Interview: Richard Donner Talks LETHAL WEAPON, THE GOONIES & More – Part 2

He started his career in television, directing some of the biggest shows of the 1960s and 1970s. However, when Richard Donner took the leap to the big screen his career went stratospheric. The Omen (1976) was a huge hit, but it was the release of 1978’s Superman that nudged Donner onto the directing A-list. Few directors have been able to move from genre to genre quite like Donner, making films as varied as the Lethal Weapon movies, The Goonies, Ladyhawke, Scrooged, Maverick and many more. 

I’ve always been a huge fan of Richard Donner’s films and it was a thrill to be able to call him at home and discuss his brilliant career. He was a pleasure to talk to – funny, open and self-deprecating. 

In this second part of my interview, we discuss Inside Moves, Ladyhawke, The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon films (including a potential Lethal Weapon 5), the use of CGI, working with Mel Gibson and much more.

It’s a great chat with a Hollywood legend and I hope you enjoy what we had to discuss.

Read the first part of the Movies In Focus Richard Donner interview

After Superman, you went on to do Inside Moves – which is a very different type of film. Was that a direct reaction to the size of Superman? 

No, but as I told you before, my life in television was a great variety and, Inside Moves was a picture that…. when I finished The Omen I had fallen in love with the book and I was starting to develop it and then I lost it. Of course for two years on Superman I kind of forgot about it and when the picture was over and I was looking foe something. My agent came to me and said, ‘do you remember that thing you loved? Well, it was written by two brilliant people and it’s available and it’s yours if you want it.” I grabbed it and found some wonderful, independent people to put up the money and we made the movie. 

I mean, it’s almost a forgotten film of yours in your filmography. Is that sort of a special film to you?

Extraordinarily so. You know, it means a tremendous amount of what my life stands for. About friendship and love and handicapped people and life. And it’s just that I’m always a believer. I just love the word ‘friendship’ and the honesty of the word and the goodness of the word. It sometimes can be changed in colour and that’s too bad but I’ve been very fortunate in life for true, great friends, and have gone through problems with them as they’ve gone through problems with me. So friendship has always been an important word, and friendship and hope is what Inside Moves is about.

Friendship is also very much a through line in the Lethal Weapon films as well. The relationship between the Mel Gibson character and Danny Glover. I think that’s the very sort of strong central core to the whole series. 

I think that that’s the only thing there is in the series – relationships. I love relationships and Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are so extremely talented. It was instant from the first time they read it together, it was obvious that their characters were going to have this incredible strength and strength of relationship, the trust of each other. So it became to me, it’s a story about character and that’s what I love. I had been for a long time looking for an action film, but all the action I had found or that had been submitted to me were just gratuitous violence and it was not predicated on anything. Within Lethal Weapon was this incredible relationship and out of situations something evolved. And so I love that. I love those movies. As a matter of fact, I’m hopefully in the process of getting the fifth and final one written.

Yes, there have been rumors about that for a couple of years. How far along are you with it? 

We’re waiting for the writer to deliver me a draft as we speak. 

So hopefully there’ll be something about that sort of relatively soon 

If I get a good draft. You never know it’s a tough picture to make. 

And Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, they’re involved and they’re happy to do it? 

They’re chaffing at the bit. 

I’ll look forward to that one. You’ve already sold at least one ticket, so rest easy on that. 

Hey, yay. I’m gonna retire. Thank you . 

And speaking of Lethal Weapon, the fourth one, you put that together in the space of about six months. Shot it and conceived it and released? 

Yeah, we made that in one weekend. I mean it. The studio at one point said, ”Go for four and we would like it by such and such a date”. And I said, ”Ah, come on guys, you gotta be kidding. They said, ”No, please, if you can, it would fill in”. The studio was run by two great men, Bob Daly and Terry Semel, and when they asked you for something you did everything in your power to make it happen because they were such great people to filmmakers. And they gave us a deal. They said, you know, ”Go, go make it, but please bring it in”. And so everything happened at triple pace and it surprised me that it turned out to be financially, the most successful.

And again, going back to friendship, that’s very much the core of the whole film and even the end credits – with the photography of the cast and crew together. 

Right! Right. They’re all people that are never seen and deserve to be seen. And so I decided I would do something like that. Well received.

What is your relationship with Mel Gibson? You’ve made six movies with him and hopefully a seventh now. What, what’s your shorthand? 

That’s exactly what you just said – shorthand. We understand each other. We respect each other and I can talk in shorthand.

He’s a wonderful actor. We respect each other. I sure respect him both as an actor and a brilliant director, and we can talk in story. He’ll send me somebody to read and it’s usually right on or vice versa. It’s a relationship I’ve had for a lot of years and Danny Glover is part of it. And what can I tell you? We respect each other and therefore we enjoy working together. 

One of the films you did, which rarely gets talked about these days, but was a big hit, is Maverick. I mean, that’s just a blast. What was it like making that?

Hey, it was a blast. It was fun. It was delicious. It was delightful. It was a day on the beach again, but this was a day in the desert. We shot it in the desert and had a wonderful town. The script was wonderful. William Goldman, one of the great writers of all time. The cast was magnificent and Jodie Foster in that. Oh God, I can tell you that was the kind of movie where you hated when Friday came around because the week was so delicious. 

Was there ever sort of a talk of making a sequel or sort of continue in the series? 

I don’t think so. I don’t remember honestly. Now that you’re bringing up, that would’ve been fun.

The relationship with Mel and James Garner, that was great as well. 

Yeah. Oh, that was great. We lost poor Jim. He died of a stroke. That cast was fun, delightful, professional. And as I said, you really totally enjoyed going to work every single morning. That’s the fact. We shot it in, I think it was Arizona on a lake, which was a lake owned by the government. All the environs around was a government park. So to get to it, you could take a bus, which was about an hour and ten minutes or you could get down to the bottom of the lake by your hotel and get in a little speed boat, then get the speed boat to work every day. I mean, it was the kinda thing we were water-skiing to work 

And you get paid for it.

And get paid for it.

Maverick was a great time, but you’ve had a couple of films that were more difficult to make, like The Toy – and Scrooged wasn’t the easiest process either.

Well, The Toy was very tough. That came in very early in my life and I really didn’t realize what I was getting into. But at the time, I had two lead actors that had some social problems with drinking and drugs and it made it really tough. But it came through and, it’s not one of my favorite films, but it’s something that I’m not ashamed of either.

As far as, Scrooged, that was a great pleasure. Bill (Murray) was a problem for the first three minutes, but we kind of faced realities and hopefully he respected me and I sure respected him. And, we got a picture that every year to this day still comes up on Christmas time and is very successful. 

It’s one of the few films I actually watch. Every single year it gets constant rotation in my house. 

Very good, very good. 

That’s got a very good musical score, as does The Omen and Superman and even the Lethal Weapons. How do you work with composers when you’re making films?

It’s really how do the composers work with you! They’re also the ones I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and that goes without exception when I’m thinking now. But, when we show them the movie – there are two ways of showing it to them – the movie we’re working on at the time. One is without any music at all, just the dialogue and effects. And the other way is – there’s a brilliant, brilliant editor named Stuart Baird in England, who I try very hard to work with all the time. And he was also a great music editor for Ken Russell. Stuart has great instincts – he’s also a great director and he always had great musical instinct. So therefore he would put together a temporary track and all of a sudden you start to live with that temporary track and 90 times out of 100 it worked. So, if the composer wanted to hear the temp, he knew the general direction we were going, and that was easy. If he didn’t, we would sit and discuss what each scene meant and what we were hoping for from music. And again, Stewart’s genius came out and so, it wasn’t telling them what to do, it was them telling us are their instincts the same as ours. And so often they were. 

Is that something that you refine as you cut the film down, or would it be as close to the final cut as you would get before you brought them? 

No, no. You gotta bring ’em in early. I mean, they have to write a score and it takes them a long time. And we’re always changing re-editing scenes, so by the time we have a final cut they have played around with a lot. And then we go into theater and have the orchestra play it, and it brings on a whole new life. . 

One film of yours, which has, I’ll call it a controversial score – which I think is rather excellent – is Ladyhawke. That’s a film that is very much of its time. But the soundtrack is, is very, very refreshing. 

Well, you know, that’s what I felt. It almost scores my divorce (laughs), because my wife (Lauren Shuler Donner) produced it. I just kind of felt I wanted to get away from the traditional feeling of that period of music. And if I could combine the two, … I’m trying to think, what was the group’s name? 

The Alan Parsons Project. 

Oh man, you’re taking me back 39 years ago. But anyway, I, loved this music and when we were traveling looking for locations in Italy in a little motor van of sorts we always played music. That music just became so symbolic of the film for me – and I went in that direction. 

Like you said, it’s so different from anything else in that genre, which was very much orchestral. I think that’s why it really stands out today.

I liked it. It was controversial and it was also liked. So what the hell! 

And you followed that up with The Goonies, which is another beloved film. 

Yeah.. Yes, yes, yes. I love that. 

I saw it at the cinema when I was a kid, so, I have fond memories of it. It’s just got a wonderful sense of adventure.

It was wonderful. Very elongated moment in my life. I mean, to make that film and have that incredible cast of kids and have Steven Spielberg’s genius behind. That whole experience changed my life because I fell in love with those kids. 

And again, some fantastic sets in that film as well.. 

Yeah, that was a wonderful designer named Michael Riva, who again, left us much too young. A bad situation on a tough film he was making. Michael Riva was the genius behind those visualizations. Incredible. 

Again, that’s another film where there are always rumours of a sequel. Is that going to happen or is better to leave it alone? 

We’ve tried and tried and tried, but we are in the process of, if we can find a location in New York City, we’re in the process of doing it as immersive theater. You know what that is? 

Yeah, where the audience sort of gets involved within it. 

Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. And we have a wonderful, wonderful script and a great director and I…goddamn it…can’t think of his name. He’s English. He’s a genius. He did Doctor Who over there. Very talented. Anyway, we’re trying to find a location in Manhattan, but it’s so expensive we’ve not been able to put it together. But we’re close. We’re still trying. We shall see. 

I’ll also keep a lookout for that ! Are there any films that you came close to making that you’re frustrated you never got to make or that other people managed to?

Hmm. No. I don’t think so. No. Nothing comes to mind. I don’t know. I don’t know. No, I don’t think so. 

Is it true you were offered the chance to direct? Never Say Never Again? The Bond movie? 

No. Never. Never say, never say never, never. Don’t even know the people. Never was.

Your last film, 16 Blocks, that’s great little low-key cop film. 

That’s, again, it’s a relationship film. It’s, … here I go with my memory, but it’s Bruce Willis and Mos deaf and the relationship of two men and how they evolve and how their life evolves through their relationship.

It’s nothing without a relationship. What is a cop film? Guns. A lot of guns. It’s racing and running and bang, bang, bang, cars turning over and exploding. You don’t give a shit about any of them. But when you care about the people and the situation arrives from a relationship of the people you care about, you have a pretty good little film.

And that’s what I think. I had with 16 Blocks. 

It’s very much is a film that when you look back on, it marked the end of a certain type of filmmaking before CGI took over. It’s a sort of an analog film… 

Well, CGI has taken over. Look, I feel it’s so terribly misused today, it’s incredible. The films don’t feel like they’re touchable. They feel like they’re… I call it ‘screen impossibility’. It’s like in, and I’m gonna use the expression ‘the old days’. In the old days, if you had a situation that was an effects situation, you had to bust your balls and those of everybody else around you to try and come up with a way of doing these effects.

So they were kind of hands on, but had to end up believable and therefore, the energy and love that went into them was extraordinarily special. Today all it takes is money. And, you know, anything you wanna do, anything you wanna do on the screen, you could do. All it takes is money and it’s done through computers and people there, and people here, and people there, but it’s not, it’s not … If it’s wrong, you don’t bleed. Let me put it that way. So I’ve never been a fan. 

So, you’ve never been tempted to go and make another superhero film?

No way. No, no, no thank you. The challenge was totally different then (when he made 1978’s Superman). The challenge today is just ridiculous. Ridiculous!

So apart from Lethal Weapon 5, is there anything else that you’re working on at the minute as a director?

Nope. Nope, nope. No. I’m woking on kicking back and going to my home up north and living on a boat a little bit and enjoying my life. Having a good time. I’m not very interested in making movies – except for Lethal 5. And that we don’t know whether it’s going to happen. 

Has the studio signed off on it, are they happy to go? 

Warner Bros has been very gracious and waiting for the script as I am. But we’ll see. Time will tell. 

Well, I  think that’s as good a note to end it on Richard. Thank you very much for your time. 

Thank you very much for your interest.