Ilya Salkind Interview Supergirl
Conducted on 4/13/00 by Scott Michael Bosco
Executive Producer of Supergirl, Ilya Salkind
SMB - How much approval did DC Comics have over the script?
IS - Well, we had the Rights under the conditions of approval as in our first venture with DC. Meaning DC Comics had the absolute right of approval on the script. But a lot of people don’t realize it went beyond the script, which is interesting. It was also on the rushes, and the dallies. They had a representative from DC Comics who was constantly there to see the dallies, and approve whatever changes were made to the script. Theoretically that person could refuse dallies, but it never happened.
SMB - Do you remember any specifics they were dead set against?
IS - Oh, God yes. There were a lot of things. We had endless discussions. Well, the moment you try to get away from the myth or legend of these “Super” characters, or comic book heros, they became very defensive. In those days it was Jannette Kahn who was the President of DC Comics and she was very involved and sincere.
SMB - Very protective.
IS - Yes, she really cared. She didn’t just think of it as a job. She always considered whether it really fit with the comic mythos. That was really nice because many times they came up with some very good things within the construction of the script. Also, whatever they came up with was of course part of the picture. That was how the deal worked. If they came up with something interesting, we could use it. Obviously, they were partners, that was the bottom line.
SMB - I noticed in the “Making of” Helen Slater wore a different costume.
IS - Well, she had a bandanna, right?
SMB - Yes, and the “S” logo wasn’t a separate shield, it was almost a bib that was connected to her shoulders.
IS - Right, yes. I think at that time we had done a non-approved costume because it was only meant for the test. Later however, we labored “a lot” over the costume. The cape - its length, the boots, all that stuff. I was very involved with all
that. As Jeannot (Szwarc) said in the Commentary, there were all these different capes - just as in our other DC movies we used mechanical capes that moved with blowers... she had some of those too. I think there were about 10 or 12 capes. In terms of the “S” we tried different styles to get the right “looking” one. I think the final costume was fantastic because it looked exactly like the comics, and it was very fitting for Helen.
SMB - ...and again, DC had final say of that as well?
IS - Absolutely.
SMB - In terms of a story. Did you go to the comics first. Or did you have a pre-conceived plot, then go back to the comic and incorporate?
IS - I remember calling Gary Kurtz, the producer of STAR WARS, who had made DARK CRYSTAL to ask about that film’s writer, David Odell. We arranged for David to come to London - this was before Jeannot - we had a very good meeting, then the two of us started developing the first storyline. At the time there was this comic book convention in London so he and I spent the whole day there. He was very, very emersed into the idea. Then he came up with a first treatment. It was very interesting. The only problem was that it would have cost, back then, over 150 million. As a writer you write whatever you want without thinking about limitations - I know I do the same. But then when you put the Producer's hat on you realize what’s realistic.
SMB - What was the budget for SUPERGIRL?
IS - About 50 million.
SMB - In 1983 that was a lot.
IS - It was huge. We had about 700 people working on that film.
SMB - What was in the original treatment?
IS - Oh, it was very interesting. It was much more grandiose in the sense of planetary stuff. There were other planets beside Earth. As it was stated in the SUPERGIRL Commentary, Reeves was supposed to be in the film. There were more locations on Earth, and a lot of locations in space. What happened then - and this happens all the time with films - we looked at what it would cost and realized it was impossible. We realized the best way to cost it down to a filmable level was to make it based on Earth.
SMB - More contained.
IS - Exactly. I must say in hind sight I think the movie is fine but it is a little claustrophobic - that’s my opinion. But some people don’t think that at all. You know what it was - we built these huge outdoor sets and we had to get the most of them.
SMB - You mean the town?
IS - Yes. It was great in terms of shooting. We had complete control, something we wouldn’t have had if we did it on location. But in terms of exteriors it gets a little stodgy. To make a better picture, or more in line to what was imagined in the beginning, I think more locations were needed.
SMB - Jeannot brought up in the Commentary that originally the Argo City sequence was intended to be longer incorporating footage from the destruction of Krypton.
IS - Yes, exactly. That’s what I was talking about with Odell. That was part of the first script. Now I’m not in my 100% DC mode but as I remember - Argo was sent away from Krypton before it blew up and was then encapsulated in a microscopic world. Then, I believe it ended up in Brainiac’s collection of cities. I think that’s how the comic book lore went. Anyway, we followed most of that pretty much. So originally it was much bigger because we were going to start out with Krypton. I know Jeannot said it would be too much like what we had covered previous but it we had plans to do it differently. There wouldn’t have been Jor-el, instead a whole different group of Elders. After all it was taking place the other side of the planet. They wouldn’t have had the same look. We kept that same idea in the final product. They don’t dress like the Kryptonians
SMB - Well in the film it just looks like since being separated from Krypton they’ve evolved into their own style, their own culture.
IS - Yes, but differences are there in the comics. I don’t totally agree with Jeannot that it would have been too much like what had be done before.
SMB - I agree. I think the film could have used it.
IS - I think it needed that, and I think it was a different angle. It’s like the camera would have been on another part of the planet during the destruction.
SMB - Well, even a simple title naming the location like : THE PLANET KRYPTON - 3rd QUADRANT - CITY OF ARGO would have been enough to educate the audience.
IS - Well originally we wanted to also incorporate previous footage to show the planet but it got very complex and difficult due to legalities. Plus it became enormously expensive because we had to create an entire city. Of course we did the city but we would have had to show the city on the planet like we did with Kryptonopolis - in the first film that’s what the City was originally called.
SMB - Oh, really?
IS - Yes. It’s Krypotnopolis of Krypton.
SMB - Of course it is.
IS - Of course!
SMB - Ok, now that I’ve had my Kryptonian geography lesson - you decided the beginning of the film had to be brought down to size, lets move onto who the villain or in this case, the villainess would be.
IS - Right. Now, this was a really long time ago - but if I recall we originally had other villains. It wasn’t just Selena. I think there may have been Brainiac. In fact, I seem to remember it’s he and Selena who make an alliance.
SMB - So instead of Peter Cook’s character of Nigel it was Brainiac.
IS - I think so.
SMB - Then Selena was always part of the story, even in the beginning?
IS - Yes. There was always a powerful female villainess. It evolved a lot. The first script was much more - and I hate to use the word “epic”, but it was. Things were
happening everywhere and the way it all ended up was at Selena’s City, or castle and with Supergirl, and of course there was the Phantom Zone.
SMB - Was the Phantom Zone dealt with differently in the original script?
IS - I’m not sure. I think there was a character like (Peter) O’Toole’s. His character stayed there but there were other things with the other villains that all became involved as well. It was also linked with the problem of (Chris)Reeves’ character being sick.
SMB - Ah.
IS - ... of being old and sick. That I remember clearly, in fact I think Jeannot stated something of that in the Commentary.
SMB - Yes. It was a completely different constructed film.
IS - There were a lot of differences. As you may know the same studio that released our first superhero film was originally involved. My father (Alexander), and myself, had gotten the rights to sequels and SUPERGIRL, Krypto the dog ... all that stuff, the entire family of characters that appeared in the DC “Super” line of comics. All that was all very clear in the contract. In fact, in theory, we could have used BATMAN - simply because he did actually appear in that line of comics. The characters did cross over into each others’ comic lines. So theoretically, we could have made a BATMAN movie. Or had both in one movie. Which of course we did not, obviously.
But what I was getting at was the original studio that distributed our first DC Comics venture never had a say over the final cut. It was an Alexander/Ilya Salkind Production. This is something that usually never happens with a major studio.
SMB - So the only one you had to answer to was still DC.
IS - Yes, but DC however was, at the time, a division of the studio. So, what this is leading to is that the studio didn’t really like the second script. They liked the first one but it was too expensive. They also said it was way too cosmic, too far out. So the Studio got to the point where they felt we weren’t in sync so they said we could take the movie elsewhere. But you see it was in the contract that they had first option on any of our DC related features. Anyway, TriStar took it. At that time TriStar was very big.
SMB - Did TriStar have any say over the final cut of the film?
IS - No. No Studio had any say because since the financing was already in place we held the final cut.
SMB - Then why are there so many different versions?
IS - You mean now?
SMB - Yes.
IS - That’s a good question. First of all the International version was previewed in the States, in NY ...
SMB - Hopefully it wasn’t Brooklyn.
IS - No, it was in one of the suburbs. The first preview was pretty good, but they all felt it was too long. So that’s when we did some of the trims. That's where the American, or Domestic cut came into being. For the rest of the world we kept the longer version. It all stems from the report cards from the previews. Some stated certain scenes were too long so we trimmed it. We still had final cut. TriStar had to connivance us, which they did, because they couldn’t do it without our permission.
SMB - Was it previewed on both coasts?
IS - Yes, there was a NY and LA preview, near LA. I remember that’s were we had the finally meeting with TriStar.
SMB - I know SUPERMAN was intended to be carried over and wasn’t, and obvisouly the Jimmy Olsen character was used, but were others considered?
IS - No. We only went as far as mentioning other characters. Like Jeannot said, it was a different movie.
SMB - Jeannot spoke of an entire process that took place previous to him coming on board. Was there another director considered?
IS - He’s right. There was. Frankly we saw a lot of films at the time and from that considered a lot of people. I remember looking at the box-office hits of the time, which sometimes can inspire you in making a choice. I looked at films that were not only a critical success but commercial as well. Especially when it's as large a film as SUPERGIRL. Now if you’re doing a smaller budgeted picture for $500 thousand and nobody gets hurt that’s fine. What’s not good is when a big movie is done for a narrow audience. I don’t believe in these artsy movies being done big. I don’t think it’s fair. For anybody - the people who work on them - because later when the film bombs it’s harder for them to get a job, plus people’s invested money has been wasted. So many times when I’m looking for a director I look at the box-office list. At that time I saw JAWS2. So I looked Jeannot up. See what I don’t think is fair is when a hot star, or director, or even a producer goes ahead and make what they think is “their” intellectual trip and because it’s their project it’s expensive. Then when it comes out nobody goes to see and everybody takes a huge blow. I mean, there are some of those kind of movies which I like - but they should have cost less than they did. You know what I’m saying, they should have cost 10, 15 maybe even 20 million, not 100 million or more.
SMB - Oh, yeah, there's a lot films out there done more for the stars then the quality of the picture.
IS - Right. For example if I had done SUPERGIRL as a very obtuse intellectual picture with her asking herself constantly, “Am I from Argo? Or, am I from Krypton?
Or have her contemplate whether her cousin is a hero or monster while she sits in her room for two hours at a cost of 50 million dollars that would have been very unfair - for everybody.
SMB - It becomes a vanity piece.
IS - It becomes a vanity piece, and I’ll tell you what becomes horrifying is when you have huge hits you fall into that mode. You tend to forget the audience and become an egomaniac. It happens to directors, producers, actors, everybody.
It doesn’t always happen, some personal movies can become hits. Some work. One of the things I really liked about Jeannot was his very nice, sweet style. Especially in SOMEWHERE IN TIME. He has a very nice touch. That was something we needed for SUPERGIRL. The movie has that, like in the flying, it’s softer.
SMB - Reflective of her.
IS - Yes, we thought so. Absolutely. And as we all know the movie became a cult favorite and through the DVD will, I’m sure, find a new audience.
SMB - Now that you’ve seen the film after a while, what do you feel works and is in its favor?
IS - Well when I watched this wonderful DVD version ... (laughing with embarrassment) ... I was very impressed, frankly.
SMB - So you think if fairs better through the years?
IS - Yes. It’s a much bigger movie than I remembered. I thought while watching it, “Wow!, Whoa! We did some stuff there!” You tend to forget. But I do have one regret, and this has never been on record, so I’m putting it on record now.
My father Alexander and I were partners and we had a big fight over the casting of SUPERGIRL. He wanted Brooke Shields.
SMB - Really.
IS - Yeah. I was against Brooke Shields. I thought she was too famous and that we should use an unknown as we had previous.
SMB - Just like with SUPERMAN.
Ilya Salkind with Margot Kidder
IS - Right. So we had this huge fight between us, and finally we found Helen, I showed him the test, etc. I won the battle. Right?
SMB - Yes.
IS - Well, I should have lost it. I made a mistake.
SMB - You think so?
IS - Yes. I think Helen was okay. She’s a very good actress, but she was way too ...
SMB - Demure?
IS - ... well...
SMB - ...not strong enough?
IS - ... well yes. I mean, she wasn’t physically the part. We had to do a lot of stuff to make her look like SUPERGIRL.
SMB - Like her chest being padded?
IS - The padding, the hair, working-out, all that. Okay, she did have the face, which was pretty similar, but frankly, with hind sight I regret it. Brooke Shields would have - not made it a better movie, but perhaps a more commercial one. This I’m convinced.
I think there would have been more men seeing the movie.
SMB - That's an interesting way of putting it. I see your point.
IS - It’s like we said, the movie is a little soft. I don’t want to say feminine, but it does sort of have a kind of feminine point of view.
SMB - It’s more genteel.
IS - Which is fine and makes it interesting, and it should be like that, but I think we might have lost part of the audience. It did very good when it opened. It was number one the first week it opened in America. It did money, it did a lot of money in general. In terms of cost and box-office. But it wasn’t of course her cousin. What happened, I think, is that we lost a lot of the audience, the male audience. I think it was also because the girl was a little unattainable.
SMB - ... unattainable because she appeared too young?
IS - Unattainable because she looked a bit like, ah ... well, cold. This has nothing to do with Helen’s acting. Like I said she’s very talented. But let me make an example. Let’s say Sophia Loren walks into a room as does Katherine Hepburn, and lets say they both are the same age, 30. Alright.
SMB - Sure, heads would turn one way and not the other - or for different reasons.
IS - Right. Helen is Katherine Hepburn. She’s a consummate pro.
SMB - Various actors can put a completely different light on the same character.
IS - Yes, but the point is I always agreed with my father, but this time we didn’t - and this time he was absolutely right. I see it now.
SMB - A better marketing ploy.
IS - Yes. I think I misjudged the fact that it “had” to be an unknown. Brooke was famous, but not that famous. Remember, she became famous as a kid.
SMB - With PRETTY BABY.
IS - Right. But as an adult, at that time, she wasn’t a Julia Roberts. I think she could’ve fit right into the whole thing very well, with the blond hair and everything. In fact, didn’t she play some sort of comic book character?
SMB - She was BRENDA STARR.
IS - That’s it, exactly.
SMB - That movie was terrible, but she did look the part to a T.
IS - You’re right, to a “T”, and she would have been a good SUPERGIRL as well. This I am now totally convinced. Also, she’s a tall girl - hey, that's SUPERGIRL.
SMB - A better presence.
IS - Well, more the character, more the comic book image. If you look at the comic book, she’s very sexy. With Helen, there’s a certain coldness there. Like I said, it’s a Katherine Hepburn kind of thing. It’s funny though, Jeannot and I fought for Helen, and Alex for Brooke. Sometimes, it’s better to
SMB - What about some of the other casting?
IS - Well we decided with Helen first, then we went to work on the rest. It may have been me to suggest Faye Dunaway, because we worked with her on THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Then with Peter (Cook), that was a kind of logical casting. The theory was to have big stars around an unknown - it worked for us before. What is interesting is before the “SUPER” movies there was never a comic based movie done seriously. I’m proud to say, bceause of our films that was the start to make a big movie about a comic book hero. A big movie. When I say that I mean serious, serious acting, serious directing, serious script. I’m sure more now will be made, look at X-MEN, it’s done very seriously.
There’s a very interesting thing a lot of people don’t seem to understand that is you do not make fun of , or kill heroes, or myths or legends. That’s my theory, and I think I’m right on that one.
SMB - Yes.
IS - You don’t kill Robin Hood. You don’t do that. Lester did a wonderful film called, ROBIN & MARION.
SMB - I liked that film.
IS - Yes, it’s a beautiful film. But, it was a total disaster.
SMB - I remember. People didn’t want to see him die.
IS - They don’t want to see him die. He’s a hero. It’s like, you don’t kill (James) Bond.
SMB - You’re right. Even though now I kinda wish they would.
Father and Son, the late Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind
IS - Yeah, well, it’s gotten a little... by the way, this is a funny story - in the early days when I was a kid Harry Saltzman came to see my father (Alexander) and he said I have this interesting book, and the rights to this Ian Fleming guy James Bond. (He laughs) So my father says, ah, nobody is going to be interested in a spy.
SMB - You never know what passes your way.
IS - I was around 10 or 11, I wasn’t involved. I’m not saying I would have said lets do Bond - who the hell knows, right? But I remember seeing DR. NO and going completely ballistic. The key I think is that they did it seriously. It was the first time the spy had girls, killed, and all that stuff. As far as I remember it was the first time you saw a spy in bed with a girl. It was a shock. I was in Paris when I saw it as a kid. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, this is crazy!” We went ballistic. Now, it’s history!
SMB - Getting back to the casting of SUPERGIRL. Hart Bochner, I know he was being pushed at the time in the studios...
IS - ... again, he was a very nice man. I even worked with his father Lloyd Bochner on my TV series.
SMB - On SUPERBOY.
IS - Yes, he’s a very nice man. He played a vampire. I think Hart was very good in the movie, but there was another guy we had seen in NY. I think he would have been better for the part, Peter Gallager. But that’s my feeling. Jeannot won that one so we used Hart. I’m not saying that Peter is better than Hart, but for that role, Peter may have worked better.
You might find this interesting... we were shooting SUPERGIRL the same time Ridley Scott was filming LEGEND, in Pinewood. He was using the big 007 sound stage. Previous to that time I was living in Europe so I wasn’t as Americana as I am now. So the funny thing is I didn’t know all the new actors, especially American ones, as well as I do now. Anyway, there was this young guy going back and forth, and of course he would eat at the same restaurants there at Pinewood. It was one of the most beautiful commissaries in the world.
SMB - I think Carrol Baker brought up how beautiful it was to me when I interviewed her about WATCHER IN THE WOODS.
IS - Absolutely beautiful. So, anyway this guy was always in the commissary all the time, a young guy about 22, 23. He was always in this grimy costume - and no body knew who he was. (laughs) So I asked who is this guy? So they looked at me, but I didn’t know, like I said, I wasn’t living in America at the time. So they looked at me and said, oh he’s an up and coming American actor - it was Tom Cruise. So you see, you never know.
Executive Producer of Supergirl, Ilya Salkind, today.