. It’s there on paper." Johns is a star writer in comics, of course, but before that, the Detroit native worked in Donner’s office as an assistant to the filmmaker. Once again, Donner thinks the smart way to do business is to put a premium on loyalty and good ideas. "The studio hasn’t gone to him and said, ‘Give us a screenplay.’ That would be the smart thing to do, but that’s show biz. Right? Show biz, that’s our life."
— Geoff Boucher
PHOTOS: Richard Donner at his office in 2006, photographed by Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times
Mel Gibson in January 2008, photographed by the Associated Press
Joel Silver, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson and Richard Donner at the "Conspiracy Theory" premiere in November 1997, photograph by Eric Charbonneau/Berliner Studios
Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the first "Lethal Weapon" film, image courtesy of Warner Bros.; Richard Donner in a 1997 Warner Bros publicity photo.
Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in Richard Donner’s 1978 film "Superman," image courtesy of Warner Bros.