Dean Pitchford on ‘Fame’, ‘Footloose’ and Hollywood

Music Man

An Interview with ‘Footloose’ Writer Dean Pitchford

By Scott Holleran

If screenwriter and lyricist Dean Pitchford’s mentor, Peter Allen, was The Boy from Oz (portrayed by Hugh Jackman on stage), Pitchford was the boy from Hawaii, making his way into Bob Fosse’s Pippin, writing the Academy Award-winning lyrics for Fame and making music and movies for everyone from Barbra Streisand and HBO to Hilary Duff and Shrek 2.

Sitting in a cafe on Sunset Boulevard, Pitchford, who created Footloose, gets to talking easily about Hollywood. His route to success was circuitous according to today’s standards, by way of Broadway, but it shows that life can be like a musical. As if to prove it, he breaks into song right there in the cafe from time to time, and he’s never off key.

Scott Holleran: What matters more in Hollywood: who you know or what you know?

Dean Pitchford: A combination of the two. It’s not going to matter who you know if you don’t have any goods to back it up, and you can have all the goods in the world and if you don’t network … it always amazes that Meryl Streep and [Robert] DeNiro and the people who have the careers we admire not only have that talent but [know] to get photos made, to make phone calls and they show up. You’ve got to network like crazy. That’s one advantage I had in the beginning [of my career]. I was sort of indefatigable. I made my lists every day and my calls, I sent my letters and I made my rounds.

Scott Holleran: You started on Broadway –

Dean Pitchford: I was a singer and actor. I had my first gig in Godspell when I was 19 and later I danced in Pippin. I did off Broadway, I did singing and dancing in television commercials.

Scott Holleran: When did you make the transition to Hollywood?

Dean Pitchford: I have to say I really was dragged kicking and screaming. I was doing a show for Joseph Papp and writing for Peter Allen’s first one-man show on Broadway. When I began writing music and songs with, among others, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken and Rupert Holmes. Rupert was going to produce me for a record and then he went on to England to do three albums, and I was suddenly spinning my wheels and I thought who else do I know? I remembered Peter, who was living in California. I sent him a letter and a bunch of lyrics and asked if he had an interest in collaborating. He called and said he was coming to New York and said let’s write material.

Scott Holleran: How do you account for the appeal of dark Kander and Ebb musicals such as Cabaret and Chicago?

Dean Pitchford: It is dark but it is always appropriate to the material. In both of those cases, they chose to do interesting material Nazi Germany and a murder trial. So the spine running through those pieces was so strong. As they also take place, as a kind of stylistic overlay, in a performance, one in a cabaret and the other in a speakeasy in Chicago. It was not people dancing on desks in a Madison Avenue office building; the drama returns to the stage. That’s what Bob Fosse did with the [Kander-Ebb] musical Cabaret. He went through and he stripped all the character pieces sung by characters outside of the cabaret, so that every musical number happens on stage. What [Chicago director] Rob Marshall did was one step further; he constantly blended the two so that you could be in Richard Gere’s office and suddenly you’d find John C. Reilly singing “Mister Cellophane” while he’s being ignored by Richard Gere. Both of those musicals lived on stage. There’s an aura of forbiddenness, taboo, about both of them.

Scott Holleran: Is that your sense of music?

Dean Pitchford: It is exactly what brought me to write Footloose. After Fame, I was being approached by all these folks [in Hollywood] because, by that time, I was also writing pop material for Melissa Manchester, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry. I was approached about writing a song about a girl who’s going to be a pop artist or a girl who wants to go to Broadway or a guy who wants to go on the road and I thought, ‘well, those are really kind of dull.’ One way to make it more interesting is to forbid it, to outlaw it. That was in the back of my head and I had read this story in the news in 1979 about a small town in Oklahoma”Elmore City”that banned dancing. The law had been on the books for 90 some odd years and that year, the high school class, which numbered about 11 kids, wanted to have a dance and the town elders decided they had a problem with that. They got very dogmatic about it, though no one could remember why they had instituted that interdiction, and they dug their heels in. A fight ensued and families split. People took sides and neighbors weren’t talking to neighbors and the minister there put his foot down [and dancing was banned]. I kept thinking, because my background was Broadway, where no one really calls themselves a songwriter unless you do a score in a show, I always felt like a bit of a pretender; I had a song on this television show, in that movie, on that album, so I wanted to put a bunch of songs in a movie. And the only way I could make that work is if I know what the movie is, so I had better sit down and write a movie.

Scott Holleran: What about Fame, which predated Footloose?

Dean Pitchford: Peter Allen played three weeks at the Biltmore Theater and I had five songs in the show. In the opening night audience is Peter’s old friend [singer] Lesley Gore [“It’s My Party”] and her brother, Michael Gore, a phenomenal musician who had been hired just around that time to be the musical supervisor for a movie that was about to start shooting in New York called “Hot Lunch”, which eventually became Fame. [Director] Alan Parker was directing, and he had hired Michael. The day after Peter Allen opened, the phone rings and it’s Michael Gore. We got together and discovered we had both been classmates at Yale. We started working like demons, writing 13 songs for Fame, three of which went in: “Fame,” “Red Light” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” He wrote “Out Here On My Own” with Lesley Gore. We would write a USO-type Andrews Sisters number, a ballad, a boogie, a waltz and it was almost like revue material, where you threw the material out there and it either worked or it didn’t. Things happened very quickly after Fame. Because of the song, I was signed to Warner Bros., we won the Academy Award and people were coming to me about ideas for movies.

Scott Holleran: Was there resistance to Footloose?

Dean Pitchford: Yeah. They said nobody would believe that unless it happened in 1964. But in 1964, not being able to dance would not be remarkable. But in 1980, it would be. That’s what makes it. It’s often thought of as that movie about the town where you can’t dance. But really, the dance is the mechanics to explore another theme which is underlying everything: a boy who’s lost his father meets a man who has lost his son and the two clash. The dancing is the thing that they fight over but they’re both angry about the thing that they’re not saying and it becomes the focus. It’s about expression”when they dance, they’re able to express themselves. But it is a story about loss and people’s attempts to deal with loss and whether banning a book or dancing there’s a rallying point into which people bury their rage.

Scott Holleran: So it’s also about repression?

Dean Pitchford: Yes. Repression and expression, that’s a good way to put it. Footloose went through 22 drafts and, in that period of time, the Moral Majority was rising in power and there was the Ayatollah [Khomeini] in Iran. We are seeing it now with the rise of the far right, the neoconservatives and a White House in the grip of the far religious right. I was certainly aware of [religious fundamentalism] but, when I began [Footloose], I was writing [primarily] from my belief that people who don’t express themselves hurt.

Scott Holleran: Does The Passion of the Christ represent a resurgence in religious fundamentalism?

Dean Pitchford: Absolutely. We always go to extremes and then we get back on course. In 1984, when Footloose came out, it looked as if we had been incredibly prescient. But I really had no issue with the Moral Majority and, if you look at the piece, the minister [played by John Lithgow] is never made into a caricature. John Lithgow makes him incredibly sensitive and it’s not an attempt to [ridicule] this hopelessly backward Bible Belt. I credit [Footloose director] Herbert Ross with that balance because [Lithgow] had just completed [portraying a transvestite in The World According to Garp, 1982] which hadn’t been released yet, and [Ross] said ‘I want you to see him [for the role of the minister] before you see anyone else. Let me bring him in.’ He came in and auditioned for Herbert, and Herbert cast him in the office, on the spot.

Scott Holleran: Yet movie critic Leonard Maltin dismissed Footloose as ‘innocuous'” –

Dean Pitchford: The thing is it’s now regarded as an ’80s icon with a great deal of affection. People tell me it cheered them up. John Kander once told me you’ll go crazy trying to guess what the critics want. All I can do is write what I find interesting and entertaining.

Scott Holleran: There’s also a sunny optimism to your work –

Dean Pitchford: – I hope so –

Scott Holleran: Is optimism rejected by movie critics as unserious?

Dean Pitchford: I think so. I wish I knew why. In Hollywood, there’s this incredible misconception that when something is really, really sad and down, it’s very hard to do. And when something is incredibly entertaining, it couldn’t have been very hard to do. When Nicole Kidman won the [Best Actress] Oscar [for her role in The Hours] over Renee Zellweger [for her performance in Chicago] -and I loved The Hours – but people were making such a big deal out of how difficult and torturous and lofty The Hours was whereas because Chicago looked like it must have been so much fun to shoot, you know, now it’s time to give the award to the people who had to wear the prosthetics because apparently making Chicago was its own reward. There is this tendency to dismiss something that looks like it was done effortlessly. Show me two comedies in the last 20 years that were nominated for Best Picture. There’s this impression that drama is [inherently] hard.

Scott Holleran: Or a certain type of drama – ?

Dean Pitchford: – Yes – people have to die. I’m a member of the Academy and I remember one Christmas I watched [Oscar nominees] Dead Man Walking and then Leaving Las Vegas and I thought: no more!

Scott Holleran: Fame was nominated for five Oscars and you won Best Song for the title song. As a lyricist, do you get the music and then write the words?

Dean Pitchford: Well, in the case of Footloose, it was always driven forward from the script [which Pitchford wrote]. We knew exactly where songs were going to go. As I mapped it out, we had to trim, just because we knew what budget we had so we had to spend our pennies wisely. In every case, I had to ask: what’s the rhythm of the song, what kind of artist is singing the song? Is it black? Is it pop? Is it rock-n-roll? Is it dance? That brought into play a whole list of artists and, in some cases, their collaborators. For instance, we had this idea to go to Bonnie Tyler to sing “Holding Out for a Hero” and she was only working with [composer] Jim Steinman. There’s different kind of energy that’s necessary when [music’s] coming at you from the screen as against radio speakers and, with Jim [Steinman], who has that sense of theatricality, I didn’t have to do too much prodding. He knew I wanted this to be big. I did walk into my meeting with Jim with the full lyric [to “Holding Out for a Hero”]. I had studied a lot of his work and he’s very clever and wordy and he keeps the momentum going”like in “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights””so I wrote a Jim Steinman lyric. Also, we rented an upright piano and rolled it into Herb Ross’ office. Instead of running off and working in the studio before we got the thumbs up from Herbert, we would go in and sing the songs at the piano or on guitar and he would say ‘yeah, that’s the right direction’ and then we would demo it to show the artist. With “Holding Out for a Hero,” we brought a girlfriend of mine who’s a singer and we went into Herbert Ross’ office and Jim Steinman, with the long, long hair, sat there at the keyboard and played the full orchestra part of the song and when he finished, there was blood on the keyboard. He played the s”t out of that song. Afterwards, Herbert Ross said: Do it – that’s the song.

Scott Holleran: Why don’t you write more songs?

Dean Pitchford: In terms of songwriting, I’ve sort of done one of everything and the music industry has changed. I still write songs; last year I wrote the finale for The Lizzie Maguire Movie. I just wrote a song with Richard Marx for Bambi 2, which comes out in 2006. But I’ve been writing screenplays and that’s still a challenge to me.

Scott Holleran: The last screenplay that was made into a movie was Sing, which has a devoted following –

Dean Pitchford: I’ve never realized that. It was not very good.

Scott Holleran: You’re not happy with Sing?

Dean Pitchford: No.

Scott Holleran: What’s the lesson in Sing for you as an artist?

Dean Pitchford: To put my foot down more. You only learn that your instincts are right when you see them tried. A lot of things which served me well on Footloose, I found myself sort of raising my hand [on Sing] and saying ‘What about … ?’ and being talked out of it. I learned to trust my judgment.

Scott Holleran: Have you watched Sing since the theatrical distribution?

Dean Pitchford: I can’t. I still won’t see it. It was a very weird time [in 1988]. I had the number one song in America – Whitney Houston‘s “All the Man That I Need” – and this movie came out and died in one weekend. It was the best and worst of times.

Scott Holleran: What did you learn as a businessman?

Dean Pitchford: I always thought we had to change the title. Sing was something that was very close to Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zadan]. It’s a tradition in Brooklyn and it was their passion that got the movie made, but in their way of thinking, there was only one title. In the same way that, if you called something “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance,” it would make people’s teeth ache, I thought Sing was a bit dangerous. In terms of marketing, the title was a little too soft. I wrote a screenplay that I thought had some darker elements to it, and it ended up being relentlessly sunny and in some cases caricatured. The good guys were really good and the bad guys were so obviously bad. There was a lot of stereotyping. The director, Richard Baskin, had done music videos. He hasn’t directed since.

Scott Holleran: Do you have a favorite song?

Dean Pitchford: The song that Barbra Streisand recorded on her album A Love Like Ours when she was getting married to James Brolin. The song is “If I Never Met You.” It’s very heartfelt and it was written about my life partner, whom I’ve been with going on 13 years.

Scott Holleran: Which industry is more conducive to the creative mind: pop music or movies?

Dean Pitchford: I don’t know that either one is. I do know that, when I am working in one or another field, people who are entirely in those fields tend to look to another field with a sigh, like ‘oh, man, when I’m finished doing this movie, I think I’d like to go do some stage because it seems to me that Broadway is so much friendlier.’ Please. Everyone has this idea that another field is easier than the one they’re working in”and they’re all miserable, because there are horrible people trying to stab you in the back in each one of them and then there are really smart people who are really good at what they do. You try to navigate between the rocks and get to the good people and get your work out.

Posted on October 12, 2004 on Box Office Mojo