Forty years ago, techno-thriller WarGames captured imaginations by tapping into fears of the Cold War and burgeoning computer technology, taking $125 million at the box office, and earning three Academy Award nominations.
If you happened to grow up in the 1980s, the possibility of sudden nuclear armageddon was as much a part of daily life as snoods, Rubik’s Cubes and Adam Ant.
The two superpowers bristled with nuclear warheads. And that pervasive anxiety percolated into popular culture. TV movies like Threads and The Day After ratcheted up the worry, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes set our imminent atomic annihilation to a pounding funk beat.
But it was John Badham’s WarGames that managed to channel that fear into a box-office hit. Released in 1983 it starred a pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick as a young hacker who accesses NORAD’s mainframe and accidentally triggers a nuclear face-off between the US and Russia.
In an era now when movies for teenagers are generally populated by superheroes, robots, or supercharged cars, WarGames — with its teen cast and nuclear preoccupations — feels strangely subversive, and the sort of mid-budget thriller that simply would not get greenlit today.
Forty years after its release we chatted to Badham (Saturday Night Fever/Short Circuit) who agreed, saying it would be a "tough sell" to modern Hollywood: "I think these days there has to be some huge special event to a movie to get people out."
Find out what else he had to say about taking over the film two weeks into filming and, with the advent of AI, why it might be even more terrifyingly relevant now than it’s ever been.
Did you expect to still be talking about WarGames forty years after it was released?
Is it 40 years? Oh boy [laughs]! Well, you never know with a movie. But even before it came out, my daughter, who was nine or ten at the time said that it was all the kids could talk about in class. They were all anticipating it.
With the current situation it seems, sadly, to be even more relevant...
Yeah. Well, we're in the middle of a tense situation all over the world. It’s probably even worse than how it was, what WarGames was envisioning. The threat of nuclear war, with all of these adversaries going at it hammer and tongs.
I was thinking about AI too. Back in the 80s putting a computer in charge of the launch codes was a bit of a Hollywood stretch. But now it seems to be a much more plausible scenario...
Oh, that’s absolutely right. Back then it was, ‘Who’s going to put a computer in charge?’. There had been a couple of movies before War Games, that envisioned similar things. I remember one called Colossus: The Forbyn Project by my old friend Joe Sergeant, and I know I had echoes of that movie going on in my brain as I was directing WarGames.
As you say, it was a bit of a fantasy at the time.
I understand that the movie had initially been a hard sell to the studio?
It had originally been set up at Universal. It was all set to go until the executives decided that nobody cared what these silly computers were all about. And it was unrealistic to think that kids could get into something like the NORAD system. They were all, ‘Forget it. It’s unrealistic.’ And so they put the picture in turnaround and it was picked up by United Artists.
It was already shooting with Martin Brest [Beverly Hills Cop] in charge. Tell me how you found yourself in the director’s chair?
My agent called me. And he said, ‘I know they’re having troubles over there. And that probably means that there’s trouble in many places. Maybe you should stay away from this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah but what if the script is any good? We should at least look at it.’
So I read it and I thought it had wonderful possibilities. Then I found myself scrambling to prepare for a movie I was going to start shooting in four days.
What was going wrong?
Well, I can only report what I was told when I got there. Martin had very strong ideas about what would work and what would not work. And often that would clash with what executives were willing to pay for. I think the final nail in the coffin for Martin was when he went on Stage 12, which was the largest stage in Hollywood at the time, and decided that it was way too small for the war room.
He wanted to take the whole movie to Mobile, Alabama, where there was a blimp hangar that Steven Spielberg had used for Close Encounters. And they ran the numbers and that’s going to add a million dollars to the budget. And he insisted on it. Well, they were, ‘No, we're not doing that.’
So it was a budget thing?
Yeah. But probably as important was that he had a take on the film that was a bit darker. I saw it as amusing in a black-humoured sort of way. So the biggest change I made was emphasising the humour of it. And staying away from the feeling that these kids were dangerous rebels.
What was the mood like on set when you arrived? The actors must have been worried?
They were terrified that they were next to go. The poor kids were stiff as boards that first morning. We were reshooting a scene where Matthew takes Ally up into his bedroom and shows her how he can change her grades from an F to an A.
If I were a kid and I could get a girl's attention by changing her grade I would be peeing in my pants with excitement. And yet these kids are treating it like it’s nuclear secrets. I saw the humour of it and started to lean them in that direction.
How did you go about reassuring the stars?
We did about 14 takes before I could get them loosened up and relaxed enough and see the humour in it. And have fun, and not be quite so stiff and terrified.
After about 10 takes I said, ‘Well, this is getting kind of tiring. Let’s take a break, everybody in the crew get some coffee and had Matthew and Ally follow me outside the stage. We’re going to do a race, the last person back has to sing a song for the crew.’ Now I had 20 years on them, so you know who's going to lose.
What was the song?
I had to sing an old yodelling song. ‘Velderee-Valdera’, that kind of thing. That loosened things up tremendously, because if the director can be so much of a fool in front of everybody then it lightens things up. And in the next couple of takes we got it.
Did you make any changes to the cast?
I was really happy with Matthew and Ally. But I made a couple of other changes where I thought we could have more fun with it. I changed the casting of the general to Barry Corbin.
I wanted someone who was a little bit bigger than life. My father was a general in the air force, so I had a taste of what those personalities were like. And I made a similar change with Matthew Broderick’s father, to someone who was a little bit goofier than the very stern father who had been cast.
Was it a tough shoot?
Oh, it was absolutely fine. We went up to Seattle and did some retakes for two or three days. And then we came back and dug into what we were shooting on the big war room set. We were there for five or six weeks.
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We had a good grasp on the script and, thank god, the rear projection and front projection and video screens and everything in the war room had been worked out beautifully. The preparation on the movie from Marty Brest was absolutely spot on.
You must have been happy with how well it was received?
It played beautifully. It was in the theatres for quite a long time. My other movie of that summer was Blue Thunder. Both of them ended up in the top ten of the year. So that was terrific.
Could it get made today? These kinds of big-budget youth films have kind of been drowned out by the comic book movie?
You’re right. I think it’d be a tough sell. It’s kind of sad. And everybody’s mindset has come to be, ‘If we just wait a couple of weeks it’ll be on streaming somewhere.’
I think these days there has to be some huge special event to a movie to get people out. It’s all another Spider-Man or another Little Mermaid. They’re kind of special events. I think it would be hard to get people to see WarGames today.
But it lives on as a classic of the era
It does. I got to attend a screening of it at one of the film festivals that Robert De Niro runs, and Ally Sheedy brought with her her daughter who was now the same age as Ally was when she did the movie. And her daughter had never seen it, and had no idea what her mum was like.
It was fun to watch her laughing and enjoying it.
WarGames is streaming on MGM via Prime Video and available on PVOD.