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A Whole New ‘Superman II’ on DVD: The Sequel Soars Even Higher

In 1978, director Richard Donner made audiences believe a man could fly when he helmed the original Superman film starring the late Christopher Reeve, a blockbuster hit that went on to become a classic that proved superheroes could be taken seriously on the big screen. But Donner never got to take the Man of Steel to the even greater heights he had planned for the sequel.

Even though he had shot nearly three-quarters of the planned second film concurrently with the first entry (a practice that was rare then, but commonplace now for planned movie franchises) Donner was fired before he could complete it after some knockout fights with the producers that made Superman’s battle with General Zod pale in comparison.

Director Richard Lester stepped in to not only replace him, but also shoot a wealth of new material to replace much of Donner’s footage—including 15 minutes of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El—in order to ensure he got full directorial credit. Though the restructured film was well-received, it lacked much of the heart, charm and epic feel of the original.

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But you can’t keep a good guy down, and Donner—who went on to direct such hits as The Goonies, Radio Flyer and the Lethal Weapon films—is finally getting to see a slightly rough but compelling version of the movie he first envisioned now that Warner Bros. has found the long-lost footage and restored it in the new DVD Superman II: The Donner Cut, which features a stronger love story, a more intense performance by Christopher Reeve and some very moving moments between Superman and his long-dead father.

“I think that this is so much better than the Superman II that they put out,” said Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the original films. “It’s night and day.” Hollywood.com got the dirt on the differences during a panel discussion with Donner and several members of the original team behind the sequel.

Director Richard Donner on what led to his departure from Superman II:
“I didn’t get along with the producers at all and I kind of banned them from the set. They were counterproductive in my mind. They were saving a dollar and losing good material. So it just didn’t work out, but…when Warner Brothers got onboard and between us we kind of ended up producing the film ourselves just to get it done. If the picture had been a failure they would’ve made me come back, but since it was a success they decided that they could do without me. It wasn’t money, because I had been paid for the whole job. It’s show biz.”

Margot Kidder on her reaction to Donner’s firing:
“When they fired him, somehow I got put in the position of giving an interview to a magazine and it had a picture of Christopher on the front [captioned] “I’ll see my lawyer.” I believe that I was so angry and bitter and I said that the producers were beneath contempt as human beings, which they printed. So I had twelve lines in Superman III and one of them was “Oh, Clark.” But who’s counting?…They threw out most of our scenes and rewrote them not nearly with the panache that Tom [Mankiewicz] gave us and re-shot them. And Chris and I were really angry. He was a lot more politic and clever about the way he dealt with it than I was, but we were both really pissed off, and you can see it. You can tell. You can feel that. It comes off the screen.

Editor Michael Thau on hunting down and assembling the unused Donner footage:
“No one had really any idea of what Dick had shot or what was there to get out of the vaults, so we did an exploratory thing about seeing what we could find. Fairly quickly I figured out what Dick had shot and what Dick hadn’t shot. It was great and it was a lot, but we didn’t know if we could actually find the negative to put it together. Slowly but surely I did the Brando scenes. Those were the most important ones for everyone. Dick was doing 16 Blocks at the time, and I was always trying to lure him in there: ‘Dick, here’s a piece of candy. Come into the cutting room and look at this.’ We started slowly building his cut based on Tom’s shooting script. It took a long time to dig out the pieces of negative from the six tons of film that we brought over from England just last November, but none of it was destroyed. It was just heartbreaking when we couldn’t find a scene that Dick didn’t shoot because he never got around to it.”

Kidder on the difference between the Donner and Lester versions:
“There are just a few shots that Lester shot that I’m in, but you can feel the difference in the energy. There was a cynicism and a glibness…I think that Richard Lester is a good director, but not for this material at all. There was a hip and glib feeling, and a refusal to kind of get into it and believe it the way that we did on Donner when he was in charge. There’s a lot of love that’s missing, frankly. I know that sounds really corny, but I’m an old ex-hippie and I can say that. Really, you feel the absence of the warmth in the Lester version. This is the real Superman II. The other one is different.”

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Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz on how Donner’s enthusiasm persuaded him to come on board:
“I didn’t want to do the picture and I came over to his house and he was dressed in the Superman suit. He was on the lawn. He said, ‘Just try the suit on and you’ll do it.’ I swear to God. The thing that made me want to do it was when he said ‘The first thing is if we can make the love story work, if the audience can root for these two kids. I know you can write the Lex Luthor stuff, but if we can make that work we’ve got a picture.’ He made me believe and everyone else believe and this is a tribute to this man.”

Donner on Christopher Reeve, whose screen test footage is seen in a key scene the new DVD that was never formally shot for the sequel:
“When we knew we were going to hire him, I had brought in a young lady that we had used in The Omen, Holly Palance–Jack Palance’s daughter. I asked her to do me a favor. I said, ‘I need you to do a screen test with Chris.’ Chris came over from New York and he was skinny, 30-some odd pounds lighter and his hair was relatively short. We blackened it with shoe polish and we shot his screen test and you knew instantly that it was going to be Chris. Then well over three months later, after Chris worked out every single day and drank protein drinks until he almost drowned, and the guy who played Darth Vader, David Prowse, worked with Chris every single day and built him up.”

Kidder on her own screen test with Reeve, which is also used in the DVD:
“Oh, he was skinny when I did my screen test. He was still a little dork. He was skinny-skinny. I remember going ‘Uh huh. This isn’t going to work’…The worst was when we were strapped, hanging from the ceiling for months on end which was very painful and Chris and I would be bickering away because it’s just a strain on a relationship to be strapped and hanging from a ceiling for fourteen hours a day. So I would have these books hidden down my front, and Chris would go, ‘What’s a matter with you? Don’t you stay in character?’ I said, ‘Oh, Chris. I’ve been f***ing Lois Lane for a year. All we do is look left. I can handle it!’ He never left character.

Sarah Douglas, who plays the villainous Ursa, on getting the part:
“Eight times Dick cancelled on me. I got more and more pissed off about this: ‘Who do you think that you are?’ The final time I’d been waiting like a half hour and I got very angry and I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ At this final interview, again, Dick came in late and I remember sort of having attitude and mouthing off a little bit, but presumably I gave the right impression, I guess. When it got down to a few actresses I was asked to come in for a flying test to see whether I could cope with the height. We would go in and they would put these wires on us and we’d jump from a window sill. I had my black leotard on, and my hair straight back and I was all ready for action you see. I believe the girl in front of me was an Italian actress who I know arrived in a fur coat and all I know is that she did her test and then I came along and did my flying, and as I flew one of the crew below shouted up to me, ‘Eh, darling. You’ve got no chance. The last bird flew without any knickers on.’”

Mankiewicz on the occasional doubts that struck the creative team in the midst of making a classic:
“Dick had a driver. It was two and a half months before we were going to shoot. We had a start date with Gene Hackman and Brando. No Superman. No Lois. No sets. It was very late at the studio and Dick and I were talking about all kinds of things, and in those days Dick had had a few joints and I’d had maybe a half bottle of Jack Daniels. We’re driving through London and driving in silence and I’ll never forget this. Dick said to me something like, ‘Penny for your thoughts.’ I said, ‘I’m thinking that we made be presiding over the greatest financial disaster in the history of film.’ So we dropped Dick off at his house, and as I get out of the car, staggering out of the car in front of the hotel, I turned to the driver and I said, ‘Brian, would you give the two people who were just in the backseat of your car tens of millions of dollars just to make your movies?’ He said, ‘No, sir. No, I wouldn’t.’ I called Dick and I said, ‘Even Brian wouldn’t give us that money!'”

Kidder on finally seeing the DVD approximation of Donner’s vision of the film:
“For Chris’ sake I’m so happy that this movie is out there finally because Chris is two notches up from where they let him be in the Superman II that got released. This is fabulous a thing left of Chris’. I’m so excited by this that I can’t tell you. I’m just so thrilled that it got put together and so thrilled. It feels to me like it’s another classic. You did great, Dick.”

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