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The Making of Superman/Superman II (1979/81)

Reviewed by Wallace Harrington ( & Joyce Kavitsky (

U.S. Video Cover When Christopher Reeve signed to play the title role in Superman, one of the most intensive talent searches in our history finally came to an end. During a two-year span, almost every star in Hollywood who remotely fit the role, was rumored to have won the honor. Until February 1977, the Salkinds and Pierre Spengler had considered Robert Redford, Paul Newman (who was offered either Superman or Lex Luthor), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, and even Ilya Salkind's wife's dentist! In all, some 30 or 40 various names were considered, mentioned, or even screen tested. Salkind, then turned to the Academy Players Directory which contained photographs and summary credits of Screen Actors Guild members where he found some notes beside a picture which had previously been pointed out to him and decided to call the young actor. He found Christopher Reeve just returning from an audition for a Woolite commercial. At Salkind's invitation Reeve flew to London for his screen test even though director Richard Donner kept insisting that the actor - twenty-four at the time - was too young. Producer Pierre Spengler's wife was sent to greet him at the airport with an immediate reaction that Reeve was perfect and told her husband without hesitation. Donner's mind, however, was not changed by Mrs. Spengler though, but by Reeve's screen test.

At the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York, Richard Donner auditioned Reeve where the casting of the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent finally came to an end. In an interview with Starlog in 1989 Donner said: "I met Christopher Reeve in New York. I had gotten a call from someone who said, 'There's a kid who's terrific. Would you like to see him?' He was about 20 or 30 pounds lighter, his hair was a sandy colour and he had dressed in the burliest clothes he could find to make him look good. I gave him my glasses to wear, and he looked so much like the part it was unbelievable. Nobody wanted to go with Chris because he was an unknown, but the idea to me was that we should go with an unknown so that you could make it believable. It ended up just that." In the 1978 book The Making of Superman by David Michael Petrou, Reeve candidly told Petrou while on the set at Pinewood studio how he prepared himself for Donner's screen test, "I treated the screen test as if it were a scene rehearsal for an acting class. And in acting class, they don't care who the hell you are! You just come in and show them your work. So I did the test for Clark Kent the way I wanted, with stammer, the slouch, mannerisms I sort of invented myself. And what I put in was accepted." According to American Cinematographer in January 1979, the news that Reeve had won the role came from a startling source. During the drive back to Heathrow Airport, the studio chauffeur casually told him, "In case you don't know it yet, you're in. You're Superman." How the driver knew was a mystery to Reeve, but Donner later explained, "There wasn't a person on the set that day who didn't know immediately he had the part." Gene Hackman, who played Lex Luthor, said this in the documentary about Reeve playing Superman: "It's a wonderfully brave thing for him to do." Christopher Reeve's thoughts from the special about playing Superman: "I think that if somebody told me that one day I would dye my hair black, and wear red boots, and play a man who flies around and lived by the north pole, I would have to say, 'O.K., that could be fun' and it was, playing Superman." In real life, according to Petrou, Reeve also candidly told him about when he found out he got the dual role: "When I got Superman, my agent couldn't believe it. As far as he was concerned, it was the biggest thing that could've happened. And my reaction, right off the bat, was, 'Yeah, fine. Now, when do I go to London? When do I start work?'"

Daily Planet staff Reeve reflects on the difficulty of playing Superman: "With Hamlet all we really know is that he dresses in black tights, talks to skulls a lot and gets depressed. But everyone has his precise idea of Superman. He's been around for forty years." In an interview with Future magazine in February 1979, it is reported that in order to remain as faithful as possible to the legend of Superman, Reeve sought the advice of the experts--the people who write the Superman stories at DC Comics in New York City and was pleasantly surprised. Reeve said: "They said to me, 'The most essential thing for you to remember about Superman is that he is an orphan--think about the vulnerability that that implies.'" Reeve also discussed Superman's well-known secret identity, Clark Kent and they were in complete agreement with his desire to create a fully formed, human character with all the problems and complexities that go along with being a human being. DC exec Sol Harrison gave him free reign: "Please do something with him. Go and flesh him out." But Reeve says that the Superman seen onscreen is "the same person everyone's seen in the magazine. I'm not going off on a tangent someplace...we're being inventive without going overboard." DC Comics obviously agreed because they had full control of the final print and did not make a single change.

Clark & Lois The film took three years to develop and more than another year to film, occupied by two complete studios in England and roamed to locations from New York to Gallup, New Mexico. Bananas Number 26 in 1979 reported that when the crew headed to New Mexico to film, technicians mistakenly thought they were finished - and they tore down all the sets! It cost more than a million dollars to build the sets for a second time. Reeve on the making of Superman: "We'd always worry in the production whether we'd succeeded in bringing Superman to life, because making people believe that a man could fly wasn't really the hardest part in making the film. We all know that Superman could leap over tall buildings, but could he leap over the generation gaps since those early Siegel and Shuster days. We all wanted to know if a man from the innocent thirties could survive in a post-Watergate seventies. Well, thanks to all of you, he's doing just fine."

The original trailer for this movie claimed, "You will believe a man can fly". And that is true. For its time, the flying effects were spectacular, and actually seemed to improve as the film moved forward. These flights were choreographed like a ballet with graceful, sweeping movements. Director Richard Donner had this to say about Reeve in June 1979 in an interview with Fantastic Films: "One of the great things is that Christopher Reeve has really brought the gift of flight to us. When that kid is up there, there ain't nobody in the world that can fly like him. By the way, somebody asked me, 'Where did you find Reeve?' And I said, 'I didn't find him, God gave him to us.' He is really unbelievable. He looks more like the comic book than the comic book, and on top of it he's probably one of the finest young actors I've ever worked with. He had to fly, and when he did, it was beautiful. He feels the flight. He's also a glider pilot. We used to talk for hours, and disscuss an attitude of flight and Chris was just brilliant. When you see this kid up there, he's flying! This fact has a tremendous amount to do with the reality of it."

Us Magazine reported on December 12, 1978 that a variety of techniques was used to give the illusion of Superman in flight, including harness and wire. In some scenes, the wires were spray-painted to match the color of the sky while the action was filmed with special lenses and filters to obscure the wire system. For other scenes, the wires had to be meticulously painted out of thousands of frames of film in the laboratory. It took three months to film a single sequence in which Superman flies Lois around Manhattan at night. Dynamite reported in 1979 that to make this scene, Reeve and Kidder were hung from a rig while a wind machine blew birds past them. The great Lois falling from the helicopter scene took six months to shoot. Reeve says in the special "I actually looked up for Lois in New York, then I caught her when I got back to London six months later." In a documentary about Donner, Reeve candidly said about how the flying was done for the movie, "The flying could not be a spur of the moment idea like 'I think I'll get up and fly away now.' It took a lot of people to make it happen. And I'm very indebted to all of them. And again, what Dick Donner was able to do was to make every one of these people on the flying team feel that they were an important part of the job. So, we had guys that ran the wires, we had guys who do, you know, mechanical arms, we had guys with special lenses, all of which had to work together. There were a lot of different ways we did the flying. Sometimes it was literally on the end of a crane out in the middle of 57th Street. Sometimes it was on the side of a studio wall in a fiberglass mold. Sometimes it was hanging on wires in front of a blue screen for days at a time looking at a playback of the scene on a TV monitor."

Chris in Luthor's Lair Bananas also reported that for Superman, Clark Kent had 25 bodysuits and six capes to change in and out of. The costumes all had different functions. Some were designed to look great while Superman stood; others were designed for sitting, leaping, flying, or coming in for a landing. The flying cape had hidden wires so that Reeve can be held up by a 100 foot crane and so that it could billow even when there was no wind. Reeve also told Dynamite about the Superman costume: "In Superman, I had 40 Superman suits. I had to change into a fresh one every time the one I was wearing got wrinkled or sweaty. After a few hours under the broiling lights on the set, Reeve would sweat heavily in the Superman costume and reveal large, rapidly spreading perspiration stains under his arms when he stretched into the flying position. The problem was easily solved when the make-up department recommended some industrial-strength antiperspirant, and added extra lining and dress shields under the arms of Reeve's costumes. Sweaty underarms weren't the only problems Reeve was having with the famous clothes. According to Petrou, the supertight red tank-suit pants he wore over the blue leotard revealed some obvious bulges-and not always in the same place. This problem was easily solved when costume designer Yvonne Blake ordered a large swimmer's cap to be worn under the pants, an idea executive producer Ilya Salkind liked because he thought it would enhance the supermacho image of Superman. Blake also told Petrou about Reeve's costume, "I read somewhere that Chris is supposed to have twenty-five different costumes and six or seven special capes-for flying, crouching, leaping, sitting, standing, whatever. Actually, the number's probably higher than that. Mainly, that's where the wardrobe expense comes in, on all the doubles and duplicates and special-effects needs." In a scene that took place in Lex Luthor's lair when Lex put the Kryptonite chain necklace around Superman's neck and pushed him into the pool, some safety measures were taken. In the water, the cape and boots became heavy and dragged Christopher Reeve under water during filming. If you look carefully at this scene, you will see a floatation device under Superman's cape which kept Reeve's head above the water.

Mario Puzo's original script called for the same actor who plays Superman to also play Jor-El. According to the note, also printed in Petrou's book, "...this will seem natural. It also gives the star a chance to come into the film right away, rather than wait till we are half an hour into the film." If this was done, the money spent on Marlon Brando could have saved. Filming the early sequences were slowed somewhat by Brando's acting method. He claimed that he was "less encumbered" when he could read the lines, rather than memorizing them. He insisted that all of his lines be written on cue cards. These card were then taped to the frame of the camera or a wheeled dolly and rolled just far enough in front of him to permit free movement. In an interview with Playgirl in January 1979, Reeve said this about working with Brando: "I hate to disillusion you, but Brando is wonderful. He's also very tired of being worshipped, and I think we got along because I didn't worship him. I've been around enough stars to know that it's not that they're stars; it's that the people put them up there. What they've got is talent; raw or polished talent. But it's the talent that sets them apart. Their perspective changes, and it has to. I was glad that I didn't feel a compulsion to worship him. "Oh gee, Mr. Brando, can I breathe the same air as you?" He would have resented me for that."

Although Puzo is credited as a screenwriter, what actually happened was that his script was almost completely revised by Tom Mankiewicz, David and Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton. Ilya Salkind explained in Petrou's book, "We then went to one of the top teams in Hollywood, Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman, writers who had several box office hits like Bonnie and Clyde and What's Up, Doc? to their credit. They basically streamlined the Puzo script and introduced new elements too. But it was still far too long. And there were certain campy features to the script that just didn't fit if we were going to play it a hundred percent straight." An example of this camp humor occurs on page 37 of the Benton-Newman screenplay. Here Otis, Lex Luthor's oafish henchman, makes his way back to Luthor's subterranean lair by seating himself on a toilet in the men's room of the Plaza Hotel, pulling the flush and then descending-toilet compartment and all-into the depths! Ironically, Puzo's story was amazingly faithful to the comics using names like Jax-Ur, Flora and so forth, but was deemed too campy. However, Puzo's name in the credits would help the project's "respectability" at a time when people in Hollywood were still scoffing at the idea of a big budget superhero movie. According to Starlog Number 20 in March 1979, Mankiewicz was solely responsible for Donner's Superman script. Donner said: "He took a great outline by Mario Puzo and a good script by Robert Benton and Leslie Newman and then created a different aura." Reeve said: "In the original script, Superman was looking for Lex Luthor when he sees a bald guy on the street. It turns out to be Telly Savales who says, 'Who loves you baby?' and gives him a lollipop. That was the kind of style that had to go. Puzo had done a beautiful job, but Mankiewicz cleaned everything up. We used his stuff as a guideline, then all of us improvised the new dialogue on the set. The writers squirmed; that's what we had to do."

The production of Superman II began with several controversies. First, Marlon Brando, who really did not want to appear in the second film, demanded the then unheard of salary of five million dollars to reprise his role as Jor-El. Considering that his on screen time was to be less than 15 minutes, the producers opted to use Suzannah York, who had portrayed Kal-El's mother, Lara, in the first film, in his stead. To retain continuity, she was referred to as the "Keeper of the Archives of Krypton". The second controversy occurred with a change in directors. Richard Donner had originally filmed Superman I and II almost concomitantly. However, Mario Puzo wanted to explore both the range of human feelings and sexuality of Superman, actually promising the press that he would insure that Superman and Lois slept together in the film. When Donner balked at this, Puzo threatened to pull out of the project and the Salkinds decided to replace Donner rather than let Puzo leave. Richard Lester was hired and essentially re-filmed all but a few scenes of the movie. The location of Donner's original movie print is unknown, and the public has never seen this version.

In several interviews regarding that version of the film, Donner said that his Lois was more intuitive than the Lester version and tried to trick Clark into revealing his identity. According to Pizzazz magazine in January 1979, one of Donner's scenes that was cut in the final edit was when Lois jumps out of a window of The Daily Planet because she suspects that Clark is really Superman. She figures that if he is, he'll figure out a way to save her and then she'll finally see him as Superman. So Lois jumps out the window and then - according to the story - Clark Kent/Superman saves her without her ever being able to see that it's him. He uses his x-ray vision to burn out the circuits in a control box so that a building canopy opens out underneath her; while she's falling, uses his breath to slow her downward flight; and uses his mind powers to get a fruit stand perfectly positioned so that when Lois bounces off the canopy she finally lands, comfortably, on a pile of fruit. This scene was filmed on 42nd Street in New York City with Ellen Bry as the stunt woman for Margot Kidder. The way the shot was done was first, they shot Margot Kidder seeming to jump out of a high window. Then Ellen Bry jumped off her scaffold. She did a flip in the air. In the meantime, a fellow stunt person had a big broomstick and poked the canopy from above, so that from the camera view below it would like Ellen was going plop! into the canopy. But in fact she never did. After her flip, she went crashing into the fruit stand. The fruit stand was made out of balsa wood, so it smashed up pretty easy. And in addition, all the watermelons and other fruit ($400 worth of fruit) had been cut up and opened, so that when Ellen came splashing into it, it helped cushion her fall. Finally, the cart itself had been padded with foam rubber and she was padded with stunt pads and didn't get hurt at all.

Filming in the Fortress of Solitude Donner is quoted in the book Men of Steel describing how different his version of Superman II would have been compared to Lester's. He is quoted saying: "My Superman II opens at the Daily Planet on the front page of a newspaper, 'Superman Saves So and So.' Lois is looking at the newspaper and her byline, and there is a photo of Superman in the newspaper, arms folded across his chest, in his typical pose. She's all elated as she's reading her byline, and then on the other side of the office, talking to Jimmy Olsen, is Clark Kent, sitting there with his arms folded in exactly the same pose. She looks at the newspaper, then at Clark and says, 'Oh my God.' She takes a pen and starts drawing, but we don't know what she's drawing. We cut back and we see that she's drawn a hat on Superman, a jacket and tie and glasses, and it's Clark Kent. Just then, Perry White calls Clark and Lois into his office and says, 'I'm sending the two of you on a honeymoon scam at Niagra Falls. You're going to pose as a married couple.' Perry leaves and she goes over to Clark, gives him a nudge and says, 'That'll be terrific, Clark. We can fly up there,' and she gives him the eye. He doesn't know what she's talking about. Then she says, 'You're Superman, aren't you?' And he tells her that that's ridiculous. So she gives him the newspaper, which he looks at and recognizes as himself. Then she says, 'Before you say anything, I'll bet my life that you're Superman.' He lowers the newspaper and sees that she's moved to an open window and onto the ledge, thirty floors up. Then she jumps out the window, and in a millennium of a second everyone freezes, he shoots through the office, because he can't change, downstairs as a blur, with every loose piece of paper being caught behind him. He appears as a blur on the street. There's an awning and he uses his vision to pop it out. Then he blows up as she's coming down, causing her to kind of float like a leaf. She hits the awning, rolls off of it and onto a fruit stand, which we established in front of the building. Then he's back upstairs in this second, looks down and calls out after her, 'Lois, are you alright? What did you do?' She looks up at him and faints deadaway. This was shot, but they chose to do that stupid opening scene with the terrorists in the Eiffel Tower."

Donner also described another scene that he filmed for the movie that Lester did not use. He said: "Another change took place at Niagra Falls. Superman saves the kid and that night in the hotel room Clark's talking to Lois, who says, 'It's amazing that Superman showed up the way he did to save that kid.' 'Yes it is, isn't it?' 'I think it's too much of a coincidence, don't you?' 'I don't know. What do you mean by that?' 'I think you're really Superman.' 'Oh, Lois, isn't that silly,' you know, typical Clark. 'We went through this before and you almost killed yourself. Thank God you hit that awning. You jeopardized your own life.' Lois says, 'This time, Clark, I'm going to jeopardize yours.' She reaches into a drawer and pulls out a gun. She says, 'Clark, I believe that you're Superman so much, that I'm going to take that chance.' 'Lois, put that gun down.... Lois, it could be loaded.' She pulls the trigger, we hear the gun go off and he stands there. Clark stands up to his full height, takes his glasses off, his chest is practically ripping through the jacket and his voice goes from Clark Kent's to Superman's. 'Lois Lane, don't you realize what a stupid thing you just did? If I had not been Superman, you would have just killed Clark Kent.' And she says, 'What? With a blank?' He falls down in his seat and moans, 'Oh my God,' looking like he's about to throw up. And that's how she found out he was Superman. It's really sickening, because all of that was shot and they just cut it out."

Mankiewicz is also quoted in Men of Steel describing this lost scene with Reeve and Brando together that was not used by Lester for the film. The scene was between Superman and his father, Jor-El and took place after Kal-El has been stripped of his powers and been beaten to a pulp and barely managed to make it back to the Fortress. He said: "We had a scene where Jor-El basically commits suicide. It's God touching the hand of Adam as Jor-El touches his son and rejuvenates him, and 'kills' himself by expelling the last of his energy. That scene was as chilling as anything you'll ever see on the screen. It was shot with Brando and was wonderful, but because they [the Salkinds] would have had to pay him money, Superman says, 'Mother, mother' as opposed to 'Father, father,' which is what he should have done and did do in the script. Brando appeared and said, 'Even though this will extinguish what is left of my life -- I warned you, I told you....' And he reached out through the void. Clark is unconscious on the ground and it's essentially God touching the hand of Adam. It's a motif I had done at the beginning when Brando sent Chris to Earth and said, 'I send them my only son.' It was God sending Christ to Earth. Brando was just wonderful."

Superman and Superman II were both intended to be one 4-hour miniseries. Superman was to have originally ended with the first rocket exploding into space and the Kryptonian villians released from the Phantom Zone creating a cliffhanger for the second film. Due to Richard Donner being taken off "II", this alternate ending became the new opening sequence for "II". Interestingly, Steven Spielberg was offered a chance to direct Superman: The Movie, but the Salkinds balked at his asking salary and wanted to wait and see how "this fish movie" that he just directed would do at the box office. After Jaws opened to monumental grosses, Spielberg was already at work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and declined.

These specials originally aired on ABC television in 1979 and 1981 as a vehicle of Warner Bros. to help promote the movies. The documentaries were hosted by Reeve and narrated by Ernie Anderson. The Making of Superman and The Making of Superman II are out of print on USA Home Video, but are very worthwhile to track down for fans of Christopher Reeve and the Superman movie series starring him.

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