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October 6, 2015

SCA Alumni Stories: Randal Kleiser

The director of the American classic and top-grossing movie musical Grease, Randal Kleiser ’74 has crossed narrative boundaries and has stepped into the world of virtual reality with his sci-fi series Defrost. Since his graduation, Kleiser has had a lasting impact on the industry, beginning with his master’s thesis film Peege, which was the second student production ever to be added to the National Film Registry. Kleiser shared about his time at USC and his recent endeavors with virtual reality.

What influenced your decision to pursue an education and career in the cinematic arts? When I was 10, I saw the opening of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments and I knew I wanted to become a director. It was the way that DeMille set up the sequence with the acting, the music, the production design, the visual effects—everything came together in this monumental moment when the sea opened. And, it just seemed to me like the biggest magic trick ever and I became fascinated. I wanted to become a part of it.

Could you tell me about the sense of camaraderie and collaboration that existed among your classmates during your time at USC? When we went to school, which was in the late 60s, we were told that we would never get into the movie industry—that we would have to work in educational or industrial films. Unless we knew or were related to someone, we were all told that we could never get in. So, we all supported each other. There wasn’t a sense of competition back then. We were all in the same boat of not being able to get in. Also, we happened to be there at the time when the industry was changing and the public wanted films designed for young people. And, we were the young people that designed them and that’s how it happened.

Going back to your days as a student, what is your fondest memory of your time at SCA? When I arrived at USC, I found Nina Foch, one of the stars of The Ten Commandments, teaching acting. And so, I took her class and that changed my life. She became my mentor and friend. She was very tough and she made me get up and act, which I had never done before. She was very critical of people. So, you knew when you got up there, you would be ripped apart, but in a loving way. She was just an amazing teacher. That is definitely the highlight of my USC years.

How has Nina Foch shaped your education and experience at USC?  She combined two worlds. The world of acting and the world of directing. She studied with Lee Strasburg, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen—the top people in acting. And, she worked with giants like Cecil DeMille, Otto Preminger, Robert Wise, Vincent Minnelli. She picked up the best things of what these great directors and acting teachers were doing and then combined them and made it into her own world, which was beyond anything anyone else had done. When she taught her casting classes, she could talk about how a director should treat an actor to get the best performance and how actors can best present themselves to get the job. She was able to teach filmmaking from two points of view because she had been on both sides of the camera.

What is your reaction to the continuing popularity and re-releases of Grease so many years later as the film has become a household name to the American audience? It’s just crazy. I didn’t expect for it to explode at all as it did. The studio didn’t either. Nobody thought it was going to go anywhere. They thought of it as a little musical for the teenage audience. So, it’s been a really fun experience to have its popularity continue like it has. The most fun part for me were the Hollywood Bowl sing-a-longs because here’s a movie that’s 30 years old and there are 17 thousand people dressed in the costumes singing along and still enjoying the film.

Which professional accomplishments are you most proud of? One would be The Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors DVD that George Lucas ’66 funded. I went to George and told him that Nina’s class has to be preserved and so, we recorded a whole semester of her class at USC.

Besides the Nina Foch course, I’m very excited by the field of virtual reality right now. I first went down a path to it with the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. I directed a project we called the Battle Drill. It was an immersive training simulator for soldiers going to Afghanistan that was going to show them what it was like to blow up in a Humvee. We had a real life-size Humvee on motion base and we filmed 360-degree videos up in the Arizona Hills. We made sure that the soldiers would feel like they were riding in Afghanistan with bombs in the road ahead. If one blew up, we had sound effects and the Humvee would shake and simulate an actual explosion. This simulator was used to desensitize soldiers and train them to anticipate such an attack in the real battlefield. And all this led to my interest in doing narrative virtual reality.

What was the creative birth of your new virtual reality series Defrost? I wrote the script when I was a student at USC. It was going to be a sci-fi movie but I never finished it. There was no thought of virtual reality back then. When I was introduced to virtual reality, I started thinking about how the technology works—how the audience can look around and see everything in the first person perspective. And so, I adapted this old student screenplay into a virtual reality narrative. I made the first person a woman living out the process of being defrosted in the future. And now, it’s a 12 episode series of five-minute sci-fi shorts.

What are your thoughts on the narrative power of virtual reality as a creative platform? Virtual reality is in its infancy right now. So, there are many restrictions to it. One of those restrictions is that the viewer can’t speak to the actors because all the scenes are already recorded. So, you have to find a reason that the first person (and the viewer) can’t speak. And the reason I have created in Defrost is that the defrosted woman’s vocal chords have been destroyed. You have to find a way so that the first person doesn’t speak and that’s one restriction right now. But, I just really like the idea of the first person narrative. I wanted to see what it would be like to have the actors speak right to you so you feel like you’re in the movie and you experience what the first person character is going through. This not only breaks the fourth wall, but the viewer is now, as Nina would say, partnering with the other actors. They are looking at you and creating in you an emotional experience within an intimate setting that only virtual reality can achieve.

What has your experience been directing Defrost? It’s almost like directing a play because everything is shot in one take. You don’t have close-ups or master shots. So, I had to figure out ways to attract the audience’s attention to the right spot, whether it was with lighting, sound, or the direction of the actors’ movements and attention. In terms of sound design, when certain words were said they would have an echo on them so that key words were highlighted. I used many stage techniques to direct in virtual reality. We made it so that the viewer can hear herself breathing and sometimes her heart beating. I tried to give the audience an opportunity to really become the defrosted woman and see the world through her eyes. And, the reason why I casted myself as the nurse pushing the wheelchair is so that I can see the actors without disrupting the story since the director can’t be around in the room with the cameras everywhere.

What advice do you have for current SCA students and other SCA alumni? My success has all been based on doing things that were personal. I mean, they led to things like Grease. But the way I got started was my USC master’s thesis film Peege. The film is about my grandmother and very personal. I just recommend for students to do something from your gut, your heart—something that only you can do. Write something that’s tough to write about because that’s the kind of project that people can identify with. That’s what Nina taught me. She taught me to do personal stories and how to evoke emotions that can connect with people.

What’s next for you? I have a couple features that are on the horizon if we get the actors we want. I'm working right now with one of my USC classmates Bill Phelps ’69, who directed North Shore. We’re trying to launch another North Shore movie. And, I’m going to film the next 11 episodes of Defrost in October. I really love virtual reality so I want to keep working with that in the future.