A Film Before Its Time - John Badham Remembers 'Wargames'

You don’t have to tell John Badham that this is the 25th Anniversary of the film, Wargames.

“I still have the original poster hanging on the wall,” says Badham. “It feels like we just finished it. I am pleased that people still remember it, although I also have to add I’m not surprised.”

Then again, this is the man who’s directed past mega-hits like Saturday Night Fever, Short Circuit, Stakeout and critical hits like The Bingo Long’s Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings, the man is used to success. He also has a knack for taking small budget films and turning them into cash cows.

Saturday Night Fever was shot for a budget of $3.5 million,” he recalled. “I actually thought it was never going to open. I thought it was a quickly done little piece of crap. It was done mainly to keep Robert Stigwood [movie producer & manager of the Bee Gees – ed.] quiet while they got ready to make Grease, which he controlled.”

In fact, according to Badham, the situation around Wargames was similar to Saturday Night Fever.

“Now Wargames was considered too expensive. Initially they put $11 million into it. EMI put $3 million into it,” says Badham. “That was a lot for what was considered a teen movie. The cast was considered very inexpensive. I think all of them barely cost $1 million, including Matthew Broderick. They only knew Dabney Coleman as a respected TV character actor. Ally Sheedy hadn’t done The Breakfast Club. She had only been in one movie before, Bad Boys. I have to admit they got the director for pretty cheap, too. The expensive part was the technology.”

Like Saturday Night Fever before it, the film would have impact. Whether you like it or not, SNF shot John Travolta from TV hit to megastar. It also turned disco from an underground movement mainly heard in Brooklyn warehouses and Manhattan bath houses to the dance floors and high schools of the Midwest.

In Wargames case, it helped launch the careers of Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. It also had its cultural impact. These were the days before the average American knew that the "Internet" was or had any idea you could download computer games or book an airline ticket over phone lines. Legendary "hacker" crews like the Legion of Doom (who took their name from the Super Friends cartoon) were virtually unknown to the general public. The idea of kicking off World War III by a teenager? The closest one had come to that were films like Fail-Safe and Doctor Strangelove, both released in 1964. The most modern film of that nature was 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project.

But this was 1983. Thirteen years later.

“What you also have to remember is at the same time Fail-Safe came out, so did Doctor Strangelove,” says Badham. “Now those two films couldn’t be more different, even though they have similar themes. I only wish Wargames could have been as brilliant as Doctor Strangelove. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’m just so fond of it. There was no way I could copy it, but it did speak to me.”

What spoke to Badham was another thing.

“The best thing in the world, character,” Badham recalled. “You fall in love with a boy, 15-6 years old, who is over his head and you know it. Even he doesn’t realize how deep he’s in. I got caught up in his adventure. I couldn’t help but be charmed and fall in love with him. That’s what attracted me to it. Our hero could have been in many other kinds of dilemmas.

“The whole thing about hacking and computers, to me, was what Hitchcock used to call the McGuffin. I didn’t know much about them at the time. In fact, virtually nothing. I was spending a lot of time scrambling just to understand what a lot of our tech guys were doing. It got to the point where I almost knew too much about computers.”

Another interesting thing about the movie was Badham wasn’t even the original director on the project.

“If you look into it, you’d learn I replaced another wonderful director, Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop, Scent of a Woman, Meet Joe Black). He had actually shot for a couple of weeks. He just got into huge fights with the producers. They didn’t like the tact he was taking with it. They wanted something that was lighter and funnier while he was pushing towards the dark side. I think that’s the difference between what Marty envisioned and what I and the producers envisioned.”

There were other considerations as well, Broderick and Sheedy were already on the film, and some scenes were already in the can. If that wasn’t enough, Broderick was having some very difficult problems of his own.

“He was a really nice kid. He was so confident for a guy his age,” says Badham. “He was funny, but never arrogant. Now I’ve worked with 20 year-olds who thought they were God’s gift. Matthew was a kid who was the son of a famous and respected actor, James Broderick, who was dying during the course of our movie. Matthew spent as much time in New York by his father’s bedside as he did on location with us. Every day he had off from us, he was flying back to New York. Then he’d come back. I’d say he had inherited the discipline and work ethic of his dad. It made him a true pleasure to work with.”

In spite of these obstacles, when Badham completed the film even the studio knew it had something real good in its hands.

“I always thought it would do very good,” said Badham. “The good thing was MGM/United Artists always believed in it. They actually spent a lot of money to fly us out to Cannes. We were actually the last movie on the schedule that year. That was a very expensive deal for them. I wasn’t complaining. I was going to Cannes!”

The end result was for an investment of $14 million, MGM/UA got a return of $84 million at the box office. Yes, that seems like chump change compared to the likes of Dark Knight or Spidey III, but in 1983 a film making back six times its investment and nearly hitting $100 million was nothing to sneeze at.

“[Wargames talked about a subject] which nobody believed at that time, except for kids,” says Badham. “The attitude at the studio was this is a kids’ movie. They thought of it as a huge cartoon. Nowadays it’s just the opposite. What the studios also didn’t know is these kids were all over the place, and they didn’t know it. Computer crime was still in bedrooms and things like that. Even the FBI and organizations like that were only starting to get into the damage that could be done.”

As for Badham? With the coming of the new millennium, he started leaving film behind to go back to his roots, directing TV. He says he loves it, too.

“I like to keep working,” he confesses. “I’m not like some of my friends who get snooty about it. I don’t like sitting around. I have fun making the movie. It’s delightful. I’m always doing stuff.

“I’ve got three different movies in various stages of development. One may actually go into production in a few weeks. Still, making movies is just getting harder and harder to find things that I really like. I see a lot of things I just say no too. I understand people and characters, and that has become the domain of TV.

“I’ve done some wonderful TV movies for HBO. They will try things that no one else would dare. I’ve also worked on some wonderful series like Heroes. Tim Kring is terrific to work for. I also did The Shield, Crossing Jordan and Joshua Tree. I have an episode of Psyche coming up, too.”

One shouldn’t be surprised if there’s another Wargames in his future, either.

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