Superman II was only the third movie I ever went to see in the cinema. The first was Star Wars. I was three years old and fell asleep. The second was a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The third was this movie, in a theater in Birmingham, England of all places. While Star Wars would eventually grow from that sleepy start to being my all consuming childhood passion, Superman was never far behind, at least in cinematic form.
It was only many years later that I discovered the story of the chaos behind the scenes, of a sacked director and a disgruntled cast. Richard Donner replaced by Richard Lester. A completely new opening scene. A major Hollywood star, in the form of Gene Hackman, refusing point blank to return for reshoots. Amazingly, practically none of it shows in the screen in the much loved sequel.
And now it is 40 years old. How did I get so old? I swear yesterday I was about 21 with not a care in the world. Time… it sneaks up on you!
Talking to Steve O’Brien at Yahoo Movies to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the superhero sequel, cast member Sarah Douglas spilled the beans on a lot of back stage turmoil. She played villainess Ursa alongside Jack O’Halloran as hulking Non and Terence Stamp as General Zod.
Both Superman and Superman II were being made together, but work on Superman II was paused with around 70% shot to allow focus on Superman. During that period, with Superman in the can, Richard Donner was fired. When the cast returned in September 1979 it was all change. Sarah tells the story:
“I didn’t understand it when I came back and suddenly it wasn’t Richard Donner, it was Richard Lester, It was very strange.
Because I was English, and because it was shot in England, all the Americans, well they were on location, so they all went home in the evenings to their respective hotels and they all hung out with Donner. I just went home to Shepherd’s Bush and so I didn’t socialise in the way they all did. They were all very aware of what was going on, but I can honestly say I was completely oblivious.”
One thing frequently rumored was that the producers were borderline con-artists, interested in a quick buck rather than any creative endeavor. Douglas also talks about this:
“I didn’t have much interaction with them, I found them all a little bit intimidating. There were all sorts of stories that were running around, though. You’d hear about Jack O’Halloran getting hold of Pierre Spengler and threatening him because of money not coming in. I witnessed a bunch of guys coming on the set late at night who all looked like they’d walked off The Godfather…”
She goes on to say that the three villains bonded, as they spent so much time together, and none of the wider problems really intruded on them as a team of three:
“I’d adored and worshipped Terence Stamp from afar as a young teenager, so I was just in seventh heaven. And O’Halloran I see and speak to all the time. He’s a very, very dear friend.”
A new piece of news from the interview was the story that there was some tension on set between Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, and one of his enemies in the shape of O’Halloran. At one point O’Halloran apparently had Reeve up against the wall and Donner had to break them up.
“I’ve always chosen my words very carefully, because Christopher is, and will remain the greatest Superman, but by the end of filming, I think we all got very tired. I had about nine separate injuries from the flying and various different things and we were pushed very, very hard. Chris was less than understanding toward me at the end. He definitely changed in his persona, I think, from the beginning, when he was just a bit of an innocent.”
Douglas’ final word was reserved for the fabled Richard Donner Cut of Superman II which was finally revealed many years after the original film:
“I was deeply disappointed we didn’t get any money for that. As far as Warner were concerned, that was another film, it was another DVD. It just seemed a money-making venture for Warner Bros and not for Sarah Douglas or other members of the cast.”
Will it ever be beaten as a superhero sequel? Will they ever make a sequel to Man Of Steel? and where the hell did the last 40 years actually go?