AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
ALEX AND ILYA SALKIND – IN INTERVIEW
SUPERMAN AND THE MUSKETEERS
by Harlan Kennedy
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Metropolis and a hot-off-the-press Daily Planet Exclusive on the Salkinds.
See it leap tall legends at a single bound. Listen to it swoosh over language barriers. Marvel as it spans three continents and dips back into the 19th century...
PARIS. "In my father's day," says Alexander Salkind, "and in mine, when we made films it was the actor's job to act, the director's job to direct, and the producer was expected to serve the film financially and realize as big a return as possible for the investors. If that meant cutting it into two pieces or into twenty-two pieces and selling it as a serial, then fine!" Alexander Salkind thumps a frightened Perrier bottle in emphasis. "That was proper. That was business. Today the industry has grown, expanded, and there are new rules and proprieties. The cinema may be better for it – but the business is, let's say, more 'complex.' "
LONDON. Ilya Salkind, in Pinewood Studios, agrees. He and his father are now completing Superman 3, putting Supergirl into production, and planning for Santa Claus.
"For us, as producers," says Ilya Salkind, "the point of making a film is that moviegoers looking through the newspaper pages in any big city will want to see. .. one film! And right now, we hope that's Superman 3."
Compactly built, with thick brown hair and a sliver of a Mexican accent, Ilya is the third-generation whiz-child in the family of stateless wizards that has been patrolling world cinema since 1924. Grandfather Mikhail (1892-1974) and father Alexander, still flourishing, are his forebears. Ever since they struck it rich with the Three and Four Musketeers, Alex and Ilya have been pursuing the One Film ethos like a moving-target Holy Grail. Superman was the event movie of 1978, Superman 2 scooped a small fortune in 1981, and now three further titles beginning with the talismanic "S" are lining up to leapfrog each other into the Top Grossers pantheon.
Back in 1922 things were a little different. Mikhail Salkind, a Russian lawyer, fled Minsk with his pregnant wife and the family jewels sewn into his suit (the Bolsheviks had taken the rest of their worldly wealth); stopped in Danzig (now Gdansk) for the birth of Alexander; moved on to Leningrad for six months' directorship of the State Opera; and then fled Russia for Berlin to produce his first films, among them G. W. Pabst's 1925 Joyless Street, starring Asta Nielsen and featuring two little-known actresses, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Movie history was in the making.
Sixty years later – and after many intervening troughs, several triumphs, and a catalogue of self-confessed clinkers – the Salkinds are a household name. But there are some bullet holes in the letters to mark their baptism into the bully-boy world of big movie business. First in the Musketeer films, later in the Superman saga, the irresistible force of Salkind entrepreneurialism met the immovable object of artists' agents and lawyers. Contracts were pawed and pored over. First Raquel Welch (for Musketeers) and later Mario Puzo, Richard Donner, and Marlon Brando (for Superman) contested Salkind's right to cut one movie contract into cloth for two feature films. All the disputes were settled out of court, however, and the only lasting offspring they've left posterity is a legal rubric now known as "the Salkind Clause."
I meet Salkind père at his hotel in Paris, where we eat and talk in a mélange of languages: French, Spanish, English, Italian. First topic: the famed and still unforgotten legal and verbal onslaughts of Brando, Donner, Reeve, Kidder, and others.
"That's history now," says Alex, batting the topic politely away in Spanish. "We none of us lose any sleep over it. If you're in the business of big money productions, everyone likes to make a little stir now and then with lawyers. It's part of their career, part finding the rules of the game, and part genuine misunderstandings. In the Musketeers dispute, it's my opinion we could have gone to court and won the case, no problem. But no one wants to drag these affairs through the courts; it's expensive, and it's a very long business whether you win or lose. So with the Musketeers we agreed to give the people involved a percentage of the second film, The Four Musketeers. The Superman dispute, that too, though it was more protracted, we finally settled out of court.
"But still for me this is a strange way to make films," he continues, modulating into French. "I grew up in a world where filmmakers were free to put their ideas into the camera, without being afraid of small print in contracts, or this, that, and the other. It's good that there's protection for artists and technicians, of course. But sometimes too much protection means too little freedom for producers.
"We've always tried to stay free. We started off as a 'roving' company and we still are that. We're not tied to any country or major studio. Right now, I believe, we're the only big independent producers who finance and own their films. We hire Warner Bros. to release and distribute them, but we keep the rights and maintain a consultative status. I give you an example. If I see something on the Superman poster I don't like, I pick up the telephone to Warners and want to know why it's there. And between us we decide whether or not it stays.
"Right from when we began in Europe, my father, Mikhail, and I made sure we never gave up control over our films or the long-term rights to them. That goes for the ancillary rights, too. And this was before TV and video, when you couldn't predict the extra earnings a film might make from nontheatrical showings. There used to be a sentence in contracts that contained the phrase, "and any future rights that might arise." When I sold a movie, that was the sentence I always crossed out! Why give away today what you can sell tomorrow? So we still own all our movies. And right now I'm negotiating video outlets with different countries for films like Joyless Street, Austerlitz, and The Trial. Some twenty titles have just been sold to EMI in Britain."
Born in the free port of Danzig, whisked off successively to Leningrad, Berlin, Paris, and later still Cuba and Mexico, Alexander Salkind is one of Moviedom's most amazing survivors – virtually a one-man history of political cataclysm in the 20th century. Today he lives partly in Paris, partly in Switzerland, where he enjoys diplomatic status as an honorary representative of a Latin American country.
"As a child I learned to live out of a suitcase," he declares, "and that's how I still live" – though the sumptuous surroundings of his hotel show that he's now moved on to satin-lined Vuitton. "Wherever we found ourselves back in those years, whatever city or country, my father would set up business as if we had always been there. After Joyless Street in Berlin, we were in Paris and Mikhail produced Pabst's Don Quixote with Chaliapin, the great Russian opera star, whom my father had brought from Leningrad. When we left Paris – and there were many more pictures – it was in 1942, and the Germans... well, that story has nothing to do with film. We got out on one of the last, if not the last, boats to leave France. Our port of call was Cuba, where my father proceeded to buy up the distribution rights for the very popular films of Cantinflas. In those years Mexican film production was beginning to boom and the market in South America was enormous. And so we moved there and went into business producing about 20 films for the Latin American market."
And Alex's own first youthful step into the film jungle? We had begun an after-lunch stroll through statue-studded gardens – a regular Salkind Senior constitutional – and his eyes lit up in total recall.
"I'll tell you," he beamed, "I was 23 years old. And it taught me just how up and down the movie business is. We had moved to Mexico, it was 1945, and we had a comedy script called El Moderno Barba Azul – Rocket to the Moon. We wanted an American star for it, so I went to Hollywood and I saw an actors' agent there who let me go through his books. I went through the A list, the top stars – we couldn't afford them – then the B list, then the C. And halfway through this, I found a name I recognized. Buster Keaton! I said, 'Is this the Buster Keaton?' And the agent looked at me and said, 'Yes, yes, but you don't want him, he's on the bottle these days, totally unreliable, and he hasn't made a successful film in years.' I said, 'I'll take him.'
"And the next thing, I was introduced to Keaton and the first sight of him I'll never forget. Sitting very shyly, sheepishly, fiddling with a hat between his knees, looking as if he never expected to be offered another part in his life. We made the film. Keaton came to Mexico, never touched a drop during shooting, and we paid him $5,000. Which even then was ridiculous for a legend – people at that time didn't realize the impression Keaton had made on the world. The film did well in every country where we sold it. Only one country wouldn't buy Rocket to the Moon and never has. And that's America. I'm still waiting for offers."
Four decades on, while Salkind père minds the company's money matters on one side of the English Channel, Salkind fils and production partner Pierre Spengler sit in their offices on the other, putting the finishing touches to the company's latest rocket to the box office, Superman 3.
Catch Ilya on any average day, when the engines of his movie enthusiasm are thrumming away, and he'll happily entrust you with the story of the birth of Superman – the film that, after launch-off with the Musketeers, finally shot the Salkinds into Outer Space.
"When I first had the idea," he said, "I took it to my father and he said, 'Superman? Who's Superman?' He'd never heard of him. I explained, I showed him the comics, and gradually he liked the idea.
"Then of course we didn't know it would be an obstacle course just to get to Day One of shooting. First my father had to hammer out an agreement with NPP, who owned the rights to Superman. Alex owns all the Superman film rights for 25 years now, until 1999. One of their less exacting demands was that no Superman movie should cost less than $5 million. Little did they know. Little did we know! First we had a writer, William Goldman, who didn't click with the project. Then we signed up a director, Guy Hamilton, who, as pre-production dragged on, couldn't stay in England to make the film because of tax reasons. Then we couldn't get stars to take the parts. Paul Newman was offered a choice of Jor-E1 or Luthor and turned both down. Burt Reynolds was also approached, and several others.
"But once our luck broke, everything started to swim along. An agent I knew suddenly scurried up to me and said, 'I can get you Brando.' I said, 'Are you crazy?' Brando was then very big, after Godfather and Last Tango. But somehow this guy swung it, and two minutes after hearing that Brando would play Jor-El, I had Hackman on the telephone to say he would do Lex Luthor."
Soon, with Mario Puzo's first-draft script for Superman revamped by David and Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, only two things remained: the vexed blank space where a director's name should be, and an empty cape and boots where newcomer-Superman should fit.
"I saw The Omen one night," says Ilya, "and I liked Dick Donner's work and we signed him up. Christopher Reeve we picked out of the proverbial hundreds – though Donner didn't like him at first and needed some persuading – because I thought he looked good, and I saw he could also act. Once we had the cast and crew together and were rolling, it was always our aim, Alex's and mine and Pierre Spengler's, to have two movies in the can at the end of shooting. Not to economize on actors, but so that we wouldn't have to rebuild the very expensive sets."
When did the hassles start over Donner's direction?
"The problem was, he was just too slow. He would do retake after retake after retake. On an intimate little film this is fine, when you're not spending millions simply keeping the movie together technically – the sets, the effects. What happened eventually, of course, was that the first two Superman pictures cost more than $100 million between them. So there were horrrible aggravations between Donner and me. The atmosphere on the set was poison. And finally I hired Dick Lester in a producer capacity, uncredited, to be a kind of high-profile go-between. And he got things moving. But Superman cost so much that if it hadn't clicked at the box office we'd have been totally wiped out. Miraculously, the bloody picture worked. And it's my favorite, ironically, of the two so far. But even so, and even after successfully releasing Superman 2, we still owe the banks money."
The third corner of the Salkind production triangle today is Russian-born Pierre Spengler. He's the company's legal eagle and administrative wizard. He specializes in preparing budgets and schedules, helping to knock contracts into shape, and, with Ilya, supervising production.
Spengler started working for Alex Salkind "when I was 17, as a teaboy, answering telephones and in general as a gofer. But Ilya and I met six years before," he says. "Ilya's mother, Berta Dominguez, had written a play which was being produced in Paris. My stepfather was acting in it. And there was a role for a little boy and my stepfather said, 'Ah! I have my son, who'd be ideal.' And so he brought me there and I met Ilya, who was auditioning for the same role! As it happened, I didn't do the play because the role was that of a Mexican and as you can see I don't look very Mexican. My only consolation is that Ilya, who was Mexican, didn't get the part either. From that point we became friends."
Spengler is coolheaded about the legal tantrums of the Musketeers and Superman, though in both cases he was the Salkinds' judicial specialist and the man plunged into the boiling seas of small print, along with some expert lawyers.
"The legal arguments were really arguments of position, where the participants were taking one stance and we another. You ask me, didn't the contracts specifically state this or that? Well, the contracts say a certain thing but in each sentence, in each word there are three or four different interpretations you can make. In the American legal system, if you want to take a case to court it costs only $52. But the real cost is time. A case can drag on for three, four, five years. Our Superman disputes got settled out of court, thank God, where finally – having gone through the whole business of 'discovery,' the pre-trial written cross-questionings between each party's lawyers – we worked things out to everyone's satisfaction."
The precedent for the Superman wrangle was the dispute during the Musketeers movies – another Salkind Special case of two films being hatched from one production schedule.
Alex in Paris: "I'll tell you what happened. Midway through shooting Three Musketeers we realized we already had five hours of picture. So what we did, we got the screenwriter, George Macdonald Fraser, to make another script for a second film, The Four Musketeers. And both movies would be ready at the end of shooting. But when the actors heard about this they weren't happy. Miss Raquel Welch's lawyer disputed our right to use her services for two films, and rather than go to court and hold up the movie, we gave the artists a percentage in Four Musketeers."
Popular media lore in recent years has depicted the Salkinds as a father-son team of globe-hopping billionaires, each born with a silver spoon – nay, a whole tea service – in his mouth. But a glance at the prolific pre-Musketeer filmography of Ilya, Alex, and Mikhail shows an awesome catalogue of money-losers.
Ilya in London: "We didn't have any big world-wide hits before Musketeers. We had a lot of interesting films, some great actors and directors: Garbo, Jean Gabin, Pabst, Orson Welles, Abel Gance. And by selling the foreign rights to our films on the best possible terms, we mostly balanced out the gains and losses. But there were horrible flops. Romain Gary's Kill, a disaster! Rape of the Sabines, terrible! If Musketeers hadn't come along, then Superman, we'd still be struggling from co-production to co-production."
But beneath the appearance of chaos, the early Salkind movie history is scattered with amazing firsts, and each film has a chunk of fascinating life-history sewn into its lining.
1. Joyless Street (1925). "My father's first big film," says Alex. "And that he survived to make it at all was a miracle. Picture this man, a qualified lawyer. When the Russian Revolution comes, he's stripped of his possessions and barred from practice by the Bolsheviks. They take everything they set eyes on! Luckily they don't set eyes on the family gems my father hides in his suit. When my parents flee Minsk they have to stop in Danzig, because my mother was in labor, and that is the beginning of me.
"My father's six months at the Leningrad Opera – that was his baptism into dealing with creative people. Then we flee to Berlin with many other White Russian emigrés. It was a time of upheaval you couldn't believe. In Berlin my father isn't able to continue his law practice, because under German law at that time he would have had to apprentice himself again for five years. So with the opera behind him, he tried his hand at the new art of the 20th century. He produced his first film. The great Pabst, Garbo, Dietrich, Asta Nielsen – quite a beginning!"
2. Don Quixote (1933). Alex: "Chaliapin, who played Don Quixote, was a great friend of my father's. He brought him from the Leningrad Opera. Here in this photo" – he searches in his briefcase and draws forth a small sheaf of letters and photographs – "you can see us together, me and Chaliapin in Paris, where Mikhail made the film. Again with Pabst directing." Photo of towering Ivan the Terrible-like singer-actor and tiny boy of ten. "These letters and photos you see here are just the top of the iceberg. I have trunkfuls of documents and photos and family letters from that time. Here, you see, is my father's birth certificate in Russian. And a letter from Pabst, another from Garbo. One day when there's a little time, a little space between pictures, I am thinking of writing my memoirs. Not for my satisfaction only, but for the memory of my father and his time. And most important as a gift to Ilya, who knew and worked with his grandfather."
3. Le Temps de L'Amour (1952). Alex: "After we returned to France from Mexico – that was in 1948 – we made this. Claude Dauphin and Gaby Morlay played the leads. And the special interest of the movie is that we included extracts from a film we'd made 20 years earlier with them, playing the same characters much younger. That was Nous Ne Sommes Plus Des Enfants. We thus solved the aging problem without any help from the makeup department!"
4. Austerlitz (1959). Ilya: "I was 11 years old; it was around the time Pierre and I auditioned together for my mother's play. And I would wander onto these huge glamorous Napoleonic sets, a little boy, and meet the great Abel Gance, and Jean Marais, Orson Welles ....Austerlitz was a very expensive movie, about a billion French francs, or 3 or 4 million dollars, which was a lot in those days. Everyone had high hopes, not least Mikhail and Alex. It was the first big international co-production in Europe, with four countries involved: France, Germany, Italy, and Yugoslavia, where the battles were shot. It was also the first time you had big American actors in an international cast. So it wasn't an 'English' picture or a 'French' picture or an 'American' picture. It was a Mikhail and Alex picture.
"But the picture bombed. It was a big success in France and Belgium, but it didn't click at all in the rest of the world. And for a film that had cost a lot, it was a little bit of a disaster. But now, in the wake of Napoleon and interest in Gance, my father and I are thinking of reviving it: perhaps devoted to my grandfather. All the movies of this period were really his children. In those years his participation was the mirror of mine today. Like me he was on the creative side, the movie side perhaps, while Alex then and now was more the financier. So while there's been a generation switch between Mikhail and myself, Alex's role in the pattern of the partnership has stayed the same."
5. The Trial (1962). Ilya: "Most of the interiors were filmed in the Gare d'Orsay, this giant disused railway station in Paris. That was Orson Welles' idea. He was fantastic as a director. And he did something that I really want to say because it's typical of him. There was a scene we were filming in Zagreb in a huge office with about a hundred typewriters. And Orson wanted more, but Mikhail had to say, 'There's no more money. We just don't have it.' Which caused Mikhail a lot of pain, because that was his nature, his character. He was as depressed as Orson. And Orson said, 'OK, I'll pay for it.' And he paid for 100 extra typewriters. I mean, that's a great man. I've never heard of that in this business. And he never charged for it. He's a gentleman and a very generous man."
6. Rape of the Sabines (1962). Alex: "No good." Ilya: "Terrible."
7. The Light at the Edge of the World (1970). Ilya: "This was my own big break. Before it I hadn't made a film, though I'd come up with one or two ideas which gave my father some respect for my judgment. I remember once we went to see a Japanese sci-fi film – lots of color and action and flying monsters! And we were really peddling in those years, buying a little film for $1,000 and selling it for $1,500. It was a terrible time just struggling to pay the rent. And I said to Alex, 'You should buy that Japanese film, I think it's exciting, there's something for all kinds of audience.' So we bought it, and the film delivered and made $20,000. I went all over France and Italy doing my shtick and hyping the movie to local exhibitors and even translating the English subtitles while the movie ran.
"After that, Light at the Edge of the World was a script I picked up accidentally in someone else's office. I said could I read it, he said yes. And 1 liked it straight away: a Jules Verne story, very exciting, two great parts.
"And I was looking round for a star, and one day I was in Paris reading Variety. Variety was not something Europeans read in those days; now of course it's read everywhere. Maybe not Minsk, but everywhere else. And I read that Kirk Douglas was in the south of France. Well, at this point a whole lot of actors had said no to the movie. In those days they wanted a written offer with a bank guarantee; it was a whole different ball game. So Alex called Kirk and Kirk agreed to read the script, which Alex took down personally to him.
"And he was extraordinarily positive. He said, 'I know you guys don't have a dollar. Everyone in the industry knows that. I'm going to give you a chance. I'll give you three months to promote my name with this picture if you will give me $80,000. Then if you're successful, I'll take a million dollars.' And that was our first million dollar pay-out. The film did well and we were on our feet again."
8. Kill (1970). Ilya: "I produced this one. Romain Gary, the writer and director, was 50 and he was the great hero of the liberation. Jean Seberg, Stephen Boyd, James Mason were all in it. And whatever hopes we had for it were dashed. The picture turned out to be bad, extremely bad. I was in Rome and I took a girl to see it and the couple in front of us, obviously married, were arguing, the husband saying, 'Why are we watching this garbage?' and the wife, 'Wait, wait, it might get good.' And the guy was getting angrier and angrier and started saying he wanted his money back. And there I was with my date, sitting behind him and shrinking down in my seat. After all, he was right. You can't beat the Italian public. It was there in front of me. Anger and Hope springing eternal. But we've sold it to television."
9 & 10. The Three and Four Musketeers (1974/5). Ilya: "We were talking in St. Paul de Vence, at the Colombe d'Or, and my father was there and Raquel Welch, who'd just finished a movie. And we were wondering what to do next. And I said, let's do a picture with the Beatles. And there was a girl there who said suddenly – why not do the Musketeers? And we said, but there are three Musketeers and four Beatles. No, she said, there are four Musketeers... no, there are. ...Well, it was an exciting idea anyway. And then we thought, well, the Beatles are too modern. And I said why not do it with Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Bob Hope? My father gave me a look, and we kept on thinking.
"And meanwhile I started looking for a director, and I saw Tom Jones again, and I thought, that's it! THAT'S IT! Very fast, colorful, snappy. And I had this big list of directors, and I talked to Tony Richardson, but that didn't work out. And the name I kept passing was Lester. And I thought, why not? He had the comic touch, and he could handle drama. He was in a bad patch then, hadn't done a film in five years, was doing commercials, and refusing movies.
"Well, I called him and first he said, 'Oh, come on, what the hell are the Musketeers – that's for children.' And I said, 'Have you read the book?' He said, 'No.' So I sent it to him, he read it, and the next day called and said, 'I'll do it.' Because the book is quite different from what people think. Very rich, very strong, very good characters. Not a kids' book at all."
The Musketeers duly crashed into daylight, rapiers flashing, minted money, and hurricaned the Salkinds' name into instant transatlantic fame. And Mikhail Salkind, 82, lived to see the premiere of the picture. He died in 1974, having completed the mighty journey from Minsk to Musketeer France.
"He was a very chivalrous, very charismatic old gentleman," Pierre Spengler recalls. "And a great diplomat. The thing I remember most about him was, whenever he arrived at a hotel when he was traveling, the first thing he would do would be to go straight to the ladies at the telephone switchboard. He would say to the operators, 'Hello, I'm Mr. Salkind' – they usually knew his name already, but even if they didn't – 'I'm staying in such and such a room.' And he would take little bottles of perfume out of his pockets and give one to each of the girls and say, 'You're going to have a lot of work with me!' And the girls were charmed immediately. After that, no one else but Mikhail could get a call through!"
Ten years later, not all the duty-free perfumes of Arabia would be enough to go round the cohorts of switchboard operators working for the Salkinds. Superman 3 is about to fall bouncing into the world, with the Caped crusader fighting evil once again and this time fastening the cockles of his heart on the luscious Lana Lang, played by Annette O'Toole
"We're starting preparations on Santa Claus, like now, and I'm still in the process of delivering Superman 3 to Warner Bros.," continues Pierre Spengler. "So I will be involved with Supergirl only in a consultative capacity. Timothy Burrill will produce that one for Alex with Ilya as Executive Producer. This is a busy time and that's the best kind of news."
Supergirl, helmed by Jeannot Szwarc and due out Christmas 1983, boasts a promise of high-magnitude special effects, New Yorker and graduate of the High School of the Performing Arts (See kids, it can be done!) Helen Slater in the lead role – with new and startlingly different measurements from Christopher Reeve – and a free-flying Faye Dunaway. No wire harnesses.
And if you switch on Ilya Salkind on the subject of Santa Claus (expected Christmas 1984), you need a fire extinguisher to put him out. "It's mind-boggling... orgasmic....I'm waking up at night... 500 elves by Rambaldi or Freeborn.. . the world's top box-office star [name not divulged so as not to disappoint other world top box-office stars] as someone other than Santa Claus. .. a gift for children they'll come back to every Christmas."
Three generations of Salkind brio and resilience suggest that when Santa Claus lands his sleigh atop the Variety charts chimney, Ilya and Alex will be snow-deep in at least three more projects. Superman IV? Superdog? Orson Welles as The Four Musketeers? Reindeers of the Lost Ark?
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1983 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.