‘Is This As Bad As I Think It Is?’ — Director Adrian Lyne On How ‘Flashdance’ Became A Box Office Phenomenon

Two weeks before the release of Flashdance, 40 years ago this week, Paramount thought they had a flop. To be fair, director Adrian Lyne thought he had a flop too. The director who would go on to make films like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal had these fears exacerbated by the fact that people at the studio stopped returning his calls. Just the fact Lyne is talking about Flashdance now 40 years later is probably your first clue that, no, it was not a flop.

Flashdance would gross $200 million at the box office and become a sensation. Though critics were not kind to the movie, it would go on to receive four Oscar nominations, something even Lyne forgets – two songs were nominated, “Maniac” and “What a Feeling,” with the latter winning; it was also nominated for editing and cinematography – and became such a cultural force that even Peanuts created its own parody, Flashbeagle, which Lyne says he owns.

Flashdance isn’t really a movie concerned with plot. Alex (Jennifer Beals) works at the local Pittsburgh steel mill and at night she performs provocative (yet let’s say PG-13 rated) dances at a local bar. Her dream is to be a dancer. She starts dating the owner of the steel mill, Nick, who might just have some connections at the local dance conservatory. And that’s about it. But it’s a tight 97-minute movie that has no fat and almost plays like one long music video. (With a break here and there about a subplot about an aspiring comic named Richie Blazek who works as a cook where Alex dances. Oh, also, Robert Wuhl plays an extra who just hangs out at the bar where Alex dances and it feels like he’s just watching the movie along with us.)

For its 40th, Paramount has released a new 4K disc, which is out right now. And, yes, Flashdance will be back in theaters at the end of April. Ahead, Adrian Lyne takes us through what it was like to think he had a disaster and his career was over to only, instead, make the third highest grossing movie of 1983.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve shown Flashdance to a lot of friends who haven’t seen it and they all love it.

Critics didn’t.

You know what, though? This got nominated for four Oscars. I don’t think people realize that.

Well, yes, I guess it did. Yeah. I forgot that as well! I mean, editing was one of them, right?

Yes. And cinematography.

I mean, honestly, I was offered it twice, actually. And did it the third time. I thought that it was a little silly, the story, but I just wanted to do something with the dances and make them interesting. I saw it again as well recently. Actually, I saw it last night because I haven’t seen it forever. And I think Jennifer Beals was really quite good.

She is.

She had a vulnerability, a childlike quality that made you forgive a lot. So I was quite pleased with that, really with her. And also the dancer, Marine Jahan, was really good. So I had two in one in a way.

Unlike Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, which have famous plots, Flashdance is not a plot-heavy movie. We have to like these people.

Actually, there’s a scene where Alex sort of flirts with Nick when they’re eating in a restaurant, a posh restaurant.

Yes, “flirting.”

[Laughs] Yeah. Right. But there was a line in the script, which honestly I think was the best line in the movie that somebody persuaded me not to put. In those days I was very sort of anxious and sort of uncertain. And she’s looking at her plate and she has broccoli and something else, but she has broccoli and says, “What are these little trees?” Which I thought was enchanting. Because it’s a childlike thing. She’s never seen broccoli before. And I think it would’ve made her seem much better and less knowing, if you like, because she would’ve been perceived as a child really.

I’m wondering if they wanted to cut it because of the age difference between her and Nick? Is that why? I’m just spitballing. I have no idea.

No, it was just, “No, we don’t want that.” Whatever. And I just accepted it and, 40 years later, it still hurts me.

Well, you know what? I bet they’d let you put that back in now if you wanted to. I have a feeling it’s made enough money that you have that clout.

[Laughs] Unlikely.

It sounds like you are surprised it became the phenomenon it became.

Yes, I really am. Because there was no confidence in the movie at the theater. I mean, I didn’t have any confidence. I remember watching the movie and I said to my assistant, Casey Silver – who became chairman of Universal, 20 years later or something – we’re watching it, and the executives were behind in the back watching. And I said to him, whispered, “Is this as bad as I think it is?” There was a long silence. And then he said, “Yes.” And so I said, “Is there any way we can get out of the theater without the executives seeing?” And almost at exactly that moment, people started laughing at something. And it was a good laugh, I could tell. So I sort of gradually became aware, and they actually quite liked it.

Was it a Richie Blazak scene? People forget there’s a whole subplot about the cook trying to become a comic.

Well, it may be. Yeah, he was nice.

How does a movie that even the director, you, thought wasn’t good become a phenomenon? That doesn’t happen very often.

No, it doesn’t. And towards the end, I couldn’t get anybody on the phone two weeks before it came out.

What? Really?

I couldn’t get anybody on the phone! The studio thought it was going to be a disaster because they sold off 30 percent of their financial interest in it.

Oh, that was a mistake.

Two weeks before it came out they did that. I think the dances were fun. I mean, I knew that I wanted to do a wet dance before. I didn’t know how or what to do, but I just knew that I wanted to see water flying around because I hadn’t seen that before. And the studio was very dubious about this. And so I had to show, or tried to show them, what I wanted to do. There were these bleachers. I was at the bottom of the bleachers on the floor, and they were looking down at me with the girl. And I had a hose pipe around the girl. I was the one pointing the hose pipe around. And I said, “Well, this is what we’re going to do.” And I haven’t got the slightest idea what I was going to do. But I just knew it. And the skepticism on their face was just marvelous. I mean, it was just awful.

Though a big thing working in this movie’s favor is it moves. There’s no fat. It is a streamlined movie that feels almost like a 90-minute music video.

Yes, it is. And it was a disaster at 20 minutes longer.

That’s interesting.

There’s a very good editor who I got on very well with.

Yeah nominated for an Oscar for editing. That’s how good. [Bud S. Smith and Walt Mulconery, who would lose to The Right Stuff.]

Yeah. Funny, right? I’d forgotten that. You’re right. And it was a total disaster at 20 minutes longer. We came out and we went to a place at Paramount, in those days, there was a bar called The Nickadel. And it was at the exact entrance just to the left of the entrance of Paramount. And so we all got drunk. So depressed. And then when we took 20 minutes out and it worked. Well, it worked better.

Sadly, Irene Cara passed away in November. When was the first time you heard “What a Feeling”? That song is still amazing.

Yes, it is. It’s marvelous. I mean, I was there when they recorded it. Fantastic. Yeah. No one knew it was good. And “Maniac”…

Michael Sembello…

I worked very closely with Phil Ramon, who was a lovely man. And I said, “I’ve just heard this thing on a tune by Kraftwerk. Have you heard of them? It’s a German band.” And we were doing “Maniac,” and we were working very closely on it. And it’s great. I said, “It goes be bing, bong, bing, bong, bing, like a bell. Like a bell, bing, bong, bing, bong.” And I said, “We should try it on ‘Maniac.’” And he liked it. And so we stuck it in. We stole it from Kraftwerk.

It’s so strange to hear you say that basically you got drunk because you thought this was going to be this disaster. And a year later there’s a Snoopy remake called Flashbeagle. They made a Peanuts cartoon out of it!

I’ve got that! I’ve got that one. Isn’t that funny? I rang Charles M. Schulz up, or I wrote or something, and he was adorable on that. And I have the original artwork on that.

Oh, that’s great.

On the wall!

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