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Remind Me

Behind the Camera on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER

Shooting began on Saturday Night Fever in February 1977 with most scenes filmed on location around Brooklyn. From the very first day of filming, it became clear to everyone that John Travolta was a major star in the making based on the attention he received from onlookers. While shooting the opening sequence of the film, things quickly got out of control, and the production team was unprepared for it. "It was as we worked on that particular sequence that we discovered the kind of attraction that John had," said director John Badham, "because it started with a few school girls noticing him who then became hundreds and then thousands, and by noontime of that day, we had to quit and go home." Anywhere Badham would point the camera it would have picked up thousands of Travolta gawkers. It was a major problem.

To try and throw off Travolta fans, Badham and his team took to shooting any exterior scenes as early in the morning as possible before people caught on - often at the crack of dawn. They would also generate fake call sheets. The tactics worked well enough that Badham was usually able to get the scenes done before significant crowds had time to gather.

Just a few weeks into filming, Travolta suffered a major personal blow when his girlfriend, Diana Hyland, succumbed to cancer in March of 1977. A devastated Travolta left the film to be at her side in California during her final days. Although visibly distraught, when Travolta returned to work on Saturday Night Fever he struggled to remain professional and dedicated himself to his performance. "When he came back from California he was very distraught, almost like a zombie," said John Badham according to Travolta: The Life. "He'd sit over in a corner not speaking. Everyone was respectful and gave him his space. But when I shouted, 'Ready,' he'd get up and pull the life out of I don't know where."

At first, co-star Karen Lynn Gorney struggled to keep up with Travolta when it came to their dancing scenes together. "Physically, I was weak when I started," Gorney told Vanity Fair in 2007. "I was terrified, because the first time I danced with John he'd been working for half a year on the stuff. I felt like I was trying to dance with a wild stallion - he was that strong." Gorney hung in there, worked hard, and ultimately held her own on the dance floor opposite her famous leading man.

While filming on location in some of the rougher Brooklyn neighborhoods, some trouble briefly arose with some of the locals. According to Kevin McCormick, at one point someone threw a firebomb at the 2001 disco. Fortunately, no one was injured and there was no serious damage to the club. When McCormick asked the production manager, John Nicolella, why he thought it had happened, Nicolella said, "Well, you know, it's a neighborhood thing. They want us to hire some of the kids." The trouble didn't end there. "Then these two guys appeared on the set, pulled me off to the side," recounted McCormick. "'You know, you're being disruptive to the neighborhood. You might need some security. And if you want to put lights on the bowling alley across, Black Stan really wants seven grand.'" To McCormick's astonishment, the tough guys were paid what they wanted, and the trouble stopped.

When filming was completed on Saturday Night Fever everyone connected to the film crossed their fingers as the film went into post-production. When a rough cut of the film was finally shown, everyone was pleased - except for John Travolta. "The first time I saw the film," said Travolta in a later interview, "I actually was in shock, because I thought the acting scenes were fabulous, but my solo dance that I had worked for months on had been cut in close-up. I cried when I saw it because all you can think of is this hard work that you've done gone right down the drain."

Upset, Travolta called Robert Stigwood and vocalized his concerns. It didn't seem right he explained, that he had worked so hard to get in shape and learn a complex dance just to see the sequence cut down in the editing room. It was important to Travolta for audiences to see his work and to know without a doubt that he was doing his own dancing. Stigwood agreed and told Travolta to go back and sit with the editors and personally supervise a new cut of the solo sequence. Travolta was relieved. He told the editors, "I'm not going to take a lot of your time up. It's very simple. Stay on the master [shot] until you go to the mid shot." The small change made a huge difference. It was one of the most electric scenes in the picture, and when it was released, audiences cheered Travolta on from their theater seats all over the world.

Just before the film was set to be released, some rumblings emerged about a backlash against disco music - that disco was on its way out. These rumors made many connected to Saturday Night Fever extremely nervous. After all, they were banking on a movie that was all about life in a disco with an all-disco soundtrack to boot.

It turned out that all the worrying was unnecessary. When Saturday Night Fever opened in December of 1977 it was an immediate smash hit. Its phenomenal success exceeded everyone's expectations, and far from ushering disco out the door, the film re-ignited the disco craze.

John Travolta was a sensation, breathing life into his complex role as Tony and receiving glowing reviews for his work. It was a breakout role that made him a major movie star. The role earned him his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. At the time of the film's release, Travolta was still working on Welcome Back, Kotter and had to tape a show the night before Saturday Night Fever premiered. "Literally, that movie opened, and the next day he was the biggest star in America," said Travolta's Kotter co-star Marcia Strassman. "We had to start wearing backstage passes on taping night for Kotter...It was like having the Beatles working with you. And it happened literally overnight."

The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever turned out to be a major contributing factor to the success of the film, and it instantly made the Bee Gees pop superstars. The dynamic soundtrack generated hit after hit and quickly became the bestselling soundtrack album of all time, picking up numerous awards along the way. "It wasn't just like a hit album," Barry Gibb told Vanity Fair in 2007. "It was number one every single week for 25 weeks. It was just an amazing, crazy, extraordinary time. I remember not being able to answer the phone, and I remember people climbing over my walls. I was quite grateful when it stopped. It was too unreal."

Saturday Night Fever made an indelible imprint on American pop culture. It set music and fashion trends for years to come and revitalized disco by pulling it from the urban club underground and showing it to the masses of suburbia. Soon new discos and dance contests were popping up everywhere to the music of a generation that wasn't quite old enough to remember the heavy politics of the turbulent sixties and just wanted to have a good time dancing on a Saturday night.

The success of Saturday Night Fever also helped change the face of Hollywood musicals. Traditional film musicals had been on the decline for two decades when Saturday Night Fever came along. It breathed fresh life into the genre by setting a dance story against a modern pop soundtrack so that while characters weren't literally bursting into song, each song on the soundtrack commented in some way on the dramatic action.

In addition to being a first rate movie, Saturday Night Fever also serves as something of a time capsule of the late 1970s. The clothes, the hair, the dancing, the music, the attitudes - the entire film itself has become iconic to that time in American history, uniquely capturing the essence of a bygone pop cultural era. "It was a statement of the decade," said actress Donna Pescow, who plays Annette in the film. "People think of the fifties as being Rebel Without a Cause. The seventies was Saturday Night Fever, disco, and the lost generation going into the Me generation."

by Andrea Passafiume