Randal Kleiser, born in 1946 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been an internationally known film director since the release of his first feature, Grease (1978), the most successful movie musical ever made. Other credits include The Blue Lagoon, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Summer Lovers, Flight of the Navigator, White Fang, North Shore, Getting It Right, Lovewrecked and It’s My Party. He attended the University of Southern California, where as a freshman he appeared in George Lucas’s first student film „Freiheit,“ (1966); his own award-winning thesis Master’s Thesis film there, „Peege“, not only launched his film making career, but was selected by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Registry in 2007. Kleiser graduated from USC in 1968, after studying under a key mentor, Nina Foch, whose teachings have been influential in his own Master Workshops throughout Europe; he has gone back to his Los Angeles alma mater to teach a graduate course there. A cinematic visionary, Randal Kleiser has been crucial in the development of many innovative digital technologies throughout his extensive directing, screenwriting, and teaching career: These include the first digital morphing in „Flight of The Navigator“ (1986), as well as working in 70mm 3D for the Disney Studio’s theme park project „Honey I Shrunk The Audience“ which upon followed the success of his 1992 film, „Honey I Blew Up The Kid“. Randal Kleiser is the extraordinary ‚master class‘ invitee of the Basler Gassli Film Festival this year, following in the illustrious footsteps of celebrated Robert Crumb, director Terry Zwigoff and the dean of UCLA cinema studies, Howard Suber. Xecutives.net founder and chief interviewer Christian Dueblin caught up with Randal Kleiser before the Festival to ask him a few questions about his own film career, advice he could give to student film makers, and the current Hollywood Zeitgeist.
Xecutives.net: Dear Mr. Kleiser, you’ve just accepted an invitation to be a special guest at the Basler Gässli Film Festival, an event organized by Swiss filmmaker Giacun Caduff, which gives younger filmmakers the extraordinary opportunity to profit from the advice and shared knowledge of film professionals with a broad experience in the film industry. What is it that younger film makers generally want to get from talking with you?
Randal Kleiser: Most young filmmakers want to know how to get started. I always tell them that this is the easiest time to get discovered if you have talent. Just make videos with your cell phone and post them on the Internet. Be daring, be inventive, reveal something about yourself. I recently met a young student from Chapman University in California named Sam Wickert. He has been making short videos all his life and posting them on YouTube where they have had over 30 million views.
Xecutives.net: How do you feel you can help and support them?
Randal Kleiser: Everything I know about directing I learned from my teacher and mentor, actress Nina Foch. Nina taught for 40 years at USC’s film school and was the most popular professor. She appeared in films like The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, American in Paris and Executive Suite. Before she died, George Lucas funded a four hour video of her course. I encourage all filmmakers and actors to check it out as one of the best instructional records of acting and directing. I will be doing a live workshop using her teachings at the Gässli Film Festival. A preview can be found at www.ninafochproject.com.
Xecutives.net: „Film business is a business like producing chocolates.“ The celebrated cinema scholar and UCLA film studies professor Howard Suber offered this great insight into Hollywood film business in his interview with me. Terry Zwigoff also said that Hollywood film business has become about „selling a product“ and „it‘s all about profit“. What is it in your opinion that has changed in the film industry since you’ve started to work as a director and producer of highly successful films like „Grease“ or „The Blue Lagoon“?
Randal Kleiser: There are no longer filmmakers running the studios. Corporations have taken over, and the studio heads must report to stockholders. That’s why there are so many sequels and movies based on TV shows or comic books. No one wants to take a chance and lose their job. Back when we made The Blue Lagoon, every studio had turned it down. They said no one will go see a movie with only two people in it. Finally, Frank Price at Columbia gave it a green light. He believed in me, because years earlier he had seen my USC Master’s Thesis Peege. He took a chance on me, and the film was a big hit. Peege is now in the US National Archives in Washington D.C. as an example of American culture. We will be screening it at the Festival.
Xecutives.net: It seems that the film business, along with its products, are a mirror of our society. It has become almost exclusively, with some exceptions, entertainment, and it is produced mainly because it seems that what most people truly want to do is escape. That’s my impression as a film fan. But behind the scenes there are always counter movements. What is it you recognize dealing with the film business in Hollywood?
Randal Kleiser: The public always wants something new and exciting. Three years ago my brother, who is a visual effects supervisor, showed me the Oculus Rift. I was thrilled with the possibility of putting the viewer into the movie. I wanted to make an experience where the viewer had eye contact with the actors and felt they were there and relating to them. That is what became our VR project Defrost. We have found that many people who watch it not only become very involved, but often talk back to the characters and in some cases are moved to tears. (Defrost will also show at the Festival). This new medium is in its infancy and there are many exciting breakthroughs on the horizon. The problem right now is that VR has not yet been monetized. The film business will wait and see how much money comes in before they jump fully into this world.
Xecutives.net: It’s not long ago that Hollywood was very much influenced also by European artists, directors and musicians who contributed a lot to Hollywood’s success. I’m thinking of German artists like Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, or musicians such as Friedrich Holländer, great and very gifted personalities. Seeing the change of Hollywood, what do you think remains of those great artists‘ work?
Randal Kleiser: I was on the Sony lot last week (formerly MGM Studios) and I noticed a mural that covered an entire building dedicated to Peter Lorre. I thought to myself, if Peter were alive he would be amazed that of all the actors who ever lived, he was chosen to adorn a building on a Hollywood lot. Marlene Dietrich was classic. She appeared with Orson Welles in one of my favorite films, Touch of Evil.
Xecutives.net: Your 1977 film, „Grease“ went on to become the most famous musical ever. It was a huge financial success. How do you explain this blockbuster success and the movie’s legendary status?
Randal Kleiser: Grease was the perfect storm when the right casting met an established Broadway hit. The new music that we added helped a lot, too. Many of the new songs became hits on the radio the summer the movie came out. I’m often amazed that it continues to entertain people of all ages and cultures all over the world. Some of the reasons it has worked is the simple story with characters we can all relate to, the universal drive for love and acceptance, snappy music, and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
Xecutives.net: „Grease“ starred John Travolta in the role of Danny Zuko. Travolta was 23 years old back then, and already tasting early renown because of his tour de force role in „Saturday Night Fever“. But back then, nobody could have predicted that this young actor and dancer would become a veritable superstar. You had already worked together with John Travolta in „The Boy in the Plastic Bubble“, 1976. How do you remember your film work together with him, and what was your approach back then to directing musical scenes and dance choreography?
Randal Kleiser: John had never had the lead in a movie before The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. He had been part of an ensemble in a TV comedy, but this was his first time as the star. We got along very well, the movie got a lot of attention and when John was hired to star in Grease, he suggested me as the director. We trusted each other, and had the kind of shorthand that happens when you’ve already worked together. I had never directed a musical before, but when I was a student at USC Film School I worked as an extra on many musicals and got to watch how the directors broke down the numbers and filmed them. My education was on the sets of movies like Camelot, Hello Dolly, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. But the best preparation for directing Grease was being in the background of three Elvis Presley musicals. John based a lot of Danny Zuko on Elvis.
Xecutives.net: You’ve done other great films such as „The Blue Lagoon“ and „White Fang“, but also „Summer Lovers“ with Daryl Hannah. All of those movies are different for the audience. What holds those movies together? Is there something in your opinion that influences all your work, or is it as it is in life. often just random and doing whatever you like to do in life?
Randal Kleiser: The theme that runs through all of my movies is how time changes relationships. In The Blue Lagoon the two children grow up not knowing anything about being adults, in Flight of the Navigator the boy experiences a jump in time where everything has changed, in Summer Lovers a summer vacation changes a couple’s dynamic, in Defrost a woman emerges from a cryogenic state to find her family grown and different.
Xecutives.net: You also have been responsible, just as your friend and former housemate George Lucas, for some of the most remarkable technical innovations in cinematic history, such as the first digital morphing in the celebrated science fiction adventure film „The Flight of The Navigator“ (1986) as well as being a pioneer working in 3D 70MM in the film you created for the Disney theme parks in 1995, „Honey I Shrank The Audience,“ which played for over a decade in Anaheim, Paris, Tokyo and Orlando. Have you always had a penchant for pushing the art of film through technological innovation to new levels?
Randal Kleiser: My interest in cutting edge technology comes both from George and also my brother Jeff Kleiser, who was a pioneer in computer graphics. He worked on the original Tron for Disney and went on to do X-Men, the Spiderman ride in Orlando, and many other films and theme park attractions. He introduced me to reflectance mapping, digital makeup and virtual reality.
Xecutives.net: Also worth mentioning is the Vistarama HD process that you co-created with the Graphics Lab at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Can you explain how this digital filming and projection process has advanced us beyond similar expansive formats such as Cinerama and IMAX?
Randal Kleiser: Digital technology keeps getting better and better. The resolution is expanding to where we will come to a point, especially in virtual reality, you won’t be able to tell the difference between what is real and what is simulated. My film buff/nerd side has invented a name for the process of the future: SuperTechnaSpectabularamaDimensionScope360.
Xecutives.net: You’ll visit Basel and Switzerland. What is your connection to Switzerland but also to Europe? I understand that you have taught Master Directing Classes for European students at film festivals in Deauville, Sarlat, and Malaga, as well as at the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation in Athens. Do you find it just as challenging to work with young European film makers as with their American counterparts?
Randal Kleiser: I loved attending the World VR Forum in Crans Montana a few months ago. The Swiss Alps are one of the most spectacular places on Earth, and I’ve skied in several locations in the past. As far as teaching, I find students all over the world speak the same basic language of film. Their approach can be quite different, but I usually end up learning a lot from each group of students I meet. This young generation grew up with digital technology and have mastered it in an amazing way. I find I can pass on what I’ve learned about actors and directing, and they fill me in on all the newest techniques for telling the story.
Xecutives.net: Dear Mr Kleiser, thank you very much for giving your time for this interview. I wish you much success for your film projects and a nice stay in Switzerland!
(C) 2016 by Christian Dueblin. All rights reserved. Other publications require the author’s explicit consent.