A few weeks before this post has been written, on July 5th, 2021, Richard “Dick” Donner passed away. He had been the director behind very popular titles like The Omen (1976), Superman (1978), Ladyhawke (1985), the Lethal Weapon series (1987, 1989, 1992, and 1998), and The Goonies (1985).
He was a renowned Hollywood director that, despite not belonging to the all-time top list (he never reached the Olympus where filmmakers like Spielberg, Kubrick, or Ford dwell), was essential to making modern Hollywood what it is. You can not tell the tale of 70s, 80s, and 90s Hollywood without mentioning his name. At the time of this death, at 91, he was rumored to be working on a new Lethal Weapon installment. Wow.
In 2010, author James Christie published an excellent Richard Donner biography under the title You’re the Director…You Figure It Out. The Life and Films of Richard Donner.
Let me share with you a few strokes of Donner’s long and fruitful career. For the whole of it, go to the source, James Christie’s brilliant book.
On making Superman (1978)
Brando and the green suitcase
(…) Donner was shocked when, during his first in-person meeting with the famed actor, Brando laid out his interpretation of his character, Jor-El. “You know, I was thinking that maybe in space we don’t look like people”, the star proclaimed. “Maybe we look like a green suitcase or a bagel. Maybe we don’t even speak at all; we just make electronic sounds…” Those surrounding the pair nodded approvingly. Fortunately, Donner was able to dissuade Brando of his ideas before cameras rolled for the first time on both Superman and Superman II on March 24, 1977.
Donner’s fight for verosimilitude
“Dick and his whole concept of verisimilitude is largely responsible for the total success of the first film,” says David Petrou, a member of the Salkinds’ production team. “We had a story by Mario Puzo that was just ridiculous… it would have been about a four-hour movie. David and Leslie Newman were brought in, and they did a version that was like the Batman TV show. Dick brought in his friend, Tom Mankiewicz, the script doctor, and the script that you see on the screen is largely Dick and Tom’s rewrites.”
Superman II was taken away from him
Despite Superman’s amazing success, Richard Donner was fired from Superman II (which he had been partially filming at the same time as the first movie), which was given to director Richard Lester. According to Wikipedia, Lester’s
Superman II was a huge success. Production on Superman II began before Superman was completed, and had to be halted to concentrate on getting the first movie completed. After the first film was released in late 1978, the Salkinds went back into production on Superman II without informing Superman director Richard Donner and placed Lester behind the camera to complete the remaining 25 percent of the film. Although Donner had shot 75 percent, a majority of what was planned for the film, much of his footage was jettisoned or reshot during Lester’s time on the project.
In 2006 Donner had the opportunity to show his take on the film in Superman II. The Richard Donner cut.
On making Ladyhawke (1985)
Vittorio Storaro unchained
Participative management was a cornerstone of Donner’s success as a filmmaker, utilized on each and every production helmed, although on Ladyhawke the level of influence enjoyed by his cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, served to create a level of unspoken friction and resentment on the set. The highest-paid and arguably the most talented lighting cameraman of his era, Storaro was accustomed to yielding extraordinary power — the stipulations within his contractual deals ensuring him a level of almost complete creative autonomy.
Prints could not be struck without his personal signature of approval, and his handpicked, all-Italian camera crew required to answer to him, and only to him. (…) “There was a lot of politics surrounding Storaro. Unfortunately, I think the movie got a bit sidetracked because the lighting became more important than anything else. It put Dick in a very difficult position, I think, and it made it uncomfortable for a lot of the rest of us on the movie…
The unit would all be there at 7.30am on set [but] Storaro would turn up at 9.00am because he had to take [his] kids to school. Meanwhile, his crew wouldn’t put the camera on the set unless Storaro was there. He hired all his own people, he told the lab to have the takes that Dick hadn’t printed be printed because he preferred the lighting on them, all sorts of little things like that.”
Donner took a bilingual tack in attempting to control Storaro’s talkative crew. “Quiet! Quiet, goddamn it!” he pleaded, followed by “Silencio!”
Although it never developed into a serious conflict, a tangible test of strength was fought out between Donner and Storaro. It was a small tension, but a tension nonetheless, perhaps best encapsulated during the lensing of a scene in which Gaston stares lovingly at the wounded Isabeau d’Anjou.
“M-a-t-t-e-w-e,” Storaro queried of Broderick.
“When you lean over to touch her, don’t do that.”
“V-e-e-e-t-o-r-i-o,” Donner chimed in with mock Italian accent. “Yes, D-e-e-e-k?”
“When you talk to the actors without talking to me first, don’t do that.”
Last but not least, on making The Goonies (1985)
Steven Spielberg as your second unit director
The auteur mogul filmed a number of sequences for The Goonies, far more detailed footage than his billing as a second-unit director gives him credit for (even though many of them ended up on the cutting room floor), but Donner’s authority as director in chief was never a matter of dispute. Spielberg did not assume control of any directorial duties. Rather, an addled Donner had requested assistance, in order to capture the material he needed to complete the film on time after Warner Bros. unexpectedly brought forward the film’s release date by an entire month.
Farewell, Mr. Donner. Sure you’ll figure it out.
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