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A Donner Party

3 Nov, 2006 By: John Latchem


Two versions of Superman II hit DVD Nov. 28.


The next great geek debate is about to begin.

The cast and crew of Superman II gathered at the Directors Guild of America building in Hollywood Nov. 2 for the world premiere of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. The new cut of the 1980 film incorporates unused footage shot by Donner before he left the production, presenting an alternate version of a movie beloved by many Superman fans that is sure to set off heated discussions when Warner Home Video releases the DVD Nov. 28.

“I think this is such a better version of Superman II,” said actress Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane. “It's night and day.”

Those differences were the focus of a panel discussion involving Kidder, director Donner, writer Tom Mankiewicz, editor Michael Thau, and actors Marc McClure (Jimmy Olson), Sarah Douglas (Ursa) and Jack O'Halloran (Non). All praised the film's Superman, the late Christopher Reeve.

Ilya Salkind, who served as executive producer on the first three “Superman” films, was not part of the panel (and curiously was not mentioned at all by any of the panelists), although he was in attendance at the screening. Salkind and producer Pierre Spengler provide commentary on the upcoming special-edition DVD for the theatrical version of Superman II, also due Nov. 28.

As originally conceived, the first two “Superman” films told a single story, based on Godfather scribe Mario Puzo's script, which had been rewritten by Mankiewicz, who was given a creative-consultant credit. The first two films were shot concurrently, and Donner had 70% of Superman II in the can when the first movie hit theaters in 1978.

“I didn't get along with the producers at all,” Donner said. “I banned them from the set. I had been paid for the whole job, so it didn't make any difference to me. I always say if the picture had been a failure, they would have brought me back to finish the second one. But it was a success, so they fired me.”

Salkind paints a different picture. “If the first movie had been a failure, there wouldn't have been a second one,” he said. He and Spengler in their commentary recount Donner being invited back to finish Superman II. When Donner demanded total control over the film — including the removal of Spengler — Salkind and his father, executive producer Alexander Salkind, let Donner go.

After Donner left the production, director Richard Lester re-shot much of the footage so as to claim more than 50% of the picture, per DGA rules.

“They threw out most of our scenes and rewrote them, but without the panache Mank had written,” Kidder said. “Chris and I were really pissed off. He was a little more political about it.”

Kidder described an interview she gave to Time Out magazine in which she described her feelings about Donner leaving.

“I said the producers were beneath contempt, which they printed,” Kidder said. “I ended up having 12 lines in Superman III.”

Much of the unused footage from the theatrical Superman II has been floating around for years, appearing in a number of television cuts of the film, especially in Europe, and online. The Mankiewicz script also has circulated among fans, who for years have attempted to piece together an unofficial Donner cut as an experiment to see the movie as it might have been.

Thau, after working with Donner on a director's cut of the original Superman for DVD in 2001, took on the task of creating the definitive Donner cut of Superman II.

“No one knew what Dick had shot that was still in the vault,” Thau said. “So we did some digging. It took a long time to look though the six tons of material we brought back from England. We started slowly building this cut based on Tom's original shooting script.”

The basic plot structure of the two versions is relatively the same. The Donner cut restores scenes shot by Marlon Brando as Superman's Kryptonian father, Jor-El, which were cut from the theatrical version after a contract dispute. His lines were re-shot with actress Susannah York as Superman's mother.

“It was a story of a father and a son, and it became the story of a mother and a son,” Donner said.

“It didn't make any sense,” Mankiewicz said.

To Salkind, the switch was easy to justify because the story of the second film focused more on the love story between Lois and Clark, which made the mother a natural fit.

Salkind said that while he enjoyed the new cut, many of the new scenes were takes the filmmakers never intended to use when the film was being shot.

He agreed there was just something about Reeve that made him the perfect Superman, and praised Donner's direction on the first film, saying it wouldn't have been a success without him. But, Salkind took exception to the idea that the best footage wasn't used the first time around, a few slapstick jokes aside.

“We were constantly re-writing the film, even then,” said Salkind, who argues the humor in Superman II is consistent with the last third of the original movie.

Ironically, Donner was not the first choice to direct the original Superman. Guy Hamilton, a stalwart of the “James Bond” films and the director of Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever, had been tapped for the job, but had to drop out because of tax reasons.

Looking back, Mankiewicz said Hamilton, with whom he had worked on four “Bond” pictures, had a cynicism that made him less than ideal for directing Superman. Mankiewicz and Kidder both criticized Lester for having that same cynicism and injecting it into the movie.

“Richard Lester was not the right director for this material at all,” Kidder said. “There's a lot of love that's missing. I think there's a warmth in this new version.”

“The only way to direct these films is to get inside the material,” Mankiewicz said. “[Donner and I] each had a sign in our office that said ‘Verisimilitude.' We had to do this as if it were real.”

That's why the first line in the original film (after the prologue) is Brando stating “This is no fantasy.”

“We have I guy with an ‘S' on his chest, so of course it's not real,” Mankiewicz said. “But we wrote it as real.”

Donner praised Mankiewicz's efforts to ground the screenplay in a real-world setting, saying the original script for the two films, at 500 pages, had a lot of “tasteless” jokes in it.

“In one scene, Superman was looking for Lex Luthor, and he's flying over Metropolis, and he sees a bald guy and flies down and taps him on the shoulder,” Donner said. “And it's Telly Savalas, and he turns and says, ‘Who loves you baby!' like he was Kojak!”

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