S U P E R M A N I V :
T H E R E D U X P R O J E C T
L I V I N G T H E D R E A M :
A P E R S O N A L J O U R N E Y
B y M a r t i n L a k i n
Some years ago now I remember having a conversation with my dad about who he often referred to as ‘Steve Reeves’. This was before I realised there actually was such a person and dad was just befuddled trying to remember the name of the man who played Superman in the movies.
It was on the news that he’d just died, you see. Not my dad, not even Steve Reeves but actor Christopher Reeve. At the preposterously young age of 52. I remember getting the phone call from my mom to say ‘He’s gone’ like he was a member of the family. Only hours before we’d flown over New York coming back from a family holiday in Florida so had literally been airborne as he passed. It was the closest I’d ever get to him.
Beyond the obvious sadness he was no longer with us and what a loss it was for the world, not to mention his wife and young son, the first feeling I got was one of pride – that Chris had left multiple legacies behind that would probably outlive us all. Then it hit me I was never going to have the opportunity to meet him as I one day really – desperately – hoped to do.
Which brings me back to the chat with dad as he was casually talking about how, unbeknown to me, I had missed out on doing just that decades earlier when I was thirteen years old. Turns out that on a miserable November weekend in 1986 the making of the latest Superman film had just made the evening news across the UK. Incredibly they were on location in a place called Milton Keynes, less than 100 miles away from where we lived.
Knowing what a huge fan I was, dad had planned to drive me down there to see Superman as he knew they were going to be filming outside the train station on the coming Saturday. As I sat listening to his story aghast, he cheerfully went on to explain they’d had a change of plans that morning and had forgotten to even mention the idea to me. ‘Shame that’, he said. ‘You would’ve loved to see him fly, eh?’
I first watched Superman IV: The Quest For Peace on opening day at the Kings123 Cinema West Bromwich. Its hard to conceive now that decades ago folk would literally (and patiently) queue around the block to watch a film but that’s exactly what they did. (it’s where the term ‘Blockbuster’ comes from, kids). As the end credits rolled I breathlessly ran out and joined the back of one of these lines to watch it again.
I remember being thrilled by the action and the ‘live’ flying shots and thinking how fresh and modern everything looked. Of course this typifies the 1980’s but to my teenage eyes the saga had definitely moved into another era and it was exciting – and nothing appeared as if it had been filmed in the UK to my young eyes.
At the epicentre was Christopher Reeve. He may have looked a little older (and thinner) but his performance was assured as ever and if Barry Norman (ask your dad) was to be believed he had been made an offer he couldn’t refuse for one more Superman film so there was much to look forward to.
But then everything went wrong. ‘See you in twenty’ were the last words spoken by Reeve’s Superman and they were prophetic in a way nobody could have expected. Superman V never materialised as, according to critics and the viewing public, Superman IV was a major disappointment. Such was its infamy that in the preceding years its reputation for being ‘so bad its good’ had given it an unwanted cult status all its own.
Quite indifferent to all of this were the citizens and council of Milton Keynes, who had continually championed their association with the film and still fondly recounted the furore of Superman’s arrival in the new town. Such was the impact of Hollywood on its culture and short history that, 30 years later, they deemed it worthy of some kind of celebration…
I first read the words ‘Superman IV Redux’ during research for one of the many posts on the subject you’ll find on this site. Indeed, such is my fascination with the making of this film that as of right now I can virtually guarantee you there is no better resource to be found anywhere.
Which is why I read the Festival programme on Milton Keynes IF’s site through somewhat cynical eyes. Just who was this Richard DeDomenici anyhow, and how had he gotten permission to do this?? As I was the self-appointed historian of this film I was aghast this endeavour had somehow flown under my radar.
Nonetheless, they were advertising for extras and I figured it would be a great opportunity to gain access to some of the locations for what might be a fun little reenactment. This wasn’t my first rodeo, you see. Years earlier a group of guys from the SupermanCINEMA forums met up in MK to tour the filming sites. One balmy afternoon a group of relative strangers met up to show off some of their collections and walk the location trail. We had a fun time but we were flatly denied access to the Avebury Building (Where the Daily Planet Interiors were filmed) and didn’t make it past the lobby. If nothing else, it would be worth checking out for that – I mean, it wasn’t as if they were going to give me the lead role or anything…
The casting session itself was to take place at Milton Keynes Gallery and the associate Producer, Ursula, had been in touch by email determined to get as many folk to show up in Superhero garb as possible. I don’t really know what I was thinking but I had replied informing her I had a decent costume and I could show up in it if required. This outfit of mine had been hanging in the wardrobe since Comic-Con last year and even though I’d had some great notices on the day, I knew I wasn’t really in the ideal shape to carry it off. There’s a reason to this day nobody but Reeve looked good in the thing. I’d spent a lot of time and money trying to assemble the best replica possible for fun but lycra, as most folk know, is not an equal opportunity fabric. I sent a couple of pics to Ursula anyhow and she said to go for it so it was off to the phone booth for me –
The night before the gathering I tried the whole ensemble to see how well it held up – I’d learned a few things about makeup from my wife and getting the best results out of the wig since Con and was pleased overall (see above). What I less enamoured with was the prospect of driving 70 miles down the motorway wearing it. Donning the suit, you’ll no doubt be interested to learn, is a two-person operation so I couldn’t get changed there – I therefore had no choice but to be ready in advance…
T H E C A S T I N G
Upon arrival I’d had more than enough time enough to change my mind completely and turn around and drive back – who did I think I was doing this? – I was so convinced there were going to be half a dozen younger, more suitable guys present that I was soon going to be exposed as the chubby middle-aged fanboy I was. Not even a chorus of horns from a dozen cars hailing my walk back from having a toilet break on the layby of the M40 in the rain (as much fun as it sounds) was enough to convince me otherwise. But then I spotted Ursula.
At least it had to be her – Tall, slim, wearing a classic symbol t-shirt & lanyard and chatting on her mobile? I pulled up next to her, rolled down my window and said ‘Good Evening’ in my best Super–voice. Ursula put her hands up to her face and said to whichever poor soul was on the end of the line – ‘I’ve got to go, Superman just arrived’.
Although encouraged by Ursy’s response I’d parked up and was still on the verge of an anxiety attack. Still not too late to leave, I thought. In order to get to the Gallery I had to walk across a pair of typical MK Centre dual carriageways. They had never seemed wider. I took some deep breaths and got out of the car. As I approached the building – and I swear this is true – some guy pulled up right in front of me in his car and asked where Chiquito’s Restaurant was. I said it was further down on the left. (I actually had no idea but wanted to help) He thanked me and drove off. Clearly Superman was not an unusual sight around these parts…
As folk started to arrive at the venue any trepidation I had melted away as the crowd started to build. And build. They’d all turned up in their Super-finery as requested and seemed genuinely enthused about the project. Of course It was the kids that made me smile most – all running around having a great time in their dress-up with mom’s and dad’s not at all afraid to join in. I stopped to wonder what my two-year old would’ve made of it and really wished I’d brought him with me. Many people I’d spoken to seemed impressed I’d driven down from Birmingham just for the occasion anyhow and complimented me on the suit –
We were then ushered indoors for a brief introduction to the Festival and screening of the scenes Richard DeDomenici intended to shoot. In his absence, Richard had recorded a film for us and thanked us for coming. As the edit of the scenes proposed played out I wondered how on earth he was going to achieve them. The iconic live flying shot in front of the UN? Was he kidding? In any event, such was the professionalism of the setup and obvious dedication of the team that this project was going to be much more than your cheap homemade fanfilm. It had the full backing of Milton Keynes council – and a considerable budget after all – so I had already decided I wanted in. Should make a terrific post for the blog, I thought.
Meanwhile, the press had just arrived and wanted some pictures of the group (see above). We all obligingly gathered outside and chatted happily amongst ourselves as the kids struck obligatory superhero poses – it all came so natural to them. The atmosphere was so good that when it came to the adults I was far more relaxed and just decided to go for it too. What a testimony this all is to the longevity of this character I thought. No Superhero has the power to unite humanity the way Superman can. Its one of the reasons I grew to admire him so much…
Eventually I was singled out by photographer for the shots above. So flattered was I by the reactions I’d had so far that I decided to do an audition video – what the hell, I thought – I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be. The criteria for the submission was to speak one line – one line – from the movie. On the drive down I’d been listening to the news on the radio – in particular the uncertainty of Brexit and all its implications for the future. With this in mind I knew the line to choose and called upon a nice lady bystander to help me shoot it –
“I just wish you could see the world the way that I see it – because when you look at it – it’s just one world…”
That done, I said my goodbyes and drove home feeling elated at the possibilities and more importantly, somewhat more worthy of the cape…
Weeks had passed and life had gone on with very little in the way of updates from the Redux team – in fact I wondered if maybe the ambition was too great after all and the project had stalled. My good friend Alexei had been in touch and said that he’d had an email confirming his selection as an extra but heard nothing since. I’d not even received that so my hopes were all but dashed.
On the week of the proposed shooting dates I’d given up entirely as that would leave precious little time for anybody to prepare. I was walking to work on the Monday morning and an email from Ursula popped up on my watch – Here we go, I thought. “Congratulations’ it said. ‘You have been cast as…’ (open on phone for full message)”.
About damn time – I thought. I quickly thought over my options. Get in touch with Alexei and we’ll buddy up as extras. We’ll travel down together to save on train fare and take loads of pics for our respective websites etc, etc. – Perfect. Later on I thought I’d better read the rest of the mail for the details so opened it up on my phone –
“Congratulations. you have been cast as *Superman* in Richard DeDomenici’s Superman Redux. Please see the attachments for your scenes and any costume you may need for shooting days…”
I had to lean against a nearby tree. Had they gotten my email mixed up with somebody else’s? Surely before they embarked on this journey they had an actor for Superman in mind?? Was my one line that convincing?? Before I could talk myself out of it I replied with my acceptance of the offer – they could only email back saying there had been a huge mistake after all. I text my wife and told her I’d got it – ‘Of course you did, she replied – Who knows it better than you?’
Only when Ursula messaged me to ask how much of Clark Kent’s wardrobe I had accumulated already did it actually sink in, and that precise moment was when panic ensued. It was real, all right. I was going to be Superman, in public, and I had one week to prepare…
After years of procrastination I had actually joined a gym three weeks prior and had been enjoying it as the running I had been doing before that was fine but hadn’t made much of an impact on my physique. Who was I fooling? I didn’t have a physique. Now I was down there every other day wishing I’d had at least a year to get into shape like anybody else taking on the role. No such luck. I knew I was taking it all far too seriously already but this was the dream right? and I wanted to make the best impression. As I had not considered for one moment I would get the part I had not given Clark’s costumes any thought and had next to no time to assemble it. Suits and shirts I had, but the most iconic aspect – the glasses – had eluded me to date even after years of collecting. These specs literally defined the character so they had to be right – I couldn’t settle for any other style or shape or they would be Dean’s Clark. Or Brandon’s or Henry’s. These needed to be Christopher’s…
No pain no gain…
In the unlikely event they would arrive in time I’d ordered a pair I thought looked a fantastic match on eBay. I was unconvinced the frames would be large enough for my giant head but had literally nothing to lose. I was three days in and all I’d managed to snag so far was a black Trilby from Birmingham Rag Market so things were getting desperate. On the day before the start date a little miracle plopped onto the doormat and when I opened the package I couldn’t believe it – They were perfect. This was the air-punch omen I had been waiting for, and all for the princely sum of £7…
Naturally due to my new status as leading man(!) I had to tell Alexei things were going to be a bit different from what we had initially planned. He’d been a great support and was just as excited as I was having got the role. Trouble was, Alexei had only been selected for one day of filming so I got in touch with Ursula to see if I could get Alexei along for the whole shebang as my costume supervisor/assistant (a two-man job, remember!) so he too could also have access to these hitherto restricted locations and take those all-important pictures for our websites. Thankfully permission was granted and a hotel was booked for us. We were all set…
T H E S H O O T – D A Y O N E
One aspect the current screen incarnations of The Man of Steel lost to history is the fact Clark Kent parts his hair on the opposite side to Superman. As the notion of a pair of glasses for a disguise is as ludicrous as it sounds one of Christopher Reeve’s particular gifts to the portrayal of the character was to incorporate as many physical quirks as possible to separate the two personas –
Of course for me this meant re-styling the wig in a panic into the early hours. With all the gear hung in the car the following morning I kissed my wife & son farewell and drove down to Milton Keynes full of anticipation. And trepidation.
Thankfully Ursula had come to the rescue again and had booked the hotel room for the Friday night for the all-important Saturday shoot. A good portion of my anxiety was the spectre of the weather potentially rolling Saturday’s filming over to Sunday – something I couldn’t accommodate as I couldn’t get the time off of work and I hadn’t told a soul.
So Thank god for Alexei. We’d only met once prior (on a day out to the Propstore warehouse to see original Superman costumes) but his enthusiasm for these classic movies and more is infectious and I found his laid-back manner reassuring. Seeing his big grin as I arrived at the hotel was a great relief as I knew he’d be looking out for me every step of the way and I, in turn, was pleased he could share the experience.
Later, as we were stood in lobby of the Avebury building while the cast and crew tentatively assembled I recalled the last time we were there and how frustrated I was when the security guard told team SupermanCinema to get lost. Now, here I was, years later, Supergeek, star of the show. Soon the small party was called to the set and we went up in the glass elevator (yes! the one from the Hotel Lobby scene – more about that later) to location one – The Daily Planet Boardroom..!
Strictly no admittance to the public as it’s currently the headquarters of the Home Retail Group, this was the actual room where the scenes introducing the Warfield’s took place 35 years ago – And very little had changed. A few dividing walls here and there but the windows were instantly recognisable – they even had the same blinds. The group was an interesting mix of people but it was pretty apparent few of them knew the significance of the place. Alexei and I, however, were virtually bouncing off the walls with excitement. I told him to have his camera handy as the prop team started sticking the Daily Planet logo up on the windows for set dressing. For the fan, It was an emotional moment…
Richard DeDomenici is a real force of nature. The first of the many talents on display were to put his cast at ease by energetically talking us all through the scene and getting everybody’s energy and excitement at fever pitch just before calling action.
As we set up Ursula was concerned the actor hired to play Perry White hadn’t shown up. In a quick-thinking decision that would come to typify the rest of the shoot, unassuming extra Derek Moore was fitted up with blue cardigan and glasses before he realised what he’d agreed to. What was more surprising was how well he took to it – after a few takes he was line perfect and would only get better.
By now I was in the staff toilet becoming both queasy and Clark Kent. I had deliberately not put on most of the costume and left the glasses off so I could gauge reaction to me when I showed up on set. The recognition (and modest applause) when I entered the room was gratifying as, until then, everybody had presumed I was a background artiste too. I took my place alongside shy but sweet Esther Webb who was to be my Lois Lane, handsome young Richard Bateman as an appropriately enthusiastic Jimmy Olsen and was soon in awe of Eric Thompson, stood poised above his prop newspaper embodying Sam Wanamaker’s David Warfield. His delivery in some instances, in my opinion, on par with the original film –
Speaking of, we had been told early in the process that typically, the Redux project would utilize the original soundtrack of the film and we would lip-sync the dialogue. While I understood this I still thought it a shame as we all performed the lines on set to great standard and it would’ve stood up just as well. I had another fanboy moment when Carly Halse shot her first scenes looking every inch Hemmingway’s Lacy Warfield – she was obviously an experienced actress and soon set the standard. Looking around at all the extras in their carefully selected 1980’s wardrobe had me grinning ear to ear. Between shots we quickly got to banter with Planet girls Julie Bell and Karen Phillips who alongside Freddie Guilimard would keep me laughing and would become the darlings of the shoot –
DeDomenici works at considerable pace, keeping his company in the loop by firing out facts about the original film while setting up. His attention to detail was mind-blowing – for somebody outside Superman fandom his knowledge of the film was unparalleled, he had certainly done his homework. Trusty iPad in hand cued to the scenes were we about to recreate, Richard would block manically and the roll camera, often nabbing the take first time.
With the takeover scenes in the can, it was a quick costume change for me to prepare for a scene I had really been looking forward to. Confronted with the headline ‘SUPERMAN SAYS DROP DEAD TO KID!” Clark Kent takes a private moment to reflect on a decision that could change the world as we know it. It’s a simple exercise of Clark pondering and taking off his glasses, but during the contemplation he subtly changes from Clark to Superman and I was keen to match the moves perfectly –
The slow walk to the full-length window overlooking the atrium of the building may well count as my first out-of-body experience. Re-tracing his steps and seeing for myself exactly what Reeve gazed upon in exactly the same spot decades before left me dazed. Two takes later and with Richard’s note of ‘more thumb’ I felt satisfied we’d captured the moment. Staring out again across the atrium I wondered how this could get any better but there was only more to come and plenty more scenes to shoot –
The Avebury is like a self-contained town. To accommodate its many personnel the ground floor is a shopping centre and a large canteen can be found on the fifth floor. What the few bemused lunching employees failed to realise as our company poured in was they were sat in what was once the bullpen of the Daily Planet office. As I arrived Richard and his crew were already putting together the set of Lois and Clark’s desks. As Richard framed his shot his excitement was evident as, like the boardroom set before it, little had changed structurally and he was soon able to replicate the exact angle used for the original scene. Once again I was wowed by the attention to detail – prop newspapers and even a full-size cardboard retro Pepsi machine (which must have taken poor Rachel Wright an age to build & paint) were thrust into the frame while vintage typewriters and assorted 80’s shrapnel littered the desks. There were several scenes to shoot here and Richard was keen to press on. During the setup I thought I’d take the opportunity to get to know my Lois Lane as we took our seats opposite each other. Softly spoken and as bewildered by the scope of the production as the rest of us, Esther Webb was great fun and just excited to be there –
Waiting to see the Chief’s reaction…
As I tapped away on the keys in preparation for the take wondering how mankind ever tolerated use of these primitive devices for so long I awaited the arrival of Richard Bateman for Jimmy’s big scene. Within two takes of passing the offending copy of the Planet (or a redressed oneMK newspaper in this instance) the scene was done and as the rest of the cast relaxed eating pizza (for by now it was already midday). I marvelled at Derek Moore once again as he barked out Perry White’s dialogue, matching, it seemed to me, all his marks perfectly to the original footage –
Cheek of the Planet Staff…
The next scene was the reaction to the President’s speech on the arms race swiftly followed by Clark receiving Jeremy’s letter. Both Carly and Esther were awesome in this scene as Richard crafted their subtle expressions of concern carefully. In stark contrast, I somehow managed to miss all my marks completely. Sometimes in acting what seems to be the simplest moves turn out to be most difficult – for example a transition from standing to sitting mid-speech had me floundering. I wish I’d gone over the footage on the iPad a few more times and Richard go harder over the blocking with me but after a few takes he seemed to settle for it rather than push for another take. He seemed happy the shot was in the can but I was frustrated with myself and it affected my confidence…
Another swift costume change and I got to work opposite Derek for Clark’s entrance into the office, another one of my favourite little scenes in the movie. A simple walk up to the mark and exchange of dialogue and Derek’s Perry walks away in disgust while Clark hangs back to ask where everybody is. Even though Richard did his customary couple of takes before moving onto the next setup, doubt had set in after my failure in the last scene and again I felt like I’d fumbled my movement. The pressure I’d put on myself to copy the original actions exactly had finally taken its toll so when somebody pulled me away for a photo-op I was relieved for the opportunity of a break. Maybe I could talk Richard into reshooting it later…
Before I knew It I was stood amongst the Department heads of Milton Keynes Council to mark the first day of shooting. What an opportunity their generosity had afforded us! We were celebrating a small milestone in the City’s cultural history but they were nonetheless all very proud of it and happy to host our production – even contributing to it themselves – Only much later did I discover the fellow over my right shoulder would be playing the US President and be cut into the scene we’d just filmed…
After the break, the company was called to the reception area of the Avebury – or what previously served as the lobby of the Metropolis Hotel – for the bulk of the afternoon’s filming. Still mindful of my performance in the last of the Planet scenes, I was determined to do a better job of this vital but complex sequence where Clark & Lacy get separated during their double-date. One of the moments in Superman IV that I always find hilarious is Clark’s near-catastrophic slide on the polished floor as he dashes into the lobby. To this day I’m sure Reeve improvised it (he was a very underrated comic actor) and here I was faced with the task of mimicking his almost-collapse.
Although the reception area is largely unchanged (like all the other locations so far) one upgrade was the extension of the floor mat – its grip making it impossible to convincingly perform the stunt. As Richard patiently set up the shot of the elevator going up (for an exasperated Lacy) I took the opportunity to rehearse in the space by trying a long run up, taking off my shoes to slide on my socks, taking off my socks to try to skid on barefeet etc. and not a damn thing worked –
Just give me a sign…
Meanwhile preparation was rife around me – poor Carly Halse had walked onset wearing what looked like a sequin blanket and was quickly set upon by a few assistants with a lot of pins. By the time I’d given up on my pathetic attempts to slide I looked back and she had emerged, diva-like, wearing a perfect reproduction of Lacy’s disco jacket. On the other side of the floor the set for Jeremy’s press conference was nearly complete, and Eddy Flackett had finally finished assembling the impressive metal Pagoda he’d been building all morning. The extra’s started to arrive all kitted out in effective period gear again – some even brandishing authentic 1980’s camera equipment – as they gathered around the diminutive young girl who was playing Jeremy.
Followers of Richard’s work on the Redux Project are no doubt familiar with the director’s fondness of gender-bending roles in his work but here it made perfect sense and was, I thought, a really cute touch. Little Abbie Jane-Gates seemed understandably intimidated by the attention at first but a few takes in had settled in and nailed her first scene. Richard, meanwhile, thought the shot lacking and summoned us all over to fire off our phone torches off-camera in unison to simulate dozens of popping flashbulbs. Yet another example of his sharp creative instinct –
Alexei had disappeared in the melee too – no longer was he at my side faithfully shooting pics but had – in true Redux style – been hurried away for a costume fitting ahead of the next sequence. Minutes later he appeared in a bright red concierge costume that looked tailor-made for him. Better still, he would be playing the part of the Bellboy who takes Clark for an impromptu ride on a luggage cage. Alexei’s scheduled scenes weren’t until the following day but I thought it so poetic we should get a chance to be in a shot together – the sense of the day’s events being somehow pre-ordained was getting stronger…
The Avebury was business as usual and this was just another working day, not a closed set. Patience was required as Richard worked around folk in the busy reception area as they politely walked by wondering what the hell was going on. Some, however, were around for the filming in ’86. One gent in particular was a huge fan who stopped to tell us of his memories – I wished I’d got his name so I could interview him proper – I do hope he reads this and gets in touch.
We had a break in traffic long enough to attempt the sliding shot so I went for it – amazingly we got it second time. Carly Halse experience got me through the rest of the take as she took my arm and lead me off camera. There was no time to look at rushes as Alexei was already waiting at the lift entrance with the luggage cart for the next shot. We did it quick and messy – it was difficult to jump onto the thing and make it look like an accident. Alexei was a solid driver, however, and soon had me barrelling down the aisle as Richard rolled from high above. Once out of Lacy’s sight, Clark jumps straight off the cart and whips off his glasses before turning to run through the revolving doors in one shot. A fantastic build-up to a transformation in the movie, Clark then dives into the backseat of a parked limo and emerges as Superman – launching into the sky…
Richard’s approach to this was exactly how it was originally filmed – I would jump off the trolley onto my mark and snatch away my glasses before dashing full stride through the revolving door to the car where my double (as Superman) would be waiting. Once I entered the car I would lay down and the double would jump out. Switcheroo.
Being low-budget and in-keeping with Richard’s sense of humour the black limo would be played by a Peugeot 206 and the stuntman would be fitted in a dreadful one-piece zentai suit complete with gloves. Despite sporting a full beard a game Greg Webb was plucked from background duties and thrust into costume. Not having any idea he’d be playing Superman when he got up that morning he was obviously excited so I felt compelled to lend him my cape and despite the cheap suit he looked fantastic –
Seeing double, SuperGreg!
This was to be my last shot as Clark for the day and I wanted it to be epic. I was finally living out my school playground fantasy dashing out for a quick change! Diving in I laid down and yelled at Greg to go which he did – only to slam straight into the door when it refused to open. As we fell about in fits the owner kindly returned to take the childlock off while Richard prepped another take. Soon Greg would step out and launch off the concrete ledge like a pro – earning a round of applause from the onlookers – this was Superman’s first appearance on the day after all…
With all the necessary shots from the location acquired, Richard declared it was a wrap for the majority of the cast and after more applause, we said our farewells to each other and the Avebury until the big day tomorrow. Apparently I was just getting started however, as Richard had decided to shift the Greenscreen effects work to the evening rather than tomorrow to help towards a shorter day for me. My remaining time in the Avebury was spent suiting up in the toilets – for we were heading to the Redux studio – or the Buszy as it was formerly known…
After a short drive I was surprised to discover the Buszy is in fact adjacent to the Train Station and served as the Central MK Bus Station for many years. Quite why it it didn’t still function as a bus station I didn’t know but now it was all but derelict. Inside it looked as if it had been used as gallery space at some point but was now abandoned which is why I was taken aback when I saw Richard had set up a perfect little Greenscreen studio with lighting rig all ready to go –
As Alexei and I waited for Richard, Eric and Carly to arrive I stepped out into the early evening air and looked at the spectre of the Train Station on the horizon, wondering what tomorrow’s shoot would bring. The building has always resonated with me and I never get tired of seeing it. Meanwhile a group of local skateboarders had spotted me and I wondered how it must have looked to them to see Superman randomly standing alone outside, hands on hips looking out across the Station square silently praying for good weather the following day.
Richard and Ursy arrived and the first thing I expressed was concern that I hadn’t had time to restyle the wig so the parting was on Superman’s side. Such banality seemed excessive when I learned Richard intended to portray Nuclearman in a tank top and cargo shorts topped off with a PVC Dracula cape. Despite my misgivings he was kind enough to promise he’d ‘flip’ my closeups in post so the hair would be right. The next hour was taken up with pure flights of fancy as I tested my endurance maintaining an agonising pose on a table followed by a pitch battle with Richard wrestling under the hot lights…
Eric and Carly, meanwhile were patiently waiting to shoot their scene as the other side of the Greenscreen studio was dressed as Lacy’s new office. Richard had plucked out a ceiling tile so he (as Nuclearman) could be seen disappearing through the roof having just kidnapped Lacy and disposed of Mr. Warfield. A basic effect, but with Richard’s touch it worked a charm and was great fun to watch –
Despite the nonstop adrenaline the day had finally caught up with me and I was starting to wane – Alexei and I still had to get back to the hotel and have dinner before hitting the sack and I still had to redress the wig for the morning. I’d also promised Alexei I’d tag along for his shoot at the Winter Gardens location for the first of the Lex Luthor scenes – it was a 6am call…
That night I lay in the hotel bed wondering If I had in fact dreamt the day’s events. Everything had played out so much better than I could have imagined I couldn’t help but dwell on the thought it all seemed too good to be true. Even if it had all been a setup and my wife and family had somehow arranged the world’s greatest red letter (cape?) day I would cherish the memories and hoped that the remainder of filming would contain as many awesome/surreal moments. My fulfilled inner fanboy slept like a baby and dreamt of flight through clear skies…
T H E S H O O T – D A Y T W O
Although my call wasn’t until midday I had promised Alexei I would accompany him to the morning’s filming and besides, it was another genuine location and I was keen to see Richard in action once more. As I looked outside my prayers for decent weather seemed to have been answered as it was overcast, but not raining so we were good to shoot. Upon arrival at the location a small crew had gathered around the ever-present Ursula and once again Rachel Wright had delivered the goods with a marvellous recreation of the Superman hair strand exhibit set in exactly the original spot of the ‘Metropolis Museum‘ –
The Winter Gardens is a curious installation, a celebration of nature caged in a modernist temple of glass & steel. It seems to serve little purpose other than a giant greenhouse and a grand entrance to the Bannatyne Health Club lurking beneath where – yes! – the gym scenes for Superman IV were shot also.
As Richard ran around the giant space like a kid in a candy shop trying to find all his angles Sam Ginelly arrived who had been great company on the Planet set the day before. Readying herself for the part of the Museum guide, she informed us that she actually used to work there as a manager for one of the many bars that had thrived in the area that had since been shut down after Bannatyne’s arrival…
As we waited to be called more extras arrived and so, eventually did the two gentlemen cast as Lex and Lenny Luthor. Steve O’Brien and Marc Bazely were already in costume and looked superb as the villians. Before Richard hurried them away for their scenes I managed to speak briefly to Marc who, very much like me, was a big fan of Superman IV and had already contributed to a hefty feature on Den Of Geek regarding the locations (read it here and come straight back!) and was very excited to be part of this project –
Alexei and I were once again elated to be there but dog tired and hungry to boot – we had left the hotel too early for breakfast and as we weren’t required decided to go get something to eat so left the set while Richard got the scenes with the Luthor boys in the can. Returning 30 mins later Alexei’s involvement was a solitary shot as the Museum guide ushers the crowd up the stairs. As I was in my casuals I joined in to make up the numbers. As Richard called cut I was grateful Alexei had seen so much action yesterday as this was a little anti-climatic –
Time was already pressing on and I wanted to get back to the hotel to prepare but before we left there was one more location to see only yards from the Winter Gardens – The Daily Planet Lobby.
You have to hand it to original Superman IV Production Designer John Graysmark. Most all of the major locations of this $30 million dollar motion picture managed to be hugely contrasting yet somehow within feet of each other. The Daily Planet lobby, not seen since the entrance to the Daily News building in New York doubled for it in Superman: The Movie is nothing but an entrance hall with stairs (formerly escalators) leading to the Winter Gardens. Does that diminish its appeal to Super-fans like us? Hell no – apart from the stairs and a hoarding behind, this, like the gardens themselves, has endured well since the ’80’s so it was electrifying to be there. Fans of deleted scenes take note – the area immediately outside is where the taxi was parked for Clark & Lacy’s farewell kiss.
As Alexei and I indulged ourselves who should show up but Lois Lane herself – Esther Webb – looking every inch the star reporter…
As the set was faithfully dressed to match its counterpart with stepladders (and an awesome sign) Alexei, Esther and I had been chatting a full 10 minutes before I realised she hadn’t recognised me at all and had assumed I was one of the crew. Only when I explained the Clark Kent hair was fake did she catch on but insisted she thought the wig was my real hair.
Much as we would’ve loved to watch the concluding Planet sequence filmed we really had to go. The taxi showed up and as we drove back to the hotel I could feel the nerves about wearing the suit in public creeping up on me as the deadline drew nearer but wait – was that the sun coming out..?
Later, like an idiot I had decided to do a hundred stomach crunches before I slipped into the suit. Alexei politely ignored me as I went at it like a madman on the hotel room floor and readied himself to assist with the costume. What I hadn’t yet told him was that in the absence of my wife, he was going to have to help me glue the hairpiece on too. An hour later, makeup done and breathing back under control we wondered on down to the reception area to check out. I had no coat/dressing gown to throw over so I had no choice but to wander around in full Super-regalia to the bemusement of onlookers. Nobody had pointed and laughed yet which I considered a positive sign.
The key to wearing the Superman costume is a). Avoid being self-conscious and b). Assume the responsibility. Walk proud, make eye contact and smile. Never do mundane or inappropriate things like pick your nose or scratch your backside. Kryptonian’s do not cough or sneeze. When you’re Superman somebody is ALWAYS watching so represent, and don’t betray the image. Once you acknowledge all this, the costume empowers you to do just about anything…
As I waited nervously for my escort to the set I was happy to be distracted by Iain Armstrong seizing opportunity to interview me outside on camera regarding my impending flight into the square. Iain had been there since the beginning simultaneously shooting footage for a ‘Making of’ documentary in true Superman style using, it seemed to me, far more sophisticated equipment than the handheld camcorder Richard had been wielding. Moments later Mr. DeDomenici appeared and said they were ready for me so I (literally) sucked it in and we strolled across the road to the station
As we entered the square it finally became clear why so many people had asked me if I was scared of heights up until now. In the distance I saw a huge lime green crane parked up and realised its purpose was to haul my ass into the sky. I had wondered how Richard had intended to achieve this, arguably most complex of shots and had thought he may have ‘cheated’ and shot it against green screen but no, at what must have been astronomical cost, we were to do it live using the ‘Niftylift’.
Meantime, the extras and crew were starting to arrive en masse and had set up a tent so they could sign up and I could get in out of the wind, which had been steadily picking up – making me look forward to going up in the crane all the more. Not wanting to just ‘stay in my trailer’ I went out to greet everybody and thank them for coming to help with the project – there was a lot of excitement and it was lovely to bump into some friends that had turned up due to promotion on social media –
Forever in pursuit of authenticity, Richard was already rehearsing a shot in the centre of the square with – I kid you not – a pair of rubber prop pigeons tethered to fishing wire. In the original movie, birds fly off in different directions as Superman and his entourage stroll into shot and here Richard was with his plastic fire hydrant on the ground and two extras waving wooden rods trying their level best to yank them away convincingly. I didn’t think the shot would make the final cut but it was hilarious to watch and a sign of things to come.
Having wasted enough time on ‘special’ effects, the fire hydrant was replaced with a kitchen table stood on its side with microphones set up in front – this was to be my podium and I was about to perform Superman’s final speech..!
“There will be peace…”
During the setup I breathed deep and tried to take in everything around me. Yes, this was actually happening. Here I was again where Reeve himself had once stood, in the costume and reciting his closing speech. I insisted on doing the whole thing take after take even though Richard only required a few lines, not because I was showing off but because I’d never been more aware this was my moment – it would – could – never happen again.
The throng of extras had been waiting patiently behind the tent having been checked one-by-one by Ursy and the team for appropriate period wear. I couldn’t help but admire the effort they had all gone to across all ages – 80’s style t-shirts for the kids and classic reporter attire for the adults. We even had a genuine US Police Cruiser parked up complete with uniformed officer but unfortunately the budget didn’t extend to the white Police Horse seen in the film. Richard’s unique solution to this was to dress a young bystander in paper overalls and don a rubber horse head. It was as bad/awesome one would expect but just peeping in at the edge of the frame the results were as good as they were hilarious –
There were a lot of shots to obtain in this setup – first we would shoot Superman’s arrival having just landed to greet Lois and the press, and then we would shoot Clark Kent’s exit to go change. It was quite claustrophobic leaping into frame surrounded by so many people and it took a few takes (and a few run ups) but eventually we got it. Changing to Clark next had me concerned as I had to put his business suit on over the costume and squash the hairpiece down under the Trilby. As I was to be photographed from the waist up there was no need for slacks so there I stood in a hat, raincoat and red boots much to everyone’s amusement. Fortunately it’s a quick scene and I was soon back under the tent with my tin of hairspray – for my time to ascend had finally come…
The answer to the question ‘Do I like heights?’ was of course I bloody didn’t. The irony here is that I personally loathe flying but I couldn’t let my fears encroach upon the performance – especially in front of all these onlookers. I defiantly strode with my chest puffed out towards the crane wondering how many here present would happily step onto a plane but wouldn’t be caught dead doing this.
Niftylift has a four-man crew and its cherry-picker cab can be elevated to over 300 feet, though I hoped/doubted we would need to go anywhere near that high as the buildings are only a few storeys tall. In truth I was already disappointed we weren’t doing this with wires and asked Richard how he proposed to get rid of the crane in post, surely we weren’t going to see it in the finished shot? As I was buckled into my harness he assured me he had it all worked out…
As I was locked into the cab with the operator and it began its ascent I distracted myself by working out how to attain a good flying position without plummeting straight to the ground – meantime as the crowd below shrunk to ants I threw out a few poses to show some bravado as by now, after three decades, Superman was once again airborne over Milton Keynes! The crowd showed their appreciation – it would get me through the next twenty panic-laden minutes…
I spread the cape over my sides in an attempt to conceal the harness and knelt down onto the floor of the cab while sliding my arms out between the bars in the classic flying pose. It was as uncomfortable as hell to maintain but as I looked down I could see that Richard was giving me the thumbs up – then the last extension of the arm took us higher than I thought we needed to go – way higher. As the cab started to buffer in the wind I took a moment to look across the entire vista of the city – it was breathtaking – as if I had any breath left. Richard called ‘Action!’ and the driver put the Niftylift in reverse and we began a somewhat turbulent descent. Too bumpy apparently as we had to do it three more times – up and down until the shot was in the can and my vertigo was cured for good.
As the cab clunked home and I was freed from my harness I asked Richard if he was satisfied with the footage and he said it was great – it was everything I could do not to kneel down and kiss the pavement but I settled for thanking team Niftylift and taking five in the tent to recuperate and fix the suit & wig having been battered about by the wind.
As I set to with the hairspray again I overheard Ursy on her phone nearby in harassed Producer mode – words along the lines of ‘Look, he’s a professional actor, he’ll be here’. and wondered to whom she could possibly be referring. Meanwhile yet another set-dress/prop marvel was being but together right outside the entrance to the station and as the laminate boards clicked together I instantly recognised the Hot Dog stand which played such an important part in the upcoming scene. Ours, however, due to some sponsorship deal or other, would not be selling Hot Dogs but Domino’s Pizza.
Alexei seemed very excited – I asked him who we were expecting as in his role as a runner he was literally all over the place and would definitely know. He couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard already. David! – he said. ‘David the Hot Dog seller guy from the original film – he’s just arrived and getting into costume.’ Amazing! I thought – how cool to get an original cast member to reprise his role from all those years ago! How did they even find him?? I couldn’t wait to meet him and watched patiently while he was strapped into his familiar striped apron and hat –
David John Waterman was, unsurprisingly, an absolute delight. As Richard and Alexei buzzed around him a wooden box was prepared for me to jump/fly into shot and little Abbie-Jane was given her moves. It’s a short sequence with a few lines before cutting to Jimmy Olsen’s big moment so with a few takes done for dodgy landings on my behalf we were good. David and I were introduced and I thanked him for being here and lending yet more authenticity to our little project –
Well-spoken and gracious, David recalled how the day in 1986 was nothing like today in terms of weather and that in mid-November they were out for hours in the rain and cold. He then regaled tales of what a gentleman Chris was and how he & Margot were practically at each other’s throats the whole time during shooting. But don’t take my word for it –
Frankly I could’ve listened to David’s recollections for hours and would’ve left the set in the direction of the nearest pub to do just that. I hope I get another chance one day but we were setting up for what would be the final sequence of the day, the ‘Pied-Piper’ advance towards the United Nations…
So this was it, the culmination and fulfilment of all my ambitions since I was thirteen years old. Other lads dream about scoring at the World Cup or becoming a rock star but this was the fantasy I’d always held dear, front & centre striding boldly across the square with a hundred people in my wake. All about to become a reality. I looked around as the extras piled out to join me, all having changed into Superman t-Shirts and surrounding me while cellphones and camera’s clicked. Abbie Sidled up next to me looking nervous and I passed on the advice I’d given to myself throughout the shoot – relax and enjoy the moment –
I’d secretly hoped this would take multiple takes just so I could indulge myself but economical a director that Richard is, we nailed it after two or three, even with a crowd that seemed to expand with each walk. The experience was everything I hoped it would be and more – the smile on my face was not for show. Apparently back in the day this scene was supposed to take place in Manhattan with literally thousands of extras but budget cuts had forced the relocation to the UK. Christopher Reeve may have been disappointed back then but I was eternally grateful for right now.
And with that, It was a wrap.
As everybody cheered and gave applause we broke and helped ourselves to Pizza (Domino’s even arranging a Superman ‘S’ Pepperoni topping) while I made myself available to anybody that wanted a souvenir pic before they left. I shook a lot of hands but really felt I should single Richard out. It was thanks to him and Ursula that my dream had come true so I wanted tell him how important this had been for me without resorting to tears. Typically offbeat, Richard said thanks and told me he thought the shoot had gone incredibly well – which, of course, was a massive understatement. It was more than apparent everybody there loved him and hung on his every word – even during the crowd scene with dozens of kids screaming and having fun hush had descended when he gave direction. His respect and admiration for the source material was matchless and I knew it would shine through in the final cut. He has my total respect as an artist and I wish him the best in his future pursuits.
I had come full circle with Ursula – hers was the first face I saw for the audition and the last before I would leave. I gave her a hug and thanked her for the opportunity – under no illusion she was the one who put me forward for the part. I think she understood just how thankful I was better than most. Personally I thought she was a gifted producer and the hardest-working person on the set – I’d work with her again in a heartbeat and hope to do just that one day.
To all the friends I’d made on the journey, thank you for accepting me as your Superman and making me feel so welcomed. It was your warmth and humour that gave me all the confidence I needed to not only get through a hectic couple of days but enjoy every moment of it without the crisis of self-confidence I’d endured up until then. For my buddy Alexei – I don’t think I thanked you enough on the day but believe me, I’d have been literally helpless without your guidance so Its appreciated. To all those who came to watch and participated on the day it was a pleasure to see you and thanks for your contribution, I hope you had a great time and enjoyed the finished product –
T H E F O O T A G E
T H E E P I L O G U E
Oscar speech above notwithstanding you may be wondering what it is about a seven-minute YouTube clip that warrants such heavy-handed documentation 🙂
Truthfully it’s a personal account to reminisce and savour as much as its a testament to all involved. I have laboured the point of how everything from the audition through to the last shot had an overwhelming sense of destiny for me, and now, as I write this some eight months later it feels ever more elusive. Despite my paranoia, nobody had jumped out from the sidelines to say I’d been the subject of a new wish-fulfilment reality TV show. It wasn’t a fix after all – good things can happen to good people, you just have to believe. The proof, therefore, is here for all and while I struggle to watch it now (as all I see is my mistakes) the film nevertheless serves as a superb piece of contemporary revisionism and a very worthy addition to the ongoing Redux Project.
I may not have got to see Superman IV being made back in the day but this more than made up for it – Dad – you are forgiven. I hope our little tribute goes on to attain the cult status of its namesake but no matter what, in years to come my son can look back at it and legitimately say that, against incredible odds, his dad was Superman for the day.
And that is all any fanboy could ask.
Images © Alexei Lambley-Steel/Tim Masterton 2016.