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.

Return To Krypton – Superman Returns Deleted Scene

Those fans that purchased the Blu-Ray Superman Anthology found this little nugget of greatness with the Superman Returns film. The deleted original opening scene where Kal-El (Superman, not Nicolas Cage’s son) is investigating the remains of the Planet Krypton.

Now I am one of those people that really loved Superman Returns, I thought it was great that it’s director, Bryan Singer, stuck to the Richard Donner film universe as his playground. Now personally I think that they should have kept this as the opening to the film.

A huge thanks to Andy Khouri over at Comics Alliance for the heads up on the video!

“Superman: The Movie” Memories

Although I don’t recall seeing “Superman: The Movie” in the theater (I was in utero at the time), I like to think that the experience planted the seed of my life-long fandom for the Last Son of Krypton. I vividly remember running around the house as a boy, wearing a bath towel for a cape and a t-shirt emblazoned with the iconic “S”-shield. I ate Superman peanut butter. I owned a die-cast Superman rocket ship with spring-loaded fists. I was at the comic book store on that fateful Wednesday afternoon in 1992 when Superman fell in battle to Doomsday; I bought two copies of that issue, one of which is still safely stored in its black polybag.

My generation of geeks largely credit the original “Star Wars” as the impetus behind their love of the fantastic. I, however, must part ways with them and point to “Superman: The Movie” as my point-of-entry into science fiction fandom. And with the new Zack Snyder “Superman” reboot in pre-production, I think it’s time to take a look back at Richard Donner’s epic and influential 1978 film.

superman the movie

Born on the planet Krypton, baby Kal-El is sent to Earth in a rocketship moments before his homeworld is destroyed by its red sun. Kal-El’s space craft crashs on a Kansas farm, and he’s discovered by the childless Jon and Martha Kent, who take him in, call him Clark and raise him as though he was their own; Clark already demonstrates incredible powers as a toddler, which he derives from our yellow sun.

Years later, Jon dies suddenly of a heart attack, and Clark is compelled to leave home by a strange crystal he finds in his rocket ship. Clark journies to the Artic, where he builds the Fortress of Solitude — a crystal palace reminiscent of his homeworld — and learns about his true origins from a holographic representation of his Kryptonian father, Jor-El.

Then Clark moves to the bustling city of Metropolis and leads a double-life, working at the Daily Planet as the bumbling and bespectacled Clark Kent as well as fighting for “truth, justice and the American way” as the gravity-defying and immeasurably powerful Superman. His heroic alter-ego brings him to the attention of the lovely Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, not to mention the self-described “greatest criminal mind of our time:” Lex Luthor.

Christopher Reeve’s inimitable performance as Clark Kent/Superman is often imitated (see Brandon Routh in “Superman Returns”), but 33 years on, it still remains *the* best cinematic representation of the character’s dual identities. There’s a marked difference in his physicality and voice, depending on when he’s Clark and when he’s Superman. He brings a lot of humor to Clark and vulnerability to Superman, which goes a long way into making the character accessable. People criticize Superman for being too perfect and difficult to relate to. But, Reeve’s approach to the character humanizes him.

Gene Hackman’s take on Lex Luthor has been criticized for being over-the-top, and yet, I find it to be a great counter-balance to Reeve’s understated Superman. Luthor is criminally brilliant. His “warped brain,” as Superman describes it, makes him more than a match for the Man of Steel. It’s Luthor who deduces Superman’s only weakness, Kryptonite, and masterminds a land grab involving two nuclear missiles. That he surrounds himself with noncompoops only serves to make him seem all the more intelligent by comparison.

Richard Donner’s direction is also noteworthy in that he tenaciously strove for “verisimilitude” during production, taking the proceedings seriously and not descending into camp. Under his guiding hand, the film spans galaxies and maintains a sense of realism despite its larger-than-life characters and comic book trappings. It doesn’t wink or pander. Unfortunately, Donner was released from his obligation to direct the first sequel during production (“Superman” and “Superman II” were shot simultaneously), and his absence can be felt in the follow-up. I count myself as a fan of “Superman II.” However, the film is tonally inconsistent.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing “Superman: The Movie” theatrically twice now at revival house screenings in Los Angeles. There’s nothing quite like John Williams’ fanfare over the opening titles, as the credits streak through the inifity of space. It’s a stirring theme that announces a film that I’ve literally been a life-long fan of.