Few directors in Hollywood have been around the block, so to speak, than veteran filmmaker Richard Donner. He has one of those filmographies that any of today’s directors would kill for. A former Off-Broadway actor who began directing commercials and industrial films in the late 1950s, Richard Donner caught his first big break directing Steve McQueen in the TV series “Wanted: Dead or Alive”. Throughout the 60s and into the 70s, he helmed numerous episodes of classic shows (“The Twilight Zone”, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and “The Fugitive” to name just a few) and also dabbled in feature work (his low-budget directorial debut “X-15” 1961; “Salt and Pepper” 1968). He scored his first commercial if not critical success with “The Omen” (1976) and followed that with the enjoyable box-office smash “Superman” (1978).
After the success of “Superman”, Donner attempted a film with more substance, “Inside Moves” (1980), an offbeat picture examining a suicide survivor’s recovery. Featuring David Morse, John Savage, Amy Wright and Diana Scarwid among its 70s dark horse cast, this well-meaning but flawed film failed to generate much business. Donner, who started out as director of “Superman II” (1981) before giving way to Richard Lester, had a much more positive experience on the fantasy-adventure film “Ladyhawke”(1985), sharing producing duties with his future wife Lauren Shuler in addition to directing. He also co-produced the exciting teen hit “The Goonies”(1985) with Steven Spielberg.
Donner produced and directed “Lethal Weapon” (1987), introducing one of the cinema’s most popular crime fighting duo, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and subsequently repeated his duties for the popular and cartoonish sequels, “Lethal Weapon 2” (1989) and “Lethal Weapon 3” (1992). At the same time, Donner returned to television as executive producer/producer and sometime director of the HBO series “Tales From the Crypt” (1989-91).
In 1990, Donner took over the direction of the hotly bid-upon project “Radio Flyer” (1992) for a reportedly record fee of $5 million, replacing fired screenwriter and first-time director David Mickey Evans. He and his wife’s successful production company, Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions, has been responsible for a growing list of films, including the family hit “Free Willy” (1993) and its sequels “Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home” (1995) and “Free Willy 3: The Rescue” (1997); two predictable feature spin-offs from the HBO “Crypt” series, “Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight (1995) and “Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood” (1996); “Maverick” (1994), a clichéd but money-making adaptation of the old TV show starring Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner (directed by Donner); and “Conspiracy Theory” (1997), an action-adventure fare once again directed by Donner and teaming Gibson with Julia Roberts.
He also directed the ill-fated Timeline, which he rarely discusses and the experience on this led to a three year hiatus from directing. Donner returns this month with 16 Blocks, starring Bruce Willis as a troubled NYPD officer forced to take a happy, but down-on-his-luck witness [played by rapper Dante ‘Mos Def’ Smith]16 blocks from the police station to 100 Centre Street, although no one wants the duo to make it. At a sound mixing stage in the midst of Disney’s studios, Donner is supervising a complicated sound mix, fusing gunfire, music, dialogue and background noise. Cheerful and excited to be back in the director’s chair, Donner granted this exclusive interview to our LA correspondent Paul Fischer who talks about the film, how he’s changed and his thoughts on a new Superman, plus working again with Mel Gibson.
Question: So first of all how did 16 Blocks come about?
Donner: Well, let’s see, I was going to direct the film Richard Wenk wrote for Joel[Silver] and I oh years ago and somehow or another we didn’t do it but I loved Richard, because he was bright, had a good handle on things and I stayed in touch with him. So I just said “I’d like to have you direct something for me”, and if he comes up with anything I asked him to let me know. So he called one day about two, three years later, and said “can I come and pitch you something?” I said “yeah come on over” and he started this pitch about an ex-con, a burnt out, squashed cop who’s inadvertently given an assignment to take somebody sixteen blocks in a hundred and eighteen minutes which is nothing in New York, and the travails that happens to him in those sixteen blocks. I said “fantastic” so I called Lauren down, he finished the pitch and we bought it.
Question: It sounds like Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet
Donner: It’s different but you know it’s so hard to be original except to be a gay cowboy. Anyhow, so he wrote the script, I wanted to do it independently, as I’ve never done an independent film.
Question: Why didn’t you go to a studio? I would have thought they would have lapped this up wouldn’t they?
Donner: You know what, we did it on our own, nobody bothered us, we got the money, had no discussions with anybody it was a pleasure. Every picture should have the joy we had in this one.
Question: So you’re now, I mean Willis wouldn’t be paid his usual twenty million dollars or however much…
Donner: No but he got a lot of money, but the point was when they said “We’d like to make it, can you get us a star?” I said “What’s a star?” I said, we liked Bruce Willis a lot because I felt he was kind of at that age, would he play that age in that film I didn’t know, I called him and I told him and he said “What’s the story” and he said “Give me the script” and I sent it over and he called the next day and said “I want to do it” and so as soon as we went to them again and said “We’ve got Bruce Willis”. Between Willis and me Millennium thought they had a good foreign sale, they put up the money instantly and we never heard from them.
Question: You talked earlier about originality, so how do you do with a genre film like this to make it original, to give it your own stamp?
Donner: You know, that’s interesting, I mean how would I say that, how do I answer that? It’s just me, I mean I don’t really sit down and analyse something on how can I do it different?
Question: Is there a Dick Donner movie, I mean is there a Dick Donner style do you think?
Donner: The only part of the movie that is a Dick Donner style is the end and that is, I like to feel good at the end of a movie.
Question: Oh so it’s got a happy ending?
Question: What surprised you about working with Bruce?
Donner: Well, what surprised me, was probably what Bruce Willis brought to the character in the sense that, it’s a very troubled character and Bruce would open up sometimes when we’d have discussions about when he would get into this character and when he would draw on things in his own life. I was surprised how much Bruce gave us from his life as a lot of people are very concealed and push it in the back. I was thoroughly satisfied with what he got, and surprised with what he added, he’s really good; in this and very empathetic.
Question: Why such a gap between Timeline and this? Was it the fact that Timeline was such a disillusioning experience?
Donner: It was one of the unhappiest experiences I’ve ever had in a movie. So I just said screw it until something comes along that I really want to do. Richard came to me, we talked and the first draft turned out to be something that I knew was going to make a movie but there was no rush. I mean I’ve been making movies for a long time. I get a lot of material submitted and at this time in my life a year is really special.
Question: Does it get easier as a film maker now or are there different challenges for you at this point?
Donner: Everyone of them is different, everyone of them is unique. If there’s no challenge, there’s something wrong and then you’ve got to stop it and find out why. But I don’t feel any different now on this one than I probably did on my first.
Question: A lot of people really love your take on Superman, it made a lot of money, it was hugely successful why do you think the time is right to revisit that film, and how much input did you have on this new incarnation of Superman?
Donner: Well I didn’t have any except for Bryan Singer because Lauren did X-men 1 with him. So I got to meet Bryan and the two writers Dan and Mike who wrote that and I was embarrassed to be around them because they kept patting me on the back and doing Superman stories and they could quote and Warren said they’d go at breaks in their trailer, they had a DVD of my picture and they kept running it. Little did I know somewhere they wanted to do Superman. I mean that picture went through so many incarnations of directors and people and actors and so when they approached Bryan he came to me and said “What would you think if I did Superman?” and I said “I can’t honestly think of anybody better”.
Question: Have you seen any of it?
Donner: No and I don’t want to, if they told me some of the stuff I would stop them, …
Question: They are using some of the original music I understand.
Donner: I hope so.
Question: And they’re also using Brando.
Donner: Yeah, he’s using a lot, some of my stuff. That’s it I don’t want to know, I really…
Question: So do you get any kind of credit for footage?
Donner: Me? No, I don’t want it; I want a couple of free tickets when it’s done. No and you know they’re also re-releasing Superman II with my version. We’re re-doing it and all the stuff that Richard Lester took out of mine, we’re putting back in.
Question: I didn’t realise there was a Richard Donner cut of Superman II.
Donner: No that was a Richard Lesser cut and all my stuff was laying in the vaults and there was a young editor named Michael Thor who came to me one day and said “Listen if you go on the internet everybody wants to see your version of II” and I said “I don’t think it exists, there were cans,” we were doing one and two at the same time. And we had to stop doing two to deliver one on time, so we did everything with Brando anyway, everything we remembered, so he called and said the studio gave me the go. Now they’ve reprinted all the material, they’ve shipped all the negatives from England and he’s recutting my picture and again, he’s asked me would I help. I can’t because it’s so long ago and the little bit of footage that I looked at, I would never shoot like that now in a million years, I mean it was a different way, a different style, different interpretation.
Question: When is that happening?
Donner: That’s coming out shortly before the release of the new Superman.
Question: How bizarre.
Donner: Yep, yep, this kid’s good too so, but I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to see any of those.
Question: Could you see any of your old stuff and look at it and, I mean do you look at any of your old Ladyhawke or…
Donner: Oh yeah. If I’m going to watch a film that’s mine I have a couple of glasses of wine or something, sometimes I’ll run Ladyhawke which I love, it’s a love story of my life, I love to run, I just ran Inside Moves the other day, which I haven’t seen in years, I just looked at it because of David Morse who I found.
Question: Would you like to make another film that’s as poetic as Ladyhawke?
Donner: Yes, it’s tough to do it today, unless you do two gay cowboys, didn’t we get back there already? I mean it’s tough to do.
Question: But don’t you think that the success of Brokeback Mountain would leave studio’s to actually consider making films like that?
Donner: It obviously didn’t make a lot of money. I mean it’s got a lot of publicity. But I think, you know there’s guys who take chances
Question: Talk about the new movie you’re planning to direct with Mel Gibson. What is that all about then?
Donner: Sam and George. It’s a good story, it’s a great story, it’s a story about people that have spent time in prison and DNA tests now come along now and prove that they’re innocent.
Question: So Mel would play the…
Donner: That guy and…
Question: The guy in prison.
Donner: it’s a story of him and the lawyer who gets him out but it’s more the story of Mel’s character of why he even went in the first place.
Question: Did you bring this to Mel?
Donner: we brought it to Mel, just told him the story with the writer and we pitched it and he loved it. It’s a good role for him to play a really good role, he’s a very convoluted character who goes through incredible , expressions of the pains that he has experienced in life but he has never been able to admit, so who better than Mel?
Question: So what do you think you’ll do immediately after 16 Blocks is done?
Donner: Probably this movie called Walking Sybil, about an elephant in Alaska. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’s fore the whole family. Sybil is the elephant and the movie is called Walking Sybil.
Question: How much time do you have to make all these movies that you want to make?
Donner: How much time do I have?
Donner: You know what, I don’t have any time at all, but I’ve got a lot when you find the right person to work with and I have such a joyous experience with Richard Wenk that I love doing and putting these things together. Maybe he’ll direct one and I’ll direct one.
Question: Do you think you’ve changed a lot as a director? Has your temperament changed, made it any different?
Donner: I don’t think so. I mean I have a great set because I love what I’m doing.