John Badham, director of film favorites such as “Saturday
Night Fever,” “Wargames” and “Stakeout,” over a dozen other films and many more
television shows, is coming out with a new book entitled, no surprises here, “John Badham on Directing.” Now a lot of “how to” books have crossed my
desk, but this is something special for several reasons. One, he has reached
out to other directors such as Martha Coolidge, Christopher Nolan, Paris
Barkley, Oliver Stone and Steven Soderbergh (and a couple who are no longer
with us such as John Frankenheimer and Sydney Pollack) for their stories,
suggestions and insights.
It’s like being in a master class on directing from
the best in the business, along with commentary from actors, cinematographers
and producers. It covers everything from what you want out of storyboarding,
strategies behind effective action scenes and, most of all, getting the best
possible performances from actors.
Another reason this book is unique is that Badham is
constantly giving credit to others and the end result is a picture of a man
confident in his own abilities who has learned his lessons the hard way. The
official press release calls it “an engaging look at the psychological,
technical and managerial elements that go into helming a film or TV show”
and it is, but it is much more that. There is no blue smoke or mirrors in this
tome, just smart, practical, common sense advice from the front, not just for
directors but anyone interested in filmmaking and one you will find yourself
going back to, time and again.
Cari Beauchamp: What was the catalyst for writing “John Badham on Directing”?
John Badham: My first book [I’ll be in My Trailer: The Creative Wars
between Actors and Directors] was about working with actors and after it was
published, I heard from many actors. The one commonality in their response was
their distrust of directors. Why? Because too often they had been abused and
treated like a slab of meat.
What’s the biggest mistake you see directors making?
They stay away from their actors and don’t create
opportunities to let their actors know they care about them. The first thing I
do when the cast is set is to call each actor and ask how I can help them. Even
if they have no concerns, they come to work with enthusiasm because of that
call. Often I will drag myself to the stage early to go into the make up room
and just see how they are doing. If there is anything wrong, it can be worked
out in private and head off any drama in front of the crew or the rest of the
What’s the most important lesson you have learned about
So much of it is being able to open yourself up to listen to
other peoples ideas – in filmmaking and in life. If we have an idea, we are
kind of proud of it and sometimes we hang on to it way too hard. As a young director, if someone suggested
something, I would often say I’m not going to do that and a minute later I
realized it was a good idea. So I have learned to give credit to others and not
to stress about it.
How do you keep the sense of ultimate authority while
advocating being a collaborator who seeks out others’ ideas?
It is a difficult line to find and not easy for a young or
insecure director. Over time, you get better. Dealing with human beings is not
like dealing with a computer that will do what you tell it to. Human beings are
just bloody minded and they come in with their own ideas so you better figure
out how to work with them. If you are dealing with a star, they are pretty much
going to do what they think is right. If you have actors and can use your
leverage and authority and their reaction is quite commonly to shut down and do
what you want – no more no less. Actors have the right to fail – in the best
way – not to show up drunk, but if they
want to try an idea during a take, its ok. And that is a huge
comfort. One of Michael Zinberg’s great suggestions is to ask
questions instead of giving orders. For instance, you can ask, “What would
you think if…” The actor immediately becomes a collaborator and they can
also come up with some great ideas.
In addition to directing, you are teaching at Chapman
University. What’s the most important thing you teach your students?
In my directing classes,
I make the students go in front of the camera to get familiar and stay
familiar with how hard this is. It is scary up there. I know for myself, I am
Jack Nicholson when I am behind the camera, but in front of it, I turn to mush.
It’s important for them to know what it feels like.
What do you think about the current crop of movies?
Too often character development gets skipped over and some
people think they have to put in dialogue to explain the back-story. Just
yesterday I was on a flight back from Toronto and I re-watched the original
Alien. There is minimal dialogue and the contributions of the actors is
amazing. The characters are very distinct and clear; you understood them and
empathized with them. In these tentpole movies
we don’t care when people are blown away and we wonder why we have
forgotten everything by the time we get to the parking lot. They are like the E
ticket rides at Disneyland where you get a thrill for the moment, but there is
little left when you walk away.
What other director’s movies do you particularly like?
Some of my favorite films are from the Coen brothers. I realize when I am teaching how often I go
to scenes from their movies. Their
characterizations are so complex and there is a richness to their story
Before we end, I have to ask you about Mary Badham, who
played Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I have interviewed her, but never
realized she was your sister.
a student at Yale when she was cast in the movie. Something like several
thousand girls were looked at for the role so of course I was very proud of
her. But at the time, it was a bit like little sister 10, big brother 0. She
was the first one in the family to break into movies.