Interview with SUPERGIRL Director Jeannot Szwarc

Conducted on 11/27/99 by Scott Michael Bosco
Source: Digital Cinema: Jeannot Swarc Interview (archived link)

Image: JEANNOT SZWARC in a photo taken on Feb. 27, 2000 after recording the Commentary for the DVD release.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Why don’t I start by telling you how I came on board?


JEANNOT SZWARC – Okay – I had just completed SOMEWHERE IN TIME and ENIMGA, which are probably my two best pictures, I was in L.A. when suddenly – out of the blue I get a call from a guy who introduces himself as Timothy Burell who starts talking to me about Supergirl and the Salkinds. But it was so different from what I had been doing that I said, “I think you’ve made a mistake you’ve got the wrong guy.” He said, “No, no and he read back to me my credits. To make a long story short they flew me over to London and I met the original writer and Ilya and I met Timothy Burell and the incredible team they had. They had David Lane, Roy Shields, Derek Meddings. I liked everyone and the atmosphere. I got along very well with Piere Spangler and Ilya. I also liked the script. First what I liked about it was the challenge of coming up with the first Super heroine because no one had ever done that. I also like the whole Wizard of Oz element to the story.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Were differences in the original scripted version?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes. It was a whole different ball game. There was a sequence I really loved where Supergirl and Superman meet in outer space. He sort of welcomed her and they flew together. Then there was this great scene where he’s lost his immortality and he’s an old man in this prison and she goes to free him. So I said I’d do it, and that’s how I came on board.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – What happened? Why did it change so much?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Well, I’m a little vague on this but David Odell, who’s a good classical pianist, felt burnt out because he had gone through so many re-writes, even before I had come on board. [an early revision of David Odell’s screenplay can be seen at The Internet Movie Script Database] There was a whole history before I arrived he finally said this is it! I’m not sure but I believe there was some sort of deal between Warner Bros. and the Salkinds shortly before we started shooting and what happened was Warner Bros. dropped out. They said they didn’t want the picture, at the last minute. Then when Tri-Star came in that’s when the changes happened or Warner Bros wanted changes or we drop out. I’m not really sure what went on because I wasn’t directly involved. It was very late in the game when that happened. I felt that a lot of the changes weren’t very good but I was too committed and too involved with all those people I wasn’t about to drop out. We had worked so hard for six month in pre-production. It’s the old story, you say when we get started we’ll fix it, but you never do. The second thing that happened was Chris (Reeves) backed out too. He said he didn’t think it was right for him to be in Supergirl. That I feel really hurt the script enormously because the meeting of the two of them made it original. In fact some of the stronger stuff in the script involved the two of them even though his presence wasn’t a focal point. It just gave a real style to the piece.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – So Supergirl had a different mission originally, other than retrieving the Omegahedron?

JEANNOT SZWARC – No it was still the Omegahedron. He welcomed her then what happened was at one point there was a sequence that I loved – when they meet they literally dance in mid-air together. We even had it story boarded, it was spectacular.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – With Derek Meddings working on the film it was bound to be spectacular.

JEANNOT SZWARC – I remember I changed the way they had previously done the flying. (On Superman I, II & III) They were very much in love with this guy who had worked on Superman, but I felt that what we wanted to do the image quality was not sharp enough. It looked too fuzzy. The whole system relied on being able to use zooms and I don’t like zooms. I wanted to achieve a more graceful flying style. So we started from scratch and turned out to be very revolutionary for the time. There was a lot of experimenting and patens involved – it was very complicated. But we finally came up with a new system. We had very precise storyboards and think that was very effective. I know that when Sidney Furie was going to do Superman IV: The Quest For Peace he called Dick Donner (director of Superman: The Movie) for advise who told him to talk to me because he thought the flying in Supergirl was unbelievable.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – I remember there was quite a search to find the right person for the title role.

JEANNOT SZWARC – That was an enormous problem. Lynn Stalmaster (casting agent) made a world- wide search. I told him not to look only for actresses because we needed someone willing to under go an enormous physical program. There was a lot of training. We needed somebody who wasn’t going to be a whimp. She had to work 3-4 hours a day in the gym. Plus she needed to cope with all the elements of how we would make her fly. At the same time we didn’t want a girl with big muscles. She needed to be athletic but still have grace. That’s why I suggested to look for someone who knew ballet. She need to have some camera experience to understand the seriousness of the shoot and not go boogie every night. We looked, and looked. I met tons of girls. I remember one of the girls was Demi Moore. She was very young and had a great voice. I wanted to use her for the room mate.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – She would have been perfect.

LM – She would have been, but she was going to Brazil to do a movie with Michael Cain.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – I remember reading that Christpher Reeves had worn a big bulky sweater when he went to read for Superman to make himself look bigger. Did any of the girls do anything to make ….

JEANNOT SZWARC – … as a matter of fact I was in New York, we went to this hotel and I asked every young person to come in with their idea of Supergirl. To improvise a costume and add something, just to see what they could do in terms of invention and imagination. Finally Lynn told me that he had someone and Helen Slater walked in – and that was it. She had improvised a costume with tights and sort of cloak. I just looked into those blue eyes, with that jaw-line and everything …. she had it. There was just no contest with anyone else. Once we had her everything else fell into place. We had this big Australian guy who trained with her.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Wasn’t Dolly Parton considered for the villainess at one point?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yeah, but that was before I came on board. Alex (Salkind) talked about it but do remember saying, “Guys it’s grotesque. I want no part of that.” I mean…

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Well she was very popular at the time.

JEANNOT SZWARC – That’s right. I mean, I like her. I don’t think she’s bad at all.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – No. It’s just that, that part wasn’t meant for her.

JEANNOT SZWARC – That’s right. It’s just more of a Faye character. She has the quality just right for that character. Faye is a good lady, I had no problems with her. But I never have problems with actors or actress.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – What about other cast members?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Well once Brenda Vaccaro was cast she and Faye got along real fabulously.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Good chemistry, it shows.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Great chemistry. They really had a lot of fun doing the picture. We all did. It was a good atmosphere. Brenda knew Peter Cook who I adored very much. He was one of the most extraordinary, talented human beings I’ve ever met.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – … and Peter O’Toole.

JEANNOT SZWARC – I kept pumping him for stories about David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia. We got along great and he was wonderful to Helen. Everything really fell into place. In terms of the shooting what made it difficult was there were some things we were trying to do that had never been done. It was like a search and destroy mission.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Shot in England.


SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Except the scene where the tractor breaks loose?

JEANNOT SZWARC – No, listen to this … that was a huge set built by Joe MacDonnel. He built an entire incredible little American mid-western town outside on the backlot of Pinewood.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – You’d never know it was a set!

JEANNOT SZWARC – I know. That whole scene where the machine runs amok and she saves the guy, the whole thing – I told the camera men that I need 21 days to shoot that scene – and that’s with good weather. 21 consecutive days of good weather because what we where doing was so involved with one thing causing another thing. They all started laughing and said Jeannot there hasn’t been 21 consecutive days of good weather since England existed. Well, the first day there were clouds, but they vanished. Then on the 21st day of shooting all the clouds came back. It was a miracle. After that the whole crew said we’ll follow you anywhere. But I got my weather for those days.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Was that the most intricate scene to do?

JEANNOT SZWARC – It was a nightmare. You can not image. It was all done live. You know when she lifts the part of the tractor with the guy in it. That was done live with cranes. Each crane had separate lines – for her, for the thing she lifted and all that had to be synchronized. When I look back on it I can’t imagine how we did some of the stuff we were doing.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Especially since all this was done without the aid of computers.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes! Oh today it would be done with all computer generated images. I had a really good team of people, you know they all came from Superman. We had a lot of concept meetings and when I said what I wanted each team would take it and deliver.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – What other sequence had its challenges?

JEANNOT SZWARC – The aerial ballet was very difficult. Remember when she flies out of the water?


JEANNOT SZWARC – Do you know how much time we spent on just the concept of that scene alone? Weeks! Nobody knew how to do it. A simple thing like that. It couldn’t be done in reverse slow motion because of the gravity of the drops of water. We discussed the principal, if she’s wet we’ll see it because of her hair. So we thought about putting her in plastic bubble under water but then we didn’t know how we would get rid of the bubble. You know how we did it eventually? (Speaking with a smile.)


JEANNOT SZWARC – Alan Hume came up with the idea. It was brilliant. We took a photograph of her standing. Then we blew up the photograph and mounted it on wood and coated it with a water repellent surface. Then we pulled the whole thing out of the water.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – You’d never know it!

JEANNOT SZWARC – I know! (Excited) (Both laugh.)

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – That’s really amazing… and so simple.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes, that’s why I got so angry by when some of the critics got so nasty. Some of the things we did were so creative. Here’s another thing. In the scene where she’s traveling to our dimension.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Through inner-space.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes. Well I said what I wanted but nobody could do it. Finally I found guy at oxford University who was doing reach on the viscosity of various liquids. It was from those testings we which made plates from which gave us that weird background you see as she’s flying through inner space. Another scene that took a lot of work was when Peter O’Toole is swept away by the maelstrom. Derek and Roy did that with models and lines.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – It looked like a tornado funnel.

JEANNOT SZWARC – That’s right but they had such problems with it – getting the right speed, it just didn’t look right. It just took forever. But he eventually got it right and it just looked great. But that was the magic of Derek Meddings.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – He worked on so many films and his work was always incredible. Most of it went right by the audience because they didn’t realize it was a special effect at times because his work was just so good.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Exactly. His detail, everything was fantastic. He was a great guy and we got along. All of us used to go out together and into each others homes. We not only worked together we spent a lot of time together. Let me tell you something, a story which has blown my mind and is still something I think about today. You know in the film when Supergirl fly’s to the top of the mountain?

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Up to Selena’s fortress?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes. That mountain with the castle on it is a glass matte. Derek painted it on glass and then he just angled it the proper way in front of the camera and we just flew Helen.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – It was done live – in camera?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes. I’m telling you when I looked at it, shot live, it was the most unbelievable thing. It’s a technique that goes back to the silent days.


JEANNOT SZWARC – No one knows how to do that today. I was so fortunate because I started out at Universal I worked with this incredible guy who did all the mattes. He was under contract there …


JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes! Albert Witlock! I worked with him on THE VIRGINIAN it was one of my first shoots. Because he was under contract he was just sitting around doing nothing and bored. This was before the revival of special effects. I knew of past work …

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – … on Hitchcock films.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes. He did all those glass mattes … and now here was Derek doing the same thing, now on my film and it was perfect. It was miraculous when you look at the results. He used to paint the most unbelievable skies. He’d be on the set and take an air brush and just paint a sky. I don’t think there will ever be another one like him.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – He was a master at miniatures too.

JEANNOT SZWARC – He was. In the scene where Supergirl fly’s off carrying Ethan (Hart Bochner) in the bumper car … that was a model Derek built. In fact he even made a model of the city at night.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – How about the demonic creature at the end?

JEANNOT SZWARC – That was created with different elements. I remember we had a problem with the size and perspectives. Eventually we got it right. We storyboarded it to death. I remember shooting different parts of it and then that was all combined by the special effects people with more elements, some animation and other things. You know we didn’t have computers so we had to be very imaginative. Like when she’s at the school and the invisible monster arrived … those were things with vacuums shot in reverse.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Like when she came through the mirror in the end?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes. Then we played it forward. It was not a real mirror. Then we shot her in front of a blue screen and then put all the other elements around her as she came out of the mirror.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – I don’t think a lot of people realize, especially for the time because of it being shot mostly live and without the aid of computers, how much work and brain power went into films like this. Critics are so quick to knock something down not realizing what they’re looking at.

JEANNOT SZWARC – You’re right and you know the same applies to SANTA CLAUS. I had a lot of fun and I loved it, but it’s very frustrating making films. Now with CGI maybe it’s different.


JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes, we shot things and wouldn’t see what they would look like for 3 months. We see bits at a time. It’s a different kind of filmmaking. You have to constantly focus and keep track of the technical end. There were 3 units shooting on SUPERGIRL.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Was it ever considered to shoot the Phantom Zone segments in black & white as they appear in the comics?

JEANNOT SZWARC – We did talk about it, but I felt we were spending too much time there so I felt the impact of the style would fade. But we did go for a very contrasty black & white gloomy kind of feeling. I thought the set was fabulous. All the clouds, everything. By the way, remember when Supergirl fall into the puddle of goo, remember?


JEANNOT SZWARC – Can you guess what that was?

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – I have no idea.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Toothpaste. That was shot on a sound stage the set wasn’t as big as it looks. We used perspective to enhance the look of the set. We also built Argo City. I had to constantly change the angle to make it look even bigger. By the way that round bubble thing that Supergirl leaves the City with was a real working monorail. That entire segment had to be synchronized with the mechanics along with the actors.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Let’s talk about the various cuts that were made to the film.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Well I know the aerial ballet was originally longer. I also believe her trip into our world may have been longer – you know when she travels through inner space into our world. Which reminds me of a great idea I had but we couldn’t pull it off. I wanted to show her come from water that turns out to be a drop of water on a leaf. It became so involved and complicated we just didn’t do it. Also in the original script the beginning was very similar to Superman with her City being destroyed.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – So the original plan was to show how Argo City was saved from the destruction of Krypton and how it became part of inner space?

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes, yes. Another part cut from the film was the party sequence, with Selena. There were a lot of cuts made to the film after previews. But I was spared the torture of those previews because I was prepping SANTA CLAUS. I mean the picture didn’t do very well in the theaters.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – Were reactions better before the cuts were made?

JEANNOT SZWARC – I think they went for the wrong audience from the beginning. I felt it was meant for a much younger audience than Superman. Anyhow, you know as well as I do previews don’t mean a thing.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – The cuts made weren’t logical. Like when she picks up a rock and finds she can crush it because she has super powers. But they left in the same scene in the Phantom Zone when she does the same thing and finds and cuts her hand realizing her powers have been taken away.

JEANNOT SZWARC – I know, I know, I agree with you. Oh, I loved all the stuff with her discovering her powers when she first comes to earth, the budding of the flower with her x-ray vision and dancing in mid-air and wiggling her feet just above the water. I thought all that stuff was charming. But the studio didn’t like it.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – What did they expect?!

JEANNOT SZWARC – They wanted Superman! See I kept telling them, it was a problem from day one not only from the studio but I think from the audience as well. Someone missed the boat in terms of marketing and selling picture. I kept saying to everyone, “What do you what? Superman in drag!” But that’s not what we’re doing! They wanted Superman in a skirt.

SCOTT MICHAEL BOSCO – They didn’t catch on. The film was more fantasy oriented.

JEANNOT SZWARC – Yes… more fantasy, more dream-like … more Wizard of Oz in nature.


JEANNOT SZWARC – … more poetic… graceful. What can I tell you? Even the trailer made it seem too much like Superman and I told them that the audience is going to be disappointed if they go in expecting what they saw in Superman. This was SUPERGIRL!