It is the seminal superhero movie. It precedes all others. Whatever you may think about the special effects now, the campy villain with his ridiculous sidekicks, and the film’s arguably poor pacing, it cannot be denied that Superman (1978) paved the way for other superhero movies to unfurl their capes, spread their wings or spin their webs.
There are dozens of interest facts and tidbits about Superman (1978), like the fact that Elton John was apparently amongst the 200 men lobbying for the lead part! Yes, really!
Here’s 10 of the the most interesting things you (probably) didn’t know about Superman (1978)…
Christopher Reeve underwent an intense bodybuilding regime overseen by Darth Vader himself (David Prowse), putting on around 40lbs, although the timescale for his transformation is uncertain, with some sources saying he put on this lean muscle in just 6 weeks, which is virtually impossible. Nevertheless, he certainly transformed his skinny frame and arrived at the perfect physique for the role.
Marlon Brando refused to memorize the majority of his lines in advance. In the scene where he puts infant Kal-El into the escape pod, he was literally reading his lines from the nappy on the baby! Brando informed Richard Donner that this was the only way to keep his performance fresh, and not over rehearsed.
The credits sequence for Superman (1978) cost more than most movies made, up to that point! Designed by R. Greenberg and Associates, it was produced entirely without computer graphics (with blue gel and black card in fact!) and still looks great if very retro! The end titles sequence exceeds seven minutes, a record at the time of the film’s release in 1978.
To maintain on-screen continuity, Christopher Reeve dubbed all of Jeff East‘s dialogue as young Clark Kent. East’s voice is never actually heard during the entirety of the film, something East had no idea about during shooting. As you can imagine, East wasn’t happy with the decision, as it was done without his consent. Apparently it was some years later that he resolved his differences with Reeve.
Pre-production for Superman (1978) began in Italy with the focus on what were ultimately many unsuccessful experiments to make Superman fly.
The methods attempted included catapulting a dummy into the air, a remote control model airplane painted as the character (yes, really) and simply animating the flying sequences. The producers eventually settled for a combination of forward projection and specially designed zoom lenses that could create the illusion of movement by zooming in on Christopher Reeve while making the forward projection appear to recede. For scenes where Superman has to interact with other people or objects while in flight, Reeve and fellow actors were put in a variety of rigging equipment with careful lighting and photography to hide the equipment.
Ilya Salkind later bemoaned the fact that they lost over $2 million dollars in the process.
The film crew lucked out with Christopher Reeve in several ways. Reeve actually flew gliders as a hobby and called upon this experience to make Superman’s flying feel more believable. His performance as both Superman and Clark Kent was widely praised in making the superhero’s secret identity seem surprisingly convincing.
Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbied for the lead role in Superman but was never offered it. He was convinced that his accent played a part in the decision. Another muscle man, Sylvester Stallone, was also keen but, allegedly, Marlon Brando made sure he didn’t get the part. Stallone was a big fan of Brando and reportedly lost all respect for him after this.
Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and James Caan were all offered the movie’s title role. All three turned it down: Redford had excessive salary demands, Eastwood claimed he was too busy, and Caan said, “There’s no way I’m getting into that silly suit.” Paul Newman was offered the choice of playing Superman, Lex Luthor, or Jor-El for the fee of $4m but declined all of them.
Nick Nolte was another possibility for the lead but reportedly claimed he would only take the role if Superman/Clark Kent was a schizophrenic. John Wayne‘s son Patrick was also offered the role but he too turned it down. Many others were considered – over 200 auditioned for the part – and, according to IMDB, even Elton John was in the running for the title role!
Richard Donner had tensions with the Salkinds and Pierre Spengler concerning the escalating production budget and the shooting schedule. Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz reflected, “Donner never got a budget or a schedule. He was constantly told he was way over schedule and budget.” Donner was famously fired during the filming of Superman II, of which he’d shot around 75-80% of the film. Several years later, following petitions from fans, Donner was permitted to cut the film his way, which became Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
At the height of filming, over 1000 full-time crew on 11 units were spread over three studios and eight countries. A staggering 1 million feet of film was used, and it had the highest production budget of any film at the time.
Marlon Brando sued the Salkinds and Warner Brothers for fifty million dollars, because he felt cheated out of the film’s considerable box-office profits.
This is the main reason why footage of Brando does not appear in Superman II (1980) and his scenes are taken by Kal-El’s mother instead.
Brando ultimately received about $14m for just 10 minutes of screentime. The footage shot for the sequel was eventually used in Superman Returns (2006)
Steven Spielberg was apparently offered the chance to direct Superman (1978) but the producers couldn’t get passed his salary demands. They reportedly decided to see how Jaws (1975), which he had just finished, performed at the box office.
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