Randal Kleiser was among the group of young directors who would change the Hollywood paradigm


"Grease" was the number on box office hit of 1978


Kleiser graduated from USC's film program


Randal has directed feature films, television programs and short experimental films


randal kleiser 

By William Kallay

"Grease" hit screens in 1978 and it hit big. The timing of John Travolta's popularity from "Saturday Night Fever," and America's thirst for '50s nostalgia, helped make "Grease" a huge hit. "The Sound of Music" (1965), it was an ode to singing, dancing, and having a great time.

Randal Kleiser was chosen to direct the filmed version of the hit stage play. He was a USC film school graduate, and his roomate was another up-and-coming filmmaker, George Lucas. During his time at the famous school he directed "Peege," an acclaimed short film that has been inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Kleiser went into directing television episodes and movies. He is probably best known in that realm for directing "Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway" and "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." "Grease" put his career into the stratosphere and he was an inspired choice. The film is alive with steady direction and great musical numbers.

He has since gone onto direct "The Blue Lagoon," "Summer Lovers," "Flight of the Navigator," "White Fang," "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid," "It's My Party," and "Love Wrecked." He's also been at the forefront of digital filmmaking technologies. He directed "Red Riding Hood" in 2004, which featured cutting edge digital effects. His brother, Jeffrey, is also an accomplished visual effects wizard.  

In time for the May 5, 2009 Blu-ray release of "Grease," Kleiser graciously took time from his schedule to talk with us.

QUESTION: When you were hired to direct "Grease," you had already established yourself as a top television director. Was it a major transition and challenge for you to go from directing television movies to feature films?

RANDAL KLEISER: The biggest difference was the scale. I was suddenly working in the Panavision widescreen format. Composing shots was completely different because there was twice as much space to fill. This was a great step forward, especially for a musical where we had so many dancers in certain sequences.  

QUESTION: Both John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were already stars in their own right. Was it a challenge for you to direct Travolta (who wasn't then known for singing), and Newton-John (who had never really acted before), and make their performances work?

KLEISER: John was very experienced in singing. He was on Broadway playing the role of "Doody" in the stage version of "Grease." Olivia had acted once before and was unsure if she wanted to try it again. She requested a screentest to see if she would feel comfortable with me and John. She was.

QUESTION: Were you familiar with the stage version of "Grease" prior to making the film?

KLEISER: Allan Carr flew me to Chicago to see the road company production of Grease. I took mental notes watching the show and the most obvious musical number to stage was "Summer Lovin.'" The boys were on the left side of the stage and the girls were on the right. I immediately thought of intercutting the two groups and ending the number with a split screen.

QUESTION: Back at USC, you were roomates with George Lucas. Did you both have a master plan in changing Hollywood filmmaking forever (he with "Star Wars," you with "Grease")? 

KLEISER: I dreamed of becoming a director. I thought George would make a good production designer, since he was so good at art. All of us at USC in the late sixties were told that we needed to have contacts in the industry or be related to someone to break in. But the studio system underwent a tremendous change when "Easy Rider" was released and there was suddenly an audience of young people who wanted films about their age group. The doors opened and we were in the right place at the right time. My USC Master's Thesis film, "Peege," was seen by Universal executives who hired me to begin directing TV shows.  

QUESTION: I've always admired the cinematography in "Grease." Did you work closely with Bill Butler to establish its look?  Also, was it your desire to shoot in anamorphic?

KLEISER: Bill was very instrumental in setting up shots, since he was familiar with the anamorphic format, having shot "Jaws." Anamorphic was the ideal choice for this movie and we all decided it would be the best.

QUESTION: Why was it decided to cast (older) actors who hadn't been in high school for many years?

KLEISER: John was 23 and Olivia was 28. We cast the other actors to create an age group that looked youthful and appropriate next to our two leads.

QUESTION: You had worked with Travolta on "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," which was pretty early in his career. Did you feel he'd be a big star someday?  

KLEISER: We went to McDonald's in a limo during preproduction and he talked in his Vinnie Barbarino voice to the intercom. It created a near riot. It was clear he was very popular even back then. When we had the premiere of "Grease" in London, there was an actual near riot, with the fans rocking the limo he was in. Yes, it was clear he was a star.

QUESTION: I have never seen the original play, but I understand that new songs were added for the film version. Could you tell us which songs were added and why they were added?

KLEISER: "Grease", the title tune, was written by Barry Gibb at the request of Robert Stigwood. After their success with "Saturday Night Fever" Stigwood wanted to continue the roll, and it worked. "Hopelessly Devoted to You" was Olivia's contractual solo, written by her longtime collaborator John Farrar. It was written while we were shooting and we had to figure out where to place it in the story and built a set for it. "Sandy" was written by Louis St. Louis to replace the song from the play "Alone at a Drive In Movie." We felt that song wasn't strong enough and Travolta's voice was shown better with this new song. "You're the One that I Want" was also written by John Farrar to replace another song from the show. It became a hit, along with several others and was playing on the radio the week the movie opened. Brilliant marketing, which I had nothing to do with.  

QUESTION: The film has been popular since the day it was released. What do you think are some of the elements about "Grease" that make it so beloved by audiences?

KLEISER: There are so many characters to identify with, and every high school has them. The music worked out quite well and I think the energy of the cast is infectious. The movie is like the Eveready bunny, it keeps going and going.

QUESTION: Now that "Grease" is on Blu-ray, what are your impressions of your film in this high definition format?

KLEISER: I haven't seen it yet. Looking forward to the experience.

QUESTION: I'm sure you and everyone involved with "Grease" felt the film would be successful. But did you ever imagine it would be as successful as it was?

KLEISER: None of us had any idea that thirty years later it would be going strong all over the world. Quite a pleasant surprise.

QUESTION: Are there any scenes that you personally enjoyed directing?

KLEISER: I loved the hot dog jumping in the bun at the end of the Drive-In sequence. I picked that clip the night of the shoot by running 30 vintage intermission trailers on the Drive-In screen while the crew took a break. I asked if the end of the song could be synchronized to that moment and Bill Hansard, the projection expert worked it out.

QUESTION: The film was originally released in 35mm.  Did you decide to have the film released later in 70mm?

KLEISER: I'm not sure it was, but if so, it was probably Allan Carr behind that decision. He was a total showman.

QUESTION: Looking at the film so many years after it was released, I was surprised with all of the sexual innuendo. It would probably receive a PG-13 now. Did you have to convince the ratings board to give you a PG-rating?

KLEISER: I don't think they noticed some of the lyrics were pretty raunchy because they were in the middle of innocent sounding rock and roll songs. "You know that I ain't braggin, she's a real pussy wagon..." [and] "You know that ain't no shit, we'll be gettin lots of tit..." these just glided by.

QUESTION: The film seems to have some elements from 1950s films like "Rebel Without A Cause," and "Jailhouse Rock." Did you refer to some of those classics while making "Grease?"

KLEISER: The jacket John wears in the opening was modeled after James Dean's in "Rebel." Cha Cha starts the race the same way Natalie Wood did. Travolta had major Elvis influences. By the way, I was an extra, dancing in the background of four Elvis Presley movies, so I had first hand research.

QUESTION: Stepping ahead, you've been involved in directing some state-of-the-art visual effects films over the years. Many of our readers might be surprised that you and your brother, Jeffrey, were involved with some early digital visual effects in "Flight of the Navigator." How did you transition from television movies, then to the biggest musical of all-time, then into visual effects spectaculars?

KLEISER: My brother Jeff worked on the first computer graphics movie, "Tron." He and his wife Diana Walczak have a visual effects company Synthespian Studios. I've been able to stay on top of the changing field through them. I've loved effects since I saw the openiong of the Red Sea from "The Ten Commandments."  

QUESTION: "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" has been playing in various Disney theme parks for years now. Can you talk about working in 3-D, as well as the 65mm format?

KLEISER: I wrote an article for the Director's Guild of America magazine about what I learned in my research to prepare.  There are many rules you have to follow for effective headache-free 3D. (The article is on the website; dga.org) The format was two 65mm cameras, one shooting normally and the other shooting downward into a mirror. The unit was as big as a refrigerator and not easy to move. We used a crane and chains to do the one "handheld" shot where the giant baby carries the audience around in a box.

QUESTION: I understand you're involved in some new 3-D technology in mobile devices. What can you tell us about that?

KLEISER: Michael Mehrle is the inventor and it is called CubicVue. It's an amazing invention that allows viewers to see 3D without glasses on Iphones, cellphones and videogame handheld units. The prototype is being financed at the moment and should begin production and marketing soon.

QUESTION: You did some acting in your film school days. How did you incorporate your acting experience into directing?

KLEISER: It's great to know firsthand the challenges actors can face while shooting...things as simple as how distracting it is to have people moving around behind the camera when you are acting. These types of things a director would not be aware of had he not tried it.

QUESTION: You've had a quite a career so far, Randal. You've also taken your experience and given back to young filmmakers. What are some of the rewards you've gained from teaching these young filmmakers?

KLEISER: It's quite rewarding to see them get jobs and awards. I had great teachers like Nina Foch and Jerry Lewis. I love being able to hand down the techniques to new filmmakers.

Special thanks to Randal & Jeffrey Kleiser

Photos: © 2008 Randal Kleiser/Paramount. All rights reserved.

Originally posted here on May 3, 2009

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