Friday, September 24

How We Made Short Circuit, by Steve Guttenberg and John Badham | Films

Steve Guttenberg, actor

The second I read the script, about a robot becoming self-aware after being struck by lightning, I put it down and said, “This is a hit.” It was a timeless story about an underdog, a friendship, and being an outsider. It was also directed by John Badham, who had done Saturday Night Fever and War Games. He knew how to make a movie like this work. It felt like a piece that was going to last a long time and I grabbed it with both hands.

My character Newton Crosby, the scientist who designed Number 5, was very well written. All the moments were there: all he had to do was step in and decorate the house. John was quite immersed in artificial intelligence, even then. We talked about what it’s like to be alive and the connection to having a soul. Walking the tightrope between humor and heart was something we took great care of. We did not want to fall into sentimentality. You wanted to strike a chord with the audience where they get what they paid to see, which was the wonder of an inanimate object coming to life. For me, Short Circuit was Pinocchio.

Shooting was very time consuming because we were creating an illusion with a puppet. It wasn’t CGI. Fortunately, we had extremely talented puppeteers. There were different pieces in Number 5: various heads, bodies, and parts that performed all kinds of actions. It was like those stories about working with Marilyn Monroe – when he got it right, the scene was right. When our puppet got it right, for the most part, the scene was fine.

About five years after its release, I was in a restaurant in Paris and a boy came up to me and said, “Are you Steve Guttenberg?” I said yes, and his dad got out in the car and brought a miniature number 5 to show me. The boy said: “I have this with me all the time, it is my friend.” If you have a certain type of movie, it will stick. Short Circuit is that kind of movie.

John Badham, director

director John Badham, right, with the number 5 and his human co-star Ally Sheedy.
Innocents… director John Badham, right, with Number 5 and his human co-star Ally Sheedy. Photograph: Allstar / TRISTAR / Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

I read the script and the number 5 jumped off the page. I really liked the character and it was very well written. I literally locked the effects department in a room for three days while they came up with something that looks a lot like what you see in the movie. Any decent film camera has flaps in front of the lens to avoid the glare of the sun and we use them to give the Number 5 eyebrows. Suddenly, it became another part of his personality.

The first thing I would do on set each morning was bring out No. 5, hug him, and encourage the cast to do the same. I said, “Imagine if we had Eddie Murphy as the star of this movie. We would be very respectful and delighted to have your comedic talents here. Let’s treat the number 5 that way, and not like a big, sloppy accessory. “

When Ally Sheedy’s character Stephanie adopts Number 5, it’s so innocent to meet another innocent that we feel like we could hint at serious topics like artificial intelligence and humanity. Many wonderful questions come up, but because Numbuh 5 is a loser with a crazy way of looking at the world, we could sell those ideas without lecturing people.

In the original script, Benjamin the computer scientist was an American. We had chosen Fisher Stevens, but something was not right. Frankly, I stole an idea from Beverly Hills Police, where a French salesgirl is being rude to customers. I thought, “What if he’s from another country and he looks down on dumb Americans?” We came up with the idea that it was from India – we thought the cultural mismatch was funny. If we had thought about this before casting Fisher, we would have auditioned Indian and American Indian actors. That was an oversight on our part, but we never intended to poke fun at the character of Ben, who became a main character in the sequel (which I didn’t direct).

We were showing the robot to the producers and someone said, “It’s great that it can do all these things, but can it dance?” I said, “You can bet,” without consulting my puppeteers. So I asked them, “Guys, do you think we can get him to do the Saturday Night Fever dance?” Getting the number 5 to move like John Travolta was tough, but they made it work.

When it comes to who could voice the robot, everyone’s first instinct was Robin Williams. But Tim Blaney was the puppeteer in charge of the head of Number 5 and had done the voice during rehearsals. It had the right tone, so we decided not to mess with something that was working. Once we cut ourselves off, we realized that we could still put anything in Number 5’s mouth. If anyone thought of a funny line, we would add it. One of the last jokes we added was # 5 telling the Three Stooges robots, “Your mother was a snow plow!” He got a great laugh.

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