Any discussion of the creation and sustenance of film franchises usually includes mentions of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and the other usual suspects. But in fact, the kingpin Hollywood director in terms of initiating the most film franchises is Richard Donner.
He was in on the ground floor of “The Omen,” “Superman,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Free Willy” series, the first three as director, the last as executive producer.
“He has fostered more sequels than anyone else. And the studios love him for it,” says Alan Ladd Jr., former president of both 20th Century Fox and MGM/UA, who in the mid-1960s was Donner’s agent. “With Dick, who’s been one of my closest friends for 30-odd years, people can do nothing but feel that they’re in great hands with him. His warmth and charm and his extreme professionalism draw people. He’s a 100% prepared director and he never did a picture that went over budget.”
Robert Daly, co-chairman and co-CEO of Warner Bros. where the director’s Donner/Shuler Donner Prods. — a partnership with his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner — is based, says the studio greatly values its tenant.
“His relationship with the studio has been first-rate and has provided us with a number of hits,” Daly says. “If we could have more relationships like the one we have with Dick and Lauren, it would be easier for us. He’s a fun guy to do business with, very collaborative in the making and marketing of movies. He and Lauren are also very good friends.”
The words “fun” and “friendship” clutter co-workers’ reactions to an inquiry about working with him. “Dick is not only a good director,” says James Garner, who starred in the Donner-directed film based on the actor’s old series “Maverick,” “he brings something extra to the set and you actually enjoy your work.”
“Dick Donner creates a warm, family-like atmosphere when you go to work,” says Conrad Palmisano, stunt coordinator and second unit director on Donner’s “Assassins” and his latest, “Conspiracy Theory.” “You wake up in the morning on a Donner picture and say, ‘I get to go to work in an hour.’ ”
Christopher Reeve, who soared to stardom as the man in tights and his alter ego, Clark Kent, in the 1978 Donner film “Superman,” says, “I remember mostly his charisma and magnetism, his generosity and loyalty. Who would not like Donner? When I had my accident, he was one of the first to call. He visited me in rehab. He attended the premiere of my film ‘In the Gloaming.’ He heard I had a broken arm, he called. He is deeply loyal.”
The familial atmosphere of a Donner set runs to a deeper feel in the succeeding generation of filmmakers who have worked with Donner on multiple occasions. Jennie Lew Tugend, who has participated in 11 movies with Donner, including the “Lethal Weapon” franchise as co-producer and the “Free Willy” series as producer, started out as Donner’s assistant during post-production on “Ladyhawke.”
“He’s been my mentor,” Tugend says. “People talk a lot these days about needing a mentor. Well, I have been lucky enough to have had Dick as my mentor. He is a man who is so big, so self-confident and such a presence that empowered me to rise to the occasion and enabled me to rise through this business. He provided me with opportunities.
“Upon saying that, the most endearing thing about him is his humanity. Dick will stop a car on the freeway to save a dog. If he walks into a 7-Eleven and someone offers him a script, he’ll take it,” Tugend continues.
“Dick is so popular on the set because he knows everybody’s name, from the craft service people to the star. He is one of you. And you are always welcome and he’s extremely approachable. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to Dick as a big teddy bear — he’s very cuddly and has a ferocious roar. You hear him always before you see him.”
And, frankly, Stuart Baird is tired of hearing him — on film. Baird, the director of the forthcoming “U.S. Marshals,” the Joel Silver production starring Tommy Lee Jones, was film editor on every Donner-directed picture since “The Omen,” except “Lethal Weapon 3” and “Conspiracy Theory.”
“Donner used to drive me crazy,” Baird says. “He was always talking to the actors while the take was going on. You have to spend all that time clearing out the director’s voice. I have thousands of feet of Donner doing director’s dialogue. I keep threatening him that some day I’m going to splice it together and force him to sit through it. I told him, ‘Then you’ll know what it’s like for me.’
“But there’s been total trust and confidence in our relationship,” Baird adds. “He’d give me the film. I’d present the first cut. He’d see it and make notes. He stayed in the theater rather than work in the cutting room. And Dick isn’t around quite often. He lets you do your job.”
The ability to be funny and friendly yet thoroughly professional has won him a legion of fans in the business.
“He has a great sense of humor, a terrific mood around him,” says Vilmos Zsigmond, who was director of photography on “Maverick” and “Assassins.” “I’ve never worked with anyone who had such a great time. And he knows about photography. He likes inventive shots.
“On ‘Maverick,’ he wanted a Steadicam shot around five poker tables. I said, ‘This is not easy, you know.’ He said, ‘Take your time to light it however you like. Take a couple of hours.’ He takes the challenge to make the shot interesting.”
Laszlo Kovacs, who was the DP on Donner’s “Inside Moves,” “The Toy” and “Radio Flyer,” says Donner always gives the photographic unit input and leeway, but is “very much involved on a day-to-day basis with us.”
Brian Helgeland says collaboration is the first word with Donner. Helgeland wrote “Assassins” and “Conspiracy Theory” for the director as well as the forthcoming “L.A. Confidential” and “The Postman.” He also wrote and will direct the forthcoming “Parker,” a remake of the 1968 John Boorman/Lee Marvin crime classic “Point Blank” with Mel Gibson.
“He wants a lot of input,” Helgeland says. “Some directors I’ve worked with don’t want to talk to the writer, lest it seem like they need help. He seeks out help. Dick is very non-egotistical when it comes to the work. He knew I wanted to direct, so he had me on the set to soak up the atmosphere. He took me under his wing.
“He has this reputation for being a big action director. But what he’s good at is people direction. He’s very much about getting inside the people in his movies. The ‘Lethal Weapon’ series is a good example. You remember the relationship, the stuff between the guys, which also makes it seem more real.”
Tom Mankiewicz rewrote, uncredited, “Superman” and “Superman II” — from which Donner exited in midproduction for replacement Richard Lester when he came to a creative impasse with producer Alexander Salkind — and also co-wrote “Ladyhawke” for Donner. He sees a child who never lost his sense of wonder inside the bear.
“He’s known for being loud and blustery and funny,” Mankiewicz says. “But inside is this wonderful, pure child that comes out beautifully in some of his films. Anything to do with mythos or mysticism, he’s drawn to. As sophisticated as he is, he retains this sense of innocence that he tries to cover up. He believes. And he has this boundless energy. Before there was the Energizer bunny, there was Dick Donner.”