Superman 1.30: After Brando

As the ground pitched and buckled, Jor-El and Lara moved together across the floor of the great hall of Kryptonopolis. There was nowhere they could go; Jor-El knew that better than anyone. He’d tried to warn them, and had suffered for it.

The dying planet was in its final spasms, rock and crystal crumbling around them. Sliding, crunching sounds, unimaginably loud. They were lost, all of them, irretrievably lost, but Jor-El and his wife ducked and flinched, as everything they’d ever known fell to pieces around them. They continued to move down the hall, looking for — what? shelter? a way out? No hope, no time, but still they kept moving. What else could they do?

The floor gave way. The population of Krypton, a proud and noble people, falling and crying and dying, every one. A great darkness. A final, splintering crunch, and then a burst of light and sound that no one was left to witness.

And then things really started to go badly.

Filming the fall of Krypton in April 1977 was difficult and stressful, obviously, but at least the planet fell on schedule. It had to — Marlon Brando’s contract said that he was to be paid an astronomical sum for twelve days of shooting, starting March 28th. He was gone by mid-April, and then they filmed all the other Krypton shots that didn’t need Brando — the villains on trial being swallowed by the Phantom Zone, the filler shots of fleeing Kryptonians falling to their doom. That went fine.

It was in May that they started to run into trouble. That’s when they assembled the interior of the Fortress of Solitude on H stage at Shepperton Studios, and they attempted the first flying shots.

Flying was a nightmare. They knew it would be, and it was.

As we discussed in yesterday’s post, flying is the thing that people love the most about Superman, because it’s the least believable thing about him. It doesn’t make sense — he doesn’t have wings, or an engine. He doesn’t even flap his arms. He just moves through the air by faith alone, in whatever position feels comfortable for him. And we accept his ability to fly because we know that it’s impossible, due to our natural human tendency to believe everything backwards.

Superman has to fly a lot in this movie, and in all kinds of different environments. He has to soar across the Fortress of Solitude set, and swoop down to rescue a cat in a tree on location in Brooklyn, and race a speeding missile across a desert landscape, and dance around the Statue of Liberty, and look straight at us as he rockets away from the ground. Each of these shots is its own special little boutique pain in the ass, and there are dozens of them.

So they tried everything, and it mostly didn’t work. At one point, they actually took a life-sized Superman dummy and catapulted it into the air, just to see what it looks like. It looks exactly like somebody fucking around with a life-sized Superman dummy.

There was a lot of flying that they had to shoot on the Fortress of Solitude set in May, because they were filming both Superman and the sequel at the same time. In the first movie, once Superman appears and does his one little flying turn, we go to Metropolis and we don’t hang around in the Fortess anymore, but in Superman II, there are many important Fortress sequences, including a long section with the Phantom Zone villains.

The villains enter the sequence all flying together, which means that it’s three times more likely that the flying gets screwed up in any given take, plus they’re carrying Lois and Lex Luthor, so just imagine how much could go wrong.

And there are lots of other complex scenes to film, like the “depowering” sequence, which they weren’t sure how they wanted it to look.

So this is the moment when people started to notice some tension between director Richard Donner and the producers: the shady Alex and Ilya Salkind, and their pal Pierre Spengler.

We talked earlier about Donner’s savior complex, and his feeling that he needed to save Superman, “the American fable”, from the European producers who didn’t understand it. He walked into the project with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, prepared to defend his film against the people who were paying him to make it. Donner was right, but it turns out being right isn’t everything.

Donner was a perfectionist. Everybody says so. There’s a story about the day Donner was filming the Kansas scenes on location in Canada, when he made the entire company wait several hours until the sun was in exactly the right position. He would direct each person individually, and do take after take, and then come back tomorrow with a better idea, and they’d have to start over again.

So stringing up five people on three sets of wires and floating them across the set was exactly the kind of situation to inflame Donner’s perfectionist tendencies. It was a world full of things that could go wrong.

But the Salkinds didn’t understand what the problem was. Ilya thought of himself as a creative guy, but he didn’t see what was wrong with the last twelve takes that made Donner want to try a thirteenth. All the producers could see was that everything was costing them money — not Brando money, sure, but still money, and if Donner kept wasting it, then they were going to have to go and find another German film distributor to defraud.

By the middle of May, they were a week behind schedule, and by the end of May, they were two weeks behind schedule. If things went on like this, their planned seven-month shoot would become an eighteen-month shoot. (Spoiler: it became an eighteen-month shoot.)

As the filming on the Fortress of Solitude at Shepperton went into overtime, they started filming on the Daily Planet set at Pinewood Studios as well. Christopher Reeve stayed at Shepperton to film the depowering/repowering scenes, along with continued work with the flying unit, while the rest of the cast moved to Pinewood to shoot the villains’ arrival at the Daily Planet.

With the schedule steadily slipping away, the producers decided to postpone the planned Superman II location shooting in Washington DC to an undetermined date. By the end of May, the frustrated Salkinds stopped visiting the set, leaving Spengler as the only contact between Donner and the producers — and Donner hated Spengler.

And then it was June, and things went really badly in June. Let’s get to Metropolis, and we’ll pick up the story from there.

Is Metropolis really just
New York City?
1.31: Metropolis Now

Movie list

— Danny Horn

9 thoughts on “Superman 1.30: After Brando

  1. Even when it’s reasonable people doing it, it’s hard to imagine how a movie ever gets made. That products as complicated as Superman: The Movie and Superman: The Other Movie could emerge from a process as loony as the one you so captivatingly describe is not much less fantastic than is the story of Superman itself.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I was wondering why Jor-El and Lara were running if he was so sure the planet was about to be destroyed. I guess because Donner told them to.
    I can imagine him rushing to set up the shot as Ma and Clark stand in the field in Kansas, a distant storm in view. I had wondered if Donner had been pressed for time and used the shot in spite of the storm or if he had purposely chosen it for symbolism. If he was a perfectionist, I have my answer: the shot was intentional.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Tell me please that there’s filmed footage of the dummy test. I may have to change my WordPress profile photo. 🤣

    Hooray for Hollywood! The things they had to do to make movie magic.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You can see plenty of hilarious examples in general, especially in old/cheap films: even a real classic like Frankenstein has a very obvious dummy that is not Victor being thrown off the windmill at the end of the movie.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I’ve seen footage in my 2001 DVD of the film. It’s part of a small docu on how they were trying to make Superman fly. It reminds me of the dummy flying scenes used in Republic Serials like CAPTAIN MARVEL and the Commando Cody/Rocketman variations only less convincing.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. The tagline was “You’ll believe a man can fly” and they did a good job with those scenes. I appreciate how hard it was to get those right. I just have problems with some of the other choices Donner made like the Kansas scene which really bothered me. If you’re distracted by a distant storm and not paying attention to what the actors are doing, that is not a successful shot. I stopped the movie and replayed that scene. It’s a lovely view but it made me start thinking about the filming rather than the story. Was it a real storm or added in? Were they rushing to get the shot? Was it just something interesting to look at or was it supposed to set a mood–a storm on the horizon. I really don’t think I should be wondering about the way a director is framing a shot in the middle of a fairly dramatic scene. It did a disservice to the actors.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “If you like sausage and love the law, you shouldn’t watch either being made.” I’m sure there are people who want their movie magic, too, without knowing how it really got staged.

    I’m not one of those people. I love love love these stories about the problems that producers face and how they get solved.

    On the other hand, I hate hate hate working for people who tell you to solve knotty problems but don’t budget enough to do the job right and don’t understand why that is. Just as well I didn’t go into show bidness.


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