John Badham Interview
I spoke by phone Wednesday afternoon, October 24th, to director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever, War Games, Blue Thunder).
Luke: "How did you come up with this new director software Shotmaster?"
John: "I was working on this 1990 movie Bird on a Wire starring Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn. And I began to think, why am I here still preparing my shots with a yellow pad, which I laboriously scratch on and hand over to some poor soul to type up, then go through making copies. I've got this nice new computer. Let's make it behave and do some work for us.
"I started with a MacIntosh program called Hypercard. It's designed as programming for the masses. Ordinary people could understand how to program. Many good things have been programmed in it, such as the entire game Mist. It became workable after several years, and got better as I became more sophisticated with it. I was trying it out with every movie and using it to plan my day's work.
"In an article in the Director's Guild magazine appeared, I commented that the biggest problem was that it was only available for MacIntosh because I didn't know how to program anything for IBM PCs. I then got a call a few weeks later from Paul Messick who said he could program for PCs. He took what I had done and began to build it properly in C++ [a computer programming language] in a way that would switch from platform to platform and work on either Windows or MacIntosh.
"We're now in the process of developing version two."
Luke: "Who else uses it?"
John: "Whoever buys it off the website. I never know who it is. But you open your mail and find checks for a $100. We get a lot of feedback via email. Beta testing was a horrible discovery that not everybody worked the way I did. I made a breakthrough this summer by finding a way to incorporate digital camerawork into it. So for example, when we go location scouting and decide on such and such, I start photographing it with my little digital camera and dump those pictures into the computer and then use them as the background for all of the pre-drawn figures that we have in there.
"It started as a way to just make little birds-eye view drawings. Then my wife, a skilled graphics artist, did 500 drawings of various figures, props, automobiles and all kinds of things. She threw her hands up one day and said, 'That's it. I'm not doing anymore. My back hurts.' You take these pre-drawn figures which you can enlarge and reduce, you can change the wardrobe colors, make different racial groups... You put these cutouts on top of the digital photos and you've got a good thing to show to the crew the next day. We print them out so they're the size of four postage stamps. So people see what we're doing that day.
"When you're dealing with visual things, there can be a lot of disagreement if you're just talking verbally. You have to have a picture to get everybody on the same page. The crews love it because they can see what they're going to be doing that day. Many of my colleagues are not so generous with the information usually because they don't know what they want to do. I'm too methodical and nerdy to wing it."
Luke: "What have you been working on this year?"
John: "For almost two years, I was working on a film (Ocean Warrior) in Amsterdam, a big $40-million picture about Captain Paul Watson, the head of the Sea Shepherds Society. His mission in life has been to stop illegal whaling which he does with his cheap huge boat. When he finds people whaling illegally, he rams their ship. He's never killed anybody and never done any major damage but by God he gets them to respect him. After 25 years, he's still whaling everywhere.
"We were in Amsterdam for six months, spending a lot of money refurbishing boats. In February, three days before shooting, with out full cast in Amsterdam, the two Dutch producers said, 'Gee, we don't have the rest of the money to start.' I say, 'You're kidding me? We've spent $15 million and we don't have the rest?' No.
"The producers initially worked with Dutch tax money. The Dutch government gave a generous tax break to encourage motion picture production. Let's say that you invested $100. You'd get a tax credit of $140.
"Nobody's come up with the money and given the events of the last month, I don't believe anybody will be anxious to finance a movie that has a guy ramming other people's boats, no matter how well intentioned."
Luke: "You did undergraduate work at Yale in philosophy? Has any of that stayed with you?"
John: "I'm proud to say that I had to give a speech today before 500 people to The Taskforce On Violence In The Media. I found myself quoting Plato. I made as much of a joke of it as I could. I said they were going to get their little bit of culture for the day. But here's what Socrates said about the poets in Athens and why they should all be thrown out of Athens.
"Of course philosophy always comes in handy. It's a way of looking at the world. Anything a director learns comes back to be handy at some point."
Luke: "What did you say in your speech?"
"I told the people that it is easy for us to say that we shouldn't be doing violence and having guns but we have to recognize that it is an extremely complicated issue. You're dealing with commercial and non-commercial media. You're dealing with artists' rights and responsibilities. How responsible should a filmmaker be to the public? If you know that children are going to imitate what you show them, should you try to be responsible in what you show? How does this impinge on your freedom as an artist? If you're working for a network, they have total control and they will tell you what to do.
"We're a pretty liberal bunch in Los Angeles and so we're happy to see the statistics that people don't want to see guns and violence. But you also have to take into account people in Montana, Alabama, Mississippi and so on who would like to string us all up now for being complete idiots. Because their beliefs about guns are 180 degrees from ours."
Luke: "How were your remarks received and what did your peers on the panel say?"
John: "I got a lot of laughs. It was a good way to start. I was the first guy out of the barrel. Then I was followed by director Peter Hyams who talked about how he was going to change his approach since September 11. He'd probably make fewer movies with the government as the bad guy. Yet he had made his career with the government as the bad guy. Then Laurence Andries, who produces HBO's Six Feet Under, talked about the way they will try to handle violence. The network guys talked about how they promoted series and so on."
Luke: "Did you hear about director Robert Altman's remarks that Hollywood served as an inspiration for September 11th's terror?"
John: "To quote Peter Hyams, 'That guy's a putz.' Peter was asked that question today and that was his remark. I think it's silly to place the blame on that. We're going to blame the IRA and the Arab-Israeli conflict on the movies? Here we're talking about a country (Afghanistan) where they're not allowed to go to the movies and they're not allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio. We're dealing with a different animal and it is too lazy to dump it all on Hollywood like Altman or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell... Yeah, let's blame all on the gays. It was all their fault."
Luke: "You don't think it was the gays who caused September 11th?"
John: "Oh yeah, sure, it was the gays who were out there doing it. I hope you understand that I'm being sarcastic. 'And John Badham said of course he agrees that gays are all terrible people and this is Jesus's way of punishing them.' Geez. Man."
Luke: "That would get you kicked out of Hollywood. I finally got my scoop."
John: "That would do it."
Luke: "Do you have a philosophy of life?"
John: "Not that I can articulate in a brief period of time. I believe in the Golden Rule. In Plato's Republic, there's a section about the true test of someone's virtue. They don't murder not because they fear punishment... But what if nobody knew what you were doing? He posited a magic ring, called the Ring of Gaiges, which made you invisible so you could do anything. And what would you do? That would indicate what sort of person you were."
Luke: "Does your personal philosophy enter your films?"
John: "I don't think they can help but enter the films because my paw prints are all over them for better and worse. The way I think about things affects the way I do things. In Saturday Night Fever, about 90% of the way through the picture, there's a gang rape of one of the girls. I did not want to shoot the scene. I thought it was distasteful and unpleasant and unnecessary. We were not going to miss the point of the movie by not having this scene.
"And the producer, Robert Stigwood, the 600-pound gorilla, who had the final cut and was a terror, said, 'You're shooting it. I don't care what.' So now the question became how to do it. Here I now had to go as delicately as I could, if you can say good taste in a rape scene without being ridiculous. How can you do it without being grotesque and gratuitous? I had to put a lot of effort into that so that the point got made but we didn't do it the way some people wanted.
"Overall, the film was great fun to do. It was one of those few scripts that I loved the second I saw it and I couldn't wait to do it. Even though it had to be done on an extremely low budget ($3 million) and quickly (52 days), with few resources, it was still a terrific experience. Doing musicals is about the most fun a human being can have. I think it's better than sex. Shooting dance numbers is so exciting when you get the music going loud and the cameras going and the dancers going."
Luke: "It then grossed hundreds of millions of dollars."
John: "Close Encounters (made for over $20 million) came out around the same time and they were predicting big grosses for it. And somebody at Paramount commented, 'Yeah, but we're going to be in profit way before they are.' We made our budget back after the first weekend."
Luke: "When you put your body of work together, what are the common themes? Disciplined unobtrusive unostentatious commercial filmmaking..."
John: "Pictures that I like telling the story. That's my guiding principle. If I like the story. If the characters appeal to me. That's what I am going to make. And I don't think about guiding principles and themes. I don't want to get stuck doing the same picture time after time. Sometimes I've gotten roped into doing three techno movies in a row - Blue Thunder, War Games and Short Circuit. Just what I was trying to avoid. Your creativity goes down the tubes as you do the same thing over and over. You might as well be on the Chevrolet assembly line sticking wheels on the cars. You start to think automatically instead of creatively.
"The approach to America of a foreign director is going to be different from somebody who sees America all the time.
"Saturday Night Fever for example. I've never been to Brooklyn in my life. Thank God my mother sent me to dance classes when I was in high school. Thank God I spent the previous six months preparing a movie that I left - The Wiz. I left it the day they insisted Diana Ross was going to be the star. When you have a story built on a six-year old child's point of view of the world, and in the original Wizard of Oz film, they'd already stretched it by putting Judy Garland in there. You're looking at a child's vision of scarecrow, a cowardly lion, a tin man.
"And now you propose putting a 30-year old woman into that same part with her worldliness and knowledge of the world. And as good an actress, dancer and singer as Diana Ross is, she's in the wrong place. It was not going to work. I told the people at Universal, 'I have no idea what I would say to her on the stage. It makes no sense to me. I'm the wrong person to be there. I'm sure there's somebody who will have something to say.'"
Luke: "How many films have you walked off?"
John: "I think that might be it. I try to not get involved if I don't like it. When I got involved in that, it was a more open playing field. But the assorted partners got together and decided they needed this giant star. Sydney Lumet directed it."
Luke: "Are any of the films you've directed particularly dear to your heart?"
John: "Stakeout, Whose Life Is It Anyway, The Jack Bull. These films worked well. I think I did a good job. They were enjoyable experiences to make. Much of a director's attitude towards a picture is the time you went through to make it. It can be a horrible miserable time or it can be an interesting creative time. The picture can turn out great but if you had a horrible time making it, you're always going to have a jaundiced view of it. It's like your children. It's not an objective thing."
On his third marriage, John has one child. "If you can't get it right the first time, try, try again."
Luke: "You started picking up credits as an executive producer with Stakeout in 1987. Why?"
John: "I realized that I wanted more control over filmmaking. I was into a film with producers I didn't know and I thought this was a wise thing to do. Until this point, I had the fortune to work with experienced skill producers and I had no need to encroach on their territory. But starting with a couple of movies before Stakeout, I could sense a sea change, and I decided to get in there where I had more clout. Rod Cohen and I produced several films where I did not direct."
Luke: "Is it hard for you to produce films you do not direct?"
John: "It's hard to be on the set. I am going to have strong opinions. But I am determined to let the director do his job. If the film's not working, you've got to have another conversation and try to guide the director to more effective paths."
Luke: "Do you like working with actors?"
John: "I'm writing a book on how directors work with actors and how not to do it. How to do it. How to understand the psychology of the actor. Because it is easy to get yourself into a contemptuous mode with actors. Their artistic temperaments and weird behaviors and make fun of them without understanding where the behavior comes from. Why are actors not like well behaved electricians and grips who do exactly who you tell them to? Why do they have to always fuss about, 'I don't understand this line and why do I have to do this?'
"I believe that 99% of young directors are terrified of actors. They understand cameras and lenses and everything technical but that weird animal called the actor scares them. They don't know what to do and many of them are intimidated and they run away from them. I thought, let's talk to a lot of directors and see how they deal with actors. We've interviewed Sydney Pollack, Mark Rydell, Arthur Hiller, Michael Mann and on and on... And we've interviewed actors to see what they're looking for from a director.
"Actors are a great asset. A good one is like gold. You cannot create them. The greatest director in the world can not make a good actor out of a mediocre actor. All you can do is try to cover up the mediocrity. You can inspire an actor and bring the best out of them. But you have to like them and earn their trust and be on their side. They're not going to do their best work if they're in an atmosphere of fear."
Luke: "What's your attitude towards movie critics?"
John: "I like Samuel Beckett's little part in 'Waiting For Godot' where the two guys are calling each other names. It starts out, 'You silly person,' then, 'You're a dickhead.' Then it escalates. Finally, they've run out of insults to each other. And one looks at the other and says, 'Critic.'
"I made a decision many years ago to not read them and to not pay any attention to them. It so depended on how they felt when they got up in the morning. Whether they liked or didn't like your movie didn't mean anything. If you could so something about it, that would be one thing. If, three months before the movie came out, somebody could come in and give you some opinions, that might help. Generally, I try to pay no attention to them. I can't be thinking, 'Ohmigod, what's Ebert going to say when he sees this?' If Ebert likes it, it does mean something for your box office.
"It's a sensitive area. It's something you've worked on for a year-and-a-half and here a guy tosses a review off in a couple of nights and throws phrases out that drive you crazy."
Luke: "Do you socialize much with the industry?"
John: "I have friends in the industry all over but I'm not a big socializer."
Luke: "Thanks for your time. I will send you something in a few days and let you correct the mistakes."
John: "If you could only do that with your life, wouldn't that be great?"