Nigel Lythgoe on His Disco Cult Movie, 'The Apple': 'The Best Part of Making It Was Finishing It'

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Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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“So I’m a little scared. I’ve been told you want to talk to me about” – dramatic pause – “The Apple,” says Nigel Lythgoe, best known as the producer of such TV talent competitions as American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, as he answers the phone in his Los Angeles office. Ironically, he’s waiting there for a technician to come repair his television set.

It’s fair to assume Lythgoe didn’t make that appointment in order to get his flatscreen fixed in time for a 35th anniversary viewing party of The Apple, the so-bad-it’s-amazing disco/rock opera/sci-fi flick for which he masterminded the outlandish choreography. When I mention that I actually own a mint-condition Apple DVD and would be delighted to host a screening in my own living room – to which he’d of course be cordially invited, as the guest of honor – he says with a dry laugh, “You really need to get out more, my dear.”

Clearly Lythgoe has moved on, even as The Apple has achieved cult status.

First, a little primer for the 99.9 percent of you who chiefly associate the capitalized word “Apple” with iPhones, MacBooks, Dr. Dre, or the Beatles. The Apple (also known as Star Rock), which came out in the U.S. on Nov. 21, 1980, is considered by many critics to be one of the worst films of the 1980s, or maybe even of all time. It was a box-office disaster that made other nearly career-killing ‘70s/'80s movie musicals, like the Village People’s Can’t Stop the Music, the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu, respectively look like Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and The Godfather.

“My friend John Farrar co-wrote the music for Xanadu. We met much later, in the 1990s or 2000s, and the one thing we had in common was Xanadu and The Apple are a double-header of the worst two musicals ever,” Lythgoe laughs.

(Nigel Lythgoe did NOT win this award for 'The Apple.’ PHOTO: Associated Press)

What makes Lythgoe’s Apple involvement especially notable – besides the fact that after this sole cinematic choreography credit, his career not only miraculously rebounded, but thrived – are the undeniably strong parallels between The Apple’s plotline and, well, American Idol.

Basically, The Apple is about two talented small-town innocents (Alphie and Bibi, the latter played by Catherine Mary Stewart, who also managed to emerge professionally unscathed) trying to make all their dreams of pop stardom come true by competing in the 1994 Worldvision Song Festival. (Yes, 1994 – this was “The Future,” you see. Lythgoe and the rest of Apple crew apparently didn’t predict grunge was going to happen.) Eventually, Alphie and Bibi sign a deal with music business villain Mr. Boogalow’s BIM (Boogalow International Music) label, only to find themselves trapped in a hellish, space-age underworld of Hollywood debauchery, record-label slave contracts, and cheesy group dance sequences.

Gee, that sounds like the saga of quite a few Idol finalists, doesn’t it? And Mr. Boogalow doesn’t seem all that different from, say, Simon Cowell or Clive Davis. Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, Lythgoe took inspiration from The Apple when pursuing his future, much more successful showbiz ventures? Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in 2000 – just six years after the year when The Apple’s fictional singing competition was supposed to take place – he launched Popstars in Britain.

And so, life imitated art – if The Apple can be called “art,” that is.

While the Apple/Idol similarities aren’t lost on Lythgoe, he laughs off any grand conspiracy theories that one predicted the other. “There were a lot of singing competitions going on at the time,” he shrugs. “So it never really hit me that 'the search for talent’ was Popstars and Pop Idol and American Idol, as much as just thinking that The Apple was kind of a Eurovision-style song competition.”

But still, there’s another fascinating Idol connection here: “The funny thing is, Ken Warwick, the other executive producer of American Idol, is in The Apple,” Lythgoe reveals. Warwick in fact served as the film’s assistant choreographer. “There he is, in his full gold jockstrap, in the middle of [the musical number] 'Coming.’ He was one of the dancers in the movie! He’s got a little sort of goaty beard. And 10 years ago, they carried it in a cinema down by CBS Studios where we were shooting American Idol, and the whole American Idol team and I went to go see it. Of course, when Kenny came on with his gold jockstrap, the whole place stood up and applauded.”

Watching The Apple now, it’s almost impossible to comprehend that a film so ridiculously shameless and plotless even exists, or that it ever got greenlit in the first place. But Lythgoe is quick to point out, “We must remember, this was the '70s. [Filming took place in 1979.] It was very strange making the movie, because we brought over something like 40 English dancers. We were in Berlin and we had a German electrical crew, and then an Israeli production team, and we were making the movie in a factory that actually made gas during World War II. So it was a very, very strange atmosphere throughout.”

And perhaps not everyone in that gas factory was in his or her right mind, which could also explain a lot. “Because you could buy regular drugs over the counter in Berlin, the dancers were finding all different things – speed and Benzedrine and poppers and everything else. You could just buy it over the counter,” Lythgoe recalls. “It was like herding cats, trying to get those dancers together. Yes, it was a strange 1970s experience.”

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Adds Lythgoe, a little more seriously, “I mean, it’s laughable now. And it’s fun to make fun of it. But at the time, it was really, really depressing on some days. Very, very stressful. It was not such a pleasant process, making that film. It wasn’t pleasant memories, let’s just put it that way.

"We didn’t really like the script. I mean, we really didn’t,” Lythgoe continues. “But the music we thought was terrific at the time. Certainly the use of strings and the real violins and everything was just terrific and felt very inspiring to me.”

Lythgoe was also convinced at the time that his choreography would earn critical acclaim. “All That Jazz came out the same year and went to the Cannes Film Festival with The Apple, and All That Jazz was actually in the Cannes competition. And I kept thinking, 'My God, am I really going to have to go up onstage in Hollywood and apologize to Bob Fosse for picking up the Oscar for Best Choreography?’ I was so dumb – because they don’t even do an Oscar for choreography.”

When asked about his favorite dance numbers in The Apple, Lythgoe thinks for a moment, then says, “I suppose the motorbike scene, the 'Speed’ number, was the first time that we moved the cameras around. That was a lot of fun. And 'The Apple’ itself; there were just so many dancers and so much going on that I hadn’t really ever experienced with directing, because they let me direct the dance numbers. And then, of course, the sort of Busby Berkeley sex routine [featuring the metallic-Speedo’d Warwick], 'Coming.’ Oh yes, very subtle lyrics in that song!”

Considering what a critical and commercial debacle The Apple was, it’s understandable that Lythgoe was wary about picking up the phone to do this interview, and a little surprising that he even agreed to speak about the movie’s anniversary in the first place. But Lythgoe assures, “I’ve learned more from things I’ve done that have not been terrific than I have from things that have been very successful. I made a program called Ice Warriors that I absolutely loved at the time, and it was such a failure that I didn’t have ice in my Scotch for three months afterwards! If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not going to learn anything. For me, success is being 51 percent better than my 49 percent of failures.”

So, what did Lythgoe learn specifically from the catastrophic failure of The Apple? “I think, in truth, it is to not be writing scripts during the days you’re filming,” he chuckles. “Make sure that you’ve got a complete idea in your head when going from point A to point B, rather than preambling around and then just losing the plot halfway through the movie and then it’s like, 'Let’s make another plot up!’” (Well, that would explain the movie’s tacked-on, Rapture-like ending in the last five minutes, when – spoiler alert! – a previously unseen, God-complexed character named Mr. Topps randomly swoops in and saves Alphie and Bibi.)

And what’s Lythgoe’s favorite memory of working on The Apple? “Finishing it,” he quips.

With another one of Lythgoe’s more well-known endeavors, American Idol (for which he was executive producer during Seasons 1-7 and 10-12), going off the air next year, I can’t resist suggesting a full-circle, synergistic moment: a “Contestants Sing The Apple Soundtrack” theme night. Lythgoe, who won’t confirm if he’ll be involved with Idol’s final season, pauses, either amused or bemused, and simply answers, “That will not happen” – before politely excusing himself, saying the TV repair worker has finally, mercifully arrived.

Fair enough, Nigel. But if you’re not busy this Saturday, and if your TV is still on the fritz, my viewing party invitation still stands. There’s no need to be scared.

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