Still from Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham

Professor Eric Mendelsohn Holds Master Class with Director John Badham

BY Rakesh Palisetty, June 24, 2020

Professor Eric Mendelsohn sat down with film director John Badham last month to discuss Badham’s work and style. Badham is the director of iconic American films like Saturday Night Fever, Dracula, Blue Thunder, and War Games, among many others, and a Professor at Chapman University. Mendelsohn opened the conversation with an introduction of Badham and his works in which he revealed his reverence for Badham, who has worked with some of the greatest actors of our time like John Travolta and Laurence Olivier. Badham has also written two books about directing called John Badham on Directing and I’ll Be in My Trailer.


“In his books, he is adamant about being an actor’s director and is able to elicit great performances from his actors,” said Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn began the conversation by asking Badham what he teaches his students. To which Badham conceded that while students who are studying directing and filmmaking are technically very adept, they lack the people skills required to deal with actors and collaborators. He advised, “Have collaborators and some will be good and some terrible. But the sooner you embrace your collaborators, whoever they may be, then you can open yourself up to creativity.” He also emphasized a need for relaxation among filmmakers, which he says helps a director to open themselves up for what’s coming. 


Badham recalled some of his early directing experiences as examples, like working with James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor on The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings. “I was foolishly stubborn,” he recalled. He feels that a director should work with the actors and not against them. Mendelsohn agreed with Badham but also remarked that such ideas seem counterintuitive to how people think a director should behave. The general perception is that a director should know exactly what he wants and the actors should do as they are told. Badham replied, “Don’t go to the mat with them. They can’t do their best if they are angry or resentful of you. You want the actors to come play and not be zombies or robots. Our job is to listen to their ideas and let them try it.” Mendelsohn agreed and said, “Film directors shouldn’t dominate but collaborate with humility.”


Mendelsohn then wondered if Badham likes to rehearse with his actors or not. Badham said that ninety percent of actors love rehearsals and like to try things. He feels that it is important to let the actors soak up things within the time constraints of the production. He said, “Dustin Hoffman loves to try things, while Mel Gibson likes to talk but not rehearse.” He emphasized the need for making room for both specificity and having a discovery process. He said he knows exactly how to stage a scene but also lets the actors try and discover things by giving them a specific starting point.


The conversation then turned to storyboarding and Mendelsohn wondered how Badham felt about it. Badham said some directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, storyboard everything while others only do action sequences. According to him, dramatic or comedic sequences don’t need it because one loses what the actors bring and so unless it’s a technical thing like action sequences, he doesn’t feel the need to storyboard it. Badham also remarked that action scenes without a story don’t work. He said, “You need to figure out what the goals are for a character in an action sequence. Scene isn’t focused if the goals aren’t clear, and then it won’t work.” He believes that stakes, jeopardy, and conflict are what audiences are interested in and what makes them care about the characters. Mendelsohn remarked that in Saturday Night Fever, he felt that there was this so-called jeopardy but in stasis. 


Badham came on board the Saturday Night Fever production only three weeks before the start of shoot. Apparently the earlier director had issues with the producer that couldn’t be resolved and so Badham got a late night call to come to New York to direct the film. There were no locations that were finalized and nor was the casting complete. They only had one actor–John Travolta. Badham made an early decision to shoot the film like a documentary and to shoot it in Brooklyn. He said, “All I knew was to shoot what you see and do it and light it like a documentary. The costumes were off the rack and we used sets as we found them. Everything was very real.” The only thing they did build was the dance floor, which was made in New York. 


Mendelsohn then wanted to know what it was like working with John Travolta and if Badham had any sense of what Travolta would be doing performance wise. Badham replied, “I just needed to get out of his way. He understood the character better than I did.” Travolta came in with fully formed ideas and with a conviction and that Badham was just sitting behind the camera watching him. He revealed that Travolta bought a vulnerability to the racist and sexist character, to which Mendelsohn agreed and said, “He was revealing something to us.” Though Badham did have a strong idea of what was right for the character, he worked with Travolta in building and shaping it. 


Badham had a different approach for his next film, Dracula, in which he used a fluid camera movement because he felt that the content needed it. He said that one needs to understand the film, script, and characters in order to find a visual understanding, rather than it being the other way around. Mendelsohn remarked that it was one of the most beautifully designed movies he’d seen. The film was based on the theatrical production of Dracula that played on Broadway. The sets were designed to be unsettling, inspired by Edward Gorey’s black and white drawings. Badham used giant close ups in place of big action sequences that were also used in the stage production. He said, “I knew the screen couldn’t contain the size and scope of the theatrical action sequences, like the huge flying across the stage sequence. What looked powerful on stage, looked foolish on screen.” 


In the Q&A, one of the students asked Badham about his process of collaborating with composers and how he incorporates music in his films, especially in a film like Saturday Night Fever. Badham emphasized the need for getting a composer involved in the film early. In Saturday Night Fever, he said that the Bee Gees were involved from day one, and so he was able to play the final songs like “Stayin’ Alive” on the streets of Brooklyn while shooting, which made all the difference. “The Bee Gees had definite ideas of where the songs fit in the story of the film,” Badham said.  


Another student wanted to know if and how a director's vision alters when an actor changes things by bringing in their own ideas. Badham acknowledged that a lot of times he would be surprised, which was sometimes good and other times not. He left audience members with one final piece of advice: “The hardest thing to do is to say–I don’t know what to do, and ask for help. But one must learn to collaborate.”