Randal Kleiser: “I was very proud to capture Nina Foch’s teachings on video for other people to see”

‘Grease is the word.’ That’s what the summer box office of 1978 was basically all about. The film which depicted the screen romance of 1950s high-school sweethearts Danny and Sandy, was released in the U.S. on June 16, 1978, and its double-LP soundtrack included several songs that topped the Billboard charts: Frankie Valli’s title song “Grease” (# 1), “You’re the One that I Want” (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, # 1), “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (Olivia Newton-John, #3), “Summer Nights” (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, # 5), and “Greased Lightnin'” (John Travolta, # 47). The soundtrack album, which hit the top of the Billboard charts in the summer of 1978, sold reportedly over six million copies. Prior to the phenomenal success of musicals such as “La La Land” (2016) or “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), the “Grease” soundtrack to which everyone was hopelessly devoted to, was way out of everyone’s league.

Filmmaker Randal Kleiser (b. 1946) who directed “Grease” and several other box office champions over the years, including “The Blue Lagoon” (1980), “White Fang” (1991) and “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” (1992), came to the Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF) to talk about “Grease,” one of the most successful films ever made. It’s been a long and fascinating journey for Mr. Kleiser, considering Walt Disney was his idol when he was a boy, the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956) was an incredible movie experience that he still remembers vividly, and about a decade later he made a short with his roommate George Lucas. It seems that both were destined to achieve stardom as George Lucas hit the screen with “Star Wars” (1977) and the following year Mr. Kleiser made his first feature, “Grease.”

Mr. Kleiser at Brussels Bozar, introducing a screening of “Grease” at the Brussels International Film Festival. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

Luckily, actress and Academy Award nominee Nina Foch (1924-2008) had crossed their paths at the University of Southern California (USC): she was his key mentor, they became friends and she allowed him to videotape her classes. A couple of years after she passed away, Mr. Kleiser and George Lucas took the initiative to produce the DVD compilation “The Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors.” Click here to check out the Nina Foch Course YouTube channel.

Time to sit down with this very interesting, talented and experienced filmmaker and talk about his craft. The location and the place to be was the lobby of a Brussels hotel.

Mr. Kleiser, about nine years ago we met at the Academy in Los Angeles where they had a tribute to Nina Foch. How important is she to you?

Nina was my teacher and mentor. She taught me everything I know about filmmaking. I did a video of her, and I was very proud to capture her teachings on video for other people to see. It took me many years to convince her to do this project. ‘Nobody wants to know about it,’ she said, but yes, they do. We filmed in 2000 and when we started editing it, she would say, ‘Don’t use that part because I’m being mean to that Asian girl.’ So I knew I had to wait until she was gone to edit it, because I wanted it to be real. Anyhow, the final result is really the way she was and how she thought.

Nina Foch with her two former students Randal Kleiser and George Lucas

When you were a film student at USC in the 1960s with George Lucas, you made the short “Freiheit” [1966]. It seems that the two of you were discovering the art and craft of filmmaking together?

Absolutely. I saw George last week, and we also talked about that short. That was his first time doing any kind of narrative story, he had done a few abstract movies up until then. “Freiheit” was done during the time when the Berlin wall was up, and that’s what it was about, about escaping through the wall and then the character was being shot. He used a combination of slow motion and stills, and he was really pushing the envelope as a student, more than anybody else. He really was ahead of all of us. We had been roommates for a while, and we were both told that we would never make it in the movie business because we didn’t have any relatives or any contacts. You had to know somebody if you wanted to make it in Hollywood, if not, you’d end up doing educational films or industrial movies. We both proved them wrong, but the strange thing is that when I was twenty, George and some friends took me to Disneyland for my birthday, they blindfolded me, put me in a car, drove me to Disneyland and once we got there, we walked around for a whole day – we both loved Disneyland. And then years later, George and I had attractions at Disneyland across from each other, I had “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” (short, 1994) then, so there we were again. It was just sort of surreal.

“Freiheit” (1966), directed by George Lucas, starring Randal Kleiser. It was filmed in the Malibu Canyons.

To most people you will always be the man who made “Grease” [1978], yet early on in your career, with TV movies such as “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” [1976] and especially “The Gathering” [1977], you showed everybody that you’re truly an actor’s director. Is that also the reason why you never made for example any action or violent films?

Did you ever see my USC master’s thesis short “Peege” (1973) with Bruce Davison and Barbara Rush? That really got my career going and because of that, I was hired to do “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” and “The Gathering.” It was a film I wrote about my family, about a visit to my grandmother in a nursing home on Christmas day. She was blind and demented, and she was sitting in this chair, so we brought her a lot of presents and tried to get her to connect. Then the whole family leaves, and my character – the character that I wrote about myself [played by Bruce Davison] – he stays behind to talk to her, he touches her and tries to trigger memories. And when he leaves at the very end of the movie, there’s a big close-up of her and she smiles. So that got my career going, and that was the kind of work I intended to do. Jeanette Nolan was the grandmother. She had played Lady Macbeth with Orson Welles [“Macbeth,” 1948], but when I worked with her, I didn’t know that.

Jeanette Nolan isn’t an exception, because you really know how to cast the right people, don’t you? Like Maureen Stapleton in “The Gathering,” or Joan Blondell in “Grease.”

Joel Thurm was very instrumental, he was my casting director for “The Gathering” and “Grease.” He also produced “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” and many years later we worked again on “It’s My Party” [1996]. He was very good at casting, he was the man who really guided me.

“Grease” with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta on the cover of the February 1978 issue of ‘American Film,’ published by the American Film Institute

Could you have imagined at the time when you made “Grease,” that it would become such a phenomenal success, while even today, forty years later, young people still know most of the songs?

It’s crazy, isn’t it? I only knew it was a big Broadway musical before I got involved. The studio thought it was just a little teen musical. I hoped it was gonna go somewhere, or that it would work for the summertime, but we could never have imagined that so many years later, people would still be talking about it. We took it several years in a row to the Hollywood Bowl where 17,000 people show up in the costumes of the movie, they sing along, they cheer after every musical number. That’s simply extraordinary. But you know, what I learned about how to direct a musical was from being an extra in musicals. When I was in film school, I worked as an extra, and I was in “Fireball 500” [1966], “Camelot” [1967], “Thorough Modern Millie” [1967] , “Hello, Dolly!” [1969] and I was in four Elvis Presley movies. In one of them, “Double Trouble” [1966], I had a little moment with Elvis. In the beginning he was dancing on the stage and I’m dancing with this blonde girl. He then comes down, grabs her, pulls her up on stage, dances with her a little bit, and then she jumps back down with me. So I had this moment with Elvis [laughs]. The director of “Double Trouble” was Norman Taurog who was an instructor at USC, and he knew me from school, so that’s how I got cast. And years later, I was working with John [Travolta] who was channelling all of this. So it all works together in some strange way.

From an extra to a successful filmmaker: this is how it all began. Mr. Kleiser (in blue shirt, far left at the bottom from 00:23) dancing in this sequence from “Double Trouble” (1967) with Elvis Presley singing ‘Baby If You Give Me All Your Love’

Were there any other instructors at USC that you remember?

Sure, I also studied with Jerry Lewis. Nina and Jerry were the two that I learned the most from. When we first heard that Jerry Lewis was going to be an instructor, we thought, ‘Oh well, he’ll be telling jokes and all that.’ So we were very curious, what would it be like? But it turned out that he was extremely smart about every element of filmmaking. He knew all about camera lenses, sound, visual effects… As an actor, he asked questions to everybody and that’s how he learned everything and became a director, that’s how he learned how to spread a camera, the video feed of the camera – that was his idea. Years later, I interviewed him for the Directors Guild Visual History and I went to Las Vegas, did an interview of about four hours and got all kind of great stuff [click here for a September 2012 interview of Mr. Kleiser with Jerry Lewis at the Samuel Goldwyn theater in LA].

How did you and choreographer Patricia Birch collaborate on the set of “Grease”?

When we rehearsed, I would rehearse the actors, and she would rehearse the dancers, and in the middle of the day, we would rehearse the transitions. They are so important in a musical, because a musical number has to come out of the dialogue and ease into it. It was very important to get that right. So we had to make sure the music came out of the story. Pat Birch also had twenty dancers that we kept through the whole movie, she gave them each a name and a back story and they came up with brutal ideas of their own. If you watch the movie and look at the people in the back, they are always there doing something specific. That’s the difference with extras: they always walk back and forth and they have no purpose.

Olivia Newton-John, Randal Kleiser and John Travolta on the set of “Grease.” Photograph: Paramount Pictures

A number of years ago I met Daniel Selznick, the son of producer David O. Selznick, and he said, ‘My father always knew what his obituary would be like: David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, dies at age so and so.’ It didn’t matter that he also made films as “Since You Went Away” [1944] or “Duel in the Sun” [1946], people would only remember him as the man who made “Gone With the Wind.” So considering the success you had with “Grease”…

… I know what mine will be like [laughs]. But that’s okay, I’m used to it after all these years. It often goes that way. It’s like Orson Welles’ first feature “Citizen Kane” [1941], right?

On your website, I noticed that you’re also available for speaking engagements, master classes and seminars. What are the topics that you like to discuss with your audience and film students?

I always channel Nina and try to get her across, using clips from the video I did with her, and I always say what she taught me and several directors. An example would be Ron Underwood who studied with her. Nina always said that on the first day of a movie, the leading man will challenge the director in some way, and Ron tells a story of Jack Palance on the set of “City Slickers” [1991], how he gave him a hard time and how Ron handled it because of what Nina told him. It’s a wonderful story, and that’s an example of her teachings, so in the class I end up doing things like that. Sometimes I bring people up on stage and just do very primitive kind of directing to show them how you have an action and an obstacle, and how you get through it, and I like to show how a director works with actors and non-actors to achieve something. Another thing I talk about is virtual reality, because I’ve been working on a science fiction project “Defrost” starring Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin, Carl Weathers, Veronica Cartwright and Christopher Atkins. We just finished twelve five-minute episodes. It’s about a woman who’s been frozen for thirty years, comes back to life and meets her aged family. I feel like I’m back in film school because it’s all new and fresh, it’s experimental, figuring out the rules, things like that.

Brussels International Film Festival, Brussels
June 22, 2018

FILMS

FIREBALL 500 (1966) DIR William Ashner PROD Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson SCR William Ashner, Leo Townsend CAM Floyd Crosby ED Eve Newman, Fred R. Feitshans Jr. MUS Les Baxter CAST Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Fabian, Chill Wills, Harvey Lembeck, Julie Parrish, Douglas Henderson, Randal Kleiser

CAMELOT (1967) DIR Joshua Logan PROD Jack L. Warner SCR Alan Jay Lerner (play by Alan Jay Lerner; novel by T.H. White) CAM Richard H. Kline ED Folmar Blangsted MUS Frederick Loewe CAST Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, David Hemmings, Lionel Jeffries, Laurence Naismith, Estelle Winwood, Randal Kleiser

THOROUGH MODERN MILLIE (1967) DIR George Roy Hill PROD Ross Hunter SCR Richard Morris CAM Russell Metty ED Stuart Gilmore MUS Elmer Bernstein CAST Julie Andrews, James Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, John Gavin, Jack Soo, Pat Morita, Philip Ahn, Beatrice Lillie, Mae Clarke, Randal Kleiser

DOUBLE TROUBLE (1967) DIR Norman Taurog PROD Irwin Winkler, Judd Bernard SCR Jo Heims (story by Marc Brandel) CAM Daniel L. Fapp ED John McSweeney Jr. MUS Jeff Alexander CAST Elvis Presley, Annette Day, John Williams, Yvonne Romain, The Weire Brothers, Chips Rafferty, Norman Rossington, Randal Kleiser

HELLO, DOLLY! (1969) DIR Gene Kelly PROD Ernest Lehman SCR Ernest Lehman (play by Johann Nestroy; based on ‘The Matchmaker’ by Thornton Wilde; book by Michael Stewart) CAM Harry Stradling Sr. ED William Reynolds MUS Lennie Hayton, Lionel Newman CAST Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Michael Crawford, Marianne McAndrew, Danny Lockin, E.J. Peaker, Joyce Ames, Tommy Tune, Louis Armstrong, Rutanya Alda, Scatman Crothers, Randal Kleiser

GLI ESECUTORI, a.k.a. STREET PEOPLE (1976) DIR Maurizio Lucidi, Guglielmo Garroni PROD Manolo Bolognini, Luigi Borghese SCR Randal Kleiser, Maurizio Lucidi, Roberto Leoni, Franco Bucceri, Nicola Badalucco (story by Maurizio Lucidi, Roberto Leoni, Franco Bucceri) CAM Aiace Parolin ED Renzo Lucidi MUS Luis Bacalov CAST Roger Moore, Stacy Keach, Ivo Garrani, Fausto Tozzi, Ennio Balbo, Loretta Persichetti, Pietro Martellanza, Luigi Casellato

GREASE (1978) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Robert Stigwood, Allan Carr SCR Bronte Woodward (adaptation by Allan Carr; original musical by Jim Jacobs, Warren Casey) CAM Bill Butler ED John F. Burnett CAST John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, Kelly Ward, Didi Cohn, Dinah Manoff, Eve Arden, Frankie Avalon, Joan Blondell, Sid Caesar, Lorenzo Lamas, Ellen Travolta, Andy Tennant

THE BLUE LAGOON (1980) DIR – PROD Randal Kleiser SCR Douglas Day Stewart (novel by Henry De Vere Stacpoole) CAM Néstor Almendros ED Robert Gordon MUS Basil Poledouris CAST Brooke Shields, Christopher Atkins, Leo McKern, William Daniels, Elva Josephson, Glenn Kohan, Alan Hopgood

RICH AND FAMOUS (1981) DIR George Cukor PROD William Allyn [Jacqueline Bisset, uncredited] SCR Gerald Ayres (play ‘Old Acquantance’ [1940] by John Van Druten; screenplay OLD ACQUAINTANCE [1943] by John Van Druten, Lenore Coffee) CAST Jacueline Bisset, Candice Bergen, David Selby, Hart Bochner, Steven Hill, Meg Ryan, Matt Lattanzi, Daniel Faraldo, Fay Kanin, Christopher Isherwood, Paul Morrissey, Roger Vadim, Nina Foch, Gavin Lambert, Randal Kleiser

SUMMER LOVERS (1982) DIR – SCR Randal Kleiser PROD Mike Moder CAM Timothy Galfas ED Robert Gordon MUS Basil Poledouris CAST Peter Gallagher, Daryl Hannah, Valérie Quennessen, Barbara Rush, Carole Cook, Hans van Tongeren, Lydia Lenosi, Vladimiros Kiriakidis

GRANDVIEW, U.S.A. (1984) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Peter W. Rea SCR Ken Hixon CAM Reynaldo Villalobos ED Robert Gordon MUS Thomas Newman CAST Jamie Lee Curtis, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Troy Donahue, Jennifer Jason Leigh, William Windom, Carole Cook, M. Emmet Walsh, Ramon Bieri, John Cusack, Joan Cusack

FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR (1986) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Dimitri Villard, Robert Wald SCR Michael Burton, Matt MacManus (story by Mark H. Baker) CAM James Glennon ED Jeff Gourson MUS Alan Silvestri CAST Joey Cramer, Paul Reubens, Cliff De Young, Veronica Cartwright, Sarah Jessica Parker, Howard Hesseman

NORTH SHORE (1987) DIR William Phelps PROD Bill Finnegan EXEC PROD Randal Kleiser SCR William Phelps, Tim McCanlies (story by Randal Kleiser, William Phelps) CAM Peter Smokler ED Robert Gordon MUS Richard Stone CAST Matt Adler, Nia Peeples, Gregory Harrison, John Philbin, Gerry Lopez, Laird John Hamilton, Cristina Raines

BIG TOP PEE-WEE (1988) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Paul Reubens, Debra Hill SCR Paul Reubens, George McGrath CAM Steven Poster ED Jeff Gourson MUS Danny Elfman CAST Paul Reubens, Penelope Ann Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Susan Tyrrell, Valerie Golino, Frances Bay, Leo Gordon, Anne Seymour, Kenneth Tobey, Benicio Del Toro, Randal Kleiser

GETTING IT RIGHT (1989) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Randal Kleiser, Jonathan D. Krane SCR Elizabeth Jane Howard CAM Clive Tickner ED Chris Kelly MUS Colin Towns CAST Jesse Birdsall, Helena Bonham Carter, Jane Horrocks, Pet Heywood, Bryan Pringle, Lynn Redgrave, John Gielgud, Shirley Anne Field

WHITE FANG (1991) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Marykay Powell SCR Jeanne Rosenberg, Nick Thiel, David Fallon (novel by Jack London) CAM Tony Pierce-Roberts ED Lisa Day MUS Basil Poledouris CAST Ethan Hawke, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Seymour Cassel, Susan Hogan, James Remar, Bill Moseley, Clint Youngreen

RETURN TO THE BLUE LAGOON (1991) DIR – PROD William A. Graham EXEC PROD Randal Kleiser SCR Leslie Stevens (novel by Henry De Vere Stacpoole) CAM Robert Steadman ED Ronald J. Fagan MUS Basil Poledouris CAST Milla Jovovich, Brian Krause, Lisa Pelikan, Courtney Barilla, Garette Ratliff Henson, Emma James, Jackson Barton

HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID (1992) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Dawn Steel, Edward S. Feldman SCR Garry Goodrow, Peter Elbling, Thom Eberhardt (story by Garry Goodrow; characters created by Stuart Gordon, Ed Naha, Brian Yuzna) CAM John Hora ED Michael A. Stevenson, Harry Hitner MUS Bruce Broughton CAST Rick Moranis, Marcia Strassman, Robert Oliveri, Daniel Shalikar, Joshua Shalikar, Lloyd Bridges, John Shea, Keri Russell

IT’S MY PARTY (1996) DIR – SCR Randal Kleiser PROD Randal Kleiser, Joel Thurm CAM Bernd Heinl ED Ila von Hasperg MUS Basel Poledouris CAST Eric Roberts, Gregory Harrison, Margaret Cho, Lee Grant, Roddy McDowall, Marlee Matlin, Olivia Newton-John, George Segal, Christopher Atkins, Dennis Christopher, Sally Kellerman, Nina Foch

CANNES MAN (1997) DIR – MUS Richard Martini PROD Tom Coleman, Holly MacConkey SCR Richard Martini, Deric Haddad, Susan Shapiro, Irwin M. Rappaport CAM Dean Lent, Denise Brassard ED Richard Currie CAST Seymour Cassel, Treat Williams, Randal Kleiser, Robert Evans, James Brolin, John Malkovich, Julian Lennon, Jim Jarmusch, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper, Johnny Depp, Menahem Golan, Peter Gallagher, Jim Sheridan, Richard Martini

SHADOW OF DOUBT (1998) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Adam Kline, T.J. Mancini SCR Myra Byanka, Raymond De Felitta CAM Craig Haagensen ED Jeff Gourson MUS Joel Goldsmith CAST Melanie Griffith, Tom Berenger, Craig Sheffer, Huey Lewis, Wade Dominguez, James Morrison, Lisa Pelikan, Nina Foch, Tony Plana, Victor Love

LOVE WRECKED (2005) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Joe Anderson, Robert Velo, Wendy Thorlakson, Stewart Hall, Sammy Lee SCR Stephen Langford CAM Gary Capo MUS Stewart Copeland CAST Amanda Bynes, Chris Carmack, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Jonathan Bennett, Susan Duerden, Fred Willard, Jackie Long, Joey Kern, Lance Bass

RED RIDING HOOD (2006) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Steve Austin, Jonathan Bogner SCR Timothy Dolan (story by Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm) CAM David Stump ED Harry Hitner MUS Bruce Roberts, David Tobocman (song ‘Lil’ Red Riding Hood’ arranged by Randal Kleiser) CAST Lainie Kazan, Henry Cavill, Morgan Thompson, Daniel Roebuck, Debi Mazar, Joey Fatone

TV MOVIES

ALL TOGETHER NOW (1975) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Ron Bernstein TELEPLAY Rubin Carson, Jeff Andrus (story by Rubin Carson) CAM Gene Polito ED Larry Robinson, Bob Wyman MUS John Rubinstein CAST John Rubinstein, Glynnis O’Connor, Brad Savage, Helen Hunt, Dori Brenner, Bill Macy, Jane Withers, Larry Bishop, Adam Arkin

DAWN: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE RUNAWAY (1976) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Douglas S. Cramer TELEPLAY Dalene Young CAM Jacques R. Marquette ED Carroll Sax MUS Fred Karlin CAST Eve Plumb, Leigh McCloskey, Lynn Carlin, William Schallert, Anne Seymour, Joan Prather, Marguerite DeLain, Bo Hopkins, Anne Ramsey

THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE (1976) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Joel Thurm, Cindy Dunne TELEPLAY Douglas Day Stewart (story by Douglas Day Stewart, Joe Morenstern) CAM Archie R. Dalzell ED John McSweeney, Jr. MUS Mark Snow CAST John Travolta, Glynnis O’Connor, Robert Reed, Diana Hyland, Karen Morrow, Buzz Aldrin, Ralph Bellamy, Anne Ramsey

THE GATHERING (1977) DIR Randal Kleiser PROD Harry R. Sherman SCR James Poe CAM Dennis Dalzell ED Allan Jacobs MUS John Barry CAST Edward Asner, Maureen Stapleton, Rebecca Balding, Sarah Cunningham, Bruce Davison, Veronica Hamel, Gregory Harrison, James Karen

ROYAL STANDARD (1999) DIR Randal Kleiser, Rob Metzer, Alex Eastburg PROD Adam Hauck, Anthony Miller SCR Alex Eastburg, Greg Capano, Adam Hauck CAM Clay Westervelt, Cort Fey CAST Scott Cleverdon, Louisette Geiss, Vernard ‘Bone’ Hampton, Ed Marques, Corey Page

DEFROST: THE VIRTUAL SERIES (2016) DIR – SCR Randal Kleiser PROD Randal Kleiser, Tanna Frederick CAM Christopher C. Pearson ED Kevin Joseph Barrett, Alicia Cota, Matt LaCorte MUS Greg O’Connor CAST Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin, Tanna Frederick, Carl Weathers, Veronica Cartwright, Ethan Rains, Christopher Atkins