09/03/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

John Badham on Yelling 'Action!' and Other Tales From the Trenches

John Badham cut his directorial teeth on '70s-era television shows like The Bold Ones, The Streets of San Francisco and Kung-Fu in the early '70s, before attaining A-list status with his second feature, Saturday Night Fever, in 1977. Films as diverse as WarGames, Blue Thunder, Nick of Time and Bird on a Wire kept John Badham one of the busiest directors in the biz, having literally not stopped working since 1971. His 2006 book I'll Be in My Trailer (co-written with Craig Moderno) has become required reading for virtually every neophyte film director in the business.

2013 finds Badham releasing a follow-up volume, John Badham on Directing: Notes From the Set of Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, and More. The book offers an engaging look at the psychological, technical, and managerial elements that go into helming a film or TV show. A veteran of over 30 films and 45 TV episodes, Badham supports his insights with true stories from his own directing career as well as wisdom and anecdotes from leading actors, producers, cinematographers, and directors including: D.J. Caruso, Gilbert Cates, Martha Coolidge, Richard Dreyfuss, Jodie Foster, John Frankenheimer, Patty Jenkins, Sydney Pollack, Brett Ratner, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone.

John Badham on Directing (Michael Wiese Productions, $20.00) is being released September 1. An audio version of the book, narrated by Badham, will also be released in September on

John Badham, who also teaches directing at Chapman College in Orange, CA., sat down with Alex Simon recently to discuss his latest publication and remarkable career.

Let's start with the five mistakes a director can make with their actors.

John Badham: The biggest one is not taking time to bond with your actors, not treating them as pieces of machinery. Actors are your creative partners who are going to bring these characters to life, even if they're really badly-written. They need to trust their directors who are going to protect them.

Protect them from...?

From looking foolish, from not looking their best, from blowing it. They need to know they can trust their director, otherwise you risk the actor coming in and just playing it very safe, which is rarely interesting to watch. The most important thing you can convince your actors of is that it's okay to fail. I don't mean showing up drunk or not knowing your lines, but taking chances. Always take risks, and if you blow it, it's okay. We'll try it again.

You also talk about the difference between working with young actors and veterans. Tell us about working with John Travolta, who was still a neophyte on Saturday Night Fever, versus working with Sir Laurence Olivier, on Dracula.

In both cases, you have people who are very confident, but for different reasons. John was very young, but extremely confident, which is part of what made him such a strong actor from the get-go. With Olivier, you had someone with decades of experience, who was completely professional. Even if he disagreed with what I asked him to do, he'd say "You're the director and I'll do my best to give you what you want." Whereas, John was sometimes more resistant: "No, this is the way I'm going to do it, and the only way I'm going to do it." Sometimes, you just have to compromise.

The other mistake you talk about is talking too much.

It's the hardest thing for a director to get over: to let yourself be open to other people's ideas. To realize it's not a catastrophe if people don't agree with you so that, if nothing else, you allow others to say what's on their mind. If you override them and just say "No, no, no," they'll shut down, just like your teenager. Adults are just as capable of that response. If you stay open to ideas from other people, you'll not only find it improves the movie, but makes the atmosphere on set a lot more fun. The more you direct, the more you learn to not say very much. My golden rule is: can I say it in ten words or less? Try one or two words, preferably verbs: "Seduce." "Attack." And so on. No actor wants a twenty minute dissertation on how their character was abused as a child. If an actor is a real pro, like Jimmy Woods for example, you can tell them "Faster," "slower," and they'll get it immediately.

Speaking of pros, you got to work with one of my heroes, Warren Oates, on his last film, Blue Thunder.

Oh, I loved Warren. He, like a lot of that generation, brought great life experience to everything he did. Most of them had come back from war, either WW II or Korea, and Warren loved life. He loved living big and wild, but he also loved acting where he could stretch himself and try big things. He would try anything. If you gave him room for more takes, he'd experiment all day long, and always give you something colorful and wonderful. We dedicated Blue Thunder to Warren, which I had a fight with Ray Stark about, but eventually Ray yielded. I saw Warren about three or four weeks before he passed away. I was coming out of a restaurant as he was coming in, and he just looked terrible, gray. He liked his drink, as did all of those guys. They were classic boozers.

Do you think we'll return to the grittier feel of '60s and '70s cinema, that the blockbuster mentality is on the way out?

I think when film companies are run by individuals, as opposed to corporations, you get better stories, as opposed to better product. If it's strictly a corporate mentality that's behind it, it's going to be about the bottom line, about what product is going to sell the fastest. It's not about making something that's going to endure. Ultimately, I don't think it's a sustainable business model, so I think it will eventually crash. I can only hope we'll go back to that "golden age," which was when I got my start.

Saturday Night Fever was one of the last great neo-realist American films. Did any of the neo-realists from Europe or the UK ever speak to you about it?

No, but Stanley Kubrick was a big fan. He was taken by the reality and the grittiness of it and dealing with the dance sequences not as Hollywood musical, but as an honest depiction of the way people in that neighborhood would dance. It wasn't A Chorus Line. I was so blown away being on the phone with Kubrick, he was doing Full Metal Jacket at the time and we shared the same casting director. Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite films, so I don't know if I remember 90% of what was said when we spoke, that's how awestruck I was.

I've always wanted to ask you about the notorious PG-rated version of Saturday Night Fever, which was released the following year (1978). I've heard different urban legends about it, some of which have you involved with every aspect of its re-cutting and others with you wanting to leap at the screen with a dagger because your masterpiece, and first big hit, was taken away from you and recut.

First off, I was involved with all of it. To ask if I objected to it would be like asking me if I object to what the Egyptian military is doing now. (laughs) The (executives at Paramount) saw the amount of money the picture was making and said "Wait a minute, this is R-rated. If it's making this much money as an R, imagine how much we could make if it were PG and all the kids that can't get in to see it can suddenly buy tickets." But of course, all those underage kids were getting in, flocking in, because their parents or older siblings were buying their tickets. I said 'If you must do this, let me be in charge, because I know where all the alternate takes are and how to cut it.' While we shot the R-version, I did alternate takes for the TV version, where they left out all the profanity. Initially, the cast refused to do it. "Oh, that's bullshit, man!" I replied, 'Have you guys ever heard of residuals? Every time this is shown on television, you guys will get paid.' They were all brand new actors, so they had no idea. Suddenly, they were all very game. (laughs) In some cases, the TV version is what went into the original because the actors were so much looser and more natural, since they thought it was just a throw-away take. At the end, we lost twelve minutes out of the PG version and Paramount made a boatload more money. Then we wound up cleaning it up even more for television.

For the past decade, you've worked almost exclusively in television. What are some of the positives and negatives of TV versus features?

One of the positive things is you stay fresh. You're not sitting home waiting for the perfect script to arrive or the script you've been working on for three or four years to get greenlit. We all have bunches of those we really want to make. In the meantime, we're sitting around and doing...sometimes I don't know what. But as John Frankenheimer told me, "I never knew anybody who learned anything about directing by not directing." So I look at it like going to the gym, to stay strong. You don't want to start lifting the day of the competition. (laughs) Television also allows for a lot of experimentation and room for you to fail. If you fail, you can do it over on the next show, whereas if you fail in a film, it's there forever. The negative side is that it's not a director's medium, it's the producer's. As a director, you're a hired gun and you have to stay within a degree of established quality and style.

You quote many other famous directors in the book, particularly Sydney Pollack and John Frankenheimer, both of whom were two of the best and are now sadly gone.

Sydney knew my sister, Mary, because he'd directed her in This Property is Condemned. So I'd known him for years. He gave us two fabulous interviews for I'll Be in My Trailer. He was so articulate, so clear about everything, a lovely guy. Frankenheimer was the same way, in spite of that gruff exterior that he presented. We were talking at the Four Oaks Café. John had put me off for almost a year, where we set half a dozen dates and he kept cancelling at the last second. He came to this one, and was talking about how to play a scene. He said "There are so many different ways to play a scene. For example, if I'm coming here to have lunch with you just to talk about the book, I'm coming in with only one attitude. But if I'm coming in to say 'John, you know, I'm going to leave here and I don't think I'll be here anymore after this,' that's an entirely different attitude." So we wrap things up and I go home, start transcribing all this stuff a couple days later, and then I get a message that John Frankenheimer has died. And I'm thinking, did he know something there? Was it something he was feeling there, or is it just me? It was like when I heard Martin Luther King give his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, I thought to myself 'There's something more going on here," and the next day King was killed. It was an eerie experience. John was a terrific guy and a great director.

Let's wrap up with the most important chapter in the book: the director's checklist.

When a scene isn't working, and you know the right questions to ask, you can decode pretty much anything with the right questions. So this checklist is saying 'If you ask any one of these questions in any order you like, it will help you gain insight into any scene you're trying to lay out.' Oftentimes, I'll look at a scene and it will feel like pure exposition, characters telling you exactly what they're doing verbally. If the writer has a shred of talent, he or she is going to have a lot of subtext and dramatic conflict on the page. What are the stakes? What do your characters want? That's how you bring a scene to life. In television, this can be very tricky, because often it's so verbally-driven. I make my students every week turn in a paper based on a movie, where they break a key scene down. They always begin complaining about it, then wind up thanking me later. (laughs)