Despite what Donner accurately described as a “shitty connection,” the legendary 81-year-old director phoned Movieline late last week to discuss the Blu-ray release Superman The Movie Anthology 1978-2006, Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, his own future plans behind the camera, and just when fans can expect to see that Goonies musical.
This December marks the 33rd anniversary of Superman: The Movie. This week, the film and the subsequent sequels, get released on Blu-ray. There’s another Superman reboot in the works. In 1978 did you ever imagine that Superman would still be so relevant to pop culture in 2011?
Hell no! No, no, no, no, no. I was hoping just to get a movie in the theaters and see it do well and have people enjoy and keep Superman alive. I had no idea whatsoever.
Why do you think Superman still resonates as a character today?
That’s a tough question. I just think he’s very much a personification — a memorial of — Americana. He’s something the world was brought up on, but America, specifically, was brought up on him. Because when you say, “Truth, justice, and the American way” now, that sounds so stupid; but there was a time where that really meant something, and I think that time somewhat still exists. And you’re talking to a liberal. I think he was really the living shape of that period of time. I think if he was alive and back on Earth, he would have some very interesting things to say about America today.
I ain’t getting into that! No way, baby!
Ha! Well, then back to Superman: The Movie. Nowadays there seems to be a new superhero movie in theaters every week, but back in 1978 it was an anomaly. What was the reaction you received when you told people you were directing Superman?
When I said to my friends, “I’ll see you, I’m going away for two years,” they said, “What are you doing?” (whispers) “I’m doing Superman.” They said, “What?!” I said, “I’m doing Superman. I’m going to make the film.” My friends, who were real filmmakers, said, “Wow, what a great opportunity.” The ones that really weren’t — y’know, I’m not going to knock anybody. Most of my friends said, “Go to it, what a great opportunity.” And it turned out to be just that: a great opportunity. And I’ve never heard anything but niceties from them.
It might have been a great opportunity, but then you ran into some trouble when trying to complete Superman II. That story is Hollywood lore, of course, but how does it feel to have your version of Superman II available, again, for the masses.
I made one, and I made two at the same time. We had to because, supposedly, the time wasn’t there to complete both and deliver the picture on time. I never actually thought that — I had full intentions of going back and finishing it. But when the producers felt the picture was such a success, they didn’t need me anymore, I figured well, that’s it — nobody will ever see that again. Then, a young filmmaker named Michael Thau kept pursuing the fact that there’s an audience that wants to see it. I would say, ‘You’re nuts!’ He says, ‘No, I’m telling you, there’s a fan base.’ So I said, ‘Look, Michael, if you can get it going, fine.’ And sure enough, one day he called and he said, ‘People are pressuring the studio that they want to remake it now. They want to take all your footage and release a cut of yours.’ I was thrilled! It was something that I never thought would happen, and I quite honestly owe to Michael Thau.
When you revisit your cut of Superman II on occasions like this anthology Blu-ray release, do you find things you would have liked to have done differently?
When we made Superman I and II, we put most of it away. If I had gone back — and I wanted to: there was a lot of II that was never shot by me, and there was a lot of II that I would have reshot, given the opportunity; I either shot it on the run or tried to get it in before somebody left or something happened. We were always against the clock. So when this thing came along, I was thrilled because it was pretty well patched together. But there are scenes in there that are actual screentests with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, both with each other and with other people, that are part of that film now. It’s not exactly the way you want to make a movie, but that’s the way I had to.
Obviously finding the perfect Superman is the key to making a good Superman. What was it about Christopher Reeve that stood out to you initially?
Chris came in, and we were casting in New York, and I always say the reason he got the job was that we were on the 55th floor and he flew in. But he was 25 pounds skinner than he was in the film. His hair was honey brown; he had good strong features, but he blew me away as an actor. Then I went downtown, to the Village, and saw him in a play, and I thought he was really great. He came back and we talked, and I said, ‘Look, I really respect you as an actor, and I think you’ve got a lot going for you.’ And he really was inside Superman. But I said, ‘This guy is Superman. He looks like Superman. But he’s got to be buff. He’s got to be our hero that we’ve known since the 30s.’ And he said, ‘When I decided to become an actor, I lost 25 pounds. I used to be a jock.’ So I said, ‘You’re telling me the truth.’ He said, ‘I swear to you.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna go on a limb, pal.’ And we went on a limb.
David Prowse (who played Darth Vader in Star Wars) — he came in and was Chris’ trainer. Months and months and months. Everyday you could see the difference. He built up, and he built up. He was — in his mind, as an actor — he was Superman. And then there are others out there that are and could be wonderful in the role, but to me — in my heart — there will always be one Superman. [Pauses] And I will miss him forever.
He is the person people think about when they think of Superman now. Henry Cavill certainly has a lot to live up to.
You know what, that’s very right. He’s got a lot to live up to. But he’s really qualified; as long as he has the belief in the character that is required of any good actor, he’ll bring him to life.
Which is a roundabout way of talking about the new Superman reboot. Zack Snyder is directing — as a former Superman director, what would you tell him given the opportunity?
Hey, good luck, Zack Snyder! He’s the new kid on the block, I’m the old fart. I wish him all the love and luck in the world. I do that for anyone who is making a movie. It’s such a tough process. Anybody that I know that’s making a movie, I wish them all the luck in the world.
Speaking of making movies: Your last directing credit is 16 Blocks. Are you comfortable with that being your last film? Do you want to direct again?
I want to direct again, but I only want to direct — it’s tough. I have the opportunity to direct some films on a fairly — somewhat — regular basis. But, it’s got to be something different. I can’t just go back to things that I’ve done in the past. I have a wonderful life now — if I’m going to give up those days and months, it has to be something I’m really dedicated to. I assume it will come along. [Dramatically] I assume it will come along!
One of your other beloved past projects is The Goonies. Any update on the Broadway musical adaptation that has been discussed for the past year?
We’re really trying extraordinarily hard to get it made. It’s a tough road — Broadway is another world totally — and hopefully, probably around September, we’ll be talking a lot more positively. We have Tim Long doing the book, and it’s quite good. The process on Broadway is another world. But if we’re going there with Goonies — which has such a great following, a great life — it has got to be the right thing. Hopefully we’ll be presenting it to you in the spring of the following year.
I would imagine the recent run of successful film-to-stage adaptations has made things a bit easier: The Producers, Catch Me If You Can…
Hopefully they all succeed! But if they do, it’s going to make it easier for the next one. But Goonies has an incredible following, and we must be true to it. Hopefully Broadway accepts what has worked for Goonie fans before. If they do, we’re a hit; if they don’t…