There's no doubt that anyone who grew up in the 1980s felt the impact of director John Badham's work. In fact, all computer geeks and gamers who were born post-1983 can thank Badham for helping to usher in two completely life-changing eras. Not only did Badham helm such '80s favorites as Blue Thunder, Short Circuit, and Stakeout, he was the director who kick-started both the computer and video game revolutions simultaneously with the groundbreaking film War Games. Oh yeah... In case you didn't know, on top of his long list of credits, John Badham also directed Saturday Night Fever, one the most musically significant movies of all time.
After 25 years, the sequel to War Games finally makes its way to DVD (July 29) in the form of War Games: The Dead Code, starring Matt Lanter and Amanda Walsh, about a computer geek who engages a government super-computer during an online terrorist simulation only to become a government target. To celebrate the release of the sequel, The Deadbolt employed the latest state-of-the-art technology to track down John Badham to talk about the original War Games, how he worked with the government and visited NORAD, how President Ronald Reagan used the film as a visual aid for his Star Wars defense plan, why it took so long for a sequel, and what type of computer he had in 1983.
THE DEADBOLT: So how does it feel to be the big screen father of geek?
JOHN BADHAM: [laughs] You know, it’s so funny, because when I started this movie I didn’t even know how to boot-up a computer. I thought boot-up was when you got kicked out or something, and I was scrambling to learn. I’d been around computers, but I never really messed with them. Now I know too much, more than I ought to be knowing - waste more time, spend more time.
THE DEADBOLT: It seems crazy that anyone at the studio would understand the concept in order to get behind it.
BADHAM: I understand what you’re saying. But there were kids' movies and kids didn’t account for very much of the audience. And you’ll know this is if you look into the history of E.T., that Steven [Spielberg] had it turned down at Columbia, I believe, and they said, "No, we don’t want to do this." And he took it over to his old pals at Universal and they said, "Well, okay, if we can do it for ten million dollars." And he said, "Okay, I’ll do my best." It was because they said it was a children’s movie. And War Games was seen by the very same studio smart enough to do E.T. and was dumb enough to say about War Games, "Oh, it’s a kid’s movie. Kids play with computers, adults don’t." At that time, the use of the computer was in the accounting departments and with geeks, as you say.
But there wasn’t any use for it. There were these things called word processors that were like huge copy machines and you just went, "What? What is all of that about?" So nobody really understood. And yet what appealed to me about the story was - here’s this young guy, 15-16, that gets into something over his head that he doesn’t understand, that’s bigger than all of us, and he’s scared bananas and is trying to wrestle with it. I just thought that was so much fun and delightful that I couldn’t wait to work on it.
THE DEADBOLT: Since hackers, modems, and super-computers weren’t mainstream back in 1983, how did you ensure the accuracy of the science and technology?
BADHAM: Well, I gotta tell you, the research guys on this were kind of state-of-the-art themselves. They knew all of this stuff that was a subculture, kind of underground. The writers, Walter Parkes and Larry Lasker, were kind of secret hackers themselves, and Larry Lasker’s parents were friends with the Reagans. Now what that meant was, Walter and Larry were able to get access to NORAD as VIPs and they got taken down in there and had it all explained to them and everything - how it works, because you can go down there as a VIP. In fact, we put that scene in the movie.
The funny thing is that the real NORAD room isn’t very big at all. It’s kind of like: take about fifteen computers, line them up side by side, and you got it. You know some of those rooms you see when the space shuttle goes off? Those are big compared to this. And then there would be a big plate glass window sitting behind all of those technicians, and inside was a big boardtable where a bunch of generals could sit, I guess, and look through the plate glass. When I finally got to go there after the movie, the general running NORAD was saying, "Oh, my gosh. We only wish we had a place like you had in the movie. That was so cool," he said.
THE DEADBOLT: What did you think when you heard that Ronald Reagan screened it with members of Congress?
BADHAM: I thought it was just the funniest thing ever, because he was talking about the Star Wars Initiative. And they’re trying to explain to him why it was so hard to make it work. And of course they were right. He said, "Well, I just saw this movie the other... Mommy [Nancy], I saw this movie...."
THE DEADBOLT: Basically, he was using it as a visual guide.
BADHAM: Yeah, absolutely, that's what was going on.
THE DEADBOLT: Looking back now, what was the one thing you were most naive about with regard to how any of it would play out in the future?
BADHAM: Well, the little bit of the Arpanet that you could see at that time if you got online. You know, Arpanet we now call the Internet was just like being on a DOS screen. Black screen, a few tiny letters, and you had to type in what looked like gibberish to fight your way to stuff. And if you got to a site, it was more gibberish. The idea that people would sell things and buy thing was, honest-to-God, beyond anybody’s imagination. One friend of mine who worked at Apple at the time was telling me, "Yeah, this internet thing is great. But nobody knows how to make any money from it." So it was something beyond our comprehension because the technology wasn’t there to get the visuals.
THE DEADBOLT: Well, before there were images or thumbnails.
BADHAM: Yeah, and you’re not going to buy stuff off of just text, unless you really knew it and could depend on it. Even then you’d have to be kind of nerdy to trust it that much.
THE DEADBOLT: What type of computer did you have back then?
BADHAM: The first one I got was an Apple, a 256k, the first Mac, and we got that for Short Circuit. So I didn’t even have a computer when we did War Games. Well, War Games is pre-Mac, which was 1984, and so the only kinds of computers were just really taunting.
THE DEADBOLT: I don’t think ATMs or bank machines were around back then either.
BADHAM: Oh god, no. Bank machine? What’s that? That was just like a miracle. You know, people say the greatest thing since sliced bread - "My God, we can go any hour of the day or night and get money." So '86 would’ve been my first computer and at 256k. I went down to get it upgraded, because they had a program called Hypercard and you needed one megabyte of memory to run it. I had to go to a "specials" shop and I said, "What’s the most memory you can put on these computers?" And they said, "Oh, we've got new ones that’ll put eight megabytes of memory on." And you’re going, "Whoa!"
THE DEADBOLT: My cell phone could run circles around that.
BADHAM: My first laptop was given to me by John Scully, who ran Apple at the time, and the hard drive on it was forty megabytes. [laughs] And my friend Daniel Ball at Apple said, "Yeah, we know. It’s not enough. It’s already crowded." And I said, "Oh yeah, right. I could figure that out."
THE DEADBOLT: So after 25 years, why did it take so long for a second War Games movie to get made?
BADHAM: I worked on it, I’d say ten years ago. I worked on a story and after several months and talking to many writers we came to the conclusion that the heart of War Games, the soul of it, was an idea whose time had passed. The idea of the primitiveness of the internet and so on. And we kept trying to get beyond that into whatever would be the new thing that would have that kind of appeal. You now, innocence against big technology. And we never solved it. We commissioned a couple of scripts and they didn’t really lick it. We just finally had to give up, and MGM gave up. So I’m glad that they’ve come back in and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
THE DEADBOLT: Technology is so hard to keep on top of these days, it changes so fast.
BADHAM: Everything, and yet we were light years ahead of everything. And to have an impact, you kind of have to be that way. You have to be way ahead. You know there have been plenty of computer hacker movies since then, but they just kind of build on what we already had and were just kind of fanciful things of guys sitting there pounding on keyboards. And, you know, that’s pretty dull unless you’re the guy pounding on the keyboard trying to break something.