Superman 1.5: The Discovery of Fire

Hang in there, folks; the credits are almost over. I’ve been using this journey through the opening titles to set up all the backstory before the film actually starts, and we’re almost there. But there’s one more piece of the story to tell, and it begins with a warning.

“Richard Lester had been suing the Salkinds for his money on Three and Four Musketeers, which he had never gotten,” said director Richard Donner. This is from a 1979 interview with the magazine Cinefantastique. “He told me he’s won a lot of his lawsuits, but each time he sued them in one country, they’d move to another — from Costa Rica to Panama to Switzerland. So when I took the picture, Richard Lester took me aside and said, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t work for them. I was told not to, but I did it. Now I’m telling you not to, but you’ll probably do it and end up telling the next guy.'”

But Donner didn’t listen; he agreed, and managed to direct about 75% of Superman and Superman II before they fired him. As it turned out, he didn’t have to warn the next guy, because the next guy was actually Richard Lester, signing on for another tour of duty with the Salkinds. On the whole, you should probably listen to harbingers; that’s what they’re there for.

We left the production of Superman: The Movie in Rome circa July 1976, with two big-name stars, a rewritten script, and a director who’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do with it all. They’ve been building sets and doing unrewarding special effects tests, and then it turns out they have to move the entire production to England and the director can’t come.

One reason that they have to get out of Rome is that Marlon Brando’s in the picture, and there’s some trouble related to his 1972 film, Last Tango in Paris.

Last Tango in Paris is the story of an Italian director trying to figure out how much he can get away with. It was made by Bernardo Bertolucci as an exploration of the effect of erotic domination in a person’s life, i.e. how much can you do to a woman before she calls the police. Brando plays Paul, an American widower who rents an apartment in Paris and has an anonymous affair with a 19-year-old woman named Jeanne, played and later deeply regretted by Maria Schneider.

The big scene involved Paul anally raping Jeanne, using butter as a lubricant. This scene wasn’t actually in the script, and Schneider learned about it just before they shot it. Apparently Bertolucci wanted Schneider to realistically portray the feelings of someone being sexually assaulted, and he wanted to bring these out by sexually assaulting her. They didn’t have #MeToo back then; the way I calculate it, this was somewhere around #MeZeroPointZeroZeroOne.

Plus, nobody told her about the butter. People make a big deal about the butter for some reason; that appears to be the final straw as far as Schneider was concerned. Part of me is curious to understand what was up with the butter, and the other part is telling me that learning more about the production of Last Tango in Paris will not make me happy.

Anyway, the movie came out, and it was hugely controversial, with some people considering it pornographic, abusive and immoral. On the other hand, Pauline Kael liked it a whole lot, so opinions differ.

The Italian government took issue with the film, declaring it obscene and putting Bertolucci on trial. In January 1976, the Italian Supreme Court said that all copies and negatives must be destroyed, and Bertolucci had his civil rights revoked for five years. Apparently, Brando would have been arrested as well if he’d set foot in Italy, so the Rome arrangement was not going to work out.

Plus, they weren’t having any fun in Rome anyway. Here’s Ilya, from a 2018 interview: “We had a lot of problems in Rome. I love Italy and I love to eat there, but I would say that to work with the Italians is a different story. [Laughs] They do have a little tendency to exaggerate. And so finally we realized that nothing was going to happen there, and we decided to move to England because in England the pound was very, very low — boy, I think a pound was a dollar — so it was very cheap.”

I don’t understand what Ilya is trying to say about Italian people, but in addition to that, the British government was giving tax breaks to film productions in the UK that used a majority British crew, and if the Salkinds love anything in this world, it’s not paying taxes. Now all they have to do is fire the director and get another one.

You see, outgoing director Guy Hamilton was a tax exile himself, which means that he owed a lot of money to the British government, and he didn’t feel like giving it to them. In Hamilton’s view, the government had far too much money already, and giving them more would only spoil them. He could avoid this if he only spent thirty days a year in Britain, but you can’t shoot a movie in thirty-day annual sprints, so he had to bow out of the project.

You may have noticed by this point that quite a few people who worked with the Salkinds were wanted by the authorities, for one reason or another. This is probably a coincidence.

So Ilya used his masterful producer technique of going to see successful films and then asking the filmmakers if they felt like working on Superman. This was summer 1976, so he went to see The Omen, directed by Richard Donner.

The Omen is the story of an American working in the United Kingdom, who’s warned that someone he’s associated with is evil, but he doesn’t believe it until it’s too late.

It’s a gloomy and intense movie that has very suspenseful scenes, but not a lot of character development; the people are basically props, given the minimum number of characteristics needed to bring them to a sticky end. It’s very well made and does exactly what it sets out to do, but there’s no romance and no humor, and the action scenes are chaotic.

Watching The Omen, I have no idea what the Salkinds saw that made them want to hire Richard Donner for Superman without even talking to him about it. There is no resemblance between the two films at all. The only thing that I can think of is that it was the sixth-highest grossing film in 1976, and the directors of Rocky, A Star Is Born, King Kong, Silver Streak and All the President’s Men were busy.

Donner started out as a television director in the 1960s, directing a bunch of Western shows and then moving into adventure, crime and comedy. He directed seven episodes of The Rifleman, three episodes of Kojak, Gilligan’s Island and Perry Mason, and six episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. He made three movies before The Omen: a 1961 drama about test pilots working on the X-15 rocket, a 1968 Sammy Davis Jr/Peter Lawford comedy called Salt and Pepper, and Lola, a 1969 romance about a 38-year-old writer of pornographic novels who falls in love with a 16-year-old girl. In 1975, he directed a well-received TV-movie called Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic.

In other words, he was all over the place. He’d done comedy, drama, romance, cops, cowboys, lawyers, slice-of-life and suspense. The one thing that he hadn’t done was anything remotely like Superman. But by some kind of magic, he turned out to be the right person for the job.

Here’s some more from that 1979 Cinefantastique interview:

“I got a call one day from a European voice that said ‘This is Alexander Salkind. You know who I am?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘I produced The Three Musketeers. We’re doing Superman now, and we’ve just seen The Omen — would you like to do it?’ So I said, ‘That’s flattering, but I’d like to read it first.’ And his reaction was, ‘You don’t have to read it. Everybody likes it.’

“But I said, ‘Well, I’d feel better if I’d read it.’ He was calling from Europe, but there was a copy of the script over here which they had sent over — and twenty minutes later I was reading it. I mean, literally, that’s how fast it was here. I called him back later and said that I would be interested if I could do a major rewrite and bring in a new writer. But they said they were very happy with the screenplay, and everybody liked it; so I said, ‘We had better just forget about it.'”

But the agents negotiated, and worked out a deal: Donner would get a million dollars, and he could bring along a writer — Tom Mankiewicz, who’d written several James Bond films as well as being a well-known “script doctor” and rewriter.

Donner immediately clashed with Pierre Spengler, who I haven’t talked about much but was Ilya’s best friend and a producer on the film. Donner didn’t like Spengler from the start.

“It was a well-written script, quite honestly. But it was a ridiculous script. For one thing, here was this producer, a guy named Pierre Spengler, who was going to supervise making this film for the Salkinds, and he had a 550-page screenplay. Well, number one, I said, ‘You can’t shoot this screenplay, because you’ll be shooting for five years.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no. It’s fine.’ I said, ‘That’s totally asinine,’ but that was literally a shooting script and they planned to shoot all 550 pages. You know, 110 pages is plenty for a script, so even for two features that was way too much.

“See, they had gotten a wonderful screenplay from Mario Puzo. And they had a director — who was a good director — an Englishman named Guy Hamilton. So you had European producers and an English director making an American fable. And nothing wrong with it, except that I don’t think they really knew what the fable was.”

So — as he’s told people many, many times — Donner decided to do the film, in order to protect Superman from these European producers.

Mankiewicz wrote a lot of new dialogue, and tightened up the Luthor/Superman interactions so that there could be one climactic face-off between the hero and the villain, rather than three encounters, as the current script had it. He took out the volcano and the Kleenex and made a lot of interesting choices which we’ll talk about once the film actually starts. At the time, Writers’ Guild rules said that there could only be four people credited as writers in a film, so Mankiewicz was credited as “Creative Consultant”, after the other four writers.

Donner and Mankiewicz decided that what the film needed was verisimilitude — it should feel genuine, as if Superman existed in the real world, without springing camp meta-jokes on people. That was so important to them that they had it hanging as a banner in the production office.

But you might notice that already, even before they’ve started, Donner saw the process of making this movie as a struggle between the good guys, who loved Superman (himself and Mankiewicz) and the bad guys, who didn’t understand Superman (the Salkinds and Spengler).

And so begins the ancient battle of Art vs Commerce, which is going to come up quite a bit as we dig into this history. The artist has a vision but needs money to bring it to life; the businessperson has cash but needs the artist to produce something marketable, preferably on time and under budget.

This round of that age-old story is particularly intense, because Donner is very specific about what he wants, and he’ll keep shooting take after take until he gets it, even if he’s only producing forty-five seconds of useable footage a day. The Salkinds and Spengler know that this is breaking the budget, but they can’t be specific about it, because they’re playing con games with the investors and they don’t want anybody to know how much money they’re actually spending.

The productive friction between Art and Commerce is what culture is all about, those two forces striking against each other and giving off sparks. Sometimes that means you’ve discovered fire, and invented civilization; sometimes it means you’ve burned your house down. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

If Krypton is so great, why is it all indoors?
1.6: We Built This City

Movie list

— Danny Horn

8 thoughts on “Superman 1.5: The Discovery of Fire

  1. Well-chosen quote from Donner describing a “European voice” belonging to someone “in Europe.” Drives home the point that the Salkinds didn’t want to be identified with any locality that had a police force!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t seen “Last Tango” in decades but I remember only two things about it that I thought were good: 1) The music by Gato Barbieri and 2) a scene where Brando’s character grieves over the body of his late wife.

    “The Omen,” on the other hand, was fantastic. Billie Whitelaw would’ve been *perfect* in Dark Shadows!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Omen is terrific. I still get chills from the scene where the nanny cries “It’s all for you!” in joyous delusion (not saying anymore for those who haven’t seen it yet.)

      On the other hand, the Rottweilers don’t scare me at all because I love Rotties. They’re giant love bombs.


  3. Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic is such an incredible 70s TV movie title. Sounds like an SCTV sketch, to be honest. I refuse to accept that Sarah T. wasn’t played by Catherine O’Hara, with Andrea Martin and Joe Flaherty as her parents.


    1. In the 70s, ABC had a series called “Movie of the Week.” They ran out of tropes pretty quickly, so they started running stuff by guys right out of film school (like “Duel” by a young unknown named Spielberg) and sensitive, topical stuff (like “Sarah T”) that also ran out of tropes quickly. By the time SCTV came along, the movie-of-the-week genre had already slipped into parody.

      At the time, however, these movies made it possible to talk about things that you previously did not talk about. If your teenager had a drinking problem, you dealt with it alone… or you didn’t deal with it at all.

      I have to wonder if the pushback against these movies was entirely spontaneous. Raising awareness about family issues can impact some powerful people.


  4. “We didn’t have #MeToo back then.”
    Maybe not literally, but those things have always angered more people than you hear, otherwise there wouldn’t have been the controversy at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The amount of graft, conning, and skullduggery involved in making The Great American Story is very very very…accurate.


  6. Donner directed the first season of THE BANANA SPLITS ADVENTURE HOUR, but IMDb doesn’t have a firm grip on that (one “episode” is just the cast of the Danger Island segments repeated). Donner directed the goofy animal suit stuff too, but the Danger Island serial (pirates! Bloodthirsty natives! Castaways who aren’t in a sitcom! Shirtless Jan-Michael Vincent!) feels closer to Superman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s