The Budget For Richard Donner’s Superman Was A Constant Point Of Contention

After a decade-plus run as one of Hollywood's premiere television directors (on shows as diverse as "The Twilight Show," "Kojak" and "The Banana Splits Adventure Hour"), Richard Donner successfully transitioned to filmmaking via the blockbuster horror classic "The Omen." Though he was much older than the industry's hottest helmers of big-budget entertainment (e.g. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola), his reputation for knocking out high-quality TV on a tight schedule made him something of a safer bet than his young, boundary-pushing colleagues. He was also well-liked by his crews and a first-rate massager of movie star egos. He was basically a producer's dream.

So why did the production of 1978's "Superman" turn into such a nightmare? Four words: Alexander and Ilya Salkind.

The father-son producer duo had scored a major success with 1973's "The Three Musketeers," but quickly drew the ire of Hollywood's creative unions when they released "The Four Musketeers," a sequel comprised of footage from the initial production, the following year. While multiple lawsuits were filed, the Screen Actors Guild enacted the Salkind Clause, which stipulates that performers are contracted for one film only.

The Salkinds had access to loads of money (one associate claimed "He knew every banker in Europe"), but were suspiciously opaque when it came to disclosing how this money was spent. Heading into the production of "Superman," which was the most expensive movie ever made at that point in film history, their evasiveness would prove a source of extreme aggravation for Donner.

The Salkinds Left Donner In The Dark

The Salkinds decided ahead of time to shoot "Superman" and "Superman II" back-to-back, which resulted in the assemblage of a 550-page script. Going by the minute-per-page rule, this would've been enough for four movies, so Donner brought Tom Mankiewicz on to pare down this draft.

Forced to complete two films at once, Donner worked out of sequence, shooting much of "Superman II" before completing everything he needed for the first movie. Given the pioneering visual F/X being developed for Superman's flying sequences, Donner needed to know how much money was being spent at all times, if only to make informed decisions on where he should concentrate his efforts.

In a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Donner revealed that the Salkinds stonewalled him every step of the way.

"They never ever told me what the budget was. I had no idea what I was spending. I was making a movie and they wouldn't tell me the budget. So there was no way I knew what I was spending. Sometimes I'd authorize something and nothing would be there; they would just arbitrarily cancel it. They didn't want anyone to know where that money went, I guess."

How The Salkinds Ultimately Grounded Superman

The acrimony gradually escalated to outright contempt. Though 75 percent of "Superman II" was in the can prior to the release of "Superman" in 1978, Donner informed the Salkinds that he would not return unless he had complete creative control. He also wanted producer Pierre Spengler removed from the project. According to Larry Tye's "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," Ilya Salkind would not accede to Donner's demands. "Spengler was my friend since childhood and my father and I were very loyal guys," said the producer. "We said no, and it really boiled down to that."

It was at this point that Richard Lester — who'd directed "The Three Musketeers" for the Salkinds and was still attempting to recoup money they owed him for the unauthorized sequel — stepped in for Donner. The theatrical version of "Superman II" was choppily edited (due largely to Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman refusing to return to shoot their remaining scenes) and more comedic in tone. Donner was finally able to complete his version of "Superman II" in 2006, but it's nowhere near as satisfying as the first installment.

Despite the behind-the-scenes rancor, 1978's "Superman" is still one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. With the winning combination of Donner, Christopher Reeve and John Williams in place, there should've been at least two terrific sequels. Instead, the Salkinds played it cheap and sly, leaving moviegoers wondering what might've been if they'd worked with their talent instead of against them.

Read this next: Every DC Movie Made Prior To The DCEU Ranked From Worst To Best

The post The Budget For Richard Donner's Superman Was a Constant Point of Contention appeared first on /Film.

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