Superman 1.84: Overtime

So they actually did try shooting the eagle sequence, where Superman is messing around in the sky when he meets one of those friendly midflight eagles that you don’t run into very often, and they loop and dive around each other in close formation, illustrating the beauty and poetry of flight or whatever.

I figured they would have cut that sequence very early on as obviously impractical, considering how difficult it was just to get the guy credibly off the ground in the first place, but the Making of book informs me:

“The flying unit was now working with some natural-born experts: a golden eagle, two Lanner falcons, and a Saker falcon, which were being used to film a majestic sequence of Superman soaring through the sky with an eagle. The Saker falcon was the one finally used and the scene went well; conditioned to fly toward the lights and then return to its trainer’s arm, the bird performed beautifully.”

The amazing thing about that postcard from Pinewood is that they were still having open-casting aviary auditions in February 1978, when it was way too late for them to be dicking around like that.

Now, the last time we talked about the production of Superman: The Movie, they’d just wrapped shooting in October 1977 and sent everybody home, so the movie was all done except for all of the shooting that they continued to do for another eleven months.

I mean, they had actually wrapped with all of the actors except for Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, but that’s a pretty big “except for” if you’re talking about the two stars of the movie. There was still a long way to go, and it was all the hard stuff: Superman and Lois flying, the Golden Gate Bridge disaster and crushing Lois in a car, plus they still had to reshoot the goddamn cat in a tree scene.

Back in August, the producers looked all four Warner Brothers straight in the eye and promised they would deliver the completed film by April 15th for a June release, but by October it was becoming increasingly clear that they shouldn’t have been so specific about which April 15th. They still had 95 flying shots to complete, plus a ton of model sequences and all the New Mexico location shooting, plus apparently they were still taking calls from falcon trainers.

The Salkinds’ original estimate was that they would spend 20 million dollars shooting both Superman and its sequel. By this point, it was clear that the tab was closer to $25-30 million just for the first film, not to mention another $15 million to complete the second film. That was more expensive than Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind put together, and the only thing that stood between the Salkinds and complete financial ruin was that they were mostly spending other people’s money without their permission.

So they shut down the main production, and in November, Richard Donner left Pinewood Studios and went to Los Angeles, to talk things over with Warner Bros. The Salkinds immediately went to their power move, which was to not pay people for stuff, and that ground the production to a halt.

For one thing, the flying unit — which still had not produced a single acceptable flying shot — came to work one day and found that the equipment they were using was all locked up, until the people who owned that equipment got paid. One of the construction companies working on the studio lot had to threaten to bulldoze the Golden Gate Bridge model in order to get their money.

Donner came back to Pinewood in November, and got things moving again. Here are some of the items that were still on the agenda:

  • The world turning backwards
  • Most of the Golden Gate Bridge sequence
  • Lois dangling in the helicopter rescue scene
  • The model work from the helicopter rescue scene
  • The sidewalk spin
  • Reshoots of the gauntlet
  • The burglar falling into Superman’s arms
  • The missile chase scenes
  • The boat scenes for the car chase sequence
  • Catching the cat
  • Lois getting buried in the car
  • All the Hoover Dam model work
  • All the desert road scenes
  • The Air Force One scene
  • The averted train crash
  • Kal-El’s spaceship burning as it approaches Earth
  • Basically everything that involved flying

And despite the anguished cries of the Salkinds, if Donner didn’t think a shot looked good enough, they had to shoot it again.

Warner Bros. was concerned, as naturally they would be. They’d seen 30 minutes of footage in October, which they were very excited about, but it was increasingly clear that the shooting schedule was entirely fictional, and they wanted to know what was going on.

So they sent a Warner Bros. exec, Charles Greenlaw, to go to Pinewood and figure things out. Here’s what Greenlaw told Starlog:

“Let me put it this way. Superman: The Movie was a Salkind production and it was supposed to have been delivered on a certain date, and it became obvious that the date would not be met. The president of Warner finally said to me, ‘Would you go over to England for a couple of months?’

“So I came over basically without portfolio or power to see if I could help. I discovered that while Donner had brought a tremendous amount of inventiveness to the picture, he had been thrust into it blind and the crew was ill-prepared and underfinanced.

“Let me give you an example. When I first came here, in December of 1977, there was the climactic desert road sequence set up on Pinewood’s back lot. It consisted of two mounds of dirt piled up and a winding sort of road. The opening in the ground required to let Lois’ car drop in needed pumps to keep the water out of it. It looked about as much like New Mexico as this room does.

“The Salkinds were still putting up their own money at that time and they kept insisting that the scene be done here [at Pinewood]. But it was gray and overcast, you could see your breath and the actors shivered no matter how much clothing they had on. Finally I said, ‘There’s no way you can make this look like a desert. Let’s talk.’

“Then after a series of negotiations, Warner Brothers made a deal. We’d give extra money for a say in the production. At that point I was given the responsibility of the head of production.”

So this is the period when Warner Bros. basically starts buying Superman: The Movie out from under the Salkinds. Greenlaw continues:

“I’ve never had access to exactly how much money has been involved with this production from the beginning. The only amount I know for sure is how much Warner has spent to supplement the picture. At about the three-quarter point in filming, we agreed to put up eight million dollars. We’ll probably wind up spending more than that in the long run.”

This was a tricky moment for the Salkinds, which left them with no good options. They needed to keep the production moving, and Warners was offering them money. This may have been an entirely new experience for the Salkinds, people actually giving them money on purpose.

On the other hand, taking the money meant giving Warner Bros. a bigger stake in the production, and a bigger share of the profits, assuming the movie could ever actually be finished and released. That meant that all the money that they’d invested in the production so far would get a smaller return. This quandary did not make them any better at making decisions.

In February, Donner was quoted in Army Archerd’s column in Variety:

Superman director Dick Donner on the London longhorn allows, “I can probably deliver the picture for summer release — but no one is saying ‘You must.'” Donner admitted, “Sure, we have problems — but we also have answers. WB has told me if it takes a few more months to get it right, then take ’em. If optical effects come back after four weeks and I think they can be better, we wait another four weeks. They are giving me the benefit of making it better.”

Now, in the epic battle between Art and Commerce, I’m usually on the side of Art, especially when Commerce is represented by the Salkinds. But when I read that quote, all I can think of is Alex and Ilya and Pierre banging their heads on the table. A few more months? Another four weeks?

At this point in the production, it feels like Donner has entered some kind of altered state where he’s stopped making a movie. Now he’s building a cathedral, which will be passed down to future generations to complete. In other words, he’s writing Superheroes Every Day, and that’s not a healthy thing for a person to do.

So here’s the most insane passage in the Making of book, describing the state of production in March 1978:

“With so many crucial scenes yet to be shot, Donner decided to call a halt to the ‘trial and error’ tactics characterizing much of the experimental effects work and simply concentrate on what shots were absolutely necessary to the integrity of the film.”

Which again makes me a little more understanding about the Salkinds’ point of view. It’s March. They’ve been shooting for a whole year. They were supposed to wrap production five months ago. And you’ve still been using “trial and error” tactics?

So I assume that at this point, the falconry is finally off the table, and they decided to scratch the idea of additional shooting on the glacial fields of fucking Finland. Those are the only two concessions to reality that I know about.

Warner Bros. officially pushed the release date from summer to Christmas, and Alex, Ilya and Pierre had a frantic three-way conference call about all the money that they didn’t have. On this call, they made the executive decision to immediately halt all shooting, except for the flying shots. They would assemble the movie from the existing footage, and that was that.

But the Warner Bros. execs had drunk Richard Donner’s Kool-Aid for long enough to put the kibosh on the Salkinds’ plan. They had some more conference calls, and Warners ended up putting more money into the movie. That meant that the Salkinds had even less say about what was going on, and the only thing they could do was stand by helplessly, and watch Donner spend money.

In late March, Ilya got his own article in Variety, in which he said several things that were not strictly true. The article said:

“With final budget for its two parts now estimated to exceed $50,000,000, Superman finally exists in rough cut form, now awaiting optical wizardry to polish off its special effects in time for a 1,000-print worldwide break in December.”

Which is true, if you consider shooting the entire five-minute Superman/Lois flying sequence as “polishing off its special effects.”

“Ilya Salkind, who coproduced the venture, confirmed that technical problems over the superhero’s flying exploits — resolved only last month — prompted Warners to call off pre-bid summer dates and delay release until Christmas. Net effect of the delay, he says, is welcome breathing space for round the clock technicians.”

Also a very specific spin on the situation. Ilya is not actually concerned about other people’s breathing space.

“Warners, which Salkind stressed has no money involved in Superman…”

Absolute lie.

“In exchange for distribution rights to the two Superman pics, Warners had to cough up what Salkind claims to be ‘the biggest guarantee ever demanded of a distributor.’ Unwilling to unveil the actual figure, he would only admit that it exceeded $10,000,000.”

So far the only really honest thing in this article is that Ilya was unwilling to unveil the actual figures.

“Budget allocation weighs heavier on the first part, which Salkind says will come in at around $30,000,000 because it bears the brunt of research, testing, false starts and other development costs. Part two, which now lies unassembled in a London vault and is expected to appear a year following the first, is estimated to reach a final tally of $20,000,000.”

I don’t even know what “now lies unassembled in a London vault” means, in Ilya’s mind.

“Though Salkind admits that early attempts at using three-dimensional holographic effects have been abandoned — at least for part one — he promises a bevy of special effects ‘that we can afford to keep totally secret until the film breaks.'”

I have read just about everything that there is to read about the production of Superman: The Movie, and this is the only mention of “three-dimensional holographic effects” that I have ever seen. What could he possibly be referring to? It makes me worry about Ilya, a bit. Should we call somebody?

And then Donner got another boost in late April, when a group of Warner Bros. execs came to Pinewood for a 4-hour screening of the latest film footage. They absolutely loved it, and afterwards, WB chairman Ted Ashley sent a telegram from Burbank:

“Dear Dick: I feel compelled to repeat what I said both in person and by telephone concerning Superman. The picture is absolutely brilliant and so is the cast. I know how very hard all of them, yourself, and the crew, have worked. All of that work will wind up on the screen not only to the delight of the audiences but to the deep satisfaction of everybody who had a hand in making this great movie.”

As far as Donner was concerned, the war was over. He won and the Salkinds lost, and he was the King of Superman, now and forever. In his mind, he was untouchable, and he could say and do anything he wanted, and it wouldn’t make any difference. I mean, it’s not like the Salkinds could fire him, right?

Tomorrow:
1.85: An Oral History
of Christopher Reeve Being a Dick

During the Filming of Superman: The Movie

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

14 thoughts on “Superman 1.84: Overtime

  1. “In other words, he’s writing Superheroes Every Day, and that’s not a healthy thing for a person to do.”

    I wonder if reading it is a healthy thing for a person to do- not only does a post like this leave me in danger of spraining a dozen muscles laughing out loud, but every time you go more than 24 hours between posts I go into withdrawal.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Donner did indeed build a cathedral. This blog earns me more respect for the man each time you go into detail like this.

    Also, the eagle sequence — while impractical at the time — sounds delightful. It reminds me of a sequence in Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright when Clark is flying in plainclothes before he dons the suit and he’s weaving in and out of mountains and animal herds, and the whole thing just feels so majestic. If it sounds familiar, it’s because those pages inspired the first flight sequence in Man of Steel, which was nice to see realized on screen.

    Although, I’m still waiting to see a live action version of Clark playfully wrestling with a lion in the jungle. Make it happen, WB.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Glad to hear that the auditions for Christopher Reeve getting real real close to an apex predator didn’t go anywhere, for obvious reasons.

    I especially love the line in that article where they stress that Warner Brothers isn’t involved with the movie. Yes, MOVIE STUDIOS routinely hand over millions and millions of dollars to productions they’re not involved in. The most naive rube in Podunk Town, USA wasn’t going to buy that one.

    Like

  4. In my line of work, we spend most of our time solving typical problems with typical parts. It’s the atypical problems that drive up the price and the effort.

    Movies seem to work the same way. You want a flying guy? Without it looking fake? We’re gonna need some extra money.

    You get what you pay for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OK, according to IMDB, it was planned that the film would end with a giant hologram of Superman flying out into the theater. That rings a bell, for some reason.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’d be interested in learning how much truth is in that bit of IMDb trivia. They take submissions from anyone, don’t require sources cited, and don’t check on any of the claims. As a result, there’s a lot of false information on IMDb, especially in their trivia section.

        Like

  5. “They take submissions from anyone, don’t require sources cited, and don’t check on any of the claiims.”
    In that case, I bet it came from Ilya Salkind.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Hi Danny,

    I’ve been enjoying the blog immensely but never when I’m logged in correctly so I haven’t commented yet. For me it’s almost like your original blog is continuing, but the villain has changed from Vicki Winters to the Salkinds.

    I’ve learned so much about the Superman movies from this blog. Because of your posts, my husband and I have watched the CR Superman movies, the Keaton et al Batman movies, and the Dark Knight series, and might watch others (although I’m losing interest and will probably wait until the blog gets to the newer movies to invest anything in them).

    To today’s post, I think one could argue that Donner DID build a cathedral. The movie holds up really well, as does the sequel; I’d say even better than some movies produced in the late 1980s/1990s. It made the mold for superhero movies to follow.

    But if the Salkinds had had their way and the effects of the first two movies looked like Superman IV, I doubt there’d have been a S IV, and possibly, not a 1989 Batman, or at least not a good one. Superhero movies might have been relegated to ‘kids’ fare or worse, to shlock fare like Sharknado.

    So, the work Donner did – compulsive as it may have been – really did create something that generations built upon, in a way.

    Just a thought. Looking forward to filling the days and nights of many tomorrows with your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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