Mr. Slick

Director John Badham specializes in audience-pleasing popcorn movies, ranging from Saturday Night Fever and WarGames to Point of No Return and Drop Zone. Will Nick of Time, his new thriller starring Johnny Depp, hit it big like the former duo, or sink without a trace like the latter flicks?

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Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on the rebirth of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 Brooklyn disco epic that made John Travolta and the Bee Gees stars. In the '90s, the film has become an icon to Generation X: a midnight movie favorite and corner-stone of the whole weird disco revival. The Times didn't bother to mention the film's director, John Badham, even once. That's Badham in a nutshell: the anonymous director who's made 15 movies in 19 years--WarGames, Short Circuit, Blue Thunder, Stakeout, Bird on a Wire, The Hard Way, Point of No Return and Drop Zone, among others--whose name apparently doesn't seem worth noting, even when a legendary film he directed is being discussed.

What's further typical of Badham, I found after meeting him, is that such anonymity doesn't apparently bother him. That's odd as hell for a director--traditionally, they're the most egotistical bunch in Hollywood, as their screen credits pointedly remind us: "A Joe Blow Film." But Badham's even more pointed credit reads: "A John Badham Movie." "Films," Badham feels, are those black-and-white foreign things that no one understands. "Movies" are entertainment, like a ride at Disneyland. And it's more than enough, insists the 54-year-old Badham, to be the guy who keeps the machinery oiled and moving.

JOSHUA MOONEY: You've gone from the studio mailroom to the A-List director's chair, worked steadily for 20 years, had several hits and directed big stars in every genre there is. Would you agree you've had the quintessential Hollywood career?

JOHN BADHAM: Well. I don't know what that would be. I got to do a lot of staff I never thought I would when I first came here.

Q: You were born in England, raised in Alabama by an Air Force general, then went to Yale Drama School. Why did you end up here?

A: I had gotten this idea--wouldn't it be fun to look into the movies? Like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane saying, "'I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!"

Q: Kane didn't know what he was getting into.

A: I was just as misguided.

Q: In 1962, you were getting a master's degree in directing at Yale when your nine-year-old sister Mary starred in To Kill a Mockingbird. How did you feel about that?

A: It was thrilling and frustrating at the same time. Frustrating because I was your basic starving grad student and she was where I wanted to be. But I never thought I could act like her. so it was pretty friendly.

Q: Did she open any doors for you?

A: After Mockingbird, she came out to L.A. to do a "Twilight Zone" episode, so I said, "Can I come along?" I went, and later met [her Mockingbird co-star] Gregory Peck--and anyone else who would meet me.

Q: And around 1964, you ended up in the Universal mailroom with a lot of other overqualified people.

A: Everybody had bachelor's degrees. Four of us had master's degrees. [Director] Walter Hill was in there and [studio head] Mike Medavoy. The way they operated the mailroom was you had to find your own way out.

Q: You eventually made it into casting, and then had an associate producing credit on Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" pilot in 1969. The director was an unknown first-timer named Steven Spielberg. You were 29--he was 19. What was it like working under this punk kid?

A: It was a big deal for me to have that credit. And he was directing Joan Crawford for his very first job. She was a little intimidating.

Q: So they say. How did she and young Spielberg get along?

A: He was supposed to take her to dinner and he called me and said. "You have to come along." Suddenly my job became holding Joan Crawford's hand--making sure she got whatever she needed. But she was great. You could not have had more of a willing actor on a show.

Q: That must have been a fascinating dinner: you, Joan and the teen Spielberg.

A: It was in a Trader Vic's kind of place in Hollywood--I can't remember, but it's gone now. It must have been very popular in the '40s and '50s. If you went there regularly and drank mai tais, you had your own cup with "Joan Crawford" or whatever written on it. There were walls of cups. She was just very entertaining-- dishing on Bette Davis--a lot of fun. Yet when she went to work, she was all business. We had to make sure there was a bed in her dressing room.

Q: Excuse me?

A: Well, she literally lived on the lot. She was totally focused on what she was doing.

Q: Did you feel any jealousy toward Spielberg, who was 10 years younger and doing what you wanted to do: directing?

A: No. I remember clearly the day Amblin' [Spielberg's first 35 mm film] was shown on the lot. All us young guys piled into the projection room. About two shots into the movie some-one said, "Oh man, I hate this guy already," because it was so good. At the end, they introduced him. I think they said "Stevie Spielberg"--he was 19, in a turtleneck that was too big, but it didn't matter. You just had to stand back and say, 'This is a major talent."

Q: You and Spielberg have crossed paths a few times. After directing TV for several years, you finally got a shot at a feature with 1976's The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, on which Spielberg had been the original director.

A: He and I discussed Bingo when I got on to it--his original ideas, and so forth.

Q: In 1983, the summer of two big hits for you--WarGames and Blue Thunder--some in the press were declaring you "the next Spielberg." What do you think they meant?

A: Those are things where you go, "Well, that's nice." But I never took it seriously. If I had, I would have fallen flat on my can.

Q: Pup music mogul-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood saw Bingo, and offered you your second film, Saturday Night Fever. Good thing he didn't ask you to do Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the disaster he was brewing up at the same time.

A: He did ask me to do Sgt. Pepper's first. I read the script and the only thing I could say was that I didn't get it--I didn't have a clue.

Q: Who did? It was a terrible movie.

A: A couple weeks after I had politely said no, I got a panic calf: "You've got to come help us with this movie Saturday Night Fever." I bounced off the walls when I read the script, it was so good.

Q: Why was the first director, John Avildsen, fired?

A: I guess the whole battle was that he didn't like Norman Wexler's new draft of the script and Stigwood said, "I do." Stigwood was very tough--so I'm told the same day Avildsen was nominated for an Oscar for Rocky, Stigwood said, ''You're gone."

Q: Good thing you liked the script.

A: I was over the moon for it. It was great. I'd never been to Brooklyn before, but I'd been thinking about musicals, since I was the original director for The Wiz.

Q: Right--the funked-up The Wizard of Oz remake: a Broadway hit, but it became another movie bomb you luckily avoided.

A: My producing partner, Rob Cohen, and I had gotten Universal to buy it and we were going to do it. But the studio insisted on Diana Ross for Dorothy. I thought she was too old. It made no sense to me. So we parted company.

Q: Did you feel vindicated when you saw what bombs The Wiz and Sgt. Pepper's were? Have you ever speculated on how disastrous those two movies, back-to-back, would have been for your fledgling career?

A: I never look back. When you turn something down, you push it out of your brain. When I saw them, I said, "I guess I did the right thing." I don't see that there was any great insight.

Q: Fever has been reborn as this Generation X cult hit--part of the whole disco revival. Have you seen it with a 1995 audience?

A: No. I should, just to see how they respond.

Q: There was an essay about its rebirth in the Los Angeles Times two years ago, yet your name wasn't mentioned once in the whole story. Isn't that upsetting?

A: Hmm ... it was interesting that when the movie first came out, it was perceived as having directed itself. All the buzz was about John Travolta and the Bee Gees. Well, you know, that's the way it happens. I just keep going.

Q: You turned down the chance to do the Fever sequel, Staying Alive-- another smart move, to judge from the resulting movie directed by Sly Stallone, with Travolta and his shaved chest and that whole Dante's Inferno/Satan's Alley dance sequence. Ludicrous, no?

A: When I read the script, I thought all the positiveness and fun of the first one was gone, I expressed that to Stigwood and he said, "We love it." I said, "Well, good luck to you."

Q: A sequel you did do was Another Stakeout, a follow-up to your 1987 film Stakeout. Why did it make only $20 million--less than a third of the original, and surely a disappointment? I thought it was as funny as the first one.

A: I think the Manhattan Project was as well kept a secret as Another Stakeout. The studio accelerated the release date by a month, so it was a problem familiarizing people with a movie where the original had been six years earlier: "Stake-what?" I thought it was a good opportunity thrown away because I knew the picture played like dynamite in the theaters.

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