Spring 2017

Patty Jenkins on Richard Donner's Superman


Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Superman (Christopher Reeve) take flight. (Photo: Photofest)

I've been influenced by a lot of films," says Patty Jenkins. "And a lot of them are the typical interesting, artsy films. But I haven't talked enough about how there are those few big blockbusters that really rock your world."

The director is sitting in an editing room in London, where she's recently completed a nearly final cut of Wonder Woman for Warner Bros. She's decided to forgo a more "classic" selection today in favor of Richard Donner's 1978 film Superman, which was essentially the first-ever comic book superhero film. The movie, adapting the DC Comics character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, starred Christopher Reeve as the titular hero, pitting him against Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. Unlike some of today's comic book tentpoles, it was very character-driven—a film that allied the viewer with its protagonist in a genuine, grounded way.

"It had a huge influence on me making Wonder Woman," Jenkins explains, sitting on the couch holding a massive water bottle full of iced coffee. "There is a really strong reason that I'm making it, and it is because of the experience I had seeing this movie when I was 7. I loved Star Wars too, but this was, to me, what Star Wars was to so many little boys. It rocked my world completely. I sobbed through half the movie. I stood up and cheered through the other half. It stayed in my subconscious ever after."

The experience Jenkins alludes to involved a road trip with her family. As they were passing through Texas, an unexpected snowstorm caused car problems. So her mom sent Jenkins and her sister to the movies while the vehicle was being repaired. The film ended up striking a personal chord.

"My father had died a few months earlier," Jenkins recalls. "I think that's part of its power to me. Here's a story of a little boy who loses his father twice over and discovers that he can be something else in the world. Superhero movies are so famous because of the metaphor that they trigger in one's self about who you could be if things were different."

Love Story: (Top) An early scene on Krypton; (Bottom) Lois and Clark at the Daily Planet, with their editor (Jackie Cooper). (Photos: Photofest)

Jenkins has seen the film numerous times since, including several times over the past two years as she's been in production for Wonder Woman. She's drawn to its simple premise: An alien boy arrives on Earth after the destruction of his home planet and is forced to discover who he really is and where he belongs. It's a journey of self-discovery, and it's also a film that feels very stylistically avant-garde for its time.

Donner directed Superman after working on The Omen, which Jenkins feels reveals his ability to make a great film in any genre (a trait she'd like to emulate). Jenkins repeatedly refers to Donner as a "great shot maker."

In the film's opening moments, Jenkins is immediately taken by John Williams' sweeping score as we arrive on Krypton, where a white-haired Marlon Brando is passing judgment on three prisoners held captive by two swirling hoops. "I have an immediate emotional response to that horn line," says Jenkins of Williams' music.

For her, the casting of Brando as Superman's birth father Jor-El is an instrumental part of the movie's strength. "It's about getting serious actors to play it in a serious way and take it seriously," she says. "And incorporating the right amount of pop to it. It's something I think about a lot as it relates to Wonder Woman. You have to have the right amount of pop and seriousness mixed together."

The camera leans in toward a small baby, who is being embraced by his mother. A blue and red blanket adorns his back, a bright contrast against the glowing white sets of Krypton. Jor-El and his wife are preparing to send the baby to Earth, where he will be safe. "It's a great way to get into a story," Jenkins says. "A naïve baby."

Turning Points: (Top) A mugger confronts Lois and Clark, a scene Jenkins references in Wonder Woman; (Bottom) Mutual attraction develops between the two leads. (Screenpulls: Warner Home Video)

The parents bid farewell to the child and send him off in a white asteroid. "I care about what happens to this child so deeply now," Jenkins comments as we watch him hurtle toward Earth. Krypton explodes in a burst of fireworks. "I'm on the hook because of simple human emotions and storytelling," the director says, "not because of how he's going to look at the end of the movie."

Thirty minutes into the film, Superman still hasn't appeared. A young Clark Kent loses his adoptive father, played by Glenn Ford, and the camera pulls back on Ma Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) hugging Clark in an endless cornfield. He knows now that he is different and she's telling him goodbye as he leaves home to discover himself. The pair looks tiny within the frame. Williams' score surges, tugging on your heartstrings. "There's no reason a comic book movie has to be done this way, but when you're doing it in the classic way, you have to be deeply inspired by the visual storytelling of a comic book frame," Jenkins notes. "There would be a lot of ways to film this scene, but this is certainly very comic book-y."

Clark learns who he is via a holographic message from Jor-El, whose face appears in fragmented, transparent images as he speaks, and dissolves into a starry expanse of space. "I love the freedom for the avant-garde here," Jenkins says. She sits upright as Superman, iconic cape across his back, soars out into the sky afterward, and cheers.

Cut to the office of the Daily Planet. The camera reveals the massive newsroom with a wide lens shot, which Jenkins takes note of, and then brings us to our hero, who is clad in a suit and nerdy glasses. He fumbles through his conversation with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). "I love that he's not an invulnerable badass," Jenkins says.

Outside the office, the camera trails Clark and Lois as they walk out onto the busy city street. Their banter reveals an underlying attraction. They are cornered by a mugger in an alleyway, and Lois refuses to hand over her purse, dropping it to the ground instead. Clark inadvertently stops the attack. "I homage this scene exactly," Jenkins explains about making Wonder Woman.

Over an hour into the film, we're now in the darkened subway tunnels of the city. Lex Luthor and his cronies are plotting in an underground lair that looks like a flooded Grand Central Station. "What a great set," Jenkins says. "What an amazing location. This is how you do a villain." For her, the villain should be secondary to the hero, because a superhero movie should be about the superhero first and foremost.

The cameras leave Luthor's lair and bring us back to Lois, who is boarding a helicopter at night. We know something is amiss because Donner keeps cutting to a shaking cable. As the helicopter tries to take off, the cable ensnares it and it hurdles off the edge of the Daily Planet's skyscraper office building. Lois dangles from an open door, slipping more every second. "It takes a strong story setup to have these magic moments," Jenkins explains of Donner's pacing. Superman soars in just as Lois falls and catches her, quipping, "I got you." Jenkins echoes Kidder's response along with her: "You've got me? Who's got you?"

A few scenes later, Lois is waiting for Superman on her balcony, dressed in a sheer, pale blue dress. She's going to interview him, but we know she's hoping for more. Jenkins interjects, "This is one of my favorite scenes of all time." Lois and Superman fly through the night sky, hand in hand, smiling at each other. Jenkins notes how much weight Donner put on the film's love story—something she also did in Wonder Woman. "I wish I could see the expression on my face as a kid when I saw this for the first time," she says. "It's got to be one of the most romantic, beautiful scenes ever."

With the love story in place, the film shifts to its culminating action and reveals the final standoff between the villain and the hero. Luthor is plotting to fire a missile at the San Andreas fault, which will sink the coast of California into the ocean and increase the value of his inland real estate. Luthor, who has discovered Superman's origins and his Achilles heel, lures Superman to his lair and weakens him. As Luthor leaves Superman struggling in his underground pool, Kryptonite chained around his neck, Jenkins shouts, "Don't leave the superhero alive!" She smiles, realizing, and adds, "Of course, they have to leave him alive."

Death's Door: (Top) Superman is left to drown in Lex Luther's lair; (Middle & Bottom) Our hero saves Lois by reversing the Earth's rotation to go back in time. (Photos: (Bottom) Warner Brothers/Everett; Screenpulls: Warner Home Video)

Superman escapes in time to stop the first missile, but he's too late to halt the second from crashing into the ground and sending earthquakes reverberating through California. Cut to San Francisco, where the bridges are collapsing. A school bus full of children careens toward the edge. Donner uses wide shots to capture the unfolding action, giving us a sense of just how many people are in peril. "He's making the stakes tangible," Jenkins explains. "He's stopping and taking the time to feel what those stakes are."

Superman saves the kids, but, at a rural location, Lois' car sinks into a crater created by the earthquake. The camera zooms in close as she is being covered with dirt, lending a claustrophobic feeling to the shot. "I like that this movie uses real-world things as a threat," Jenkins comments. "She's being buried alive in dirt—how horrible. It's everybody's worst nightmare."

Superman arrives, but he's too late. Lois, dressed in white, lies on the ground while he stands over her. He's been told, from the beginning of the film, not to interfere in human history; he doesn't listen. He zooms upward and spins the Earth backward, going back in time.

"Not only is this the first superhero movie, but it's such a mindblowing concept that he turns back time to save Lois Lane," Jenkins says as we watch Superman circle the Earth in a flash of light. The music swells triumphantly. Lois is alive and all is well again. Superman delivers Luthor and his cronies to prison. Hackman raises his hand to his head and reveals a bald head under his wig, the first real shot of Lex Luthor as we know him in the comics. Superman flies off, grinning toward the camera, and the credits roll.

"It's such a feel-good movie," Jenkins says. "It hits all those main buttons so delightfully. I think that grand, simple storytelling has gone out of vogue. But there are thousands of years of telling stories in a similar way, and knowing how to tell them is an art form that takes time and patience. It's about withholding, rather than bombarding people or going too fast. You have to tell a great story and then have confidence in that story to tell it well. Richard Donner does that here."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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