Skip to main content

Masters of Screenwriting Interview: Tom Mankiewicz (Part 2 of 2)

Legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz sat down with Script contributor Ray Morton to discuss how he got started and offers advice for screenwriters.

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray's full bio.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

 Tom Mankiewicz (left) with Script contributor, Ray Morton.

Tom Mankiewicz (left) with Script contributor, Ray Morton.

Legendary screenwriter, Tom Mankiewicz continues his interview with Script contributor Ray Morton, discussing Superman, Superman II, his working method and advice for writers. This is the second of two parts. (Click here for Part 1.)

I knew Dick Donner very well. We'd never worked together, but we'd known each other since the 60s. And he has a voice that is like the all-clear on a submarine – it's just unbelievable. So, this is absolutely, literally true – I had just rewritten The Deep for Peter Yates… and I rewrote The Spy Who Loved Me for Cubby. And so I'm lying in bed. It's five in the morning. Phone rings. It's Dick Donner – that voice – “Get up. Get up, Mankiewicz.” I said, “Donner, what?” He said, “I'm in Paris. I'm gonna direct Superman. It needs a lot of work. And you're gonna write it.” I said, “No I'm not.” And he said, “Yes, you are.” He said, “And there's a woman coming to your house right now with your scripts… and I know you're too nice a guy to go back to sleep – you're gonna answer the door. I said, “Aw Jesus, Dick.” So I hang up. The doorbell rings five minutes later. Here's this woman at five in the morning. The scripts were I think between 500 and 600 pages long – the two of them. I put them down and went back upstairs to go to bed. The phone rings. It's Donner. “Are you reading?” I said, “No. Dick, they're too heavy to get upstairs. I can't get them upstairs. They're on the table.” He said, “I'll be back tomorrow. We're gonna do this. We'll have a meeting. Read ‘em.”


So I read them. They were five or six hundred pages long and very campy. And here's a piece of advice to writers, too. Sometimes when you're writing something… like Superman… for whatever reason – whether it's the money or you think it's good or whatever – you want to show the audience that you're smarter than the material. So you camp it up to show them, “We're not really taking this seriously. This is all tongue in cheek.” And it was very campy. Some of it was very funny, but it just went on and on and on.

So Dick arrived back. I called him, I said, “Donner, listen, I'm not gonna do this. I've just been rewriting stuff, I want to do something of my own and I just…” He said, “Come over here, we'll have a meeting.” I said, “No, Dick, really – ” “Come on over.” So, I drive over there and I ring the doorbell, there's no answer. I go around the back of the house… and there he is standing on his lawn in the Superman suit. They'd given him the Superman suit, he's dressed in the Superman suit. And he turned to me and he said, “Just try it on and you'll do it.” And he started running at me and the cape was billowing and I started to laugh. And then he looked at me and he said, “If we can get the love story right between Clark and Lois and Superman – if we can get that right – if it can be two kids out on a date – this whole movie's going to work.” And I stared at him and literally said, “Fuck you.” And off we went.

Benton and Newman had written really about a two or three page scene where Superman lands on Lois's balcony and I turned it into eight pages and it was two kids on a date testing each other out. And at the end of it, he takes her flying. And I remember calling Dick at two in the morning and saying “Donner.” “Yeah?” I said, “At the end of the thing he takes her flying.” He said, “Now we're talking!”

It was the first movie ever made – successful movie – with a comic book character. It spawned everything from Batman to Spider-Man and all the ones that are out this summer. Everything was spawned by that one picture. And yet, people thought it was a joke at the time. People said, “You cannot do a comic book character like that seriously.” And there was that wonderful joy of creating when the whole world says, “This is going to be a piece of shit and we know it.”

Dick and I had a little Superman sign on each one of our offices with him flying and the word "Verisimilitude" – write it like it's really happening. And I think for all writers who write anything like that – when you step outside of the material and either try to show that you're smarter than the material or manipulate it – that's when you screw yourself up. Get inside it. And if you really believed – then I could have Superman and Lois sitting around a table and she could say, “Ah, how big are you – uh – how tall are you?” “I'm about 6'2".” People are interested because they played it – and it was written so innocently as two kids on a date. And if you get inside the material – you say, “Okay, here she is – she's got such a crush on this guy – and here he is, he's shy in front of her. He's working with her every day but he's kind of shy and it works.” Then you can get smart enough to say, “What color underwear am I wearing?” “It's pink,” and she blushes. But the blush is what's important – that it really made her blush. If you really believe it – and I really mean this – if you believe in your material, then the audience does, too. And writers too often – ‘cause we're so fucking smart, writers – we always want to put a little thing in to there to say, “Just kidding, just on the sly, I'm kind of manipulating you here, watch this.” And audiences don't like you for it. They want to be in it, they want to be movie fans.

The separate “Creative Consultant” credit was Dick's idea. There was unbelievable acrimony between Dick and the Salkinds – Dick and I used to call that movie Close Encounters of the Salkind. So I became his de facto producer, helping with locations, casting – we didn't have a Superman or a Lois or a Perry White or a Jimmy Olsen or a General Zod – and stayed on through the editing, scoring, etc. Dick insisted I have a separate card in the main title which accurately reflected my contribution. I almost certainly would have received first credit as a writer – more than half the sequences and about 80% of the dialogue is mine – but I couldn't have gotten both credits. Dick also insisted that my credit appear in all paid advertising. The dustup with the Writer's Guild was twofold: First, since I was primarily known as a writer, the fact that he put my credit after the screenwriters implied that my contribution was more important than theirs. Second, the screenwriting credits by Guild contract can only be followed onscreen by the producers and the director. There was a formal hearing, which I won. As part of the settlement I agreed to have my name appear just before the screenwriters in Superman II. When I helped Dick put together the DVD of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, without my knowledge he put my name back after the screenwriters again. I had nothing to do with it.


And the weird thing was, when Superman came out it was a big hit, but everybody was lying in wait for it. And you get that with movies, where critics are gonna write a bad review even if they like it. And we got some wonderful reviews, but we got some where people had already written the review. And then Superman II came out, it got slightly better reviews, but now the first one is so far more memorable than the second. One of my favorite critics ever – Joe Morgenstern, who writes for the Wall St. Journal – wrote a column selecting five big budget films to treasure and one was the original Superman. He said, “Go back and look at this again.”

The picture touched a lot of people.

The reason Dick was fired was he and the Salkinds hated each other – just hated each other. And they fired Dick and my theory always was if the first one had been a disaster, they would have made Dick finish the second one.


When Superman II was gonna be finished, Terry Semel came down to my office before they started up again and said, “Would you go back? Dick Lester wants you to finish up the picture with him.” I said, “I can't do that Terry. Dick is my friend, he brought me on, he's right across the street here. I can't do that.” And he said, “Well, could you go to London and accidentally bump into Dick Lester and have dinner with him and give him…?” I said, “No, I can't do that.” And then (the Salkinds) did the unkindest thing of all – they cut Brando out of the second one because he had a piece of the gross. And they read in his contract if he didn't appear in the film, he didn't get it. And they cut him out. And the whole arc – and I hate to use pretentious words like that, but as a writer was – here is Marlon sending the kid to earth – it is God sending Christ to earth, it may be Allah sending Mohammed to Earth – and then he defies him by turning the world backwards in the first and bringing Lois back to life and then in the second film when he loses his powers, Brando comes and commits suicide through reaching out for him to give him new life. So this was all one story and these pricks cut him out. They didn't want to pay a piece of the gross even though they knew the picture was going to be a big hit, there was gonna be plenty of money for everybody. And they put out this lame story: it cost too much to get him back – he'd already shot all the scenes. They were there! He'd done it all.

So after Superman III was made, Terry came down to my office. He said, “What's wrong with Superman III?” And I said, “What's wrong with it – and it's not Richard's fault – it's a Richard Pryor movie. I mean he's wildly talented and he's very funny, but it's a Richard Pryor movie and Superman movies have to be Superman movies.” And he said, “Would you and Dick go back – would you go back and do the next one? And really price is no object – I mean we want to get this back on track.” And Dick and I had a long dinner and talked about it and we thought, “No.” We'd done everything – we'd brought him from Krypton. He'd grown up, he'd turned the world backwards, he'd faced Kryptonite, he'd become a human being, and slept with Lois.

But Chris Reeve – who was a very nice guy – when he'd wanted to do Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, they gave me the script and they said, “Would you meet with Chris and talk to him?” And I just said, “Chris, there's certain rules of writing. And you are now exceeding those rules. Superman can do anything. So you don't go to the United Nations about disarmament – you could disarm the whole world in twenty minutes if you wanted to. You can find every Russian silo and American silo and get them down. You don't talk about famine, because Superman could feed the world. No tsunami will ever hit Thailand, let's say, because with your super-breath you'd blow it back and no one would die. That's why you have to get involved in these plots. Superman cannot go to the UN and say, 'You must disarm,' because if I'm the head of the Soviet Union or the United States, I'm saying, 'Well, why don't you go do it?' And if I'm the audience, I say, 'Why don't you go do it?' What happens? I mean, are you willing to see a country blown up because they won't do it?"

So, these are writing rules about fantasy characters – you've got to figure out where your lines are. When you're dealing with normal human beings, there are no fantasy rules – a guy that loves potted plants can suddenly turn around and kill nine children, if you can do it correctly. But superheroes have their own rules.

I have to write first thing when I get up. But not the very first thing – I have a cup of coffee and I read the paper. So by the time I'm writing, I don't answer the phone. I write for four or five hours normally and four hours when I'm on a screenplay. And then I'm exhausted. I'll go to lunch and then take a nap. But I'm as exhausted as if I did fifty laps in the pool or something. But I have to do it then. Some people write at night. I can't write at night. I've read articles, pieces by writers that say, “I have a couple of drinks and (then I write).” Every time I've had a couple of drinks and written, I've loved what I wrote until the next morning, and I look at it and it's not very good. It looked good when I had a couple of drinks in me, but it's not very good.

Every writer I know writes differently. I have to write a screenplay – I don't think I've ever written a treatment in my life. Ever. But I do know where it's going and I know two or three signposts along the way. So I know that the protagonist is coming to New York and he's meeting this girl and I know a third of the way through he's gonna find out she's gay and then I know he's gonna try and love her anyway. And I know her father's coming and there's going to be a thing. And I know what the ending is, but I don't know anything in between. And it gives me a kind of a freedom – where suddenly I've got two funny lines for the doorman in the apartment building and then he becomes an interesting character. And suddenly the doorman, by page 50, is talking to the father and saying, “Listen, y'know, the hero's a really good guy and you shouldn't be…” Because characters run away with you. And I've always preferred it that way. And yet there are great writers – I walked into Alvin Sargent's office one day at Fox when we were both there – he had 3 x 5 cards and he is going scene by scene by scene, yet his screenplays are so seamless and flowing. But he has to know where's he's going. It doesn't make anybody a better writer or a worse writer, they just work differently. I couldn't stand it if I had a treatment to actually go by – the first thing I would do is not go by it. Something in me would rebel.

But I'm not saying you just sit down and wing it. I have to know three or four big signposts in my story before I can go and I suddenly realize, “Jesus, it's page 35 and I'm not anywhere near… I better look out here.” Because I do know the story that I want to tell, I just don't know how I want to tell it. And suddenly when the characters start talking to themselves… you let them exercise. And suddenly that little mousy sister turns out to be somebody who actually might be the killer if you just turn this around and that around. And I think that's what's so exciting about writing – is that you've got all those options. And I don't know one other profession in which you can kill people, you give birth to people, you can give people a disease, you can do anything you want to do.

And I learned very early on – get on with it. Especially Bond where, y'know, Bond has to go to the door, throw it open, turn around, and say: “______.” And you can sit there and, son of a bitch, nothing comes. So I would write Bond: “Blah, blah, blah.” And I would just get on with the next scene. Keep going. And you know what? In the afternoon –you're driving to the cleaners to pick up your shirts and the line comes to you in the car.

All writing is observing – it's a compilation of things that you've seen and people that you've met… and everything that goes on around you. That little scene of the lady falling through the staircase, which brought everybody to tears in Mother, Jugs, and Speed – I wrote that in three seconds. Because when I was driving in an ambulance, I watched the two drivers trying to pick up a heavy guy and they couldn't get him up. So now, if you're a writer, you say – and I'm sorry about this, it sounds sexist – “Okay. A woman is funnier than a guy. And if you get a rickety staircase. And…” Now that's called writing.

It has to come from your gut. I'm sixty-seven… and I say to my students: “If you want to step outside and try to figure out what the audience is really gonna like, I can still write circles around you – I can do it better. But if you make a film from your gut, about what you want to make a film about – even a funny film. If it's from your gut, I can't touch you. Because if you really love those little kids, if you are really torn apart by your father's death, if you really write that silly comedy in a wonderful way and it's coming from inside you – I couldn't touch you, y'know?

The audience will screw you up at times. I found that out early on in the Bond movies. I was writing my ass off in terms of Bond always has something witty to say. And the film would start and Sean would turn around and say something… and they would laugh like hell. And I would say, “Boy, if they're laughing at that, wait till he says '________' – that'll bring the house down.” And he says that and it gets a nice polite laugh. So you've got to go ahead and make your own film – what you think is funny. And you'll be right more often than not if it's coming out of a real thing in you and not saying, “I'm wondering how I can fashion a line to make an audience laugh.” I think the only way we screw ourselves up is we say, “No, if we do that, the audience might not like us for that.” Why don't you just go ahead and make your movie?

I can tell you – I would have said to Billy Wilder – and I thank God I knew him and I loved him – about The Apartment: “I'll tell you what, there's no way a guy in an ad agency who rents his apartment out to his boss to take hookers and other people is ever going to be a sympathetic character,” but you love Jack Lemmon because Billy knew how to write it. But as a then-studio head, I would say to him, “There's no way this is going to work. And the elevator operator winds up in his bed and tries to commit suicide and you think people are going to enjoy this movie? Make me laugh.” But what a wonderful film – because it came out of him. And it's not Billy Wilder the director, it's Billy Wilder the writer that said, “No, no, no, this is going to work. People are going to want to see this, they're going to get involved in this, they're going to get involved in the characters.”

I'm so full of love for the people who make pictures – even the pricks. It's a wonderful calling, it really is. And the writer – yes, if you're gonna do movies you need a director and you need a great cast, but the script has got to be there. In the beginning was the word – I know it's a cliché, but it really is true.

Writing is a very lonely profession. I don't care if you're writing with somebody else and you're a team – it's very lonely and it's anti-social. And it happens before the movie is made. So it's all foreplay in a certain way. And it stays foreplay if nobody shoots the goddamn thing, y'know? So writers are in a very unique position that way. I always envied directors and actors and so on when I was just writing because they didn't work until somebody had already decided to make it.

Writing is also painful. Sometimes… it really is real agony. And it's a tougher job than directing. And a tougher job than acting – it really is. And, y'know, I can tell all the funny stories in the world about Superman because it came out fine. But I can tell you when I'm in my hotel room at night and I can't sleep because I don't know how to write that scene and Gene Hackman's in that scene and it's pivotal and Marlon Brando's gonna be in the film and I am crazed and I want them to like what I'm writing and I want to get it and I really have to get up and get inside it. It's painful to write because it comes out of you. And anything that comes out of you – I don't believe you have to cut off your ear like Van Gogh, but...

I would say to writers today “Please take heart.” The good movies – the Hurt Lockers and so on – those are the ones that will keep you working. The fact that you were one of the writers on Transformers – and I have great respect for anybody who writes anything – that won't help you. But if you wrote Ma Vie Un Rose, you'll get to write five or six different interesting films and you can get up to bat again and go because they're interesting. And if you write really funny comedies – not manufactured – where people just start to laugh, you can work for the rest of your life. And if you know how to write adventure – or take a wonderful writer like Alvin Sargent, who could write Julia and Ordinary People and also write Spider-Man – what a wild talent. And Alvin – he's older than I am – Alvin will work till he's 110 if he wants to, because he can just do it. He can write. And writing is a gift.

There's something wonderful about writing, because when you do it well or somebody says, “Yes, I want to make this,” it's a singular achievement because you've achieved something that a director can't – directors can't work ‘til somebody decides to make a picture, actors don't work ‘til there's a part to play. And you wrote that scene and they're saying your lines, these people are actually saying back and forth what you wrote – that's really exciting. It still is exciting.

Click here for Part 1

Get tips in writing great scripts in Ray's book
Getting Past the Hollywood Gatekeeper