April 21, 2010: Exclusive Interview with "Superman: The Movie" Executive Producer Ilya Salkind

by Neil Cole

Executive producer Ilya Salkind has produced such classic films as "The Three Musketeers", "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" and of course "Superman: The Movie" and it's first two sequels. In the following interview, Mr. Salkind talks with the Superman Super Site about his early beginnings in the movie industry and his plans for the future:

Superman Super Site: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview.
Ilya Salkind: Glad to do it, it's my pleasure.

Super Site: How did you first get started in the movie industry?
Ilya: My grandfather (Michael Salkind) and father (Alexander Salkind) were both movie producers and I got started very early on by working as a "runner" on their films; running for this & that and things like coffee or whatever they needed on the set.

My grandfather was a producer on the 1925 silent film "Die freudlose Gasse" which was Greta Garbo's first big American film and launched her career. The first film I worked on with him & my father was "The Trial" (1962) which was directed by Orson Welles and hailed as one of Welles's favorites.

My grandfather was always the creative guy and my father would come up with the financing. Eventually, I took over from my grandfather as the creative guy and my father continued as the money man [laughs].

Super Site: The first film you helped produce was "Light at the Edge of the World, How did that project come about?
Ilya: I was in Spain at the time and by chance happened upon the script. It was a complex project based on a Jules Verne novel and had a separate writer (Tom Rowe). I worked with my father who was executive producer along with producer Alfredo Matas. The film's star, Kirk Douglas, also produced.

We had stars Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar sign on as well and it turned out to be a great pirate film and one of the first films to be targeted at the international audience.

Super Site: Your next film projects were "Kill! Kill! Kill!" and "Bluebeard". Tell us a little about working on those films.
Ilya: Yes, "Kill! Kill! Kill!" was an American anti-drug action movie with 70's big name star James Mason, Stephen Boyd, Jean Seberg and Curd Jürgens who later starred in a James Bond film (The Spy Who Loved Me). It was a crazy movie and did fairly well.

We signed on Richard Burton and Raquel Welch for "Bluebeard" which was more of a thriller movie. It was a big hit for us and after that it was much easier to go after the bigger projects.

Super Site: What was it like working on the "Musketeer" films?:
Ilya: Both films were wonderful to work on. We brought Richard Lester on board to direct and would later have him back on "Superman: II" and "Superman: III". The films were actually shot as one four hour long movie and we decided to split it into two films after thinking no one would want to sit through four hours of this type of film. Luckily it worked as the first film was a major hit and we released the second one a year later and it too did very well.

We were the first to film two movies in this fashion and there is actually a term in the movie industry referred to as the "Salkind Clause" [laughs] where you must let your actors know if they are filming multiple films at one time. It has been done on such films as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "Back to the Future" 2 & 3.

After the success of both Musketeer films, my father and I produced the 1976 French film "Folies bourgeoises" (The Twist) with famed French director Claude Chabrol.

We followed that film in 1977 with "The Prince and the Pauper" which was retitled "Crossed Swords" in the US for some strange reason. It opened in the US at the Radio City Music Hall which was getting ready to close at that time. Since everyone wanted to attend the Music Hall one last time, the film had an amazing turnout and broke several records for that time. Our cast consisted of George C. Scott, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed & Ernest Borgnine and our director, Richard Fleischer, was the son of animation legend Max Fleischer who had done the first ever Superman cartoons in the 1940s.

Super Site: "Superman: The Movie" was a huge hit. How did this film come about?
Ilya: After "The Prince and the Pauper", we were trying to decide which project to pursue next. I asked my father how about Superman? Since he was living in Europe at the time, he wasn't familiar with the character and I had to explain to him about who Superman was. We eventually purchased the rights to Superman from Warner Brothers who didn't think a film based on the character would be a huge hit.

When word got out that a Superman movie was being put together, every big name star came out to audition including Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Jenner, Arnold Swartzenegger and Patrick Wayne (son of John Wayne). I had always wanted to cast an unknown because I didn't think the flying sequences would work correctly with a well known star. I suggested we cast big names in the co-starring roles and that way we could surround the Superman actor with stars everyone was familiar with. Once we got (Marlon) Brando and (Gene) Hackman on board, we pursued the casting of an unknown for the lead role.

When I first saw Chris (Reeve), I thought he was perfect for the role at 6' 4" but Richard (Donner) thought he was just too skinny. As desperation began to set in to cast the lead, we actually auditioned my first wife's dentist for the role. He had the look, but not the acting ability.

I then looked in the Motion Picture Almanac which had headshots of all the actors who had auditioned and thought that Chris (Reeve) had the right neck structure for Superman. Donner still wasn't convinced so we had Chris audition for him and he absolutely loved him. We knew we had our Superman and brought in physical trainer/actor David Prowse (Darth Vader) who helped Chris pack on 60 pounds of muscle.

With our Superman in place, it was decided early on that this would be a serious movie and not follow the campiness of the Batman television series. The flying sequences would be done as realistically as possible as no one had ever attempted that before. An executive at Warner Bros. came up with the tag line "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly" and it certainly held true.

Super Site: Why was director Richard Donner replaced by Richard Lester on Superman: II?
Ilya: Donner had actually filmed about 60% of "Superman: II" at the same time we were doing "Superman: The Movie". In order to meet our deadline for a Christmas release, we had to halt filming on the sequel. When the first film came out, it was a huge financial and critical success and we were ready to resume filming on the sequel. Unfortunately, the amount and scale of things that Donner wanted to do on the sequel would have doubled the price tag from the first film. We tried to come to an agreement but sadly, had to part ways in the end.

We brought in Lester who we had previously worked with on the Musketeer films and reshot some of the footage that Donner had already filmed. When the completed film released in the Summer of 1981, it was another huge hit and made twice as much in it's opening weekend than the first film.

Over the years, Donner and I have settled our differences and are once again good friends. A few years ago, I was approached by Warner Bros. about them releasing Donner's version of the sequel and gave my full support. There are obvious differences from what we released and "Superman: II - The Richard Donner Cut" but I feel both versions are wonderful films and do the character justice.

Super Site: "Superman: III" was a different movie altogether. What changes were made?
Ilya: I had originally put together a plot for the third film that had Superman battling Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk and involved the many bottled cities that Brainiac had captured. However, after someone had seen an appearance by Richard Pryor on the Tonight Show praising how much he loved Superman, the entire plot was changed so we could bring Pryor on board.

What resulted was more of a Superman adventure story as opposed to the previous films which had been about his origins and becoming the Man of Steel. We decided to bring in a new primary villain (Ross Webster) since Lex Luthor had been featured two times already. I had wanted to bring in veteran actor Frank Langella after seeing him in Dracula and thought his presence would be perfectly suited for a Superman antagonist. Lester did not want to work with Langella, for reasons I still don't know, so ultimately actor Robert Vaughn was signed on to play the character. I thought he did very well but Langella would have been more menacing and larger than life.

We also decided to tie in more with Clark Kent's history of growing up in Smallville and focus more on his first love Lana Lang as opposed to Lois Lane. It offered the opportunity to see Chris (Reeve) actually portray four different characters in the film; the relaxed Clark Kent with Lana, the bumbling Clark Kent in Metropolis, the good Superman and the evil Superman.

By the third film we had also mellowed somewhat and decided that some humor and campiness would be okay in the film which fit perfectly with Pryor's comedic talents. The serious elements of Superman were also kept in place with such scenes as the show down in the junkyard between Clark and his evil self and the final battle with the super computer which was a small way of keeping my initial idea of Brainiac in the film.

Although the film did not do as well as the first two, it was still praised by critics and fans alike.

Super Site: What prompted the decision to do the Supergirl movie next?
Ilya: We wanted to broaden the Superman universe and make a film about another character other than the Man of Steel. Again, the decision was made to cast an unknown in the lead role and surround her with more well known actors. Helen (Slater) was chosen as our Supergirl and we brought Faye (Dunaway) and Peter (O'Toole) on board as well.

The film was always intended as a fairy tale picture and if watched with that understanding, it is a great film. Unfortunately, the marketing for the film was promoted as "From the Producers of Superman" and everyone went in expecting another Superman movie which it was not.

Originally, Chris (Reeve) was to have a cameo but ultimately decided not to do it. The theatrical release also had plot holes due to editing and all the scenes do not come together as they should. I recommend that everyone should watch the DVD release by Anchor Bay a few years ago that contains these lost bits of footage and ties everything together.

The film did not do as well as we had hoped and any ideas we had once had for a sequel were quickly scrapped.

Super Site: Your next film stepped away from Superman and went to Santa Claus.
Ilya: Yes. An origin story about Santa Claus had never been done before and I wanted to do a film that explained how he came to be as opposed to who he is.

From the very start, we show his origins so many centuries ago and then fast forward to modern times. It was a wonderful fantasy film to work on and we had wonderful actors Dudley Moore and John Lithgow on board.

When the film released, it was 50/50 with the critics who either praised it as a "Wizard of Oz" film or who absolutely hated it [laughs]. I'm glad to see now that it has become a staple family film at Christmas that is shown every year along with "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life".

Super Site: You went back to Superman with the Superboy tv series. What was working on that show like?
Ilya: I had never worked on a television series before so it was quite a change for me. The first few episodes of the series are not that great and I think it is because I listened to the writers too heavily and did not interject my own ideas for stories as heavily as I should have.

Superboy was fighting your average thieves and bank robbers early on but by the latter episodes of the first season, we had changed it to more worthy enemies like aliens and I think that is when the show began to improve.

Unfortunately, we had to replace our lead star John (Haymes Newton) after the first season after he received a DUI. Going back to "Superman: The Movie", we had always had a policy in the contracts that whoever played Superman/Supergirl/Superboy had to uphold the same standards set by the character in their real lives. We brought in Gerard (Christopher) to take over the lead and he stayed on with us until the end of the series.

After four seasons with distributor Viacom, we were set to do a fifth but Warner Bros. decided otherwise and the show was canceled. I am certain though that the remaining seasons will be released on DVD soon.

Super Site: What was it like working on your last movie, "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery".
Ilya: My father and I actually worked directly with Spanish government on that film and they provided full scale models of all of Columbus' ships for us to use in the movie. In return, we had to portray Columbus in a positive light and not show too much of the darker side of his character from history.

We were very fortunate to once again work with (Marlon) Brando on one of his last films. George Corraface was our Columbus and we also had Tom Selleck and Catherine Zeta-Jones on board as well.

The most memorable thing about producing the film was our scenes on the ocean. We were actually out in the middle of the Atlantic and completely at the mercy of the ocean. It created the realism you can only get by being at that location instead of just a few miles off shore which is what is usually done.

Another production (1492: Conquest of Paradise) about Christopher Columbus came out at the same time and ultimately caused both films to do poorly. I think we made a wonderful film and over the years it has received more and more positive reviews.

Super Site: You have recently started attending comic & fan conventions. How has that experience been?
Ilya: It has really been an eye opener to see what these conventions are all about. Meeting with the fans who know so much about the projects you have worked on has been quite an experience. They know so much more than even I do sometimes and it is really exciting to interact with them.

I was at a convention in Anaheim this past weekend and met Aaron (Smolinski) again for the first time since he was three [laughs]. I had not seen him since he was on the set of Superman back in the 70's. That was quite a thrill to see him again.

I will be attending a convention in Metropolis, Illinois in June next where they celebrate Superman. I've heard it is a huge festival and the entire town is all about Superman and they have a huge statue of him too. I am looking forward to it and thrilled at the opportunity to meet all the fans.

Super Site: What does the future hold for Ilya Salkind?
Ilya: There is a film I produced a few years ago called "Young Alexander the Great". It tells the story of Alexander in his youth and the perils he faces. We have not released it yet because the Oliver Stone movie (Alexander) came out around the same time that production had completed. I hope to release it within the year though.

I am also currently putting together a huge epic film called "Yeti". It will be about the legend of the Abominable Snowman and told as a "fact/reality" film where the Yeti actually exists in nature. I plan to have a film that will use all of today's technologies including 3-D and some groundbreaking techniques that have not yet been seen.

After my convention in Metropolis, I plan to leave the convention scene for awhile to continue work on "Yeti". It will be a wonderful film!

Super Site: Thank you again Ilya for your time and answering our questions.
Ilya: You're welcome. It has been a pleasure.

The Superman Super Site will be in attendance at this year's Superman Celebration in Metropolis, IL as well. Come join us and meet Ilya for yourselves!