Behind the Scenes: Richard Donner on the making of “Timeline”

Films like “Lethal Weapon,” “Superman” or “Goonies” need no introduction. But while films like these become a part of pop culture, the individuals behind them often fade quickly from the public eye, if they ever get noticed at all. Behind the scenes of the aforementioned films is director Richard Donner.

Donner’s latest work, “Timeline,” currently out in theaters, features a classic time travel rescue scenario. Adapted from the renowned author Michael Crichton’s book, the film takes 21st century archaeologists and shoots them back to a medieval time idealized in written history. Upon arrival, the young archaeologists’ bookish ideals are smashed, and they are forced to learn what pop history feels like outside the lecture hall.
In a recent Hatchet interview, Donner tackled, among other subjects, adapting the book to film, computer-generated imagery’s implications on the cinema and his past directorial work on “Lethal Weapon” and “Superman.”

Hatchet: Why did you decide to adapt Michael Crichton’s “Timeline”?

Richard Donner: Well, I have always wanted to do a Michael Crichton book. I’ve known him for years, I have admired him for years, and when this (book) came along I could not put it down. It was fascinating. I thought the characters were phenomenal, the relationships interesting. And the fact that it was medieval also really excited me. The fact that (the characters) were academics and had all researched the Dordogne Valley and Medieval France in the 1300s and all had viewpoints of it was great, and when they actually were sent back, it turned out to be hell. It turned out not to be a gentlemen’s world, not a wonderful place. It turned out to be a place that they were desperate to get away from. So it kind of proved that history may not always be right.

H: Was it difficult to make the transition from novel to film?

RD: Yes. I mean, you have 500 pages and you want to distill it down to 110 or something or 90. It’s difficult. It’s really difficult. But Michael Crichton is a great writer. He has an incredible sense of visuals. When we do a screenplay we take it under advisement with Michael. We talked to other writers and then we make up our mind. It’s my obligation to you, (the viewer), to keep you as close to the book as possible, but at the same time you have to take liberties.

H: What’s different about directing adapted works like “Superman” and adapting an original screenplay?

RD: It’s very different because if you take a book or something like Superman, Superman had a following since 1936. People know Superman. They knew what Lex Luthor looked like. They knew what Jor-El looked like. They saw it in their minds. People read a book and they have a story in their mind. So, it’s difficult to make that adaptation work for everybody. If you take something like that and decide you are going to change it radically, then there is no sense in doing it in the first place because you are breaking tradition. When you have an original, it is all yours. From Day 1 it becomes yours – your imagery, your sense of it. Of course, you work with the writer, but you have a much different freedom. It is not an obligatory thing to fulfill the fantasies, if you will, or the self-realization of those that have already read it or seen it. When I did “Superman,” I only did it defensively because they had, I do not know, Russian producers. They had an English director who has never been there. They had Italian production designers and they had no idea who Superman was. When I was offered it and I read the script, I was going to do it just to protect it. That was my mission. So yes, there is a great difference.

H: You’ve been directing action films since the 1970s. What changes have you noticed in the nature of these films and their audiences?

RD: Most of the action films I see today, a lot of them lose any reality. There is so much computer work in it and everything in it seems untouchable. You can’t really relate to the actors because nothing around them is real, so they are not real. So I kind of have a problem with a lot of the new approaches to action. How much bigger can we make it and how gratuitous can the violence and action be? … Here’s the thing: If it’s gratuitous, it’s stupid. If it is something that you cannot do and cannot reproduce and you cannot literally have it in front of you and touch, yes you go to green screen. You go to (Industrial Light + Magic) and you say, “Create a world for me.” But if you can build it, if you can create it, if you can have it and it is there and that is the environment you are living in, to me if you don’t do it you are nuts. Plus, you’re taking away a very important thing from the actor.

H: That said, what, if any, CGI was used in “Timeline”?

RD: We did have some CGI, but the point is, we built the castles, we built the villages, we built the abbey so that the people could touch it, could be part of it. It’s so important for an actor to have something to act to, not a green screen. Was it difficult? Sure it’s difficult, but really, if you are smart, you surround yourself with a brilliant bunch of people, the best you could possibly get, and they make you look good.

H: Do you think, even though “Timeline” is a fictional story, that it may someday be possible to create this three-dimensional fax machine/time machine, or is this complete fiction in your view?

RD: If you said six, seven years ago, “I am going to send you a piece of paper on your telephone. Go to the phone and look,” you’d be crazy. That was fiction. I mean, we’re moving. This world has been moving in scientific steps – since the Second World War – that are extraordinary. I do not call anything out there science fiction. I kind of call it science fact. It has to come around. Hey, when I was a kid it was Superman and Buck Rogers, and look at it – it’s there, we’re on the moon.

H: Your films always seem to have a lot of humor. How important is humor in your work?

RD: I love humor. I love to laugh. It’s important in life to me. I hate crying. So I like to laugh … You can turn on television, watch the news – it is totally free – and you can be as depressed as you want. So for me, if you make a movie, I love hope. I love a happy ending. I like inspirational things. I like to feel good, and if I can inject a sense of humor in a character, I love it. With some actors it’s delightful and easy. Mel Gibson is the funniest guy I have ever met and you can drop a line on him and he’s incredible.

H: Was it your idea to make Mel Gibson’s character in “Lethal Weapon” a big “Three Stooges” fan?

RD: That was Mel’s. Mel loves “The Three Stooges.” It started with the first piece with the Christmas tree shootout – he goes, “Blah blah blah!” and he had me on the floor. It came out of nowhere. Then we got “Three Stooges” films that we could play in the thing, then he would laugh with the dog when they were watching it. It’s strictly Mel. He’s a genius.

H: There have been a lot of time travel movies. Why do you think it’s such a popular theme?

RD: Well, I mean, any kind of fantasy that we all can partake in – whether it is a fantasy of going back in the future or being the editor of Hustler magazine – it’s fantasy. We all love fantasy … I don’t want to go back. I want to go in the future. That’s a wild fantasy for me. If somebody could say to you, “You can enter this device and you can project yourself into another period,” what would you pick? I want to see. The question you just asked about science progression and people, I want to know – what is it going to be like? Are we going to have a world 5,000 years from now? What is it going to be like? What are they going to be looking forward to? It’s pretty extraordinary … Any fantasy that is quite out of our reach at the moment is a strong fantasy.

H: It’s somewhat on the horizon, even though it may be out of our immediate timeframe. Like you said with the fax machine before, it’s a possibility.

RD: Anything, anything, anything. I mean, science is progressing, and I think anything is a possibility.

H: Any advice to aspiring filmmakers about how they might get started?

RD: Marry a producer’s daughter. (Laughs) You know what? The important thing to do is to do it. Make any kind of film you can with a digital camera, video camera, tape camera. Just do the work. Do it. The more you do it the more you are teaching yourself, the more you are going through all sorts of changes in your approaches, the more you are reevaluating yourself and getting experience. There are too many people who say, “I am waiting for that opportunity.” You have to make the opportunity. There are too many students graduating film schools today that are out there wanting to do it, and you have to prove that you are one of those people that’s going to become a filmmaker and not a talker. So my feeling is, whenever I talk to students I always say, “Go out and do it. Don’t talk about it, do it.” That’s my advice. Am I the sage of all of this? No, but it’s a good idea.

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