A 40th anniversary interview…
With dozens of first-rate comic-book movies having come and gone over the last four decades, there is still none greater than Superman: The Movie, which was released wide in U.S. theaters 40 years ago on Saturday — Dec. 15, 1978.
Saying it had a profound impact on me would be an understatement and it’s still probably the film I have seen more than any other. So there was no way I was going to let this anniversary pass without something special.
Enter Michael Eury’s RetroFan #3, published by TwoMorrows — featuring a cover interview with director Richard Donner himself. And guess what, Superfans: We’ve got an EXCLUSIVE excerpt for you.
Donner spoke with writer Glenn Greenberg about, among other things, how he first viewed the Superman gig, his famed dedication to “verisimilitude,” his displeasure with the popular Extended Cut and the landmark film’s enduring legacy.
Below you’ll find selected highlights but there’s much more in the full piece, so I strongly recommend picking up RetroFan #3, which is due out 12/19. (Plus, check out that Table of Contents to get a taste of all the other groovy features in the mag. Goofy Grape!)
By GLENN GREENBERG
Glenn Greenberg: My first question is going to take you way back. I understand that you used to read Superman comics as a kid.
Greenberg: What did you like about them? What was the appeal to you?
Donner: It was just escapism. I mean, we were kids, we’d come home from school after playing in the yard or somewhere on the school grounds, and our reading material would be whatever the newest comic book was that came out. I don’t know if it’s going on today—today it’s TV instead.
But it was a comic book and every page was a phenomenal one to turn, and you lived the fantasies, between Superman and—now you’re gonna make me think of the others and I can’t—I mean, hundreds of them. Dick Tracy, Shazam!—what was that, Captain Marvel?
Donner: And Superman was one that stuck with me, but no more than any of the others. Until, of course, he came into my life again many, many years later.
RF: Right. Now when he did come into your life again many, many years later, in your view, going into this project, who was Superman, to you? Who is Superman? What qualities did you feel needed to be there to really capture the character well?
Donner: Well, the qualities were really our heritage, because the interesting thing is—I had no eyes to do a movie called Superman. But when it was sent to me, with a ridiculous offer, I took it upon myself to read it and was very disappointed. Because they were making a parody out of something much like American history.
I mean, this was something that, in the ’30s, kids were brought up on, and it stayed with us. Right up until the time I read [the script], it was still being published. And I was angry that they were disrespectful to the character. And so I accepted the assignment only on the basis that I could rewrite it, bring in a writer, Tom Mankiewicz, to rewrite it. Once that was decided upon, I was committed to the project.
Greenberg: Was there something specific about Superman that you felt needed to be in that movie, a certain trait or a personality?
Donner: There’s a thing that I call verisimilitude.
RF: Right! I was going to get to that!
Donner: By that I mean that within its own reality, it was extremely important that the characters in the story believed themselves. And the minute they didn’t, like I said, it became a parody. And that’s really like a parody on a parody, because it is a comic book.
Greenberg: What made you so sure that audiences would connect with that approach, rather than, say, what they did with the Batman TV series, which was really campy and silly? What made you so sure that verisimilitude was going to be the right way to go with Superman instead of, as you said, poking fun?
Donner: To tell you the truth, it was totally shooting in the dark. I had no idea. It was just, once I was going to make that picture, that was the way I felt it had to be made. I mean, I had no way of prophesizing whether the audiences were going like it or dislike it. I just felt maybe there were enough people out there like myself, who were brought up on believing in it, that that’s the way they would like to see it.
Greenberg: You’ve said in the past that that had you been able to finish Superman II, you would have been interested in doing a Superman III, a Superman IV. Had you worked out any ideas for those movies, in terms of storylines or stuf f that you wanted to see? Did any of them get worked into those Superman comics that you wrote with Geoff Johns a few years ago (published in Action Comics #844– 846, 851, and 855–857, and Action Comics Annual #11)?
Donner: Well, Brainiac. There was a little bit of Brainiac that was going to be in it, but no. Tom and I had some really great thoughts. Because he was also a good director. And what we were going to do was, we would write the next one [II] and I would direct that, and we’d do the third one and Tom would direct that. And so on, for as long as it lasted. But the producers [Alexander and Ilya Salkind] didn’t see our relationship to the films as we did, so I was not brought back.
Greenberg: But Brainiac was definitely a villain you wanted to tackle.
Donner: Well, one of the villains, yes. I mean, I felt there was a different way of approaching it, but the intellect of Brainiac was very exciting.
Greenberg: Warner Bros. recently put out on Blu-ray the extended three-hour version that aired on ABC back in the early ’80s, that extended version for television (Superman: The Movie: Extended Cut, released in October 2017). Did you know about it?
Donner: I had heard about it just before it came out, and I was really kind of upset with them for doing that without discussing it with me.
The reason there was a long version was, back in the [early ‘80s], when this was released for TV, [the networks] paid you by the length of the movie. And so the producers, in their inimitable good taste, went into the storage rooms, I guess, and dug out everything I had cut out of the movie and put it back in. And I had nothing to say at that point. And I’m sorry to say that at this point, Warners didn’t take it upon themselves to discuss that with me first. But they didn’t. That’s the way it is. What you’re looking at is stuff that I threw away.
Greenberg: This is going to require a little bit of self-reflection, but in your own estimation, why is this film still so beloved and so influential all these years later?
Donner: Good question. But, I mean, I don’t know. I can’t tell you what turns the rest of the public on. I’m a fan of very hopeful things. In most of my movies, there’s hope at the end, there’s a feeling of “feel good.”
— 13 QUICK THOUGHTS: Why CHRISTOPHER REEVE Was the Greatest SUPERMAN Ever. Click here.
— The SUPERMAN Movie You Didn’t See, by CARY BATES. Click here.
RetroFan #3 is due out 12/19. It’s available at comics shops and other retailers or directly through TwoMorrows. (Click here.)