An Officer and a Gentleman writer Douglas Day Stewart: 'I can't tell you how many people have said "I got married because of that film"'

An Officer and a Gentleman writer Douglas Day Stewart:

Musical based on the Oscar-winning film is touring the UK, we caught up with writer Day Stewart to find out how it all came together

The film version was nominated for six Academy Awards, grossed over $3million during its opening weekend in America, and remains a romantic classic 36 years later. Adapted for the stage by its original screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart, An Officer and a Gentleman looks set to win hearts all over again. We speak to Day Stewart about writing the film, life in the Navy and why the storyline is perfect for musical theatre.

The film is, in part, inspired by your own experience in the Navy – but given your success as a screenwriter after you left (The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, The Blue Lagoon and many others), the writer must have been inside of you longing to get out during those military years?
Yes, I was a writer in my heart and had been since school. But my father, and the world around me, thought it was the wrong avenue for me to go down – nobody thought you should encourage the arts.

During your time in the Navy, were you secretly thinking 'this would make a great story'? At what point did you decide to turn aspects of your real life into a film?
When I entered military school, it was just so difficult I couldn't think about anything other than "how do I do all this?" I wasn't a bad student, but some of the stuff was really over my head - celestial navigation and aerodynamics. It was so hard that even though I started writing while I was still in the Navy, it wasn't until some years after I left that the story for An Officer and a Gentleman came to light – but it had been incubating and percolating during that time.

Writing the film was a great opportunity to capture a world that most people don't fully understand – but also a responsibility to get it right. Did you feel that pressure?
Oh very much so. I had seen so many inaccuracies in movies when they portray a military story, and I'd heard everybody grumble about it when I was in the Navy – "nobody understands us!" – so I was determined I wasn't going to be one of those guys.

It's a long road between writing a screenplay and the film premiere – how did you ensure that authenticity stayed intact?
I wrote it directly from personal experience, and then when it was being shot, I talked myself into having some power and was also a producer on the film. Then I brought in military people to help me, who were up-to-speed on how things were in that moment. So there wasn't a single thing that was inaccurate, every aspect was exactly the way people in the military knew it happened.

Did you have the Navy on your side?
Well the crazy thing is, at the beginning the Navy didn't want anything to do with it. They said there isn't anybody like that reprobate father character, and our Officers don't have darks sides, nobody shouts those profane calls.

So we had to film it in what had once been a military base but was now part of the parks system. It was only later, when I visited the Pentagon to see a friend who worked there, that the Admirals wanted to thank me. Because after the movie there was a new level of appreciation for the military, and a 30% higher enrolment across the board. So they thanked me and said sorry we didn't support you.

A lot of factors came together to make An Officer and a Gentleman a hit – the storyline, Richard Gere and Debra Winger in the lead roles and, of course, that song – 'Up Where We Belong'. Why do you feel it was such a hit, and has remained popular?
It seemed to ring a gong a little louder than a lot famous films at that time, and I'm really grateful for that. 'And I think it's because at that time in our lives, we were really starved for romance, hope and positive things. A lot of films were nihilistic and dark at that time – and out of nowhere came this working class story that somehow supported a Cinderella myth. I can't tell you how many people have said to me 'I got married because of that film'.

Taking such an iconic film and turning it into a stage musical must have been challenging – how did you find writing the Book?
Well the main challenge was not to get too full of myself. Because the movie had been such a big hit, a lot of people advising me wanted it to be a big musical, and that wasn't the right way.

Then I met director Nikolai Foster – who is going to become one of the giants in UK theatre history, just watch – and we both saw the story the same way: very working class, true to life, it could happen. So we chose songs that people grew up with in the early 80s but that young people now also embrace – like 'Alone', 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun', 'Material Girl'.

Have you always been a fan of musical theatre?
I think it's a magical medium. When I was in high school, my dad took me on a trip to New York and we saw West Side Story, which just knocked my socks off. And I thought one day I want to write something that touches people like that, so it was my dream. And that dream is being fulfilled now – I see people coming out of the theatre after watching this musical and you can just feel their energy.

An Officer and a Gentleman: The Musical

Musical based on the Oscar-winning film starring Richard Gere. With direction by Nikolai Foster, choreography by Kate Prince and musical supervision by Tony Award-winning Sarah Travis.