Tag Archives: Christopher Reeve

The History of Superman on Film: Part II – The Flops and the Wilderness Years

25 Jun

This is Part II of Hesaidwhatnow?’s look at the History of Superman on Film.  For Part I click here.

Despite the difficulties of casting dramas, an overly long screenplay, and a clash between director Richard Donner and producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, Superman: The Movie and Superman II were huge hits.  The Salkinds had fired Donner and promoted Richard Lester to director, giving them total control of the franchise – but would Superman III be better for it?

The Flops: Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

With all ties to Richard Donner cut, the Salkinds were free to produce the type of Superman film they had always wanted to do when they set out to add Superman III to the franchise.

Ilya wrote a treatment for the film and hired David and Leslie Newman to draft the screenplay.  Richard Lester was again engaged to direct, although this time without having Donner’s shadow cast over him, or his footage to work around.  Finally, Ilya saw Richard Prior on an episode of The Tonight Show and immediately wanted to involve him in the project, eventually signing him on to play August “Gus” Gorman, the no-good computer programmer blackmailed into helping plot against Superman.

Every one of those decisions, in some way, contributed to the least successful film in the franchise to that point.

With Donner dumped from the franchise, Gene Hackman again refused to participate in the film, taking with him some of the gravitas that his presence lent the first two movies.  Margot Kidder had also voiced her disapproval of Donner’s firing, and as a result found her role in the third instalment reduced to little more than a cameo, much to the displeasure of many Lois Lane fans.

After reading the Newmans’ screenplay for the first two films, Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite it, as he was concerned that the tone of the films was too campy.  Without Donner and Mankiewicz there to amend the screenplay for Superman III, it remained firmly rooted in slapstick and campness, a contrast to the more serious tone of its predecessors that critics and audiences loved so much.

This wasn’t helped by Lester’s approach to direction.  As Christopher Reeve once said, “Lester was always looking for a gag – sometimes to the point where the gags involving Richard Pryor went over the top.”  This, of course, wasn’t helped by the fact that Pryor had been cast in the movie in the first place.  Whilst an extremely funny man who has made some great movies, his involvement in the Superman franchise was almost universally lambasted, and he became somewhat of a touchstone for all that was wrong with the film.

Superman III was far less successful than its predecessors, grossing less than $60 million domestically and barely passing $70 million worldwide.  As a result, the Salkinds decided that the franchise had run its course, and so their involvement ended.  It looked as though Superman would hang up his red boots and cape and enjoy retirement in his Fortress of Solitude.

Superman carrying Richard Prior over the Grand Canyon?  We probably could have guessed how this movie would do...

Superman carrying Richard Prior over the Grand Canyon? We probably could have guessed how this movie would do…

 

The studios, however, had a different opinion.  Still seeing Superman as a lucrative character, Canon Films and Warner Bros. took over production.  Their first step in bringing a fourth film to life was ensuring that they had Reeve on board to reprise his role.  Reeve was reluctant.  He was still displeased with Superman III, and saw the farcical treatment of one of America’s great characters in that film as disrespectful to fans.  The studios assured him that any new instalments would return to the tone of the original films, but Reeve was still doubtful.

Then taking a leaf out of Brando’s book, the studios made Reeve an offer he couldn’t refuse.  They said that if he reprieved his role as Superman, they would finance any other project of his choosing, as well as allow him the chance to direct a fifth film in the franchise if one was made.  Reeve signed on.

With Reeve on board and the Salkinds out, other cast members signed on quickly, with Gene Hackman even reprising his role as Lex Luthor.  Fresh blood was introduced with Sidney J Furie directing and the screenplay being written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal.  Things were looking positive.

Sadly though, the studios did not inject the movie with the same resources as were given to the initial trilogy.  Canon Films had a long list of movies in development, and did not have the money to finance them all.  As a result, the budget for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was slashed to $17 million, a third of the budget given the first two films, and less than half that of Superman III.

With the reduced budget, everyone involved in the project had to cut corners.  The plot of the film centred around Nuclear Man, an evil Superman clone created by Lex Luthor.  Konner and Rosenthal wanted Reeve to play Nuclear Man, envisioning the stunning effect of Superman battling his clone.  This would, however, involve costly special effects and was ruled out by the studios, the antagonist’s role instead being cast to Mark Pillow.  (With a name like that how could he possibly have beaten the Man of Steel?)

Furie also had to cut corners as director.  Location shoots were all but out of the question and even sets and costumes were toned back.  The result was unsurprisingly another flop – even worse than Superman IV – with the box office receipts not even breaking even with the paltry budget.

Fear me!  For I am the ultimate villain!  I am...Mark Pillow!!!

Fear me! For I am the ultimate villain! I am…Mark Pillow!!!

This time there would be no others lining up to resuscitate the franchise.  Like the character in first film, the Superman franchise was banished to the wilderness, seemingly with no chance of return.

But as with any iconic character, there were those who couldn’t bear to see their idol disappear so meekly.  Superman wouldn’t abandon those that needed him forever; he would just take a long time to return.

1988 – 2006: The Wildnerness Years

After the disasters that were Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the idea of successful comic book adaptations had all but died.  That is until DC’s other tent pole character showed up on screen and proved that it could be done.  And then some.

Batman was a huge hit in 1989.  It turned a $35 million budget into a domestic box office grossing of a $250 million, with millions more earned through world-wide box office receipts and astronomical merchandising sales.  (The merchandise sales were so high that Jack Nicholson’s fee for playing the Joker, which included a percentage of such sales as well as box office receipts, was a staggering $60 million which, until very recently, was the highest ever salary received for a single movie.  No wonder the Joker was always smiling.)

Its sequel, Batman Returns, was also a success, pocketing another $160 million domestically.  With those sorts of numbers floating around, Warner Bros. were keen for another gravy train, and in 1993 obtained sole rights to the Superman franchise.

Inspired by Burton’s gritty take on the Caped Crusader, Warner Bros. wanted a reimagining of Superman as well.  Producer Jon Peters hired comic book nut Kevin Smith (writer of Mallrats, Clerks and Dogma) to draft the screenplay.  What Smith came up with was Superman Lives, a dark tale that put Superman in a black suit called the ‘Eradicator’ and pitted him against notable villains Brainiac and Doomsday.

When it came to finding a director, Warner Bros. couldn’t look past the man that inspired them to pursue the project in the first place.  Tim Burton was keen and signed on board, leaving the Batman franchise to be taken over by others (unfortunately we all know how well that turned out).

Smith had envisioned his friend and many time work colleague Ben Affleck to star as Superman, but Burton had other ideas, much to Smith’s displeasure.  He decided on Nicolas Cage, who was more than happy to take on the role being the huge fan that he was.  (How much of a fan of Superman is Cage?  He named his son Kal-El – Superman’s Kryptonian birth name.  Yowsers.)

The industry is undecided as to whether this photo is genuine or not, but the prospect of Nicolas Cage as Superman was real enough.  I'm scared too...

The industry is undecided as to whether this photo is genuine or not, but the prospect of Nicolas Cage as Superman was real enough. I’m scared too…

Burton wasn’t a fan of Smith’s screenplay, however, and brought in Wesley Strick (Cape Fear, Arachnophobia) to rewrite it.  Smith was obviously furious.  The result of Strick’s effort was an odd story in which Superman now squared off against a bizarre hybrid of Braniac and Lex Luthor called Lexiac.  Warner Bros. didn’t like it at all, scrapped it, hired Dan Gilroy to have a go, didn’t like his version either, and scrapped it too.

At that point Warner Bros. decided to drop the project all together and instead focus on, of all things, Wild Wild West.  Now it was Burton who was furious, having a year of his career wasted.  To think – in that time he could have easily squeezed in a movie starring Johnny Depp.

Jon Peters didn’t give up quite as easily, and tried to see if he could pick up momentum again to get the film going. Interestingly – and potentially somewhat controversially – he turned to the star of Wild Wild West, Will Smith.  Smith saw the potential controversy of having an African American play a traditionally white character and declined, adding in a quote attributed to him that, “You can’t be messing with white people’s heroes in Hollywood.”  Will Smith instead got to taste the superhero life in Hancock, just as Nicolas Cage starred in Ghostrider and its sequel.

As the new century turned over, both of DC’s tent pole characters were struggling on film.  Superman had not been seen for over a decade, and the Batman films seemed destined for the same banishment after the disastrous Batman and Robin (Bat-nipples?  Seriously?)

Not to be deterred, Warner Bros. saw an opportunity to correct both problems at once, by squaring the heroes off against each other in a Batman vs. Superman double whammy.  Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) produced a screenplay in which the characters were pals – with Bruce Wayne even being best man at Superman’s wedding – before a growing difference in their values saw them clash.  Initially McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation) was set to direct, and later Wolfgang Peterson (Troy, A Perfect Storm).  Eventually, however, that concept got scrapped.

When Batman Begins showed that rebooting a franchise could be done, momentum for another Superman film started anew.  J.J. Abrams (Armageddon, Lost) had created a screenplay called Superman: Flyby.  It was a true reboot – an origin story showing not only Superman’s birth, but his death and ultimate resurrection after a stop in a Kryptonian heaven.

The project gained real impetus, with Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men: Last Stand) on board to direct, but as always, the search for the actor to step into the red boots of the Man of Steel was the number one goal.  The studio was high on Josh Hartnett after his successful turns in Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbour, seeing him as the next big thing.  They offered him a huge salary to sign up for a trilogy of Superman films, with some reports suggesting the figure was as much as $100 million.  Despite the jaw-dropping money, Hartnett turned down the offer, worried that he would be forever typecast, and would be unable to pursue other interests until the trilogy was completed.

Other actors were considered, including David Boreanaz (TV’s Bones and Angel), Brendan Fraser, Ashton Kutcher, and Anakin Skywalker himself, Hayden Christensen.  When Ratner left the project, McG came back on board, and he wanted to take a leaf out of the original film’s book at hire a relative unknown.  Included on the list of actors he considered were TV actors Jason Behr (Roswell), Jared Padalecki (Supernatural), and Henry Cavill (The Tudors) – the latter a name that would come up again.

Before an actor was found to play Superman, McG pulled out of the project again, this time because Warner Bros. wanted to film in Australia, and McG didn’t want to leave the US.  Bryan Singer was approached as his replacement – a sound choice given the success of the comic book adaptations he had recently directed: X-Men and X2.

It was during the filming of X2 in 2003 that Singer had actually come up with an idea for a Superman film story.  It involved Superman returning to Earth after a five year absence, and he pitched this idea to the studio in 2004 as an alternative to Abrams’ Superman: Fly-By screenplay, which he saw as too great a departure from the Superman tale the world knew and loved.  It was well received, and Warner Bros. signed him on to direct and develop Superman Returns, leaving Ratner to take over the helm of X-Men: Last Stand.

Singer was locked in, and the project was given a 2006 release date and a hefty budget to work with.  Warner Bros. waited with hope to see whether Superman Returns would see Superman reclaim not only his mantle as Earth’s hero, but as a box office hero as well.

Log back in to Hesaidwhatnow? to read the third and final part of The History of Superman on Film, which looks at Superman Returns and Man of Steel.

The History of Superman on Film – Part I: The Early Years

20 Jun

This month, the latest cinematic reincarnation of Superman hits our screens with the release of Man of Steel.  With an estimated budget of $225 million, some of the biggest names in Hollywood behind it, and a current climate of staggering success for superhero movies, all involved in this latest adaptation are hoping for big things.

What many people don’t realise, however, is that the world’s most famous superhero has had a tumultuous history on film, with far more failures than successes.  Firings, feuds, projects that failed to launch – to date most plans for Superman on screen have been as successful as a Lex Luthor heist.  Can Man of Steel buck the trend?

Hesaidwhatnow? presents an examination of Superman on film that is as epic as it’s subject matter.  So epic in fact that this is just Part I – a look at the early years.  Log back in for further instalments that look at the flops, the lost years, Superman Returns, and of course, Man of Steel.

The early years: Superman and Superman II

Despite being a wildly successful comic, a popular TV series, and a household name in many parts of the world, a movie adaptation of Superman didn’t hit the big screen until 1978.  The film was immensely successful, earning over $134 million domestically at the box office – the second highest grossing film of the year behind Grease – as well as almost universal critical acclaim, but it wasn’t without a host of difficulties leading up to its release, and certainly not afterwards.

The film had its origins in 1973, when producer Ilya Salkind first developed the idea of bringing the superhero to life on the silver screen.  It was a difficult process.  DC Comics, who owned Superman, wanted input on the casting of their star character before allowing him to be sold.  When Salkind produced a list of Al Pacino, James Caan, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Hoffman and Mohammed Ali (seriously), DC was satisfied and sold the film rights to the franchise to him, his father Alexander, and their partner Pierre Spangler.

Float like a butterfly vs faster than a speeding bullet: Ali was actually on the first list of names to play Superman.

Float like a butterfly vs faster than a speeding bullet: Ali was actually on the first list of names to play Superman, which is almost as crazy as this comic cover.

Before any casting was finalised, however, Salkind and his partners set about signing a director and a screenwriter, with a view to having two movies filmed at the same time so as to keep production costs down.  Indicative of what was to come, this wasn’t easy.  Ilya Salkind hired Alfred Bester to write a treatment, but Alexander didn’t think he was famous enough, and so brought in Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame to write the screenplay on a Superman sized $600,000 salary.

The search for a director bordered on disaster, with negotiations breaking down with seemingly everyone in Hollywood.  Francis Ford Coppola turned down the opportunity, as did George Lucas who was committed to Star Wars, and most famously Sam Peckinpah was removed from consideration when he produced a gun at a meeting.  He was politely rejected faster than a speeding bullet.

Ilya was keen to hire a young director by the name of Steven Spielberg, but Alexander first wanted to see how his “big fish” movie panned out.  Of course Jaws panned out very well indeed, but by the time Alexander was convinced, Spielberg was unavailable, as he had Close Encounters of the Third Kind to work on.  By this point, it looked as though the project had died before it had begun.

In 1975 things began to pick up – or so it seemed.  Salkind had hired Guy Hamilton to direct, Puzo had finalised the screenplay for both films, and in a big coup, Marlon Brando had signed on to play Superman’s father, Jor-El.  Brando’s engagement, however, was a mixed blessing.

Brando’s salary paid him $3.7 million plus 11.75% of box office receipts, a hefty chunk of money for what amounted to essentially an extended cameo.  It didn’t end there.  Brando’s contract stipulated that all his scenes had to be shot within twelve days, and he refused to learn any of his lines.  (Cue cards had to be made on set for each of Brando’s scenes, and in one instance, his dialogue was written on baby Superman’s nappy!)  Most bizarrely of all, Salkind once revealed that during an early meeting on the role, Brando suggested Jor-El could be a talking suitcase or a floating bagel.  Even for a movie about a super-powered alien wearing underpants on the outside of his trousers, that suggestion raised a few eyebrows.

"Kal-El, I am your father. Um... Line!!!"

“Kal-El, I am your father.
Um…
Line!!!”

There were also problems with Puzo’s screenplay.  It came in at 500 pages for both films – far too long given that the average screenplay is around 100 to 120 pages.  Subsequently the Salkinds hired Robert Benton and David Newman to rewrite the screenplay, however Benton became too busy to afford any time to the project, and had his wife, Leslie, do the rewrites instead.  Just in case five writers weren’t enough, George MacDonald Fraser was also hired to work on the project.

The end result was unsurprisingly a mess.  The screenplay had been trimmed by 100 pages, but was still far too long.  Not only that, it had now taken on a decidedly camp tone, and was a jumble of confused ideas.

Nonetheless pre-production began.  Reflective of the project to date, even this was a disaster.  Set construction started in Italy, but Brando couldn’t film there as a warrant for his arrest on sexual obscenity charges had been issued against him for his involvement in Last Tango in Paris.  So at great cost, production was moved to England, only for the producers to learn that their director, Hamilton, was a tax exile and couldn’t enter the country.  Faced with the prospect of losing more money relocating a second time, the Salkinds released Hamilton and hired Richard Donner to direct the movies instead.

Donner’s hiring was a blessing.  He recognised the screenplay for what it was – a huge problem – and decided to scrap it entirely.  He hired yet another writer, Tom Mankiewicz, to redraft the screenplay, his two goals to reduce it to a manageable length and to eliminate the campness of the previous iteration.

With a new script, a new director, Gene Hackman on board as Lex Luthor, and Brando convinced that being a suitcase or a bagel was not the best option for Jor-El, there was only major task outstanding: the casting of Superman himself.

Like dating, all of the actors that the producers wanted for the role weren’t interested, and those that did want the part didn’t interest the producers.  The list of actors that Salkind approached was long, and included Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, James Caan, Nick Nolte, James Brolin, Christopher Walken, Warren Beatty, and John Voight.  They all turned the role down (“There’s no way I’m getting into that silly suit,” Caan supposedly told Salkind).  Paul Newman’s rejection cut even deeper – he not only rejected the offer to play Superman, but earlier had turned down Lex Luthor and Jor-El as well (even though he was offered $4 million for each role).

Meanwhile other actors that hadn’t been approached were lobbying hard to be considered.  Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly had an otherworldly physique, but didn’t have the acting chops.  Neil Diamond didn’t have the acting chops or an otherworldly physique (nor, it would seem, a realistic understanding of his place in the entertainment industry).  One actor who had a claim to both and was desperate for the part was Sylvester Stallone.

Superman was Stallone’s childhood hero, and he did everything he could to land the gig.  Just as his case was gaining momentum, however, Stallone faced a roadblock he did not see coming.  As part of his seemingly endless contractual rights, Brando had casting approval.  When he heard that Stallone was in the running, he vetoed the actor from being considered, just as he allegedly vetoed Burt Reynolds from playing Sonny in The Godfather.  Stallone was furious, particularly after hearing Brando commenting that he saw the role of Jor-El as nothing more than a paycheck, whereas he would treat the role of Superman as sacred.

Eventually Donner and Salkind decided on getting a complete unknown for the role of Superman.  The casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, suggested a young actor named Christopher Reeve.  Donner didn’t like the suggestion, as Reeve was too young and thin for the role.  The search continued ever more desperately, with over 200 hopefuls auditioning.  Things got so desperate, in fact, that Salkind’s wife’s dentist screen tested.  It was as painful as you might imagine.

Having exhausted all other options, Donner succumbed and allowed Reeve to screen test.  Reeve blew him away.  Still, the actor was too thin to play a superhero, and Donner asked him to wear a muscle suit.  Reeve refused, and instead began an intense training regime under the supervision of David Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader in Star Wars.  As a result, Reeve’s weight increased from 77kgs to 96kgs.  Finally, Superman: The Movie was ready to take flight.

Filming began in March 1977.  As two movies were being filmed at the same time, it was expected to take seven to eight months.  Instead the filming dragged on for 19 long months, during which tensions between Donner and the Salkinds grew exponentially.  The Salkinds were concerned that the filming was taking too long, and that the budget was forever expanding.  Donner retorted that he was never given a budget or a schedule, and wanted to be left alone to do his job.

Tensions grew to the point that the parties refused to talk to each other.  The Salkinds then hired Richard Lester as co-producer so that he could mediate between the Salkinds and their director.  (Interestingly Lester had worked as director of the Salkinds produced The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers and had sued them for unpaid fees.  He allegedly took on the role of mediator so that he could finally get the money he was owed.)

Ilya Salkind admitted that Lester was there not only as mediator, but as a safety net to take over directing duties should the need arise to replace Donner.  This was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

As the schedule stretched out, the Salkinds ordered Donner to focus on finalising the first film and forget about the sequel, even though Donner had filmed roughly three quarters of the footage he needed for Superman II.

Eventually the film was completed and it was released in December 1978.  It was a huge success, grossing over $300 million worldwide, being nominated for three Academy Awards, and receiving positive reviews, particularly for Reeve’s performance and the ground breaking special effects.  It was therefore a no brainer to decide to finish the sequel.

The original Man of Steel

The original Man of Steel

Like everything that came before it, Superman II was mired in problems.  As a surprise to no one, the Salkinds did not bring Donner back to finish filming the second instalment, instead promoting Lester to the directing role.  The first problem with that decision was that in order to be credited as the director of a film, a director must shoot at least 51% of the footage featured in the cinematic release of the movie.  Donner had already shot three quarters of the footage needed, meaning that in order to obtain the directing credit, Lester had to reshoot many sequences already captured by Donner.

Also, Gene Hackman was disappointed in Donner’s firing, and in protest refused to be involved in any reshooting.  Therefore all footage of Hackman in Superman II was footage filmed by Donner during the original production.  Other scenes involving Lex Luthor had to be filmed using a body double.

After paying Brando a staggering $19 million (including his percentage of the gross box office receipts) for his appearance in the first film, the producers decided not to use any footage of Brando in the sequel, even though the scenes Donner had filmed of Jor-El contained important plot points.  This was because Brando was suing the Salkinds for $50 million, what he saw as his share of unpaid box office profits.  (Mario Puzo also reportedly sued the Salkinds for unpaid fees.  There seems to be a trend here.)

In 2006 Richard Donner released a version of Superman II using footage

In 2006 Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released on DVD and Blu-Ray containing all the footage Donner had shot, including the scenes involving Brando.

Other problems with the use of two directors can be seen in the final cut of the film.  Both Reeve and Margot Kidder look noticeably different, depending on whether Donner or Lester directed the footage.  Reeve continued to gain muscle for his role and so looks bulkier in the scenes filmed by Lester.  Kidder, on the other hand, grew gaunter between 1977 and 1979, and this is reflected on screen as well.  Also Lester’s scenes tended towards slapstick, a markedly different tone from Donner’s.

Despite all the problems, Superman II was as big a success as the original, and few people noticed the differences.

With several hundred million dollars in their coffers as a result of the films, it came as no surprise that the Salkinds continued the franchise.  Sadly, the product deteriorated quickly from there.

Click here for The History of Superman on Film – Part II