Superman 1.36: When the Shooting Starts

Something odd!

wrote the LA Times, in July 1977.

Director Donner doesn’t know the exact budget of the film.

“Whatever it is, I’m not privy to it,” he said, sprawled in a chair. “That’s the way these producers work, apparently. It doesn’t make my life any easier, I can tell you. I’ve no way of knowing whether I’m going over budget or not.”

An unusual way to make a movie?

“I would say so. Yes.”

And yeah, I would call it unusual, if by unusual you mean “rancorous and dysfunctional”. It started out okay in April 1977; everybody had to stay on track while they were filming the Krypton scenes at Shepperton Studios, because at the stroke of twelve days, Brando would turn into a green suitcase and disappear.

Then in May, Richard Donner shot the scenes in the interior of the Fortress of Solitude, which is when things got complicated. Most of the main cast of both Superman and Superman II arrived, and they had to film a bunch of flying sequences involving six actors up on wires. By the end of May, the production was two weeks behind schedule, and they’d only been filming for seven weeks. You wouldn’t think a thing like that was possible.

Naturally, after filming the scenes that took place at the North Pole, everything in the production went south. While Reeve stayed behind in the Fortress for some extra Superman II scenes, the rest of the production moved over from Shepperton to Pinewood Studios, and the Daily Planet.

The Daily Planet set is pretty much the definition of “bustling” — a crowded space full of desks, chairs, office equipment, supporting beams, glass partitions, and I’m going to estimate maybe forty-five background artistes, all in constant motion, to let the audience know how exciting and fast-paced it is in the newsroom of a great metropolitan newspaper. It’s a gorgeous and convincing set, although one thing you may notice is the lack of clear, open surfaces where you could conceivably park a camera and get a decent shot.

In the first movie, there are four sequences in the Daily Planet newsroom: the introductory scene which we’ve just been talking about, the lengthy one-take walk-and-talk with Clark and Lois leading up to the helicopter scene, the scene where Perry tells the reporters to find Superman and Lois gets a note, and the scene where Clark gets a high-pitched message from Lex Luthor.

And in Superman II, which they were filming at the same time, there’s a sequence of Non and the Phantom Zone villains smashing their way through the office, busting up walls and windows, and generally murdering the interior design. That’s the sequence that they filmed first, in the last week of May, because it didn’t involve Reeve, who was still messing around in the Fortress.

For the first week at the Daily Planet, they had to shoot around one of the characters, because they hadn’t managed to get their hands on a functioning Perry yet. As I mentioned earlier, Jackie Cooper was actually the fourth Perry that they hired, and the only one with the staying power to appear in the movie. The third choice for Perry, Keenan Wynn, had been rushed on to the set in a big hurry, right off the airplane and into makeup and wardrobe, and then he collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with exhaustion and relieved of duty. So we’re just getting going at Pinewood, and already we’ve damaged Keenan Wynn; it’s not a promising start.

They’d scheduled two weeks for the Daily Planet filming, and it ended up being five weeks, which seems to me like one of those Nemesis punishing people for their hubris type situations. Did they really think they could film all of these sequences in two weeks, including building the set twice? It staggers the imagination.

For one thing, there are dozens of people in every shot. They have to clear space for the camera to move around, and make sure that it isn’t reflected in any of the glass partitions, like they fail to do in the lobby sequence coming up next. Plus, they keep losing Perries.

Things were also slowed down by a couple acts of God. First, all of the lights in the set’s drop ceiling shorted out Pinewood’s electricity, including the backup generators. It took two days to get back online from that. And then the heat from the lighting rig set off the sprinklers, and the water damaged some of the set dressing, which had to be replaced.

But from the producers’ point of view, most of the delays were acts of Donner.

Alex and Ilya Salkind, executive producers and leaders of the crime syndicate that funded the movie, were engaged in complex financial shenanigans, which, to be fair, is pretty stressful. They thought they were making a 20 million dollar movie, which was transforming before their eyes into a 50 million dollar movie, and you can only create so many self-dealing fictional shell companies until people start to notice. I mean, you can’t get blood from a stone. Well, you can, actually, they did it all the time, but eventually you have to go out and find another stone.

They’d saved some money by screwing over the entire crew that they’d used at Shepperton Studios, which was helpful. Pinewood was a full-service studio with its own in-house crew, so when they wrapped up the Fortress scenes at Shepperton, the Salkinds just informed everyone that their services were no longer required, and moved on.

But then they have to watch Richard Donner shoot take after take on the Daily Planet set, and the battle of Art vs Commerce swings into high gear.

Ilya’s issue was that from his point of view, Donner just couldn’t make up his mind. His favorite example was that Donner shot the effect from the red sun of Krypton three hundred times, then ended up using take #3.

And you can’t argue with the math. The main unit on a feature film usually gets around three minutes of useable footage a day, and Donner’s daily average was 40 seconds. That’s around one or two complete shots per day, for five weeks, and it drove the Salkinds nuts.

So they started having shouting matches in the office, which had a morale-sapping quality that you wouldn’t believe. Ilya would say, “You’re over schedule, you’re over budget,” and Donner would say, “Show me a fucking budget,” and they couldn’t, because writing down numbers on pieces of paper was to the Salkinds what a cross and holy water were to vampires. If you tried to tabulate where the money was coming from and where it was going, they would flinch and hiss, and turn to dust.

Convinced that Donner was going to bankrupt the production, the Salkinds sent Donner’s attorney a letter that said that the schedule was in such disarray that it qualified as breach of contract, and was grounds for dismissal. This assertion was grounded in the legal principle that sometimes you can just say things that don’t make any sense, and nobody will notice. It was not an effective strategy.

After a while, Donner would sometimes authorize an expense, and the Salkinds would just cancel it with no explanation. It didn’t seem to occur to them that spending all your time scheming against your own director did not actually get the movie made any faster.

So that’s when the Salkinds hired Richard Lester, to hang around and be the substitute director if they ever managed to push Donner out.

Lester spent much of the 1960s making strange British comedy films, to varying degrees of success. This included The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959) with Peter Sellers, The Mouse on the Moon (1963) without Peter Sellers, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) with the Beatles, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) with Zero Mostel, and the post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969), which is one of those cultural artifacts that exists just to remind you that you haven’t seen everything yet.

Left adrift at the end of the 60s, Lester fell into bad company, aka the Salkinds, and made The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers in 1973. The Salkinds liked Lester because he was a fast worker and could get a film done on schedule, and then — because they’re the fucking Salkinds — they didn’t pay him for it.

He spent the next few years trying to sue them, like everyone does eventually, and found out that it’s hard to sue people who live in seven countries at the same time. At one point, he actually won a lawsuit, but the judgment was rendered against a Bahamas-based company incorporated in Liechtenstein that didn’t have any money. Finding that they’d moved the money to Mexico, Lester bought a vacant lot in Mexico in order to get standing to sue them there, and then found that they were pretending to live in Switzerland.

Finally, once they’d tired him out, they told him that they’d pay him for The Three Musketeers if he came and replaced Donner as the director for Superman, and he said yes, which is what happens to a person once you’ve let the Salkinds into your life.

Then they found out that they couldn’t fire Donner for breach of contract just because he was directing the film that they had contracted with him to direct, so Lester became an uncredited producer who they thought could keep Donner focused.

Donner was kind of stunned when Lester showed up as his babysitter, but they quickly bonded over how much they hated the Salkinds. Everybody who worked on this film ended up forming these deep emotional bonds; I believe that we could achieve universal peace, if we could only get every person in the world to work on a film for the Salkinds at the same time. Lester ended up taking over some second-unit shooting, and he helped make a couple of important decisions that we’ll get to later on.

Meanwhile, the execs at Warner Bros were starting to see rushes, and they were so happy with the results that they started investing money in the production. Naturally, the Salkinds were pleased to see money coming into the project rather than going out, but the investment gave Warners more control over the film, and they wanted Donner to stay.

And so they all crept forward, this beleaguered band of brothers: inching toward posterity, forty seconds a day.

How did the icy Lois Lane
become Clark’s friend?
1.37: The Invention of Lois Lane

Movie list

— Danny Horn

8 thoughts on “Superman 1.36: When the Shooting Starts

  1. Everything about this movie is like an elder intoning “THE IMPOSSIBLE HAS HAPPENED” and then there’s lots of lighting effects. How on earth did things come together in just this way for these two movies to happen?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’m glad to hear Donner and Lester became friends. I love several of Lester’s movies (including THE BED-SITTING ROOM, which I have in fact seen,) and would hate to think of him as a source of further stress for Donner.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. They didn’t stay friends. By the time of the commentary track for the Donner cut of SUPERMAN II, Donner pointedly refuses to ever refer to Richard Lester by name.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. During the Golden Age of MTV, Richard Lester was lauded as the father of music video because of his work on “A Hard Day’s Night”.

    Richard Lester demanded a paternity test.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh man, “writing down numbers on pieces of paper was to the Salkinds what a cross and holy water were to vampires” is perfect.


  5. “The budget cuts will continue until productivity improves.” I understand that show business is a business–having it in your name is a giveaway–but it’s also art. As with anything else, you get what you pay for, and magic is expensive.

    You make a rom-com, you can come in under budget because there are no surprises. You make something no one’s ever seen, every day hits you with surprises.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. >>The third choice for Perry, Keenan Wynn, had been rushed on to the set in a big hurry, right off the airplane and into makeup and wardrobe, and then he collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with exhaustion and relieved of duty.

    In the version of this story in the autobiography of Keenan Wynn’s son, Ned Wynn says Keenan suffered a grand mal seizure.


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