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Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 January 2007 - 12:55 PM

Since "Superman: The Movie" was one of my favorite films growing up, I have always had mixed feelings about "Superman II" -- some people prefer it over the first for being more comic-book in tone, but I've always felt that it dipped too many times into camp. And the production values were a lot more uneven than with the first one, in all departments. Some of this was due to the ambitious storyline of "II" and how it stretched efx work of the day... and other reason was due to cost-cutting by the Salkinds.

Plus Richard Lester, who otherwise is a more important director in the history of cinema than Richard Donner, mainly for everything he made before "Superman II" (and "III"), seemed like the wrong choice to handle such a project. You needed someone in the mode of Spielberg, who is Donner was more like stylistically than Lester.

From a grossly simplified standpoint, you can see in the movie that Lester shoots in the more contemporary style of multiple cameras with long lenses, whereas Donner staged scenes, shot-by-shot, with a moving camera and wider-angle lenses. The other difference I notice when watching the movie is that Donner's interpretation of the three Kryptonian villians was that they were a lot more cold, both in make-up and attitude.

Now that I've seen the Donner cut on DVD, I have mixed reactions.

First of all, one has to remember a couple of things when watching this movie on DVD. First of all, it was the original intention that "Superman: The Movie" end with the nuclear missile that Superman tosses into space frees the Kryptonian villians. And it was also intended that the "turn-back-time-by-spinning-the-Earth" trick solve a plot problem at the end of "II", not "I". The other thing to remember is that since Donner did not finish shooting "II", the DVD still uses a lot of Richard Lester's scenes.

So the DVD now begins with a recap of the end of "Superman: The Movie" to show how the villians were put into the Phantom Zone and how the missile freed them, which probably wouldn't have needed to be so long had the first movie ended with that scene. So the beginning of "II" is clunky now.

Lester's idea to start out with the rescue at the Eiffel Tower was probably a good one and it's one of the better scenes he did for "II".

I won't go through all the differences but here are some of my thoughts.

I must admit that some of the boring photography of "II" I had assumed was by Paynter but now it's more clear that it was part of the Donner/Unsworth collaboration. The best work by Unsworth in the first movie was Krypton and Smallville, and now that those elements aren't in "II" we are mainly left with a sort of high-key comedy style of lighting for the entire movie, not just a third act. Still, it's clear that Unsworth was superior at lighting women compared to Paynter, and Donner could compose a more interesting master shot than Lester. Probably the most interestingly-lit Unsworth scene in "II" was the moon attack, with some creepy cold backlighting on Sarah Douglas. There is also a nice balconey scene at the end of "II" with Superman and Lois Lane (with some nice acting by both.)

Donner's main improvement was in reducing some of the Lester jokes running through the action scenes, and to get rid of the silly new powers that Superman suddenly displays in the Fortress of Solitude at the end (multiple Superman ghosts, a plastic S-shield that he flings at Non, etc.) Plus of course all the Marlon Brando scenes with Reeve, all of which serve to make "II" feel more like "I".

But this creates some other problems. The ending seems a bit weak/short now and I wouldn't have been surprised had Donner had actually directed all of "II" he wouldn't have gone back and shot some pick-ups to juice up the final confrontation in the Fortress of Solitude.

Also one gets the feeling that Stuart Baird would have done a better job of cutting "II" had he been involved with this new version.

Anyway, this new version is somewhat of a mess overall but it gives you a hint of what might have been possible had Donner directed every scene. However, I still feel that the movie would have been problematic anyway. Some of Lester's scenes were a way of solving story problems in the script that Donner is not able to solve either, like how to erase Lois' memory -- both the "amnesia kiss" and "turning back the world" are horrible deus-ex-machinas and perhaps it would have been better to end the movie with this unresolved.
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#2 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 02 January 2007 - 04:51 PM

I've always been a huge fan of Superman I & II, and in my teenage years I discovered the story behind how II was stripped from Donner's hands. So when I heard about this new Donner Cut, I was naturally excited as I figured perhaps the director's fantastic vision of the Superman character was finally going to be resolved.

Well, I was disappointed. In my opinion, the new Donner Cut is just as exciting as watching the "Deleted Scenes" extras on a DVD. I loved some of the "new" scenes, such as the first one at the Daily Planet, the different look of the encounter on the moon and the scene with Brando at the fortress of solitude (despite the cheap effects).

The entire movie was clunky to me, partially because I was used to seeing certain scenes another way, or perhaps some scenes were shorter in this cut, so the transitions seemed VERY abrupt. And honestly, I hated the ending...I'd seen it before and it just didn't seem nearly as motivated as previously done. I much prefer the original ending to Superman II with the mind erasing kiss he gives Lois.

And David, I agree, the Eiffel tower scene from the original was definitely a great Lester scene. I'm glad some of the Fortress of Solitude scenes he shot were cut, that was always really weird. But the result is a very anti-climactic standoff between Superman and Zod.

It just left me wanting to watch the Lester version even more.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 January 2007 - 05:43 PM

Lester of course had the advantage of finishing the movie all the way through post (hence why it works as a finished movie), while this Donner version by its very nature is compromised by having to work with what he had shot. I'm sure that Donner / Mankiewicz would have come up with a better ending if they had done "II" all the way through, having stolen the reversing-time idea for the first movie (plus it works better in the first movie as a desparate solution to Lois' death rather than some way of making her less depressed for knowing his secret.)

But the turning-back-the-clock solution is always problematic, for both movies. I mean, why does Lex Luthor go to jail if the bomb was never dropped? Just for his other crimes? And in this version of "II" why go back and beat-up the guy at the diner at the end if, thanks to reversing time, he had never beaten-up Clark in the first place? Just for being a jerk in general?

I think if Donner had done "II" all the way through, he would have been trying to fix all those story problems in post, probably with some judicious pick-up scenes.
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 January 2007 - 08:43 PM

Well, we can agree that all the versions of "Superman II" are a mess...

I know it's not "realistic" (although not many movies set on the moon were able to realistically create a single-source look until recently with faster film and bigger lights) but I've always liked the mood in these shots:

Posted Image

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I'm not sure any DP could have wrestled a lot of control over the process of making these two films and produced something consistent-looking anyway, but I'd always trade some inconsistent Unsworth romanticism for something consistent -- but bland. Unsworth certainly was more consistent on other big-budget projects like "A Bridge Too Far" and "Cabaret" has a wonderfully well-conceived look to it.

However, like I said, watching the extra footage in this DVD has convinced me that it's not some of Unsworth's best work either and actually often falls into the "bland" category that I consigned the Lester footage to. So blame to go all-around I guess.

I'm almost convinced that when the scenes from "Superman II" came up on the call sheet, Donner and Unsworth were thinking that they would have a chance to go back and clean scenes up later, so they concentrated on the "Superman I" scenes and rushed a little on the sequel's scenes. But that's a wild supposition. It could be simply that they decided the second one needed a more romantic comedy style and opted for this less interesting (compared to the first one) high-key approach.

(Gee, looking at the frames, I see I must have subconsciously have been inspired by this for "Northfork"...)
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#5 John Holland

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Posted 03 January 2007 - 12:13 PM

Hi Guys but i really dont think Mr Lester was much good without David Watkin by his side and know Watkin had no interest being involved with this film . John Holland ,London.
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 January 2007 - 08:46 PM

In the case of "2001", you'll notice (as with the Africa sequence on a stage) that Kubrick/Unsworth/Alcott avoided even trying to recreate a single-source sunlight effect, staging things in the shadows of canyons, pre-dawn, etc. The landscape shots of the Moon were all miniatures; the excavation scene was lit by the worklights in the pit (probably Kubrick's idea, not Unsworth's).

But you're right that "Space 1999" managed to shoot fairly decent moonscapes on a limited stage, although many times, again, they staged scenes in the shadows of canyons on the Moon. It's about the only example I can think of pre "Apollo 13" and "From Earth to the Moon".

Anyway, it's hard to be realistic when actors are walking around without spacesuits and speaking without an atmosphere, as in the case of "Superman II"...
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#7 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 03 January 2007 - 09:51 PM

Here's a lil' bit of "2001"/"Superman" connection.

Did anyone notice in "Superman Returns", when Superman was lifting the huge landmass into space, that the music was very similar to some of the moon music from "2001"? They both had the sound of a choir singing what seemed like random or chaotic chants & mumbles (not sure how to really describe the sound).
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#8 John Holland

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Posted 04 January 2007 - 05:29 AM

Hi Tim, as i recall it wasnt the fact that the film was Anamorphic, but that Watkin hadnt a very good time with the producers when he shot the Muskeeters films. John Holland , London.
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#9 John Holland

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 06:49 AM

Lester and Watkin got together in the sixties doing commercials, then their first feature together , "The Knack". John Holland ,London.
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#10 John Holland

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 07:10 AM

Ok got you, yes could well be . I never have seen "Revolution" does it look good ! ? . John Holland .
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#11 John Holland

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 07:31 AM

I will see if i can get it on dvd and take a look , if i remember i think they managed to wreck a Louma Crane on this one ? John holland.
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#12 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 01:52 PM

btw, how horrible was it to try and throw in that old screen test footage of Clark & Lois, where she shoots him. Really cheesy production value, made completely obvious when Clark slams the door and the entire wall moves!

It was a great scene, but they both looked so completely different that it just didn't match up with the previous or following scenes.


agh!
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#13 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 05:00 PM

I remember hearing Hugh Hudson and Lester were part of the same commerical's company in the 1980s. Given Hudson's move from David Watkin on CHARIOTS OF FIRE to Bernard Lutic on REVOLUTION, perhaps it was Hudson who recommended him to Lester?


I may be wrong, but I believe Hugh Hudson travelled to Turkey to direct second unit work for "Midnight Express", with Bernard Lutic as cinematographer. And don't forget about John Alcott, who photographed "Greystoke" for Hudson right after "Chariots of Fire", and a few years before "Revolution". Plus Alcott re-introduced the Super-35 format on that film and is sure he convinced Hudson about its advantages, as all his following films after "Greystoke" have used it to achieve a 2.35 ratio (even "Revolution" was one the first Super-35 films after "Greystoke", together with Lawrence Kasdan's "Silverado" and Alcott's own "Baby, The Secret of the Lost Legend").

As for Lester, I haven't seen all his films, but "Juggernaut" is my favorite in terms of cinematography. Gerry Fisher's work is still Watkinesque, but a bit darker and contrasty, grainy and documentary at times. And the camera work (by Ernest Day, no less) is superb. Compare it to "The Towering Inferno", "The Poseidon Adventure" or other disaster film of the era: "Juggernaut" looks equally good but completely different and fresh, almost like "United 93" opposed to "Titanic".
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#14 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 08 January 2007 - 05:43 PM

Anamorphic definitely played a part in the way SUPERMAN II AND III look unusual to other Lester movies- still, the third movie especially has the auteur style (except with more fill light). it's just weird that Lester hired a DP who never really used anamorphic before and afterwards. I have heard that Paul Wilson was initially asked to DP SUPERMAN II for Lester (on the back of knowing each other for nearly 20 years, plus THE RITZ), but of course having just grabbed an Oscar nomination for MOONRAKERS visual effects, seemed Derek Meddings was the right direction!


I've always wondered the opposite thing: who would have been the DP for the remaining scenes of "Superman II" if Donner had been able to finish them? The same applies for "Tess": I've always wondered why Polanski hired Ghislain Cloquet to finish the film after Unsworth's death, because I don't think Cloquet (who anyway did a job good an won the Oscar) had been Polanski's first choice as a replacement if he had had enough time to bring another DP from the UK or USA.
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