Director John Badham chimes in on the 25th Anniversary Edition of the 80s classic and much more
John Badham has quite the impressive filmography. After bursting onto the scene with directing John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever, he became a go-to guy in Hollywood, with a string of hits in the 80s, one of which was the ahead-of-its-time Wargames, which is being revisited for the 25th Anniversary on DVD on July 29. I recently had the chance to speak with Badham over the phone, and here's how this interesting conversation went.
First of all, were you ever approached to direct the sequel, WarGames: The Dead Code, when they were in development with that?
John Badham: No, I wasn't. The first I knew of it was, a few months ago, my daughter, who's a publicist, called and said, 'Dad, you know they're doing this sequel?' I said, 'No, I didn't know that.' I worked with Leonard Goldberg, who's the original producer, on a script about 10 years ago. We produced a couple of scripts and we just didn't like anything we got. We just kept feeling like the ideas we were working on, the time had passed for them. It felt out of date and, by that point, everybody had been doing kids with computer hackers and stuff like that. Nothing really worked, so we walked away from it, but obviously they've come up with something cool, I hope. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I guess you'll know if it's cool or not.
So you haven't seen the sequel yet?
John Badham: No, I haven't seen a thing. I'll have to see it the same way you see it, a DVD store or whatever.
How did you become involved in the original film? How did that process all work out?
John Badham: You probably know that I actually replaced the original director (Martin Brest). He had done, I would say, a brilliant job preparing the movie. There was so much good research in there and all of those things as to what might go on at NORAD with all the different Wargames and scenarios they had planned, all that research and the technology of putting that stuff on film. Nowadays, we'd look at that and say, 'Oh, that's just computer shit.' But every single screen in that war room had individual film made for it, so there were literally 10 35mm projectors going at once, with 10 individual scenarios running on them. Each one of those had to be hand-done in optical printers. Took forever to do that. I'm talking months and months and months. The research and the preperation was just exquisite. In many ways, the producers and Marty, I guess had a lot of squabbles and then I guess they weren't happy with what they were seeing the first couple of weeks. I guess he had a much darker vision of the movie than they did. They can see it getting real dark and David Lightman (the main character, portrayed by Matthew Broderick) seemed to be this angry, rebelious kid and they couldn't put their finger on it, but they knew something wasn't the way they liked it and, as I say, I think the world of Marty Brest and I think that his version of it would've been really interesting. When I came in and read the script, I loved the script and I have a tendency to see things as funny. I thought, 'This is so much fun. This kid getting caught in here, over his head, and yet he's not really in trouble, it's funny.' It's not like he's being eaten by a shark. He thinks he's in trouble with the world ending and it's just computers kind of botched up. The first film they showed me was Matthew showing Ally Sheedy how he could change his grades on the school computer, how to change her grades. They were so serious about it and I watched it and I couldn't figure out what was bothering me and I realized they're not having any fun. If I were a kid and I could do that, if I could change my grades with a computer, I would be peeing in my pants with excitement to show it to a girl.
Yeah. That sparked a lot of curiosity when I was a kid and first watched it. We all went, 'Wow. You can actually do that?'
John Badham: Yeah. I mean, forget impressing the girl, just do it for yourself (Laughs). So I said they need to be having fun. She needs to be scared to death like when you're on a rollercoaster ride. When I took over the film, that was the first scene I re-shot. I just went and re-did the whole thing. I was just trying to get the two actors loosened up because they were so scared they thought they were going to be fired. They figured Marty Brest was gone, well we're next. I'm a pretty low-key guy and pretty easy to get along with, but they were stiff as a board. We did five takes, eight takes, ten takes, 12. I didn't want to print anything because it wasn't good enough for the executives to see the next day. They didn't want to see a 10% improvement, they wanted to see a 100% improvement. So I said, 'OK. We're going to take a break. We're going to run around the block.' These kids are 20 years younger than me at the time and I said, 'We're running around the soundstange and the last one in here has to sing a song in front of the crew. Lets go!' So, of course, I'm the last one back in and I picked the dumbest song I could think of called "The Happy Wanderer," about a guy yodeling in the mountains. I sang that in front of the crew and they all just laughed and laughed. So we did a take and they had all loosened up and got in a good spirit and they started having fun with it. The next day the executives came to the stage, which they never do, just beaming and going, 'Oh, great! This is what we wanted.'
The original was only Matthew Broderick's second film. Could you see early on that he'd be someone to watch down the road?
John Badham: Oh. (He was) confident like you've never seen confident. He'd been doing it all his life and Ally was still green and needed a lot of hand-holding and, God bless her, she had the talent but she just didn't have the experience. That's all right. We just worked with her and helped her get comfortable and relaxed and she did great.
This film obviously paved the way for films like Hackers or Enemy of the State.
John Badham: Oh, of course. At the time, this picture was at Universal and it was put in turnaround at Universal because they didn't believe that anybody was the least bit interested in computers. They didn't understand it. They said, 'It's a kids movie. Who's gonna want to see a kids movie?' Well, what's the thinking nowadays. If it's not a kids movie, we're not making it.
Yeah. It's the total opposite mentality now.
John Badham: Exactly. Complete opposite. Those are the people who want to get out of the house and see a movie and all the old farts just want to sit at home. Nowadays, those are the people you have to appeal to and you hope the adults tag along.
So with the 25th Anniversary Edition on DVD, are you hoping that this will show everyone that this is what set the bar back in the earlier days?
John Badham: Yeah, yeah. This reminds people of everything and what it used to be and hopefully they'll want to see the new DVD. I'd like to see it. I don't have a clue what they're doing. It'll be my big surprise.
Were you involved with the 25th Anniversary? I thought I saw some commentaries on there.
John Badham: Yeah, I did some comentaries with Walter Parkes and Larry Lasker, the authors, and we had great fun doing it because there are so many good memories and silly memories too.
I also saw you've directed two of my favorite TV shows that are on right now, Heroes and The Shield. Any plans on directing for those? I know The Shield is done this year though.
John Badham: Right, right. Well, we'll see. I'm going off to do The Beast in Chicago with Patrick Swayze next week. I hope I'll do another Heroes. They wanted me to come there a few weeks ago, but I was up in Vancouver doing Psych. I've got a Psych coming on, I think it's this Friday night, about an Evel Knevel-type guy.
Yeah, we just got back from Comic-Con and they showed us the Season 3 premiere of Heroes and it looks just amazing.
John Badham: Oh, great. I know it is. It's just got to be fabulous.
Can you tell us a little more about The Beast?
John Badham: That's a new series with Patrick Swayze and thank God he's well enough to be able to do it.
Finally, Wargames was so ahead of its time when it came out in the 80s and it's actually more relevant today than it ever was. Did you have a feeling when you were making it that it would stay so current for so long?
John Badham: Well, my feeling is that if you've got a story where the characters are appealing and strong, it'll last a long time. If you don't have the foundation of the characters then it tends to go away in your minds, you don't care about it. Think about a lot of the action movies where it's dazzling, but you don't care about the characters, but with Iron Man, you kind of get involved. It's nicely done, so you say, 'Oh, I'd like to see that again. That was kind of fun.'
Well, that's about all I have for you, John. Thank you so much for your time today.
John Badham: Well, thank you. Good to talk to you.
You can pick up both the 25th Anniversary Edition of Badham's original Wargames and the direct-to-DVD sequel, WarGames: The Dead Code on July 29.