Directing Disney's Flight of The Navigator: An interview with Randal Kleiser



Flight of The Navigator is one of many family based Science-fiction films of the 1980's but distinguishes itself thanks to a great premise and some revolutionary special effects. I talked to its director Randal Kleiser (Grease, Blue Lagoon) ahead of its upcoming Bluray release to discuss the films adventurous spirit and technical innovations and more!

Flight of The Navigator was one of the first films that got me interested in films when I was a kid. 35 years on and it's still as charming and as innovative as it's ever been

That's great to hear - wow! Do you have a brother?

I do and would actually go as far as to credit him, in part, as being a reason why it resonates with me so much
I find that a lot of people who love this movie have a brother and they imagine what it would be like to have a younger brother become an older brother. I've thought about that myself. I have 2 older brothers and it’s a universal theme; what it would be like and I think this movie explores that and it’s kind of trippy and interesting. You just wonder what that would be like to have to switch places.
I've always seen it as a film that took B-movie ideas and elevated those ideas to game changing effects. It bridged the gap between 2 era's of film-making and like many post Star Wars Sci-fi, seeked to appeal to children first. Battle Beyond The Stars was just one of them before Flight of The Navigator. Were you a fan of Roger Corman?
Absolutely. I love Roger Corman's movies. When I was a kid I always got 'Famous Monsters Of Filmland', a magazine, which showed behind the scenes of all the Sci-fi and Horror Films. It was the first movie magazine I was able to find as a young boy. I was so interested in becoming a movie director but there was nothing out there. There was no internet. There was no behind the scenes specials. There was nothing. 'Famous Monsters Of Filmland' was the only way I could see what was going on behind the scenes. 
The story goes that the original script for Flight of The Navigator changed several times and at one point wasn't well written. When you first read the original screenplay, what was it that connected you so much so that you were able to understand the story the way you did?
Ever since a kid I always loved Sci-fi movies. Sci-fi and Horrors films. The idea of getting to do one was real exciting to me and I wanted to find a way to make this particular movie different from all the other ones that I had seen. It was that challenge that I really wanted to do. I wanted to find some way of doing something different and striking, so that visually when you see this movie, it doesn't look like all the other ones. 
The film's story starts in 1978, a year already personal to yourself for having released Grease, which went on to becoming the highest grossing Film of that year. Was there much pressure, if any at all, from Disney to make as much at The Box-office as Grease, or more?
When you're making a film, nobody is talking about box office except they're trying to make it as commercial as possible. There were two companies involved: Disney tried to make it a family movie and a company called Producers Sales Organisation tried to make an action film. I was caught in the middle of these two producers but Disney had more power, so it's mostly a Disney film, but there are action sequences that were pushed by the other company.
You just mentioned the word power. How hands on was Disney in the production?
They were pretty hands on, you know. They always are. Every step of the way from the design of the ship, to the dialogue, to the casting. 
It’s the second film released under Disney to feature profanity. How do you feel that Disney has impacted its identity as it's adapted within the 21st century?
I grew up loving Walt Disney. I had a map of Disneyland hanging over my bed when I was a kid. In terms of the profanity I don't remember the profanity in Flight of The Navigator.  What was in there? I don't remember.
The word Bastard is used among the word shit. I'm not sure if you recall but you touch on it briefly in the films commentary with Dimitri Villard
That's possible. There's a commentary I did for a UK release a few years ago. The new release is the second release in the UK. With this one we went back and did all the visuals. We took out the dirt and fluffed it up and did all this technical stuff to it.
Can you take me through the process of restoring Second-Sights brand new 4K scan?
In the old days, to get the colour correction right, you used to sit next to a technician and look at the movie together and then you would say; "that shot looks a little blue", or "that looks a little pink, let’s fix it", but the movie was running at the time. It would go by and the guy would write down the note, but meanwhile there were eight other shots that went by. It was very frustrating. The way we do it now is in a digital and media session, usually in which you sit with the guy and he's sitting beside you and he can go through each shot individually. For this one since I'm in L.A. Second-Sight sent me one reel at a time and on my computer I could go frame by frame and make notes and tell them "here's a dirt scratch" or something like that. "Let’s take that out". That type of thing.
I read it described in the press release as a painstaking process. I'm presuming it was Therapeutic as well.  How long did the process take?
It took a few weeks but I was doing other things at the time and I don't mind it. I'm kind of a perfectionist and the idea of taking this movie that is 35 years old and fluffing it up so it looks like it was yesterday was exciting to me!
It's never looked better than this
I haven't seen it yet. I don't have a copy yet. I'm glad to hear that.
Do you think that it’s harder for people like you, of your generation or your sensibility, to get well-budgeted personal films made in the system, than it was when you were starting out, or even than it was five years ago? 
It's always been tough to do those kinds of films because they're usually not that commercial. I had the chance to do two a few years ago. It’s my Party and Getting It Right were two movies that I did that I really wanted to make myself. Today there are so many other ways of getting your film out, even if you self publish it and get it out on the internet. There's ways for people to see it. Now there's Apple and iTunes and different ways for distribution. 
Can you talk about some of the short cuts you made with Flight Of The Navigator to reduce costs and achieve visual tricks cheaper?
That's right! You read about that, huh. At the time we made Flight of The Navigator visual effects were very, very expensive. Well, they weren't digital first of all, they were optical effects. They cost about $30,000 for every shot as I recall. Rather than doing that, I decided to hire Doug Henning the magician to give us some ideas on what effects we could do in the camera using the type of stuff that you do on a stage.  One of the shots that he did was when the boy was walking up the steps, the close up of his feet going up the steps.  Also when the little kid is at the Florida gas station when they push on the steps exploding there. Doug Hemmings idea was to have steel rods on the other side of the steps holding it up, so that made it look very real. It was a stage trick, not an optical trick, not a movie trick. 
What are your thoughts on the special effects used in cinema today?
I think that people are so used to visual effects that they've lost a lot of their allure, especially in a lot of the Marvel films where they have so many effects that are just shooting you in the face like a fire-hose blasting at your face. You can't really appreciate them too much because there's just too many of them. We did some forced perspectives in Flight of The Navigator as well as Honey I shrunk The Audience, which I kind of like, rather than relying on digital effects. 
The design of the spaceship alone is enough reason for anybody to want to storm area 51 in September. What was the conception for the design of the spaceship? 
The design of the ship was done by a young artist named Edward Eyth who I ran into when I was visiting an effects house. He was in the lobby with his book of drawings. I said "Hi, what's your name" and he said "Ed". He showed me his book and I thought "Wow, this guy is really talented" and so we hired him to be a consultant and he came up with all the designs of the ship.
You once shared a house with George Lucas who released Howard The Duck the same year as Flight Of The Navigator, which would later find it's own cult audience within its own right. Did you have any dialogue with Lucas during the production of Flight of The Navigator at all?
I spoke to George about having a mirrored Spaceship and he said "you better not do that because you'll see the camera and it'll be really hard to shoot, but I decided to do it anyhow and I'm glad I did. 
What are your memories of spending time with him as house mates?
I remember going to movies with him. We went to lots of movies together and sort of worked on each other's student films. I was an actor in his first movie and he was a camera man on my first movie.   
How did you find a balance as an adult making Flight of The Navigator between what you personally remember your childhood attitude was and how you felt about the audience and what their childhood was like in contrast?
I just always make films that I think I'd like to see. I don't think much about the audience because I figure if I like it they'll like it, you know?
You've been vocal in the past about it featuring elements of ET, a film which fundamentally is a movie about a boy affected by the pain of his parents' divorce, where as Flight of The Navigator is a film in part about a boy’s parents affected by their son's absence. How redeeming was it for you to make a picture that cured its audiences as universally as it has and still does?
That's an interesting observation. I did not ever think about that but you're right about that analysis. I thought that E.T. was fantastic! I loved it and went to the premier of it. I just thought it was terrific! When I got the script for Flight of The Navigator I knew that there were sort of elements of E.T. in it but I wanted to try to do something that was different. I tried to make it as different as I could from E.T.
Can you remember the first time you met Spielberg?
I first met Steven when we got our first jobs at Universal working on a TV show called Marcus Welby. We were both very young and in our twenties and the studio had seen our student films and so hired us to direct Television. 
How has your relationship with nostalgia changed over the years?
Well, I've done quite a few movies that have that feel. I mean Grease has a nostalgic feel and Blue Lagoon does. I like to make films about relationships that change with time.  
And how do you feel that your relationship with cinema has changed with time?
I guess I look back on the movies I've made in the past and see them as part of the old Hollywood. Now there's a whole new way of doing things and I've been embracing that. I've been working in the field of Virtual and augmented reality recently and experimenting with that stuff. I find that really fun because its stimulating and like going back to film school and trying new things. There's a virtual reality series I did called Defrost, which can be found at defrostvr.com. It's also on Samsung and all the different platforms and you can download it on to your phone and watch it in Virtual reality. I also did a music video for Paramount and intel using the song You're the One That I Want from Grease, where we have 20 dancers who we captured volumetrically with 76 cameras and they become Avatars that can dance under your table. 
Did you have any idea that you were making what would become for so many one of the last gasps of a type of innocent film when you were making Flight of The Navigator?
No, no - no idea of that. As a matter of fact when the movie came out, it was a modest movie. It wasn't a big hit when it came out but I think over the years with VHS and DVD it’s gotten a cult following. 
Of all your films, which one would you say was the best happiest experience making it?
I really liked the movie I did in England called Getting it Right because I got to work with Sir John Gielgud and Lynn Redgrave and Helena Bonham Carter and Jane Horrocks. It was just a wonderful cast. Peter Cook! It was a small little movie but I really enjoyed working with English actors. 
Rob Zemeckis once said that they would only remake Back to the Future literally over his dead body. Is there a film of yours that you feel that way about? Outside of box office and popularity, is there a film that you just feel personally that strongly about?
I don't think Grease needs to be remade. It holds up. It works fine, so why redo it?
Are you able to speak on the viral fan theory that Sandy is really dead in Grease?
It's just a joke. I mean, we started out with the animation at the beginning because we wanted to be set up as a bigger than life musical. It was not supposed to be real and at the end we ended up with them flying away in the car just to remind that it was all just kind of a lark. 
What's next for Randal Kleiser?
I have a book that's coming October 22nd called Grease Directors Notebook, where I go through all the stuff about that and all the photos and behind the scenes.
Thanks for your contributions to cinema and taking time out of your schedule to talk to me Randall
It's been nice talking to you. This was a nice interview.

Flight of The Navigator is released on the 26th August and is available to pre-order now at Second-Sight films.



Written by Luke 'Menace' Bailey

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