Cover Story


Ivor Davis December 11 1978
Cover Story


Ivor Davis December 11 1978


Cover Story

Ivor Davis

Legend already has it that it cost anywhere between $35 million and $78 million to make. No such amount of pre-publicity has accompanied any movie since David O. Selznick sent out beaters to find Scarlett O’Hara. Not since Napoleon decided he’d like to visit Moscow has a project been so draped in uncertainty. The actual shooting was as secretive as a papal election—or the Godfather’s study. Talk was cheap, rumor reigned, punditry prevailed. Four-and-a-half years later, when it zaps 700 screens on Dec. 15, Warner Brothers estimates that North Americans will have had seven billion chances, through print, radio and TV advertising, to have heard about the most talked-about, hyped-up, media-blitzed undertaking since Liz Taylor was readied in Rome to meet the asp in a basket. Four-and-a-half years later, Superman, with $6-to-$7 million of Warner Brothers’ advertising lucre propelling him, will take Lois Lane in his arms for a five-minute ballet in the sky

high over Manhattan.

Richard Donner (The Omen), the next-to-unknown director plucked out of the air to replace Guy Hamilton, says that if anything can kill Superman it’s good old-fashioned Hollywood hype. Will Superman, like The Great Gatsby and the remake of King Kong, drown in the same sea of merchandising? “I wish it could come out quiet and easy and gentle,” Donner laments.

Not very likely with Warner Brothers’ estimate of “seven billion Superman messages in the consciousness of America.” Not with all the Superman dolls, lunch boxes and Thermos flasks filling every toy store and doubtless pacifying every toddler’s tantrum.

The Superman industry has already ground out the obvious: soundtrack albums, T-shirts, posters, “Making of Superman” books, the Merv and Mike tie-in promotions, the departmentstore fashions, the wristwatches, the jewelry, the balloons and—of course— the capes. Warner Communications, the parent company, with its music, pub-

lishing and movie arms, hopes it will be raking in a ton of subsidiary profits. Says Rob Friedman, Warner’s project

executive on Superman: “The film, of course, is our first priority but it does have a symbiotic relationship with everything else. It’s like an octopus and at the centre is us.”

The tentacles will stretch to telephone-booth cookie jars put out by Bloomingdale’s at $20 a throw, Superman phone books for kids at $2.50, Superman mugs, cereal bowls, metal wastebaskets, puzzles, towels, dishcloths and even sneakers for youngsters aged five to 12 selling at $14.50— more than 1,000 Superman items in all.

he movie is also the perfect excuse to resurrect the old comics, with no fewer than nine publishing happenings on the Superman front, ranging from the Superman: First Son of Krypton novel ($2.25), The Official Superman Quiz Book, an encyclopedia, at $8.95, the Superman Calendar ($4.95), a Superman rendering in oils ($7.95) per set) and Superman cutouts at $6.95). (Quipped one Warner’s marketing man: “All you need is a pair of scissors and an MIT degree to put it

together.” )The first comic book actually titled Superman, a year after his debut in Action, is going to be reproduced at $2 a copy. The original sold for 10 cents and if anyone can find one kicking around the attic these days, he or she can Hog it to a Superfreak for $3,000.

All this, for a movie that hasn’t even been seen by anyone yet. Presently, Superman is being rushed to completion for its charity $l,000-a-ticket world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Dec. 10. (A few have seen a rough cut at Shepperton Studios in England.) Donner will be hand-carrying a wet print to Washington the day before. No movie has opened so blind since The Godfather.

All this, for a movie that looked as if it would never be made at all.

It began with Godfather pals Marlon Brando and Mario Puzo. For a cool $600,000 Puzo toiled for nearly half a year and produced a script that was longer than Roots. But Brando liked it and with his blessing Superman became more than just one of the score of piledup scripts lying untouched in a pro-

ducer’s office somewhere. But Brando’s blessing does not come cheap: for what boiled down to a commitment to work

for two weeks as Superpop, Jor-El, he was guaranteed $3.7 million, plus a percentage of both pictures. (Superman II is due in 1980.)

/1 D A rando even decided to do a litti Djtle creative Actors Studiov~7 type work on his character. “What’s my motivation?” he asked straight-faced. “How do we know that Jor-El doesn’t look like a bagel and that people on Krypton don’t speak in electronic beeps?” The prospect of a Marlon-shaped bagel talking like R2D2 was too much for producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and they told him gently, “Everyone knows the legend, Marlon, you can’t tamper with something as sacrosanct as Superman.”

With Brando in the bag, Superman was a hot property. Gene Hackman, for a freezing $2 million, will play arch villain Lex Luthor. Valerie Perrine was hired as Luthor’s moll, Eve Teschmacher, to spill out of all her get-ups.

Along the way they picked up Ned Beatty as Luthor’s moronic “gofer,” Maria Schell as Vond-ah and an assortment of other nasties led by Terence Stamp. Glenn Ford was hired as the mild-mannered reporter’s earthling father, Susannah York as his Krypton mother, Phyllis Thaxter as Ford’s wife and Jackie Cooper as Clark Kent’s long suffering editor, Perry White. All that remained was to find the Man of Steel and the love-stricken Lois Lane, the Daily Planet’s ace reporter.

Among those who tested for Lois Lane were Susan Blakely, Lesley Ann Warren, Anne Archer, Deborah Raffin and Stockard Channing, who came within a hairline of winning over Canada’s Margot Kidder (Maclean’s, June 26), who was hired three days before the filming began.

Unearthing the Man of Steel himself was the brunt of the burden. Nearly every famous face, possibly excluding Mickey Rooney’s, was considered; but casting Brando gave the Salkinds the freedom to choose whoever they wanted. Ruled out initially because he

looked too young, a virtual unknown, 25-year-old, square-jawed Christopher Reeve was finally decided upon when he tried on Clark Kent’s owlish glasses. Without a trace of humor, Donner now asserts, “God sent him to me.”

Reeve was sent to pump iron for six weeks to inflate his attenuated 188 pounds and emerged looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s kid brother, albeit worried about being typecast. True, the $250,000 and a piece of the Superman merchandising was recompense. Nevertheless, he was being told that when he’d be collecting social security he’d still be known as Superman. A fortuitous meeting with Sean Connery at a London party put his mind to rest. “There are three rules, boyo,” Agent 007 told him. “Don’t worry about being committed to five Superman movies. If the first one’s no good you won’t have to worry about the rest. Two, do a lowbudget picture next, you may be a star by the time it comes out. And three, get a good lawyer and sue the bastards.”

It was two years later. Superman was finally ready for the cameras .. . with a few more problems. The Salkinds had reserved a dozen sound stages in Rome. Then someone remembered that Brando was about as popular there as Carlo Ponti, compliments of an interesting little exercise he’d once performed on screen with the aid of half a pound of butter in Last Tango in Paris. (The carabinieri were sitting on a war-

rant for Mr. Brando’s arrest.) The decision was made to switch to London. But Guy Hamilton was a British tax exile, unable to stay in the country for more than a few weeks a year. Exit Hamilton; enter Richard Donner who took one look at the pricey Mario Puzo script and declared, “It’s not going to work. Camping it up will kill it.

“The story is bigger than life and it has humor,” he recalls. “But to the actors it has to be total reality and they have to play it dead straight.” Donner took to pinning up signs everywhere saying, “Think Verisimilitude.” Enter new team of screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde) and Newman’s wife, Leslie. Donner junked a year’s preparation, virtually the whole Puzo script (Puzo

gets a screen credit) and started from scratch. He recruited script-doctor Tom Mankiewicz to polish the new trio’s story and to act as creative consultant and Donner’s right-hand man. Mankiewicz admits he was reluctant to get involved—until a five-o’clock transatlantic phone call from Donner. In the morning a lady appeared at his front door and thrust a script at him. “It was like receiving a copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” says Mankiewicz, “it was so huge.”

In April, 1977, Superman finally, unequivocally, began shooting, but not everything was coming up roses. Nobody bothered to tell Donner what his budget was—probably because nobody but Salkind père et fils knew for sure how much money they’d raised. Ilya Salkind had been talking $25 million, but soon the cash ran low. A key scene to be shot in Calgary, doubling for the

wheat fields of the Midwest where baby Superman lands after being jettisoned from Krypton, took ages to film—it rained for six weeks. When the waterlogged crews returned to London, they built a huge substitute desert road in the English countryside which was washed out, too. In New York a power blackout wiped out another couple of days’ shooting.

Vhis did not help ease tensions or curtail escalating costs. To worsen matters, Donner was not getting along with Pierre Spengler, the young accountant/school buddy of Ilya Salkind, appointed as an on-site financial overseer. “At one time,” reflects Donner, “if I’d seen him, I would have killed him.”

The bills were being paid, but only just, and new investors were hard to come by. Word was that Superman was turning into a mastodon and that Donner was doing an Orson Welles. Donner (shades of Coppola on The Godfather) was convinced he was going to be fired. Warner Brothers, who originally came in as distributors, came to the rescue. (By the time Superman was shot, they were into the project for close to $20 million.) Donner, the story has it, understandably nervous about all the new money, took to going into his closet, putting on a Superman suit and cape, saying to a mirror: “I’m going to finish

this and I feel great.”

Out of the closet, Donner was toying with the tricky business of defying gravity. In the old Superman TV series it was straight up and down and thankGod-for-the-wind-machine. Superman’s shove to and through the skies would —and will—make or break the movie.

“What I had to do quite simply,” Donner reasoned, “was bring in a guy who actually flies—just a man who flies in a costume we’ve all known since we were kids. But once he flies and the audience accepts it, they take it for granted. They expect it. So we had what was probably the most problematical special effect in movie history—a special effect that mustn’t look special.”

In mid-filming rumors came hot and heavy that the flying scenes had to be reshot because the wires showed. “Of course there were the cranes, the wires, the harnesses and all the other paraphernalia. But what really makes this one different,” he says, “is a special piece of mobile equipment designed by a Hungarian technician and never before used in a movie. That makes it all work.”

The biggest moment of the picture is the five-minute aerial ballet. It only took three months to shoot, and came about when Mankiewicz suggested, as an afterthought, to Donner, “Why

doesn’t he take her flying?” Lois Lane is doing an interview with Superman and at the end of it he plucks her from her skyscraper apartment balcony and takes her whirling round the Manhattan skyline. “At first,” Mankiewicz says, “we thought it should be around the world.” So, they dispatched units to London, Paris and Rome.

Donner decided to stick to the Big Apple. Now Superman zooms through the clouds doing pirouettes and swan dives, varooming around the Statue of Liberty, making a left turn at the moonall of it accompanied by Superman's Love Theme, composed by John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws). The Man of Steel plays with Lois, drops her, catches her again like a doting father teaching his child to swim. Liv Ullmann, one of the privileged few to get an advance look at it, burst into tears. “It’s every woman’s dream,” she cooed, “to be taken flying by Superman.”

So far, so good. Two-thirds of the way

through filming Superman, the curse on the project reared its ugly head once again. Director Richard Lester, who made The Three Musketeers and its sequel for the Salkinds, suddenly appeared on the set. Like the captain who has sailed his ship through a dozen typhoons only to be relieved from his duties a mile from harbor, Donner was more than mildly peeved. “If they’re going to fire me why don’t they just fire me,” he stormed, then shot off an ultimatum to the Salkinds.

Gossips licked their lips and waited for the Showdown at the Pinewood Corral. But it never came: Lester explained he had no take-over ambitions and was simply there, he told Donner, because the Salkinds owed him a big hunk of money from a lawsuit over the Musketeers movies. This was just their way of putting him on the payroll. Donner said Lester told him, “I’m just here for the money. I won’t interfere with you in any way.”

ÍA} n the one side were the Sally kinds, the father a moneyr maker par excellence, the son a publicity whiz. In the middle was their accountant-producer Spengler who Donner claimed knew “absolutely nothing about making a movie.” And on the other side Donner himself who just kept shooting and shooting and going over budget until he was satisfied. He was paid $1 million for his efforts, plus a small percentage of the picture. “They got me cheap for two years of my life,” he affirms.

The Superman spinoff pie (if the movie takes off, and that’s the biggest “if” in the history of movies) will be cut into many slices, the main recipients being Warner Communications, DC Comics, the Salkinds (on any likenesses taken from the movie, but not the comics). The only thing that hasn’t been licensed is Marlon Brando. Exhibitors across North America have put up colossal sums of money for the privilege of showing the movie, all of the bidding being totally blind. They’re also roped into showing it for a 13-week minimum. For the first four weeks they must turn over to Warner $2.10 on every adult ticket sold, and $1.40 on every child’s ticket. If exhibitors want to maintain their profit margin, the general admission price could be upped considerably. This has led to suggestions from some that Warner has taken the lesson of Superman a little too literally, using his muscle to strong-arm them. For example, during the movie’s run, cinemas are not allowed to run ads on the screen. What they lose on the ads, points out Warner, they can make up selling Superman trinkets.

The fate of Warner Communications is not riding solely on Superman’s broad shoulders. As studio executives go to pains to point out, “We are a diversified company with $1 billion in revenues last year . . .” But like everybody else, when the stock market plummeted recently, Warner took a bath and there is genuine nervousness from the studio headquarters to the corporate offices over the reception of the picture. The money from a successful movie and from all the merchandising could make a difference.

Richard Donner, meanwhile, is pained but powerless. “I guess they’ve got to hedge their bets. They don’t have that much faith in me. I just have a bad feeling with everyone talking about it. It’s not that kind of a picture, it’s just a sweet story. They’re doing it like a comedian in front of a houseful of comics saying ‘I’m about to tell you the funniest story you’ve ever heard in your life . . .’ Where the hell do you go from there?” v