REPORT: Hero Complex Film Festival, Day 3: Richard Donner, Superman, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Travis Walecka
Note: Travis was unable to make Friday's Star Trek-focused Day 2.

Never let your ego get in the way of a good idea.

And that statement from acclaimed director Richard Donner went on to set the precedent for Day 3 of the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex Film Festival. Saturday was all about Superman, as another jam-packed audience was treated to a pair of IMAX-wide screenings of the first two Superman films, including a rare big screen look at Donner’s cut of Superman II.

Why the hell is there even a Donner "cut" of the second Man of Steel film, anyway? Well, Richard Lester "finished up" completing whatever footage there was left to shoot following a dispute between Donner and the studio at the time. Make no mistake, the first two Superman films are Donner’s. The man who directed The Omen, the first four Lethal Weapon films, The Goonies (!!!), Maverick, and 16 Blocks (which I absolutely love, by the way) told the crowd to "boo like hell" if the second film didn’t appear any brighter.

Apparently, the first screening was very dark; but I was just glad those damn lamps that nearly blinded Warren Beatty were ditched…

Before I get into L.A. Times pop culture writer Geoff Boucher’s Q&A with Donner, there was a nice segment on Hellboy-creator Mike Mignola, who drew this year’s Hero Complex poster. Geoff Johns also spoke before the audience acknowledging that without Donner, he probably would never be DC’s current Chief Creative Officer, or even the Green Lantern script wizard he is today. Even after a then-intern Johns wrapped Donner’s SUV around a semi-trailer, he’d still remain assistant -- and even collaborate with his former boss many years later on the superb Superman comic "Lost Son."

Following a poignant foreword on our terrible loss of Superman star Christopher Reeve -- who Donner claimed "a true man of action"-- the director went off on a flurry of amusement. He once had a production designer steal a Superman statue off the wall of the Warner lot and throw it in a truck, only to have the studio heads see it at Donner’s home a few weeks later. Considering the movie turned an absolute box-office gem, he asked, "Remember when you gave me that?" Understandably, they had no choice but to say, "Yeah!"

Donner’s most interesting tale was also his proudest decision: saying no to a million dollars (back then he barely made $100,000/film) for making an atrocious version of Superman. Seeing how it was originally written by Hungarians and made by an Englishman who had never read comics in his life, the script read like "a parody of a parody." Even worse, it was to shoot in Italy. After Donner held his ground for several months, he was offered the rewrite. And the rest is history. With the care package, Donner was sent a Superman outfit that resembled more like a leotard. After smoking "a doobie," Dick put on the leotard and came running across the room to chase fellow producer (and Dragnet director) Tom Mankiewicz into finding an actor they could believe as a nerd, believe could fly and believe could take part in a real hot love story.

Donner also wanted to keep the first Superman film simple and without too much gratuitous action. And, despite unfortunate production problems, he focused on making Superman three very different movies: Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis. Krypton originated from a book of crystals found by production designer John Barry. For the Norman Rockwell 1930s-Americana of Smallville, Kansas, they took over several acres of British Columbia farmland, promising to cultivate and plan wheat for miles and miles as part of the deal. Of course, when they started the shoot, came the torrential rain.

Some highlights from an otherwise audience-light Q&A (viewing two movies will do that to you):

  • When Boucher noted that Christopher Nolan claimed Superman was his template for casting recognizable and wonderful actors, Donner facetiously retorted that Nolan was, "a smart director for copying me."

  • Legendary composer John Williams’ Superman theme put Donner to tears, as then and there he realized he took on the film to "keep it from being destroyed by the Hungarians."

  • Marlon Brando (who played Kal-El’s Krypton dad Jor-El) proved a "unique bagel amongst the green suitcases," meaning he’d give more than a phoned-in performance, despite the producers’ presupposition for Brando in such a minor, voiceover-driven role.

  • Donner thinks the new Superman: Man of Steel team of producer Nolan and director Zach Snyder will get it right. He doesn’t give out advice; he takes advice. Though, he did claim that films today lack too much depth in character and are too CGI-driven. Ironically, that’s easily Snyder’s forte.

  • When asked, "What movie would you do if given the chance?" Donner replied, "You married? ‘Cause it ain’t easy!" After a roar of the crowd, Donner frivolously added that wife Lauren Shuler Donner -- who is one of the most successful producers in the industry -- "should hire me for X-Men."

  • The opening sequence of Superman, with the roll of the curtains and child flipping through the original Action Comics comic book was "the essence of the piece, that you’d imagine your life in that comic."

  • Up Next were two of DC’s greatest contributors: artist Jim Lee and writer Geoff Johns. While none of the news yesterday from these two came as "shocking" as marketed, especially if you’ve been reading the Internet -- or hell, even the newspapers the last week or so -- but it was still good to hear out of the source’s mouth.

    And since Lee ran out of writers to work with, I suppose he’s stuck with Johns. That’s right, two of the greatest comic creators in recent history are heading out the new DC Comics "rebranding" initiative with Justice League #1. They both want this title -- which sadly hasn’t been good since Grant Morrison headlined -- to be the ultimate book, and, not surprisingly, return to the team's iconic seven: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and well, Cyborg. Sure, it was Martian Manhunter before him, but J’onn J’onzz will be headlining the new Stormwatch title.

    The first arc will go back to the past, with a fresh rebooted origin, and the second arc will take place in the present. Johns claims, "This is not just a renumbering, it’s a systematic reimagining and reenergizing [of the Justice League]."

    Lee agrees: "There’s never been an awesome origin, as this will be something that adds to the lore (rather than take away from); it’ll be more contemporary, with a take on new beginnings. [It will] just feel more modern." He then relates to the time of John Byrne’s rebooting of Superman #1 (with Man of Steel) and how it felt like his own version.

    When Geoff Boucher asks about the hate from the DC fans who are already following and enjoying their comics, Lee humorously hands it off to Johns, who talks about simple care and execution. The writer then relates this reboot to his own Green Lantern success with Rebirth, and that he hopes to follow suit with these new #1 titles. "We’re just trying to make things different and unexpected . . . [We’re not] trying to ruin what people already love." Boucher agrees that comics are always changing anyway, as hardly any titles ever stay set in stone.

    There was an awkward Grant Morrison video displayed, simply about changing the basics of Superman with his new Action Comics alongside artist Rags Morales. And that they’re just trying to "refresh ideas in a cannon take, [show] the unexpected, try to create a new language, a new chapter, a very big beginning [in the life of Superman]." After Boucher joked that the video needed subtitles, Johns went on to say that Morrison is easily the best writer on his list, and that the writer stays true to his characters but nonetheless comes off with stories that are awe-inspiring and unpredictable.

    Johns hopes his North Star is when kids say the Green Lantern oath. He hopes kids will love the Green Lantern film like he did Star Wars.

    For more coverage of the Hero Complex Film Festival, check out our special report on Day One!

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