My Conversation with Richard Donner

A former family friend friend works in the publicity department of a major film studio, so we used to get invited to a lot of industry/press screenings and film opening events. In the fall of 2003, I was lucky enough to have been invited to a screening of the movie “Timeline,” directed by one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, Richard Donner.

For the uninitiated, Donner is the director of iconic films such as “The Omen,” “Superman,” “The Goonies” and all four of the “Lethal Weapon” movies. He’s also and old-school television director with shows like “Kojak,” “Perry Mason,” “The Man FROM U.N.C.L.E.” and, most importantly (in my humble opinion) “The Twilight Zone.”

No promise was made to me that I would be able to do anything more than shake hands with Mr. Donner and say “nice movie,” at the end of the “Timeline” screening.

I had a litany of questions at the ready, just the same. My voracious appetite for watching films was starting to get competition from the hunger for reading about films. I’d always especially loved reading books on directors ever since picking up a dog-eared copy of Hitchcock/Truffaut in junior high school.

Before becoming a director himself, Truffaut was first a writer—then the editor—of the venerable French film magazine Cahiers du cinema.
The month before the screening, I had devoured the Cameron Crowe book Conversations with Wilder, wherein Crowe (another writer-before-director [the film “Almost Famous” is a loose adaptation of his teenage years writing on the ’70s rock music scene for Rolling Stone]) did an extensive set of interviews with Billy Wilder, director of classic films such as “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Sabrina,” and “Sunset Boulevard,” to name a few.

Back to the list. There were important things I needed to ask and tell Mr. Donner:

• The 1978 film “Superman” was my first midnight movie, and a great experience for a 6-year-old to become even more nuts about comic book heroes on the screen.

Moreover, the John Williams “Superman” score is much more exciting and visceral than any the “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” scores. So there, Lucas.

• Donner was the first westerner to direct Jet Li (in “Lethal Weapon 4”)—ostensibly the largest action film star in all of Asia—easily the equivalent of Mel Gibson in that part of the world. What was it like to work with Li? And how in the hell did Donner convince Li, who was always the hero in Chinese-language film, to be the villain in an American-made action movie?

The screening ended, and Donner stood up and offered a brief, “thank you for watching my movie,” and he and his wife Lauren (Schuler-Donner—producer of all of the “X-Men” films) whisked away to the reception area by handlers. Well, there goes my chance. I went into the reception with the friend who was my “plus-one” and began to enjoy some hors d’oeuvres and free-flowing wine, courtesy of the studio.

What I did not expect, five minutes later, is to have Mr. Donner escorted over to my table by my Paramount friend, nor did I expect to hear the words, “Dick, this is Mike Frandy. He’s a big fan of your work, and really wanted to meet you.” Oh hell…I momentarily froze.

[Internal Dialogue (ID): Do something, idiot! Brain to mouth. Come in!]
Um, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Donner.

He smiled and gave me a very firm handshake, and said, “Call me Dick.” [ID: Gulp! No way. This is not happening.]

Pleasure to meet you…Dick. And I got exactly zero-point-zero of my questions or comments conveyed to him.

I complimented Timeline (ultimately, not a great movie, but fun Saturday afternoon/popcorn fare).I told him that the medieval action parts of the story reminded me a lot of the action and pacing in the ’30s Errol Flynn movie “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

Dick stated, “I was a huge fan of that movie, and it’s always been an influence in how I make movies.”

[ID: SCORE! One for Frandy. Whew.] I also stated that the fight choreography—especially the swordplay—was reminiscent of Coppola’s “Dracula.”

[ID: Uh-oh. Mentioned another guy’s movie. A contemporary. You jackass.] “I LOVED that movie. Francis did a really great job with that story.”

[ID: Oh my goodness—Dick’s still smiling. You didn’t screw up that badly. Keep going.]

I then asked Dick if he knew and/or was friends with the late director Boris Sagal—who also was in Rod Serling’s stable of directors for episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and the director of one of my absolute favorite movies, 1971’s Charlton Heston post-apocalyptic zombie film “The Omega Man.”

Dick’s face lit up, and he said, “Oh yes—I knew Boris very well.
He was a real sweetheart of a guy. His family came over from Ukraine, and his brother was an opera singer and a circus clown. Tragic how he died.”

True. (Sagal, also the father of Katy Sagal [she played Peg in the ’80/90s sitcom from “Married With Children”] was killed in a freak accident during production of the made-for-TV movie “World War III,” when he was nearly decapitated after walking into the tail rotor blades of a helicopter.)

For the entire duration of my chat with Donner, I was getting bewildered (read: “WTF”) stares from a buddy of mine (a film critic for a local NYC radio station)—who desperately wanted some face time with Dick—and was baffled by my luck as a non-industry person to have this one-one-one time.

I then said to Dick that as much of a great time I was having chatting with him, it appeared that there were a multitude of legitimate press people with whom he probably need to speak.

Coincidentally, the friend who arranged the whole meeting was approaching us to have Dick break away to deal with the press. I told him that it was a great pleasure to have met him and that I genuinely appreciated his taking time to speak with me. “It was great chatting with you, too. The pleasure’s all mine.”

He shook my hand again, smiled, and was taken out onto the floor to speak to the waiting press.

He couldn’t have been more wrong—the pleasure was, most assuredly mine. We talked about nothing I had set out to talk about, yet it was one of the best conversations of my life.

Uncle Maffy

I work in branding...but I live in nostalgia. Lover of old video game systems, comic books and my lovely wife and two daughters. Not in that order, of course.

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15 thoughts on “My Conversation with Richard Donner

  1. I have had the opportunity to meet a couple of people I wanted to talk to and without fail I have flubbed and stumbled my way through an awkward conversation that they could not wait to get out of. Smart you went with the flow.

  2. That story kicks ass. I’m fortunate to have had many instances like this although perhaps not on the level of a famous movie director but definitely a bunch of rock stars past and present and Chuck Woolery. So I can totally get on board as to why that was one of the best conversations of your life. It’s one of those times when you completely forget everything you ever knew about anything and just work off the cuff. It pisses me off sometimes because if I meet someone who is famous there’s usually something I’d like to ask them…unless they are acting like pompous D-bags which happens often! lol

  3. Retroist: I’ve botched a handful of conversations with folks I’d been waiting a long time to meet–just got lucky with the Donner incident. And, yeah–going with the flow saved my bacon.

    TSA: Thanks! Chuck Woolery and Judge Wapner were guests at the NAPTE cocktail reception at the SF Warner Bros Studio Store in 1992 (where I worked at the time). CW was a hell of a nice dude. Good to all of us lowly shirt folders/register monkeys. As for the pompous D-bag angle–I have had a few. James Hong is a real so-and-so, IMHO. A story for another day…

  4. I got a chance to talk to Lauren on the phone when I submitted my book to the Donner’s Company for possible film/TV option. It was really great to hear her voice over the phone; especially since I had been reading interviews with her since the Ladyhawke press junket. Hope to get to meet her and Dick, someday. Superman is my fav movie, and she’s one of the best producers in Hollywood.

  5. Wow, that is awesome. I love Dick – he’s a super cool guy and a lot of fun to work with. I have a very good friend who is a producer at Donner’s Company and we took out a show with Dick and Lauren. Ultimately, we didn’t sell it, but pitching with them was a real treat. Dick liked to call me “kid” a lot. I thought that was pretty sweet.

    I’m going to send them this post.

  6. James: I’m glad you had a positive interaction on your call with Lauren. I hear nothing but great things from industry people about her.

    Patrick: Thanks for offering to send the Donners this post. That’s mighty neighborly of you!

  7. Okay, ‘yall…JAMES HONG. Back in the mid-’90s, I was a regular attendee of WonderCon (which had its roots as Oakland, CA’s [my hometown] own comics convention). A buddy of mine–who happens to be a Chinese-American fellow–got Hong’s autograph in a sketchbook. When I came to his table to ask for his autograph (respectfully, mind you), he waved his hand over glossy photos on the table, and snarkily INSISTED that he signs nothing for free. Never has. He was basically a real d-bag about the whole thing, and kind of ruined my estimation of him.

  8. Homie says:

    James Hong! I remember that incident at WonderCon (I’m the Chinese-American buddy)! James Hong signed my sketchbook without asking me to pay for it. But when my “gwai-lo” friend asks for his autograph he asks for $5. Too funny.

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