Saturday Night Fever at 40: ‘It Feels Like a Very Real World’

Director John Badham looks back at his disco classic four decades later.

Out this week on Blu-ray and DVD (it’s already available on digital) is 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, the classic film that made John Travolta into a star, launched the Bee Gees to the pinnacle of pop success and introduced the world to the subculture, music and fashion of disco dancing, specifically the scene in the clubs of the insular blue collar Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge. The movie made the scene and music into a national phenomenon that lasted several years, until the disco craze petered out in the early ’80s.

Saturday Night Fever was based on a New York magazine article called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” written by a British journalist named Nik Cohn; he later admitted to not knowing anything about the disco scene and making up most of the piece. Nevertheless, the rights were picked up by another Englishman, producer Robert Stigwood (Tommy), who then hired a British director named John Badham — who had directed a lot of TV but only one feature — to do the film.

Badham was born in the U.K. but had been raised in America; still, the Brooklyn environment was an unknown quantity to him as well. Yet with the help of an incredibly charismatic star and the undeniable urgency of the songs the Bee Gees crafted for the movie, Badham created a powerful snapshot of a subculture that provided a temporary escape on the dance floor for its desperate participants.

Now with several scenes re-inserted back into the film (they first appeared on TV decades ago) and the whole thing given a nice, shiny high definition gloss, we spoke with Badham — whose subsequent films include Dracula (1979), Blue Thunder (1983), WarGames (1983), Short Circuit (1986), and Stakeout (1987) — about finding his way into the disco scene and creating this masterpiece of music, dancing and alienated youth.

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Den of Geek: How did a British guy come to direct a movie about Brooklyn disco dancers?

John Badham: Isn’t that weird? It’s even weirder when you know that after I left England my parents moved me to Birmingham, Alabama, and I spent years there, then went east to school at Yale. To the drama school. Probably that’s where I learned how to adapt to whatever the story was that we were telling. When I started directing television and film you’re changing styles and genres and things every week. My first movie (The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings) had a lot of musical stuff in it even though it was a movie about black baseball and the Negro Leagues in the 1930s.

So I had been doing musical numbers for that and prepping another movie, The Wiz, the Diana Ross movie which I never wound up doing. I had been prepping that and looking at every musical number ever done. And one day I get this call from Robert Stigwood saying “We saw your movie with Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones and there’s musical stuff in there. Would you like to do a musical for us?” What they were asking about was the movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But then all of a sudden they said “No, we’re changing our mind. We need you to do this movie called Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night.” And my response was “That’s great but can we change the title? Have we got anything else?” They said “Well, we’re thinking of calling it Night Fever.” I said “How ’bout Saturday Night Fever?” “Yeah, yeah okay we’ll do that.” So there you have it in 90 seconds — a weird career path.

As you were making the movie what did you learn about the culture and did you have any sense that this was a phenomenon that was kind of waiting to happen?

Yeah, actually my editor said to me “Gosh nobody goes to discos anymore. I mean why are we making a movie about this?” And yet as I researched the discos in New York I found every conceivable kind of disco going great guns every night. The one in the movie was a local disco for kids that didn’t have much money, that had to scrape up ten bucks to get in, but then you had very elegant yuppie discos in Manhattan and gay discos and lesbian discos. I mean almost any kind of culture or group there was a disco for it. We were blessed with these amazing songs from the Bee Gees who just really hit four or five home runs with their number ones hits. And those were just playing everywhere on the airwaves before the movie was released and I think that got people to come and see the movie with this relatively unknown star who was Travolta.

I remember going many years ago to 2001 Odyssey, the disco where you shot the film, just to see it. What do you remember about shooting there and about filming in Brooklyn in general, in the Bay Ridge area?

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Shooting there was a lot of fun. They let us take over the disco for almost six weeks and we brought in that floor which wasn’t there before and then we left it there afterwards. Do you remember when you went, was the floor still there?

It was.

Good. My production manager was saying “Why don’t we get this thing out of here?” I said “Let’s leave it. Leave it for them. It will cost you more to move it. Just leave it alone and let them have it. God bless them. They’ve been so nice to us.”

I treated Brooklyn like I was a French documentarian coming in who had never been there before, because I had never really been in Brooklyn for very long so I just was all eyes and ears about how you would behave in this situation. In the dance contest, for example, we had a black couple and a Puerto Rican couple and I’m going around to our extras who are all local people and saying “Well how would you react to watching these terrific dancers?” And their responses just floored me but gave me a grounding for how I saw the people. They said “Well we would just walk away. We wouldn’t watch these people at all. You’re making us stand here and applaud for them and we wouldn’t even watch them.” So that gave me quite a perspective because there is a lot of sexist and homophobic and all kinds of racist stuff going on in this movie that gives it its dark side, that goes against the great music and the great dancing that it has. I think a lot of the success of the movie is how grounded it feels. It feels like a very real world.

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This is the director’s cut that’s coming out this week. Were there any scenes in particular that you were eager for people to see 40 years later?

Well I’m so glad we got these two scenes, the main ones, back in. One where we see the softer side of Travolta’s character early on in the film as he breaks away from his buddies and takes a very heartfelt look at the Verrazano Bridge. He seems to have a very soft spot in his heart for the building of this bridge, the beauty of it. And it’s totally non-verbal scene but it really starts to show you for the first time a little bit of the softer side of his character.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, toward the end of the movie, his dad whose been laid off for months and months gets his job back in construction and is thrilled and the dad and the mom are dancing around the kitchen and Travolta is just so disgusted with him by this point that he can’t be happy for them at all. He’s just kind of disgusted and walks away and you realize there’s still a lot of hate in this kid that needs to be resolved. And I think you’d have a hard time putting that in a movie today. They’d say, “Well you can’t do that. That makes us hate the main character.” But we wanted to put it back in because we think it’s honest. People don’t suddenly become all pure.

That’s what’s great about the movie. He’s not a heroic figure. He’s got a lot of growing still to do by the end of it.

Yeah and I think we understand that. If he were 40 years old it would be a different matter but as a 20 year old we cut people a lot of slack.

What was Travolta like back then to work with?

Great enthusiasm and talent and I look at what he does in those scenes nowadays and I don’t think I appreciated how clever he was doing that character. How well he understood (it) and how interesting he makes scenes work. Some of the funniest lines in the movie were improvised by him on the spot. And we were all falling down laughing because it would be so clever, the things that he’d say.

For example, he’s rehearsing with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) and he says, “Here let me show you a dance step.” And he shows her some little dance step and she mimics it and does it. Says, “Oh that’s pretty cool. Did you make that up?” And Travolta improvises the following line. He says, “Yeah I made it up. Well I saw it on TV and then I made it up.” And it’s just so perfect. It’s not like a joke. It’s just like the thing that a kind of awkward kid would say. And it’s just so delightful.

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This is a movie very much of its time and its period but at the same time it’s become timeless. To what can you attribute that to?

I give as much credit as is humanly possible to give to Norman Wexler, the screenwriter, who had such a brilliant talent for getting into the soul of people and that’s what comes out and resonates. You know we like the dancing and we like the music and that’s all really good stuff but we identify with these characters even though they are of a specific time. But their behavior and attitudes and so on really continue to resonate with us. And people all the time say to me, “I just saw the movie again. I forgot how powerful the characters are…there’s really a lot there that kind of sits with you.” So all the credit in the world goes to Norman.

Your next film after Saturday Night Fever, Dracula with Frank Langella, will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2019. Is that one you’d like to revisit and are there any plans to do something with that in terms of restoration?

Well we absolutely could do some work on it. At the time it was shot in widescreen Cinemascope aspect ratio and when it went to home video they didn’t really know how to deal with that. We were in the days of Betamax, not even VHS. And so the copies that are out there could do with a lot of restoration. There’s fabulous photography in there and the great John Williams score in addition to Langella and Laurence Olivier. It’s a very romantic look at the Dracula phenomenon.

That scene down in the mines when they encounter the undead Mina terrified me when I first saw it.

Oh I’m so sorry. I’m glad to hear it worked for you but I’m sorry it scared you. I made the mistake of showing it to my daughter who had been on set with me and she was like seven years old and she had nightmares for weeks. And I was in terrible trouble with my wife. “What do you mean you showed Kelly that? Oh no!”

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Saturday Night Fever: The Director’s Cut is out on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday (May 2).