Randal Kleiser on VR and “Defrost”: “In terms of the perception of the viewer, you are inside the movie instead of watching it”

On August 20, 1911, The New York Times published a story titled ‘Is the moving picture to be the play of the future?’ Now in 2018, after more than a century and several revolutions in the cinematic landscape (from silent to sound, from black-and-white to color, 3-D, Dolby, CGI, etc.), maybe the time has come to ask ourselves, ‘Is VR to be the moving picture of the future?’

Why? Simply because renowned filmmaker Randal Kleiser (b. 1946), who was celebrated this year for the 40th anniversary of his smash box office hit “Grease” starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, has been working during the past few years on a highly interesting virtual reality series called “Defrost.” Although often associated strictly with interactive computer-generated experiences and star-studded animation, Mr. Kleiser is taking VR to another, and frankly much higher level, with his latest achievement.

The project was first introduced at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (one episode), as Variety reported on January 21, 2016, and Mr. Kleiser also took it to the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (Marché du Film, six episodes). Only a few days ago, he was invited to Brussels talk about “Defrost” during a conference at the newly restored Palace cinema.

Mr. Kleiser: “My brother Jeffrey is a visual effects supervisor who worked on movies like “X-Men” [2000] and “RoboCop” [2014], and he had also worked with me on “Flight of the Navigator” [1986]. He was responsible for this space ship in the movie, using a technique that was later on also used by James Cameron in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” [1991]. In 2015 my brother showed me an Oculus Rift [a VR head set], I got to try it, and what I saw… it was as if I was walking around the streets of this Tuscan village, I felt I was really there. It was the most extraordinary thing I had ever experienced, I was surrounded by it and it felt real. I thought, how would this work with actors? Although there are certain restrictions, I tried to find a way how it could be done and how you could tell a VR story with actors.”

Then he thought of this script that he had written when he was back in college, about a woman who is frozen for thirty years, then wakes up and meets her family again. Mr. Kleiser: “So as VR came along, I thought, let’s try this, because it would be the perfect marriage between this new technology and this old story about the future. First, we had to find a location that was futuristic and I had worked with the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC where they scan actors for all the Marvel characters and for movies like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” [2008]. Because I had worked there for a while, they said I could shoot the whole movie in there. I needed a VR crew and cameras. At a conference in Las Vegas I approached the IM360 Entertainment booth and spoke to Myles McGovern. They needed content to show and I needed a crew to shoot something, so I made a deal with them and I said, ‘Will you agree with me, if I give you my content, you lend me your crew?’” That’s basically how it all began, and how the first episode was done. It was a short film, but it turned out very well and he decided to keep on doing more and now there are twelve five-minute episodes.

“Never having shot in 360 before, especially with actors, I began wondering how does a director make the viewer look where you want him to look, and how do you stage it. Luckily, I had just directed my first play. I found directing a play extremely similar to directing VR. In a play the actors are all on the stage and you have to find a way for the audience to look at what they’re supposed to look at. So for these five-minute episodes, I wanted to hire only actors who had already done Sci-Fi movies because this is a Sci-Fi project. I called several of my friends who had done Sci-Fi movies like Carl Weathers [“Predator,” 1987], Harry Hamlin [“Clash of the Titans,” 1981], Bruce Davison [“X-Men,” 2000], and Veronica Cartwright [“Flight of the Navigator”].” The “Defrost” cast also includes Christopher Atkins (“The Blue Lagoon,” 1980), and Tanna Frederick who co-produced the VR Sci-Fi drama with Mr. Kleiser.

“In VR there are no rules, everybody is still making the rules as we go. So we’re trying to figure out how to integrate a story and acting into this new medium. That’s really exciting and that’s what I want to explore.” At one point, he called his friend and filmmaker John Badham who had a class of young actors at Chapman University; Mr. Kleiser went down there and tried out a sequence, using real actors.

“I feel like I’m back at USC Film School again where we were learning, experimenting and trying new things. “Defrost” is done in the first person, that means the viewer becomes a character—the character of Joan Garrison who comes back after thirty years. Since there are no cuts in the movie, it’s all one shot, we rehearsed it over and over like a play, then we’d shoot it in just one take all the way through and pick the best take. In traditional cinema you have editing, lighting, framing, all these things that help to tell the story, while VR is a completely different form of cinema, more like a play that you’re in: the biggest difference in terms of the perception of the viewer is that you are inside the movie instead of watching it.”

Mr. Kleiser’s conference in Brussels was a huge success, as everyone got to see a few episodes of “Defrost” after his introduction. Unfortunately, VR certainly has its restrictions; everybody needs a head set and that device makes it hard to watch for a long time, but in units of five minutes, you get a perfect time frame to witness an entirely new world as you catch a glimpse of Mr. Kleiser’s creative and imaginative brain that broadens your horizon and shows you the possibilities of what film can be like in the 21st century.

Experiencing Randal Kleiser’s “Defrost” at the Palace cinema in Brussels. Photograph: © Film Talk Archive

To get back to the question we asked ourselves in the beginning, ‘Is VR to be the moving picture of the future?’ God only knows, but Mr. Kleiser’s passionate and highly knowledgeable approach certainly gives it an incredible boost in terms of today’s VR live action narrative filmmaking.

The Defrost website is a great source of information, regarding the story, five behind the scenes videos, reactions from filmmakers including Ron Underwood and Jerry Zucker, and news items and press releases. Do check it out.

Brussels, Belgium
December 8, 2018

DEFROST: THE VIRTUAL SERIES (2016) DIR – SCR Randal Kleiser PROD Randal Kleiser, Tanna Frederick CAM Christopher C. Pearson ED Matt LaCorte, Kevin Joseph Barrett, Alicia Cota MUS Greg O’Connor CAST Harry Hamlin (Doctor Tremaine), Bruce Davison (Michael Garrison), Carl Weathers (Doctor Bedford), Veronica Cartwright (Kelly), Christopher Atkins (George Michael Garrison), Kai Oz (Lars), Ethan Rains (Eduardo Perez), Clinton Valencia (Jimmy Perez), Tanna Frederick (Beverly Joan Perez)

FILMS OF RANDAL KLEISER

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