By Tim Pelan
Richard Donner, director of The Omen, the Lethal Weapon series, The Goonies, but oh so especially the golden standard of comic book movies and feel good Americana, 1978’s Superman The Movie, was rightly honored on Wednesday 7 June by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. Superman’s tagline famously stated “You’ll believe a man can fly”—Donner refused to accept an actor laying on a board, and pushed grasping producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (Equity got involved when they discovered cast and crew were being stiffed out of a double pay cheque for two Superman movies being shot back to back) every which way he could to deliver a film that was faithful to the character and spirit of his childhood hero. “[The first draft script] was disparaging. It was just gratuitous action. I’m reading this thing and Superman’s looking for Lex Luthor in Metropolis, and he’s looking for every bald head in the city. And then he flies down and taps a guy on the shoulder and it‘s [Kojak’s] Telly Savalas, who hands him a lollipop and says, ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ I was brought up on Superman as a kid. There was a whole point in my life where I read Superman. So when I was finished with it, I was like, ‘Man, if they make this movie, they are destroying the legend of Superman.’ I wanted to do it just to defend him.” He called up friend Tom Mankiewicz to knock the script into shape with him (credited as “creative consultant” after much wrangling with the Salkinds), greeting the startled screenwriter as he pulled up to his driveway by running out in the Superman costume that was delivered with the hated script. Donner told him, “The most important thing when you look at it is this: make a love story. And prove a man can fly.” So he read it and he called me that night and said, “You know, there’s a lot we can do with this.”
Donner was the ultimate inside man in the industry. A struggling actor in the 1950s, he graduated to director’s assistant to Martin Ritt on a live TV show after he questioned some direction. Ritt told him, “Your problem is that you can’t take direction. You ought to be a director.” Making the transition gradually to film, under the auspices of George Blake, a director, producer and writer of documentaries and commercials, he came to realize that, compared to the rudiments of television, “the actor rules and the camera served the actor. I learned what a reverse was… the camera worked for the actor… you could swing it around, reverse it, and you didn’t photograph it. Whereas live TV, if you’ve got over-the-shoulders, you saw the other camera. I fell in love with film.” Television’s loss was the movie lover’s gain.
On Superman, Donner had a clear vision, almost of three movies in one, with distinct styles, linked by the thread of the Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman journey—a “lasso of truth” to use the parlance of uber-fan Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. Krypton would be avant-garde, strange, heightened; Smallville, Norman Rockwell by way of Terrence Malick—high school touchdowns, wide open vistas, a yearning for home and honesty; and Metropolis–bustling, wise-cracking, a cartoon New York, alive to possibility. All grounded by what Donner termed “verisimilitude”: absolute truth and belief in the scenario and character on screen—no mugging to camera.
Back to Patty Jenkins, and a quote of hers from a New York Times interview that’s doing the rounds:
“Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world, I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis. I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.”
Central to the film’s sense of wonder is, of course, the flying sequences—showcased most spectacularly when Christopher Reeve’s Superman first rescues Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane as her helicopter dangles precariously from the roof of The Daily Planet; and later, when he drops by her apartment balcony for an exclusive interview (Superman: “I’m here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.” Lois: “You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!”) and Peter Pan and Wendy style flight around the city nightscape. The idea behind the latter, says Donner, was “Just a couple of teenagers going for a ride for the first time. Sweet, honest, and real.” Along with wires, pulleys, cables, dollies and old fashioned fish wire tugging on Superman’s cape, the director credits Zoran Perisic and his Zoptic Front Projection system for making the flying sequences so believable (along with the performances, of course). Superman and Lois’ flyby was snatched over several months, filmed in between multiple major sequences over the two films (Donner was ultimately replaced acrimoniously by the Salkinds with Richard Lester, who reshot much of Superman II). The miracle is how flawlessly and charmingly it flows, especially the wonderful seemingly seamless one-take camera move from Superman disappearing, to Clark arriving at Lois’ door, and the “Will he? Won’t he?” dilemma of whether to reveal his true identity.
The set was built at Pinewood Studios, based on an apartment scouted at New York’s Central Park West. As Superman takes hold of Lois the camera moves to a wide shot, and they are now harnessed separately. There were multiple takes to get a smooth take-off. Donner referred to the chosen take as a “desperation take,” the best they would get.
As they fly above the front-projected, light-bejeweled city, Margot Kidder’s eyes are wide with wonder. “Here’s a secret about Margot,” Donner recalled. “See how wonderful her eyes are? When we first started shooting, she came to work one morning and said, ‘I’m in terrible trouble. I scratched my eye putting my contact lens in. I can’t wear my lenses. I’m screwed.’ I said, ‘It’s OK. We’ll protect you. Don’t wear your lenses.’ And when she didn’t have her lenses in, she was so wide-eyed and wondrous, that from then on, I would never let her wear her contacts. She would try to sneak them in, but the makeup person had to hand signal to me if they were in.”
Front projection shots were placed on the ground, subjective shots looking down at the apartments passing by below Lois, putting the audience in her position. Zoran Perisic’s front projection equipment was much lighter and more versatile than similar rigs in existence. It had both a zoom on the camera, and on the projector, both connected so the camera could move past people, zoom in and out, and roll the projector around. Donner eventually got Warner Brothers to stump up the cash for it after the Salkinds were reluctant to finance further development. When the first tests were done using it, “there was dead silence. A couple of guys that ran the flying unit were crying, because it was so good.”
The clouds were actually layered smoke on a set, about 20 feet off the floor. They got about 20 minutes or so to use it before they had to air out the entire stage, and layer the smoke again. The harnessed actors’ shadows were projected from a 2000 watt lamp, which is supposed to be the moon. “We built a round piece of white plastic, painted moon markings on it, and photographed it. We put it on a crane sticking up in the air, and that went on the stage. The rest of the lamp was covered in black cloth.”
Lois’ internal monolog “Can you read my mind?” was originally a song written by Leslie Bricusse, to be sung by Maureen McGovern—Margot Kidder tried singing it, but is no singer. In the end, back to that word “verisimilitude”—it just felt more honest and real, that we are privy to her voiced thoughts in this strange moment. Lois’ diaphanous gown and Superman’s cape billowing both distract from the harnesses guiding them. At one point a cape was designed with thin ribs for wires that would be manipulated. In the end, a thinner cape was used, with multiple small fans to make it and Kidder’s dress react as if to the high air current. To get rid of any visible wires, Wally Veevers, responsible for flying effects, had his people “separate the color film into three pieces of film, one red, one blue and one yellow. Then they would make black-and-white prints of each of those, and then with magnifying glasses and tiny little brushes, paint out the wires on all three black-and-white strips. Then they’d put them back together again, print that over the three-color separations, then put the color separations back together. And by God, the wires were gone.”
Finally, they land back on Lois’ balcony. With a jaunty wave, Superman steps off and is gone; she walks indoors in a daze. This is Donner’s genius touch. How to show Clark appear at the door seconds later, without an obvious cut?
“It was important to show the relationship of Clark Kent to Superman, and the only way I could do it was to have him be with Lois, then the moment he leaves, reappear as Clark. It was physically impossible because you couldn’t get him off the wires, out of his costume, and into Clark Kent clothing in 20 seconds. But I wanted it to be in one shot, so we designed her apartment and cut off about a third of her balcony. That third had been built at Shepperton Studios and we filmed Chris saying goodbye and flying away. Lois is in front of a front projection screen, but it looks like she’s standing on her balcony with Metropolis behind him.
Months later, Lois’ terrace set was finally built at Pinewood, and we continued the process of this shot. The foliage is there for subterfuge, to hide the break in the projection unit. He flies away, and she goes through little bushes on her balcony, takes a beat, stops to think and coins the word ‘Superman.’ This was before Zoran’s 35-pound invention. So at that moment, we freed the camera from the 2,000-pound projector, and connected it to a dolly, which had never been done before because the camera was usually part of the projection unit itself. This had to be perfectly timed, and then the camera slides with her.
Lois goes to the door 20 seconds after Superman has flown away, and he appears in the doorway as Clark Kent. It was one of those technical feats that could have been done with cuts, but it wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact. The shot ends with his deliberation; is he going to tell her he’s Superman? I wanted a much smaller mirror, but our production designer John Barry said, ‘Shouldn’t we see the size of Superman and Clark in the same frame, feeling his stature?’ So he put in this large mirror. You can see how his back straightens up. It’s a dual image: Clark in the front, but Superman in the back.”
“It’s such a feel-good movie,” Jenkins says of Superman, the film that was to her “what Star Wars was to so many little boys… It hits all those main buttons so delightfully. I think that grand, simple storytelling has gone out of vogue. But there are thousands of years of telling stories in a similar way, and knowing how to tell them is an art form that takes time and patience. It’s about withholding, rather than bombarding people or going too fast. You have to tell a great story and then have confidence in that story to tell it well. Richard Donner does that here.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Above: The Godfather author Mario Puzo came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay for both Superman and Superman II. He’s seen at left with producer Pierre Spengler and director Richard Donner, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
Here’s a rarity: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton & Tom Mankiewicz’s script for Superman [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Watch Making Superman: Filming the Legend as filmmakers and cast discuss the making of Superman.
Watch Taking Flight: The Development of Superman, as the cast and crew discuss the story of how Superman was made.
Watch The Magic Behind the Cape, an in depth look at how the special effects for Superman were created, presented by the legendary Roy Field.
Richard Donner on Superman, Cinefantastique Vol 08 No 4 (Summer 1979).
An exclusive Fantastic Films magazine interview with director Richard Donner.
Superman: Screen Tests—a special feature on the 2003 and 2006 DVD editions of Superman (1978). There is an optional commentary on the Lois Lane tests.
Director of Photography Geoffrey Unsworth and crew on the Krypton set. Widely considered one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, his other credits included Beckett, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cabaret, for which he won an Academy Award, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
Geoffrey Unsworth and Richard Donner on location in New York City. Sadly, less than two months before the opening of Superman, Unsworth passed away in France while working on Tess. This final work would earn him his second Academy Award for Cinematography in 1981, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
The majority of the photos in the article are from the personal collection of Jim Bowers. CapedWonder.com’s mission is to honor and celebrate Christopher Reeve’s legacy as an actor, humanitarian, teacher and family man; and to honor the directors, filmmakers, writers, cast and crew of the classic Superman movie series. Photographed by Douglas Luke, Bob Penn, Dave Friedman, Michael Ginsburg & John R. Shannon © Warner Bros., Dovemead Films, Film Export A.G., International Film Production Distributors, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Please visit the website and support: The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in