Superman 1.77: The Center Cannot Hold

Then they went to Canada, and things did not go well in Canada.

I know, these posts about the 1977 production are all variations of “things did not go well” — they didn’t go well in May when they were shooting the Fortress of Solitude scenes, and they didn’t go well in June while they were shooting the Daily Planet scenes. Things actually went okay during the New York location shooting in July, if you didn’t count all the rioting and arson, which was pretty tame, for this production.

Overall, there were three big problems that the production had to deal with: first, everything that they wanted to do was harder than they’d hoped it would be; second, the director wanted to make a great movie, and didn’t care how much it cost; and third, the producers, who were quite at home with shady bookkeeping practices, discovered that there was a whole other level of financial mismanagement that even they couldn’t keep up with.

So Alexander Salkind stayed in Europe, soothing investors and not paying bills, while Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler traveled with the production, fretting, cutting crew salaries, and not paying all the other bills that Alex hadn’t gotten around to not paying.

It rained in Canada. That’s apparently something that it does there, even when you don’t want it to.

The chapter in David Petrou’s book The Making of Superman: The Movie covering the Canada shoot is basically just one weather report after another:

page 126: “By the time the crew was ready to shoot, the rains came — a mountain storm of frightening intensity, complete with thunder and lightning… The next few days were also weather washouts.”

page 127: “After several days of bad weather, we managed to get through part of the initial missile sequence.”

page 136: “When we were almost ready to shoot, after hours of patient waiting, the dark clouds rolled in, the sun disappeared, and the rains came.”

page 139: “Unfortunately, shooting did not progress this quickly, due in large part to the fact that so many key people, Donner included, were still suffering from colds and flu picked up standing around in the rain.”

page 142: “After the unit settled in to finish up on the Kent farm, the weather again turned bad.”

page 144: “The weather was now blustery and bitter cold, and the day proved to be a total washout.”

page 145: “On top of that, the long-term weather forecast was bad.”

So that’s just money, washing away. Everybody needed to get paid, even if they couldn’t shoot anything for the day. Larry Hagman, who played the Major in charge of the first missile convoy, has six lines in the movie, in a twenty-eight second scene. He was on location for nearly two weeks. Then Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter had to wait around for an extra week before they filmed the spaceship crash scene, because the wheat wasn’t tall enough yet.

That’s why they went to Canada, instead of Kansas: in August, they’ve already harvested the wheat in Kansas, but the season ends later in Alberta. Also, it was supposed to be cheaper, and the weather was supposed to be beautiful, but we live in a fallen world.

They had a lot to shoot in Alberta; practically everything in the Smallville sequence is outside. They filmed the Kents finding Clark, the football field, running with the train, the farm scenes and the funeral scene, as well as the sequence at the Danforth Missile Base. They also filmed the missile convoy sequences, including the remote-control car crash.

But the changeable weather made everything take two to three times as long as it was supposed to. Even if they managed to get some shots on one day, they’d have to wait around on the next day for the cloud pattern to match, for continuity.

The producers continued to get twitchy. I’m actually surprised to see footage of Ilya and Pierre on location with Donner; I thought Ilya and Donner weren’t speaking to each other by now.

At one point, Ilya informed the crew that they would only get half their salary for the location shoot, with the balance to be paid when they were back in the UK. I don’t know what the crew’s reaction was to this announcement, but one can only imagine. Another cost-cutting decision that got made at this point was to cancel shooting the Niagara Falls sequence for Superman II, which they were planning to do while they were in Canada.

With no break in the bad weather, the producers wanted to give up and go back to Pinewood, which led to more disagreements with Donner about compromising key sequences in the film. They decided to finish the farm scenes with Clark saying goodbye to Martha at sunrise, and then they left the remaining shots to a Canadian second unit.

The production returned to Pinewood Studios in September, and they started filming the sequences in Luthor’s lair.

This is the point when Richard Lester, the on-deck director in case the Salkinds decided to fire Donner, made his one substantial contribution to the production: suggesting that they hold off on filming any more Superman II material until they shot everything that they needed to finish the first movie. Everybody agreed that this was a good idea, because it meant they didn’t have to go back to fucking Canada to film the Niagara Falls scenes.

That being said, they did still have to film some Superman II material, so that they could use the sets that they’d already built, and wrap on Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty. They shot the balloon sequence with Luthor and Eve in mid-September, the Arctic scenes with Luthor and Eve in late September/early October, and the prison scenes with Luthor and Otis in mid October.

By this point, Donner was shuttling back and forth between five different units at the same time, riding on a golf cart that they’d leased so that he could get around on the studio lot faster. At one point, he was attending to main-unit shooting with Hackman and Perrine in the Arctic, second-unit filming with Beatty, flying-unit work with Reeve, a model unit doing the creation of the Fortress of Solitude, and another model unit outside, doing the bus crash on an enormous model of the Golden Gate Bridge. They also had a unit in New York shooting background plates, the unit they’d left behind in Canada, and if anybody had any time left over, they’d do some more of the helicopter rescue sequence.

And then they decided to have a wrap party and send everybody home, despite the fact that the movie was not even close to being finished.

The original shooting schedule said that they would wrap principal photography at the end of October, and the Salkinds, in their infinite shadiness, decided that it would make their backers feel better if they pretended that they were still on schedule. So most of the main unit got their two-week notice in mid-October, and the Salkinds told the backers that all that was left was the special-effects work. This was not actually the case.

There were plenty of things still left to film, including parts of the balcony interview scene, the helicopter rescue scene, and catching the cat. They still had to do the Air Force One sequence, the cat burglar climbing up the building, the Superman-and-Lois flight sequences, the railroad track, the San Andreas Fault, the Hoover Dam, Lois getting crushed inside the car, and a whole bunch of location shooting that needed to be done in New Mexico for the end of the movie. This movie was going to keep on shooting for another year.

But, sure, if the Salkinds wanted to stop paying the crew and send them all home, then that’s what they were going to do. They had a very nice “end of production reception” on October 28th, and then they shut down production at Pinewood for a whole month, while Richard Donner went to New York to plead with the execs at Warner Bros. to not let the Salkinds fire him. Things, in other words, were not going well.

Lex Luthor does a
Sherlock Holmes impression
1.78: The Reading Room

Movie list

— Danny Horn

3 thoughts on “Superman 1.77: The Center Cannot Hold

  1. Canada runs deep in the Superman Mythos.
    One could argue Superman is half Canadian as co-creator Joe Shuster is a Canuck who brought Lois his model and girlfriend a fellow Canuck as well.
    Metropolis/Toronto I could go on.
    Canada where our beer is cold as our winters and our love warms the land.
    Oh and where also hails Jonathan Frid our beloved Vampire Barnabas Collins.
    O Canada the best part of North America.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I remember being reminded of the Smallville sequences by the missile base sequence in 1978. Interesting to see they were shot in the same general area at the about same time. And I don’t think I’m the only one who had that feeling- the part of Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ KINGDOM COME where we see Superman on the Kent farm in the post-apocalyptic era evokes the connection of Smallville with thermonuclear destruction in a way that brings the movie to mind.

    Liked by 2 people

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