If you’re experiencing déjà vu as you await the release of The Snyder Cut of Justice League, there’s a good reason for it. Movie fans, and specifically Superman fans, have been here before.
The theatrical release of the 2017 superhero film followed news of director Zach Snyder stepping down and Josh Whedon stepping in to finish the project. Movie fans experienced the same thing two generations ago, when director Richard Donner was unceremoniously replaced before he could complete the sequel to the wildly successful 1978 opus Superman: The Movie. Donner, along with a superb cast that included Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, along with Margot Kidder and relative newcomer Christopher Reeve in the title role, had made us all believe a man could fly.
In doing so, Donner & company blew the mind of the 13-year-old version of this writer. It is not hyperbole to say that in making me believe that Superman could change the course of mighty rivers, Donner’s film changed the course of my life. I have never looked at a motion picture the same way since. Donner also directed hits like The Omen, Goonies, and the Lethal Weapon Series, but for this writer, Superman: The Movie is his masterpiece.
I’m far from alone in my love of the film. Forty years after Superman: The Movie’s debut, Fathom Events held anniversary screenings in select theaters nationwide. The film was screened at three separate events during Black Friday weekend in Sacramento two years ago. All three events sold out.
You can’t imagine the effort it took to calm my heart as I began an exclusive interview with Donner, now 90, by phone from his office in southern California. I’ve been waiting for decades to write the headline to this piece. (Die hard fans of the film will get that reference!)
I started out telling Donner what should be obvious to you by now: Superman is my all-time favorite film.
“You know what, Mike,” Donner warmly said. “You’ve got great taste!” The director’s quick reply was emblematic of our conversation: it was friendly and inviting, and a dream come true.
I asked Donner when he knew that he had made a film that was going to have a profound impact with millions around the world, and still revered decades later.
“I certainly didn’t know it when we were making it,” Donner said. “I was just trying to make the best movie I could make. I think it was during the first showing I attended — not the opening, but a regular screening in a theater, in New York. I watched the audience experience that movie and I was very moved, very excited.”
Donner’s on set mantra was “verisimilitude.” He told me that of his accomplishments with the movie, achieving that is the one of which he’s most proud, over 40 years later.
“Before I came on board, the script was kind of a parody of a parody,” Donner remembered. “It had been really well written by three or four really good writers, but they had been directed by a couple of Hungarians [producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind] who saw it as a comic book rather than a piece of history. Their script didn’t have any respect for what the character stood for, since I was a little kid.”
“Tom Mankiewicz and I had known each other for years, and we’d always talked about working together, so I presented him with the problem,” Donner continued. “I asked him to bring a sense of reality, or verisimilitude, to the story. I wanted to be able to prove that a man could fly. Tom rewrote the entire script.”
“Years before, there had been a French film called Jules and Jim, a great film. Two guys fall in love with the same woman. That’s what Superman was: two guys in love with the same woman. It happened to be that the two guys were the same guy, but not in the woman’s eyes. I asked Tom ‘How do we make that into a love story?’ He just fell right into it.”