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Tom Mankiewicz Talks Superman
The late, legendary screenwriter on his work for the Man of Steel

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The celebrated screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz died at the age of 68 on July 31, 2010. He was a widely respected craftsman who earned his own place in the movie pantheon alongside his father, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve), and uncle, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane).

Tom Mankiewicz worked on a series of Bond films, but that wasn't the only screen hero that Mankiewicz helped shape and define. When director Richard Donner needed to rewrite the unwieldy and excessively campy scripts for Superman: The Movie and its sequel, he turned to his old friend Tom. Mankiewicz conjured up just the right tone and the delicate balance of humour, heart, and romance for the first two Superman movies. Though Mankiewiz was officially credited as a “creative consultant,” Donner has often sought to make it clear that Mankiewicz was the primary writer on both films.

Journalist and Hollywood writer Mark Edlitz interviewed Mankiewicz shortly before his death, and here is what he had to say about the Man of Steel in the second part of this two-part account (read part one, about Bond). Read on to find out why Superman can't go fight the Nazis, how Cary Grant and Sean Connery influenced the character, and why Christopher Reeve was so right for the part...

Tom Mankiewicz Talks Superman
Tom Mankiewicz, Marlon Brando and Richard Donner

What was the key to understanding Superman’s character? What did you have to keep in mind when writing for him?
The fun thing is writing for Clark Kent, not letting anyone know that he’s Superman. That’s the fun of the character. If Superman didn’t have the Clark Kent alias, he’d be pretty boring. What I tried to do was to give him a sense of humour.

The thing that finally made the movie work was the scene where Superman landed on Lois’s balcony. In the original script, it was about two pages long, but it was missing something. Late one night it hit me. I called Dick [Richard Donner] in the middle of the night and I said, “After she interviews him, he takes her flying.” He said, “My God, that’s it. That’s what we’re looking for.” I expanded it to about nine pages. That’s more important than the explosions and rockets. He takes her flying. If you make Superman a romantic figure – he has a crush on Lois – the character has greater dimension and he becomes more appealing.

But he also has a higher duty from his father and his planet to be there for “truth, justice and the American way.” There’s no way Superman can be married to anybody or to have a steady girlfriend. He’s got a job to do.

Dick had a motto for the film, which was “verisimilitude”. We had signs in our office saying “verisimilitude”. If you write it like it’s really happening, the picture is going to work. It is too easy is to stand back and show the audience that you’re smarter than the material. That’s camp. The old Batman series on television was camp. It can work for 22 minutes on television but it has never worked for a two hour dramatic movie. You can’t make fun of your characters. You’ve got to treat them seriously – especially Superman, who is a piece of American mythology.

Was it tricky to justify and provide context for the mythology?
I said to Dick one night…. this was the '70s and I loved my Jack Daniels and Dick would have a joint or two. We were in the car (with a driver by the way) and I said, “Why does Superman have an S on his chest? I know the S stands for Superman. But it can’t stand for Superman up on Krypton because up on Krypton he’s not Superman.” So we devised this thing – if you look at the Council of Elders – everyone has a different letter on their chest. We decided it was a family crest. So, Jor-El has an S on the middle of his chest inside an inverted triangle. The others have Es or Ls or whatever. I remember at the time we were talking to Brando about it. And I said, “Yes, it’s going to be a family crest.” And Dick said, “Superman, as everybody knows, has a spit curl. So you’re going to have a spit curl too.” [Brando] said, “Oh, no. There’s where I draw the line. I’m not going to have a spit curl.” He finally relented and he does have a spit curl just like Superman’s. We decided that it was a family trait. In that sense they are very real people.

How malleable is Superman as a character?
It’s interesting because Chris [Reeves], who was a wonderful, wonderful guy and was very idealistic in many ways, really thought that the mantle had been passed to him to make something out of this character.

[Richard Lester’s 1983] Superman III was not as successful as the two we did. Terry Semel and Bob Daily at Warners came to Dick and me and said, “Would you guys do the next one and put it back on track?” I explained to them that the biggest problem with Superman III is that it’s a Richard Pryor movie – not a Superman movie. It’s got to be about Superman.” Even though it was going to be terrifically lucrative for us to make the movie, we decided not to do it because we thought that we had done everything in the first two.

Then as Chris got more control over the film, because he was Superman, he did that very ill-advised movie [Superman IV:] The Quest for Peace, which was a dud. [While they were still writing the script] I said to Chris, “Here’s what you got to look for Chris: don’t ever mess with anything that Superman can take care of on his own. You want total elimination of nuclear devices? Superman can do that in an hour. He can just hurl them all out into space. If you’re writing about Superman, don’t put in a sequence of a tsunami. He can stop a tsunami. All those people don’t have to die. Don’t talk about famine. Don’t talk about poverty because he could fix that. So, you’ve got to be very careful when you write to do the kind of things that he can handle”. So, I said, “Chris, it’s not going to work. As much as I’d like it to work, as it’s an honourable thing to be talking about, you got to look out at what your characters can do.”

Tom Mankiewicz Talks Superman

One of the problems with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is that it becomes an overtly political film…
That’s just anathema, that should never be. Superman has never been about politics. You might say, “Well, during the Second World War he might have been a hero for America.” But Superman never went and fought the Nazis in Germany for a very good reason: Superman could have won World War II in one day. So, you don’t involve him in that. If Superman has a political view, Superman can make that political view a reality, by himself, and that’s why you shouldn’t touch it.

The minute you give him a social cause: say, Superman wants to help the homeless. Well, I sit in the audience and I say, “Superman, well you lazy son of a gun you can build homes for all the homeless in one day. You can just get the trees, [build the homes], furnish the homes and put the homeless in them. And I don’t care if there’s a hundred million homeless, Superman could do it.” So, don’t let the audience say, “Jesus, why doesn’t he just go do this himself?”

Do you believe that the true identity of the character is Superman or Clark Kent?
See that’s something that Chris, Dick and I would talk about a lot. Obviously, the real person is Superman because that’s the person that arrived on Earth. The little baby that held up the car is Superman. But that little baby who grew up, went to school, who met Lana Lang, who moved to Metropolis and became a reporter, that’s Clark Kent. We never wanted to get into one of those anxiety-ridden, “I have a split personality” situations. We wanted it to make it more fun. He exists in the everyday world as Clark Kent. But who knows what happens when he goes into the bathroom? Does Superman shit? I don’t know. He does eat that meal, but he’s not human. There are questions along these lines that it’s best to stay away from.

Superman seems to want Lois to like him as Clark.
I think so. We are getting a little too deep psychologically. I once ran the film and someone said, “Superman, of course, comes from the Nietzsche concept.” I said, “I think you’re reading a little more into this film than is there.” I think he wants her…absolutely wants her to like him...but he also has fun with it. For instance, there’s a great shot that Dick did after they return from their flight around Metropolis. Superman puts her back on the ground, says “Goodbye now,” and then flies away. As Lois walks into her apartment, Clark comes in right through the door. It’s the same shot with a cut. It was absolutely impossible for him (as an actor) to have changed clothes in time. It was a sleight-of-hand trick of Donner’s. If you are Superman you must have a great time being Clark coming through the door. You know you’ve had a great time taking her flying but you don’t even mention it to her. He’s having a good time with it. But to come back to the crucial point: when he loses his powers – he loses his sense of mission too.

Tom Mankiewicz Talks Superman

How did Christopher Reeve differentiate between Superman and Clark Kent and make them two separate characters?
Chris very honestly said he stole a lot from Cary Grant to play Clark. Cary Grant used to have this wonderful little stutter that he could do, and Chris studied it. It helped him a lot. I’m not sure if anybody ever noticed that, I’m not sure that it is that striking. But as we were discussing, this is where the fun is. It’s in the fact that Lois is desperately in love with Superman, and there’s Clark Kent right in front of her. She, of course, uses him. She dominates him, sometimes takes advantage of him - “Oh, Clark, do this.” And because you’re not doing a huge make-up job you have to create huge difference in personality.

How about physically?
When you watch him walk down the hallways as Clark Kent he’s got a little slouch, he is ungainly. There’s the scene where he tries to open the champagne and he can’t do it…then he sprays it all over people, and one when he gets his coat caught in the ladies’ room door. He is Clark, the bumbler.

Chris had great fun with the character of Clark Kent. As I mentioned, he walked differently; he really made a big difference between Clark and Superman. Because if Clark arrives looking great, with his hair nicely done and standing totally erect, he’d look so much like Superman that if Lois Lane didn’t recognize him; she’d have to have an IQ in single digits.

Because the glasses aren’t going to do it.
That’s right, the glasses aren’t enough. It needed just what Chris gave it: the bumbling, the subtle stuttering and the slight slouch.

What was Christopher Reeve’s reaction to being Superman?
It’s amazing that he was thinking about it at the time because (the film had not come out and) he had only been in one (other) movie in a supporting part. His first concern was - and it’s a young actor's concern - “Am I going to be Superman for the rest of my life?” He wanted me to get him in touch with Sean Connery because I had done Diamonds Are Forever with Sean and I knew him pretty well. He said, “Sean Connery will know about typecasting because he doesn’t play Bond anymore. I’ve got to talk to him.” He was so earnest.

One night there was a party. I knew Sean wouldn’t want to talk to him about it in that way; Sean could be a prickly guy too. Well, we were there and there was Sean. Chris said, “Oh, please. I’ve got to talk to him.” I went up to Sean and said, “The kid playing Superman is over there and he wants to talk to you about typecasting.” Sean said, “Ahh, geez, Boy-o.” Sean used to call me “Boy-o”. I was only twenty-seven when I wrote Diamonds Are Forever so I was “Boy-o” to him.

But I persisted, “Do me a favour and just talk to him.” He agreed finally, and then he said to Chris, “In the first place, if Boy-o wrote the script it’s probably not going to be a fucking hit.” He loved to take the mickey out of me. He said, “So, you don’t have to worry about that. Now, if it is a hit, then find yourself something completely different to do right away.” Which I guess was why Chris did Somewhere In Time, a love story. Then Sean added, “By the way, if it is a big hit, get yourself the best fucking lawyer in the world and stick it to them.” Then, the favour granted, he walked away. I said to Chris, “Well, there’s your advice!”

Tom Mankiewicz Talks Superman

Then the films came out and they were very successful. At that point, how do you think he felt about being so closely identified with that character?
It was a blessing and a curse – and I’m confident that Chris understood that is was a blessing and a curse. We talked about it a couple of times. When he first came here for the opening of Superman, he didn’t have any money; he didn’t have a pot to piss in. He was paid very little money for Superman. I remember taking him to a poker game I played in; he was a bad poker player. I remember he was in some big pot and he lost it. The guy he lost it to said, “Well, at least it shows you really don’t have X-ray vision.” I paid his poker bill that night.

But once he became Superman it was a blessing and a curse. And Chris was certainly accurate: Sean Connery was the greatest example of that, still, even today. My God, he’s made so many wonderful pictures since he’s been James Bond and has given so many wonderful performances. But the Bond roles stay with you forever.

I was deputised to try to get Sean back for Live And Let Die. He came back for Diamonds Are Forever after missing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [with the understanding that this would be his final Bond movie]. The reason he came back was because he made a deal with United Artists that enabled him to make any two pictures of his choosing. That was one of the reasons he came back. He gave away most of his salary to the Scottish Educational Society. Cubby Broccoli said to me, “Have lunch with Sean. Tell him about the script you’re writing.” I said, “Sean, we’ve got alligators, and a big boat chase.”

He said, “Listen, Boy-o, one of the things I always hear is that I owe it to the public to play Bond. I’ve done six fucking movies. When do I stop owing it to the public? It’s not a question of being kind or unkind. What, after the twelfth or fifteenth? After they stop making money anymore and people say, “What, that’s all he plays? How much do you owe after six films?” I understood completely. If he didn’t get out then, he would just be James Bond. His other films wouldn’t be taken seriously.

I’ll give you a good example. When Chris did Monsignor, he played a character who’s posing as a priest and falls in love with Geneviève Bujold. I watched it in a theatre in Westwood in the afternoon and there must have been only 20 people in the theater. At the moment he’s going to reveal himself to Geneviève Bujold he says, “Darling, I have a terrible secret.” And someone in the theatre yelled out, “I can fly!” That’s gonna stay with you. I must confess, I laughed.

Do you think it requires a certain type of actor to play a superhero? A.O. Scott once wrote that an actor playing a superhero must “have enough charisma to embody the role but without the kind of excessive individuality that would overshadow it."
I think that’s very true. Dick Donner made a perceptive remark at the beginning of the picture when he said to Chris, “Let the suit do most of the work.” In other words, “You are Superman. If you also try to be incredibly idiosyncratic as Superman or overwhelmingly thunderous as Superman it doesn’t work.” One of the reasons, I think, that Chris works very well as Superman is that even as Superman he seems very shy, and I wrote it that way. But Clark Kent is a completely different deal. That’s mostly acting. How do you want to get your coat caught in the door? Do you want to trip and do a pratfall?

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