INTERVIEW: Saturday Night Fever Director John Badham on His Book, James Bond & More

Conversation includes James Bond action sequences and Christopher Nolan's Tenet.

John Badham On Directing 2

I sat down to speak to director John Badham about the second edition of his book John Badham On Directing. Badham is the director of feature films like Saturday Night Fever, War Games, Dracula, Short Circuit and Stakeout. In recent years, he has moved to doing directorial work for TV, working on popular TV shows like Supernatural, Psych and more. Badham shared his insights to directing, the difference between directing for film and TV, and why he felt this book needed to be written.

Thank you so much for speaking to me today. I am not really a non-fiction person, as any Lit major would proudly acclaim, but I read your entire book, and enjoyed it so much.
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.

This is the second edition of your book John Badham On Directing. What made you decide to write this book, as well as constructing it as a collaborative effort?
This book, and the first book I wrote, I’ll Be in My Trailer, are both collaborative. John Badham On Directing started because we realised in the first book that a lot of actors don’t trust directors, don’t trust them because they’ve been abused and yelled at, had problems with directors, and it’s an unpleasant experience for them. What can we do to solve it? If I walk onto a set and I find I’ve got a grumpy actor who doesn’t want to talk to me, how do I learn to get around that and get him on my side, so he feels comfortable with me, not just putting up with me? That’s the source of the second book, using the same format as the first, and talking to so many of the same directors.

Actors are human beings, and they have this annoying habit of having opinions, and being creative, and what both my books talk about is taking advantage of this creativity, instead of trying to be a dictator, and to make them your creative partner.

So, we have all these great opinions – from Sidney Pollock, Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann, wonderful directors who are really good with their actors, and good in their comedy like Donald Petrie – getting all their opinions to see where they agree, or disagree. For example, Sidney Pollock and Steven Soderbergh have very different opinions on how to rehearse with their actors. One says ‘I don’t really like to do it’, and the other one says ‘Oh, I love to do it’, and you go ‘Why do they think that?’. So, it’s a great learning experience for me.

Having written two books now, are there any plans to go into screenplay writing?
Oh, I don’t think I’ll ever do any screenplay writing. I can write a non-fiction book, I do have that skill, but in terms of a screenplay, I would say it’s probably beyond my skill level. I very much enjoy directing, and will do it for as long as anybody lets me do it.

In your book, Steven Soderbergh mentioned that there’s two aspects to directing: there’s the craft that goes into it, and there’s the soul. If you had to describe your directing soul, what would it be like?
My directing soul? Wow! [We laugh] I love to make people laugh, I love to look at the funny side of things, and I think there’s so much in life that can be funny and tragic at the same time. I have a worldview that likes to look on the bright side, and see things for their humorous side, so films of mine, even Saturday Night Fever, or War Games, likes to look at the humorous side of things. This is what appeals to me. Sometimes in the midst of doing something, like a very serious drama, I might suddenly see a joke there, which might be appropriate, or not, and sometimes I have to restrain myself – ‘This is too serious. I can’t be making jokes here’.

In your book, Allan Arkush and Jeff Corey spoke about using props as a way to aid the actor. Richard Donner might give cues through prop suggestions. Where does your own style align in terms of prop usage?
Props are good for so many things. I mean, they can help explain what’s going in a scene, they can help the business of a scene. For example, if a man has a telephone call with his agent, and he’s frantic for a new job, and when we cut over to the agent, we see that he’s playing with a golf putter in the middle of the room, which tells you that he doesn’t care much of anything of this client that he’s talking to, he’s just putting up with him. So, you have the use of props here to explain what the scene is about. Often, you’re looking for things like that, which tell you things about the character, and what’s going on in the scene.

At the same time, you can use the prop as a way to settle the actor down. If I’m talking to an actor who is kind of nervous, I find things for them to do. I did a show that was in a hospital a couple of years ago, and the nurse comes over to the nurse’s station to ask another nurse questions about a patient. Well, the other nurse was very new and very nervous, she could hardly concentrate on what she was supposed to say. I went to her and gave her a list of numbers [he rattles off some numbers], and I said: “What you have to do is enter all these numbers into the computer and add them up within the scene. And every take, I’m going to give you a new set of numbers, and you have to get them right”.

It gave her something to concentrate on. She knew the lines, but now that she has this other job to concentrate on, it not only relaxed her, it made it look like she was so busy, she barely had time to talk to the first nurse. This made it interesting for the first nurse, because now she was trying to get through to this woman, who is seemingly not paying any attention to her.

The old clichés in some of the movies, where people come into a room and start lighting up cigarettes, or they go to the bar and start pouring themselves a drink. It didn’t have much to do with the scene, but it kind of relaxed everybody so they weren’t just standing there, two faces doing this [mimes people talking], which is boring. If it involves lighting up cigarettes, I would [as a director] think about how to make this difficult for them. The cigarette won’t come out of the pack, or the lighter takes several attempts, or they stick the wrong end of the cigarette in their mouth. Creating little problems makes the scene more interesting.

I remember you talking about this in your book, like how to add a dynamic quality to the scene. For example, two people walking home together, and the guy gets a stone in his shoe or something, and this little problem contributes to making the scene more interesting.
Yes, add little problems to the scene. Sometimes with a boring scene you need to do that, to make it interesting. So we think, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with that poor guy’s foot? Why is he limping?’. Or the scene is quite dull, mainly exposition, about where we were last week and what we did before, the sort of things that are boring that have to be told to the audience. Can we think of something more fun to do with it – and that’s really how I approach it.

You discussed in great length the importance of jeopardy when shooting an action sequence. But are films able to deliver that when the characters have plot armour, or there are already sequels planned?
Yes, yes, if you don’t have any jeopardy, if one of the superheroes in the superhero movies can always win, then there’s no excitement to it. If you can always get away from who the bad guy is, once again, there’s no excitement to it. Let’s use the Superman comics as an example. The devil for him was kryptonite, and if you had kryptonite, you took away all of his powers. The bad guys were always trying to get their hands on some kryptonite so they could disable Superman. Same thing with Spider-Man, or any of the Mans, you need something that stops them from being all powerful, because then suddenly the whole thing becomes ‘Well, he’s gonna survive’. And as you say, when you are going to sequels, it gets harder and harder to find ways to disable them.

You watched the first Wonder Woman, she’s so marvellous and she’s so strong, and able to fight her way through machine gun bullets, and that dynamic ending that’s in the movie, so I am very curious to see what Patty Jenkins has dreamt up for the sequel.

Do you feel that films now are more preoccupied with the stylish touches of an action sequence, more so than jeopardy and tension? In your book, you mentioned the opening car sequence in Quantum of Solace, which looks great, but lacks that jeopardy to the scene.
Well, Quantum of Solace is very dynamic, they went to a lot of hard work and spent a lot of money shooting that opening sequence, and it really doesn’t work. It’s cut too fast, which is really the major problem with it, and you can barely see James Bond. There’s not a lot of jeopardy there, they don’t quite sell that. Unfortunately, we’re treated to a lot of assaultive noise, sound, crashes, and things like that, which is okay but by the end, we are left with an empty feeling; it’s just not as effective. It’s a shame, especially with all the hard work they went through to make that, that they missed that point.

They have been some wonderful, absolutely heart-stopping moments in Bond films, because of the spectacular nature of it. There’s one, though I can’t remember which film it’s from since there have been like twenty-four James Bond movies, and he’s skiing away from the bad guys on the snow slope, and goes off the edge of a cliff. He’s got a parachute on his back, and when he opens it, it’s an English flag. Like a great wild joke, but a very exciting joke too.

Are you looking forward to the next James Bond film, No Time To Die, which will be released in November?
I hope I get to watch it. In this pandemic, we haven’t been able to see any movies, except what’s released on television. I just enjoy being in the theatre, I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet, the Christopher Nolan film. I really want to see it. A couple of people I’ve talked to say they have no clue what it’s about, despite seeing the movie. [We laugh]

That’s the constant refrain.
That’s Christopher Nolan for you. I don’t understand his movies, but I really love them.

Last question: are you planning a third book?
I’m always thinking about it – what can I say that I haven’t said before? For this book, we did the second edition because we wanted to talk about what happens to directors when they first go into directing television and streaming media. It’s such a different world for a director, compared to directing your own feature or independent film. You’re not at the top of the food chain, so how can you survive when you’re like the tenth guy down the line?

Trying to follow all these requests from network studios, producers, executive producers, associate producers – all of whom have more power than you do. You’re trying to do your best job, and you’re like an employee at McDonalds, you’ve got to make the double cheeseburger exactly the way they want you to make it. Creativity is very hard to come by, so how do you survive that? And that’s what the new section of the book is talking about, how to help you get through that and retain your dignity and integrity as a director. What little we have, so we try to hold on to that scrap of it.

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