Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tom Mankiewicz (1942-2010)

For whatever reason, August seems to be the month I end up doing a lot of obituaries on this blog. It was just about a year ago that we lost John Hughes and Blake Snyder. Then, last weekend screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz left us at the age of 68. As I told Twitter, Mankiewicz was the screenwriter who worked most closely with Richard Donner on Superman (and the portions of Superman II that Donner shot during the original phase of production.) Superman just happens to be one of my favorite films and the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker, so this was a sad lost for me and many other Superman fans.

There have been a number of other eulogies for "Mank" over the past few days so you want an overview of his career, go here.

Instead, I'd rather use his life to pass on some knowledge. Mank was brought onto Superman to rewrite a script that began life as a 300-page behemoth penned by Mario Puzo. Even allowing for the fact that this was intended to be two movies, that was an extremely long script. This in turn was rewritten by Robert Benton and David & Leslie Newman. Their efforts reportedly caused the script to swell to a full 500 pages, at least according to one Donner interview.

When Donner was brought on board he appealed to his old friend to make the script more manageable, not only in length but to remove a great deal of silly, campy humor that didn't fit Donner's vision. In interviews, Mank would often recount the story of being awakened by an early morning phone call from Dick Donner, who refused to take no for an answer. When Tom finally gave in and came over to Donner's house, he found the director running across the lawn wearing a Superman costume that had been sent to him with the script.

Superman was not an easy production by any account. Indeed, the behind the scenes clashes are somewhat legendary, as Donner and the producers rarely saw eye-to-eye during the long shoot. After all, they weren't just shooting Superman, but were also in simultaneous production on the sequel. In fact, Donner had shot 75% of the shooting script for Superman II before they decided to concentrate entirely on finishing the first feature. (The released Superman II only featured about 30% Donner footage, as much was rewritten and reshot under the guidance of director Richard Lester.)

If there's one thing that comes across in the many behind the scenes DVD featureettes, commentaries and "making of" books besides the chaotic nature of the production, it's the great friendship that existed between Donner and Mankiewicz. The two men quickly settled on their approach to the material, which ran counter to the vision reflected in the earlier scripts.

Donner explained, "Both (Tom) and I decided that we would treat the picture as reality ... 'larger than life,' but still reality. This was in perfect keeping with the producers' viewpoint. The key to the whole concept of the film is verisimilitude. We've treated it as truth. And the minute you are unfaithful to the truth ... to the dignity of the legend ... the minute you screw around with it or make fun of it or parody and make it into a spoof, then you destroy its innocence and honesty." (
Mankiewicz was Donner's right-hand during production, pretty much acting as a defacto producer. Donner regularly clashed with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkand and their hatchet man, producer Pierre Spangler. Before long, the Salkind camp wasn't speaking to the Donner camp.

Every great filmmaker seems to face a baptism of fire, often during a difficult film that becomes their calling card. Think of Stephen Spielberg on Jaws, or George Lucas on Star Wars. Great films resulted, but not easily, as those films ran over schedule and over budget. Superman was similarly troubled, perhaps more so because the director was dealing with producers who didn't have his back.

Any interview with Tom and Dick can't help but offer a glimpse at the great friendship that must have existed between the two men. On the commentary, they almost sound like two old war buddies who were in a foxhole together and couldn't depend on anyone but each other. "Old war stories" about sums up the content of their two Superman commentaries, recounting anecdotes such as the time their driver said that even he wouldn't have trusted them with $25 million to make a movie.

Without Tom Mankiewicz at his side, who knows if Donner would have had the endurance or the support to keep up the fight for his vision for so long. And who knows what might have resulted if he'd been forced to work with a writer who had a less harmonious interpretation of Donner's vision?

I don't want to take anything away from Richard Donner - as he was the man who truly defined Superman for the silver screen. Without that film, there might not have been any other comic book films. Indeed, even Christopher Nolan cited Donner's Superman as an influence on Batman Begins. At the same time, we can't forget that every general relies on his sergeants to follow through for him, a great director needs to be backed by a good screenwriter and (one hopes) good producers.

So remember this as you try to build your careers in the entertainment industry - you can't do it alone. The auteur theory only works when the auteur in question has backup to help him follow-through. I've never seen a director who's truly a one-man band, have you?

I've been lucky enough to work with some great people on my own projects. I know how much easier it is when you've got a team full of people who can manage their department and give their all to bringing the director's vision to life. It also helps to have the emotional support of friends throughout production. In Tom Mankiewicz, Richard Donner had both.

It's fortunate that before died, Mankiewicz participated in the restoration of Richard Donner's cut of Superman II. He gave creative input to the filmmakers on that project and at last got to see many scenes he wrote for the sequel (including some crucial moments with Marlon Brando as Jor-El) released in this alternate cut.

Farewell Mank. You will be missed and millions of Superman fans mourn your loss.

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