Once upon a time, estimates of the tab for the New York shooting had been as low as half a million dollars. When the figures were finally in, the two New York weeks came to between 2.5 and 3 million. And the news from Pinewood, to which Chris Reeve had already returned, was that the flying was going badly. The prospects for a palatable budget and a summer 1978 delivery were becoming increasingly grim.
The location work in Canada, it was hoped, would help cut costs, because of several economic advantages, including the country's Commonwealth status, which allowed most of the original main unit to work there. But it seems to be a rule of filmmaking that there's no bargain basement anywhere.
• • •
Calgary, Alberta, is much like a boom town in the United States, with banks and office buildings rising up out of nowhere to supply the needs of whatever industry created the town in this case, oil and cattle. The city lies on a featureless plain, but the majestic Canadian Rockies provide a dramatic backdrop.
I checked into the Calgary International Hotel and met up with Gordon Amell and part of the featurette (a documentary on the making of "Superman") crew.
They had just flown in from Sparta, Illinois, where they had visited the DC Comics plant. Then they had gone on to a little town nearby called Metropolis, originally planned as a Disneyland-style amusement center focused on Superman and his legend. However, the energy crisis, at its height as the town was taking shape, had stifled the enterprise.
As Arnell and his team were driving into Metropolis, they spotted an enormous water tower with a gigantic flying figure of Superman. After meeting with the mayor and receiving an honorary scroll as "supporters of Superman," the publicist and his film crew went back to the tower and no Superman! Workmen had just finished taking it down to give the tower its annual paint job. Some quick and to-the-point talk with their friend the mayor got Superman reinstated, and the featurette team got the needed shot.
When the main crew pulled in, it was Old Home Week at the Calgary International, with the New York end of the English crew now reunited with old friends from the original main unit from Pinewood.
• • •
We were in Canada instead of Kansas, where the screenplay was set, because the growing season in Alberta was ahead of that in the States, and the wheat fields needed in the crucial scenes around the Kent farm were at just the right stage of growth for shooting.
After a rest day, the unit departed for a location shoot in Drumheller, about ninety miles away. I stayed behind to catch up on my notes and spent an evening with Ilya Salkind at "Moishe's Calgary's Only Disco Delly."
I drove out the next day and joined the unit, busy shooting the cemetery sequence that follows the death of Pa Kent. The drive to Drumheller afforded some beautiful sightseeing flat lands, rolling hills, pine forest, wheat fields, and occasionally cowboys, coyotes and even Indians and the beauty of the location itself was particularly striking: sunburnt windswept hills fringed with rolling green pine forests. It was a perfect setting for the poignant cemetery scene in which Phyllis Thaxter and Jeff East come to pay their last respects to Pa Kent.
The church set in the background (built considerably less than normal size to give an effect of distance), the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze, and the sun streaming through the high clouds made for a pure American scene right out of Norman Rockwell.
From left to right: Phyllis Thaxter as "Martha 'Ma' Kent" and Jeff East as "Young Clark Kent".
Later that week the shooting moved some sixty miles west of Calgary, halfway to the popular Rocky Mountain resort of Banff.
Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty had by then arrived in Canada for about three weeks' work. (Margot Kidder, who was not as yet on call for any of the Canadian location work, had nevertheless chosen to take up quarters at a local resort ranch.)
The first morning on the new location, I drove out to the set with Skye Salkind and Valerie. All during the drive, Valerie calmly applied her make-up, including a set of fabulous false eyelashes, lash by lash oblivious to the fact that we were in a unit car, bouncing along at 75 miles an hour. Sitting there in the front, hair in pin curls with a stocking over them to keep every curl in place, she went into her Scarlett act. "My, my, my," she said, fanning herself and eyeing the breathtaking scenery, "all this and thirteen thousand dollars a week too!"
The scenes being shot here dealt mostly with Lex Luthor's plot to waylay an XK 101 atomic missile convoy just long enough for his henchman Otis to sneak under the protective tarpaulins and tamper with the missiles' nagivational mechanisms. The crew spent the morning positioning a huge mobile home to block a nearby bridge (a plot point), so I spent much of that first day in the foothills of the Rockies chatting, swimming and sunbathing with Valerie. (While the two of us were off by a secluded lake, Valerie heard some noise in the brush behind us. From her sunning position, on her back, she tilted her head to see what the commotion was and saw that she was only a few feet away from a pack of wild horses. "Don't panic," she whispered, "but there's a whole bunch of horses without people.")
Many of us wound up in Valerie's van at lunchtime; and because we could see that it was destined to be the "in" spot on location (how "in" can you be off the Kananaskis Highway?), I gave it the reasonably classy name of "Club S."
After lunch, I shaved off my mustache in preparation for the "Superman" part Donner had finally decided on for me assistant football coach at Smallville High School. "I want you to get some sun on that upper lip, kid," Dick commanded, not without vindictive pleasure.
By the time the crew was ready to shoot, the rains came a mountain storm of frightening intensity, complete with thunder and lightning.
Richard Lester had been sitting in Val's van telling us about his casting finesse: "I turned down Hackman for 'Petulia,' I turned down Redford early on for something else... so much for my insight into stardom." When the storm started, Lester stared glumly out of the van window, looking up at the forbidding clouds. "That sky can't be real," he said. "It's either a boardwalk painting on velvet or a Lithuanian potato carving."
Ilya Salkind sighed. "Do you know one reason we came to this part of Canada?" he muttered morosely. "The beautiful weather."
• • •
The next few days, at the Stoney Indian Reservation, were also weather washouts.
Because of insurance provisions, a film unit has to proceed with scheduled plans for shooting and hope that conditions will improve; only after a certain number of hours on the set can the first assistant director call it a wrap. I spent most of my time waiting around with Valerie, who, like every other principal scheduled to shoot on a given day, had to be in make-up, ready to go if the weather improved.
After several straight days of bad weather, we managed to get through part of the initial missile sequence, and the shooting broke for a three-day weekend. Most of the crew took off for nearby Banff, or Edmonton, or Vancouver or even points in the U.S., including San Francisco and L.A.
Costume designer Yvonne Blake had to stay behind a little longer because of a new stunt scene Dick had just inserted which involved placing Valerie on a bridge over a canyon. Since Alf Joint would be doubling for Val, disguised in a blond wig, Yvonne had to whip up another matching costume, a form-fitting, slinky red dress, made to Alfs muscular measurements.
With Maria Monreal and Pierre Spengler's sister Katia (an assistant/trainee in continuity), I left for the famous Banff Springs Hotel, where we were later to be joined by Donner, Hackman, Valerie and Larry Hagman (the son of actress Mary Martin), who had just been cast in the role of an Army major at the missile base.
Banff is a popular Canadian resort town surrounded by cool pine forests, clear lakes and the majestic Rocky Mountains. Luckily for us, Valerie had brought Club "S" and her congenial driver Ken Cooper along, so we were able to take side trips. We spent our last evening at the hotel being serenaded on Valerie's terrace by two young lady bagpipers, complete with tartan kilts, reminders of the original Scottish settlers of the Calgary area.
After the extended weekend, the shooting resumed with the missile sequence. The first morning back, I observed the stunt men and special-effects team as they set up an elaborate car crash involving a driverless remote-control car sent in by Lex Luthor as a diversion. After two aborted takes, the car did a fantastic double-flip and it was a print.
That afternoon, I drove back to town to witness a casting session for boys needed to play the young Clark Kent at various stages in his growth.
The session was held at the Calgary Inn Hotel. For several days, announcements had run in the local newspapers and over the radio that a number of Calgary boys would have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to appear "in the biggest motion picture production in history, 'Superman'!" Half the population of Alberta seemed to feel destined for the silver screen and hundreds of boys turned up. Some were perfect for the parts. Others didn't look even remotely close to what one would imagine young Clark Kent should look like as a child. Along with the cute kids, the whining kids, the wide-eyed frightened kids, and the kids oblivious to and unconcerned with the whole thing, came an army of parents who had decided that their Bobby or Billy was another Jackie Cooper redivivus. Some of them even brought their daughters, either misunderstanding the call or hoping that with a short haircut and just the right make-up, maybe....
The whole circus had been left to Tom Mankiewicz and New York casting director Lou DiGiamo, who had helped out on the production in Manhattan and had films like "The Exorcist" and 'The Godfather" to his credit. The final casting decision, of course, would be Dick Donner's. Mankiewicz and DiGiamo waded through the horde of applicants, who ranged in age from three to sixteen. Some of the kids were truly adorable and many of their parents were in fact friendly, low-keyed and cooperative. Many were not.
In the midst of all the chatter, crying and general commotion, one little boy kept walking up to Lou, asking, "Look, when am I going to be in this show?" (Lou assured me that even though the kid wouldn't be one of those selected, he'd probably end up as the agent for the kids who were!) Another child asked the bearded, slightly overweight DiGiamo, "Are you Soo-oooo-per-man?"
• • •
About this time, unsettling reports reached us from New York, where some members of the production staff were still wrapping up "unsettled business." The tales of woe concerned a legacy of unpaid bills, threats of broken kneecaps from some of the creditors... even a few cases of Mafia strong-arming.
While Pierre huddled with production coordinator Tim Burrill to try to sort everything out and delay as many creditors as possible, Ilya flew to Los Angeles to allay the growing fears of the distributor. He hoped also to have time for the more pleasant task of meeting with potential composers of the film score, and to begin working with the Warner advertising and publicity executives on preliminary plans for a "teaser" campaign (including leasing huge billboards in New York and L.A. and designing a new Superman logo for the film).
By this time, news of further delays had filtered back to the film community in California, and the pressures of meeting the shooting schedule as well as keeping the costs down became more intense.
The production's problems were not lessened by the fact that air traffic controllers in Canada had just walked off their jobs in a strike action. For a.d. David Tomblin, this meant additional headaches; he now had to make arrangements to get the artists in and out of Calgary via Great Falls, Montana. Ken Cooper, Valerie's Winnebago "captain," planned to drive Valerie, Ned Beatty and Larry Hagman, all of whom had finished their work in Canada, across the border to the States.
Before she departed, the ever-playful Perrine left Dick Donner her prize T-shirt, which had "Club 'S'" emblazoned on the front and a nude picture of Val, from an old Playboy article, on the back, accompanied by the legend, "Another day, another $300,000."
Valerie Perrne's t-shirt gift to director Richard Donner, "Another day, another $300,000".
• • •
When the weather was good enough, the unit returned to the Kananaskis area to complete the Danforth Missile Base sequence.
During rehearsals on the set crowded with hundreds of U.S. Army uniformed extras and snarling German shepherd dogs cameraman Peter MacDonald noticed that the nose cone of the XK 101 missile was wobbling a bit. So David Tomblin asked me if I would get into the second stage of the rocket and hold the nose cone steady. Not quite sure he was serious, I agreed and proceeded to climb up onto the big flatbed truck. A moment later Alfie of Props came running over to say that I'd probably suffocate in there. "Don't worry," Tomblin chuckled, "we'd bury you over there on that hill under a marker that said: 'He Did It For The Book.'"
• • •
About this time, two very special members of the cast arrived for cameo appearances in the film.
Kirk Alyn, the original serial Superman, and Noel Neill, the first film Lois Lane (also the much-loved Lois of the TV series), had been suggested to Ilya Salkind by Rogers and Cowan publicist Dale Olsen as naturals to play the parents of Lois Lane in the new picture, in the scene in which she, as a little girl, sees the young Clark Kent speeding past a train. The young executive producer quickly locked up both Kirk and Noel for the parts.
Much to the amusement of most of us on the film, the two "Superman" veterans showed up in Calgary still reflecting some of the tensions that had apparently enlivened their earlier acting partnership, exchanging generally harmless barbs, still bickering about stolen scenes and stepped-on lines. They both looked great, Kirk tall and tanned, with a still enviable physique, and Noel as attractive and sparkling as when she first started at the Daily Planet.
"I love Noel," Kirk assured me, while Noel, sitting nearby, rolled her eyes. "When we worked together on the serials, she must have had an awful lot of faith in me. I carried this girl so many times through fire, through smoke, through all kinds of danger . . . and she'd dangle under one arm while I did these things. But she didn't mind, she didn't wince, she didn't even say a word. She just believed that I was Superman, and so I was!"
From left to right: Kirk Alyn, Kathy Paynter and Noel Neill.
• • •
With a second Canadian unit leaving to shoot plates and additional scenes in the British Columbia icefields (these to be integrated later with scenes of Superman's Fortress of Solitude), the main unit headed south for what was then planned as three or four days of location work in the tiny town of Barons.
After getting a good night's sleep at the local Holiday Inn, we were up early 6:00 a.m. for the drive to the set. Despite some ominous clouds, the weather forecasters had assured us that it would be clearing by late afternoon. Dick planned to devote the morning to rehearsals and get a shot in before wrapping.
The scene was a complex special-effects sequence that would be completed optically back at the studio. Young Clark Kent (Jeff East) would race past a thundering locomotive and then cross the track, leaping over the enormous engine at the instant it appeared that boy and train would intersect.
The train being used had been leased from Canadian Pacific at a cost of $5,000 a day, with the C.P.R. emblem painted over with "Kansas Star." This scene was another reason the production had decided on the Canadian location. The United States has, after several serious accidents during filming, made it almost prohibitive to use trains, and, more importantly, track lines (which is why, for example, the film "Silver Streak" was shot in and around Calgary).
To show Jeff running at super-speed past the train, everything had to be paced, timed and measured perfectly, so the rehearsals and setups were particularly painstaking and slow. And once again the weather had turned hot.
With Peter MacDonald's camera rostrum bolted onto the back of a truck, Johnny Richardson continually adjusting Jeff's flying rig, and Stu Freeborn checking the skin tones of Jeff's putty nose, Dick had a great deal to cope with. He would move them all off about two or three hundred yards down the dirt road from where he was standing and then shout "Action!" through his bullhorn. The truck would race toward him, the crane would everyone hoped keep Jeff barely an inch or two off the ground so that he'd appear to be running at an incredible speed, and the train would chug alongside down the track, gathering momentum. Then the truck would hang a sharp right onto the small gravel road crossing the track, and just as the train roared past, Jeff would be swung within a hair's breadth of the hurtling engine. Everything had been planned for and measured and tested to the limit. But just one error in the calculations or someone's judgmentand Jeff East might have been up for a posthumous Academy Award.
Happily, Jeff survived.
Left photo: The Canadian Pacific train.
Right photo: Jeff East outraces a train.
• • •
Glenn Ford arrived to begin fittings for his role as Pa Kent and immediately voiced his intention not to wear a wig that had been designated for him. The adamant actor even went to Ilya Salkind, who wisely remained neutral, about the problem before finally taking it to Donner. Dick diplomatically asked his star to try on the wig which had been hastily bought off a wigmaker's block in Los Angeles and hadn't been shaped or trimmed then took one look and said, "It looks like Glenn Ford in a wig." So Pat McDermott whipped up a black water-based rinse for Ford's own hair- (so that he could play Pa at an earlier age) which could then be washed out and replaced with gray highlights for the role of the older Pa.
While that imbroglio was going on, a second unit was detached from the main unit to start rehearsals on the scene with Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn. At least ten times the extras were loaded on the train, and ten times they were loaded off, as Dick ran through the paces with the two veteran performers and the little girl playing the young Lois.
Between shots, Kirk (whose business cards read: "Kirk Alyn Superman") would reminisce about his days as the Man of Steel. "Superman has come a long way," he observed. "Even the famous costume has moved with the times. Now it's all latex and stretch material it's beautiful. It sticks right to you! I was constantly stretching my costume and having to pull it into shape. You see, I wore a ballet costume when I was a dancer and they were wool and at least the wool was a good fit. But as Superman, my costume was cotton. The tights were cotton too, and before each take I'd stretch them out and then after each take I'd stretch them out again.
"I did just about all my own stunts too. In the beginning, for the tests, they had a stunt man, but the producer and the director realized it was no good. "Kirk, the kids will never believe it. He doesn't look like you, he doesn't run like you... there's nothing about him that's like you!' they told me. So since I was very athletic, I did them all myself."
Kirk paused, running a hand through his still wavy hair. "I made two serials of fifteen episodes each. The first was in 1948, the second in 1950. 'Superman' was one of the last of the great Saturday afternoon serials. Sometimes, when I look back on it, I wonder whatever possessed me to do them. I was ready to quit on the first day, because the first day was, as kids say, 'the scariest thing that ever happened to me!'
"I had to prevent a train wreck by soldering the track with my x-ray eyes. And there we were in Los Angeles, in broad daylight, and there was no way to fake it. There I was, about two inches from the track as the train roared by... I'll never forget the feeling in my stomach!"
Noel Neill wasn't quite as enthusiastic about her work in the serials. But her attachment to the Superman myth was still evident.
"The serials were kind of the pits of the industry," she told me. "You mention serials today and people say 'Serials? What are they?' When I tour the college campuses, most of the kids I talk with have never seen or even heard of them.
"After the serials were over, the TV series started and the original producer didn't take me, he didn't take Kirk, and he didn't take Tommy Bond, who was the first Jimmy Olsen. But they switched Loises in 1953" Noel's big hazel eyes flashed as they had when Clark Kent would annoy her "and I went right through with George Reeves and Jack Larson until the series finished in'57:
"Looking back on it now, I realize just how hard we all worked. We did two shows a week... it was very fast and very time-consuming shooting. We worked from eight in the morning until eight at night; then we'd get our legal minimum twelve hours off and wham! back again. It wasn't what I would call fun at the time... we didn't have outtakes and whatever. I think we printed everything.
"The special effects were crude in those days, compared to what we're doing now. George Reeves had several methods of flying visually, I thought they were pretty good and some of the mechanisms worked quite well. But nothing like what's being done in this movie.
"Jack Larson [Jimmy] and I flew in one of our shows... in fact, the last one we did. Jimmy gets hit on the head with a sandbag in this little professor's laboratory, and he dreams that the professor has invented a pill which we both take, and then we fly and we crash through the walls and bring the 'heavies' to justice. 'All That Glitters' was the name of that episode."
From left to right: Noel Neill, Kathy Paynter and Kirk Alyn.
The call came for my big scene in the film. That morning, along with all the "dress extras"footballers, cheerleaders, spectators, motorists.I picked up my costume at the El Rancho Motel and then departed for the gymnasium of the little red sehoolhouse, where we were to change and get into make-up.
As an assistant football coach at Smallville High, circa 1950, I had to submit, in addition to the earlier mustache shave, to having my hair cut and Brylcreemed down. I improvised a bit, tucking a Fonz-esque cigarette behind my ear beneath my baseball cap.
While I was still in make-up and an a.d. came running in, saying that someone had mentioned that American football players applied blacking under their eyes so that the sun wouldn't reflect in them. I confirmed this the British and the Canadians seemed unaware of the practice and Stu Freeborn's assistant hurriedly applied heavy black make-up to the whole football team.
The first application looked like Indian war paint, so I quickly explained that it should be more like a fingermark.
Not that I'm any expert on American football. Since the scene at the school was to open with warm-ups and other activity on the field (which had to be "cut" from part of the adjoining wheat fields and sown with grass seed especially for the film), Dick had me tossing the pigskin to three of the players. Now I know what Charlie Brown feels like. Tennis I play; football I don't nor have I ever. After Donner had watched a few of my feeble tosses, I was relegated to working out with Jeff Atcheson, an accomplished athlete, who was playing the coach.
Donner bore me no malice, however, even going so far as to give me a line to say to Clark Kent, the team's water boy, as we left the field: "Hey, Clark, let's have all this leather washed and waxed for Saturday's game, O.K.?" And to the coach: "G'night, Jeff." Plus a slap on the back and a leap over the bench maybe.
Despite the dawn call, I was enough of a ham to love every minute of that first morning, though naturally I was just a little nervous. I needn't have been. When we were almost ready to shoot, after hours of patient waiting, the dark clouds rolled in, the sun disappeared, and the rains came.
The next day dawned gray, chill and very wet. But regardless of the weather, everyone on call had to be out on the set as usual in case the weather changed.
The bedraggled unit, cast and crew, hung around most of the morning, chatting, reading, listening to still-photographer Bob Penn's jokes, or just plain moping. The dampness and cold seemed particularly penetrating after the stretch of warm days, and by evening we were all sniffling and sneezing, and the nurse was being besieged with requests for prescriptions.
The following day was gray again, but it was Sunday, an off day, and most of the crew opted for spending it in bed. Luckily, the weather cleared at the beginning of the week. They were ready at last to shoot the much-delayed football sequence.
Believe it or not, I had spent most of my Sunday off rehearsing my line Stanislavsky and my high school drama teacher, Miss McMindes, would have been proud of me and I arrived on the set mumbling the words over and over: "Hey, Clark..." No. "Hey, CLARK..." Yes!
I was still observant enough to notice the great costumes all the "poodle" skirts Dick had specifically requested, the saddle shoes, the pegged pants as well as the fantastic cars a '47 Olds, a '50 Studebaker Hawk and assorted Chevys that had been brought in for the scene.
Ed Finneran from Massachusetts and Tim Hussey from California, two boys who had won a DC Comics contest which offered parts in "Superman" as prizes, were on hand to appear as football players. They were out on the field at 7:00 a.m. sharp, tossing the ball under the watchful, and slightly bleary, eyes of their proud mothers.
DC Comics contest winners Tim Hussey (left) and Ed Finneran (right).
Though the morning was sunny, they weren't ready to shoot until after lunch. (As it turned out, my four seconds of screen time required three takes and two afternoons, and months later I learned that the scene probably wouldn't make it into the final print!) The first take was truly memorable.
After running through the scene a couple of times, with Donner continually berating me for doing something wrong, a take was called for. I was still standing with Pat McDermott, who was making a few last-minute adjustments to my unruly hair, when Dick screamed "Action! Petrou... where the hell are you?!?" I went racing off, camera right, hardly waiting for my cue. But as I approached the point at which I was to deliver my line, I could see that my unobtrusive marker had been replaced by a huge wooden camera box. Not wanting to ruin another take on this problem-prone picture, I ignored the unexpected obstacle, stepped blithely up onto the crate and proceeded to deliver my line at which point Donner and everyone else in the vicinity, including Jeff East and Jeff Atcheson, collapsed in hysterics. "Don't take it hard," counseled David Tomblin, who had switched markers while I was in hair-dressing. "We figured that since we're shooting in Panavision, unless we raised you they'd only have seen a baseball cap walking across the screen!" I was sure my crimson face was shining through my carefully applied make-up. I cheered up a little when my old friend Roy Charman agreed to do a "wild track" a special loop of my line later in the afternoon.
That wasn't my only trouble with the scene. After delivering my sixteen words, I was to walk away, jump into a waiting Studebaker Hawk and drive off. With four cars on the field, why was I the only one who couldn't get his into gear? Finally, John Scott, in charge of transportation for the Canadian end of the production, was enlisted by Dick to be my driver.
David Michael Petrou (left) and Richard Donner (right) on location in Canada.
The last two days in Barons were devoted to a special-effects sequence on the football field.
The final shot of the Smallville High scenes had an angry Clark Kent walloping the pigskin across the field and out of the stadium after having been put down by the school bully in front of Lana Lang, his first "romance." (Superman must have a thing for alliterative L's.) Of course, getting the football to take off as written took the better part of an afternoon.
John Richardson and his crew accomplished this by having a deep trench dug, and placing in it a long, metal, cannonlike tube connected to a big air pressure tank. Into this mechanism were loaded painted wooden footballs to provide the extra weight needed for the proper trajectory which were then rocketed out across the field.
Dick was happy that during the shot, as well as in the background of the previous scene between Clark and Lana, we got a free bonus of local color: a long grain-hauling freight train moving backward and forward on the track as it picked up harvested wheat from the Barons depot.
As we left the area, local school kids surrounded the unit with requests for mementoes and autographs from Dick, the crew, the Canadian drivers... even me!
The Smallville High football field and team.
The day after our return to Calgary, we were all up for an earlier-than-usual morning call to drive the forty-odd miles to the Kent Farm location in Blackie.
Everyone was feeling the effects of the continual delays. Noel and Kirk, along with Ed and Tim, the two DC Comics contest winners, had been told that they'd be needed "for two days, at most," which had stretched out into a week. The additional delay in Barons because of bad weather was another serious financial drain on the film, as Donner and the producers were painfully aware.
The Kent farm location, a clapboard farmhouse and barn in a picturesque setting of wheat fields, had been thoroughly readied, thanks to the extra time, so there was hope that the shooting might move rapidly enough to pick up a day or two. Unfortunately, shooting did not progress this quickly, due in large part to the fact that so many key people, Donner included, were still suffering from colds and flu picked up standing around in the rain in Barons.
After the mob scenes in Barons, the "Kent farm" seemed blessedly quiet. Glenn Ford, looking relaxed and tanned, chatted with crew members; Phyllis Thaxter admired the set dressing which included chickens, pigs, cows and calves.
Gordon Arnell and Bob Penn, along with special-effects man John Richardson, were on the Kent farm set most of that first week, coordinating an elaborate still-shot sequence which might possibly be incorporated into the film, detailing the growth and displaying the super powers of young Clark. Using the young boys selected at the earlier casting session in Calgary, Richardson had to create effects which included milking a cow at super-speed, chopping a cord of wood in a single blow, and lifting a tractor. Since these fantastic actions had to be depicted in still shots rather than in motion, the sequence provided Bob Penn with some unique problems.
While all this was going on in Blackie, a second film unit was heading north by helicopter for more shooting in the Columbia icefields and glaciers. Michael Green, acting as second assistant director in the second unit, was called upon to stand in for an absent Valerie Perrine as her lighting double and was listed on the Call Sheets under his "nom de cinema" Michel Vert (which means "green" in French!)
Decked out in Valerie's flamboyant red-orange-dyed Persian lamb outfit, complete with orange sunglasses, Michael almost got stranded on a glacier with a guide and Gene Hackman's fur-clad stand in. As ominous gray clouds dropped lower and lower, it seemed unlikely that a helicopter would be able to make its way through the jagged cliffs and ice peaks. And with the gaping chasms below, plus the threatening storm above, the three anticipated being stranded there for the night. Fortunately, however, a second 'copter was able to descend and pick them up.
After the initial shots on the Kent farm, the main unit moved to a dirt road between two nearby wheat fields to film the arrival of the starship carrying the infant Kal-El to Earth. In contrast to the order and organization on the farm set, here was a nightmare of chaos and confusion, brought on by a combination of altered schedules, added scenes, vehicular movement and inadequate planning even in minor details; Phyllis Thaxter laughingly noticed that the name on her chair had been misspelled "PHYLIS."
Shooting commenced with a smudge-pot device giving off three magnesium powder bursts to create the smoke necessary to simulate the crash landing of the starship. The surrounding wheat field had been scorched and sprayed with black paint, particularly along a trench dug during the night. But when Dick arrived on the set, he decided the setup didn't look convincing enough, so the art department had to get to work again.
When everything seemed reasonably ready, Glenn and Phyllis, both in middle-America dress, circa 1940, got into a purplish '47 GM pick-up. The truck, with a preflattened rear tire, was backed up to a designated starting point from which Glenn was to drive toward the camera, while John Richardson dashed ahead with a smoke-making device so that the truck would appear to be throwing up dust on the dirt road.
After several rehearsals on this part of the sequence, Glenn was directed to stop the truck along the side of the road, get out and then, together with Phyllis, quickly turn and stare as the starship crashes into the field.
On the first take, poor Glenn couldn't get the truck's door handle to work. Then, after one successful shot, the brakes went completely, forcing him to steer the runaway pick-up into some sandbags and lighting equipment. Luckily, no one was hurt and there was little damage to the equipment. Glenn, a veteran of many westerns, remarked, "A horse I can stop. A truck's something else!"
Because of more lost time, the next day's call was an hour earlier on the dirt road location, but since the cloud patterns kept changing and the lighting was so variable making it a nightmare for Geoff Unsworth to achieve matching shots the unit wasn't ready for rehearsals until after eleven. So while Dick positioned himself in Roy Van Buskirk's Chapman crane (which Roy had driven the 1,600 miles from L.A.) for a wide-angle shot, I took the opportunity to chat with Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter.
Glenn Ford. Calgary, Canada. August, 1977
Sitting next to me in the tall grass alongside the road, with technicians milling around us, Ford looked ruggedly handsome and seemed unusually relaxed despite the fact that he would be leaving for Los Angeles in a week to be married again.
"I'm glad to see that my friend Dick Donner we've known each other for twenty-five years is playing this film straight," he said. "Look at the part I play Jonathan Kent a simple, midwestern, salt-of-the-earth fellow. He knows his 'son' is extraordinary, that he's possessed of extraordinary powers. But he never really tries to figure it out. He says, 'Son, I know you're here for a reason. I just don't know what that reason is.' He treats Clark as normally as possible and he wants him to grow up like other children, with honest, basic values. I think that's the secret to this whole show... playing it very, very honestly, not playing against it. That's what Dick wants. To make it as real as possible so that people can say, 'Hey, maybe such a thing could happen.'
'Look, I don't mean to make it more than it is. This film is pure entertainment. We have enough violence and obscenities in our lives. People will see this film and be entertained. And that's what this business is for!"
Phyllis Thaxter, a strikingly handsome woman even in her Ma Kent make-up, agreed with Ford. "I'm thrilled with the magic and excitement of this film, and I feel very much a part of Ma Kent," she said. "Now that I'm into the character, that goes for everything the shoes, the stockings, even the old-fashioned undergarments. I guess I feel like 'Earth Mother'!
"My children idolized Superman," she recalled, perhaps mindful that she was speaking not only as one of the stars of the film but also as the executive producer's mother-in-law. "They used to buy all the comic books and watch the television show. I can remember Skye running around the house with her blanket saving 'Look! I'm Superman!'" Phyllis laughed. "Who knew then?"
• • •
Plans had originally called for switching back and forth between the Kent farm and the dirt road, but Dick decided to wrap up the starship landing sequences before going back to the farm, a decision which pleased the exhausted crew. Naturally, though, on a film set, plans are made to be changed or changed for you.
After the unit settled in to finish up on the Kent farm, the weather again turned bad "We've never seen a summer like this! It's the worst August in forty-one years!," the Canadians kept assuring us so Dick and Geoff Unsworth decided to do a lighting test in the large crystal starship back by the dirt road location.
When we had shifted again, Geoff expressed his concern that the green cellophane-covered lights inside the module might be too hot for little Aaron Smolinski, who played the baby Kal-El. And since I was the smallest person with the unit, I was hastily recruited to be Aaron's lighting double.
I had to strip down to the waist it was no more than 55 degrees out, with a wet wind whipping across the vast expanse of wheat and don a giant-size version of Aaron's costume, which rather resembled a diaper, all to the howls of the crew. Once I was inside the Lucite "crystal" module, filled with chirping crickets after having been left for two nights in the field, a fiendish David Tomblin mumbled for me to push open the hatch when Richard Hackman knocked on the back and then David planted himself on top of the opening, trapping me in what seemed to be a 110-degree steam-bath as the lights went on, until my outcries made him relent.
When I finally did emerge, I was greeted by a roaring Dick Donner, along with Bob Penn and assorted other shutterbugs, madly filming away with their cameras. Bob said he would use the photo for the cover of his book about the seamy, behind-the-scenes life of a debauched American writer. And Dick threatened to keep the negatives under lock and key so that if I published anything objectionable about him, he could release them to the wire services with the story: "Perverted Unit Writer, Strung Out on Drugs, Spends Three Nights in the Space Capsule Committing Repeated Acts of Self-Abuse!"
David Michael Petrou inside the starship.
• • •
The two days spent shooting baby Aaron emerging from the starship provided, surprisingly, a respite from the tension most people had been feeling, we had a chance to step back and smile, despite the difficulties.
Aaron was enchanting, coming out of the starship nude as Dick finally decided arms outstretched and a big grin on his face. It was a poignant moment; the intended allusion to Moses wasn't lost on any of us. I just wondered how the poor kid would live it down. I could imagine him twelve or fourteen years from now, at a local movie theater showing a re-release of an old movie entitled "Superman," and his date screaming "Oooo, Aaron! Is that really you?!?" much to his chagrin.
Aaron Smolinski as "Baby Kal-El/Clark Kent" emerges from the starship.
• • •
Finishing up on the starship, the production moved back once more to the Kent farm. The weather was now blustery and bitter cold (could it really be late August?) and the day proved to be a total washout. Most members of the unit were suffering from sore throats, Roy Button was down with aggravated high blood pressure (understandably), and poor Steve Barron was laid up with an abscessed tooth.
Also, as we neared the end of location work in North America (a sequence for "Superman II" at Niagara Falls had mercifully been postponed), the air-traffic controllers in England, like their comrades in Canada, were threatening a "go-by-the-book" slowdown over the upcoming three-day bank holiday weekend the weekend we were scheduled to fly back to London. So Bob Simmonds in Calgary and Geoff Helman back at Pinewood started making alternative plans to reroute the worn-out unit via Toronto to either Amsterdam or Paris, and then by boat train to England. In all, a very depressing situation.
On top of that, the long-term weather forecast was very bad. That was it. The producers, gritting their teeth at the cost overruns, wanted to leave immediately. Dick Donner argued that they had to stay and try to complete needed scenes. Again fears were raised that the film might have to be compromised, fears of which Salkind and Spengler were only too painfully aware.
"Superman" was now weeks over schedule and millions over budget. The New York and Canadian locations had been anything but stunning successes. And the word from England wasn't really any better: the model units were way behind schedule and the flying unit was still encountering serious technical problems. A frantic Alexander Salkind was now on the transatlantic telephone almost every day, telling his son and Pierre Spengler that he could barely keep his bankers at bay.
The decision finally was made to complete only the scenes at the Kent farm with Phyllis and Jeff and leave the remaining shots to a Canadian second unit, with key personnel from the British crew to assist.
With that difficult decision behind him, though new forecasts predicted more rain, Donner decided to go ahead with a 4:30 a.m. call for the unit to try to get a sunrise shot on the Kent farm the scene in which Clark Kent, after the death of his adoptive father, bids farewell to his "mother" and heads north, directed by some overpowering force.
It was cold and drizzling as we left the International Hotel, yawning, sighing, grumbling many in the unit, in fact, hadn't bothered to go to sleep. After steaming cups of tea and the appropriate preparations of the setup, the crew stood staring at the horizon, trying to second-guess the experts as to where the sun would finally if ever break through the bank of clouds that had now begun to clear to the east.
Jeff East had been positioned in a wheat field off against the horizon, and Dick kept shifting him a few feet at a time, hoping to pick the spot where the sun would come up behind him. At last the clouds broke and turned to rose and gold. Peter MacDonald, crouching with his feet tucked under him, got it all down on film, to the joy and satisfaction of everyone, and we went on to shoot the scene in which young Clark and Ma Kent say goodbye for the last time.
Left photo: Jeff East faces the sunrise.
Right Photo. From left to right: Phillys Thaxter, Jeff East and Richard Donner.
We headed back to Calgary at midday. Immediately, everyone's thoughts turned toward England home. The unit was scheduled to depart the next day.
Even with all the colds and sniffles, by now the only truly universal malady on the unit was homesickness. After several hard weeks on any film location, sooner or later everybody comes down with a bad case of it. It can be awfully lonely going back to a hotel room night after night.
"The telephone must be one of the most insidious inventions of the last hundred years," soundman Roy Charman observed, echoing the feelings of most of the married members of the crew, for whom the long separations become especially trying. "It doesn't just convey all the happy emotions, like the adverts try and convince you. It also intensifies the loneliness you feel when you're away. There's something terribly final when that receiver clicks down."
Certainly I related to this it had happened to me, too. But I had very mixed emotions at the moment about going back to England. For me, it wasn't home. And the days ahead at Pinewood were not going to be easy.
Location had largely been a story of delays and spiraling costs. And much of the most difficult and crucial work, the special effects, was still to be done in the eight remaining weeks scheduled for shooting at the studio.
It looked, however, as if the most challenging special effect would be delivering the picture on time.