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Interview with Michael Thau

Editor of "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut"

By Barry Freiman

It's not surprising that film editor and director Michael Thau has had so much involvement with Superman. Thau, the film editor and director who oversaw the preparation of "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" (the "Donner Cut"), worked as director Donner's personal assistant during the 1980s (Donner's current "Action Comics" co-scribe, Geoff Johns, also started out as Donner's personal assistant several years later).

Thau also spearheaded the editing of the 2001 "Superman: The Movie" Special Edition DVD as well as having directed, produced, and edited the three documentaries on the 2001 DVD, "Taking Flight: The Development of 'Superman'", "Making 'Superman': Filming the Legend", and "The Magic Behind the Cape". All of Thau's work product on "Superman" and "Superman II" can be seen in the newly released "Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition" (on discs two, three, and six).

The Superman Homepage would like to thank Michael for agreeing to do this interview, and for fitting it into his busy schedule.

Michael Thau Q: How did you get involved in restoring and editing together "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut"?

A: Warner Brothers called me about April last year. Then they got more serious toward mid-September. I guess after they had negotiated a deal with [Marlon] Brando's estate for "Superman Returns" and started to talk about "Superman II".

Q: And the first thing you did was to bring the film footage over from England?

A: We had pulled all the "Superman I" stuff or what was designated as "Superman I" stuff [back when working on the 2001 "Superman" special edition]. But the "Superman II" stuff was still there [in the film vaults in England]. So when they hired me, I said let's bring all the "Superman II" stuff we can find.

Q: And there was 6 tons of film from "Superman II"?

A: Six tons of "Superman I" came over in 2000. Then six tons of "Superman II" [came over last year]. I mean, a ton is not physically really all that much - six palettes. I mean, it is a lot of footage.

Q: I think many fans are unaware that you had a long-standing history with "Superman: The Movie" director Richard Donner that pre-dated your work on the 2001 "Superman" Special Edition DVD. When did you first work with Donner?

A: I was sent down to Baton Rouge in 1982 to be an Assistant Editor on "The Toy" and I met [Donner] there.

Q: Oh so you met Richard Pryor [star of "The Toy"] too, Mr. "Superman III"?

A: No I was in post[-production]. But then, I guess it was in '84 - it could've been a little earlier - when I heard "Ladyhawke" was coming back to be cut here. I got a call from an Assistant Editor named Billy Meshover [who'd] worked with [Editor] Stuart Baird [who also edited "Superman" for Donner]... and he knew that Stuart was looking for another Assistant Editor. I worked on "Ladyhawke" and that's how I really met Dick and ["Superman" Creative Consultant] Tom Mankiewicz. I used to hear those wonderful stories in the cutting room that Tom and Dick and Stuart would tell about "Superman" and that's how I kind of got the ideas for the plots of "Taking Flight" and "Making Superman" [two of the making-of documentaries prepared for the 2001 special edition "Superman" DVD and also included as part of the 2006 release].

Karen Rasch Q: How was the process of editing together the Donner Cut different than editing any other movie in 2006?

A: "Superman" and "Superman II" were shot in the late 1970s and they were cut on film. No one really in the cutting rooms now deals with positive [film versus negatives] much anymore except for maybe when they're conforming a cut for preview. That's kind of a big point that "Superman" was cut on film and I had to deal with film. I and my assistant, Karen Rasch, we had to be versed in film-cutting room stuff and then have modern techniques of course added. Also we had to be versed with the British way of organizing film shooting which is different than the way we shoot a film here in the United States.... Then the complicated thing of [Donner] going back and forth between shooting both films. Cutting rooms have to be very organized or else you lose stuff. So the assistants on the project back then when Stuart [Baird] was cutting it, he had two cutting rooms, one for "Superman I" and one for "Superman II", physically two different rooms. And when dailies came in for "Superman I" he'd walk into that room and begin cutting it. And when dailies came in on "Superman II", he'd walk into the other room.

The script supervisor has a form, a sheet, called a continuity sheet, and for every shot fills out a form and it has a slate number. It also has a corresponding scene number of what the shot is, the dialogue, the lens that they use in the camera, the filter that Geoffrey Unsworth was using in the lens, ... and all these technical things that are obviously important for visual effects shots. But the paperwork was sorted from slate one all the way only the "Superman I" stuff, and then from slate one all the way through "Superman II". But also copies were made of those continuity sheets and they were also put into scene order for the [two] different films. So we'd had that paperwork back in 2001 but Dick then wasn't interested in "Superman II".

When it came down to doing this film, we pulled out that paperwork, it took us awhile to figure it out, and also make sure everything was complete. That took months and months for Karen [Thau's assistant] to do, especially with all the second units, the third units, the model units, the front screen units, the rear screen units, the blue screen units. But actually early on, we had, in scene order, everything that Donner had shot for "Superman II". Fairly quickly, we knew what he had shot paper-work wise. So there was a lot more "Superman II" that he had shot than anyone knew. The studio didn't know. Dick didn't remember. Tom didn't remember. Stuart was off doing "Casino Royale" at this point. No one knew. No one knew. So, first of all, that was a glorious period of time.

Film Cans Q: Did the age and condition of the film present any obstacles?

A: It was all in really good condition. Technicolor London who had packed away all the film had done a really marvelous technical job of packing it away - they put everything in cans, wound it tightly, put it in metal cans, taped up the metal cans really well. And when you do that with film, and the can is solid of tightly wound film, it's hard to actually damage what's inside of it because, even a lot of weight won't crush it because it's tightly wound - it's like a solid piece of wood or something.

The Salkinds ["Superman" and "Superman II" film producers] were notorious for not paying their bills and not paying bills on time and Technicolor London at a certain point you can see they really stopped caring about really keeping track of what piece of negative was in which can. As I said, it was put in the cans well but they could care less at a certain point about the Salkinds' stuff. Which made it very difficult to figure out where that piece of negative that has a certain take of Marlon Brando saying "the son becomes the father, the father becomes the son", or Lois throwing herself out the window, etc. etc. etc. all the way down the line. So it took four or five people in the negative vault at Warner Brothers, I mean up until the last second I was still having to pull out negative for different things that I was doing right up to the very end.

The fight above Metropolis, we were always trying to find the background for a shot. Like, for instance, when Superman gets off the Statue of Liberty and flies directly toward camera. The background plate was one of those helicopter shots that was used during the Lois and Superman flying around the City in part one and the element of him flying towards us was something in the Lester cut. That was the kind of stuff that I was still having them pull up until almost the - I mean, they almost had to pry it [the film] out of my hand because we were always trying to refine stuff.

Q: Was any of the fight over Metropolis shot by Donner?

A: You may or may not know that a number of the bits - where Superman gets thrown into the Statue of Liberty or he knocks Non into the Empire State Building - that was stuff that Donner had shot for a trailer for "Superman II". And it was my challenge to incorporate the Donner fight over Metropolis footage with the Lester stuff so, for continuity, I had to fly Superman and [the villains] out into the Harbor between the Statue of Liberty and [Metropolis]. I had to get them out there because that's where the Donner action happens. And all the model stuff, Donner's model people shot. And all the explosions. So the Statue of Liberty and the background of Metropolis, that was all model-work shot by Donner's model units. The only thing we did [now] was, when he gets up off the broken, burnt out torch [of the Statue of Liberty], that one short cut where ... it's that footage from Lester with him coming off the building. The background, the visual effects people [now] had to paint. So it's just that one cut.

Q: Was there any footage you couldn't use because of its condition or for whatever reason?

A: Ya, but I always had an alternate take I could use.

Q: Speaking of alternate takes, it was fascinating the way you found different camera angles and point of views to come into scenes on - like that shot in the recap footage from "Superman" with baby Kal-El opening the rocket.

A: That was fun. I stumbled across that. Dick had shot a lot of angles from that end of the trench [that the rocket landed in]. I think he actually had Jonathan Kent and the wife walk the distance of the trench but they cut stuff like that out for timing.

Q: Also the different camera angles and wider shots during the sentencing of Zod, Non, and Ursa that you used in the Donner Cut, vis a vis the way it was presented in the first movie.

A: We wanted to show that scene in a different way. All the line readings are the same from the first film. Of course I compressed the hell out of it. But we wanted to show that scene from a different point of view.

Q: The Donner Cut uses both the original John Williams score for "Superman" and the Ken Thorne-adapted music for "Superman II" - can you discuss how scoring decisions were made?

A: There are certain things that happen in "Superman II" that there was nothing like in "Superman I" and Kenny Thorne did a good job with [adapting] that kind of stuff. There was nothing I could find with Williams that would work in certain scenes.

There's been this reaction of people that know the Lester cut so well and know "Superman I" so well - and the music from "Superman I" and they see scenes that they're so familiar with like the Lester cut that they've seen a hundred times and they see these scenes with different music on them, it weirds them out. It feels like there's something wrong. Then second, when they know the music from "I" so well, that when they hear it in "II" [Donner cut], they think about the scene in "Superman I", it makes the experience for those kinds of fans really off at first. But after having seen it a couple of times, and they divorce themselves from what they know as the Lester cut and they kind of divorce themselves from what they know as "Superman I", then it becomes more natural. I've been really kind of slammed on music cutting [for the Donner cut] but that's really what it is.

Q: Was there ever consideration given to presenting Donner's "Superman II" scenes as a series of separate scenes in a supplementary materials section to the theatrical version of "Superman II" rather than putting together a cohesive film?

A: That was Warner Brothers. They wanted a Donner Cut. The fans have been asking so long for it.

Q: Back in 2001 when you were doing interviews for the "Superman: The Movie Special Edition" DVD, you were quoted as saying fans would never see the Brando footage. What changed?

A: Did I really? Dick was just not interested [back then] at all.

Richard, Tom and Michael Q: What has Donner's involvement in this process been?

A: Dick was totally involved with [2006 movie] "16 Blocks" when I started on this. He didn't have time to think about this - he was trying to finish his film. He was happy for me that I was getting work. [Laughs]. But remember we didn't know what we were actually going to find. We didn't know if we were actually going to find the negative for [what Dick shot]. So only when I really started finding the Brando stuff - because the budget wasn't worth doing unless we found the Marlon Brando stuff especially from Warner Brothers' point of view. So as I was beginning to find more and more footage, Dick was beginning to free up from "16 Blocks" and I would try to lure him into the cutting room with 'Here Dick here's a piece of candy, come take a look' and then he started warming up to the project. But the second they hired me, I called him.

Q: Can you address at all some of the criticisms that have been voiced over the sound on the 2001 "Superman" movie versus the original 1978 sound? [Thau was already aware of the problem with the new "Superman" DVD not including the 1978 audio].

A: I'm dying for [Warners] to get those discs right on "Superman I" and for everyone to hear what the "Superman I" discs really sounded like. When you hear how poor that [1978] mix sounds by today's standards, how brittle it sounded, how many generations of dialogue that had built up because of lots of the changes they did to the [first] film. Most of the sound effects were optically recorded sound effects. Optical. Not even mags. They were on mags. They were using mag at the time but a lot of the sound effects that people had in the library were recorded optically. A lot of the big impact sound effects - explosions or something big breaking what they really were, were big wood rips recorded optically with distortion in them or electric sparks. I mean, I am anxious for everyone to hear that original mix.

Another thing about "Superman I", when I started that project, and we wanted to do a different cut, I said to Dick, let's make the film shorter. I wanted to take out the damn poem where Lois is reciting a poem ["Can You Read My Mind"] when they're flying around. I also wanted to take out a lot of that car chase [leading up to the Superman-foiled boat getaway] where it was just generic action, it wasn't even Superman action. It was like a two minute car chase. I wanted to make the film shorter. But Dick didn't want to take [that] out [or] the poem. We found that second Brando scene [Reeve and Brando in the Fortress]. It was a climate at the time for DVD where people wanted more, not less.

Q: Which you didn't really do as much on the "Superman II" Donner cut which does short-hand certain scenes from "Superman" and Lester's "Superman II".

A: Well, at the beginning of this process, I said to the Warner Brothers guys, do you want a - what I call a -- kitchen-sink cut, which is to throw everything in it like we did for "Superman I" or do you want a tight Donner-esque cut? That's what they wanted.

Q: Why were certain scenes put in a separate deleted scenes section instead of being incorporated into the Donner Cut? Who made those decisions?

A: Donner. Why do you think he allowed them to put his name on the film? It's not called "Superman II" - it's called "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut".

Non Q: Specifically with regard to the deleted scene where the villains first attempt to enter the Fortress and Non's rebuffed by some sort of force field, why was that scene not incorporated into the final cut?

A: Dick and Tom saying 'you don't need that, you don't need that.'

Q: So that had nothing to do with the state of the special effects?

A: No, no, I could've un-wound it and put new effects on it.

Q: Where did that scene come from with Luthor's escape from prison by car?

A: Donner shot that.

Getaway Q: Was that an alternative that was abandoned to the way it was eventually shot with the escape by balloon?

A: No, no that was for the end of the film. That was supposed to be Luthor's back in prison again, and he escapes yet again.

Q: Then also, that scene at the end, where Superman hands over the Phantom Zone villains and Lex Luthor over to the Arctic Police that a number of people have asked about as well.

A: Again, Dick said 'you don't need that, you don't need that.'

Q: Did Dick ever discuss with you what he thought he would have done for the ending of "Superman II" after they took the original ending and used it for the first movie?

A: No, no, they couldn't remember. I begged them to put their thinking caps on. 'I don't know, I don't know.' [Tom] said, 'We would've thought of something.' And I said Tom, now, think of something now that costs like nothing so I can do it. But I couldn't get anything out of them.

So I said to them, in the first film, we see Superman turning the world backwards and then you show around the world what is happening. So this time, why don't we have all this weird stuff starting to happen, then we reveal it's Superman at the end. Then it was my idea with the clouds to give it a bit more dazzle and make it a little different from the first film. I want to tell you, everyone's gut first instinct was 'we don't want to turn back time again.' Me. Dick. Everyone. But when we thought of the alternatives like going with the magic kiss, which we were not going to do... Tom didn't like Clark kissing Lois. He only thought that Superman should kiss Lois. So then you have the Donner ending which was all shot and, again, it may not be what he intended had he gone back and actually finished "Superman II".

Diner Q: If Superman reversed time to before the Phantom Zone villains ever broke out, why beat up the guy in the Diner since that original scene where Clark got beat up now never took place after he reversed time? In fact, the guys who run the comic book store I shop at just told me about an hour ago that I had to ask you this question.

A: [Laughs]. You gotta ask Tom. That's the way it was scripted. From a cinematic standpoint, it's a very cathartic scene seeing him kind of getting even with the guy. It makes an audience happy and clap and cheer and that kind of stuff. It worked back then and it still works now in that kind of way. I was trying to nail Tom down - 'now look, you always have a pat answer -- give me a pat answer so I can tell all these people who are asking me about it'. 'Nope they're right.' It doesn't make sense if you sit there and really think about it. But there's a lot of things in a lot of films that if you analyze like that they don't make a lot of logical sense.

Q: And how many comic book movies have been subjected to 25 years of analysis like this one has?

A: Yes. Thank you for that.

Q: What's been the feedback from Warner Brothers?

A: Warner Brothers is really, really happy with this project. As a matter of fact they put a huge billboard up in front of the studio of the artwork from the cover.

Q: Where did the DVD cover art come from?

A: If it's not the artwork that was used for trade ads when "Superman I" first came out, then it's very similar.

Q: Warner's initial advertising for the new "Superman" DVDs showed the Donner cut with a different cover.

A: They originally had a shot of Chris flying toward the camera. It was a real nice shot. But it made the DVD look like all the [Superman] DVDs, videos, and laser discs that have come out over the last 20-some-odd years. We felt [the original artwork] doesn't say 'new film', it doesn't say this is a new project. If you were in a video store and were walking by it, you'd think you were walking by one of the original films. Let's make it stand out and pop on the shelves. And I love what they did and I love the black background.

Q: One last question on the first "Superman" movie -- Are the original sound elements available for actor Jeff East's dialogue as young Clark Kent before he was dubbed over by Chris Reeve?

A: I guess they were there. I never tried to listen to them.

Q: I think that would make a desirable new element for the next set of Superman DVDs when they try and do a re-issue again in another five years.

A: Good idea. If they call me, I'll try to remember that one.

This interview is Copyright © 2006 by Steve Younis. It is not to be reproduced in part or as a whole without the express permission of the author.