Time is running out. There’s a pair of misguided missiles streaking across the country in opposite directions, and nobody knows how to turn them off, except the guy who doesn’t want to.
Superman is currently chasing the first rocket, striving to save Hackensack, and Bergen Country in general, from a desperate fate. But while he’s not looking, the second rocket is headed straight for a fault line. He doesn’t have time to launch the first rocket into the stratosphere, and keep control of the second rocket.
You know, it’s amazing to me that the people who decided to make two superhero movies at the same time never noticed that the climax to their first movie is based on the idea that you shouldn’t try to do two things at once.
As for me, I’ve got my own ticking countdown to deal with, because I’m planning to finish these Superman: The Movie posts at 1.100 — just ten posts, counting today — and then move on to Superman II, and the disasters that follow.
Now, I know that this is just a movie and I shouldn’t be taking it personally, but it feels like Lex Luthor is annoyed with me, specifically. One of the missiles is heading for North Jersey, which is where I lived when the movie came out, and the other missile is heading for San Francisco, which is where I live now. So I do feel some urgency about wrapping up this section of the blog, before the warhead arrives at my doorstep.
Luckily, there are hardly any character scenes left in the movie to write about. After Eve helps Superman to escape from his Kryptonite bath, it’s almost entirely special effects, miniatures shots and disappointing resolutions. The story at this point is the real-world drama around the film’s release, involving extortion, public shaming, accusations of embezzlement, several lawsuits and a really bad review in The New Yorker.
For the Salkinds, of course, it’s all about the money. Executive producer Alexander Salkind, his son Ilya, and Ilya’s friend Pierre Spengler have mostly focused on the financing, and how much of it director Richard Donner is spending on reshoots.
When the Salkinds started making the picture in 1975, they used the proposed budget as a way to get people to take the project seriously, taking out a three-page ad in Variety bragging about “the $20,000,000 film production of Superman.” They hired Marlon Brando at a deliberately ridiculous salary, to show off how big the film was going to be. But by summer 1978, as the shooting dragged on and it was obvious the costs were out of control, they tried to underplay the swelling budget, to reassure their financial backers that they weren’t just wasting everyone’s cash.
After release, when it’s time to count up the profits, the Salkinds will switch back to exaggerating the costs, going from an estimate of $45 million in summer 1978 all the way up to $140 million in 1980. But that’s the distant future; right now, we’re still downplaying.
This is also the point when both Donner and Ilya start oversharing, and the conflicts over the film start spilling out into public view.
The behind-the-scenes mythology about any blockbuster movie is always about how hard it was to make, so that the audience appreciates the special efforts it took to get to the screen. And in a June Variety article called “Richard Donner Over the Hump on Superman“, Donner added some final pieces to the pre-release mythology, which were about how hard it was for Richard Donner, specifically.
Here’s Donner the hero:
“If I had known what I was getting into, I never would have done it. But I never would have passed on it, either.”
And the guy who’s protecting the Superman legacy from the foreigners, who he thinks are Hungarian for some reason:
“They were going to make a picture with a Russian-Hungarian executive producer, a French producer, a British director and an American cast in Rome.”
And here’s Donner the martyr:
“I had to have two scripts in mind at all times. It was nuts. I’d get into arguments with myself. I kept both scripts together as one book — you could get a hernia carrying those scripts.”
But the real purpose of this interview is to assure people that the rumors they’ve heard about the failure to fly aren’t true:
Much speculation has centered around the reportedly abortive attempts to make the flying scenes realistic, and Donner concedes there were problems.
“Sure, he flies,” said Donner. “And if he flies, and flies well, you’ll take it for granted. It makes or breaks the picture. To get him flying the right way took — from the first time I put multiple units on the job until the acceptance of the first flying shot — eight months. The devices on Reeve are painful, actually causing him much anguish, but they’re amazing.”
All of that is great, and completely on-message. The film is big and expensive and difficult to shoot, but we’re very proud of it, and can’t wait for you to see it.
But then Donner does the thing that’s ultimately going to get him fired from Superman II.
Along with the normal production hassles, Donner had a severe falling out with line co-producer Pierre Spengler, necessitating the hiring of Richard Lester as a kind of producer’s go-between.
“When I first heard they had hired Lester, I thought, that’s it, back to TV,” remembers ex-vidirector Donner. “Our relationship started with distrust, but Lester did nothing but help me. I needed a producer. He was able to smooth things over, and was on my side all the way.”
While given total authority and responsibility by the Salkind pere-fils team, Donner claims he was never told what the budgets of the two films were. “How do you direct without knowing a budget? It’s still a secret. The only time I’ll find out is after the picture goes out and goes into profit.”
Now, Donner is naturally charismatic and funny, so his gift for plain-speaking feels more normal than it actually is. Here in the real world, you don’t badmouth your boss in public, if you want to continue working for them. This is all good material for the DVD commentary, twenty years from now. Today is not the day.
This is the result of Warner Bros. stepping in, providing more financing and specifically saying that the Salkinds need to keep Donner on the project. He thinks it’s okay to tell people that he’s not on the same side as the Salkinds, and it is okay, temporarily.
Then in August, the Warner Bros./Salkind conflict started playing out in public.
In early August, seven Warner Bros. execs flew to London to see the rough cut of the film, which was four hours long — and they were absolutely delighted with it. Donner asked them about the length of the movie, and they told him that they trusted him, and it can be as long as he wants.
A week later, they held a marketing kickoff for 500 people connected to the promotion and merchandising of the movie, and WB chairman Ted Ashley gushed about the film into the microphone. Ashley said he was having “a hard time containing my natural enthusiasm for this magical picture,” and proceeded to describe a lot of key sequences, including a blow-by-blow description of the finale, which he was not supposed to do.
Warner Bros. was so excited about the film’s prospects that they decided to raise the marketing budget from $6 million to $10 million, which everyone thought was a great idea… except for Ilya Salkind.
In a Variety article called “Ilya Salkind Defines Disaster: An $80-Mil Gross for Superman,” Ilya complained that the promotion was costing too much.
Ilya Salkind, the 31-year-old superkid producer of Superman, says it will be a flat out disaster if the picture being distributed by Warner Bros. fails to gross more than $80,000,000 domestically.
Because he thinks the film should sail into the $100,000,000 stratosphere on the wings of assorted tie-ins — books, comics, records and a mammoth merchandising spinoff — he admits to superdoubts about Warners’ wish to add $4,000,000 to the $6,000,000 campaign already agreed to.
The problem, for Ilya, was that the extra four million dollars was partly coming out of his pocket.
One pragmatic reason for Salkind’s wariness is the fact that campaign expenditures and advances are taken off the top before his company, London-based Dovemeat Ltd, and Warners, do a 50-50 split of what is left. A $10,000,000 campaign tab would mean $4,000,000 less to divide.
So Ilya — with apparently no sense of irony — asked Warners to give him a detailed breakdown of the promotion budget. “I would want to see what they’re doing and if it’s worth it,” he said. “Especially compared to all other areas of promotion going on this film, do we really need so much?”
Now, those kinds of questions are perfectly normal in the industry, but my question for Ilya is, why are you telling people about it? Warners is excited. Superman is diverting the rocket so that it flies even higher, out into the stratosphere. You need to focus on the story of how great this movie is, and what a smash it’ll be.
But then there’s that second rocket — the bridge-snapping, doom-distributing missile, that will ultimately smash the franchise to pieces — and it is heading straight toward those fault lines.
1.92: The Curse of Jerry Siegel
— Danny Horn