'Grease' Director Spills 15 Secrets From The Film

by Anna Klassen

Randal Kleiser remembers Paramount Studios differently. When he arrived on the Los Angeles lot to direct Grease 38 years ago, there were fewer buildings, the studio's main theater hadn't yet been erected, and a large fire that would destroy a sidewalk set wouldn't come for another six years. But now, I'm standing with Kleiser in the exact location where the dressing rooms that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John used for the film used to be. "It's the last time this was ever used as a dressing room. It became offices," the 69-year-old director recalls. "Then, when I did Big Top Pee-wee, we parked Pee-wee's caravan out here," he says, motioning to a pristine grassy lawn. "How many directors do press for a movie that's 37 years old?" Kleiser muses as we are whisked away on a golf cart to see exactly where "Greased Lightnin'" was shot.

For the uninitiated — which honestly, is there such a person? — 1978's Grease follows good girl Sandy (Newton-John) and bad boy Danny (Travolta), who fall in love over the course of a summer. But when fall comes and they unexpectedly discover that they're in the same high school, they struggle to rekindle their romance amongst social expectations and teenage politics. Luckily, if you haven't seen the film, the Grease Sing-A-Long edition is now available now on iTunes and other digital platforms.

While spending the day with Kleiser, touring different Grease shooting locations across Los Angeles — like John Marshall High School and the Los Angeles river — I uncovered these 15 things about the film, its production, and Kleiser himself.

1. John Travolta Helped Randal Kleiser Land Grease

"I had never done a movie before Grease. This was it," Kleiser says. "But I worked with John on Boy in the Plastic Bubble, and that's why, when they were getting ready to do Grease, he asked for me to be the director. He was helpful in getting me in there."

2. No One Knew How Big Grease Would Be

"There were two films being made [on the lot] at the time: Grease and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and they thought [Sgt. Pepper's] was gonna be the big hit. At our cast and crew party, we had hamburgers and hot dogs, and they had shrimp," the director laughs. "We were like the secondary movie when it was being made here. There wasn't a lot of interference because the studio thought this was just a routine musical. They didn't give us any notes or anything; they just let us go."

3. The Director Has Thoughts About Grease Live

"I don't know how they're gonna expand it into three hours," the director says of the musical production that's set to air live on Fox on January 31, 2016. "A lot of commercials, I guess. Those live events ... I'm not a big fan of them, but I don't know much about it." Fox's live Grease will star Julianne Hough as Sandy and Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo.

4. He Has A Soft Spot For This Paramount Location

As we circle around the parking lot of Paramount studios, Kleiser has our driver stop. He points to a lot filled with parked cars set against what appaears to be a giant, painted wall. "When I was 10 years old, I saw the opening of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, which was shot in this tank, and that's what made me want to become a director," he says, motioning to the wall, which I now realize is a giant water tank. "So shooting on this lot ... it's just really a special place for me."

5. His Roommate Was George Lucas ... And Carrie Fisher Could Have Played Sandy

"Carrie Fisher was being considered [for Sandy]," Kleiser reveals. "George Lucas was my roommate in college. He was mixing the tracks for Star Wars, so I went over to see him and look at some of the footage. I couldn't tell if she was good for a musical, because all I saw was her hair ..." the director says, trailing off.

"[George and I] arrived at USC at the same time. He had a house in Topanga Canyon and needed a roommate, so I moved in. I had the bottom half of the house and he had the top. We worked on each other's first movies. I was an actor on his very first film, and he shot some of my stuff."

6. The Former Roommates Share A Disneyland Connection

"It's ironic, because for my 20th birthday, [George Lucas] took me to Disneyland blindfolded with a bunch of my friends. I didn't know where I was going," the director shares. "Years and years later, we had attractions based on our movies across the street from each other at Disneyland — Star Wars and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. It was very surreal. Bizarre."

7. No One Noticed The Film's Raunchy Lyrics

"People don't really listen to the lyrics," Kleiser says when I ask him if the film ever came up against any ratings trouble because of the now well-known dirty songs. "They just hear the music. Most people who watch it as a kid don't pick up on all the sexual innuendos, but parents are often shocked when their kids sing the lyrics out loud. It's pretty raunchy."

8. Jack Nicholson And Warren Beatty Both Had Beef With Grease

The director shows off the different stages where Grease's musical numbers were rehearsed and shot. One stage, 24, was located across from offices where Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were busy writing at the time. "They were yelling at us to shut up, because they were trying to write and we were making so much noise down here," Kleiser claims, noting that the cast would play dancing and singing games in the space.

9. Kleiser Became Sick After Filming This Memorable Scene

We arrive at the Los Angeles river, the location of the drag race scene. Kleiser attempts to shout over the roaring of cars that pass us by. Standing on the overpass above, he points down to the river, barely wet with water. "When I was shooting here, it was very hot, so I was barefooted," he says. "I cut my foot, and I walked through this river, and the next day I had a fever. We were shooting the Frosty Palace scene and I was completely out of it. I had a 101-degree temperature because of cutting my foot here."

10. The Drive-In Scene Was Improvised

"The scene at the drive-in was a big memory for me because it was improvised. I asked to have a bunch of '50s movie trailers sent, and they didn't arrive until the day we were shooting. We didn't know which ones we were gonna use. We had the whole crew sitting around while we ran 10 trailers on the drive-in screen, trying to figure out which one to use for the number," he explains.

"Then I saw the one where the hot dog jumps into the bun, and I said, 'Hey, do you think we could sync that moment with the playback so it ends the song at that moment?' These technical guys figured out how to take the playback tape and make it happen, which is pretty complicated to do. Digitally it would be very easy, but back then, with tape and playback, I don't know how they did it. But when we saw it, it was perfect."

11. John Travolta Wanted His Close-Up

While filming the same scene, Kleiser claims that John Travolta was asked to sit on a swing while they shot a wide shot as the hot dog animation played on the big screen. "John says, 'Well, aren't we gonna do a close-up?' And I said, 'No, no, that was great.' He was a little pissed off, because at the end of the number, he wanted to have a close-up. But because the bun worked so well ... I said no."

Travolta's team did not wish to comment on the above.

12. The Carnival Used In The Final Scene Was A Real Carnival

We arrive at John Marshall High School and peer through the gates. School just started, so we remain behind the fence of the football field. Kleiser recalls hiring a real carnival to set up on this field: "It was extremely hot when we shot [the carnival] at John Marshall, 100-something degrees, and they were all wearing these leather outfits and sweating up a storm."

13. Kleiser Didn't Recognize Olivia Newton-John During The Film's Final Scene

"I met Olivia at a party with Allan Carr, the producer, and he said, 'She's perfect.' So I went over and met her. She seemed perfect, yes, but I wasn't sure if she'd be right to do the end scene, because it's so different from her as a person," he says. He had in mind the finale, in which Sandy's character changes personas to match Danny's bad boy attitude, when looking for an actress to play Sandy.

But nonetheless, Newton-John was hired. "When we were shooting at the drive-in, that's when they first put together her makeup and her outfit and showed me how she was going to look for the ending. There was all this noise and this girl coming toward me with this wild hair, and I said, 'Who's that?' I couldn't tell it was Olivia. I thought it was just some extra they had brought up. I said, 'What? Olivia! Wow, this is gonna work.'"

14. Elvis Was An Inspiration For "Greased Lightnin'"

While probably not a big surprise to anyone who has seen the iconic "Greased Lightnin'" sequence, Kleiser assumes that Elvis Presley was a big influence for Travolta in crafting the scene. "John I'm sure studied Elvis for that song. It had that kind of feel, that kind of look," he claims of Travolta's slicked-back hair and swaying hips.

15. Kleiser Didn't Like The Grease Theme Song

"The original animation was done to a different song. It was done to a '50s song, and it was very '50s sounding, and it had a lot of references to '50s things," the director recalls. But according to Kleiser, it was scrapped, for whatever reason, and Barry Gibb was brought in to write a new track.

"I listened to the lyrics and they didn't seem right for the movie. They seemed a little dark. So I asked if Barry wouldn't mind changing the lyrics to make them a little lighter ... his solution was, 'Why don't you shoot a serious scene?' Well, we didn't shoot a serious scene and slapped the song on anyhow, and no one ever noticed that the lyrics were totally wrong for the movie. They were distracted by the animation. It's good that I lost that creative choice, because it was a giant hit. I would flip on the radio and hear the song at every station."

A newly revamped edition of Grease, the Sing-A-Long edition, is now available now on iTunes and other Digital platforms.

Images: Paramount; Giphy; Tumblr; Anna Klassen