Clint speaks to the legendary John Badham, director of WarGames, Stakeout, Saturday Night Fever

JOHNBADHAM

Ask me who my favourite filmmakers are – go on! ask me!

Okay, so there’s a list – and it’s not a long one – and on it you’ll find all the usual suspects, like Lynch, Scorsese, Tarantino, De Palma, Spielberg, Johnson, Fincher. Verhoeven might even be on there. Possibly even Zemeckis. You might also spot John Badham, the working man’s filmmaker, the audience-pleaser, and a go-to guy for big, fun commercial pop in the ’80s like “Short Circuit”, “Blue Thunder”, “Stakeout”, “The Hard Way” and “WarGames”. Look up ‘satisfied’ in Wikipedia, and you’ll see a pic of a group of cinemagoers walking out of a John Badham movie. This is the man who hosted ’77′s biggest disco, “Saturday Night Fever”, and produced some tight, fun thrillers with the likes of “Point of No Return”, and “Nick of Time”. To say he’s won us over over the years is an understatement. These days, Badham spends most of his time directing telly – quality shows like “Supernatural”, “Nikita” and “Psych”, and while he’s doing a fine job at it, you gotta hope there’s still a couple of solid big-screen ventures still left in him (pony up, investors!).  To coincide with the release of his latest book, “John Badham on Directing”  - a ‘must read’ for anyone that wants to know how to make a movie outside of ‘carrying the Nikon to the set’ – I had the opportunity to speak to a filmmaker who not only shaped my cinematic diet as a youngster, but somewhat inspired my trek into producing strong, all-ages entertainment.

John, I was just going to say, and this isn’t to butter you up, but you are probably atop of my favorite film maker of all time list.

Oh my gosh, well thank you.

it’s no BS, it’s totally true and you can ask my Emilio Estevez. I am…

Oh, God bless him, I love him.

Oh he loves you too. Whenever Emilio and I talk, he’s always talking highly of you, how much he learned from you just studying you on Stakeout and everything else and then, how much he applies that now to what he does…

Oh, oh well that’s wonderful, thank you for telling me.

Yeah and it’s all true. And Stakeout is one of my favorite films. It’s my go-to reliable film that if I just need to watch something, and just need to have a good time, and let the hair down, I put Stakeout on.

Great, great, that’s wonderful. Oh boy.

Emilio and I have talked a lot about ‘Stakeout’ and ‘Another Stakeout’. His disappointment he said it was such a blast making that movie, and he was just sad that no one had as much fun watching it as you guys all had fun making the second one. ‘Cause he said, Rosie O’Donnell was cracking everyone up on set and it was just an absolutely infectious kind of environment to be on that the second one. But maybe it was just, too long between films or something I don’t know? What’s your take?

Well, also they were doing a funny thing back in those days at Disney, and they got the idea in their head that they could start to promote, that they didn’t have to start to promote a film until like a couple of weeks before it came out. And then they would just kind of pile on a lot of ads, rather than build up an anticipation for something. So if you weren’t necessarily paying attention, the films could slip right past you. And they did, quite frequently and this was one of them. ‘Cause we knew from our previews, we knew how well the film would work, and how much audiences enjoyed it. And then it was just frustrating to see it kind of get thrown away by an odd approach to marketing. Which was a subsequently abandoned and…

It still goes on – though not necessarily with Disney. They, of course, they start their marketing campaigns 12 months ahead now, particularly with  things like the Avengers and everything else. But…

Oh sure.

But there’s so many companies that are still playing it that way and doing that kind of 11th hour marketing attack, and then they wonder why films aren’t seen. The awareness just isn’t out there early enough. But the thing is you have to start a lot earlier than six weeks ahead. You have to start at least six months ahead especially when you’re talking about a theatrical release these days. It’s just too competitive, too fierce.

Right, Right.

I suppose things too have changed since the days of ‘Another Stakeout’ because they could have utilized the internet and had people twittering about it 12 months ahead but different days.

Yes.

Different days.

Absolutely.

So where do those… Obviously, I said ‘Stakeout’ is probably my favorite film of yours. Do you have a favorite amongst your bunch that you’re proudest of?

Well, it’s easy for me to say Saturday Night Fever or War Games…

Yeah.

But I have tremendous affection for Short Circuit also.

Yeah, yeah.

It’s just a very funny, silly way of approaching a high-tech movie.

Yeah. Exactly.

As opposed to taking it dead serious as in, or not dead serious, as in War Games, where we were pretty serious. To have fun with it and kid it around, kid the technology. And it was such great fun to see if you could make a character that was completely an artificial creation, and make it come alive and have a personality, and something that you could care about. And that was the real wonderful challenge, and it was there set forth by the writers. They wrote a fabulous character and made it a delight to do.

Yeah. I’ve got a six-year-old actually, and as soon as you started talking about Short Circuit I thought, “That’s the film I haven’t shown her yet. I should actually show her that.” Yeah, it was great, I remember seeing it at the movies, and absolutely loved it. It was just a great little paint-ball flick, and it really had legs too. And I think it’ll still play well. Well, they’re remaking it, aren’t they?

Well, they keep talking about remaking it. This has been going on for five or six years now, and I’ll hear occasionally from David Foster, the producer, about what they’re doing with it now. And it never seems to go anywhere, and I actually haven’t heard a word about it for quite a while now. So I don’t know.

If there was a film in your catalogue that you could now go back to and maybe do your own, say, sequel to, is there one you would do?

Well, I always wanted to do something with War Games, but we could never come up with the right kind of story that we felt was as modern as that War Games was at the time it was made. Where it was a very original concept, an original idea, dealing with a phenomenon that people weren’t really familiar with. And where adults thought that… Didn’t think that kids had anything to do with computers, and that was kind of ridiculous, we knew this. And the whole idea was unbelievable to the adult movie community who were saying, who turned it around at Universal. It was going to be made there, and Universal just had no confidence in it. So trying to find something to be that fresh and that original, we didn’t succeed, I’m sorry to say. And we finally… I think I said one day “I think this is an idea whose time has passed.”

‘The Hard Way’ is another one of my favorite films, a big Michael J. Fox fan.

Oh thank you. Thank you, yes.

That’s just a fun film.

It is fun. It’s just kind of a fun Hollywood take-off, and I think both Michael and Jimmy Woods are terrific in it.

Yeah, yeah. Was Michael fun to work with?

He is fun. He’s a more serious guy than you would think.

Really.

And Jimmy Woods is a more funny guy than you would think.

Ah, there you go.

He’s really kind of a wild and loud and bawdy personality, who is smarter than you and me and about 50 other people put together. And he’s a real tornado on the set. Acting opposite him you have to watch out, you’ll get your life stolen from you by Jimmy Woods. I mean, he could upstage King Kong. And it drove Michael crazy, because Michael was used to, from the Back to the Future films and his television series, to being, “Everybody get out of the way ’cause Michael’s the funny one.” And he never reckoned with Jimmy Woods. [chuckle] So it was great. That means people have to up their game. We don’t all stand respectfully out of people’s way. And it was good for both of them, a little informal competition on the set.

Yeah, yeah. Exactly.  And look it worked for the film too, because they both are… They had great chemistry too. And I’ll tell you who else talks highly of you, and he’s an old friend of mine, Stephen Toblowsky.

Oh god bless him. I just ran into him a week ago in a restaurant.

Did you? Oh okay.

Yes, yes. And I’m looking and I’m going, “I think that’s Stephen. Oh my gosh.” And sure enough, we had the nicest chat.

Oh yeah.

Yeah, he’s… Talk about bright people. There is somebody who is so smart, and such an inventive, good guy. I’ve been hearing about his pods, the podcasts, the stuff that he does.

Yeah, his podcasts. He’s really utilized the technology out there at the moment just to boost his profile, and it’s done wonders because I think in the last few years people are now aware of his name whereas he was always just ‘that guy.’ And he will admit that, that Stephen was just, “Yes, I recognize him from somewhere or something”..  I recall we were out in a restaurant in LA, with Stephen and his wife, and people would recognize him. And they’d be sitting there looking at him like, “I do know that guy, but I’m not quite sure of where.” So now I think they’d actually be aware of it.

But yeah, he was talking about ‘Bird on a Wire’ a couple of times and how he was promoted to one of the lead baddies, and it all kind of worked out for him at the last minute or something.

Yeah. Well, we admired his work so much from previous things that we had seen him do that it was a treat for us to have him.

Yeah, he’s really good. So when did the idea for the book come up? When did you decide it’s time to put pen to paper?

Well, as you may know, I have an earlier book that I had started on several years ago that I wanted to do about what I thought was the best way for directors to work with actors and what kind of input and feedback could I get from a lot of the great directors that I respect, Sidney Pollack and Stephen Soderbergh and people like that. So, I did that and wrote that book. And as I began to talk to people about it afterwards I learned a lot more. And just things, I said “I never thought of this.” So I started to think about doing a second edition of the first book. And one day I had a conversation with an actor who said, “There’s no disrespect but you know, a lot of us don’t trust directors. And have gotten to the point where we just sort of don’t count on anything from them.” And I said, “Well, why is that?” And I began to realize, I said, “There is a whole book here just on the subject of why do actors not trust directors? And what is it that directors do wrong, and how can we correct that?” And so that’s really what the main focus of the beginning of the book is.

And it’s a bit of a schizophrenic book because then it suddenly switches over into directing action and then switches over again into, ‘How do directors break down scenes in the best way to get the most goodie out of them?’ And I thought, “Well that’s a little technical. I think I’ll put that in the back for people who are real serious about that kind of directing and so on.” But the main argument of the book is about trust and how to gain it and why it’s valuable. It’s not just to be popular. It’s to get the best film that you can get by getting the kind of participation that you mention that I get from Dreyfuss and Estevez in Stakeout where they are as much responsible for the quality of that movie as any of us are.

‘Cause they brought so much, I gave them so much room and so much freedom. And they were able to take it and we would stage a scene one way and they’d come back in half an hour when it was lit and they would’ve re-done the scene so it was the same dialogue, but it was all different. And it was suddenly like, twice as good as it was before. And this was just a whole trust thing between us. “Sure, Okay, we’ll try it, let’s do this. Let’s try it, invent that, make that up.” And so, so much of the movie was created as we went along on top of what we already thought was a damn good script.

Yeah, it was. And as I said, it still plays really, really well. And I was actually trying to pitch Emilio on getting you three guys back together to do a third one now. And I said, “C’mon it’s time to grow the moustache again, c’mon.”

[laughter] And the moustache, my gosh! We got a lot of mileage out of that moustache.

Yes, yes exactly.

Yes we did. He was trying to look older.

Yeah, well he would have been quite young then, wouldn’t he?

Oh yes, he was young. But it was a whole cop thing. They all have these moustaches. And especially in Los Angeles police and Los Angeles sheriffs, it’s just like, if you don’t have a moustache, you must not be part of the police.

Yeah, yeah.

So it’s funny on somebody who looks as young as Emilio. They have this little thing plopped on his face.

Yep. [chuckle]

Just wonderfully incongruous.

Yeah exactly, exactly. So you’ve had great experiences on films like this but is there a film that you just didn’t have a great time on and kind of is a blemish to you?

I always have fun on films. Some work better than others but not for lack of trying and thank God I’ve not been on films where I’m kicking myself saying “why did I do this?” I’ve managed to find some fun and some entertainment along the way. It’s too hard, it takes too long, it’s too miserable to do stuff when you don’t enjoy it. And I think that’s a critical decision that you have to make when you get involved and even if maybe later you go “well, maybe I shouldn’t have done this” you say “well, it’s too late now, you’ve got to make the best of it.” And Bob Fosse had a wonderful phrase that he titled a whole movie after “All That Jazz” and that was the way he approached a lot of his jobs. He would just put all that jazz on it and smoke and mirrors and do his best to make it work rather than just kind of dog his way through it and “oh, okay.” There’s a guy who was committed to try and make something work that maybe was not the best idea.

Yeah, well look… And I guess the only disappointment with anything is when something doesn’t put bums on seats so to speak with say Another Stakeout or something that you were happy with and then people just don’t come for one reason or another whether it’s marketing or whatever, I guess that’s the disappointing part of film making.

Sure. It is. Yeah. It does break your heart. ‘Cause you work so hard and yet at the same time, you just have to get over it and “okay, let’s get on with something and let’s try… See if we can maybe not make that mistake again.”

Yeah, yeah you just get on to the next I guess and push on.

Yeah, ’cause otherwise you’re just gonna be laying in the middle of the road crying and nobody gives a damn.

That’s right. That’s right and what do you…

They’ll just say shut up.

[chuckle] Yeah exactly, stop your winching. What are you up to these days?

I’ve just managed to finish on the last season of Nikita that I’ve been happy to work on.

That’s kind of a return to ‘Point of No Return’ for you, right?

Yes it is. And so I’ve had fun doing the new incarnation of it. I’ve done like three of them in the last year, and well, they’ve just finished the season, their very last season and so I was happy to be part of that. And I’m just about to head off to Vancouver to work on a show called Supernatural. Which is as you probably know, going into it’s ninth season.

Yeah, it’s been a very big success.

Absolutely. So, that’s fun for me because I’ve never worked on it before. I’ve now seen a lot of episodes, and I’m excited to go into a whole new field. I feel like I’m going back to the days when I was doing Night Gallery.

Yeah, yeah.

And series like that, that had lots of spooky horror and monsters and all kinds of things in it.

Only now, we have so much wonderful computer technology and things that we can do that we could never do before. It just expands the possibilities of what you can manage to achieve in a short period of time.

BUY JOHN BADHAM’S NEW BOOK “JOHN BADHAM ON DIRECTING” HERE