In Conversation With... is our interview series where we talk to someone of the most well-known and respected actors and directors about their career, filmography, influences, what they make of the industry nowadays and everything in between.
Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner are the two people most responsible for the wealth of comic-book films in cinemas today.
Richard Donner directed the world-beating Superman with Christopher Reeve that defined comic-book films for a generation whilst his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner, oversaw the production of X-Men, one of the most prolific franchises in film history. The Donners Company has been involved with X-Men from its very beginning right up to X-Men: Apocalypse and beyond.
It's not all just comic-book films, of course.
Richard Donner also directed cult classics such as Scrooged, The Goonies and Ladyhawke whilst Lauren Shuler Donner produced You've Got Mail, Free Willy, St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty In Pink and many more besides. When we spoke to Richard and Lauren, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had just opened in cinemas to middling reviews, to say the least...
Let's get the obvious question out of the way - have you seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice?
Richard Donner / RD : (pauses) No.
Lauren Shuler Donner / LSD: Not yet.
Do you think we're reaching a saturation point with comic-book films?
LSD: I hope not! (laughs) As long as every franchise, each movie comes out with a different tone and style. We try to do that with the X-Men. Deadpool was its own animal, Gambit will be a heist, First Class was more like a Bond movie and I believe Marvel's doing the same thing. DC, I don't know. Certainly with Marvel, there's Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man which are more humourous. As long we stay diversifying, don't repeat ourselves, we can keep on going. Of course, there's always that worry.
RD: Everything she said!
Richard, you started this all with Superman. Do you watch many comic-book films?
RD: Only when my wife makes me. She won't go to bed with me unless I watch one of these.
LSD: You have to know he's kidding.
RD: I see hers, I enjoy them because I love what she does. I'm inspired by her movies all the time. I'm her biggest fan. As far as I go, in general, when I made (Superman), it was a different time, it was a different respect. I made a comic-book. Since then, it's become... like the Superman thing, it's become too dark and too evil. Not for me, not my bag. I like to come out a movie feeling happy and good and laughing and, y'know, thinking life's good and it goes on and there's a reason to hang around. Some of these films are so bleak and depressing and that's not where our heroes were. That's what Lauren said. Her movies, there's always an uplifting end to them. It's not my bag.
Let's move on. In both of your careers, what was the most difficult production or shoot?
RD: Lemme think...
LSD: Wouldn't it be Superman?
RD: Yeah, Superman. There was no script. It was the toughest two years of my life - but worth it in the long run. A happy experience as a memory. The fact that we were making an impossible film and trying to make it come to life. You run into these problems, but there's so much joy too. Films are great. We're so lucky to be making them. It's very hard to sit and say it's difficult. They're all difficult. We're illusionists. Whether it's the illusion of love or laughter or flying to the moon and back, each one is an illusion and they're tough to do and wonderful to succeed in.
LSD: I would say that the first X-Men was the hardest. It took us a long time to get it going. We started pre-production with just two acts, we never got the third act so we had to shut down and start again. Once we started again, honestly, nobody knew how to do this kind of movie. There was really advanced CGI, we had a wonderful line producer, Ralph Winter, who was very versed in computer graphics, but it was literally day by day. How to tell this story, how to immerse people in the X-Men world who weren't familiar, how to please the fans with familiar with wardrobe and language. We couldn't make it too insider; we had no idea. There was a moment when I was in the editing room with Bryan (Singer) and the editor and we were all convinced we'd never work again. We didn't preview it because the visual effects weren't ready. It wasn't as enormous as Dick's, because he'd tell these stories about going from stage to stage, but for us, it was very difficult to try tell this story.
RD: Every movie is.
LSD: This especially. Once we did the second one, we were much more comfortable. Most of the actors knew their characters and that's something that's rare.
We were talking about a saturation point in comic-books, but another big thing is remakes. What do you make of them?
RD: I think the major studios are so insecure about their own creative abilities that they have to go back in history and find something that was a success rather than trying something new and believing in themselves and their creative people. I'm very unhappy with most, if not all of the remakes.
You directed the original Omen and it was remade, but did you have any say in it or thoughts on it?
RD: To be honest, I didn't even know. No, I had no participation and I had no creative input. I assume they're trying to make something new by putting new paint on it. I think it's such a great waste of talent and money and energy... Remakes are really interesting, in one respect. My wife made me look at an old tape years ago called... what was it called?... Shop Around The Corner!... She made me sit and watch it and said, "I think this is great. I'm gonna bring it up to date." She created it with... who was your writer?
LSD: It was Nora Ephron and Delia (Ephron). They were pen-pals, using letters and mailboxes. It was so old that most of our generation hadn't seen it. I said, "I know how to do this!" I was early on the Internet.
RD: And so, she made a truly great film.
LSD: You've Got Mail.
RD: That's a remake. Well, it wasn't. It was a creative idea that was then recreated brilliantly. That, I respect and aspire to. When you take an old film that's done well and give it another coat of paint, it's boring, it's pathetic. It's such a waste.
LSD: It's lazy.
RD: Yeah, that's good, I think it's insecure.
LSD: A lot of people come to us and say, "Oh, we'd love to remake St. Elmo's Fire," why would you want to remake that?
RD: Because it proved itself and you're lazy and insecure. Wow, are we saying the wrong thing! (laughs)
It seems like a lot of studios aren't prepared to take risk and both of you really were risktakers. That's missing from studios now, I think.
LSD: Yeah, it's independent films that now are taking the risks now.
RD: I think Lauren took the biggest risk of all--
LSD: --And married you.
LSD: Movie-wise, it's the independent film. Dick and I, our favourite film of last year was Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. Loved it!
RD: Loved it! The originality of the piece, the writing, the directing, the acting and that picture never got one bit of recognition from our Academy. That's a disgrace.
LSD: It's most likely the risks. Studios are afraid so it's their studio or financiers that will finance a smaller budget film and that's where the risks are taken.
RD: It's damn near close to perfect.
There's a train of thought that a lot of the more mid-range projects are moving to TV. You both started in TV, have you considered moving back to TV?
RD: Yeah, I've looked at it. We're now working on a small miniseries, it's an incredible insight into part of our history, it's dark and it's got its own sense of humour. It could be a bit too extreme, but I enjoy putting it together. On the other hand, I've been offered some things to do and I figured it wasn't worth it any more to, this is a terrible expression, but to beat a dead horse.
LSD: I'm producing Legion for FX, Noah Hawley directed the pilot. Quite honestly, TV can be as big as features these days. Dick and I find that when we got to sit down to watch something, we turn to Netflix or FX or Showtime or HBO, all of them. That's where the best dramas are being made, the best thrillers, the best shows. When you're at dinner, they're not talking about the movies, they're talking about which series they're hooked on.
RD: You're right. It used to be what you're reading, now it's what you're watching - and it's not a movie, it's a new series on these stations.
On that, the Lethal Weapon TV series. Do you have any involvement?
RD: None whatsoever. The producer and the writer-director were very respectful, they asked to come in and they told me what they were doing. It wasn't my place to tell them to do it differently, but I thanked them very much for coming in and wished them the best of luck.
Richard, I don't know if you're familiar with It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia?
RD: I've heard so much about it. Is that on our list, Lauren?
LSD: Yeah, it's the Danny DeVito one. I'm sure. We love FX.
They did one episode where they made a Lethal Weapon 5 and 6...
LSD: Oh my goodness!
RD: I didn't know that! (laughs) I wanna see that, I love Danny DeVito, I love FX. I gotta see that.
Let's move on. How do you strike the balance between critical reception and box-office? Richard, your last film 16 Blocks, didn't perform all that well. How do you handle it?
RD: It's strange, I love that little film. We got some really good notices and it was frighteningly distributed by Warners and... Alcon. They had no knowledge of how to distribute a film. Something went on in that organisation that some day I'll find out. What's more important? You love to get the public to react to your film favourably because that's what your mission was. You wanted it to stay with them in some way, maybe sneak in a message. At the same time, the box office, if you do a good job and you get a good box office, the people who took a chance on your film are gonna take a chance on another because you delivered and you made them some profit. In a strange way, one upsets the other and one has the same amount of respect for each other. I love to see good notices, I love to feel that the people who trusted me with the money to make the film are gonna see a dividend on their end.
LSD: For producers, it's different because you're ultimately in the hands of the director--
RD: --Damn right!
LSD: Sometimes, I've had the experience with a director where I didn't share the same vision of the movie--
RD: --But you married him!
LSD: But you know that it's bad, it goes out and you try to tell the director this or that and they don't and then it gets stomped on by the critics, public doesn't go see it and you feel terrible! You knew it all along but that's the role that sometimes being a producer.
RD: Producers are always right. Ask them.
LSD: That's right.
OK, final question. For anyone starting out, what's the one nugget of advice you'd give?
LSD: If you can write, the best ticket into the business is to have a script. We can't do anything without the material. If you can't write, fine. To become a producer, there's two ways - one way is about the material, get to know writers and get to understand the process of developing material or learn production. The DGA has a programme, you can be a PA on any number of bazillion shows, ask a lot of questions and work your way up. And don't take rejection personally.
RD: That's good advice, I'll start that! (laughs) My advice - find out if the head of Netflix has a daughter and start going out with her.
LSD: What if you're a girl?
RD: Find out if he's got a son. (laughs) Be a killer. There's so many people trying to get into the business now, schools now have courses, buses and trains that empty into LA are 90% young, aspiring kids. It's gotta be tough. You've gotta be tough. Make sure you've got talent. If you don't, get back on the train and go on outta town. And if you do have it, be a killer. Be a killer. Try not to leave any blood in your wake, but learn the word I, I, I... it's a tough life.
LSD: It's really hard.
Any regrets getting into the business? The way you're talking, it's almost like you'd have a happier life without it?
RD: No, no. It's the greatest ride and I've got a little bit more left to it. On top of that, I met the woman I love. This is the greatest ride I've ever been on.
LSD: Me too. I feel fortunate every day I'm in this business. No matter how hard it is, no matter how ruthless some people are, I was born to do this, I was born for movies. I'm lucky that studios let me do this.