BADHAM AND TESICH BECOME CYCLEMATES
The first time John Badham read the script he decided “no way.” By now he’s quite adept at turning stuff down, and with three smash hits out of six (“Saturday Night Fever,” “WarGames” and “Blue Thunder”), he can afford to do it.
Here was someone trying to sell him a story about bicycle racing in the United States. Bicycle racing! Please. Had he not already turned down “The Yellow Jersey,” that oft-postponed movie about the Tour de France bike race that Dustin Hoffman is said to want to do? He had.
But the writer of this script was Steve Tesich, a fellow who looks upon bicycles the way car enthusiasts look upon the Duesenberg. And he’s a persuasive fellow. He did pretty well with his first screenplay, “Breaking Away” (he won an Oscar for it), and if anyone can plead the merits of spokes and pedals and handlebars, he can.
So Tesich came back a second time.
“I’ve decided not to take no for an answer,” Tesich said, and proceeded to tell Badham all the reasons why he should direct “American Flyers,” a story about the Coors International Bicycle Classic, with the accent on the personalities involved. (The film focuses on two brothers, played by Kevin Costner and David Grant, who are in the race. Also featured are Rae Dawn Chong, Alexandra Paul, John Amos and Janice Rule.)
Badham found himself convinced. So much so that before they began shooting the movie he got back on a bicycle himself and, together with Tesich (who once had competed in the Coors Classic), went into training with the actors.
“We trained for six weeks, getting up at 7 every morning and riding for miles through Griffith Park,” said Badham, driving to lunch in his vintage Bentley, one of those great cars that tends to make any passenger feel a little like the Queen Mother. “And the infuriating thing was we’d all sworn off smoking and drinking to get fit and there was Steve, who smokes two packs a day, racing up steep hills with a cigarette in his mouth.
“I knew right from the start that it would be a difficult picture to sell, to get people to come and see. But I felt it was worth a go.
“The personalities involved are fascinating, and when you’ve got 100 cyclists going up and down those terrifying hills (they shot some of the film 12,000 feet up in the Rockies), it can be very exciting.”
The problems of selling an offbeat picture are not new to Badham. The first time he saw the play “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” in London, he was captivated and wanted to make the movie--though by intermission he was asking himself who would go to see it.
He said this to MGM after they’d bought the rights and planned the movie with Richard Dreyfuss. David Begelman was running the shop in those days and Badham told him right out, “This will be a very hard sell.” (The story concerns a sculptor crippled in a car accident who decides to die rather than live with his handicap.) And though the movie earned some fine notices, Badham was right. Nobody did go to see it.
“When I was doing promotion for ‘Blue Thunder’ in Sweden, I came across a poster for ‘Whose Life’ showing a reclining nude statue with Dreyfuss’ face superimposed on it,” Badham said.
“I’ve got a copy of it in my office. It’s the most hysterical thing you’ve ever seen. When I asked the Swedish film people how they came up with it, they said frankly, ‘Well, nothing else was working so we thought we’d try this.’ ” (When Dreyfuss later saw the poster, he commented: “I never looked so good.”)
Sometimes, of course, the unforeseen affects the success of a movie--as happened with Badham’s film of “Dracula” with Frank Langella.
“It did well,” Badham said, “but what I’ll never know is how it would have done if, six weeks before we came out, ‘Love at First Bite’ hadn’t opened and seriously eroded the vampire-film market. To be honest, we’d paid absolutely no attention to that film; we’d dismissed it as some silly piece of garbage. But it knocked the socks off us because people got confused between the movies, and having seen the one they didn’t go to see the other. But our film did win quite a few awards, which was gratifying.”
Around town, John Badham has acquired the reputation of being just the man to save a movie that’s in trouble. He did it first with “Saturday Night Fever” and again with “WarGames.”
Three weeks before “Saturday Night Fever” was due to start shooting, producer Robert Stigwood had a falling out with director John Avildsen. And Badham took over.
“It was that marvelous script by Norman Wexler that persuaded me to do it,” Badham said. “To me, it was an exciting story of a young man getting out of his element. It wasn’t until I’d been on the picture for three or four days that I fully realized I had a major musical on my hands.
“ ‘WarGames,’ of course, was totally different. They were already shooting when I was approached (he replaced Martin Brest). What had happened was that the movie at that point was going down a rather murky road. It had the possibilities for some great fun and that had been rather lost. So I took a different direction.
“But it’s a terrible way to go into a movie. My friend Michael Ritchie (who directed “Fletch”) is quite right. He says that a picture that’s in trouble to the point where they need to replace the director probably has problems that go much deeper than that. So you can get hurt by going in at the last minute. And if Michael had asked me why I did it, I’d have to say that in both cases I really liked the material and thought I could make it work.”
One movie Badham did work on for some months before withdrawing was Columbia’s “Starman,” which was eventually directed by John Carpenter.
“When Michael Douglas (the executive producer) first sent it to me, I called him and said, ‘I think this can be terrific.’ My only concern was that Steven Spielberg was supposed to be doing something similar (“A Boy’s Life,” which later became “E.T.”). Michael said he knew about it but that the stories were quite different.
“So I went to work with great enthusiasm. I wanted Tom Conti for the role (Badham had seen him in London doing “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”) and he was anxious to do it. Then, one day, I came into my office and there was the Variety review of ‘E.T.,’ which had just been screened. I read it--and found myself reading the plot of ‘Starman.’ And after Michael and I had seen Spielberg’s picture, I said, ‘The stories are just too similar.’
“Michael decided he would take out as many similarities as he could, but my feeling was that it was those very similarities that had made ‘Starman’ work--things like his healing ability and his desire to go home. But Michael was determined and made the changes. And after he’d done that and we talked again, I had to tell him I felt he’d taken the heart out of the picture. Which was depressing, because there’s nobody nicer or more talented than Michael Douglas.”
Badham now has his own company--the Great American Picture Show Corp.--and is preparing a new film at the moment, “Short Circuit,” which he describes as “a high-tech adventure story.” Shooting starts Sept. 1.
Before that, however, he is devoting his energies to “American Flyers,” which opens mid-August.
“We’ve got to convince people that here is a movie they’ll enjoy,” he said, finishing his lunch. “I realize it won’t be easy. I saw a trailer for the new ‘Mad Max’ film (starring Mel Gibson) in the theater the other day and when it came on people began yelling and cheering.
“They were in for a roller-coaster ride, something they’ll enjoy, and they knew it. Me too. I can’t wait to see it. But our film is really exciting too. All we’ve got to do is to get people into the theaters.”