Superman II: the Richard Donner Cut & Superman-The Movie Special Edition

Michael Thau, once Richard Donner’s assistant on Goonies, was entrusted with editing Donner’s Superman II. His instruction was simple: produce a cut of the film featuring as much Donner footage as possible. Michael is no stranger to Superman; he was at the centre of much controversy surrounding the 5.1 sound mix of Superman-The Movie, back in 2001 – but that’s another topic for another time.

Anticipation before the Donner Cut was immense – some were expecting the second coming, and it was hard to manage those high expectations, because for years it had been building up to a crescendo, and for me it started in the late nineties when Jim Bowers sent me a still showing Brando and Reeve in the same shot. A year later the various television cuts surfaced on VHS, but when Capedwonder was launched, showcasing awe-inspiring photos from behind the camera, it finally proved what we had been saying for years before, that Donner shot close to 80% of the film. With all that in mind, it was difficult to quell the excitement for the Donner Cut.

If you viewed the Donner Cut as an experiment, or as a bunch of deleted sequences strung together, then it delivered in spades. But, if you burdened yourself with epic expectations that it was going to be a definitive cut, then you were sorely disappointed. I understood the fans mixed reaction to it, and the problems with it are obvious, but I think it has a few important ingredients in its favour:

A) The umbilical cord to its big brother Superman-The Movie. The tone of the film matches the first one. Everything is familiar. I really enjoyed spending time with the characters because it feels like the next day. Everything matches. In Lester’s Superman II, Lois becomes a chain smoker with an unhealthy dose of cynicism, making the viewer wonder why Superman would fancy her. The overall acting in the Donner Cut is superior in most scenes.

B) The villains are more dangerous and aggressive.

C) The cinematography and camera set-ups are absolutely wonderful, dynamic and ambitious, like in the opening scenes. A lot of time and effort was put into acquiring the best possible footage. I sensed a rhythm with the first film and there’s a general good vibe and camaraderie about it all. In the Lester version some shots were plain lazy – planting the camera with a mid-range lens, gave it a stilted and mundane feel.

D) The writing is superior. Compare the opening of the film where Perry White dishes out the Niagara Falls assignment. Tom Mankiewicz hides the exposition in a suspenseful scene – will Clark be exposed as Superman. In the Lester version, the Newmans give Lois Lane the exposition in dialogue with no under current – she walks into the hotel and says it. The story is clearer, for instance, the film hinges on the father and son relationship, and it all pays off in the Donner version.

E) Donner and Mankiewicz loved Superman. As director/writer team, they cared about every detail, for example, in Superman-The Movie, Lex’s “mind over muscle” dialogue bites him in the ass in Superman II. Superman taps his forehead when Lex Luthor figures out that Superman was safe in the chamber while the villains lost their powers. General Zod’s surprised reaction when he’s freed from the Phantom Zone is another little surprise. The Lester version is a different animal, and I admire Richard Lester’s other films, I think he’s absolutely terrific (there are some iconic and great moments in his version), but hiring an iconoclastic director after Donner to finish off the two part story was not a great decision. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his take on Superman, after all, it’s an opinion of the material, but it looks so different. Lester didn’t buy the whole myth like Donner did, and that was fine in Superman III, but not Superman II.

The Interview

I met Michael Thau in October 2006. This is our conversation.

Dharmesh: How did you begin the restoration?

Michael: We started like the first one; we brought all the footage over. We spent many man hours with three or four people down in the vaults going through negatives looking for key numbers and slates – and it took a long time because at some point the Salkinds stopped paying their storage bills so the labs stopped categorising the film, but they had some rudimentary details on where this piece of negative went, etc. It was all packed away well in metal cans and labeled and kept well, quite surprising because the entire Salkind library kept moving from facility to facility because they didn’t pay their bills. A company would hold it, say for ten years and then get rid of it by selling it to another facility.

Dharmesh: Isn’t it amazing that it survived?

Michael: Yes, considering where I found it back in 2000 when I was doing the first one. Where I found it, it wasn’t climate controlled, it wasn’t modern at all, but it was very British especially the guys who worked there.

Dharmesh: What was the quality like?

Michael: Oh, very good, little damage here and there, but not a lot.

Dharmesh: At what point did the studio say, “Michael, we wanna do this.”?

Michael: They called me first, they didn’t call Dick first.

Dharmesh: So were they gonna do it without Dick’s permission?

Michael: No, we had to make sure it was feasible, why get Donner excited about something if we couldn’t find the negative? That took a lot of money and man hours on a union lot, but the advantage of all that is that it’s handled professionally.

Dharmesh: Did you find it at Pinewood?

Michael: No, it was somewhere else. We found negatives, music elements and everything else for Superman-The Movie, Superman II, Superman III, Supergirl, Three and Four Musketeers, Prince and the Pauper, most of the Salkind library was there.

Dharmesh: So you found the footage, at what point did you have to persuade Dick?

Michael: It wasn’t a matter of persuading. At a certain point when I started finding the Brando footage and was able to put scenes together, I told him that they had hired me and wanted to do this film, do you want to look at some of the scenes I’ve cut? He was in Canada at the time doing something. Anyway, he asked me if they were treating me nice and I said ‘Yes’. The he said, “I’m really happy for you.”

At the time he was doing 16 Blocks and he didn’t have time to think about something in the past, pulling all those emotions back. He was surprised and joyous that we found so much footage.

Dharmesh: So you put something together for Dick to look at?

Michael: Not the whole film, I cut together the scenes with Brando and showed him, but before that I made him read the 1977 shooting script and then we watched the Lester cut in the cutting room to show him what we were trying to do and what was already there. And then, you know I didn’t get him very often, maybe an hour here and there whilst he was finishing off 16 Blocks. I told him that there are scenes that I didn’t want to touch because it’s Stuart’s cutting and they were really well cut, examples of this are the two diner scenes, the moon scenes [I put a different, alternate ending on the moon scene] and the Oval office interiors, which I extended in the middle [Ursa strips off a badge] no reason to cut it out.

Dharmesh: When did Tom Mankiewicz get involved?

Michael: I talked to Dick and showed him a couple of things first before getting to Tom. Tom’s never really needed to work – he plays the stocks early in the morning. In Los Angeles you get up at 6AM to do that.

Dharmesh: Was there any contact with Richard Lester?

Michael: Everyone tried to call him: Ilya tried to call him, then he got Pierre Spengler to try and call him, WB called him, WB legal called him, New Wave, who were shooting interviews in England, tried countless times, I don’t even know if he has an agent, he never responded. He hasn’t even been involved with DVD releases of his other films.

Dharmesh: He hasn’t worked in film since Return of the Musketeers. The one Pierre Spengler produced.

Michael: What happened?

Dharmesh: His friend Roy Kinnear was tragically killed on the set.

He’s refused to work with Ilya Salkind on the other DVDs. He doesn’t even want to talk to anyone. Maybe he’s sick? (Editor note: He’s happy to talk about certain films, but definitely not Superman) Dick was surprised that he was an American. Maybe he knew back then, but it’s been thirty years. They still harbour feelings, all of them, Stuart Baird, Tom Mankiewicz and Dick.

I spoke to Tom about the whole mess with Lester and he concluded that it was showbiz. Does Dick still feel that he stabbed him in the back?

Michael: Oh, yeah.

Dharmesh: I don’t see it that way, by the time Lester was confirmed as director, Dick was long gone.

Michael: I agree, I don’t think Lester stabbed him in the back. Salkinds did. He never got a call from the guy.

Dharmesh: Yeah, Lester should’ve called him before he took the reins. It’s the unwritten, gentlemanly code. Writers who are asked to re-write their colleague’s work do it all the time. It’s just a nice gesture. A lot of the issues would have gone away if Lester spoke to him – perhaps he was advised not to.

Dharmesh: Back to Superman II [Donner Cut]: how long did it take to restore the footage?

Michael: Easy answer, nine months that includes preliminary planning.

The colour transfer took about a month, the transfers came from the original negative straight to HD, it was colour timed and assembled in hi-def. We also printed a 35mm negative for the vaults so when something bigger comes out they’ll have negative as their source just like any other film now. We don’t cut the original film negative, obviously you access it but we don’t cut it, you create your version from it. The Lester negatives is still in the WB vaults, been there for the past twenty five years, they have all the YCM separations [It’s a three black and white strip which records the RED, BLUE and GREEN content. When they shine a red light through, they reproduce the film. Now they capture it all digitally] negatives and they back it up every 5 – 10 years.

Karen Rasch got a co-producer credit on this one because she did so much, very few people working on this one, really, it was me and her. Of course you have the other people working in their specialized areas whereas we had to cover the entire thing. It wasn’t putting film together; it was weaving in and out of two pictures and sound elements, etc.

Dharmesh: How challenging was the wire removal and colour correcting?

Michael: Colour correcting was just like the first film and there was not much wire removal, it’s not challenging now, it was back then.

Dharmesh: How much Donner footage is in the final cut?

Michael: About 80% not including end titles. I included the main titles as new footage because of the Oxford Scientific footage in the background and making it look like the original. I chose all the scientific footage.

Dharmesh: Did you ever think about recapping the original film and intercut it with the main titles?

Michael: No, it’s cheesy.

Dharmesh: In the Lester cut, it runs for 5 min 26 sec.

Michael: That long, huh? Too long, ours is much shorter, 2-1/2 – 3 minutes? In the original film it’s too long, it just went on and on, but they had these big stars to celebrate.

Dharmesh: Where did you use the CGI?

Michael: Right, the glass mask, main titles and end titles are computer generated. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know much of it was actually shot by Dick’s model unit. I made a point of it to Dick today, “look how good the Statue of Liberty [including explosion] and that long shot of Manhattan is, you guys did that during the shoot.”

Dharmesh: Yeah, around mid-77 October?

Michael: Yeah, somewhere around that time. It was footage intended as part of the trailer for Dick’s Superman II.

Dharmesh: When Superman is hurled into the torch, I thought you lifted footage from elsewhere?

Michael: The bit where he gets off the remnants of the torch we had to paint the torch background in, we added some smoke, etc. Then we had to somehow connect from the Statue to Manhattan, we took a flying shot and mirrored it. It was important to complete because it gave people a glimpse of what Dick’s battle would’ve been like, it would’ve been violent and he’d have destroyed all of Manhattan. We were trying to stay true to the original film. What did you think of the battle?

Dharmesh: I thought it was intense, no humour inter-cutting it.

Michael: Exactly! That’s exactly what my intention was. I’m glad that it worked.

Dharmesh: The romance subplot feels like a highlights package in the Donner Cut. It cuts away too quick.

Michael: There’s more in this version, the ending is all romance.

Dharmesh: But in the middle of the picture…

Michael: I agree with that. That was a casualty of the process. What did you think of the screen test?

Dharmesh: The Lester version plays sweeter.

Michael: Of course, it’s professionally British. Dick and Tom love that scene, that’s why they were so adamant about having it in the film. It gives her an edge.

Dharmesh: I guess it feels more like Lois from the comic book.

Michael: Why?

Dharmesh: She’s spunkier.

Michael: In the Lester version she’s more sappy.

Dharmesh: There were quite a few master shots used especially in the Daily Planet.

Michael: That’s the way Dick shot it. There wasn’t any close-ups that I didn’t use.

Dharmesh: Did you ask actors to come back and reloop?

Michael: We asked Margot and she said her voice had dropped. Terence Stamp was in England.

Dharmesh: When the Phantom Zone breaks into three, was that your idea?

Michael: We came up with that because it was interesting way to release them. It kinda timed it with the music, BAM – BAM – BAM, and the blue Vortex was interesting. Most of it was shot, why did Richard Lester need to reshoot it? What, to save money? Maybe the answer is that they wanted to get the Lester footage above 50%, I dunno.

Dharmesh: Did Dick approve it?

Michael: Yeah. When I show something on Avid, if I have an idea I put a card in there, “Phantom Zone splits into three” with the music and sound effects going. And then we show him a rough animatronic.

Michael: What did you think of the pre-title sequence?

Dharmesh: A little too long.

Michael: And?

Dharmesh: Too long. About 12 minutes. That’s too long.

Michael: Too long, that’s it?

Dharmesh: Yeah, I think we should go straight into the picture. Think about it, Joe Bloggs would watch the first film and watch the second one soon after.

Michael: Yeah, but the people who buy the Christopher Reeve box set will watch the Lester cut first.

The Donner cut is standalone; it’s a unique thing and they have to fully understand the history of it. But if you were to watch the first and then the second one, yeah you’re right, the recap isn’t needed.

Dharmesh: The scene where you use the double and the voice artist says, “Lois what have you done?” couldn’t you have used a line from another Superman film? It might not be the exact line but at least it’d sound authentic.

Michael: That’s an interesting question. When we cut the scene, that shot wasn’t in there. There was no coverage of Chris looking out of the window. And no records of anything. When I first cut it, I showed it to Karen and Dick. Dick immediately said, wait a minute you got to have Chris’s reaction. Dick thought he shot it; he even quoted the line to me instantly. I said, Dick, it’s not in the script, but he was adamant he shot it. I never found it, and I searched high and dry for it. I don’t think he shot it. He wanted that line in the film.

When we showed it at Comic Con, it got one of the biggest laughs. I tell him to this day that he was right to demand that line: “You made us go and shoot it and it gets some of the big laughs.” It allows the audience to laugh at the end of the tension sequence. I thought he would’ve shot it because in the first film when Clark jumps out the window, you know, the set’s already built might as well shoot the Superman II material. I looked for it for two months and specifically around that time period when he shot Clark jumping out of the window. He was right about the blank bullets too, even though it’s a screen test and the hair doesn’t match. It makes the film better, then again I don’t have much of a choice [laughs], no, no, it’s a great scene and I like it.

Dharmesh: Did you shoot anything in New York?

Michael: Yeah. That was all shot but they never had Lois Lane falling down the exterior of the Daily Planet – the shot of looking down the awning when she bounces off it wasn’t shot. I guess they’d have had to have the stunt woman bounce from above the camera so I shot a green screen girl falling and bouncing. The bit where she’s falling, the background was taken from the plates shot way back then where Clark jumps out of the window.

The way Dick shot the scene where Clark runs through the Planet was great, he made everyone freeze and Chris ran as fast he could and then released all the actors and the girl’s skirt flies up, etc.

Dharmesh: I loved that scene. It’s way smarter to hide all that exposition about the Niagara Falls assignment in a suspense sequence than tell it in the Lester version.

Michael: Yeah. All that’s Dick’s humour. And then we blurred and stylized Chris’s motion.

Dharmesh: Okay, where Clark runs out to the exterior shot and uses his x-ray vision that was a bit too long because passers by would notice it.

Michael: That’s the way Dick shot the scene.

Dharmesh: Yeah, but I thought you might have cut it down to a minute second.

Michael: It’s quite quick actually. Watch it again, in the movie screen time it’s nothing, you guys are picking. It’s not like he’s standing there for five seconds and burning that thing. I think it’s two seconds at most. Dick had that guy react to it, like what was that? But didn’t know where it came from. We didn’t put that boomerang sound in when the awning drops.

The scene where her face is covered in tomatoes is classic Dick Donner humour. Everyone loves that scene. It takes you right back to the first film, nothing has changed.

Dharmesh: Did you use a double?

Michael: In the Fortress of Solitude, the high wide shot where he’s standing facing Jor-El is a double. We had to re-create the crystal bank in Photoshop. It’s just a drawing. We used my hands for a couple of inserts like when he picks up the green crystal. We used different inserts like some guy’s hands reaching for the door things like that. The one thing that Dick’s particularly proud of is some of the visual effects stuff we did like in the opening Daily Planet sequence.

Dharmesh: Let’s talk about the ending.

Michael: The reasons why we ended Superman II [Donner Cut] with the time travel sequence is that Mankiewicz pointed out that Lois is kissing the wrong guy, so the magic kiss was knocked down. Then we could use all the footage which was the intent of the Donner cut to use Dick’s footage leading up to spinning the world back. He would’ve changed it if he came back to finish it.

Dharmesh: When Lois kisses Clark, they are both the same, Lois knows he is Superman.

Michael: No, but it had to make sense, she wouldn’t kiss Clark, Tom Mankiewicz pointed out instantly during the magic kiss. No one liked the idea, when it was presented; I said no, I don’t want to do that. Dick looked at it too, I mean the alternate was the magic kiss and then the White House. This is the Donner Cut, and it’s the whole point of the project.

Dharmesh: What’s been the best thing about doing this?

Michael: Seeing people getting excited about watching this.

Dharmesh: Are you expecting a backlash based on your editorial decisions?

Michael: I hope people understand. I’m not apologizing for anything we did.

Dharmesh: What was the budget?

Michael: Pretty small.

Dharmesh: Was there anything you wanted to do but couldn’t? What about villains taking over the world?

Michael: To do it right we would’ve had to license Armageddon footage. There are not many films shot in scope which feature that kind of mayhem. I explored it but at the end of the day, those same story points are made already by what was available. Like I said yesterday, convince and lobby Warner Bros. to put more money into it and they’ll do it, you guys convinced them to do this right?

Dharmesh: This is closure, I’m not revisiting it and don’t want to do anymore campaigns. Now, you do know how many people don’t like the 5.1 mix on Superman [The Movie]?

Michael: DVDfile[.com] reinforces what I’m telling you here; we had these stereo tracks and we couldn’t split apart their original mix without making everything go into mono. So we had to replace the music and the whole mix. That’s why we did every sound effect on the film. Dick wanted the sound effects in the main titles to fly around. The boomerang sound that certain fans complained about must have watch it over and over, most fans wouldn’t do that. I felt we [had] done a good job.

Dharmesh: You do know that I only watch the films once a year.

Michael: Really?

Dharmesh: Oh yeah, I want to sustain the magic and don’t want to be too familiar with it. So, every Christmas Eve I watch Superman The Movie.

Michael: Every Christmas Eve? That’s a wonderful story, I’m telling Dick tomorrow. Who do you watch it with?

Dharmesh: On my own. It’s not much fun if the people you watching with you don’t understand or can’t experience the magic. They don’t see it the way I do.

Michael: On you own? Wow. I wonder if you’ll watch the original with the old mix or the new one this Christmas Eve? I’ll call you in a couple of years to hear your verdict. [We haven’t spoken since]

Dharmesh: What was Dick’s reaction today?

Michael: Oh, he’s seen it already. We were just checking the DGA print. Everyone’s coming. I invited Joe Dante. In the theatre today, Dick was there watching it, we got to the hologram in the jail cell, minus the stupid sound effects. Them sliding against the wall and Dick was laughing and cursing simultaneously, “I could never direct something this stupid now but it makes me laugh. He was like a little kid. That humour, you know pssst pssst is priceless, Ned Beatty and Gene Hackman together are insane, unfortunately Valerie Perrine with them wasn’t as good comedy-wise as Beatty was.

Dharmesh: It’s incredible what the fanbase has achieved.

Michael: Yes, amazing, and Dick has tipped his hat many times. Think about it, it’s historical. I think it has been done with The Exorcist, where Paul Schrader was able to have his version out, it was a couple of years ago.

WB, like any corporate company, when they see a demand and they can produce it less than they are selling it for, then they’ll do it.

Thanks to Michael Thau for being a wonderful interview. We met at Musso and Frank Grill, one of the most famous restaurants in Hollywood. When I got there, Michael was already there looking for me. I was very impressed with his punctuality and he really wanted to be there. I hope we can do a follow-up piece for CapedWonder™.com.

Text and Interview are © Copyright Dharmesh Chauhan and may not be used in whole or in part without prior written permission.