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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