Lessons Every Filmmaker Can Learn From Richard Donner
His friends and colleagues share stories
Richard Donner is behind one of the most beloved action franchises in movie history. He also directed the first modern superhero movie. And for a night in early June, artists and professionals came together to celebrate his life’s work. Here are a few things every filmmaker can learn from the director, through the words of those who know him best.
Honor the Source Material
Two major names in the worlds of film and comic books, Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios and Geoff Johns of DC Entertainment, got their start as Donner’s employees. To this day, they hail Superman (1978) as the gold standard of superhero films; it was Donner’s efforts that saved the American superhero icon from its terrible initial script.
“We watch [Superman] before we make almost any one of our films, and that’s been the case for the past 17 years,” Feige said.
Feige also noted the importance of the word “verisimilitude,” which Donner used as a mantra during the production of Superman and many subsequent films.
Be a Leader
Donner’s wife, producer Lauren Shuler Donner, was full of stories about falling in love with this “defender of the underdog” during the years-long process of making Ladyhawke (1985).
Donner would walk on set with an indomitable energy, she recalled. He “knew everybody’s job, appreciated them, encouraged them to give him ideas, and enabled them to do their best.”
During production of Ladyhawke, one scene was scripted as “Ext. Open Field.” They set up the shot in beautiful woods, when an actor approached Donner, saying that he couldn’t shoot in that location since the script indicated an open field.
“I watched [Donner] very patiently understand that it was the scene itself that was bothering the actor, not the location,” Shuler Donner said. After watching them work through it, she learned “that actors need to be assured.”
Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, Riggs and Murtaugh of the Lethal Weapon franchise, echoed the sentiment.
“He let you run,” Gibson, who worked with Donner six times, said.
“I knew when I was secure, and I felt secure with this man.”
Find Your Strengths
John Savage and David Morse, who starred in Inside Moves (1980), talked about the standard Donner set for directors. As Savage said:
“A great director is somebody who can take a talented bunch of people, talented crew and a good script, and turn it into gold.”
But Donner didn’t begin his Hollywood career as a director. “I would’ve been an out-of-work actor now” if it hadn’t been for the great Martin Ritt, he said.
When he was starting out as a young bit actor, Ritt told him:
“You can’t take direction. You ought to be a director.”
We’re glad he listened.