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'Grease' Is Still the Word

On the eve of its re-release, director Randal Kleiser recalls the genesis of the 1978 musical blockbuster.

March 15, 1998|By Randal Kleiser

Twenty years ago this summer, Paramount released a musical by a first-time feature director that would go on to become one of the biggest box-office hits ever. "Grease," based on the smash Broadway musical, rode the appeal of its stars, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, as well as hit singles "You're the One That I Want," "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Grease," and was the last true blockbuster musical film. On March 27, Paramount will re-release the newly refurbished film. Here, director Randal Kleiser remembers the hurdles and little victories along the way during production.

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Imagine making a musical as a first feature, and watching over your shoulder are Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Directing "Grease" in 1977 was like returning to high school, and they--all Paramount executives at the time--were the teachers.

When I studied filmmaking at USC in the late '60s and early '70s, I simultaneously worked as an extra in movie musicals. By being on the set of "Camelot," "Hello, Dolly!," "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Double Trouble" with Elvis Presley, I was able to observe different ways musical numbers can be staged. I learned how songs are broken down into short phrases of lyric and shot in sections. I watched directors yell "playback" instead of "action." So, when I showed up on the set of "Grease," I didn't feel completely lost.

PRE-PRODUCTION BY THE NUMBERS

Producer Allan Carr flew me to Chicago to attend a production of the stage musical. Seeing it for the first time, I was most impressed by the spirit of fun that came across. I began to envision how it could be a movie. Certain scenes were very clear, like the numbers "Summer Nights," "Greased Lightning" and "We Go Together." Some of the other numbers were hard to imagine on screen. Pat Birch, who choreographed the original stage production, was hired to do the movie, and we began to analyze each number.

A FEW CHANGES, HERE AND THERE

The play was set in urban Chicago. My background was suburban Philadelphia, which was in sync with Carr's suburban Chicago background. There were no greasers in our high schools, just tough kids. By adjusting the script to a more suburban feel, we felt the characters would appeal to a wider audience.

The climactic car race between the T-Birds and the Scorpions was conceived to take place on the high school track surrounding the football field, where Rose Parade-sized "Gladiator" floats were to be parked. As the cars raced around the track, the image was to be a sendup of the chariot race in "Ben-Hur." For budgetary reasons, Paramount's production head talked me into shooting the race in the L.A. River bed near downtown. All that is left of this concept is the knife-like wheels that bad guy Leo grinds into Danny's car.

Before principal photography, my USC directing instructor, Nina Foch, had a dinner party, and I was able to speak with Robert Wise, director of "'West Side Story." I asked for advice in shooting musicals. He asked how much prep time I had. When I told him five weeks, he told me to get out of the assignment right away--it was going to be a disaster. This terrorized me but, luckily, I decided not to quit.

IT'S IN THE STARS

When I directed John Travolta in the 1976 TV movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," he was an actor getting his first lead film role. He then shot "Saturday Night Fever," and when I subsequently worked with him on "Grease" there was a tremendous amount of heat around him. He was no longer struggling but a full-fledged star with a new sense of who he was. It was a big adjustment for me to not think of him as John the actor, but rather John the superstar.

John had played the supporting roles of both Sonny and Doody in stage versions of "Grease." He had just been through some difficult times personally when we began production. We needed to create an atmosphere of fun in rehearsals and on the set to make the shooting easier.

Olivia Newton-John was our first choice to play Sandy, but she was nervous about acting, feeling comfortable with us and whether she could pull it off at all. She requested a screen test; afterward, she would decide if she would do the movie. It was very unusual, because normally producers request the test to determine whether they want to hire someone or not.

Olivia, 29, was concerned about playing a 17-year-old. I told her it was a bigger-than-life musical, that all the actors were going to be about the same age--late 20s into 30s. It would be a style, a kind of surreal high school.

The day of Olivia's test, Travolta was made aware of her fears and helped her relax, taking her under his wing and joking around with her. We used the drive-in scene for the test. Olivia came across naturally and was able to handle the comedy beats, and she looked great. When she saw the test, she agreed to do the picture.

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