Old Friends and Teachers: An Interview With Randal Kleiser on the Upcoming DVD Release “Nina Foch: Directing the Actor”
I met director Randal Kleiser at a premiere screening at the Director’s Guild of America Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Our meeting at this premiere was brief and none-too-memorable. As a matter of fact, I simply told him, “I grew up on Big Top Pee-Wee,” which he of course had directed. He met this with a polite thank you and went about the business of schmoozing. Now, what I had told him was an honest statement but, in all honesty, how are you going to begin any substantive conversation with that? In any case, as Pee-Wee himself would sardonically exclaim, “I love that story!”.
A few months later, however, we better acquainted ourselves at a Midwestern film festival where I was premiering my film A Collection of Chemicals and where he was being honored for a lifetime of work. This, after all, is the man who gave us beloved mainstream American films like Grease, Flight of the Navigator, The Blue Lagoon and many others. An appearance in George Lucas’ student short film Freiheit is also noteworthy (he and Lucas were college roommates and remain friends to this day). Offhandedly one day, he mentioned that he was working on promoting a directing workshop somehow centered around the teachings of actress Nina Foch. When I told him that I was an admirer of the classic Hollywood actress’ work and rattled off a few of my favorite performances of hers, including her role as Dyan Cannon’s cartoonishly vain pseudo-beauty-queen mother in Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends, he informed me that he had been on the set of that film as an observer in 1970. I got all misty-eyed.
The festival ended as all things do, and we found ourselves together at the airport, catching the same connecting flight home, on separate coasts mind you. When we parted, I gave him a copy of my film and asked him to stay in touch. His mention of the Nina Foch project lingered on my mind and, for many months, I wondered about the specifics of it.
Some months later, I called Randal up to ask about something technical (i.e. pertinent to the pre-production of my upcoming movie project). At this time, I then asked him if he would be willing to sit down for a phone interview to talk about the Nina Foch project, of which I had just superficial knowledge. Little did I know that the project had its roots as far back as 1965 during Kleiser’s tenure as a film student at University of Southern California, at which time he himself was a student of Foch’s.
He informed me that 200 hours of footage had been recorded of Nina Foch teaching her “Directing the Actor” class at USC. shot over the span of fifteen weeks. Foch passed away in December of 2008 and, in her wake, Kleiser and others have been aiming to package Foch’s videotaped classes to new and upcoming generations of writers, directors and actors, intending to market them to a DVD audience. The DVD package will be entitled “Nina Foch: Directing the Actor” and will be available in early 2010 (with no exact date set at this time).
DK: Can you discuss your relationship to Nina Foch and this project?
RK: When I took Nina’s class way back in 1965, it was the most amazing class I had ever taken and, in retrospect, I’d say it still is the most valuable film-school course I have taken. I had long considered it an ambition to somehow record her teachings and to keep them for posterity because I was convinced that it would be a really great tool for teaching directors how to direct actors. In 2002, George Lucas financed the taping of a whole semester. The project then grew and morphed into an interactive DVD, with the theory being that the viewer can either play everything and take the whole course, or view specific lessons. What was recorded of her…there are details in directing the actor in all areas. You learn how to breakdown a script for one, and there is no way the worth of that can be overestimated. Nina had been at this for forty years and had made a lasting impression on such directors as John McTiernan, Amy Heckerling, Ron Underwood, many others. It wasn’t even just actors and directors she touched and influenced. Singers like Barry Manilow, Natalie Cole, Melissa Manchester, Julie Andrews, Neil Diamond. Nina taught them how to comport themselves on stage in the presence of an audience, how to command the space, how to make a performance more compelling and intriguing—this was all stuff that Nina taught like no one else taught it. Barry Manilow said, for one, that his whole career changed and that everything became fresh. He said that everytime he is on stage, he feels as if she is up there on the stage with him.
She also gives tips on how to treat the crew. She teaches you to never rely solely on your AD [assistant director] and how a director needs to be proactive and alert to the tasks of every department. She teaches you how to properly prepare for shooting a scene the night before you shoot it, how to be as organized as possible…for actors how there is a separate physical action for every line. There are so many things of value that actors and directors can learn, and so much knowledge to be accrued from her classes and her teachings.
DK: Do you have any of them talking about her influence on their careers on the DVD?
RK: Yes, we have gotten many of them commenting on how important and vital Nina had been to their careers, and they share anecdotes about her as well. Their interviews will be included in the final product.
DK: How are you going about distribution?
RK: We are initially going through USC. I just got a call from Sony, so there is a possibility of it being distributed over there. We’ve also gotten advice from George Lucas. Peter Broderick, who runs the site peterbroderick.com, has also been a help in terms of our distribution plans.
Below is a clip from Executive Suite (1954), for which Nina Foch was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
DK: You’ve worked with Nina Foch as her director?
RK: [laughing] I directed her twice, if you could really call it that. How can you direct the greatest directing teacher you’ve ever had? How can you direct someone as intelligent and naturally intuitive as Nina? Maybe you can imagine. I worked with her on It’s My Party (1996), which is my favorite of my own work. I worked with her on Shadow of Doubt (1998) with Melanie Griffith. I remember I was directing a scene with 500 extras in black tie. Nina was at a podium on one side of them, I was on the other on a crane. It got to the point where we were talking back and forth to each other over PA systems, saying things like, “Isn’t it great to still be working after all these years?!” That was one of my fondest on-set memories. She was one of my greatest friends as well as my greatest teacher. She just teachers you how to get in there in do your thing and do it right. I consider it something of a Bible for actors and directors, without question. It’s just going to be a great resource for people. Even for animators, it will be something of tremendous worth. She also teaches you how to light actors. For a woman who was sixty or seventy years in the business, she knew more than a great deal about that. She actually physically lit the set a couple times on my films.
DK: I now want to touch on something that is in a way related but is kind of a diegression.
DK: Back in 1965—I don’t know because I was not around then—but I can’t imagine anyone really and truly knowing about how accessible the film medium would become in the future. Nowadays, films can be made so easily and so cheaply within the digital form. A class that you take back in 1965 with Nina Foch would one day be available to not just USC students but everyone via a home-viewing format. With the development of the medium, with more stuff being produced, are you concerned with a loss of quality and the process of having to wade through the junk to get through the stuff of value and worth?
RK: One thing I’ve learned is that the cream always rises to the top. I know that the Sundance Film Festival has four times as many submissions for festival consideration as they once did so, as you were saying, there is more being produced and a lot of it isn’t good. But, again, I will say that the cream always rises to the top and if something is good, it will get seen. I went to a financial distribution seminar at the DGA a couple of nights ago. There were a lot of people present saying how everything in film distribution has changed completely, and how a great deal of personnel have moved over to television. They were also saying that there is little to no room for small films these days because they are competing with these other forums, and television is getting steadily more ambitious. Films get seen more and more online and work gets disseminated more easily. When I was learning to make films, that obviously didn’t exist. You had to physically schlep a film-print of your movie from venue to venue. There were no easy distribution avenues like there are today. Now, you can just log on to the Net and you can watch these shorts that people make on there. It’s completely different and everything has changed so absolutely. I am grateful and enormously thrilled that not just USC students can learn from Nina, but everyone with a DVD player can learn from her. There are many things to be grateful for in the digital age. I guess you could say Nina is one of them.
To view a tribute article written shortly after Nina Foch's passing, visit the ALT Film Blog.