Watched a documentary last not on REELZ – the subject was the filming and production of Saturday Night Fever – the classic from 1977.
The idea for the film came from an article which appeared in “New York Magazine” in 1976 authored by Nik Cohn. His article was titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” which was put forth as a factual account of the then New York disco scene.
He set out one night to visit New York discos and gather his facts. It didn’t happen. He was forced to retreat to his apartment in Manhattan after he got caught up in the middle of an altercation outside “2001 Odyssey” – a popular discog spot. Someone threw up on his pants leg – and being a proper Brit – he needed clean trousers.
And so his final article was mostly fabricated due to Cohn’s unfamiliarity with the NY Disco Scene having only recently arrived from the U.K. Many years later in the mid 1990’s Cohn would finally admit that he had submitted nothing but fiction. He stated that at the time of the article he believed that it was obviously fiction and surprised when New York Magazine proceeded with it as nothing but the truth.
The making of Saturday Night Fever probably should never have happened
From the get-go Saturday Night Fever was operating on a shoe string. Funds were extremely limited and so the cast and crew had to skimp and save – taking creative shortcuts wherever possible. No one really believed in the movie – thinking it at best a passing fad.
With such a restricted budget a lineup of unknowns were employed – other than John Travolta coming from “Welcome Back Cotter”. They picked the right guy – He was more than up to the task.
One of the main actors – Donna Pescow who portrayed “Annette” wanted dearly to land a spot in the movie but was told she was too pretty to be Annette who trailed “Tony Manero” around like a puppy. Donna boldly added on 40 pounds – went back to polish her Brooklyn accent – bringing it back to the streets – and got the job. In spite of her efforts – Donna was still pretty darn cute!
Initially John G. Avildsen was chosen as director for the film but didn’t agree with producer Robert Stigwood and so was replaced by John Badham. Avildsen went on to directr the first “Rocky” and later “Rocky V”. He also directed “The Karate Kid” and “The Karate Kid II”.
No Clothes & No Black Suit
When it was time to select clothing for Travolta’s famous disco dance scene on the illuminated floor, he was adamant that he must wear all black. John had watched a cool New Yorker decked out in black and decided then and there that black it had to be.
The film’s female costume designer met with Travolta and pointed out to him that black simply wouldn’t cut it. She explained how the dark background of the disco would engulf John making it difficult for the camera’s to pick him up. And so it was onto white – and iconic decision for sure.
Speaking of low budget and clothes – Travolta personally hit the streets of New York in an attempt to locate appropriate New York clothing for the cool cats appearing in the film including himself. New clothing was very costly and so he began to visit the used shops. Finally at one shop he described what he was looking for – The proprietor said that the threads John was describing were no longer on the clothing racks – But!!!….
Said proprietor said he had boxes and boxes of those no longer sought out fashions in his back room. Bingo! “Tony Manero”, “Joey”, “Bobby C” and company were now ready for the “Fever”.
Due to lack of police or street security many of the scenes had to be filmed almost entirely without security – At first hundreds of people would gather due mainly to the presence of Travolta – Soon the crowds would grow to the 1,000’s presenting a big problem when it came to creating a natural environment for the street scenes.
Well, there was plenty of dancing but Travolta – who is a great dancer – had strong ideas for the steps and moves he wanted executed – However, there was something subtle missing and it would be up to Deney Terrio to bring the scenes to life with a touch of ‘soul’. But in one instance, Deney suddenly disappeared from the set – taking another job – unannounced to the Saturday Night Fever powers. Travolta wouldn’t miss a beat and instead worked directly with Deney’s female assistant to come up with the iconic steps and moves for the fantastic disco lighted floor scene – one of the best ever.
No Bee Gees??
The Bee Gees were initially not wanted for Saturday Night Fever. And more specifically – it was a Boz Scaggs number that the music staff chose for rehearsal scene – that being “Lowdown”. Scaggs would have nothing to do with – instructing his manager to make certain his “Lowdown” was not used! Scaggs was apparently thinking at the time that he would be doing his own ‘disco’ musical project. A substitute instrumental was quickly put together by music producer David Shire instead.
Enter the Brothers Gibb – Stigman had the insight to make sure they had a big hand in the sound track – but they weren’t involved from the get go and in fact quickly worked on songs for the film in a rush.
And the result? One of the most successful long plays in the history of music! The LP on Stigman’s own RSO label eventually sold over 45 million units and remained at Billboard’s top spot for 24 consecutive weeks! It was the Bee Gee’s first number one long play (they would have two more both consecutively following “Saturday Night Fever” – those being “Spirits Having Flown” and “Bee Gee’s Greatest” – both on RSO.
No PG Rating
Some producers of the film wanted to keep the film’s language and the running plot squeaky clean but a decision was finally made to permit much of the ‘street language’ which was in the final cut. More difficult was the decision to included the ‘rape’ scene with Tony, Annette and the boys in the back seat of their car with Annette. All of the male actors had a very difficult time with this scene – not wanting to participate in it with their close friend Donna Pescow portraying Annette. Travolta was so upset that he insisted on not turning from his position in the front seat of the car to look back at what was going on.
The scene remained as one of two very somber moments in the film the other being the bridge scene with a distraught ‘Joey’.
One final wrong that needed righting….. Throughout the many long hours of dance scenes rehearsals, the actors and dancers danced to rather raw direct takes of the Bee Gee’s “Saturday Night Fever” track. Then finally it was that time to insert the final mixed down track complete with full orchestration into the final film cut.
Horror of horrors! When the editor’s proceeded to sync up sound and film – they discovered that the final master tape mix was slower than the raw cuts! This sent everyone into a frantic panic.
Needless to say – a lot of engineering – tweaking and improvising was required to smooth that magical dance scene into the perfect mix we all came to know and love. Sound and film technology was not nearly as advanced back then. But the day was saved for the those ‘New York Kids’ when they took to the dance floor on celluloid!