Ilya Salkind is one of the men behind the Man of Steel.
As executive producer, along with his father Alexander, Salkind told fans at Wizard World Anaheim Comic Con about the making of the seminal superhero films “Superman: The Movie,” “Superman II,” “Superman III” and more.
But Salkind began by discussing the character’s most recent movie outing, Bryan Singer’s 2006 release “Superman Returns,” which both paid tribute to the 1978 original and sparked controversy for its angst-ridden treatment of the character.
“I thought ‘Returns’ was a good movie, but the problem is it was similar very much to the first film,” says Salkind. “And also the character was a little bit different. He was a little too broody. And Superman should be kind of an up character, not like Batman or Spider-Man. They’re more complicated.”
When asked how he would proceed with the franchise today, Salkind said it would be important to set it in the current day and start over. “They should literally start from scratch, forgetting the previous story.”
Salkind went into some details about Superman projects that never saw the light of day. After producing the first three Superman movies — the Salkinds leased the rights to the character to another company that made “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” — the “Supergirl” movie and the “Superboy” TV show, interest in the character was low.
“We came up with a script where we had Superman die,” he says. And of course the character would be reborn in the film too, so it was to be called “Superman Lives.”
Salkind suggested a connection between that script and the events in the comic books a few years later, where Superman was killed.
“The politics between Warners and DC and the Salkinds were very difficult because it wasn’t their idea and they were releasing the movie, so it was a very difficult situation,” he says. “They were happy with the success, but after ‘(Superman) IV,’ they would I say made it harder and harder for us to come back and make ‘(Superman) V.’”
Answering a question about merchandising related to the first Superman, Salkind says there was a lot of it, but there were some issues.
“We had tie ins with Warner Books, we had music with Warner Records and posters. We had merchandising as well,” he says. Salkind admits there could have been more for the first film, and that there were some complications because the movie versions of the characters were licensed separately from the comic book versions.
Salkind related some of the difficulties that surrounded the making of the first two Superman movies in particular, with the first film going so far over budget and over schedule that it missed its original summer 1978 release and was pushed back to Christmas.
Of the disputes with director Richard Donner, which lead to his leaving the project partway through the making of “Superman II” and being replaced by Richard Lester, Salkind had his own take on things.
“Mainly what happened is that Dick Donner started acting, after the enormous success of the first film — which took everyone by surprise — started saying he’d only do the second his way,” Salkind says. This included several unkind comments to the press, including Donner saying he would not make a sequel with producer Pierre Spengler and directly insulting the Salkinds.
Salkind said they had no choice but to replace Donner and it was not an easy decision to make. “It would have been much easier to keep Donner,” he says. “Taking another director was much more difficult than it seemed.”
The approach to the movie was to always make it believable — a goal made clear in the poster tagline of “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly” — as opposed to the overall camp of the Adam West “Batman” TV series. “The first thing I said is you have to make it real, you have to believe it, you have to laugh with them, not at them.”
Casting the role of Superman — which eventually went to unknown actor Christopher Reeve — was a long and difficult process. The main battle was over whether to cast a known star in the role, which the financial backers preferred, or an unknown.
Among the unusual candidates were Salkind’s ex-wife’s dentist, and former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner, who did a screen test. “He looked good, but he came out (looking) pretty young, like 22 or 24. Everyone’s vision of Superman is more like 29, from the comics.”
More well-known actors considered for the part included Sylvester Stallone, who Salkind says was “a little bit difficult to imagine” in the role, as well as James Caan, Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford.
“After meeting a lot of actors, such as Jon Voight, we even met Neil Diamond — don’t ask me why — I knew in my heart of hearts it had to be an unknown,” Salkind says.
It was getting established actors for the other parts that really got the movie going. Salkind says they offered the part of Superman’s father Jor-El to Paul Newman, who turned it down and regretted it after seeing how much money they ended up paying Marlon Brando to do it.
Casting Brando instantly gave the movie credibility, Salkind says, with Hackman agreeing almost immediately after the news was announced to play Lex Luthor in the film.
Salkind says Brando and Hackman were on board the film before Donner, who was chosen to replace James Bond veteran Guy Hamilton. The production had to choose between Hamilton and Brando because of issues each had in the locations of the studios that were being considered for making the film. Hamilton could not work in England because of a tax dispute and Brando could not work in Italy because a warrant had been issued for his arrest after the release of the controversial film “Last Tango in Paris,” Salkind says.
The replacement was a choice between Mark Robson, who directed the smash hit “Earthquake,” and Donner, whose film “The Omen” was really impressive, Salkind says.
Casting Reeve was a difficult process as Salkind says everyone simply thought him too skinny to play the Man of Steel. The production schedule eventually forced them to cast Reeve in the part, and it worked out better than they imagined, Salkind says.
Asked which other comic book movie he likes, Salkind says “Iron Man” and “Spider-Man” were good, as was Tim Burton’s first “Batman” film with Jack Nicholson playing the Joker. He also really likes the new Batman films, especially “The Dark Knight,” and is pleased to hear that its director, Christopher Nolan, may play a part in future Superman films because he brings to projects the passion you need to make a good movie.
“When you have producers, directors or actors who are not really excited about a project, it shows,” he says. “Something is missing on the film.”
Asked about any lost material, Salkind says he can’t think of any. “I think it’s all out there, but then every three weeks someone finds something new,” he says.”