Director John Badham Career Interview: On Casting, Characters and Killer Chemistry

While some may not instantly know the name John Badham (shame on you!), chances are you have definitely seen one of his many hit films.  The prolific director has helmed so many memorable movies (Saturday Night Fever, y’all!), worked with a gaggle of notable actors early in their careers (how about a young Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in the 1983 classic War Games!) and has created so many magical movie moments and lines that linger (“Number 5 is alive!”) that his vast body of work undoubtedly stands the test of time.  Currently the filmmaker has the second edition of his book “John Badham on Directing” (available now in both Kindle and Paperback) out for fans and film students alike who are interested in knowing the ins and outs of working as a director in the business, plus last October saw a Kino Lorber special Blu-ray release of his 1991 flick The Hard Way featuring a very entertaining (yes, I listened to the entire thing!) full-length audio commentary track with Badham.  (Both are available through Amazon!)

But for our own movie insight purposes here at WhySoBlu we wanted to take a long walk through the multitude of films Badham has made over the years in the form of the infamous career interview and we certainly got our wish.  And amidst digging deep, touching upon our favorites and seeking insight into facets unknown, Badham was game through it all and hunkered down for a Q&A grilling that would make a lesser man flee.  (Sorry, John!)  From Short Circuit to Stakeout, Blue Thunder to Bird On A Wire, we leave no movie stone unturned in getting the skinny on all our favorite things ala John Badham.  Avid movie fans and cinematic lovers please welcome….


With the publication of the second edition of your book “John Badham on Directing” plus the arrival of the Kino Lorber special release of The Hard Way featuring your commentary what new insight or details were you eager to share with fans for both?

John Badham: This new edition focuses on how the merging of movies and TV shows, cable, and Internet channels have affected the role of the director.  It is a survival guide for directors working in those media.

As far as directing goes a key successful signature ingredient to most John Badham films is chemistry between characters.  Whether it be comedic (Steve Guttenberg and Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit), romantic (Richard Dreyfuss and Madeleine Stowe in Stakeout) or simply antagonistic (James Woods and Michael J. Fox in The Hard Way), how can you tell if the chemistry is going to work, what are the secrets when casting and ultimately what makes for killer chemistry?

JB: Chemistry between actors is not unlike chemistry of organic substances and elements.  It’s really talking about what happens when different elements are mixed – is it dangerous, is it exciting, is it boring?  If we mix oil and water, we get elements that repel each other.  If we mix water and water, we just get more water.  We’re looking for the differences, not the similarities. Is the mixture fun, frightening, romantic, or just boring?  We can guess what happens when we put two actors together, but we really don’t know for sure until they can directly interact with each other.  What happens if they hate each other?  Maybe that’s a bad thing, or maybe it’s a good thing.

Was there ever a time when the chemistry was not as you had thought and what is the solution in that case for a director now on the hook?

JB: If the chemistry is not there, you have to try to identify what’s wrong and try to fix it.  Elia Kazan was known to create adversarial relationships between actors by passing on gossip about what one actor was saying behind the other actor’s back.  Of course, one can coach the actors and try to alter their attitudes toward one another.  Or, if it’s really intractable, you might have to replace some or all of the cast.

How did your early work directing shows like The Streets of San Francisco, Kung Fu and Police Story inform your skills as a director going into features later on?

JB: Directing episodic television is a great lesson in working quickly and efficiently and bringing as much creativity to a show as the producers will allow.  There is no time for dithering around about performances or camera angles.  Preparation is nearly everything – without it you’re flailing about in the dark.

How did Saturday Night Fever come to you and what were your initial thoughts on the script?

JB: I loved that script with a passion the moment that I read it.  The characters leapt off the page and kept a stranglehold on me that lives to this day.  I wasn’t raised in Brooklyn but Birmingham, Alabama, yet I totally understood the characters.  Thank my mother for making me go to ballroom dancing classes in high school.  I could look at the disco dances of that day and see that they were the same damn dances: the fox trot, the waltz, or the samba.  It came to me because I had been talking with the producer, Robert Stigwood, about another project he was putting together: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  At the same time, he was producing Saturday Night Fever, the project was three weeks away from shooting.  A major creative disagreement between the director and Stigwood meant that a new director had to come on board.  I was in the fortunate position of standing right there, available, affordable…and quick!

I always felt the caring relationship between Tony Manero and his brother Frank Jr. was a small but pivotal backbone of the film – what were your feelings on it and since it doesn’t take up a lot of story time how did to mitigate exactly how much of it to put in the film for maximum effect?  

JB: Their relationship was not only a good brotherly relationship of love, respect, and encouragement, it served a larger thematic purpose of helping Tony realize that he did not have to be saddled with the world he lived in.  There was a whole other world beyond the paint store and the disco, if he had the courage to seize the moment.

In 1979’s Dracula you worked with three iconic actors – Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasence – what was that like and was there any trepidation on your part working with such masters of the acting craft?

JB: Oh sure, wouldn’t you be?  The first film I ever saw when I was five years old was Henry V directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.  Now I’m telling him what to do?  Yikes.

With the angle of high-tech surveillance and a police state controlling things, did you feel like the stylistic Blue Thunder was ahead of its time?

JB: It was designed to be a glimpse into a paranoid’s future.  A future where technology is not necessarily our friend, but a Pandora’s box of unforeseen and terrifying consequences.  All the futuristic spying features of the Blue Thunder helicopter were actually either in online or beta testing stages by the military.  Today we look back and see the beginnings of our total loss of privacy, and our early passive surrenders to a monster not yet named… the Internet.

You cast Malcolm McDowell as your heavy and the late great Roy Scheider as your lead – what inspired their on-par casting?

JB: Scheider was always connected to Blue Thunder as Frank Murphy.  What was needed was a worthy antagonist who was totally opposite to him.  Since many national military groups fought together in Vietnam, Malcolm McDowell was a perfect foil.  His personality and wicked charisma was powerful and grating at the same time.

War Games could have been stoic under the helming of another director – what made you think that a story about a kid who unwittingly starts a world war with his computer could be the hit it became?

JB: The mistake that some executives made when they turned down the film was that they didn’t account for the passion that the new technology of the Internet engendered in young audiences.  It was a mistake also repeated in other films like E.T. and Home Alone where executives just didn’t get the appeal to the young demographic, possibly the best audiences for theatrical movies.  Adults were out of the loop as far as personal computers were concerned.  The film has a perfect leading character in David Lightman: a true innocent whose passion for the new computer games flooding the Internet gets him in trouble way over his head.  He almost sets off World War III in the process.  The film was a thriller with comic overtones and a strong theme of the stupidity of war.

Another great duo casting in small roles I remember vividly – the late Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen as Jim and Malvin from War Games.  How much time goes into memorable but smaller role casting like that for you?

JB: This great casting was due to the clever vision of Martin Brest, who was the original director of the film.  His eye for unusual characters were the prototypes for the “nerdy” types that flooded subsequent films.

Kevin Costner was still early in his career when he made American Flyers – what was your impression of him back then?

JB: Kevin had a modern “Jimmy Stewart” quality to his persona.  Not a traditional leading man – he comes across with a grounded reality, which makes him very appealing.  It also helps that he is physically athletic, which made his work in all the strenuous bicycling scenes so believable.

Dealing with all the technical – not to mention comedic – aspects of robot Number 5 (aka Johnny 5) in Short Circuit what were some of the challenges in getting a whole and complete performance out of something inanimate?  AND was Tim Blaney who voiced the robot ever on set to provide vocal context to the actors?

JB: Number 5’s creation and realization is a true testament to the power of collaboration in film.  From the very conception of the character by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, to the special effects geniuses led by Eric Allard, and operated by a team of inventive puppeteers led by Tony Urbano, the goal was to create a believable living character.  Months of work went into the creation and building of Number 5, followed by weeks of rehearsal with the puppeteers.  Tim Blaney was the puppeteer who operated the head and mouth of Number 5Tim has a great sense of humor and contributed much to 5’s personality.  He was always on set when Number 5 was, and performing his voice.

What I loved most about Stakeout was the blending of both zany comedy and seriously dark dramatic moments – was it hard to find and set the tone so both aspects could eventually shine together?

JB: Many people fail to realize that life itself is a messy mixture of moods and moments: sometimes dark, sometimes hilariously funny or ironic.  The mixture of the two is not only credible but highly entertaining.  Shakespeare was quite adept at contrasting moods in many of his plays.  Falstaff provides the humor to Henry IV, the rustics provide amusing counterpoint in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  With Stakeout, the gallows humor of police contrasts so marvelously with the romantic story and the criminal exploits that drive the story.

Madeleine Stowe is one of my favorite actresses of all time as she manages to bring both serious strength and endearing vulnerability to all her roles – what was it like working with her on the film and did she bring anything to her role that surprised you?

JB: Madeleine Stowe is not only stunningly beautiful and vulnerable, but also blessed with a naughty sense of humor.  A true professional: she always brings her “A game” to every scene.  She never feels like someone who is “acting,” but is just “being;” honestly in the moment.

Was the chemistry between Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn in Bird on a Wire instantaneous or was there work to get it so pitch perfect?

JB: That’s an easy question.  They were perfect together from the moment they were in the same room.  All I had to do was stay out of their way and enjoy the fireworks.  Easiest job I ever had.  I should have paid them to let me be the director.

With James Woods seemingly like an intense actor and Michael J. Fox known for his lighter comedic aspects, was there any major style clash in terms of the ways both actors worked in The Hard Way?

JB: Yes, of course there was!  That was part of the whole idea of the film: two totally opposite personalities who are made to do a job together.  One character, Fox, a movie star who is eager, full of fantasies about the lifestyle he is trying to learn.  The other, Woods, a cynical police detective disrespectful of Hollywood types.  The comedic clashes nearly write themselves, but thanks to Daniel Pyne, the screenwriter, they were realized in ways that make the film delightful.  Put Woods and Fox together in any scene and each one is battling for screen space.  If they didn’t pay attention the scene would be stolen from them by the other.  The comedic tension is palpable.

Stephen Lang’s work as The Party Crasher in The Hard Way is inspired insanity – from his striking short blonde hair to his vivacious line delivery.  What went into creating that role and how much of it was on the page vs. what both you and Stephen brought to it?

JB: Unlike the Woods and Fox characters, the Party Crasher was a character waiting to be created.  All we know about him is the actions he takes to ruin any situation he is in.  The rest was delegated to Stephen Lang, a brilliant actor, fresh from his Broadway creation of the character that Jack Nicholson later played in A Few Good MenThe hair, the makeup, and the physicality were all created by Stephen, who was a worthy antagonist to Woods’s character.

Point of No Return was a major challenge in that it was remaking the Luc Besson original film that not only ushered in some savory new kick ass female action work but was also steeped in savvy French style – what ultimately made you say yes to helming it?

JB: The minute that I saw Luc Besson’s film, I knew that it would make a great American film.  A strong female character who discovers her repressed humanity is a powerful story.  Because the original is in French and loaded with subtitles, I also knew that it would not be a commercial hit in America.  Our audiences resist subtitles like they hate brussels sprouts.  Besson was originally going to direct it, but had other new projects he wanted to do instead.  And there I was standing outside the gates of Warner Brothers studios waving my hand like a kid in fourth grade who has the answer to an easy math problem.

Again another inspired casting in Point of No Return – why was the great Harvey Keitel your cleaner of choice?

JB: I had admired Harvey Keitel since Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.  He exudes danger, and irresistible power in any situation.  He later played a similar character in Pulp Fiction for the very good reason that he can play the hell out of it.  The best way to work with Harvey is to get out of his way and let him do what he does best.

What is most fascinating to me is even though there have been sequels made of your films – Short Circuit 2, Staying Alive – you always stayed away.  What was it then about Another Stakeout that made you want to revisit it?

JB: I was always sorry that I didn’t connect with the scripts for those sequels the way that I connected with Jim Kouf’s script for Another StakeoutI loved the story that was not just a re-tread of the original but stood on its own.  It took advantage of the tremendous chemistry between Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez and added the wild card of Rosie O’Donnell to mix it up.  It began to feel like a modern-day homage to the Marx Brothers.  Even the relationship between her dog and the neighborhood cat was so funny.  Thanks to D.J. Caruso, who did the 2nd Unit Directing, he invented hysterical camera angles never before seen.  Some said the movie was too silly.  My bad.  I have to take the blame for that: it’s my childish personality left unfettered.

With all the aerial stuff and bold stunt work within Drop Zone what were some of the challenges, as well as highs and lows?

JB: Not only does aerial skydiving photography take a long time to do it’s also incredibly dangerous.  We had world champion skydivers leading our stunt team, but even so, every day was a nail biter. D.J. Caruso was the Aerial Unit director for 36 days in a painfully slow shooting process.  If the unit got 10 shots in a day it would have been amazing.  Here’s a typical day: pack the parachutes, plan the shot, ride the plane up to altitude, launch the skydivers, shoot, land, review the footage, rinse, repeat.  Thankfully, there were no accidents, even with incredibly dangerous stunts such as Wesley Snipes’ sky-diving double, with no parachute, being snagged by Yancy Butler’s double in mid-air, and brought safely to earth.

Nick of Time put Johnny Depp not only into more of an action setting but also a role as the straight man – was this something he was game for at the time?

JB: As good looking as Johnny Depp is, he is really a character actor not a leading man.  For him to play this character was a stretch for him.  Not a hero, not a wild pirate, he had to pretend he was a workaday everyman, taking care of his daughter alone.  Caught up in the nightmare of not only having his child kidnapped but being forced to assassinate a candidate for governor.

Incognito has become notable for it’s insight about art forgery including canvas aging and precise paints – where such rich details come from?

JB: One of the most fun things about directing is the research into unfamiliar subjects: disco dancing, computer hacking, bicycle racing or art forgery.  Art forgery has been around since the caves at Lascaux, probably.  Good forgers are crazily talented at copying other people’s work and finding ways to deceive art historians.  Just the idea of doing something as seemingly simple as creating white oil paint that will seem to be 200 years old is devilishly clever.  The research alone was as much fun as directing the whole film.

And finally looking back at your filmography of highly memorable films work what would you say you are most proud of or you would like to be remembered for?

JB: There are obvious films like Saturday Night Fever and WarGames that will show up in any obituary and I’m proud of them.  But I hope that my books John Badham on Directing and I’ll Be In My Trailer, which are about working with actors, will help all directors, new and experienced, to collaborate with their cast and get better performances.


Special thanks to everyone involved in making this amazing interview a reality and of course to the legendary John Badham – thanks for hanging in so long!  Check out both of John’s latest available now including John Badham on Directing – 2nd Edition: Notes From Saturday Night Fever, War Games and More


And the Kino Lorber special Blu-ray Release of The Hard Way…



I'm a passionate and opinionated film critic/movie journalist with over 20 years of experience in writing about film - now exclusively for WhySoBlu.com. Previous sites include nine years at Starpulse.com where I created Forgotten Friday Flick back in 2011, before that as Senior Entertainment Editor for The213.net and 213 Magazine, as well as a staff writer for JoBlo.com. My other love is doing cool events for the regular guy with my company Flicks For Fans alongside my friend, partner and Joblo.com writer James "Jimmy O" Oster. Check us out at www.Facebook.com/FlicksForFans.

1 Response to “Director John Badham Career Interview: On Casting, Characters and Killer Chemistry”

  1. Michael Coleman

    great interview J.
    John Badham is a great action director and like you I loved all his movies. He is the kind of director whose name on any film is a slam dunk to watch it and be prepared to be entertained.