An Interview With Legendary Director
Randal Kleiser: Grease, Blue Lagoon and more!
by Lee Sobel (10/18/20)
Randal Kleiser has had the kind of career that people who go to film school dream about but rarely experience. While attending USC film school where he was roommates with George Lucas and a peer of John Milius and John Carpenter, Kleiser directed a short film called Peege in 1973 that led to his directing episodic series and movies for television. One of his TV movies, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), starred John Travolta who was instrumental in getting Kleiser the job of directing his first feature for Paramount -- you know, a little movie called Grease that was only the highest grossing film of 1978 and was the highest grossing musical ever. Peege, by the way, is a terrific film with an amazing cast, including William Schallert, Barbara Rush, and Bruce Davison, that was selected for the National Registry of Congress. Peege is the kind of personal film that pulls the heartstrings in such an effective way that is a true rarity for a film student. The fact that he was already able to work with professional actors at such a high level is proof of how talented he was at such a young age.
After the huge success of Grease, Kleiser directed The Blue Lagoon, a controversial movie starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins that received some tough reviews that attacked the burgeoning onscreen sexuality of the teenage leads. The movie deserves much more acclaim as it is an artistic triumph with an evocative score, dazzling cinematography and a wonderful love
Director Randal Kleiser flanked by the stars of his movie Grease
story that ambitiously depicts the difficulties of growing up completely separated from civilization.
Randal Kleiser's films have a wonderful expression of true love. From Bruce Davison reminding his senile grandmother of the good times they had together when he was a kid and bringing a smile to her face in Peege; John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John's characters changing their image for each other in the ultimate show of true love while belting out "You're The One That I Want" in Grease; Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields eating the poison berries at the end of The Blue Lagoon; the three lovers in Summer Lovers who realize that try as they might to pull away from each other, they just cannot fight what they feel -- these movies deliver emotional impact that transcends them from being throwaway entertainment. At age 74, Randal Kleiser is not only still directing but has been on the cutting edge of the technological revolution
that is shaping the future of the movie industry.
Lee Sobel: You grew up in the Philadelphia area. Do you have any formative memories from your childhood that may have led to your film career?
Randal Kleiser: I went to art school. I loved drawing and painting. I made little 8mm films as I grew up that I showed to my friends and I had my friends in them. I did animation and stop-motion starting when I was ten years old. I was the only person in my high school or in the Philadelphia area at the time that I know of who was doing this kind of stuff. I have great memories of making short films and training myself to make films. Then I sent them to USC film school and I got in.
Lee Sobel: The TV movies you directed in the 70's look like they were shot under almost guerrilla filmmaking conditions.
Randal Kleiser: It didn't feel like limitations because I was a student filmmaker where I had almost no help making my films. The schedules were tight; I was expected to shoot ten pages of script a day. Each TV movie I made was a step up for me.
Lee Sobel: When you got the job directing Grease, did you have any reservations about it at all? For instance, you'd never directed a musical.
Randal Kleiser: I had been on set of about fifteen or twenty musicals as an extra so I knew how they were shot, what the problems were, how to do playback and how to break down a
scene, so that was good training. When I spoke to Robert Wise (director of West Side Story) he told me I needed a year to prepare for it and I only had about two months. I wasn't going to back out of it so I plunged in and I think Grease had a roughness to it. If you look at The Sound of Music or West Side Story, every shot is perfect, whereas Grease was a bit more rough and tumble and I think that actually worked for that movie. If it had been super slick, it might not have been as interesting. There's a lot of adult material in Grease that most parents don't notice. The lyrics of "Greased Lightning" are pretty raunchy. Parents always tell me that their kids are singing it and I always wonder if they're aware of what they're singing.
Lee Sobel: Let's talk about Allan Carr who was one of the last real showmen in Hollywood. You changed his screenplay adaptation while making Grease but in your book Grease: The Director's Notebook you say he didn't even notice it. Did you have any issues with him at all?
Randal Kleiser: He wanted to take credit for everything. The movie came out as "Allan Carr's Grease." I was kind of pushed to the back during the release of the movie. There was a party before the movie started that he invited everyone in Hollywood to except me. He seemed to be always downplaying my contribution to the movie. But he was in the hospital most of the time we were shooting Grease, so we were able to shoot what we wanted and he was happy with the way it was coming out so I didn't really
have a lot of conflicts with him. He either wasn't around or he was taking credit for everything.
Lee Sobel: After the success of Grease, Allan Carr produced the Village People musical, Can't Stop The Music. Are you sorry you didn't direct that one?
Randal Kleiser: (laughs) I wanted to go off and do my own thing and I really appreciated that the success of Grease enabled me to do what I wanted to do instead of working for other people. That way my goal, to be self-sufficient and not be a director for hire.
Lee Sobel: How was Paramount Pictures to deal with during production of the movie?
Randal Kleiser: The studio just wasn't that interested in Grease and
Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins star in Randal Kleiser's
The Blue Lagoon
left us alone to do it. They were busy with other movies that were on a higher level in their minds like Heaven Can Wait and there was a Jack Nicholson movie shooting on the lot as well. We only had a six million dollar budget whereas the other movies cost more.
Lee Sobel: After the huge success of Grease, did you have absolutely no interest in making Grease 2?
Randal Kleiser: I really wanted to make The Blue Lagoon and I was off making that movie so I wasn't even in the running to direct Grease 2. The Blue Lagoon was a movie I wanted to make before Grease, but the success of Grease enabled me to do it.
Lee Sobel: I'm surprised that Paramount let you go after you'd directed the highest grossing movie of 1978.
Randal Kleiser: Paramount was led to believe that Allan Carr did everything on Grease, so they weren't really thinking about me too much. By the way, Chris Atkins who starred in The Blue Lagoon is now a grandfather.
Lee Sobel: The Blue Lagoon is such a beautiful, enchanting movie. The cinematography by Néstor Almendros and the incredible score by Basil Poledouris really stand out for me. It's sad that the movie was attacked for depicting budding adolescent sexuality - it's done so tastefully and naturally; you must have been really disappointed that the movie was not
embraced for its artistry but treated as some kind of sleazy exploitation. Not that that hurt its box-office draw.
Randal Kleiser: I always felt that the book of The Blue Lagoon, which the movie was based on, was a very innocent, natural kind of story. So Douglas Day Stewart and I were trying to adapt the book faithfully while giving it the flavor of a modern approach. I was fascinated by what it would be like for kids if they didn't know anything about growing up and they had to do it by themselves. I'd seen a movie called Glen and Randa (1971) directed by Jim McBride. It's
about two kids that grow up after World War III and I really liked the concept of two kids growing up without any education and learning things by themselves.
Lee Sobel: It must have been nice to shoot The Blue Lagoon and Summer Lovers in far off locations where you could be off the grid.
Randal Kleiser: That's true. When I was making the TV episodic shows or TV movies, people were always telling me how to do things, so it was great to be away from everybody and have more control. I do love themes like freedom and nature and love and going to those locations was a lot of fun. The way that Summer
Lovers came about was that I was doing a press junket for The Blue Lagoon where you meet with one journalist after another and they ask you questions. One of them told me he had just been to the Greek Islands on vacation where he had seen all these young people from all over the world who were swimming on nude beaches like The Blue Lagoon. So I decided to go there right after that to see what it was all about and I saw all the young people out there and I got the idea to write the story. All these people were making love and it was pre-AIDS and that's what I wanted to capture.
Lee Sobel: Did you have any difficulties getting The Blue Lagoon made?
Randal Kleiser: The script was turned down by everybody. Nobody was paying any attention to me because Allan Carr had told
everybody that he made Grease. Finally the first guy to give me a break, Frank Price, who had been at Universal, agreed to make the movie at Columbia Pictures.
Lee Sobel: Grease was rated PG. Both The Blue Lagoon and Summer Lovers were rated R. Did you have any problems with the ratings board? Did you have to make any trims to those movies to get that rating?
Randal Kleiser: I don't recall having to trim anything but when Summer Lovers was broadcast on television it didn't make any sense because they cut out every bit of nudity from the movie. There were shots where naked people were walking in the background that were cut that had very important story points so they just cut out all the nudity that really truncated it and it didn't make sense.
Lee Sobel: The Blue Lagoon is a beautiful movie but it received some very harsh reviews when it came out.
Randal Kleiser: Some reviewers liked it but others attacked it and accused it of being kiddie porn which was a shock but I was very happy with the movie and it did well financially so I made it through the critical reviews. The movie's
cinematography and music are great and locations are wonderful and the kids and the story are great too - the movie was well received in places like South America, Mexico and parts of Europe. The British loved it.
Lee Sobel: You wrote the script for Summer Lovers with Nastassja Kinski in mind for the role of Lina, but when you offered her the part she consulted Paul Schrader and he told her not to do the movie. Did you ever find out why he told her not to make the movie - I think she would have been great in the film.
Randal Kleiser: I think Paul just felt the movie wasn't classy enough for her. It's funny because I now play Words With Friends every day with Paul but we've never talked about that.
Lee Sobel: Summer Lovers is fairly chaste. The movie is about a menage a trois that is never seen - the lovers just wake up in bed together the next morning. If you made that film today, would you do anything differently?
Randal Kleiser: Probably. Back when I made the movie I was emulating French films that I'd seen in film school that had that attitude about sex. Today I would go a lot further because we've gotten more used to it. I could have had more physical contact but I wanted the movie to work for a wider audience.
Lee Sobel: Grandview USA had an incredible cast. How did that project come about?
Randal Kleiser: That was a project that was offered to me and I was very excited to work with Jamie Lee Curtis, Troy Donahue and Patrick Swayze. Also in a small role was John Cusack and his sister Joan Cusack.
Lee Sobel: All of your movies are well cast and the actors are always perfect in your movies so I have to imagine that actors love working with you.
Randal Kleiser: My acting teacher was Nina
Foch and I did a DVD with her (The Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors).
Lee Sobel: You directed the sequel to Honey I Shrunk The Kids.
Randal Kleiser: Yes, I directed Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992) at Disney but that was only because Jeff Katzenberg agreed to give me an adult movie right after but then he left to go to Dreamworks so that never happened.
Lee Sobel: You've made some very personal films as well like It's My Party.
Randal Kleiser: My short film Peege and Portrait of Grandpa Doc (1977) are also autobiographical because they are based on my grandparents. They're kind of companion pieces to each other.
Lee Sobel: There was a sequel to The Blue Lagoon but you didn't direct it.
Randal Kleiser: I did do Return to Blue Lagoon but I was just the executive producer on that. I wasn't happy with it, though, because my concept had been to do the next book in the series that the original writer wrote, but the studio just wanted to remake the first movie.
Lee Sobel: Paul Reubens did the voice of the robot in Flight of the Navigator for you and then hired you to direct Big Top Pee-Wee (1988).
Randal Kleiser: I knew Paul socially and we were friends. He asked me to help him get Big Top Pee-Wee off the ground. I'm sure he would have liked to direct the movie himself but he felt that he needed me to help him get his vision on the screen. One of the weirdest parts was when we had a hippo chasing a pig. The pig was running toward a trainer and the hippo was running away from another trainer. We had to be careful that the hippo didn't catch the pig because the hippo would have killed the pig. We had Michael Jackson's giraffe in the movie and at one point it got loose and started running toward the freeway and we had to send cowboys after it to save it. There was a lot of adventure.
Lee Sobel: Of all the movies you've made which is your favorite?
Randal Kleiser: I really liked Getting It Right (1989) which I shot in England based on my love of all the films about England in the 60s that came out when I was in film school. It had a great cast: Sir John Gielgud, Lynn Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and Jane Horrocks and it was a blast. I originated the project and got it made, developed the screenplay from the novel. It's really exciting to me when I get to do my own thing.
Lee Sobel: I know you have embraced CGI and even Virtual Reality in your recent work.
Randal Kleiser: The most recent thing I directed is Grease XR which I shot on the world's biggest volumetric soundstage with
a hundred cameras and twenty dancers. There's an app that is ready to come out on the iPhone where the dancers will dance right onto your table.
Lee Sobel: I've heard you mention The Ten Commandments made you want to make movies. What are some of your other favorite movies and which ones have really made an impact on you?
Randal Kleiser: Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) was one because of the special effects which still stand up despite that a lot of the FX were done in camera like forced perspective where you build half the set that's real and the other half of the set is miniature. Years later I was able to do things
like that with Honey I Blew Up the Kid on some of the same sound stages that Darby O'Gill was shot on. It was very exciting; I loved doing that.
Lee Sobel: Life After Navigator is your latest project and it's a documentary about Joey Cramer who starred in your 1986 movie Flight of the Navigator - is this your first documentary you produced and do you plan to do more documentaries?
Randal Kleiser: I have another documentary film that I've been working on for many years but it isn't done yet. Joey's story is so fascinating. The reason he robbed a bank was to get into the jail where he could receive help for his drug problem. He didn't have any
money and he desperately needed to get treatment. They wouldn't let him in to help him unless he was a felon so he robbed a bank. The story is that he was basically a good kid but had some horrible things happen to him, including his father telling him to kill himself. So he was on drugs and then he lost his teeth; he just went into a huge tailspin. I think it's a very uplifting story because he's gotten back on his feet now. The documentary shows the ups and downs that he went through and also about the behind-the-scenes of the movie I directed him, Flight of the Navigator. The movie shows that he isn't a bad guy but has turned himself around and rejoined society.
Lee Sobel: Will you ever work with John Travolta again?
Randal Kleiser: Sure, if we ever find the right project. We hung out together in Florida for this singalong and then we went to Cannes and I was with him and his wife Kelly, shortly before she passed away. So I'm sure if the right project came along we would work together.