Saturday Night Fever director John Badham looks back 40 years

By Iain Blair

English-born director/producer John Badham had never even been to Brooklyn, and admits that he “also didn’t know much about disco and dancing” when he took on the job of directing Saturday Night Fever. But that didn’t stop him from capturing the colorful street life of the gritty borough and making one of the most beloved, joyful and seminal films of the late ‘70s.

John Badham on the set of Saturday Night Fever.

With John Travolta’s electrifying Oscar-nominated performance (which launched his movie career), the Bee Gees’ earworm soundtrack (including mega-hits “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love”), and, of course, the unforgettable dancing (and that white suit), Saturday Night Fever perfectly captured the angst, hopes and disco-mania of a simpler time and had an indelible impact on popular culture.

Forty years later, the film about a Brooklyn kid with no prospects who lives for Saturday night continues to resonate, and Badham worked with Paramount in 2016 to restore the film in 4K using the original negative and update the surround sound mix to further enhance the soundtrack. During this process he also added scenes to the theatrical R-rated version that round out character and plot, making it the definitive representation of his original vision.
The result is the 40th anniversary brand-new Director’s Cut of Saturday Night Fever, which arrived on Blu-ray and DVD on May 2 from Paramount Home Media Distribution. The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with 5.1 Dolby TrueHD.

Over a career that has now spanned five decades, Badham has directed over 60 projects, including the films WarGames, Short Circuit, Bird on a Wire and Stakeout, and popular TV shows as Supernatural and Psych. He’s also written books on his craft, including “John Badham on Directing,” and heads Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts directing program.

I talked recently with Badham about Saturday Night Fever, his long career and his love of production and post.

How do you look back on Saturday Night Fever?
If you’d told me 40 years ago we’d be talking about it today I’d have never believed you. We made what we felt was a good movie — but it was a small movie, just $2.5 million, and to be frank, it was intended as a place-holder for John Travolta while he was waiting to shoot Grease. That was how the studio viewed it, but I was thrilled as I had an amazing script, the best I’d seen in years, and it really spoke to me. It was so powerful, and coupled with the Bee Gees’ music, I felt it was irresistible. But a lot of people were worried that the movie wouldn’t last, that it would be here and gone. Instead it turned into this huge hit.

How do you explain its lasting appeal?
Some people like to say it’s the dancing and music, and I know that’s part of it, but I really believe it’s mainly the strength of the characters and how we see ourselves in them, wishing for more exciting, better lives, and the chance to escape the dreary world we’re in. Audiences all over the world seemed to feel the same way.

It made Travolta a star. What did he bring to the role?
Talk about perfect casting. He had this tremendous life force and energy and appeal that he brought to it, along with an innocence and darkness to his character. Tony Manero is this funny, cute kid, but there’s also this really dark side to him. There’s a lot of anger and resentment, and he’s mean to the women and his parents. He’s trying to be one of the cool guys on the street, the gang leader, and he has this wild, wacky sense of humor, but he’s also very nervous around girls who give him a hard time. We see ourselves in that confused mix of behavior.

What were the biggest challenges of restoring it and redoing the mix?
Restoring any film is a huge job, and we had to go through every single frame of 10,000 feet of film times 24 frames. Every frame has to be looked at and examined and fixed for any scratches, damage and flaws, as well as things that weren’t quite right in the first place because we shot this so fast and on such a low budget. Now it looks better than our original release print, and it certainly sounds a lot better. Thank God we were able to fix the Dolby mix, because the original was Dolby 1.0 stereo for 35mm and it was still really buggy back then. So our new 5.1 Dolby mix is out of the surround speakers. Back in ’77, 95% of our prints were mono because we had so much trouble with it, and we just had 25 stereo prints. So this is like a whole new film.

You basically redid post on the film. Do you like post, and why?
Post is my favorite part of the whole process because you have control of almost all the elements — and where you don’t, you can repair it in post. It’s where you’re molding the material into the image you have in your mind, and it’s wonderful to be able to have that ability.

What are the biggest changes in post you’ve seen since you started?
It’s miraculous what we can do now thanks to the digital revolution, especially in editing, sound and VFX, compared with what you used to be able to do. When I began on mixing stages, you had to mix 10 minutes of material at a time, one pass straight through, and if you made a mistake you had to start all over again. Now it’s all digital and sound possibilities are endless. Tools like Avid have freed up and sped up editing, and systems like Dolby Atmos jack up the level of excitement in a theater. I’m a big fan of digital.

You began your career in TV, and currently you are mainly working in TV. How has the TV landscape changed?
It’s unrecognizable, and it’s blossomed beyond belief — both creatively and in business terms. It’s gone from the three main networks and PBS to hundreds and hundreds of channels and platforms like Netflix, Amazon, HBO and so on. That means both the quantity and quality have really gone up. I’m watching the new Fargo, and thinking, “What a great show — as good as any movie.” And TV is doing stuff now that no one dares do in movies anymore, because it’s so willing to take risks, and the writing is so strong.

You’re also still teaching. What advice would you give to a young person wanting to become a director?
I’d say, thank God we can make films even with our iPhones. Ten years ago you wouldn’t even think of it. That’s what you have to do — get out and make a film that you can then show and discuss with people. Sitting about and reading and thinking about it won’t get you anywhere. You have to get out and actually do it.

What’s next?
I’m just about to start shooting the third season of the ABC sci-fi murder mystery Stitchers, which I love doing. I’m also doing a lot of Supernatural, which is now in its 13th season, and I really enjoy that too. I’d love to do more movies, but getting financing is so hard now, and TV keeps me very busy.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

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