“Christopher felt very strongly about staying in character, all the time,” Margot Kidder says, in one of the DVD featurettes. “I, on the other hand, got really bored during the flying scenes, because there were Chris and I strapped together for ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. So I would hide books down my front, or try and tease Chris, and he’d be going, ‘shut up!’ And we would bicker, and the poor crew would look away, and they’d go ‘action’, and suddenly we’d be madly in love, and they’d go ‘cut’, and we’d go back to our bickering.
“And at one point, I remember Christopher said, ‘Don’t you stay in character?’ and I said, ‘Oh, Chris, for god’s sake, I’ve been Lois Lane for a year now, and all we have to do is look left!'”
So this is what happens to you, I guess, when you spend fifteen weeks writing about the same movie: I’m watching this incredibly romantic night flight sequence, and all I can think about is how much of a pain it was for them to shoot.
This is the big moment in Superman: The Movie that everything hinges upon: the climax of Act 2, marking the break point between the screwball-comedy romantic section of the movie and the more action-oriented Superman vs Luthor section. If anything romantic is going to happen between Superman and Lois Lane, then it’s going to happen right now.
It also happens to be one of the most technically challenging sequences. They spent a year trying to figure out how to make Superman fly, and now they’ve got to do it again with two people, in various configurations.
This first shot of Lois and Superman rising into the air took many retakes, and they never did get it done to Richard Donner’s satisfaction. There were too many things that could go wrong, with the two of them in separate harnesses attached to cables. Donner eventually used a shot that he called a “desperation take”, because it was the best one that they could manage.
During this sequence, the lovebirds take a tour through the sky of nighttime Metropolis — otherwise known as New York City, obviously — which is very sweet, and much better than the description in the shooting script. Here’s how the script describes this entire sequence:
EXT. SKY – NIGHT
SUPERMAN flies through the night sky holding LOIS, his swirling cape covering them. They look off as CAMERA PANS DOWN: the gleaming lights of Metropolis grow smaller in the distance.
A series of aerial POVS INTERCUT with flying reaction shots of SUPERMAN and LOIS as they circle the world, passing through different time zones.
EXT. PARIS – NIGHT
The illuminated Place D’Etoile at night.
EXT. VATICAN – NIGHT
The illuminated St. Peter’s Square and Cathedral.
EXT. GIZA – EGYPT – DAY
The sun rises behind the Great pyramids.
EXT. AGRA – INDIA – DAY
A day view of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.
EXT. CHINA – DUSK
The sun sets behind the Great Wall of China.
EXT. METROPOLIS (NEW YORK) – NIGHT
The glittering lights of Metropolis loom up again.
EXT. SKY – ANGLE DOWN ON LOIS’ TERRACE – NIGHT
CAMERA ZOOMS DOWN on LOIS’ terrace from the sky.
EXT. LOIS’ TERRACE – NIGHT
SUPERMAN deposits LOIS gently on the terrace once again. She is absolutely struck dumb with wonder, stares at him.
So that, I think, would probably have been terrible. It would have been like flying past a series of postcards, with the focus of the scene being on acknowledging the different landmarks, rather than on Superman and Lois exploring the sky together. In the finished scene, there is one famous landmark that they pay attention to, but the focus is on how they move around the Statue of Liberty, rather than zipping from one thing to another.
This sequence is an important showcase for John Williams’ music: except for a couple of nervous squeals from Lois at the beginning, there’s no dialogue or sound effects to get in the way of the orchestra. This is the Love theme in full flow, a five-minute horizontal dance number where the music supplies the emotional background for Lois’ adventure in the air.
The piece is structured as a bed of strings and woodwinds, punctuated by stirring notes from the brass.The strings and woodwinds convey warmth and comfort, the reassuring presence of Superman holding Lois, safe in his arms. The brass comes in to say wow, look at that, as Lois gets more comfortable being in the air, and starts to enjoy looking at the world from the air.
For these flying shots against a real background, they’re using front projection as an in-camera effect — projecting film that they recorded in New York, and then shooting Lois and Superman against that background. They’re not moving — they’re lying in one place, with the camera moving around them and lots of wind machines blowing around his cape and her dress.
I think that this shot of their approach to the Statue of Liberty is probably the most impressive in the sequence: an unbroken twelve-second shot where they appear to fly towards the camera, and then make a bank turn toward the statue, moving away from the camera again. You might think that twelve seconds doesn’t sound like a lot, but then you look at all of the camera moves that they do in that shot, and you realize that twelve seconds is an eternity. Doing those moves and keeping it all in sync with the footage that they shot from a helicopter eight months earlier is an incredible special-effects achievement.
Using the Statue of Liberty as a focal point is quite beautiful, because the statue represents the United States welcoming new citizens to our shores — they weren’t thinking about extraterrestrials at the time, but Kryptonians are immigrants too. It also has a nice resonance with Superman’s ideal of “truth, justice and the American way,” which you wouldn’t have if they’d used the Chrysler Building or some other monument to 20th-century commerce.
By the way, I’ve never really noticed before how grumpy the Statue of Liberty looks. I suppose she’s been standing out there in all weather holding up her arm since the 1880s, and I can see how that could wear on her nerves after a while.
Then there’s a little fluttery woodwind line, as they break through the clouds into the open sky. They’re in the studio again for this shot, on harnesses carrying them up through a bank of smoke. You can see their shadows on the cloudbank as they pass by the moon, which is actually a lamp that’s covered with white plastic and painted with the moon’s pattern.
Then there’s the sequence where Lois gets more comfortable and tries to fly on her own, which I always find a bit puzzling.
The scene suggests that Lois is perfectly safe in the air, as long as she keeps in physical contact with Superman. At the start of this section, she’s nervous, just hanging on to one arm, but he grins at her and encourages her to let go with one hand, and have the sensation of flying on her own.
She does that, and she has a marvelous time soaring through the air, but as she gets more and more comfortable, he gives her more slack…
gradually letting her go until they’re just holding hands…
and then just holding on by their fingertips…
and it’s at this moment of perfect, united joy and delight…
that he fucking lets go, and she plunges into a terrifying free fall that lasts for ten seconds, which is quite long enough to make her black out and probably die, or at least fuel a lifetime of nightmares every time she tries to go to sleep.
Now, the puzzling thing about this sequence for me is not the weird physics of how his flight power works, and why breaking physical contact suddenly snaps her back into the grip of gravity, because it’s magic, and it’s not trying to be anything else.
I’m puzzled by the emotional story here. It just seems really irresponsible of him to let her out that far — which is clearly his choice, not an accident. I guess you could say that having a passenger is a new experience for him, and he doesn’t know what’s going to happen — there’s a reaction shot where he looks surprised, before hurrying down to catch her again — but it makes me uncomfortable every time. It’s probably a metaphor for something.
Effects-wise, I don’t know how they accomplished this shot, with him flying down past the frame behind her, and then appearing up from the bottom of the frame to gather her in his arms.
They might be using front projection for the first part of the shot, and then they hoist him up to make the catch, but I’m not sure. It’s possible that they just dropped Margot Kidder out of an airplane with a GoPro, and waited for Superman to come along and catch her.
Anyway, that moment of terror apparently makes Lois horny like you wouldn’t believe, so it all works out. That leads into my least favorite musical number of all time, which we will discuss tomorrow.
I love musical numbers, so why
do I hate “Can You Read My Mind”?
1.74: Frequently Asked Questions
— Danny Horn