He is the director of such beloved cinema classics as The Omen, the Lethal Weapon franchise and Inside Moves. His permanent place in the pantheon of Hollywood immortals, however, was enshrined with the release of the 1978 epic blockbuster Superman: The Movie — a film that not only made people believe a man could fly but one that ultimately became the standard by which all other movies of its kind would be measured. His name is Richard Donner, and he is truly one of Tinseltown’s good guys. Recently, Donner honored Coastal Style by taking more than an hour and a half from a very hectic schedule to discuss with associate editor Nick Brandi topics that ranged from the Bronx to Brando, from Salkind to Spielberg and from The Goonies to Gibson — basically, everything from Supes to nuts.
NB: Let’s begin by confirming some raw Donner data, shall we?
RD: Ha! Sure.
Is it true that you were born in The Bronx in 1930?
Yes, I was born in 1930, at Bronx Women’s Hospital, on 241st Street and White Plains Rd.
Tell me a little about your family.
My father, Fred, had a small frame and cabinetry factory with his brother, on 24th St. and Lexington Ave., which they eventually moved to Astoria [Queens]. My mother, Hattie, was a stay-at-home mom who raised me and my sister, Joan.
How did you get started directing?
I was working for a wonderful guy named Martin Ritt “Hud,” “Norma Rae” on a show called the Somerset Maugham TV Theatre as an actor and a seventh-assistant floor manager or something like that. One day, while we were filming, Marty called me over and told me that I was really bad at taking direction and suggested that I might be better suited to directing, since I gave it so much better than I took it [laughs]. From that day on, Marty had me work for him as an assistant director, and eventually I began directing commercial and documentaries.
You directed legend Steve McQueen, in Wanted Dead or Alive. What was he like to work with?
He didn’t really accept me as a director at first, because he had known me in New York as an actor only. It took him awhile to accept me, but once he did, I never had a problem with him again.
Now that we’ve warmed up, are you ready to take on The Man of Steel?
[Chuckles] Yes, I’m ready.
Okay, perhaps you can help me and millions of other people put something to rest once and for all about the “S” on Superman’s chest.
I’ll do my best.
A watershed moment in the character’s mythology occurred when the decision was made that the “S” didn’t stand for “Superman” anymore but instead was a kind of Kryptonian family crest; specifically, the House of El. Some say it was Marlon Brando’s idea; others claim it was in Mario Puzo’s original screenplay; still others claim it was your friend and collaborator Tom Mankiewicz, and yet others say it was your idea. If there’s anyone on the planet who can answer this definitively, it’s you. So, whose idea was it?
It was absolutely, positively and unequivocally Tom Mankiewicz’ idea – and I’ll tell you exactly how it happened. Geoffrey Unsworth, our brilliant [and two-time Academy Award-winning] cinematographer, wanted to make the white robes the Kryptonians wore pop more, to make the Kryptonian environment look more otherworldly than Earth. Geoffrey had observed that the blue-screen material we were using to shoot the scenes of Superman flying was very luminescent and essentially lit up on its own. So, we cut some of the material into little pieces and glued them to the costumes, which basically created a front-projection effect for each camera, on each costume. Each camera was also equipped with a small light, which was projected through a glass box that contained what’s called “front silvered glass” and then bounced off the costumes. All the little glass beads of the blue-screen material glued to the costumes then lit up and reflected that light back to the camera, creating the glowing effect of the costumes that you see onscreen.
Wow, that sounds really intricate and complicated.
Well, it was. Geoffrey was such a genius. No one had ever really tried this stuff before, so practically everything we were doing at the time was an innovation of one kind or another. Anyway, when we screened that footage, Tom had commented that the effect was beautiful but that it also made those shots look kind of sterile, as if the Kryptonians were wearing irradiated lab coats or something. In order to give the look of those scenes more texture, he suggested that we affix the “Superman” logo to Marlon Brando’s costume, essentially making it a Kryptonian family crest or coat of arms and that each Kryptonian should have one their own on his or her garment. That’s the moment when the “S” in the diamond-shaped crest stopped being a letter of the Latin alphabet and instead became the symbol of the El family.
That’s a great story.
I agree. So, does that put the issue to rest once and for all?
Utterly. So, while we’re on the subject of Supes, what do you think of the full-length features that followed your 1978 epic?
I don’t really like to talk too much about that because I feel it’s unfair to those filmmakers to be judged in comparison to what we did a generation earlier. I think those films should be evaluated for their own merit. Having said that, I can’t say I’m a big fan overall of the very dark tone and approach that so many modern filmmakers use with subject matter like this. Let me add, however, I think the movie Bryan Singer made in 2006 [Superman Returns] was very well done.
He captured the spirit and tone of the original source material faithfully. It was rooted more to character than action and ultimately honored the rich tradition of the story.
Can you share your favorite Marlon Brando moment?
Well, Marlon was exceptionally intelligent, brilliant even. My favorite times with him were usually between shots, during setups, when we’d just sit together and he’d tell me stories either from his extensive life experience or what he liked from the many books he’d read. He was, by modern standards anyway, an extremely well-read man and a phenomenal storyteller. I know that some people say he could difficult to work with, but I loved him and thought he was just great.
Is it true that Francis Ford Coppola gave you some great advice about how to “handle” Brando?
Yes [chuckles], that’s true. Francis told me that Marlon would probably try to get out of having to actually show up on the set to act his part because Marlon had a notorious reputation for being lazy as an actor. Francis said that if Marlon tried to pull that with me on “Superman,” I should just stay quiet and listen patiently because if I let him prattle on, he would eventually talk himself out of it on his own.
And was Coppola right?
He was 100% right. When we met to discuss the script and character, Marlon tried to convince me that, being from another plant, Jor-El could be a bagel for all anybody knew, because who really knew what a Kryptonian looked like anyway? Because of this, he rationalized, he didn’t actually need to be on the set in order to act the part. Well, we listened, patiently, and finally I said, “Ya know, Marlon, there’s not a kid from six to my age who doesn’t know what Jor-El looks like; the comic book has been around since 1938. To that, he said, “I talk too much, don’t I?” I said, “Well, you can continue if you want,” to which he replied, “No, that’s okay. I already talked myself into what you’re here for. Okay, show me what I look like.” So, I showed him, and from then on he was a complete joy.
Okay, let’s imagine that Christopher Reeve had never been born or that he decided not to audition for the role of Superman. The movie would have still been made, and there would have been an actor in the title role. In your opinion, who would have most likely wound up with the role?
I’m not going to say no one, because your assumptions are correct, but I can tell you that it definitely wouldn’t have been anyone I’d ever met.
What do you mean?
Well, you probably already know which stars were being considered for the role, right?
The list supposedly included Redford, Caan, Reynolds, Nolte, Voight, Schwarzenegger, Ryan O’Neal and many others.
Right. So, can you see any of them playing Superman?
Neither could I, and there’s no way any of them ever would have been cast as long as I was directing the picture. Don’t get me wrong: Some of those guys are phenomenal actors; I have nothing against them, but Robert Redford as Superman? C’mon. There was no established star around at the time who was right for the role, so it would have had to be another unknown, like Chris was. But none of the other unknowns were acceptable in the role, in my opinion, so that’s why I said whoever would have wound up playing the title role would have had to be someone I’d never met.
You directed The Goonies for Steven Spielberg. Was he pleasant to work for?
Let me tell you, Steven is not just a mensch [Yiddish, literally meaning “a person or man” but used idiomatically to refer to a kind, decent and reliable person], he’s a super-mensch! He is my hero and the person I want to be when I grow up!
Mighty high praise, considering he played rather a big practical joke on you.
[Laughing] That he did!
Care to share?
The last week of filming “The Goonies,” Steven had arranged for everyone in the cast and crew to be cold and distant toward me, as if they didn’t like me. Naturally I was confused, maybe even a little hurt, but we were so close to the end of principle photography that I wasn’t going to do anything whatsoever to rock the boat. What I hadn’t known was that Steven had arranged with all of them to act that way toward me so that I would be totally surprised when they all were waiting for me at my home in Hawaii for the surprise party that Steven had thrown.
Great story. Sorry for the abrupt gear shift, Mr. Donner…
Thank you, Dick. But I’d like to turn to a less lighthearted subject, if that’s okay.
That’s fine. Go ahead.
You’ve made six movies with Mel Gibson, so when you consider how much time it takes to accomplish that, it seems fair that there aren’t too many people who know him better than you do.
I’d say I agree with that.
I’m wondering, then, if you were surprised by stories like the tapes and the DUI arrest, which depicted him in a very unflattering light, and if you have ever felt conflicted, emotionally, because of your well-documented friendship with him in light of those stories?
Allow me to gather my thoughts on that… Okay, the fact is, Mel Gibson is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to meet and work with, and I adore him unequivocally. All that other crap occurred while he was drinking, which is not the Mel I know. Do you know anything about his background and childhood?
Actually, I can’t say that I do.
Well, if you did, you might not be too surprised that he wound up with an alcohol problem. But the fact is, he is extremely kind, sweet, generous and enormously talented. I know that sometimes in Hollywood there is a tendency to overlook some bad behavior because of a particular artist’s talent and/or body of work, but that’s not what I’m doing here. I’m saying that the bad stuff we’ve all heard about is not Mel and that the real Mel is an amazing human being who I am proud to call my friend. Incidentally, do you really think that six-foot-four-inch Danny Glover — who is also an avid civil-rights spokesman — would have tolerated and made four pictures with some belligerent racist and bigot? Because let me assure you, he wouldn’t, and Danny loves him, too. I just wish I had the power to get the word out that both the man and the issue have been misunderstood and that Mel Gibson is a wonderful human being; we need many more like him. It is a heartbreaking injustice that he is perceived that way he is by so many these days. It’s just not the truth.
On to lighter subjects, is there one picture you’ve made that you are most fond of or proud of?
Probably “Inside Moves.”
Because I’m most often associated with blockbusters, but “Inside Moves” is a small, intimate, character-driven film… sensitive and poignant, and I’m very proud of how it turned out.
IMDB says you haven’t directed since 2006. Are we likely ever to see you in the director’s chair again?
I don’t know. I’m really having too good a time getting up at a normal hour, having breakfast at my own kitchen table, catching up on my reading, working for human rights and animal rights, traveling and spending time with my wonderful wife.
That would be Lauren Shuler Donner.
Indeed it is! She has made me the luckiest man in the world.
So, considering how content you currently are with your personal life, what would it take to put you back behind the camera?
Offhand, there’s not much I can think of… except one thing. If someone came to me and said, “We’re ready to make Lethal Weapon 5, and Mel and Danny are both in,” I’d have my ass to the studio faster than Superman can fly!
Well, how’s that for a perfect ending to an amazing interview?
Sounds pretty good to me!
Thank you, Dick, so much for your time and for your candor and for the indelible mark you’ve made on American cinema and on our hearts.
This was fun, Nick. Thank you. The next time you’re in LA, give me a call; maybe we can meet face to face.
The moment my feet hit the Tarmac at LAX, I’ll be there — faster than Superman can fly.