At a moment when superheroes dominate pop culture, Gary Bettinson takes us back to the first comic book blockbuster. Superman: The Movie - The 40th Anniversary Interviews takes us behind the scenes to reveal the personalities and expertise that went into making this landmark of Hollywood cinema. Marking forty years since the film’s release, this book presents original interview transcripts with the cast and crew. It serves as a rare insider account of an acclaimed blockbuster that was steeped in controversy throughout production, from its record-breaking budget to conflicts between the director and producers. With refreshing candor, the interviewees cast light on the daily realities on set, as well as on the film’s release and reception. Beginning with the film’s inception and continuing through its runaway success, this book provides valuable insights into the practical logistics and day-to-day realities of mounting a big-budget production, at a time when high-concept Hollywood blockbusters were only just emerging as a genre.
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About the Author
Gary Bettinson is senior lecturer in film studies at Lancaster University and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Cinema journal.
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Gary Bettinson: As producer, you negotiated the Superman film rights with DC Comics. Who led the negotiations on behalf of DC Comics?
Pierre Spengler: A gentleman named Bernie Kashdan. He was the vice president for business affairs. And there was also a gentleman named Carmine Infantino, who intervened on a number of occasions. He was the president of the company at that time but not very experienced in this kind of negotiation. I mean, he was a genius comic-book artist, but when we came into the complications of a film negotiation he required certain things, or demanded certain things, that were basically unacceptable to us. We almost reached a deadlock. Eventually the deal was arbitrated, as it were, by Bill Sarnoff who was president of Warner Books. He was technically higher up than Carmine. And Bill helped, because he had more experience in these kinds of negotiations.
GB: Do you remember the kinds of demands that Infantino made?
PS: Sure. The monetary terms we had agreed with Bernie Kashdan. He had run those terms by his superiors, and so all the monetary terms and everything were fine. The stumbling block was the approvals clause, where DC was so wary of what could be done with their precious characters. They wanted to have a whole set of approvals. And we did work out a set of approvals eventually, but at the beginning Carmine basically was saying: 'Well, you write a script and if we don't like it we'll tell you that we don't like it. And then you should write another one and present it to us.' [Laughs.] And we said, 'That's completely impractical – we'll be here until the cows come home. You'll just keep disapproving our script and we'll never make a movie.' So we finally worked out a mechanism whereby if they didn't approve the script they had to tell us why and provide suggestions on how to correct it. They couldn't just say 'No' – they had to say 'No, but if you do this ...' and then we would make the corrections and present the script to DC again, and if we did follow their suggestions the script was deemed approved. But if we had some alternative suggestions, DC still had the right of approval over those. It was very, very complicated. So then we decided that we would have a series of conferences with Carmine representing DC Comics, Mario Puzo (who was then the writer of the Superman script) and ourselves [the Salkinds and Spengler], the producers. We didn't even have a director on-board at that time. We all agreed that we would record these conferences and make live transcripts of them, and that whatever was agreed during these conferences would be deemed approved and could be incorporated into the script.
GB: So Infantino was chiefly concerned with DC's 'integrity of character' clause, which related to the character of Superman and the ways you were permitted to portray him on film?
PS: Yes, and that's what is impossible to put on the page. You can only sort of put generalities. Ultimately, we had to live with their approvals clause. DC were also supposed to approve the rushes, to make sure the rushes accorded with what was approved previously. There was a representative – who was in fact a Warner representative in London – named Paul Hitchcock, who became a representative of DC Comics and watched the rushes every day. To be honest, though, we didn't have any major conflicts with DC. We set out to make a Superman movie that was loyal to the comic-book image. We were not trying to make a spoof of the character, or anything like that.
GB: Given your fidelity to the material, did the DC executives have confidence in the project?
PS: Well, while we were negotiating the contract with DC, the DC people called Warner Brothers. Warner was DC's sister company. They called someone at Warner and said, 'Look, the producers who made The Three Musketeers want to buy the rights to Superman and make a movie.' And the person at Warner, who was a high-up production executive at the company, said, 'Well, take as much money upfront as you can, because Superman will never make a movie.'
GB: Were you heavily involved in the merchandising of Superman, or were the ancillary products principally controlled by Warner Brothers and DC Comics?
PS: That was principally Warner. But there was a certain conflict, for want of a better word, between the DC Comics merchandising and the film merchandising. Profits from the film merchandising had to be shared with us, the producers. But profits from the DC Comics merchandising did not have to be shared with us, because that merchandise was comic-book based. Consequently, I think that Warner favoured the DC Comics merchandising rather than the film merchandising. There was some film merchandising but not much. The merchandising negotiations were done in 1974. Basically we said, 'OK, if the merchandise is only related to the character or to the comic book, then the profits belong 100 per cent to DC Comics; but if the merchandise is related to the film – if it uses actors, props, visualizations, or whatever, from the film – then we share.'
GB: I understand that DC Comics had approval over the casting of all the actors in the film. It has been widely reported that figures such as Muhammad Ali and Al Pacino were approved ...
PS: Well, we put together a list which was indeed a very silly list. We had a list because, again, we said, 'We can't just go to DC and every time we come up with an actor they say they don't like him.' So we thought, 'Let's put together a list of actors to be pre-approved by DC.' We had names of famous stars to play Superman, and of course we eventually didn't use any of them. We went for Chris.
GB: Warren Beatty has stated that he was the first actor to be offered the role of Superman. Was he indeed the first actor you approached?
PS: I know we [the producers] did talk about stars. I'm trying to think if Warren was one of them. It could have been the case, because he would have been right for the role. The people that we thought of, and actually made offers to, included Paul Newman. But Warren? Possibly. He would have been good, actually.
GB: Did you insert a morality clause into the contracts of all the actors?
PS: No, not with all the actors. I think we put a clause in Chris Reeve's contract, because we foresaw the possibility of him appearing in Superman sequels. Therefore, so long as he was working for us, potentially to appear in a sequel, we indeed put a clause in his contract stating that he couldn't do a porno film. Not that he ever would have done that!
GB: So this clause didn't pertain to his roles in regular movies outside the Superman franchise?
PS: No. If memory serves me right, in between Superman II and Superman III, he did a film [Deathtrap] with Michael Caine where he was gay. And he played a crooked cardinal in some other movie [Monsignor]. So it was a broad clause. We didn't want him to do something that was, you know, porno or X-rated.
GB: During pre-production and production, you made a number of high-profile trips to the Cannes Film Festival. Was the purpose of these visits purely to promote Superman: The Movie, or was it also to attract financiers?
PS: When you go to Cannes, there are several reasons to do so. One of the reasons is networking, where you meet the people of the industry and basically exchange thoughts with them. The second thing is to sell your film. When we first went to Cannes, we had only Mario Puzo as a name attached to Superman. And so we announced the film and immediately people were sort of intrigued. They showed some interest but we didn't sign any contracts at that time. In Cannes of 1976, we announced the film with Guy Hamilton directing, Marlon Brando acting and Gene Hackman acting. And then people got crazy, because that was a really extraordinary package. Before that, people hadn't quite imagined what Superman could be. Now they could somehow visualize it. And we did sell quite a lot of territories during that trip to Cannes. We sold finally the US and the UK distribution rights to Warner Brothers. And then in 1977, we came back to Cannes and we were able to show some footage from Superman – around ten minutes of a promo reel. We showed that to Warner and then Warner bought all the unsold territories.
GB: Do you recall which scenes were shown in the promo reel?
PS: It was mostly scenes from Krypton. That's what had been shot by then.
GB: Was Brando's contract difficult to negotiate? Was it difficult to convince him to act in a comic-book movie? Obviously Superman: The Movie would go on to change the nature of that type of film ...
PS: Well, that's exactly the thing. There was really no example of comic-book movies before. None that would count, anyway. There were a couple of Superman movies that had been done, but as far as I recall they sort of spliced together some television episodes. Okay, our movie was based on the comic book, but by putting the elements together as we did – you know, a prestigious director, a prestigious writer and so forth – we gave it weight. There were no comic-book movies at that time. Superman was practically a first.
GB: Was product placement an important source of financing for the film? A box of Cheerios features prominently in one shot in Superman ...
PS: No, it wasn't an important part. We did have a deal with Cheerios. There's no point saying we didn't. [Laughs.] But it was a very tiny deal. And Cheerios breakfast was Americana. You know, Donner's sense of Americana was precious, because obviously we [the producers] are European and we don't have the same sense of Americana. So that's why the Cheerios box was there.
GB: Why did you decide to shoot two Superman movies simultaneously? The Musketeers films were not initially conceived as two films, whereas the Superman package from inception included two movies, isn't that so?
PS: Yeah, that's true. With Musketeers, we first wanted to make a big epic, but then we realized that we would lose a big audience by making a film that was too long. That's why we decided to cut it into two films. And there was a very neat point in the middle of the story to do it – when D'Artagnan becomes a musketeer. Having done that, and having seen basically that there are some economic advantages to making two movies at the same time, we decided to make the first two Superman movies at the same time. That was, as it were, the business plan. But in the end we didn't manage to do it, because the costs and schedule went so wildly over on the first Superman movie that we had to focus on finishing the first movie and then decide whether to finish the second movie or not, depending on the success of the first.
GB: Was abandoning Superman II ever a genuine option? Regardless of the success or failure of Superman: The Movie, Donner had already shot a lot of footage for Superman II.
PS: Well, not so much footage, you see. Basically, if you look at Superman II, the Richard Lester version, there was about 20 per cent of footage that had been shot simultaneously with Superman: The Movie. Most of it was Gene Hackman's footage. I think we had done the trucker scene in the diner too; we'd shot that already. But that was it. So, to answer your question – well, if the first film had been a flop I think we would have just abandoned the idea of the second one. We might have made an even longer TV version of Superman: The Movie. We already did a long TV version of the first one. So maybe we would have expanded it even more.
GB: Was Alexander Salkind a frequent visitor to the set of Superman: The Movie? I know that he wasn't comfortable travelling by plane.
PS: He wasn't only uncomfortable; he didn't fly at all. No, he wasn't in London all that much. Really it was my job, and his son [Ilya] was in London also. Between the two of us we would run the show. And we'd report back to Alex. Generally bad reports. [Laughs.]
GB: You worked with Christopher Reeve on three Superman films.
PS: On the three, absolutely, yes.
GB: And Superman: The Movie made him an international film star. How did he change over the five years that you worked together?
PS: You know, his head grew a little, which is natural. Anybody's head would grow a little in those circumstances. But look, he always was a professional, he was always there doing the job. He was always a wonderful actor and able to do the two parts. And he took it very seriously. You know, he was great. I've got nothing but praise for him.
GB: Did he take on more responsibility as the series developed?
PS: He would suggest certain things. Certain things we had to stop him from doing. On Superman III, he wanted to be on a crane, flying near the ground, just over the wheat fields. He wanted to do that himself, but I said, 'I'm sorry, you're not doing that!' [Laughs.] It was much too dangerous.
GB: You enlisted Richard Lester as a producer on Superman: The Movie. Did he direct second-unit material on the film?
PS: No. Well, he might have done one bit of filming when we were shooting the Small-ville scenes in Canada. But it wasn't our intention that Lester direct any scenes in Superman: The Movie. The intention was really for him to help in production decisions and maybe give a bit of advice to Donner. You know, we were racking our brains to find a powerful ending for Superman. We had written the script for Superman and Superman II, and we did not have a proper ending for Superman. We were working with the writers and with Tom Mankiewicz who was working with Donner, and we didn't have an ending. And we were talking also at that time with Richard Lester, who had come on board as an additional producer. We were thinking, 'What can we do for an ending?' And then I remembered those conferences with Mario Puzo and Carmine Infantino. In one of those conferences, Puzo said, 'Oh, I've got an idea to create tension – let's kill Lois.' And Carmine went crazy: 'Come on, you can't do that!' Puzo said, 'No, but of course we'll resuscitate her somehow.' And so we came up with this idea: we'll kill Lois and then use an ending that was originally written as the ending of Superman II, in which Superman reverses time. Originally at the end of Superman II, a lot of damage has been done by the three Kryptonian villains on Earth, and so to repair it all Superman just reverses time and the world is repaired. So we used that reversing of time and the death of Lois as the ending of Superman: The Movie. Well, that idea came out of a conference we had with Lester. That was the kind of intervention he had on the movie.
GB: The decision to replace Donner with Lester remains controversial. But it has been reported that you did offer Donner the chance to finish shooting Superman II.
PS: I did. Yeah, yeah. And I know Donner attempted to make quote unquote 'his' version [Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut], which used in the region of 50 per cent of recovered footage that he had shot for Superman II. But (a) there was footage that was no good, and (b) there was footage that wasn't even supposed to be footage – it was just taken from screen tests. You know, God bless him. I know there is always this discussion of 'Why didn't he direct Superman II?' But a lot of water has gone under the bridge. The result of Superman: The Movie, despite all the difficulties and all the headaches and all the overages, is that he made a good movie. There's no question.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Superman: The Movie"
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION Superman: The Movie at 40, 09,
THE INTERVIEWS, 18,
PIERRE SPENGLER PRODUCER, 18,
ILYA SALKIND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, 28,
RICHARD DONNER DIRECTOR, 40,
MARGOT KIDDER LOIS LANE, 52,
MARC MCCLURE JIMMY OLSEN, 84,
JEFFE EAST YOUNG CLARK KENT, 94,
SARAH DOUGLAS URSA, 104,
JACK O'HALLORAN NON, 118,
FILMS CITED, 133,