TR Interview: WarGames and Short Circuit Director John Badham Talks Tech

By Luke Y. Thompson in Books, Movies
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 8:00 am

B/W photo by Joe Lederer

He has directed many, many movies you've heard of, from Saturday Night Fever to Stakeout to the Frank Langella Dracula. What you may not have known is that he literally wrote the book on directing, or rather, On Directing. Now available at Amazon and wherever else they sell books these days, it's a collection of Badham's best tips for those who would aspire to follow in his footsteps, or merely wish to read about specific examples of when he had to put his own pointers into action with the likes of Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson.

In addition to his book, though, I couldn't resist getting in a few questions about his big two sci-fi classics of the '80s - including what he REALLY thinks about Wall-E's resemblance to Johnny 5!

Luke Y. Thompson: When I first got this press release on the book from you, I was sort of expecting an autobiography, and it's more of a "how-to" to direct. How did you come up with that as the goal for the book?


John Badham: I really didn't have any interest in writing an autobiography, because it all sounded really boring to me. I thought, "Who cares about reading this?" On the other hand, I know from my teaching and so on over many years that people like specific, very specific kinds of stories, and they learn best from those very kind of specific things, and so my first book was really designed to deal with how to work with actors. Having found that students desperately wanted to know what you do when an actor won't do what you tell him to do, and that's something that perks them right up.

I think because of my background in theater and coming from Yale drama school, theater directors put a lot more focus on working with actors than do film or television directors, who have a tendency, and I say tendency, not as an over-all [statement], to be focused on the visual, the equipment, the hardware, the photographic aspects of it, and not so much on the human being part of it. So both of these books really delve more into the human being part of it, and how best for directors to try to start to confront this and handle it.

LYT: Do you have in mind as the audience for these books primarily the academic, sort of classroom setting, or do you think there's a much wider interest just from the casual reader, who may never want to direct a film, for example?

JB: Well, I think there's a wide - the people that I know that read it that are not film makers but are just reading it for a lark, they find it very entertaining because the stories in there are related to people that they know and that they have ideas about, a different perspective. Some verge on the gossipy, and people always love a little bit of gossip. I think, in my first book, I would have two reactions if somebody that I interviewed in the book passed away. I'd go, "Oh my god, that's terrible! I'm going to miss them." Then I'd go, "Oh, thank god! They can't sue me!"

Nick of Time

LYT: Is there a process by which you have to vet every story and run it by their reps, or do you just kind of say there were enough witnesses on the set that I can just go ahead and say this?

JB: No. I mean, if it had happened to me directly, which is mostly the case, then I would go for it, though in a couple of cases I would call the person and say "I'm writing the book, and I'm going to say this. How does this sound to you?" I've got some stories in the first book about Frank Langella, and I called Frank and we exchanged copies of the draft back and forth, and I adjusted it to make him content that it was okay and fair, and I had gotten a couple of little facts wrong, and perspective wrong, so I was happy to do that. One Clint Eastwood story, I know I went and tracked down the production manager who was on the set when one particular event started, and made sure that it was not just an urban legend.

LYT: Do you think that there are larger lessons to be learned, in terms of how to deal with people, to be derived from how a director works with actors and so forth?

JB: Oh, yeah! I think a lot of my theories and principles on it are derived from reading that I've done on child psychology and dealing with your children and how to raise your children. Not that I put actors in the same category as children, but a lot of the same principles about taking people seriously about their concerns works with human being. Books like The One-Minute Manager - I'm a big proponent of that, because it really does deal with how to get the best from your people.

LYT: I wanted to ask you a question about technology in general, since you've made two sort of iconic movies: Short Circuit and WarGames, that both ultimately come to the conclusion that technology that we create to destroy will ultimately become benevolent. Was that a coincidental theme that you just happened to like the stories and that was the theme there, or was that something you really think about a lot?

JB: Yeah, I would actually add into that and make a little trilogy, adding in Blue Thunder, because Blue Thunder deals with a lot of stuff that we're looking at right now very hard - government's intrusion into our lives and how much intrusion is okay. Blue Thunder was released before the year 1984; that was an iconic year because of George Orwell's novel all about government intrusion, looking into the future. All three of these films deal with the dangers of technology and how it can go off-track, sometimes in a very funny way, as in Short Circuit, or in scary ways, as in the other films. We've always been worried about how computers can go wrong, but what we're seeing mostly is either computers going wrong mechanically, or because of elaborate hacking designed for pretty malevolent criminal purposes.

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