When Superman: The Movie was first released on DVD in 2001 it came with three new documentaries that examined various aspects of the costly and complicated production in exhausting detail. Last November, Warner Bros. uploaded all three docs to their YouTube channel. You can watch them here below.
Each documentary features extensive interviews with many of the film’s surviving cast and crew members, including the late Christopher Reeve, as well as vintage behind-the-scenes footage, original screen tests for actors and actresses who tested for the roles of Superman and Lois Lane, and visual effects test footage. The first two are even hosted by Jimmy Olsen himself, Marc McClure.
The first, Taking Flight: The Development of ‘Superman’, focuses on the early days of the production when legendary international producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and their business partner Pierre Spengler optioned the rights to make a Superman movie from DC Comics. The property was deemed by the comics giant and their owner Warner Bros. to be a loser since the campy Batman television series from the late 1960s and a Superman musical that flopped on Broadway had scuttled interest in the character as the subject of a big-budget motion picture. Guy Hamilton, director of four James Bond movies including Goldfinger, was the first director to sign on to make the movie but had to abandon his duties when the production of Superman: The Movie set up shop in England and he wasn’t allowed to reside in the country but 30 days out of the year due to his tax exile status. Richard Donner, at the time known for directing the horror blockbuster The Omen, was enticed with the prospect of a million dollar payday for taking Hamilton’s place on a shoot that was intended to produce both the original Superman and an instant sequel. The casting process and numerous scripts written by the likes of Godfather author Mario Puzo and future Kramer vs. Kramer director Robert Benton are also covered in this documentary.
The second, Making Superman: Filming the Legend, covers the principal photography of Superman: The Movie, visual effects work, and its eventual release during the Christmas of 1978 when it was greeted with smashing reviews and boffo box office. The work of exalted cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who passed away before the film’s theatrical release, is paid tribute to in a brief but emotional segment, and the gifted effects team that made audiences all over the world believe a man could fly also get a little recognition. Their time will really come in the next documentary. Reeve is also the subject of tribute here; this documentary was produced four years before his untimely death and seeing his collaborators (including leading lady Margot Kidder and composer John Williams) paying homage to the strength and fortitude the actor displayed following the horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down in 1995 is particularly effecting, especially the part when Donner expresses a belief that the man who became his Superman will one day walk again.
The third and final documentary, The Magic Behind the Cape, is given over to the marvelous special effects accomplishments of Superman. Optical effects supervisor Roy Field takes us on a journey into the creation of many of the film’s visual wonders through loads of effects test footage. We get to see many aborted attempts at the creation of the Phantom Zone, destroying Krypton, the sequence in Superman II where the Man of Steel gives up his powers to live as a human with Lois, and of course the multiple flying scenes. It’s interesting to watch some of these early tests because it demonstrates the questionable directions the crew was headed in prior to Donner signing on as director, but it also shows much imagination and ingenuity at work.