“Hello, I’m Ilya Salkind,” the man says, “executive producer of Superman: The Movie, which actually I guess everybody by now knows was called Superman on the screen.” We are one sentence into this DVD commentary and already I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“The movie was an idea that I think I came up with,”
“and I say I think because there were so many people involved that it could have been somebody else, but it was to, y’know, make the difference between the comic book and the movie — the big movie. The comic book idea, again,”
he goes on,
“was a combination, and frankly, you see, this is what happens when you have a lot of talented people, is that everybody comes up with stuff, and it’s a collaboration, and I don’t know who came up with the comic book idea. I know I came up with the black and white. That I do remember.”
There are one hundred and thirty-five more minutes of this.
Ilya Salkind, executive producer of Superman: The Movie, has an origin story to relate, one that has a fairly indirect relationship with what’s happening on the screen in the film that he’s currently DVD-commenting on. Ilya was there at the beginning, back when exploding was just a twinkle in the planet Krypton’s eye, and he wants to tell us all about it.
It’s the story of a mighty family, who stole fire from the gods and financing from German film distributors. It’s a heist movie about a gang of crooks so slippery that even they don’t know if they made money or not. Most of all, it’s the story of a passionate, creative young man who had a brilliant idea that changed the world, and I’ll give you three guesses who that turns out to be.
“And actually, here, that’s my father,”
says Ilya, as the curtains pull open to reveal a dynamic widescreen spacescape with the words ALEXANDER SALKIND PRESENTS zooming by,
“and without him, there would be no movie, there would have been no Superman movie, there would have been absolutely not the figment of a Superman movie, unless somebody else would have come up with it later, because he was able to finance the movie. I had the idea, but an idea is great, but without money, to make a film like this, it’s just an idea. So I really pull my hat — he used to wear hats, actually — I pull my hat in great gratitude, and even more so, I dedicate everything that is linked to Superman to him, and all the other films we did, obviously.”
Listening to Ilya talk is a curiously aerobic activity. His speech pattern is like a guy bouncing a tennis ball on a racket, trying to keep the ball in the air for as long as he can. Gravity wins eventually and he has to stop talking for a second, but he’s always going for a personal record.
“The genesis of the idea could have come up because my grandfather, who was Michael Salkind and did the first Greta Garbo movie, had a tendency to do movies with my father that were really heroic, in the sense that he did Don Quixote, which is a classic, that was a famous tenor from the old days called Chaliapin, he’s like a Mario Lanza from Russia, and he did Don Quixote, and he also did Cervantes, which is the life of the writer of Don Quixote, and that was also a big movie in those days. So his movies had a tendency to be very positive, with heroes that were real, or fictional, like Cervantes was a real hero in life, he actually lost an arm in the battle of Lepanto, but Don Quixote, of course, was a creation. I guess that’s where I got this kind of attraction to heroes, fictional or real, and it must have been in my childhood dreams, and later in my adult dreams, because you always have to follow your dream. And, um, I think it’s important.”
Ilya’s grandfather, Mikhail Salkind — aka Michael Salkind and/or Miguel Salkind — was a lawyer who left Russia in 1922 after the Russian Civil War, which was an excellent time to go. Mikhail settled in Berlin with his wife Maria and son Alexander, and became a film producer.
As Ilya says, Mikhail produced Joyless Street in 1925, which was the first film starring Greta Garbo and also happened to be a landmark in the New Objectivity movement, if that interests anyone. The Salkinds left Europe during World War II — another timely exit, stage left — and landed in Cuba, before settling in Mexico, where Ilya was born.
The Salkinds remained a family on the move, continually shifting location from one place to another — Germany, Cuba, Costa Rica, Switzerland — mostly because tax evasion is a lot easier when nobody can figure out what country you haven’t been paying taxes to.
“This approach to Krypton,”
“after we have left the small comic book and the curtains, and open, I remember very clearly telling John Williams that if he could get some kind of feeling of a little bit of 2001, I would be, y’know, totally eternally grateful, because that’s the film that made me decide to make films, really, 2001, which I saw as a young teenager, and it really made me go ballistic. And if you really think about this intro, it’s not far from that Zarathustra, I mean, of course, it’s Williams, and he knew it, but this opening was very important, musically, and it gave the size, immediately, of the film. Of course, the size without an actor, who is possibly one of the two or three best actors in this century, I would say, Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplin, I mean, that was like the music, it just, or the approach to Krypton, it just made the film become absolutely bigger than life. And that’s really the way to describe what I learned from 2001, as a kid, that somehow ‘bigger than life’ was something that fascinated me, and Superman was really the one where I could go, after convincing everybody, and we’ll go back to that, to really get to this bigger than life feeling, where we are in an incredible world, where literally everybody is almost like a god.”
If you listen to this DVD commentary — and whether you choose to do that or not is entirely up to you — you’ll notice that Ilya is principally concerned with two things. The first is size, and the second is “quality”, which is another word for money, which is another word for size.
But what about the dinner? By this point, we’re eleven minutes into the commentary, and Ilya hasn’t talked about the dinner in Paris yet, which must be a personal record.
“Since the beginning,”
“when I came up with the idea, and I was having dinner with my father in Paris, and I just said out of the blue, why don’t we do Superman, right? So he said, ‘Vat’s superman? Vat are you talking about?’ And I said, well, y’know, it’s a guy that flies, I mean, he’s powerful like a god, he’s incredible, and he’s — everybody knows him! So he kind of was taken a little bit aback, and he said, ‘Oh, okay, let me check this’, and so he went to talk to his different distributors and backers, and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, they know the name, and yeah, interesting.’ And I said, yeah, but y’know, this has got to be a film that is — a film! And I think that’s when perhaps the movie concept, calling it The Movie came. This is a real — big — gigantic — epic movie. And my father immediately understood that, and agreed.”
The dinner in Paris is Ilya’s big scene, the magic moment when he rubbed the lamp and then asked the genie to go and arrange financing.
“Now of course, we’re jumping many years, because this project started in ’74, when I first came up with the idea. Now, why did I come up with the idea? I guess as I said, looking for something, y’know, bigger than life, but also a hero, and I must say that on my mother’s side, she was extremely influenced by good role models, and I had seen as a kid, things like Ben Hur, El Cid, and all those films had, I guess, y’know, created a very strong imprint in my subconscious, because it was pre-conscious. And of course, Superman was the greatest hero of all time. I mean, there’s just no kidding around, in terms of fiction, of course. So I think that’s what led to the idea.”
Ilya keeps talking about his fascination with heroes, which is a bit hard to swallow, because the Salkinds were essentially a crime syndicate.
Alexander Salkind was one of the world’s eccentrics, who are put on this earth for the specific purpose of giving people something to think about. Standing five foot three, he had shaggy, blue-rinsed hair, wore ascots and white bucks, and was known to sport a gold lorgnette. Born in Russia, raised in Germany and married in Mexico, he spoke seven languages, each one in an impenetrable bespoke accent all his own.
Alexander Salkind never paid bills; he settled lawsuits. Film crews who’d worked with the Salkinds before would line up every week to get paid in cash, because his checks would be from a bank in Switzerland which took weeks to clear, so that he could hang on to the money longer and earn interest on it. Sometimes people got paid in whatever currency had the best exchange rate.
He was terrified of flying, and if he wanted to go to America, he’d take a week-long transatlantic liner, and then he’d have to wait a month before he could sail back. For some obscure reason, he had a Costa Rican passport, and when he was arrested by Interpol in Bern for misappropriation of funds just before Superman: The Movie premiered, he explained that he was listed as Costa Rica’s cultural attache for Switzerland, which he actually was, and had diplomatic immunity. Then he was heavily sedated, so that he could take a hurried flight to Mexico.
Alex was the kind of guy who creates a shell company for the purpose of transferring money to another shell company, in order to pay himself back for a loan he borrowed from himself, using collateral that technically belonged to someone else. When he was negotiating with Warner Bros for Superman’s distribution rights, he claimed that his company Film Export A.G. had received a larger offer for the US and Canadian rights from Monopole A.G., and he demanded that Warners beat Monopole’s offer. It turned out later that Alex owned Monopole too. I forget how it all came out.
“As I perhaps didn’t say enough before,”
“my father, and before him my grandfather, then with him, were able to raise money independently, and when my grandfather got older, which was actually he passed away after The Three Musketeers — and that’s when I had the idea, actually, after The Three Musketeers and after he passed away, so perhaps again there’s some kind of weird connection there, but my father was able then, and I started working with him — well, I had started working with him since already three or four films — and he could raise independent financing in a way that was, I would say, almost impossible.”
The Three Musketeers was the Salkinds’ big early-70s hit, a swashbuckling adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel starring Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Michael York and Frank Finlay which was released in 1973 — or, at least, the first half of it was. The Salkinds had the bright idea to film two scripts at the same time and shoot enough material for two full-length movies, but only pay everybody for one. The second half, The Four Musketeers, followed in 1974, and then obviously everybody sued the Salkinds, and a good time was had by all.
After this, the Screen Actors’ Guild instituted the “Salkind Clause”, which would specify in actors’ contracts how many movies they were supposed to be shooting. It never occurred to anybody before that you would need to specify such a thing in a contract. It never does, until someone like the Salkinds comes along.
Oh, and Alex’s way of raising independent financing for The Three Musketeers really was impossible, or at least implausible. To secure a loan, he used assets that belonged to a German film distributor named William Forman without paying him back or even informing him that it was happening; that’s why Alex had to get out of Switzerland in a hurry.
“We got a tiny little suite on the interior courtyard of the Plaza Hotel,”
Ilya recalls, talking about how they found a writer for the film.
“And those days, of course, the Plaza Hotel was legendary, and we didn’t have a writer, but in that little suite, I’m sure that I suddenly, talking with my father, said, ‘Well, y’know, what are we going to do? William Goldman doesn’t want to do it,’ and all that, and I said, ‘Well, why don’t we take Mario Puzo?’ And my father said, ‘Very good idea! Puzo! Godfather! Fantastic! Let’s do it!'”
You’ll notice that once again, Ilya is just sitting around with his dad in a hotel suite when he lights up with another little fire-from-the-gods flash of insight. A lot of Ilya’s stories involve coming up with ideas in hotel suites, or while eating expensive food.
“Long story short, of course, discussions, agents, all that, but very quickly, he accepted. And that was perhaps the most important step at that time, or perhaps even of all time, for the movie to start to breathe, because this is something I really recall having said — it’s got to be bigger than life, but it’s got to be quality bigger than life. It can’t just be a big movie.”
Around 47 minutes into the film, Ilya goes on a little journey to discuss the similarities between Superman, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all blockbuster movies that were made around the same time, and how all of them featured good influences from outer space coming to Earth, except for Star Wars, which didn’t.
Then he brings up Jaws, and goes straight from that into the Salkinds’ exploits at the Cannes Film Festival, and how he manages that segue is just to drop what he’s talking about in the middle of a sentence. You have to keep up, with Ilya. There’s another “Ilya comes up with an idea” story in this one.
“So, of course, Jaws was based on a fantastic book, and this, I must say, because it’s something that’s been going around for a long time, and we’re really at the early beginning here, after Puzo, which was the first part of the film, to create that size. We, of course, started looking for directors, and also we started announcing the film in Cannes, and I think my father — I don’t know, again, we had these sessions where we would kind of bounce ideas, and came up with the plane, and then we created this tradition that — in the Cannes Film Festival, which is a market and a festival at the same time, where they see intellectual films, but they also sell whatever film they can sell — we had the first year, ’75 I think, we had one plane flying with — perhaps it was three planes flying — with, y’know, SUPERMAN, SALKIND, PUZO. And then the year after, we had five planes, and it got to a point where we had an armada of planes, and one of the events, also I had a boat with helicopters, I mean, it was pretty spectacular. And it started creating this mystery buzz.”
Yeah, the planes. To generate buzz in the industry, the Salkinds flew planes over the Cannes Film Festival for four years in a row — three planes in 1975 that said SUPERMAN SALKIND PUZO, and five planes in 1976 that said SUPERMAN SALKIND HAMILTON. In 1977, there was a whole fleet, including a helicopter that tried to land a huge SUPERMAN billboard on a boat, but the wind changed direction and the helicopter almost crashed, overbalanced by the heavy sign, which hit the water and split into two. I wish I had a picture of that to show you, but it was the 70s and nobody had cell phones.
Okay, back to Ilya. So far, they’ve got Mario Puzo writing the script, but they don’t have a director.
“So, to come back to Jaws, there’s a reason I’m going on Jaws, is that Stephen Spielberg had directed Sugarland Express and Duel, and I remember that there was an agent that was calling in Paris where we were still based, saying, y’know, we represent this young, very talented director Stephen Spielberg, and, y’know, he wants to do Superman, it’s the kind of film he likes. And I did what I usually do, I went to see his films. So I saw Sugarland Express and I saw Duel, and I came back and I said to my father, ‘This guy’s fantastic, I mean, he has it, he’s gonna be a major, major director.'”
This is the tragic moment in Ilya’s Superman story; the brilliant idea that his father didn’t listen to. Spielberg is the fish that got away.
“My father, however — I must say, Pierre agreed with me by the way, which was very nice — my father, however, did not, and said, ‘Well, we’ve gotta wait until we see the result with the big fish.’ I said, ‘But this guy, y’know, we’ve gotta take him, etcetera,’ — ‘No, no, no,’ — Okay, of course the movie opened, Jaws, and created perhaps, again, we don’t know when the first blockbuster started, but I guess Jaws was the biggest. So after the big fish film opened, and smashed every existing record, my father said, ‘Oh, we have to get this young man, he’s fantastic,’ and I said, ‘Well, I think it’s going to be pretty difficult.’ I mean, obviously, the agent was very polite and I don’t know exactly what he said, but whatever it was, it was a polite no.”
We’re more than an hour into this DVD commentary, and Ilya is still in 1975. Spielberg is too famous, George Lucas is busy with Star Wars, and Superman still doesn’t have a director.
“And then there was Sam Peckinpah. I had a meeting with Sam Peckinpah. I got out alive, which was great, but we obviously didn’t make the film together, because — well, I was very, very young. I’m still very, very young, but I was even younger, so it did not happen.”
I’m not sure what that means. Then Ilya describes his technique for finding a director, which is to look down the list of top-grossing films, and cross people off until he finds one that wants to direct Superman.
“So I was really the one racking my brain for these kind of things, to find, y’know, who, what, where. And I came up with Guy Hamilton — I had a very simple technique, I would just go through the box-office list of all time. Then I’d look at the big films that worked, and that were good. At any event, Guy Hamilton came up in the box office with Goldfinger, which was in my opinion one of the best Bonds. We met with Guy Hamilton, a wonderful man, extremely pleasant, and we took Guy Hamilton to direct the film. And then we announced it, and there were more planes flying in Cannes.”
And that basically says it all, as far as the Salkinds’ creative judgment is concerned. They don’t want a writer or a director who have an interesting perspective and a story that they want to tell about Superman; they just want the most famous writer they can get, and the director who’s made the most money.
Yes, Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather and Guy Hamilton directed Goldfinger, and both of those films were critically and financially successful. But is the guy who wrote The Godfather really the best person to write a movie about Superman?
“And then the draft of Puzo was an enormous draft of five hundred pages,”
“and was extremely… epic and powerful. So with Guy, we all read Puzo’s script and agreed that it was just too big. I mean, it would have cost a billion dollars, I don’t know. I mean, there were scenes in there that were unmakeable.”
Which means that after all this time and all those planes, the Salkinds still don’t have a makeable film.
So we’re going to leave Ilya and his DVD commentary’s fiction reality at this dramatic juncture, because we need to take a look at the Variety ad that the Salkinds ran in November 1975. Variety is the primary trade publication for Hollywood; basically, if you have something to say to the film industry and you don’t have any planes, then you put an ad in Variety.
As we’ve seen, the Salkinds value size above any other virtue, and this ad — which took up five full pages in the November 11th edition — was their way of showing off how big they were. They didn’t have a cast yet, or a distributor, or a workable script, but they were big and important, and this was their way of expressing that truth.
The first page of the ad, in huge black type against a gray background, says:
THAT GUY HAMILTON
The next two-page spread is pretty amazing. In even larger black letters, it reads:
THESE FIVE MEN COMBINED
HAVE MADE A TOTAL
BOX OFFICE GROSS OF
ONE BILLION DOLLARS…
and then lists the director, the writer and the three producers, along with the names of their successful films.
“GOLDFINGER” “BATTLE OF BRITAIN” “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” “FUNERAL IN BERLIN” “LIVE AND LET DIE” “MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN”
“THE GODFATHER” (PARTS 1&2)
Executive in Charge of Production
“THE THREE MUSKETEERS”
“THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”
And I guess if you add up the box office gross of all those films, you get a billion dollars, which is a really big number. So the message is that These Five Men are strong, powerful and successful; they have made big movies and earned big money.
The final two-page spread gets a little weird.
… FIVE MEN WHOSE TALENTS
AND ENERGIES ARE NOW
FOCUSED ON THE SUPER
FILM OF THE SEVENTIES!
There isn’t really a classy film-crit way for me to say this, so I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that in my opinion, these five men in this five-page ad are boasting about their testicular production.
I mean, talking about their “talents and energies” is pretty clearly about these guys gathering up their collective billion-dollar animal spirits and spurting out an epic blockbuster. They’re not making a third-rate comic book movie with a silly-looking guy wearing tights. This is a fully masculine, erect production ready to spill its seed into movie theaters around the world. All movie executives think this way; this ad is just a particularly blunt way of expressing it.
If you think I’m reading too much into this, then take a close look at the last page of the ad, which says:
SUPERMAN… THE MAN
Seriously. Not Superman: The Movie. It says Superman… The Man.
I don’t know what to do with that particular postcard from the infinite; I simply set it before you, for your consideration. I imagine that someone made a mistake somewhere, and they meant to say “the Movie”. But that is a weird Freudian mistake to make, in front of all of Hollywood.
And ultimately, that’s what this movie is about: all of the wisdom and goodness and heroic spirit concentrated into one man, who gathers it up and then shoots it skywards. Krypton explodes in a satisfying burst of orgasmic pressure, and the seed spins across the incalculable vastness of space, to find purchase on a warm, fertile and welcoming planet.
As Mikhail Salkind begat Alex, and Alex begat Ilya, now Ilya has blurted out this wonderful, bigger than life idea, right in the middle of dinner. A Superman movie!
1.3: Brando and the Money.
— Danny Horn