INTERVIEW - PRODUCER ILYA SALKIND - SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE
Originally conducted 12/11/2001 for the 20th Anniversary DVD Edition for Anchor Bay
SMB - It's amazing how SANTA CLAUS - THE MOVIE has become a part of the holiday tradition. RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL, here in NY, has been using clips from the film to advertise their stage shows, almost since the movie first came out!
IS - Yes! 99% of the people I've spoken to have loved the movie - especially kids. It's a wonderful movie! The color, the art production, John Lithgow is so popular now. Dudley was wonderful. When originally released it opened extremely well. It was #4 upon release, and it didn't waver. It stayed at that level which is better than opening #1 and dropping below 4th position like most films do. The problem I think was that after Christmas attendance dropped.
SMB - Well, that's normal with any holiday oriented film.
IS - No, I made a mistake back then. Meaning if I had listened to everybody. I could have pushed it better. True, I don't know if I could have changed TRISTAR's mind but we were ready with the finished film and we should have opened in October, mid or late October. We could have made at least a 100 milion instead of 40 million. You know, what we had on our side at the time were the critics. They were split about 50/50 - which isn't bad because of those 50 on our side the reviews were fantastic! Some critics were comparing the film to the WIZARD OF OZ.
SMB - What made you choose SANTA CLAUS as your next picture after SUPERGIRL?
IS - Let's see... we were just finishing SUPERMAN III and in production with SUPERGIRL and we (my father and myself) were looking into what would be our next project. I had come up with a few possibilities, two of which were THE FLYING DUCHMAN, and SANTA CLAUS. My father felt more inclined to do SANTA CLAUS. The more emotional involvement with the project for that reason. The dark tone of the DUCTHMAN was something that, at the time, became less appealing to me so SANTA CLAUS won. So from there I wrote a basic story line for the film which I first showed to my father, and I believe our then lawyer, a man named Tom Pollack - who went on to become chairman of UNIVERSAL. He was the top lawyer here at the time - he made the deal for STAR WARS for Lucas, and for us SUPERMAN, with WARNER BROS. We listened to his views very strongly and he too felt more excited by SANTA CLAUS than DUTCHMAN. So that was another element that pushed us to our final decision. Once the story was written, I started considering a director. My childhood friend Pierre Spengler, who was not woking on SUPERGIRL, but was finishing up on SUPERMAN III got involved. I offered for him to produce with me, SANTA CLAUS, so together we hired the Newmans (David & Leslie).
SMB - Were other directors considered; other than Jeannot (Swarc)?
IS - Yes. I looked at a lot of movies which had been made then to consider who we would hire. Sometimes directors that are not yet known can have an enormous potential. A lot of people don't know this but if I remember correctly the first man I tried to convince into making the movie was Roger Donaldson. He was then shooting THE BOUNTY for Dino De Laurentis in London. I had seen one film he had done, SMASH PALACE. It was fantastic. But before we got a director we secured Dudley Moore.
SMB - Like with SUPERMAN, you acquired star power then went on to getting a director...
IS - Yes, exactly. It was that kind of system. We thought, of course of Dudley because... (a Laugh) ... because of his stature. Only because elves aren't as tall as John Wayne. The main reason of course was because he was a wonderful actor, and an enormous star, and a very nice man. He was at the top. Getting Dudley was done really before the script was actually written. He even had input over what was going to be written for his character of Patch. That's why he got 5 million dollars. People said that was too much. Well, today some people are getting 30 million so that was relatively normal for that time. So once Dudley was signed, the Newmans continued to write and that's when we started to look for a director - which Dudley aslo had approval on. Now gettng back to a director, I think the first two I looked into were John Carpenter...
SMB - That's a strange choice.
IS - I know, I know.
SMB - Meanwhile, you were already working with Jeannot - on SUPERGIRL.
IS - You're right. He didn't even enter our minds. He was too close. Of course having him there, showed us how kind and how easy working with a director can be... compared to how a director may not be pleasant - which happens as well. The next choice, I think was Walter Hill. Then it came down to Robert Wise.
SMB - WOW!
IS - Yes, yes. Pierre and I flew to New York and had lunch with Mr. Wise. Again, another very nice man. It was a very pleaasant lunch. But, to this day I don't know actually what happened ... somehow at that moment I started thinking of Jeannot. After all hiring him was so easy. Working with him was so easy. I world have to get used to working with a different director otherwise. This way everything would move into the new production easily. Jeannot is a very good director, so we just went with it - even though Robert Wise would have been an extraordinary choice. Next we started looking for a Santa Claus, and the two children. Once again we called on Lynn Stalmaster, possibly one of the best casting directors in the business, if not the world.
SMB - The two kids chosen were unknowns.
IS - Yes, totally. They had some experience of course, but yes, they were unknown. We came to New York and saw many, many children and men for Santa. But again I wasn't looking for someone famous to play Santa Claus, like with SUPERMAN. Pierre was in London, so it was me and Jeannot looking, but I don't remember anyone being really that well known. They were all burly, 50-60 year old guys with some well rounded acting experience. But only one really stood out. However then we saw David Huddleston. With David the interview went very well, and we tested him, and the two kids. All were flown to England and we decided to go with them. Another character I decided not to star cast, was Annya, Santa's wife.
IS - We took, a semi-known acress, Judy Cornwell. She is a very good stage actress, but not very well known. The theory again was the same as with SUPERMAN - the legend must not be identifiable or mixed-up with famous actors.
SMB - Speaking of the legend... how did you finally settle on this representation since Santa Claus is known in so many different ways through out the world?
IS - That's an interesting point which I meant to bring up. Before the Newmans I had a meeting with William Goldman in New York, during Thanksgiving. We talked about 4 hours on the direction of the film. We had to agree not to use anthing from that conversation if we did not make the film together. We had a wonderful conversation. By the way - I had met William Goldman before Mario Puzo, for SUPERMAN. But he decided he just didn't feel it, so Mario stepped in and the rest is, as they say "history". The point I'm making is that these things progress slowly and go through a line of people until one settles on the right choice.
SMB - All this happened before you finally settled on Jeannot?
IS - Oh yes. I mean, when he came on we had already gone through everyone and the Newmans were already halfway though the script. Way after all this stuff.
SMB - ... you were going to say how you settled on portraying the "Legend"...
IS - Yes. Goldman took a very different approach to it. That was the point I was going to state. It was interesting - but very different. What we ended up using was based on my treatment. Of course everybody started to add things until it became what you see now.
SMB - So the thought of homogenizing the legend was a way of making it international?
IS - Absolutely. The intent was for a major motion picture, and it was. It had a big budget, close to 50 million dollars. That was a lot back then ... which by the way, thanks to the director, was on budget, and on time. It was planned to be a world-wide film because Santa Claus is Santa Claus no matter where it played. The only part that was different was the tag - "The Movie", which is something I don't think people realized. Adding on, "the Movie" was something I thought of very early in the conceptualization of the project. I felt we would sell the film as "The Movie", yet in the film the title is only "SANTA CLAUS". It was the same with SUPERMAN. All the publicity was based on letting people know that it was a "Movie". I felt it needed to be separated from other sources of the media where the subject matter may have been broached differently. SUPERMAN was of course previously, first as a comic, then on radio, and of course TV. It was even a serial, but never a major motion picture - a "movie". My rational there was to make it clear that this was a theatrical event - big! I wanted to apply that same thing to SANTA CLAUS.
SMB - So, the whole point, as least for SANTA CLAUS, was to make people realize this wasn't another TV special, animated, or otherwise - it was a true film - a movie.
IS - Also by stating "The Movie" one is eluding that it is "the" movie, the only one. Once the film is out and established it doesn't matter. The important thing is to put that idea and stature into the film from the beginning so the audience knows what kind of project it is. We didn't do that with SUPERGIRL only because there wasn't anything done with that character up to that point, so we didn't have to. SANTA CLAUS was different; there was tons of stuff done, but never a major film. There was even a SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS.
SMB - So once everyone came into place you now had to consider what location or place to film the movie. I assume due to the complexities of filming in the North Pole you settled for Pinewood.
IS - Yes. Also, we wanted to have complete control, and create absolute magic for the production. We had a wonderful set designer who was able to achieve just that, Anthony Pratt. The elf compound, at that time, was considered the biggest set ever built, in Europe. It was absolute magic. I remember when Tristar acquired the American distribution right, they had Sydney Pollack, the wonder director, who was their creative consultant, come to see the set and they were absolutely floored. It was an extraordinary set.
SMB - Let's talk about the reindeer.
IS - Although it was covered very well in the "making of" and Jeannot discusses in the audio commentary you did with him, one aspect of the deer is that we decided to create a new form of portraying them. This combination of puppets and animatronics hadn't been used before. In fact, Jim Henson's son worked on that issue. Since then a lot of animatronics have been done. But prior I don't believe all the elements we used - computer, animatronics, make-up and real deer - to portray real animals not mythic beast or creatures. We had a wonderful lunch with Jim Henson and he helped us a lot. He was one of the nicest men I've ever met.
SMB - Was it always intended for the film's "real" world plot to be located in New York?
IS - Yes. Absolutely. Like I said it was an Americana film. New York gave us that.
SMB - Now, more than ever the film has a place in history because of that - there are so many shots of the World Trade Center.
IS - My God, I just realized that. You're right.
SMB - As with the Dino De Laurentis' KING KONG, it holds more significance now than ever before, by documenting a period of history.
IS - You're right, you're so right. A sad point, but very true - I'm proud of that.
SMB - People need to remember all that was good and not blot it out simply because it doesn't exist anymore. I suppose at the same time it places the film in a kind of nether world, like "Santa" himself.
IS - How true. Santa is a symbol of pure goodness and all the qualities we cherish most I would think looking back now that image of him over the Towers is quite powerful.
SMB - Sublime, yet extremely very powerful now.
IS - All these years later put new meaning in what would have been a throw away scene of eye candy.
SMB - In the end Santa's goodwill overcomes and teaches us all how to be better human beings. Which is why we're here today so many years later discussing this film, and the positive aspects it teaches - and the joy it brings. Those are powerful themes represented, in retrospect - as is the case with SUPERMAN flying with Lois over the Towers.
IS - OH, yes indeed. But film can do that - speeak with a wisdom of its own - even if never intended.
SMB - Did you consider SANTA CLAUS a franchise, like SUPERMAN?
IS - Yes. There was a time we considered to continue. The ending leaves it open. I've also been approached through the years by people who've said why don't you do a sequel. But, I think it's good as it is. As you know and I know there are some people who consider it a favorite and a classic for Christmas. It was number one in England and even today has an enormous cult following. The children of each generation love it. My children love it. It's my Christmas gift to all of them and I'm happy to know it's been accepted, and enjoyed.
Copyright SMB/THE DIGITAL CINEMA