Interview | John Badham on ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Short Circuit’

The director of 'Saturday Night Fever' explains the origin of the white suit and the connection to his family-friendly robot film.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

John Badham has a vast and varied career that started in television, incorporated a few legit cinematic American classics, big-budget thrillers like 1979’s Dracula and 1983’s WarGames, numerous character-driven comedy films like Stakeout and Bird on a Wire, and, of course, one of the best robot films ever made, 1986’s Short Circuit. He has since gone on to an even more prolific television career, likely directing several episodes of your favorite shows.

But John Badham’s most celebrated film remains Saturday Night Fever, his celebration of disco culture, a gritty realistic drama, and the unveiling of John Travolta. On May 2nd, Saturday Night Fever will be released on Blu-ray, its director’s cut available on the format for the first time.

To celebrate, Crave got Badham on the phone to discuss his legendary film, its textured reputation, the simplicity of disco, and the origin of that famous white suit. The interviewer, of course, couldn’t help but immediately bring up that one, certain robot film…

TriStar

TriStar

Crave: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this: There was a time in my life when I hadn’t seen any film more frequently than Short Circuit.

John Badham: Aw.

By age 9, I pretty much had the film memorized, so I wanted to thank you for all the pleasure it gave me.

Oh well, I’ll tell you, that was such a fun movie to make. It was a delight from beginning to end. Creating Number Five and then seeing him come to life and actually be as funny as we hoped he would be, was a real joy.

And, to segue, you used The Bee Gee’s “More Than a Woman” in both Short Circuit and Saturday Night Fever.

I don’t think we used footage from Saturday Night Fever, but we definitely have [Number Five] doing some of the dance. It’s a famous dance. Which came about because in the development of the script, one of the executives said “Well, what else can he do? Can he dance?”And I said “Ooh yes!” [Laughs.] “Yes he can, now that you mention it.” So that became a real challenge trying to make this great big robot dance; he was eight feet tall when you stood him up on all his treads.

Paramount

Paramount

Saturday Night Fever is, not to flatter you, one of the great American movies. Many famous critics were fans. Pauline Kael was a fan, and Gene Siskel was probably the film’s most outspoken advocate from the start. Did you get to talk to any of these people about your film?

I did get to meet Pauline Kael. And I thanked her for such a long and thoughtful criticism she did of the piece. And it was unexpected, because some critics just absolutely hated the movie. They wished it would just go away. Daily Variety was one of them that thought it was just a terrible movie, and that it wouldn’t even last over the weekend. Which was embarrassing to them when it kept making money week after week for months. And they had to write about all the money. The same critic who panned it had to write about all the money that it was making.

But it was very gratifying to hear that from [Kael], and to see the fanboy enthusiasm from Gene Siskel, buying the white suit. Which was a kind of a whim of mine: That white suit came out of an incident where I’m sitting prepping the movie in the production office, and John Travolta and Patrizia von Brandenstein who was the costume designer on this movie before she became a famous production designer. They’re walking out the door. I said “Where are you going?” They said, “We’re going to get John a suit for the dance contest.” “That’s great. What are you going to get?” “Well, John wants a black suit.” And I said “Oh… uh… I was kind of hoping that he would get something much lighter. Like a white suit or something.” They said “No, no. That’s wimpy. A black suit is going to be cool.”

I said “Well, Karen Lynn Gorney is going to like that I guess.” Karen Lynn was his dance partner. And John immediately… I guess his actor instincts went up, and a red flag raised and he said “Why is that?” And I said “Well, because she’s in a red dress, and you’re in a black suit in a black room, so we’re not going to see much of you beyond your face. And we laughed and so on. And next thing you know, they came back with two white suits. I knew that, in a dark room, from being a magician when I was a kid – or trying to be a magician anyway – I knew the way to hide things is to do them in black. And a black suit in a black room… Oh, I don’t think so.

Before Saturday Night Fever, you had only done one feature film, but you had done a good deal of television. How did moving into feature films come about?

I had done several movies for television, and that had kind of “moved me up the ladder.” Because some of them did work very well, and won some good awards. People were coming around looking for the latest new director on the block. So the first movie I did was with James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor called The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars. And that was because it was a very inexpensive movie, and they needed somebody who could shoot quickly, and not want to take all the time in the world, even though this was a period movie set in the 1930s, and it was on location in Georgia. So people who were just starting to break into movies were the people they were looking at.

Well, it did have a lot of musical numbers in it, despite being about baseball. It was a Motown-produced movie, so there were a lot of musical numbers in there that were composed for the movie. The Robert Stigwood Organization had seen that movie and asked me if I would do the movie they eventually made called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And we were just sort of talking about this, and one day they said “Well, wait a second. Can you do this movie instead? We need help on this movie called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” I said “Well, it’s a terrible title. But let’s talk about it.” “Well, that’s what the magazine article is called.” “Okay, okay.” So it was a lucky one-thing-led-to-another.

My head was into musicals at that point. And thinking about musicals. So I was very much attuned to it. So when I started researching discos and so on, I had this funny realization: All this disco dancing is just what they taught me in dance class when I was 12 years old! It’s the foxtrot for God’s sake. It’s the same damn step. And it’s just different music. So I said “I got this.” This is okay. We can do this. And even though I grew up in Alabama, there’s some something that’s so grounded and real and that communicates across all lines about the characters in this film.

Paramount

Paramount

You said you were into musicals, but Saturday Night Fever is not a light musical; it’s very gritty and heavy. When I was growing up, I would heard its reputation was for being bright and brisk. When I was old enough to watch it, I found it was more realistic than that.

Yeah. Yeah. If you took all the musical numbers out – and I’ve seen it in this form – it would play kind of as a companion piece to Mean Streets. And I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me exactly what you just said. They remember it being all whipped cream and birthday cake, but then they go back and look at it, and they say “This is really dark!” There’s a lot of sexist, racist, homophobic, all kind of -phobic and -ist words to describe what’s going on with these characters. Yet, at the same time, I guess there was kind of a reality to it that touched across to people way beyond Brooklyn and all over the world.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

I’m trying to think. It was probably something like Bill Haley & His Comets. “Rock Around the Clock.” I go back to when 45 records were in. I could afford a 45. I couldn’t afford a 33.

Top Image: Paramount

Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.