With the beloved ‘80s family film FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR enjoying a brand new, fully restored Blu-ray release (read our 10/10 review here), it was the perfect time to spend some time with its director RANDAL KLEISER…
STARBURST: You'd enjoyed huge success in the past, with your first feature film Grease and then later The Blue Lagoon, but stepping forward to 1987 and Flight of the Navigator, what's your overriding memory of working on that film?
Randal Kleiser: Well, I'd always enjoyed sci-fi and I think this was my first time doing sci-fi and visual effects. Visual effects and sci-fi were always two of my great loves, so I was very excited about it. There had been a lot of movies about space and flying saucers and all of that, that were shot in a typical fashion, and I wanted to figure out a way to do something different, something that hadn't been seen before. That was my biggest interest in it, to enter the world of visual effects and try something new.
It was certainly something new. That great ‘80s era still dominates pop culture to this day and Flight of the Navigator is right up there. I noticed during our research that your brother Jeffrey Kleiser was involved with the visual effects.
That's right, he has always been on the cutting edge of visual effects. He went to university and there were no visual effects or computer graphics professors or courses, so he found somebody and had them convince the university to start teaching it. He worked on the original TRON, so he's been there since the very beginning, always doing new things, so I went to see him when I was starting Flight of the Navigator to see if there were any new things he could show me. He had this commercial of a Tide bottle, for laundry, that was changing shape and I said can we make a spaceship do that and he said sure. He also showed me some other stuff where they were doing reflectance mapping, which is taking the background and wrapping it onto a wireframe computer model and turning it into a mirrored surface, so that's how it all came about.
It's the sweetest story, especially looking back now. How did the project come to you? Did you seek it out, did it pass by your desk, or did people come to you?
I know that I didn't seek it out, it came to me in some way at Disney. I worked with Jeff Katzenberg on Grease. He was at Paramount and he came over to Disney, so I think they called me in to see if I'd be interested and I jumped all over it because of my interest in sci-fi.
It's a simple enough story: an alien spaceship and a boy lost in time, but with that comes a lot of special effects. There were effects elements in Grease, as there are in most films, but how did you adapt to that, given that this was your first true sci-fi film?
Because of my brother, because he was the one leading the way and showing me how to do all of this. He was doing it in commercials, so he knew how to do all of that stuff, he was the leader of that. We also had a guy called Peter Donan who had done a lot of visual effects movies, and some of them were done the standard way with opticals, and the digital spaceship was a first.
Disney didn't seem to be making too many live-action fantasy films in the mid ‘80s, so what made them take a chance on something like Flight of the Navigator when it wasn't their forte?
Well, I believe they were doing a lot of live-action films, they started a company called Hollywood Pictures and Disney Pictures as well as a third unit, so there was a lot of live-action stuff coming out but they were under different names, it wasn't all under Disney. Hollywood Pictures was doing most of the live-action.
The film was perfectly cast, with Joey Cramer as David, Paul Reubens as the voice of Max, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Carolyn. Because it's always key to get the right people in the right roles, how did that process come together?
Yeah, the casting was by Valorie Massalas. I always rely on the casting director to bring in the best people. In this case Veronica Cartwright was in Alien, I loved her in that movie, and the great part about it was to be able to have her look so young and beautiful in the first part and then age, the same with Cliff De Young, we did some tricks to make them look older and then younger.
Sarah Jessica Parker would notably go on to great success and you also worked with Paul Reubens…
I'd met Paul and I knew him, and I asked him if he wanted to do the voice and he did, but he didn't want to have credit for some reason. He wanted to have it be mysterious and use the name Paul Mall instead of Paul Reubens [laughs]. He sort of stayed in the background on this project, didn't do any publicity for it. He's an unusual guy and he has quirks and I guess that was one of them.
Now it's available once again on a remastered Blu-ray edition, how pleased are you with the new version of the film?
It's great, I was able to go back and polish it up, take out dirt and the ageing process of film and make the colours brighter. The extras are quite nice, we went back into the archives and found screen tests and visual effects tests to see how we slowly moved towards this way of doing the spaceship. We have tests with silver paint and with mylar, trying to find ways to do it before we discovered the digital way. All those funny tests on there look really silly, they didn't work.
FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR is out now on a limited edition Blu-ray release from Second Sight Films, available below.