Interview with Superman II Fan-Editor SelutronBy Barry Freiman and Daniel Grant
Introduction by Barry Freiman
When Warner Brothers released "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" (the "Donner Cut") on DVD last year after literally decades of clamoring by fans, most people assumed that to be the last word on the long-discussed subject of the firing of "Superman: The Movie" Director Richard Donner part-way through the filming of 1980's "Superman II". Film editor Michael Thau put together the "Donner Cut" from tons of footage shot by Donner in the late 1970s and stored in a U.K. film vault for almost three decades.
However, some fans believed Warner Brothers could have put more time and/or money into the "Donner Cut". Fans like "Selutron" (a pseudonym).
Now that there are essentially two versions of many of the scenes comprising "Superman II" - those shot by theatrical release Director Richard Lester and those shot by Donner - a small number of fans like Selutron have turned themselves into amateur film editors adapting and, in some cases, making wholesale changes to parts of the "Superman" sequel. As with the campaign to get the "Donner Cut" released in the first place, the principal forum for presenting these alternative fan-cut scenes is the internet - namely video service YouTube.
YouTube was founded in 2005 as an online site for people to post and watch videos on a range of subjects. According to the YouTube site, "[p]eople can see first-hand accounts of current events, find videos about their hobbies and interests, and discover the quirky and unusual. As more people capture special moments on video, YouTube is empowering them to become the broadcasters of tomorrow." In late 2006, Google Inc. purchased YouTube.
I came across Selutron a few months back while browsing videos on YouTube. I was immediately fascinated by one particular scene he'd put together to explain what Superman did at the end of 1978's "Superman: The Movie" after he turned back time to prevent Lois from dying all over again (which is what compelled the Man of Steel to change time during the first film's climactic scene). Though Selutron is far from the only amateur film editor making his or her presence known on YouTube, he's certainly put together some of the more creative and polished of these fan edits/alternative cuts. Consequently, I contacted him through the YouTube site to see if he'd be willing to be interviewed about what compelled him to re-examine the "Donner Cut". He agreed on the condition that we maintain his anonymity out of concerns over copyright issues with Warner Brothers.
Here is a link to Selutron's work on YouTube. You may want to consider watching some or all of his edits and alternative scenes as you read the interview. The Superman Homepage in no way endorses Selutron's work or any other unauthorized amateur film editors' work on "Superman II" or any of the "Superman" movies.
Q: What exactly are you trying to achieve?
A: It's really quite simple. I want what the fans campaigned for all these years. Richard Donner's Superman part II. A Superman II that you can watch with your friends and not have to make excuses for it.
Q: What do you mean by excuses?
A: Well, the two obvious issues are the screen-test and the re-used ending. Those two points alone mean that what was called the "Richard Donner Cut" can't really be considered to be a true film. And it definitely can't be viewed as the true sequel to Donner's "Superman", because that's where the time reversal ending was, and to just repeat that essentially trashes the whole experience of watching the film. I've read many reviews where the film is described as something merely for the die-hard fans. That's not what all those people campaigned for - they wanted a proper film. I fully understand that there's no way to call it a Donner film and have the amnesia kiss or Clark revealing that he's Superman by tripping over that fireplace. But what the film needed was a creative approach to using that screen-test, and it should have had a proper ending too.
Q: In your opinion, what do you think went wrong in putting together the "Donner Cut"?
A: I think that it was a tragic mistake to put the film in the hands of a technician [film editor Michael Thau]. I absolutely don't want to be personal about this. I'm sure that [Thau] is a very nice man and I loved his Superman documentaries. But, I think that it would have been wise for him to have hired an experienced writer/creative editor on the picture. Someone who could try to put himself in the minds of Donner and [Tom] Mankiewicz back in 1979. It also needed someone who could fight with Donner (that's the kind of editor Donner likes) and remind him that sometimes emotion was getting in the way. Then, Thau could have produced the project and he would have been hailed as a hero. Instead, we got this absolutely appalling assembly - I mean it's almost a parody, and it has done Thau absolutely no favors. Editing is just not his bread and butter. The missile sequence with different planets in each shot, one second the missile is flying straight, and then it's tumbling through space. Then it explodes and actually starts sucking in stars! I mean, if that isn't the diametrical opposite of what Donner meant by Verisimilitude, then I don't know what is. Then there's the blank bullets screen-test: It takes place at night, yet it's sandwiched between two daytime scenes that occur seconds apart. And the less said about the Brando stuff, the better.
Q: If you had been in Thau's shoes, what would you have done differently?
A: Put on my writer's hat, first and foremost. I think one of the biggest flaws of the Donner Cut is that it tries to stick to a script that was not complete. I would have put on my writer's hat and tried to come up with the script that Mankiewicz and Donner would have written [had] they came back in 1979/80.
Q: Is there anything you like about the "Donner Cut"?
A: Like I said, it's not a film, it's footage - sometimes scenes; it is in my view, a completely incoherent mess. I can't watch it anymore it's so bad. I can't suspend my disbelief and feel the drama, when it's constantly being undermined by a variety of poor decisions. Every time I saw it I would spot another thing that made me cringe. I mean we're talking about the kind of technical flaws you won't find in a Chuck Norris straight-to DVD film. There's an audio glitch just as Clark offers to get Lois a pizza in the final Daily Planet scene. Some of the shots during the fight sequence are posterized (the peak white levels are crushed down); part of Non's hand is cut off as he spins out of the Phantom Zone. I could go on forever. And that's just the technical side. From a creative perspective, I think it's even more cringe-worthy.
Q: But isn't it the film that Donner himself approved?
A: I think that's a myth. Donner, in my view, made an absolutely fantastic decision when he told the editor that he was too close to it, and essentially let him get on with it. He even gave an interview where he said he didn't want to see it until it came out in the theatres.
Q: How did you begin this project?
A: Actually, I was naive enough to think that I could fix the "Donner Cut"'s problems relatively quickly. Soon it became a hobby [that] ended up consuming countless hours. It was crazy really, as I couldn't extend a pre-cut shot or choose an alternate angle, or go find some interesting unused footage, or separate the dialogue from the music. All I had was what was in the released films. But even with what I had, I knew that I could at least demonstrate to everyone that the film could have been so much better.
Q: Weren't some of the problems with the "Donner Cut" related to the project's limited budget and tight release schedule?
A: That's another myth as I have tried to demonstrate in some of my clips. The Phantom Zone release, for example is unacceptable under any budget. Putting different planets in every shot is not a matter of budget; it's a matter of competence. Effective compositing can be relatively easy and organic, rather than poor CGI. Audio glitches and all the other flaws could be fixed in seconds. Again, that's not a matter of budget. Cutting to Perry White instead of showing his back, or not cutting across a tracking shot before it has finished (as Superman gets out of the de-powering chamber in the final fortress scene) - those things take seconds to fix or to ruin.
Q: At the end of the day, is your intention to get Warner Brothers interested in having you edit a new cut of "Superman II"?
A: This isn't about me. I want support for the idea, not for my idea. That's what the tiny minority of hardcore fans doing "rival" cuts [and posting them on YouTube] often don't seem to understand. I'm doing this for nothing, and purely to illustrate what can be achieved. But what I could guarantee is that I could deliver a real feature film with most of the issues figured out in advance. There are some cases where I would insist on going back to the negatives, like treating poor Jackie Cooper with a bit more respect. Some of my examples would clearly benefit from being able to go back to the original footage. But a lot of the tough stuff, I'm doing now and for free.
Q: What would you think if Warner Brothers gave Thau another opportunity to edit a definitive "Donner Cut" that addresses some of your concerns?
A: I read an interview in which Thau kind of conceded that someone else may now take over the torch. I think he's had some great opportunities to work on these films, and he did his best, but I'm pretty sure that that era is now well and truly over.
Q: Of the work you've posted so far on "You Tube", you appear to use more of the Richard Lester-shot footage and/or dialogue than Thau did. Can you explain your thought process in choosing footage and/or dialogue generally? Do you have any sense of the final percentage of Donner vis a vis Lester footage your version will contain?
A: I think a tragic mistake in the way the Donner Cut was done was to turn the whole project into a percentage count, or a Lester bad, Donner good kind of affair. The editor should not have fallen into that trap. In a project with so much emotion attached, the editor should stay neutral. My intention is to make a Donner part II, but I'm not counting the percentages. I definitely would have persuaded Dick Donner not to cut into the Lester Lois and Clark/Superman material so much.
Q: If for no one else but yourself, is your goal to have a complete film from start to finish that could stand on its own as an alternative "Donner Cut"?
A: I'm not doing this for myself. I'm behind the curtain now so I doubt I'll be able to watch "Superman II" as a casual viewer for a long time. You know, the irony is that Donner shot slightly more "Superman II" footage percentage-wise than Lester did. Shouldn't that mean that he deserves to have no-less than Lester has - a true and complete film? I think so.
Q: Have you considered culling together an ultimate version of "Superman II" that combines the best elements of Donner's and Lester's films? For instance, another "You Tube" member has posted a scene that combines Brando's Jor-El with Susannah York's Lara as both parents implore Superman not to relinquish his powers.
A: No. I don't want to turn "Superman II" into some sort of potpourri free-for-all. The word "ultimate" is misleading, like going into a restaurant and ordering everything on the menu and thinking that's the best and most "ultimate" choice you can make. Again, a poorly edited film has turned the fans into armchair editors, that's all. What I am doing is re-editing a film that a director put his name on. That's very tricky ground, and would normally be absolutely unthinkable. I have to be respectful to Donner and sometimes more is less and less is more. "Superman II" is well on its way to becoming the most deconstructed film in the history of cinema.
Q: Have you shot any new footage? I assume the stairwell that Clark speeds down on the way to saving Lois is done with new footage of an office-building stairwell.
A: Some of that is just illustrative. But I had a friend in New York photograph the Daily News building for me. There is also a body-double used from the neck down for two shots in the blank-bullets scene. I had to track down a similar costume to that worn by Reeve. And for the Brando Fortress scene with Lex Luthor, I'm doing something with a real piece of crystal that I located. That floating head - one minute it has a body, then it doesn't is absolutely terrible. There needs to be a clear delineation between the "real" Jor-El and the "recorded" Jor-El; otherwise the audience is going to ask, why didn't Jor-El tell Superman about the villains' arrival on Earth?
Q: Can you take us through - in general terms - the process of working with 25-plus-year-old footage?
A: It's easy to forget that I'm just working off the DVDs for now! With the bullets scene I got a few comments that it would have been better not to cut out of Reeve's final shot so quickly. That's kind of flattering, that people have forgotten that my efforts are constrained by pre-cut material - where would I get those extra few frames from? But the main thing for me is to try to make everything look like it belongs in the film. Bad CGI, modern big-budget Hollywood footage, and also cheap video-color-correction have no place in a 1970s movie filmed with the kind of optical care and tenderness that Superman was.
Q: In the battle over Metropolis with the three villains, you have Superman fly off the Statue of Liberty and kick Non into the Empire State Building. Isn't that kick from Lester's version? Why do you like that better than Superman punching Non into the Empire State Building?
A: It's not that I like it better as an idea, but that edit in the Donner Cut was probably the most atrocious edit in the history of moving pictures. That was the only way I could fix it. Without compromise, there will never be a good "Donner Cut" version of "Superman II".
Q: Some of your footage of Reeve comes from "Superman III" and even "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace". If this were to turn into an official project at some point in the future, how would you work around the copyright issues that would surely limit your ability to use Lester's "Superman III" and Sidney Furie's "Superman IV" work?
A: Warners owns all the material so [I don't think] it would be a problem. I'm trying to be very careful in the way I use that stuff, to try to never just lift things from those films, but rather to pretend that they are second-unit effects elements shot for "Superman II" and to adapt them as much as possible, so they look new. It's mainly additional flying shots I've taken. In one instance I needed the exterior shots of Clark. If I could, I would probably have used an alternate take or angle, just so that the viewers didn't notice where it came from.
Q: In your version of the Concorde scene, is that actor George Kennedy piloting the Concorde in "Airport '79"? Why didn't you choose to use the original footage that some fans have seen in the extended version of "Superman II" that ABC-TV aired in 1984 and 1985?
A: [Yes, though] I want to make it very clear that that is just illustrative, because there are clear copyright issues with that. The original scene is only available on grainy 4:3 bootleg DVDs. But also the scene itself is just a little flat and I needed to re-conceive it to get the timing with the music right. If I could, I would re-cut that original scene from scratch, I don't think Stuart Baird would be too hurt by that.
Q: Can you explain how you combined Margot Kidder's screen test with Richard Lester's footage of Reeve in the Niagara hotel-suite with the Donner dialogue of the blank bullets screen-tests?
A: With great, great difficulty.
Q: Why did you remove Reeve's screen-test footage?
A: Obviously it's a compromise, but Reeve's screen-test was a key obstacle to Donner's "Superman II" being a real film. This was the only way I could figure out to do it and retain the intention of the scene.
Q: How would the scene of Clark arriving at the Daily Planet building at the beginning of your version (after the scene with Lex in the prison laundry) jive with the Concorde scene?
A: Credits, Concorde, Luthor, Superman turns into Clark, Daily Planet. It's actually all about the pacing. Give Clark a decent intro[duction]. Show Superman having fun because this will contrast with the drama that comes later, etc. I don't think the editor of the "Donner Cut" gave any consideration to dramatic integrity, pacing, or narrative whatsoever.
Q: Time travel in movies always creates continuity headaches but certainly with "Superman", the ending of the first movie loses a bit of its vaunted verisimilitude when Lois talks about gas stations exploding and telephone polls falling all over the road given that Superman appeared to have stopped the California quake from ever happening. You propose a rather clever solution to that issue by having the California missile explode close enough to the ground that Lois still has the gas station blow up beside her car and still has to avoid telephone polls falling all over the road. How did you come up with this solution?
A: Just by thinking hard! Like I said, this project is far more of a writing challenge than just a technical assembly. It really bugged me when Lois said that she'd been in an earthquake at the end of the first film. This seemed like the way to address that as well as to start the film on action - to kind of put you out of breath at the start so you're then ready for the slow build-up of the villains and the love story. It also solves the problem of a lack of Superman in the early part of the film. It can't be a Superman film without a bit of super-activity at the start. I also really wanted to weave the two films together, and the way to do that, I thought, was to return to the end of the first film and show you some things that you never got to see.
Q: So let's see how I'd do if I had my own flying DeLorean. Are you suggesting that, before the "Superman II" credits, in your version, Superman would fly around the world in reverse, then stop the California missile, which would still blow up over California and cause Lois some distress, then stop the Hackensack missile by flying it into space, where it would then explode and free the Phantom Zone villains, but by which time Superman would have sped back to California to be with Lois and Jimmy? (Whew.)
A: You got it. Not only that, but the reason it went bad the first time is that one missile explodes a lot sooner than the other one. The first time, he mistakenly goes after the Hackensack missile first, which lets the other missile get to California. I can't tell you how difficult it was to have all that make sense. As you can see in the clip, I made sure to show maps of the missiles several times, so that the viewer is absolutely clear about which missile is doing what. That was a really complicated sequence to pull off, mainly because I didn't want to confuse the audience.
Q: In your version of events, it appears that what Superman chooses to do after changing time not only saves Lois's life but also results in the release of the Phantom Zone villains. In other words, given there's a whole different timing of when he gets to the Hackensack missile, is it safe to assume had he let Lois stay dead, the Hackensack missile would have missed the Phantom Zone?
A: That's the key to the entire film, and that's how I think Donner and Mankiewicz would have framed it. It's those emotions, which will be at play. Superman disobeys his father twice in this saga - that's the first time. He is forbidden from interfering with human history and he shouldn't devote his energy to one person at the expense of the rest. I really wanted this whole father-son thing to work properly and be at the center of the film.
Q: Can you discuss at all your plans for a different ending to "Superman II" that wouldn't repeat the ending from the first film?
A: I wish I could, but I can't. If there is any hope of ending this 30-year old saga with some dignity, then the ending I have is the major selling point. What I will say is that the hope is that this ending will reduce the audience to tears. I think it is very emotional. I'd be happy for Donner or Warners to see it and will happily send it to them. What it does is create a fully self-contained Superman part I and II saga.