Superman II 2.1: Things That Richard Donner Probably Shouldn’t Have Said

So here’s how to torpedo your own film in six words, courtesy of Army Archerd’s Hollywood gossip colum in Variety:

Producer Pierre Spengler allows that he and Superman director Dick Donner differed during filming, but he says all’s now well, and Spengler expects to return to complete Superman II. Donner, however, declares, “If he’s on it — I’m not.

It’s late December 1978, and Superman: The Movie has just opened in theaters to, if you’ll pardon the expression, boffo box office. Everybody who worked on the film is feeling that Christmas spirit — except for Richard Donner, who fucking hates Pierre Spengler, and is not shy about letting people know his truth.

In fact, here he is in Starlog magazine:

“Yeah,” the director says with a sigh. “I didn’t get along with the producers at all. I got along with the Salkinds all right, but I didn’t get on with Pierre Spengler. I told him to his face that the film was too big for him but he wouldn’t face up to that responsibility.”

And in Cinefantastique:

“As far as I was concerned, he didn’t have any knowledge at all about producing a film like that. If he’d been smart, he’d have just laid back and let us do it. So, not only did we end up producing it, in a sense, but we also had to counter-produce what he was doing.”

Now, the thing that’s not Mensa-level brilliant about Donner’s behavior is that he and Spengler and the Salkinds are supposed to head back to Pinewood Studios soon, and finish their work on Superman II.

The original plan had been to shoot both the first movie and the sequel at the same time, and they shot a lot of the Superman II scenes during the long production period. But everything was hard and took way longer than they thought it would, so at a certain point, they said, You know what? Let’s just get the first film completed, and we’ll worry about the sequel after the first one is released.

So they’ve got about 75% of the scenes for Superman II already in the can, including all of the scenes with the really expensive people — Marlon Brando (Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor). The Daily Planet scenes are done, ditto the Fortress of Solitude, the White House, the prison break and the moon.

But they haven’t done any of the location shooting in Niagara Falls, or the villains’ wave of destruction. They haven’t done the crucial “honeymoon hotel” scenes, or the battle for Metropolis.

To finish all this work, the original team was supposed to go back to Pinewood for another couple of months, and get the rest of the film in the can. So January 1979 may not be a great time to say something like this to a Variety reporter:

Reflecting on the film’s success, Donner also insisted that producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind “negotiate in good faith” for the sequel if he is to direct it.

“That means no games,” Donner elaborated. “They have to want me to do it. It has to be on my terms, and I don’t mean financially. I mean control.”

That phrase, “reflecting on the film’s success,” is the key to this display of bad temper. Now that Superman is a runaway hit, he thinks that they need him to come back, and turn Superman II into an even bigger hit.

But students of mythology will know: Don’t mess with the gods.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! says Richard Donner as King Lear, dashing about on a heath and declaiming into a stormy sky. You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts! Negotiate with me, in good faith!

When Ilya talks about the Salkinds’ inevitable decision to fire Donner and replace him with another director, there are two Donner quotes that sealed his fate:

If [Spengler’s] on it, I’m not.

It has to be on my terms. I mean control.

Donner is correct about Spengler being incompetent; the only reason that he was involved in the picture is because he was Ilya’s best friend. After the Superman movies, Spengler never worked on anything successful ever again.

But publicly insulting the gods’ best friend is not going to get you anywhere in the negotiations; it just pisses them off. And Ilya knew what “control” meant for Donner; it meant another years-long shoot that costs who knows how many millions of dollars.

Ilya says that he tried to contact Donner to see if he could negotiate a peace settlement, but he couldn’t reach him. Donner was out on a promotional tour in five European countries, to promote the foreign openings for Superman, and in those days, it was legitimately difficult to contact somebody who was traveling overseas.

When Donner came home and wanted to get back to work on the new film, he received a telegram, informing him that his services were no longer required. They were hiring another director to finish Superman II.

Now, it may sound like I’m blaming Donner, and I’m not, really. He really was the one who turned Superman into a hit movie, and firing Donner was just the first of several stupid “Art vs Commerce” decisions that the Salkinds made, which ultimately destroyed the franchise.

Still, Donner knew that the Salkinds wanted to fire him, and they were stupid enough to do it. It turned out those oak-cleaving thunderbolts weren’t just for show, after all.

Ilya explains it all in
2.2: It Wasn’t Ilya’s Fault

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— Danny Horn

8 thoughts on “Superman II 2.1: Things That Richard Donner Probably Shouldn’t Have Said

  1. I dunno if I’d call Donner’s remarks a mistake. He may have been playing a long shot in publicly demanding the Salkinds choose between him and Spengler, but if it had paid off he would have been able to make the movie he wanted, and if it didn’t he’d be free to go off and do something else. Either of those outcomes sounds better than continuing his association with them on the terms that had been established up to that point.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes; it must have been like running a marathon uphill in Hell to make Superman, and somehow, miraculously, winning. He had to know he wasn’t going to get that lucky again.

      So either get your butt fired (which in Hollywood is forgivable as quitting and walking away is not) or renegotiate so the next race isn’t through Hell during the flame tornado season.

      Liked by 6 people

  2. Respect to Donner for holding his ground and not fucking around on their rules.

    Also, a shame Donner didn’t cave and play their game, because no cut of Superman II is very good, and if he’d stayed on, we’d probably have a good sequel on our hands.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I wonder if Richard Donner might even have held a small celebration of getting released from having to continue on Superman II.

    Small because it would be difficult to get many people to participate in an event called ‘The Donner Party.’

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Kosmo, that’s a hideous pun. And so appropriate for this story.

    If the Salkinds only occasionally visited the set (which is probably why Donnor got along with them all right), they could have been relying on what Spengler told them about the script and the shoot. That might explain some of the comments by the Salkinds that don’t seem to make sense about what’s in the movie.

    “You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts! Negotiate with me, in good faith!”

    Donnor may have also “reflected upon” Lester’s original warning. About how the Salkind money tree is kudzu when the money comes in, but poison ivy with thorns when it’s time for the money to go back out.

    I agree with the other comments. Surely Donnor must not have been too oblivious to realize his political risk.

    Maybe he figured, he’ll either get a good faith deal that would let him make a great second movie his way, with Spengler gone. Or else he’d get thrown well clear of both frying pan and fire. Either result would be better than what he had to endure to make this first film.

    Fans sometimes get upset when creatives and executives alike only blandly say, “We’d love to work together and we’re still seeing how that might work best.” But sometimes there’s good reason for the diners to not get to see the fights in the kitchen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Donner went on to make “The Goonies,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Ladyhawke,” and “Scrooged,” smong many others. I’d say he won this argument.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ralph, I didn’t realize he also did Ladyhawke. Love that film! The same “verisimilitude” around the magic tale. It was shown to prospective students at a college I visited, my last Thanksgiving in high school. I should have gone there!


  7. Starlog and Cinefantastique are gifts we don’t deserve. I was too young to read them when they were big, but I own a handful of back issues of each, and every single article is compelling. There’s a Cinefantastique with Jim Henson on the cover promoting The Dark Crystal, and it has 33 pages of Henson-related content!

    Look, I know not everything was better in The Good Old Days, but modern entertainment websites would benefit from the kind of in-depth reporting that those magazines did 40 years ago.


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