You will Believe! The story of Superman on film


The story of the Superman: The Movie‘s production is quite the experience according to those involved. As I alluded to in my previous post, the production began picking up pace as The Godfather trilogy writer Mario Puzo was hired to draft the screenplay. Puzo’s screenplay was not just for one but two Superman movies. The producers decided to film both movies in a back to back production something which had not been done at the time but set the ball rolling on what is now a common method of production. As Puzo was drafting the script, the Salkinds negotiated a negative pickup deal with Warner Brothers which basically meant The Salkinds would finance and make the film in return for a fixed sum and the rights to the theatrical release worldwide. With the screenplay completed, The Salkinds went about finding a director. Ilya Salkinds top choice at the time was young director working on only his second studio film: Steven Spielberg. Upon presenting his choice to his father, it was rejected because Jaws had overrun on shooting and budget with also the feeling that it would bomb at the box office. He changed his mind when Jaws became a blockbuster but by then Spielberg had already committed himself to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The producers turned to British director Guy Hamilton.

Guy Hamilton was veteran of the James Bond films having directed the first four. The project suddenly got a huge boost in the casting department as The Godfather himself Marlon Brando was cast as Superman’s birth father Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Superman’s arch nemesis, the villainous Lex Luthor. Pre-production officially started in Rome with the number one task of making a man fly. They had to start within a given date as both Brando and Hackman were contracted to other projects. The production only had Brando for twelve days which he was being paid three million dollar plus a gross percentage. Robert Benton and David were hired for script rewrites. But perhaps the saving grace of the project was about to happen.

As the production was deep into the pre-production stage, a dip in the financial world made it cheaper to film the production in England. But there was one slight problem, Guy Hamilton was a tax exile and he could only spend thirty days a year there. The Salkinds were now faced with an incredible predicament but their answer laid between heaven and hell. At the time a small unknown horror film, The Omen was smashing box office records. The Salkinds immediately offered the project to director Richard Donner. Donner said that he received the phone call in an unlikely place: On the toilet at six in the morning. Once Donner came on board, he read the script and asked if it was a joke. Puzo’s final draft had a tone of campiness akin to the Batman TV show of the 60’s including a scene where Superman is flying around Metropolis looking for Lex Luthor and comes upon a bald man and where he turned around it was Telly Savalas (Star of Kojak). He says to Superman “Who loves ya Supes baby”. Donner immediately brought on his friend and James Bond writer Tom Mankiewicz.

Mankiewicz’s first act was to throw out the Puzo script saying it was it was a well-written, but still a ridiculous script. It was 550 pages. He said, “you can’t shoot this screenplay because you’ll be shooting for five years”. Donner was quoted as saying Superman was Americana and that’s something you don’t screw around with. He carried the philosophy of verisimilitude or keeping things real. So between them, basing off Puzo’s script ideas, they rewrote every word of Superman 1 and decided to cut it in half, with the second part as the planned Superman 2. Mankiewicz even conceived an idea that was written in the history of the DC comic itself. The idea was that ever every Kryptonian family would wear a crest resembling a different letter thus justifying why Superman would wear his S on his chest. Donner also decided that he could not use any of Guy Hamilton’s previous pre-production work stating that he and Guy saw the film differently from separate points of view. So after getting on the picture in June, a screenplay was generated, pre-production was completed and made a man fly. Everyone in Hollywood believed that this was going to become a failure of epic proportions but Richard Donner was about to prove everyone wrong.


Find out in Part 3 how Richard Donner found a star in the making and turned out one of the greatest comic book moves of all time.


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