A journeyman director is very skilled in the craft of moviemaking. They don’t have a solid stylistic bent, meaning you can come across multiple movies they have directed and not be aware of the connections. In the film world, the auteur director is the one given the most praise. Those filmmakers leave distinct signs there, often revisiting specific themes or presenting images in a similar visual method. Richard Donner would undoubtedly be put in the journeyman category. He was the kind of director a movie studio loved because he would make good movies within the budget and on time. Donner never balked at any genre and was happy to tackle everything from horror to superheroes to romance to Eighties teen comedies. I am someone who goes for the auteur work when I have to choose; however, if there was ever a journeyman that made an impression on my life, it was certainly Richard Donner.
It took fifteen years making small movies before Donner was suddenly recognized with 1976’s The Omen. Unfortunately, it’s not a movie I particularly like as a horror fan. It’s okay but definitely feels like a very tepid novel adapted to the screen. There are some great moments but nothing that makes me want to revisit it. However, his next film, 1978’s Superman: The Movie, would have a tremendous impact on me.
It would be years later when I was around 4 or 5, that I saw Superman for the first time, and it’s stayed with me ever since. I truly began to love the movie on a deeper level around 2001 when I picked up the DVD and listened through the director’s commentary between Donner and writer Tom Mankiewicz. They delivered such great insight into the thinking about the film and not really knowing what they were doing. They talked about referencing Norman Rockwell and classic Americana for the Smallville content. I think that opening hour is about the most perfect superhero cinema ever made. It captures the details and tone you need to understand the fundamental nature of the Superman/Clark Kent character. Decades later, Donner would co-write a run on Action Comics with his former assistant Geoff Johns, revisiting the General Zod character.
Superman II was his next project, but it would not come to fruition as tension rose between Donner and the film’s producers. As a result, Donner was replaced by British director Richard Lester, and the original director’s cut (or an as close as possible reproduction) wasn’t released until 2006. It’s certainly better than Lester’s version, which was made using footage Donner filmed while making Superman. Superman II – The Donner Cut has a much more cohesive storyline, still touching on camp but not falling into almost parody as Lester’s version does. It has to be noted that Donner was doing something that would almost become the norm in superhero cinema now; he filmed both the original and sequel films at the same time, taking advantage of having access to actors, crew, and sets at one time. Jump to Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Wachowskis and the second two Matrix films as descendants of this method.
Next in his filmography, The Goonies is another standout film from my childhood. Growing up, I had no idea of the connection between this and Superman; I just enjoyed them both. I think Donner had an excellent talent for solid broad comedy. Superman has some great funny bits, and The Goonies balances humor and pathos perfectly. Lethal Weapon gets increasingly comedic with each entry, and regardless of whether you’re laughing or not, Donner was able to find light, human moments amid a crime story. He continued to bring comedy into adventure films with Maverick; that is what The Wild Wild West wishes it could be. Once again, there is an instance of a highly stylized movie falling flat where a straightforward, well-acted & directed film nails the source material.
The tangible common thread here is the sense of adventure almost every movie has, and I think that was Donner’s most extraordinary talent. He understood that some movies need to be thrilling and help us escape. That doesn’t mean they needed to be mindless or without attention to theme and character arcs, surviving solely on special effects. Donner knew audiences wanted to see worlds they never had before and be made to feel that they were going on this adventure with the characters. The special effects enhanced performances that were great rather than attempted to compensate for a subpar film. The flying effects in Superman don’t work without the heart Christopher Reeve is giving in his performance. Donner’s job as director was always to find where these two filmmaking elements met.
Donner hadn’t directed a picture since 2006’s 16 Blocks, which I have heard pretty positive things about and may need to check out. However, he’d been an executive producer of many movies, including the Fox X-Men franchise. In addition, he directed three episodes of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt, my favorite of which is “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone,” where Joe Pantoliano plays a stage magician who has been given the nine lives of a cat. At the age of 91, Donner had a magnificent career, something to be very proud of. He will be missed, but his movies will certainly be loved for many years to come.