Exclusive Interview : Ilya Salkind


Reflections on “Superman” and looking to the future

Hollywood producer Ilya Salkind hasn’t had an easy life, but then again, either has Superman. In many ways, both Salkind and the character he helped bring to the big screen – DC comics’ most popular character – are similar beings, as CLINT MORRIS discovers.

Forced to put on a strong front at all times (even when their chips are down), persistently on the move (both having been meteorised from their homes), and forever having to – not only explain their actions, but – live up to a name – it’s living attestation that Superman and Salkind are near as human as each other.

The progeny of a filmmaking dynasty – his grandfather, Mikhail, produced Greta Garbo’s “The Joyless Street”, among other classics, and his father, Alexander, was a rising producer at the time of the lad’s birth – that had relocated from Europe to Mexico in the 1940s, Ilyra Salkind first got his taste of moviedom when he joined his “financially-minded” father on the movie “The Light at the Edge of the World” (1972).

As if the pull was already firmly implanted in his veins before he stepped foot on the set, Salkind was hooked, and almost immediately decided to join his father in the booming commerce of movie making.

Ilyra and Alexander Salkind’s biggest success might be attributed exclusively –from the outset anyway – to the younger Salkind.

“I was in Paris, and I saw a billboard for a Zorro movie”, he explains, on the phone from his production house in Los Angeles. “I immediately knew what I wanted to do. Not just a guy in a mask, or in this case, suit, movie…. but the ultimate one, Superman. So I told my father, ‘let’s do Superman!’

The older Salkind wasn’t as sold on the idea, if only because he wasn’t as familiar with the popular DC comics character as his son was, having grown up in Europe, where the character wasn’t as much a staple.

“I think he thought I was crazy, at first. He wasn’t really familiar with him, Superman. Once I told him who he was though – and how he was courageous, could fly, saves people – he was convinced. He went away and talked to the backers, and came back even more optimistic about the idea. Seemed everyone knew of Superman – so that made him more confident, too”.

Even better, “Nobody was really interested in doing a movie about Superman” says Salkind. “Batman had been done, on TV, and it was that cheesy wham-bam thing that nobody took very seriously. The last thing that Warner Bros wanted to do was to make a movie version of Superman. It just wasn’t something that they were interested in doing.

Still, that didn’t mean DC comics – then, National Periodical Publications – weren’t going to make it thorny for the Salkind’s to gain the rights to the character though.

“It wasn’t until we went straight to the head of DC comics publishing [that it came off], because we were getting the run-around by some others at the company – a man named Bernie Kadsen, for one – who were much more controlling of the character and far less interested in making the movie. Anyway, we went to the top, and they agreed to make the movie within two minutes.

The contract would allow the Salkinds to the right to produce “Superman” film and television properties for 25 years.

Those first movies would be “Alexander Salkind productions, released by Warner Bros. In essence, they would distribute…. but they were our movies. They got some say, of course, but at the end of the day, it was up to us, what we did with the movie[s]”.

Mario Puzo, then hot from the success of “The Godfather”, was hired to write the first two films in the series. “We always intended to make two, for a start, especially considering how much was in Mario’s original screenplay. It was epic. Really big. We would need two movies.”

Hired to initially direct – only after Steven Spielberg, who was initially interested, was turned down by Alexander Salkind – was Guy Hamilton, director of “Goldfinger”.

“I think it was one of the best Bond movies ever. Still do”, says Salkind.

Unfortunately, after two months or so of working on the film, Hamtilton was forced to leave the project. Marlon Brando, who had been signed to play the role of Superman’s father in the film, couldn’t work in Italy, which is where his scenes would originally have been shot, so “we had to move the film to the U.K”, says Salkind. “Hamilton had to leave, because of some tax problems [there]. It was mutual”.

Whilst on the search for a new director, Salkind decided to go and catch the current hit film at the time, “The Omen”, at a local cinema. It was then, that he realised who would be the ideal director for “Superman”.

“His film [The Omen] worked on so many levels. Granted, his other films were terrible, but this one had some real energy. I believed it would work.”

One of the hardest things to do, naturally, was to find a Superman though. “Our casting director asked if we [Donner and I] would have a look at this new guy named Christopher Reeve. We ended up meeting him in New York. I have to say, Donner wasn’t impressed. He was just wait too skinny. Which was fair enough… because he was.

After unsuccessfully auditioning several other young men – including at one stage then unknown Austrian, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more famously, “my wife’s dentist, who looked a lot like Superman….and we were really close to using him” – Reeve snagged himself another look-in. This time, especially when he climbed into the tights, both director and producer were a little more sold.

“Not only had he come to London to do this [test], proving just how great a guy he was, but he had determination. The more I saw of him, the more I liked him for the film. He was our man. It’s hard to think how successful the film might have been without him…he was Superman”.

Reeve would reprise the role for “Superman II” in 1980 – but director Richard Donner, originally retained to helm the sequel, would not be back.

The director didn’t see eye to eye with the producers on several things, and had the film spiralling over-budget, says Salkind. “He just couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to do”, he says. “It was a sad situation, especially because he had already shot some of the movie”.

Richard Lester, who had directed the Salkind’s “Three Musketeers”, was already working on the “Superman” films as an unofficial producer and second-unit aid, so quite effortlessly, he slipped into the director’s chair.

“Donner bought some great things to the film, he really did, but there were too many disagreements. Things just weren’t working”, he says. “Then he went and called us names to the press…it wasn’t a nice situation”.

For financial reasons, Marlon Brando – though having shot scenes for the film – was cut from the film entirely. “If we had kept him in it, he would’ve gotten the same 11.75% back-end participation that he received on the first film, and it financially, wasn’t doable. So, we just cut him out. Instead, we used Superman’s mother – which I think makes sense anyway. It was her turn to help her son”.

After the release of “Superman III”, the Salkind’s set their sights on bringing Kryptonian cousin, Supergirl, to the big screen. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much business at the box office.

“I don’t think people were as interested in seeing strong superhero characters, at the time”, says Salkind, stressing though, his love for actress Helen Slater, who played the role. “They still aren’t….I mean, look at what happened with Catwoman?”

So it was back to the more bankable Superlad again, or in this case, “Superboy”, who the producers had set their sights on next. It was a TV success story – lasting four seasons.

“It was doing pretty well that first year”, he says. “Of course, the network wanted it do better, so we kept working away at it.

“At the end of the first season, we decided to recast much of the main roles – including Superman”, he says. “John Haymes Newton was great in the role, but he had a hard time maintaining the good-boy image off-screen – which he did grow out of, by the way, and is a great guy – and we needed someone that would be the ultimate role model for kids. I bought in Gerard Christopher. He was great. And low and behold, the show did do well…very, very well. We lasted 100 episodes.

By this time, Salkind and father Alexander weren’t talking. Tired of being treated as merely “just another employee” and feeling rather “unappreciated”, they went their separate ways. “It was all about money too, which is sad”, he says, adding that the difficulties polarised whilst they were making 1985’s “Santa Claus: The Movie”.

“It just got worse. We couldn’t agree on anything”, he says, noting that the final straw was in 1993, when his father failed to pay him, his wife Jane Chaplin (daughter of screen legend Charlie Chaplin), along with co-producer Robert Simmonds, the money they were owed for work on 1992’s “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery”.

The case went to court, and some confounding revelations were made. “My wife had lent a huge amount of money, seven million dollars, to my father. That was the topper. It was…too much”.

Salkind pushed forward, despite the troubles with his father, and rediscovered his love for the Man of Steel. The Canon Group had made [the poorly-received] “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” without the Salkinds – they had transferred the rights to them, to make the one film on their own – so the producer had had a nice breather from the franchise, and was reinvigorated, and ready to bounce back with what he believed would be the ultimate “Superman” movie.

“Superman 5”, which “Chris Reeve was heavily involved in…he was ready to do it”, would have seen iniquitous Braniac shrinking the city, and would’ve seen it’s inhabitants, including Superman, withered to the size of toenails. “It was really good. I thought. Something fresh. It was darker too. Fantastic. We worked very hard on the script…to this day, I still think it would make a good Superman movie”.

Unfortunately, the film, and a fifth season of TV’s “Superboy”, never happened. “Warner was getting Batman up and going again, and suddenly had an interest in these movies again…superhero movies. They started to make all kinds of trouble [for us] – lawsuits about everything”, he says, “We caved in. It was just too much. The movie never happened. The TV show stopped. I never returned to Superman”

The main regret Salkind has, if any, is that he never got to patch things up with his go-getting father, Alexander, before he died – in 1997. “We never saw eye to eye, that doesn’t mean I wish we hadn’t. He just wasn’t…well…. a nice man, at the best of times. Maybe not a good father, but a good businessman. That was always his priority. I never got to talk to him before he died. Maybe, I wish I did. It’s one of the hardest things for me…ever.”

Salkind is about to be shoved back into the spotlight – not only because “Superman” is back in a big way, thanks to Bryan Singer’s new film, “Superman Returns”, which he says he’s “very excited about” – with the anticipated DVD releases of “Superboy” and the original “Superman” movies, being re-issued in a comprehensive box-set.

“All of the films are there – including extended versions. It’s not really Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II, you’ll see, unfortunately, but there will be more of it. There’s a lot of extras too…we do interviews, commentaries, lots of new footage. I hear, it’ll be like a 14-disc set”, he says. “And then, of course, we have Superboy coming out – it will be the first time that people will have seen the show in literally, years – and that too, has some good stuff on it too. It comes out first”

Now permanently based in America, Salkind runs his own production company, The Ilya Salkind Company, and continues to produce the ambitious films – and TV series’ – he’s made a name for himself doing. Among his current projects – Tom Savini’s “The Forest”, a new film based on the mythic “The Abominable Snowman”, and this year’s, “Alexander the Great from Macedonia”, which he’s predicting will be quite a popular film – especially with the teenage market that it’s aimed at. “I’m very excited about it”, says Salkind. “I’m excited about the future too”.

It’s Up, Up and Away…again…. for Ilya Salkind.