Johnny-Five.com : Interviews : John Badham
 
John Badham       John Badham - Director, Short Circuit

Telephone interview. January 1, 2001 at 12:05 pm (PST).
Interviewer:
Mike.

I found John Badham's email address online. So, Friday (the 29th), I thought I would send him a message letting him know about the website and to see if an interview would be possible. Right away (the next day!), he responded because Short Circuit was on his mind. He was giving copies of it as gifts. It also worked out because I caught him at a good time. He was just about to leave for Amsterdam to direct a new movie, Ocean Warrior. I told him that I really wanted to interview him so he said, "Hey! Why not call me?" I did. He was very nice to talk to. We must have spent a good 45 minutes talking! I learned a lot and I thank him so much for taking time out from New Year's day for this interview!

 
Questions:   Why [can you see the levers in Johnny's arms]?
What are you currently working on?   If [you had just gotten the script today], would you still do it?
Is Short Circuit a kid's movie?   Would you have used a virtual robot instead of an actual, physical one?
What scene took the longest to get just right?   How many people did it take to operate him?
Tell us about the designing process that went into Number Five.   Why was Short Circuit never really merchandized?
How'd he get those [eyebrows]?   Who does the whole franchise of Short Circuit belong to?
How did he bring himself back-to-life in the van when they have him shut down?   Could Short Circuit live on or is it an idea that wouldn't work today?
Can you explain what we see at the end of the movie?   Was Syd Mead's concept art put in the movie purposely?
Who else could have been cast for the major roles in Short Circuit?   Are there Easter Eggs in Short Circuit . . .?
Are there interesting stories to tell that happened during production?   Did you have a test audience?
 
What are you currently working on? top

I'm doing a film called Ocean Warrior with Aidan Quinn and Billy Bob Thornton about guys who founded Green Peace, then got kicked out because they actually wanted to get something done. They've been out there, with their own boat, sailing the ocean for the past 20 years, ramming illegal whalers, sinking illegal drift-netters. They're out there trying to make some difference in helping the environment. That's why you're going to Amsterdam? Right. We've been prepping it for quite a while. Now, we're getting ready to shoot.

Is Short Circuit a kid's movie? top

No. I don't think so. We actually made it for adults. A lot of the humor is geared toward adults, even though they may be silly adults. I tend to get silly. Short Circuit is really popular with kids. Did that surprise you? No. I think I realized early on that it was going to appeal to kids. When I read it I said, "This is so cute." "I really love this." So, I'm looking at it like an adult thinking it's a wonderful story and realize a little bit later that, of course, kids are just going to go nuts over this stuff. Did it bother you that Short Circuit had words in it that may not be appropriate for kids? I figured it would go right over their heads. I don't think there's any major profanity in there. Words like "woody" and things like that -- if a kid understands it, fine, but if he doesn't then it doesn't matter. A lot of movies like that say, "Here's something for the adults," . . . A lot of the banter between Ben [Jabituya] and Newton Crosby is kind of sexual about Ally Sheedy's character. Yet it's so fast, relatively subtle for little ones, that it's fine.

What scene took the longest to get just right? top

They were all hard to do. The robot is basically a great big prop. A prop that was very expensive, well over a million dollars. There were several versions of him that could do various, different things. There was actually a big tractor trailer with a 40 foot trailer in the back that was nothing but for Number Five and for the special effects guys who were working night and day him to keep him running. Because he was built-to-order, with anything like that there's all kinds of little bugs and problems. Things that you just have to hand nurse it through.

Tell us about the designing process that went into Number Five. top

The design was a combination of Syd Mead, Phillip Harrison, and Eric [Allard]. They all put their two-cents in. Phillip Harrison was the production designer, though, I think he's uncredited. He's done most of my films like Blue Thunder. Lots and lots over the years. So, they work together in a room for almost a week coming up with a design, sitting, and sharing drawings going back and forth; Eric being there saying, "Yeah, I can build that," or "Geez, don't give me that!" Then Eric had to figure out how he could get off-the-shelf components that would work. He had a big workshop with easily a dozen or more guys in there doing nothing but building him for months.

When the movie was done, Number Five was crated up . . . Eric took him over to Germany; displayed him over there because Germans really liked this movie. It was very popular with them. More so than the U.S.? No. Not more so than the U.S., but somehow they just loved the mechanics of it. There seems to be a big appeal for mechanical things. They also loved Blue Thunder a lot; the helicopter. Technological things, that Germans and Japanese would get real excited about.

One of the reasons I like Johnny is his design. He was able to do so much with very little, like with his eyebrows. How'd he get those? top

The eyebrows were one of the critical additions that the executive producer, Mark Damon, . . . it was his idea. He looked at our first drawings and I forget at what stage, but he said, "I think we need something." I remember he said something about a bullfight, something with a bull. The eyebrows had something to do with it and it would help the expression. So, Eric did this very easily. It was another thing for the puppeteers to control. It made a world of difference! It added so much in terms of their expression.

How did he bring himself back-to-life in the van when they have him shut down? top

In a way like your computer, you can shut it down, but there's a lot of stuff still operating and carrying on. There was some stuff still kind of working and he was at a stage where he seemed to be independent of the mechanics. He had a brain going that was stronger than all of the other robots who were pretty much "do what you tell them". You shut them down and they stayed shut down. Obviously, we're making all this stuff up. That was our thinking of the time. He was sort of crippled, but he had this little bit of head movement. In our story logic which we're making up, if we're saying he's alive, then like a quadriplegic who's in bed he can move his head and shoulders, but he can't move his arms. If he could just turn on that power to his legs and arms, the nerves could get through and he could walk.

Can you explain what we see at the end of the movie? The deleted scenes. What's going on in them? top

There were scenes that just for length purposes, and knowing that the attention span of kids is not great, don't make it much longer than about 90 minutes. We went in and we took scenes that we said, "Well, this one may not be as strong as this one." "This one we already know about," and so on. There was one scene where he ran in to some little kids and I think some bigger kids started to throw rocks at him, I forget exactly. Then he gets himself into a junkyard and gets on the conveyer belt that takes you up to drop cars into the big shredder. That thing carries him up and up and he's looking around he doesn't know quite how to get out. At the last second, before he's about to fall into the shredder, he reaches up and grabs hold of some kind of wire and slides down and gets himself out of there. It was pretty good! We were in one of those nasty junkyards for a whole day doing that scene. Where was that? We shot it all around Portland right by the Columbia River. The house that Ally Sheedy has is right over-looking the Columbia River in a little town called Astoria. It was really, really beautiful there. It was just perfect for her, looking over the bridge. That worked for us. The location worked just great. Would it have been possible to put the deleted scenes on the new, special edition DVD? It would have been possible if I had gotten them to spend some money for the little bit it would have taken.

Who else could have been cast for the major roles in Short Circuit? I heard Bronson Pinchot (AKA Balki) almost played the part of Ben. top

Bronson is the only one I actually remember out of the people that came in. We saw lots and lots and lots of women for the Ally Sheedy part. I have to get my mind back to 1986 and say, "Who were the popular young women of that time?" I remember Teri Garr and I remember a real beautiful girl who was in a picture called A Woman In Red, don't ask me her name, but at least I remember the movie. We kept reading and reading and reading . . . The quality that we decided we really needed was a very naive quality. Most of the women who were coming in were just too worldly. They were so knowledgeable it just didn't make any sense. These girls weren't going to sit there and look at Number Five and go, "I knew you'd come from Outer Space!" Ally had that quality. I had worked with her in War Games, she could pull it off. It was terrific! She's actually a very sophisticated woman and grew up in New York. All the kinds of things that would make you NOT think that she had that innocent quality, but she certainly could do it.

Are there interesting stories to tell that happened during production? top

One thing I was thinking about the other day was you can't even conceive of the kinds of things you can do in movies today. The idea that you could draw, in a computer, dinosaurs and have them running around was totally impossible. That was like saying, "We're gonna make a weekend trip to Saturn." You just go, "What?!" We sort of knew this was coming in the future, but nobody knew when. So, we had to deal with old-fashioned movie techniques which meant wires and stuff like that, but today we're able to erase those wires. We're able to do all kinds of things that were just impossible before. Limited things we could do here that Dream Quest helped us with, you know, is a big Academy Award-winning special effects house . . .

Sometimes you can see the levers in Johnny's arms that the puppeteers use to manipulate him. Why? top

I went to the website and I looked at all those pictures. You've got a lot of them that are spot-on. Lot's of stuff that comes flashing in for a couple of frames. At that time you say, "Well, you could go in and take it out, but it's really expensive." Now, it would just be a cinch. Run it into the computer and a guy comes to scrub it out, you put it to a piece of film and it looks great. There's one [goof] you didn't catch: When Number Five is trying to drive the van, he almost drives over the cliff and the Nova security force comes in, he's wiggling around while getting shot. All his wiggling, moving, and so on was being done with monofilament. I can see the monofilament in the shots.

Explain monofilament. Monofilament is what you use to go fishing. The line on your fishing rod is probably going to be black. You get to the end of the line and you tie on this clear plastic, thin thread called monofilament. Then after that, you tie your hook on and whatever bait you want. I think the idea is that fish don't see the line. Monofilament is very strong so it will hold a tremendous amount of weight. I know that in the theatre I kind of winced every time it went past. Because the background is sky-blue, we couldn't get it out of there. What we needed to do was have him against some shrubbery. Something a little bit darker would have hidden it.

We were making our movie right next door to where they were making a movie called Space Camp. Those guys would have kids who would go to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. You can still go there for a couple of weeks. In this movie they took them up in space. They're floating around and doing zero gravity stuff. Well, they had to do it all on wires. All the wires had to be painted black against this black background. If you didn't light it properly you could see the wires. Drove them crazy! They were there for weeks longer than they were supposed to be. Whereas, now, you just scrub it out. You don't even worry about it.

If the writers hadn't handed you the script back in 1986 and came to you today with the script, would you still do it? How might it be different? top

I would do it today because the thing that appealed to me was not necessarily the mechanics of the robot, but it was his personality and how funny and charming he was. He was even funnier by the time we got through because we just kept adding to his sense of humor and everything like that. We could put jokes in all day long. If somebody had a funny idea, because his mouth doesn't really move, just those lights going on under his neck, you could have him say anything that was funny for the situation and it would work. So, right up to the last minute we were putting more jokes in. There was a lot there when I first read it, but we kept adding stuff.

Would you have used a virtual robot instead of an actual, physical one? top

Here's my thinking about that: If you do that, it's really difficult for the actors because they're having to act with, maybe, a blue pole. You put something in there for them to look at, then that's what they have to act to. It's really tough. Yet, when we had Number Five on the set he was moving and doing everything you could see. Tim Blaney, who was also his voice, maneuvered his head around. Tim could swing with the punches. Sometimes he'd save it with a funny remark. He would talk back to you and you were really relating to him; you were really acting. It's a much more effective kind of acting than when you're in a vacuum. So much of acting is give-and-take between characters. Like now, the conversation we're having. You and I are just making it up and reacting to each other and the responses are coming, but if we wrote it all out, you would do it once separately, then I would do my side of it. It would be kind of lifeless. When we have the two of us going, it takes on a good life. So, I would be sort of nervous doing him totally virtual. I also know that in the second movie, the sequel, Eric made some huge advances with the robot suit. That just made it even better. You put the suit on and moved your arms then the robot's arms would move in sync with yours.

How many people did it take to operate him? There was five or six for the first movie, right? top

In the first one we had someone who was driving him, dealing with the treads -- left and right. Maybe that same person was doing the up and down of him. Then, there was someone who worked his arms. The arms were the weakest part of the whole body because it was really tough to get those arms up. There was so much weight and little tiny motors in the shoulders. When we had to use a lot of arm movement, we had to go in close and use the puppet version which is where you can see the rods [in the shot]. You couldn't get a full shot on him and have very much arm motion. So there was the body, somebody for the arms, Tim on the head, and if I remember right, there might have even been a person on the eyebrows because there was just only so many hands that you had.

With puppeteers, this was a team of guys who have worked together for years. They almost think alike and know what the other one is going to do before HE knows it. They practiced with this robot for maybe 3 weeks before we started rehearsal so that they could start to get him synchronized. That was really hard! There's a scene where he jumps like a butterfly. Well, the rig that made him jump was an overhead, long pipe that could be pulled along and at the same time he could be pulled up and let down. So, some special effects guys are pulling him from left to right on the screen, so he's traveling forward. Then, some other guys are pulling him up and down. Tim is working the remote control, getting motion with the head and such, well, I want to tell you, the first time I saw it, it was the worst thing I ever saw in my life! I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I said, "Oh my god!" This guy has to jump like a butterfly and it's so clumsy and so stupid. The robot looks so spastic. This was when we were working on the movie for a couple of weeks. There was nothing to do but say, "Guys, keep working on it." They sat there and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed for 2 or 3 hours while we were doing other things. Pretty soon, they got all in-sync with each other; so coordinated that he really looked like he was hopping. When I saw it again the day before yesterday, I'm looking at it going, "Oh, that looks pretty good!," and you can't even see the cables that are holding him up!

Why was Short Circuit never really merchandized? There was no soundtrack, toys, or anything like that. top

Does stupidity mean anything to you? After watching this movie as a kid, I wanted a Johnny Five toy so bad! Yup. I was begging these guys at Tri-Star, Tri-Star was the releasing company, to make a toy. There was an animated series that people in Canada wanted to do. These guys wouldn't do anything! They wouldn't spend a dime on it. It was making them enough money that they made a sequel. You don't mean PSO do you? No it wasn't PSO, it was Tri-Star. PSO, at the time, was having real financial troubles. Short Circuit wasn't enough to save them? No. They had had so many catastrophes that they were just hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Eventually, not long after that, they had to close their doors. Short Circuit was one of their few successes.

Who does the whole franchise of Short Circuit belong to? Is it with Tri-Star? top

It's with Tri-Star. They own it. I had heard some conversation about a second sequel, but I haven't talked to them for quite a while. When was this? About 8 or 9 years ago. One of the associate producers, Gary Foster, now a very strong producer in his own right with a lot of leverage, always loved Number Five. He was pretty young when we made the movie, in his early twenties. So, he was nuts about it. He keeps talking about trying to crank it up again. I think a third movie would be great, or another spin-off like a toy, comic books, or TV series. Kind of like the series Alf. It came out right after that. Clearly, they ripped off E.T. and they ripped us off. They got a combination of the personalities of the two characters. It would just make me crazy every time I saw Alf on because I knew where it had come from. These guys [Tri-Star] had missed a huge chance to have a TV series, dolls, all the stuff you're talking about.

Could Short Circuit live on or is it an idea that wouldn't work today? top

I think it would still work. We worked on a sequel to War Games a couple of years ago. Eventually, we stopped because that was a movie whose time had passed. The reason that it's appealing is now old-hat to everybody; a young kid with a computer. To do more movies about that wouldn't make sense. It's so old-fashioned. On the other hand, here's this silly robot who is still funny and is still charming and could be updated, new mechanics . . . I watched a robot display in Japan when we were getting ready to do the movie and we flew to Tokyo, looked at this big, robotic World's Fair. This is 1986. There were all kinds of robots there, but they were all a little bit crude. Nothing as sophisticated as Number Five because we had the ability to make him look like he could do more. The most impressive thing that Syd Mead was just gaga about . . . Syd Mead said to me, "Do you know what's going on here?" What it was, was a big box with legs on it. It would walk from one end of the room to the other end of the room. The whole round trip, maybe, 50 feet would take 5 minutes. Syd said, "Don't you understand how difficult it is to walk?" "We do it all the time and we don't even think about it." When you start to break it down, it's a nightmare. You have to shift your weight to one foot, you have to swing your other leg forward, shift your weight to it, balance on that and then start all over again with the first foot. That's what this thing was doing. Computer processing was so slow in 1986, that the box on top of him, was about a 3 foot cube. It had big cables coming out of it going to the ceiling, going to computers that were trying to figure out how this damn thing should do its walking! People were walking by it because it looks stupid to them. They go, "Oh, please."

Was Syd Mead's concept art put in the movie purposely? top

Oh, yeah. We absolutely did it because we said, "Here's the guys who invented Number Five." Ben and Crosby designed and invented him so, of course, they'd have drawings around. It was a good logical thing that sounded like a good idea.

Are there Easter Eggs in Short Circuit or gags you put in the movie that, generally, you don't think people caught on to? top

There's some jokes that just aren't funny. "When you gotta go, don't squeeze the Sharmin?" Well, worse than that one . . . You know the robot, coming through serving drinks at the reception at the beginning of the movie, listing drinks. Then throws in, "Long Island Iced Tea." The guy who thought of that joke thought it was the funniest thing ever. He said, "Everybody will think Long Island Iced Tea is great and they'll laugh." Nobody laughed. He [the robot] also said at the end of "canapes," these very elegant things, he said "cheese wiz." When it came by the other day, watching the movie, I was just groaning. With humor, a lot of the times you just have to try things to see if they're going to work.

Did you have a test audience? top

We had lots of test audiences. It was very helpful to us. We must have previewed it 8 or 10 times, then we'd go back and make adjustments on that. That's when we discovered "the more jokes you put it, the better." The first test audience, we had made the voice without any meaning to it. People were annoyed by the voice. We were trying to give it a mechanical sound. Was Tim Blaney still doing it at that time? Yeah. Tim Blaney was doing it. He was great, but what we had done to the voice just so it didn't sound like a human being, was grating and irritating to people. We needed to go back, simplify, and find something that didn't annoy them as much. We also learned where the movie was dragging. That's probably why the scene about the junkyard . . . we said, "We need to move the movie along." So, we dropped the scene. It seemed to play better.

We also learned: Keep adding jokes, adding jokes, adding jokes. Every time we'd add jokes, the audiences' reaction would be better than the previous audience. When you do preview audiences, they hand you out cards and ask you to rate how you liked it. "Did you think it was excellent, very good, good, fair, poor, horrible?" The first time we ran it, 48% of the audience said it was "excellent" or "very good." Forty-eight percent is not a very good score. Forty-eight percent is really average, maybe, a little bit below average. We were devastated! We thought this movie was very funny and good. We went back, kept working on it. We didn't change that much. We didn't re-shoot any scenes; just added jokes, fixed the voice, this and that. The last preview that we had before the movie went into theatres, the reaction . . . 96% said "excellent" and "very good." We were dancing up and down just very thrilled. The distributors and others were beside themselves with glee. It really worked well for that audience.


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