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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“The Ultimate ’80s Guilty Pleasure Movie”: Randal Kleiser on Summer Lovers

Daryl Hannah, Peter Gallagher and Valérie Quennessen in Summer Lovers

Has there ever been another summer for American movies like the summer of 1982? From the release of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian on May 14 to the exploitation double-whammy of Class of 1984 and The Beastmaster on August 20, virtually every week saw the release of one or more spectacularly enjoyable films across a wide array of genres. The summer gave us a pair of Spielberg classics (E.T., Poltergeist) and numerous seminal science fiction films (Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing were released on the same day); teen comedies both high (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Last American Virgin) and low (Zapped!); smart, expertly crafted entertainments for adults (An Officer and a Gentleman, The World According to Garp, Night Shift) and kids (The Secret of NIMH); and idiosyncratic, ambitious auteur films on a scale unlikely in today’s Hollywood (Alan Parker’s The Wall, Paul Mazursky’s Tempest). Even the conventional cash-grabs were more diverse than what we’re used to today: Cheech & Chong and Chuck Norris (and Kenny Rogers!) vehicles, sequels that took their series in new directions (The Road Warrior, Rocky III, Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D), and not one but two enormous musicals (Annie and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas).

As Henry Hill would say, it was a glorious time, and right in the middle of it (on July 16, the same day Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was released) came Randal Kleiser’s deliriously sensual Summer Lovers. Kleiser was coming off of two commercial triumphs – Grease and The Blue Lagoon – and used his enviable position to write and direct a uniquely American take on Eric Rohmer’s sunlit explorations of infidelity and infatuation. Summer Lovers follows a young American couple (Peter Gallagher and Daryl Hannah) as they vacation in the Greek islands and come under the spell of a European woman (Valérie Quennessen), ultimately entering into a ménage a trois; under Kleiser’s relaxed but precise direction, their romantic adventures are incredibly erotic without ever coming across as “dirty” or smarmy. Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of Summer Lovers is the innocence both its protagonists and the film itself project – arriving between the sexual revolution and AIDS, the film has a wistful, lighthearted quality that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier or later.  Gloriously photographed in a palette of tan skin against white sand and blue water, Summer Lovers has never been properly presented on home video until now. After years of boxy full-frame editions, the good people at Twilight Time have finally given Summer Lovers the Blu-ray it deserves: a gorgeous widescreen transfer accompanied by indispensable extras, including a commentary track by Kleiser.

A week before the Blu-ray’s release I spoke with Kleiser at his Hollywood office, where I was lucky enough to get a look at some of his current and future productions. Having left the grind of studio filmmaking behind to follow his own muse, the director is now engaged in a series of innovative projects, the most fascinating of which is a narrative virtual reality film entitled Defrost. That short (possibly to be expanded into a series), which premiered at the Directors Guild of America’s Digital Day this year, is a stunning 360-degree experience that utilizes the immersive quality of virtual reality as an expressive storytelling tool; in one elaborately choreographed long take, Kleiser places the viewer in the shoes of a woman waking up from a coma in the future and uses his technology to develop an ever-increasing sense of dread and paranoia. It’s a remarkable work, and just one of Kleiser’s current obsessions – he’s also finishing up a documentary about his high school classmates for which he has been shooting footage for fifty years (a kind of American variation on 7 Up), and has, with the help of his old classmate George Lucas, produced a DVD and online version of Nina Foch’s legendary USC acting class. That DVD, available at http://www.ninafochdvd.com, is positively essential viewing for aspiring filmmakers and actors, a crash course in directing and acting for the screen that covers virtually every performance-related issue that can arise on set.

Filmmaker: You had written in film school, but Summer Lovers was your first produced original screenplay after directing other people’s scripts on Grease and The Blue Lagoon. What was your starting point when you sat down to write?

Kleiser: I was doing a press tour for The Blue Lagoon and one of the journalists told me he had just gotten back from the Greek islands, where there were a lot of young people running around naked on the beaches. That got my attention [laughs]. It sounded like there might be a movie idea there, so I took a trip to the islands and observed what was going on. I started thinking about the French films by Truffaut and Rohmer where there were a lot of ménages a trois, and that gave me the idea of doing something like those French films but with an American sensibility, about an American couple.

Filmmaker: You had worked with Truffaut’s cinematographer earlier, right?

Kleiser: That’s right, Nestor Almendros – who also worked with Rohmer – shot The Blue Lagoon for me. In the case of Summer Lovers, I was thinking about those French films but I also wanted it to be commercial for an American audience. The movie has a reputation for being very commercial – people think of it as the ultimate ’80s guilty pleasure movie, though it actually wasn’t that successful when it came out. I had developed it at Columbia, where I made The Blue Lagoon, but they passed on it and then all the other major studios passed on it too – they were very skittish about the bisexuality, even though we don’t really show it. I wanted to make a movie that would appeal to straight guys’ fantasies, so the women aren’t actually seen having sex with each other – it’s all focused on the guy, and that was purposeful to make it commercial. Though the movie also appeals to women, strangely enough, I guess because the friendship between Daryl and Valérie comes across well. 

Filmmaker: It’s got an interesting tone, in that it’s sexy but it’s also really innocent and sweet.

Kleiser: Well, the sexy part is the French influence, and the sweet part probably came from trying to make it palatable to general audiences. Anyway, all the studios turned Summer Lovers down until George Litto at Filmways decided to make it, and he was going to launch a major campaign behind the movie. Unfortunately, Orion bought Filmways during post, and as you have probably heard or experienced yourself, when a studio changes hands it kills the movie. It went from having an eight million-dollar ad campaign to virtually nothing.      

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the casting. You had three very strong actors in the leads —

Kleiser: Yes, we had that wonderful actress Valérie Quennessen, who I knew from my friend John Milius’s film Conan…right after the movie came out she was killed in a car crash. She had a child who was around six years old at the time, and about four years ago he wrote to me and asked to see Summer Lovers. I sent him a copy and he wrote back that he was in tears after getting to see his mother for the first time since he was a child, as she was when she was alive and beautiful. It was really touching.         

I noticed Daryl Hannah in the Warner Bros. commissary when she was shooting Blade Runner. I saw her across the room and wrote her a note that said, “To the girl in the pink dress: if you are an actress please call this number for a screen test. This is not a joke.” I had the waitress pass along the note and then left, and Daryl called and she got the part. I originally had Dennis Quaid set to play Peter’s part, but on the Friday before we were supposed to start shooting – we were going to begin that Monday in Greece – Dennis called and said, “My wife won’t let me do this movie.” She didn’t want him running around the Greek islands naked with two women, so he dropped out. The next night I turned on the TV and was watching The Idolmaker; I called our casting lady and said, “Can we get Peter Gallagher?” So she called him, and the next day we were all in Greece.   

Filmmaker: Speaking of running around the islands naked…there is a lot of nudity in the film—

Kleiser: The terrible thing is that whenever it would show on TV they’d cut out all the nudity and you lost a lot of plot points. All of the dialogue when people are walking by naked was gone, so the movie made no sense at all.

Filmmaker: The movie must have been something like ten minutes long! How do you put your principal actors at ease when they have to play so many of their scenes with no clothes on?

Kleiser: Well, we were in an atmosphere where everyone on those beaches was naked, so that made it easier. In the beginning the actors were a little skittish, but then they were in the environment doing dialogue scenes with naked people walking all around them, and that loosened them up. I scheduled the lead actors’ naked scenes for the end to let them get comfortable, and by the time we got to them they were.

Filmmaker: I’m surprised to hear that Gallagher was cast so late in the game, because he and Daryl Hannah have incredible chemistry and ease with each other – they really feel like a couple that’s been together for a while and is familiar with each other.

Kleiser: A lot of their scenes are improvised – I just gave Peter and Daryl ideas and let them go. For example, there’s a scene where they’re in the bed after Lena has run off, and I wanted to show how their relationship had deteriorated. I told them the situation and asked them, “If this happened to you, how would you act?” They came up with that whole routine where they’re reading and talking about the books, which shows how awkward and loveless things have gotten.   

Filmmaker: Getting back to the nudity thing, not only do you have a lot of nude scenes with your principals, but the extras are naked through most of the movie.

Kleiser: Well, they were all there just hanging out on the beach, so they were happy to make some money and get a free lunch for what they’d be doing anyway – they were just kids on vacation, and they would swarm our set wanting to be in the movie.

Filmmaker: The movie gets a lot of texture from those extras, as well as the documentary shots of life around the island.

Kleiser: A lot of that footage was shot by Peter Collister, who had worked on Blue Lagoon as an assistant to Nestor and is now a big director of photography. He appears in the movie too – I used a lot of the crew in the movie in small parts.

Filmmaker: You also have that actor from Spetters, Hans von Tongeren, in a small role.

Kleiser: That was a total coincidence. We hadn’t cast the part – I don’t remember why – and Daryl ran into him, just vacationing. She came back to me and said, “Hey, the guy from Spetters is on the island!” We cast him and he fell in love with Daryl, and she was just not interested. Then after the movie, he killed himself in the same way that his character did in Spetters – he rode a wheelchair in front of a truck or something. At least that’s what I was told. Weird.    

Filmmaker: The locations in the film are positively gorgeous, but they don’t look all that accessible in terms of cameras and equipment – you’re on a lot of cliffs and ledges and in tight spaces…how did you get your equipment and crew in and out of the places where you were shooting?

Kleiser: We had to use donkeys – they were our grips and our Teamsters. You’d have guys riding donkeys up and down mountains holding Panavision cameras. We were also moving back and forth between islands; at one point we took a ship and filmed scenes on it along the way. All of the places where we were shooting came from my initial writing – I did a scout while I was working on the screenplay and wrote all those places in.

Filmmaker: Were your shots compromised by the terrain at all? In other words, did you have to modify your compositions according to the limitations of where you were shooting?

Kleiser: Just the opposite. Those islands are so stunning you can’t really get a bad shot. Everywhere you turn it’s beautiful. I loved the colors there – the blues and whites – and I experimented with filters to get rid of the haze and make the colors really pop. Of course, now in a digital intermediate you just turn a knob and you’ve got all the saturation you want.

Filmmaker: The actors are inherently beautiful too, but what do you do to help them along in terms of accentuating their attractiveness?

Kleiser: Well, first you shoot your actor from every possible angle and figure out what looks the best, but then the trick is usually that actors look best with long lenses and backlight. Good makeup is important too – initially Valerie’s makeup wasn’t right, and I was panicking until I remembered an artist friend of mine in Hollywood. He was a portrait artist – a painter – but I just had an instinct that he could fix the problem, so I flew him out in the middle of shooting and he did Valerie’s makeup and she was suddenly beautiful.

Filmmaker: I want to ask about the music in the film, which is a combination of source music – mostly pop songs of the time – and a synthesized score by Basil Poledouris. It’s kind of an unusual score for Poledouris, who is more known for sweeping orchestral work of the sort he did with Milius, or for you on The Blue Lagoon.

Kleiser: Well, I wanted an international pop score to reflect all the different cultures on the island, but I also wanted to use Basil because I thought he was fantastic. The feeling you have when you’re on the Greek islands is that music is everywhere, coming out of radios and shops, and it’s all in different languages and styles. So I listened to the top ten songs from every country I could think of and then laid them in throughout the movie; once I did that Basil came in and filled in the emotional parts with his score.

Filmmaker: Did the film change at all in the editing process, or was it pretty close to how you envisioned it from the beginning?

Kleiser: It stayed pretty close – I don’t remember losing any major scenes or moving them around much. Same thing with Blue Lagoon.

Filmmaker: Did you test screen it at all?

Kleiser: Yes, that was a nightmare. Once Orion took over the movie Mike Medavoy wanted to figure out what he had, so the decision was made to test it in Tempe, Arizona, where the university was supposedly a real party school. We brought our work print and projectors and showed the movie to college students there, and the moment nudity came on they all started cheering like crazy. Then the film broke and we had to fix it and start it up again. Again, as soon as there was nudity the kids went crazy – and again, it broke down. The splices just would not go through the projector. We couldn’t run it, and the students were screaming, “No, no, we want to see it!” It was pure horror for me, showing it to the new head of the studio that way, and we never did end up testing it again because Medavoy didn’t really care – it didn’t make sense for him to support it, because if a movie green-lit by his predecessor succeeds, everybody’s going to think, “Why’d we get rid of the old guy?”

Filmmaker: It’s interesting how you started out in that very corporate-driven type of filmmaking and have moved more toward—

Kleiser: Experimentation, yeah. When you’re working for the studios, they tell you who to cast, they tell you how to cut the movie…I’m tired of that. All I’m interested in now is generating my own material and doing things I haven’t done before. In addition to the documentary and the virtual reality experiments and everything else, I recently directed a play that we’re planning to take Off-Broadway. The hard part is getting it out there – you have to do your own publicity, your own distribution…you know, when I was working for the studios all I had to do was say action and cut. Now I have to do everything.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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