'Grease' Is Still the Word

Twenty years ago this summer, Paramount released a musical by a first-time feature director that would go on to become one of the biggest box-office hits ever. "Grease," based on the smash Broadway musical, rode the appeal of its stars, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, as well as hit singles "You're the One That I Want," "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Grease," and was the last true blockbuster musical film. On March 27, Paramount will re-release the newly refurbished film. Here, director Randal Kleiser remembers the hurdles and little victories along the way during production.

*

Imagine making a musical as a first feature, and watching over your shoulder are Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Directing "Grease" in 1977 was like returning to high school, and they--all Paramount executives at the time--were the teachers.

When I studied filmmaking at USC in the late '60s and early '70s, I simultaneously worked as an extra in movie musicals. By being on the set of "Camelot," "Hello, Dolly!," "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Double Trouble" with Elvis Presley, I was able to observe different ways musical numbers can be staged. I learned how songs are broken down into short phrases of lyric and shot in sections. I watched directors yell "playback" instead of "action." So, when I showed up on the set of "Grease," I didn't feel completely lost.

PRE-PRODUCTION BY THE NUMBERS

Producer Allan Carr flew me to Chicago to attend a production of the stage musical. Seeing it for the first time, I was most impressed by the spirit of fun that came across. I began to envision how it could be a movie. Certain scenes were very clear, like the numbers "Summer Nights," "Greased Lightning" and "We Go Together." Some of the other numbers were hard to imagine on screen. Pat Birch, who choreographed the original stage production, was hired to do the movie, and we began to analyze each number.

A FEW CHANGES, HERE AND THERE

The play was set in urban Chicago. My background was suburban Philadelphia, which was in sync with Carr's suburban Chicago background. There were no greasers in our high schools, just tough kids. By adjusting the script to a more suburban feel, we felt the characters would appeal to a wider audience.

The climactic car race between the T-Birds and the Scorpions was conceived to take place on the high school track surrounding the football field, where Rose Parade-sized "Gladiator" floats were to be parked. As the cars raced around the track, the image was to be a sendup of the chariot race in "Ben-Hur." For budgetary reasons, Paramount's production head talked me into shooting the race in the L.A. River bed near downtown. All that is left of this concept is the knife-like wheels that bad guy Leo grinds into Danny's car.

Before principal photography, my USC directing instructor, Nina Foch, had a dinner party, and I was able to speak with Robert Wise, director of "'West Side Story." I asked for advice in shooting musicals. He asked how much prep time I had. When I told him five weeks, he told me to get out of the assignment right away--it was going to be a disaster. This terrorized me but, luckily, I decided not to quit.

IT'S IN THE STARS

When I directed John Travolta in the 1976 TV movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," he was an actor getting his first lead film role. He then shot "Saturday Night Fever," and when I subsequently worked with him on "Grease" there was a tremendous amount of heat around him. He was no longer struggling but a full-fledged star with a new sense of who he was. It was a big adjustment for me to not think of him as John the actor, but rather John the superstar.

John had played the supporting roles of both Sonny and Doody in stage versions of "Grease." He had just been through some difficult times personally when we began production. We needed to create an atmosphere of fun in rehearsals and on the set to make the shooting easier.

Olivia Newton-John was our first choice to play Sandy, but she was nervous about acting, feeling comfortable with us and whether she could pull it off at all. She requested a screen test; afterward, she would decide if she would do the movie. It was very unusual, because normally producers request the test to determine whether they want to hire someone or not.

Olivia, 29, was concerned about playing a 17-year-old. I told her it was a bigger-than-life musical, that all the actors were going to be about the same age--late 20s into 30s. It would be a style, a kind of surreal high school.

The day of Olivia's test, Travolta was made aware of her fears and helped her relax, taking her under his wing and joking around with her. We used the drive-in scene for the test. Olivia came across naturally and was able to handle the comedy beats, and she looked great. When she saw the test, she agreed to do the picture.

During casting, each actor had to not only read for the part but do a dance audition for Pat Birch to make sure they didn't have two left feet. I was watching carefully for crow's feet around the eyes of the actors. I wanted there to be at least some semblance of youth at Rydell High.

MAKING SOME NOISE

Several of the cast had been in the stage musical. The advantage to this was that they were extremely familiar with their characters and knew exactly what lines and what business got great audience reaction. During rehearsals at Paramount, I encouraged the actors to come up with jokes and bits we could incorporate. Barry Pearl, who had played Doody, was a big Three Stooges fan, as was I. He worked with Kelly Ward and Michael Tucci, two other T-Birds, to come up with running bits based on those routines.

In the afternoons we worked out the musical transitions and numbers on a barren soundstage with our musical director, Louis St. Louis, on the piano, and Cubby O'Brien from the original Mouseketeers on the drums--a real kick for me, having watched him on TV as a kid.

Jack Nicholson was prepping "Goin' South" in an office next to the soundstage. When the musical numbers went on too long, he would yell out his window for us to keep the racket down.

Just before shooting, we invited the studio executives to the stage and ran the numbers like a play. Nicholson and Warren Beatty, who was shooting "Heaven Can Wait," also attended. With the enthusiasm of the cast and dancers, it seemed like an Andy Hardy show.

SMALL BUDGET, BIG ASPECT RATIO

Producer Robert Stigwood was shooting "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at the same time we were in production. All the attention seemed to be on the other film, which had George Burns and the Bee Gees and a much larger budget. We were the low-budget teen musical, left alone to our own devices.

Instead of using regular Hollywood extras, we hired dancers as key background players. Pat Birch worked with 20, giving each a name and backstory. Several had been in the Broadway cast and were excited to be part of the movie. Much of the nonstop energy comes from the improvisations in rehearsals from these players.

Bill Butler, who shot "Jaws," was the cinematographer. The first thing I noticed when I looked through the lens was the oblong shape of the Panavision screen. I was used to the square of television. It felt like a big step up.

DRESSING THE PARTS

Travolta's red windbreaker in the opening scene was based on James Dean's in "Rebel Without a Cause." We also made a blue windbreaker with the same design for the opening dialogue sequence .

Albert Wolsky designed a Fellini-like look for the '50s costumes that helped create the bigger-than-life feel we were attempting.

Whenever she was dressed as the conservative Sandy character, Olivia was treated by the crew like just another actor. The night we were shooting John's solo at the drive-in, she stopped by to show me the hair, makeup and wardrobe for the upcoming end scene where she has been turned into a sex kitten.

When she walked on the set, sewn into her pants, the whole crew began acting like adolescents, with catcalls and whistles. They didn't even recognize it was Olivia at first. Cast member Sean Moran commented that half the dancers fell to their knees in amazement, and the other half wanted the outfit.

When she was in that makeup, she was the center of attention, and if we had to shoot a scene later, where she was back to the original look, she was treated respectfully again.

THE RIGHT TOUCH

When we were shooting the car race in the L.A. River, I was working barefoot. I cut my foot, and it became infected by some bacteria from the water. The next day, I had a fever of 102 and the production came to a stop. I couldn't get up off the bed in my trailer. Before the medic arrived, Travolta entered to try a cure based on Scientology teachings. He sat down beside me and placed his index finger on my arm and said, "Feel my finger?" I replied, "Yes." He moved his finger an inch along my arm and asked the question again. I answered, and this process went on for about an hour.

The next day I had recovered and was back at work.

OH, YES, THE MUSIC

"Summer Nights": It was clear to me that "Summer Nights" could be made cinematic. Danny Zuko and the boys were on the left side of the stage and Sandy and the girls were on the right side, both singing about what happened the previous summer. We developed a plan to intercut the two sides of the story, finding visual ways to connect them. This was one of the numbers that was carefully storyboarded.

At the end of the song, I wanted to see both faces in a split screen as they reached the climax of the song. When we were shooting Travolta's side of the split, which pulled back to a full shot, a lucky accident occurred. It was a cloudy day, and just as he smiled in remembrance of that summer and sang, "Ohhhh," the sun came out and lit up his smiling face as the crane pulled away. It is hard to see this moment on video, but on the big screen it is very effective.

"Sandy": For the drive-in scene, when Olivia's character leaves Travolta, there was a song in the play called "Alone at a Drive-In Movie." None of us felt this would work effectively in the screen version, and Louis St. Louis wrote "Sandy" to replace it. Now the challenge was how to stage it so it was interesting. We didn't want him to just sit in his car and sing.

When I was in high school, I used to go to the Main Line Drive-In in Devon, Pa. (It's now a housing development.) Just below the screen there was a small playground for kids to amuse themselves at dusk waiting for the movie to start. I loved the idea of Travolta sitting on the kids' swing, pining away for his girlfriend.

The popcorn trailers that ran between drive-in features encouraged viewers to visit the refreshment stand with animated countdowns of when the next movie would start. We sent away to a Chicago distributor for about 20 vintage '50s popcorn trailers, but they didn't arrive until the night we were shooting at Burbank's Pickwick Drive-In (now a shopping mall).

Bill Hansard, the industry's top process projectionist, ran the trailers one by one on the drive-in screen as the crew waited. My eye was caught by one that had a hot dog jumping into a bun at the end. I asked Bill if he could sync that action up to the end of the song. The end result looked like it had been carefully planned instead of improvised on the spot.

Thinking back, I guess I should have played more of the ending on Travolta; this was his solo. But I was so excited by the animated hot dog falling into sync that I was swept along and didn't shoot a close-up. One of my regrets.

"Hopelessly Devoted to You": As part of her contract, Olivia had a solo and approval of the song. As we went into production, there was no song and no idea where we would put it. It was not even on the production schedule. John Farrar, who had written for her in the past, came up with "Hopelessly Devoted to You" about halfway through production. I had never heard a demo before, and it was hard for me to imagine the finished product listening to the author singing the song with a guitar. Olivia was convinced it would work.

Time was running out and we had to figure out where to put the song and how to integrate it into the story. We came up with the idea of Sandy wandering around the backyard singing about Danny after the slumber party. A set was quickly built. It was one of the last things shot, almost in one take.

"You're the One That I Want": This duet between John and Olivia was somewhat improvised on the spot by Pat Birch. She had worked out some of the beats, like Sandy stamping out her cigarette and kicking him over, but we needed a place to stage it.

Among the carnival machines rented for the end sequence was a kind of cheesy tunnel-of-love attraction. We took a look inside and decided to shoot on the moving platforms. Pat quickly worked out the choreography while I shot some dialogue with supporting characters. Because of our fast schedule, it was filmed in one wide master shot.

In the dailies, the number had an energetic loose quality, but was a little rough around the edges. We thought, boy, this needs something. A few days later we decided to punch the number up with close-ups. No one had any idea where the set had gone; it was a traveling carnival. To shoot the close-ups the art department mocked up the background on a soundstage.

"We Go Together": Birch choreographed this energetic number to show the connections these characters had made in high school. She had them piling up all over each other to show the need they had to hold on to each other.

Unfortunately, we shot this on an August day in 106-degree heat. George Cukor, the legendary director of "The Philadelphia Story," visited the set that day, and Pat and I offered to show him the climactic dance number.

We placed Cukor in a director's chair at the end of the football field facing the two hundred dancers. The playback started and the principals, dancers and extras performed the three-minute song in the sweltering heat. The cast was panting and sweating. I turned to Cukor and he said, "Good stuff . . . very spirited."

"Grease": The title sequence was precisely animated to the beat of a '50s-sounding original demo called "Grease" written by Bradford Craig.

During post-production, Barry Gibb wrote and recorded his new song, also titled "Grease." When I first heard Barry's demo, I felt the music didn't sound at all '50s and the lyrics seemed inappropriate. I was told to go talk to Barry, who was shooting "Sgt. Pepper" nearby.

When I arrived Barry looked at me suspiciously--I was a first-time director.

"Barry, you haven't seen any of our footage, but we're making a light, sunny musical. For the title song you have written, 'This is a life of illusion / wrapped up in trouble and laced in confusion / what are we doing here?' These lyrics don't really work for our movie. It's not a film noir--it's a happy-go-lucky thing. Do you think you could change them?"

He looked insulted. The assistant director was calling him for a take.

"Why don't you shoot a serious scene so the lyrics will work?"

At first, I thought he was joking, but he wasn't.

We laid Barry's song, sung by Frankie Valli, against the animation, and although the precise animated beats were off, no one noticed. No one noticed the lyrics were off either.

THE UNVEILING

The executives at Paramount weren't sure what they had. They decided to test the picture way out of town in case the reaction was poor. We went to Honolulu with cans marked with a fake title. A local radio station found out, and by the night of the preview there was a line that extended around the block twice.

Diller sat in the front row on the left, where he could watch the audience reaction. Eisner was in the back with other brass.

When the first musical number came up, Travolta began singing and strutting down the football-field bleachers. The audience burst into laughter. My stomach sank. I thought that it was a bad laugh, that they thought it looked ridiculous and we had bombed. As the laughter continued, I realized that it was a good laugh; they were delighted.

When the movie opened, I got a call from the studio telling me what the grosses and per-screen average were for the weekend (an amazing $8.94 million on 862 screens, or an average of $10,373 per screen). In those days there was no "Entertainment Tonight" reporting weekend grosses, and I was a first-time director who never paid much attention to box-office reports. I had no idea what figures were high, low or average.

"Is that good?" I asked. They seemed excited, but I thought they were just being polite.

I could tell the movie wasn't losing money but it wasn't until much later when my first checks came in that I learned they were telling the truth--it was a huge hit, going on to earn $185 million.

REHEATED FOR RE-RELEASE

When the re-release was confirmed, Cecelia Hall, Paramount's vice president of post-production sound, went into the vaults and examined the original 35-millimeter music masters. The adhesive on the film had become a flaking, gooey mess. The music tracks could not be unwound, much less played. Cecelia had heard of a technique to temporarily bind the brown oxide to the clear Mylar film, at least long enough to make a transfer, by heating them.

She took these original music masters to her Tujunga home and baked them in her kitchen oven at 150 degrees for six hours. Miraculously, it worked, and she saved the tracks, allowing the Dolby six-track mix to be done.

HOPELESSLY DEVOTED

For the re-release, I've been in touch with the cast members again, and it feels like a 20-year high-school reunion.

Recently I took Olivia Newton-John and Didi Conn (who played Frenchy) to a midnight showing of the movie. We slipped in the back and were surprised to see the audience dressed in '50s outfits. The crowd sang along with the songs and repeated lines back to the screen, very much how I remember midnight screenings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

After the show, we laid low, waiting for the theater to clear, not knowing if anyone had spotted Olivia and Didi. When we came outside, the audience was waiting, gathered under the marquee. They broke into applause and began singing "We Go Together." Didi and Olivia were moved to tears. They were treated like superstars, photographed and hounded for autographs.

I never expected "Grease" to become a cult favorite, but sitting in that theater, hearing the audience sing and yell out the dialogue along with the actors was invigorating. It gave me the idea, for this re-release, of putting backup singers and hand claps in the surround speakers to encourage audience participation.

Strangely, the appeal of this '50s teen musical seems to reach from little kids right up through their baby boomer parents. Hard to believe, when you consider the number of words and references in it that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

Randal Kleiser is the director of "Grease," "The Blue Lagoon," "White Fang," "Getting It Right" and, most recently, "It's My Party." His 70-millimeter 3-D attraction "Honey I Shrunk the Audience" opens May 22 at Disneyland.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°