By Heath Chamerski
On August 1 1986, Walt Disney released Flight of the Navigator. Considered a seminal family sci-fi flick, it grossed $18 million at the box office on its way to becoming a cult hit on VHS and cable. Navigator is the story of 12-year-old David Freeman, who mysteriously disappears in 1978 only to return eight years later, not having aged a day, and before long he's whisked away on an alien spacecraft and with the help of a robot named Max, discovers the truth behind his disappearance.
Flash forward to 2016, and the film's star, Joe Cramer, who battled drug addiction in the intervening years after deciding to step away from an acting career, found himself in the spotlight once again as he was arrested for holding up a bank in British Columbia, and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison. The motivation for the crime, Cramer explains, was not financial; rather, it was a way to gain access to a rehabilitation program at Nanaimo Correctional Centre, which was only available to those incarcerated at the facility.
The 2020 documentary Life after the Navigator chronicles the behind-the-scenes story of the film, but more importantly, it is the story of Cramer himself, as he begins his recovery and attempts to get his life back on track. In the lead-up to Life after the Navigator’s Blu-ray release on November 9, Now Playing Podcast Heath Chamerski discussed the documentary with Cramer, Flight of the Navigator director Randal Kleiser and Life after the Navigator writer/director Lisa Downs.
Fall of the Navigator
Cramer's story is a tragic one. After carving out a promising career as a young actor in films such as Runaway and D.A.RY.L., Cramer, still in his early teens, left Hollywood not long after finishing work on Flight of the Navigator, and his issues with drug addiction began shortly after leaving his acting career behind. But as he discusses in the documentary, he thinks his decision to do so probably saved his life, as he believes he would have gone down an even darker path if he had remained in Hollywood.
Cramer's decision to take part in the documentary was an easy one after Downs made contact with him while he was still serving his sentence.
“Lisa had written me.” Cramer explains. “I was still in jail at that point and she wrote me a letter talking about it and I right off the bat thought ‘Wow, this could be a really cool thing.’ After speaking with her a bit more and kind of becoming pen pals and writing back and forth, I really found that her vision and intention for the film was something authentic and from the heart -- a love of the movie, as well as a real candid look at my life after the Navigator, and what happened. So that's when I really got excited and felt like it was really an exciting opportunity for me just to get my story out there and share with people in a really authentic way.”
After completing work on her previous film, Life after Flash, which chronicled the production of 1980's Flash Gordon and the life of the actor who played Flash, Sam J. Jones, Downs said the idea to make a film on Flight of the Navigator came to her long before she knew about Cramer's troubles, but after reading articles about his arrest, she knew there had to be more to the story than the headlines told us.
“When I started to look at news articles, I thought that this would be an amazing film because when you read the headline, there's gotta be more to Joe's story than that,” Downs says. “Like, why did it happen? What happened from him being in the film to getting arrested? And when you read those headlines you think, ‘Oh, another child actor, another product of the Disney machine,' and it might not necessarily be the child actor thing. So, after reading that, I was just really curious and knew that Flight of the Navigator was the next one I wanted to do.”
Flight of the Navigator seemed like a natural follow-up for Downs as it's been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.
“For me, I grew up with it as part of this collection of films, such as Labyrinth, The Goonies, The NeverEnding Story, that I absolutely loved and I desperately wanted to be David and fly in the ship with him,” she adds. “It stuck with me from such an early age and has just been ingrained in my childhood.”
After completing his sentence in 2017, Cramer and Downs continued their contact and plans for the documentary were underway, with filming commencing in 2018. Cramer notes that the experience made his recovery process so much easier and that the film was just what he needed at that point in his life.
“I had been through a lot of self-development and a lot of work over the years but especially in the time leading up to the actual filming.” Cramer says. “The therapeutic community that I went through was really helpful and I worked through a lot of underlying issues and trauma, so I was really at a point where I was okay about opening up about what had happened.
“Lisa and [producer] Ashley Pugh made it so easy. Their film is a celebration of the movie for the fans, and including my story in there of the trials and tribulations of child stardom or just life in general that can in ways happen to the most normal people. You know, anyone can go sideways in a way that isn't expected.”
Reuniting the cast and crew of Navigator nearly 35 years later turned out to be an easier task than expected, thanks to the tireless efforts and support of Kleiser, who personally tracked down many of the film's cast and crew, including actors Veronica Cartwright and Cliff DeYoung, for a reunion seen in the documentary.
Kleiser is still incredibly proud of his movie and recalls it being one of his favorite directing experiences in a career that has spanned more than five decades and has included iconic films such as Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and White Fang.
“It holds up pretty well I think, it's really two types of movies – an action film and then it's a family drama because there were two companies doing it.” Kleiser says. “I think it's very easy to identify with the character Joey plays -- you know, being lost and having a family gone and being confused about what's going on around you and then having an adventure and then being reunited with the family.
“It has a really good structure – beginning, middle, and end -- so I think the fact it has this fantasy type of sci-fi feeling, and the idea that a kid gets to become friends with an alien, always works. I mean look at E.T.? So, all those elements came together.”
Cramer too fondly recalls his time working on the movie, even with the heavy workload of having to carry a $9 million Disney film on his 12-year-old shoulders, with his character of David appearing in almost every scene of the film; and there's a good portion of the film where he's the only (human) character on screen. But it's been a part of his life ever since.
“You know, having to carry a whole film at such a young age was quite a bit of work and Randal made it really easy,” Cramer says. “We had a great relationship, he's a wonderful director and I felt comfortable.
“Like, looking back on some other films I worked on, I remember tough things and having difficulties with scenes because it wasn't as great an environment; but Navigator just flowed really nicely, and it made it really easy to do. I was really fortunate to work with all the people I did on that film, for sure. But to revisit it now these past few years and connect with these fans who still love it after all this time has been such a gift. I've heard these wonderful stories from people who still love the film, I've heard stories of parents showing it to their kids and now their kids love it and it's spanning generations. And then reconnecting with Randal and reconnecting with the cast and hearing their stories, it's just really amazing to be part of that.”
A Decade in Review
The 1980s often stands above all others when it comes to nostalgia and seems to be an exalted era among film fans. For Downs, her love of 80s movies is still as strong today as it was for when she was growing up.
“The 80s was just this innocent, magical period of storytelling and fantasy and adventure and it was this magical time with this amazing run of films with amazing stories and amazing characters and they're films that are so special that they stay with you,” she says. “I don't know what films coming out now might stay with kids who are 9-12 years old in 20 or 30 years.
“And I just think '80s kids were really lucky that they happened to grow up in the greatest decade for children's films. I do think the 80s is still special for the magic it created with the physical models and I think that's why audiences and filmmakers still connect with this era is because of how magical these films feel.”
Kleiser believe it was the hard work and effort that it took to get sci-fi and fantasy films on screen and the focus on storytelling back in the 80s that is part of the reason why they endure to this day.
“Today I think because films like the Marvel movies have so many effects, it's like a firehose in your face and you know it's all fake so it's not the same as looking at something and knowing it's actually there and being photographed,” he says. “And also, the effects were so hard to achieve, you used them sparingly, nowadays they're so easy that they do so much of it that you can't have a break.”
Life After the Navigator achieves the not inconsiderable task of being both a retrospective documentary and also a very human story of hope and redemption. It is this aspect of the film that Downs thinks sets it apart from similar documentaries.
“I wanted to have that point of difference because you do have this trend at the moment of having these celebration documentaries come out but as amazing as those films are and they celebrate the Back to the Futures and the Ghostbusters, they're still just the making-of element,” she says. “I wanted to have a point of difference and so for me the point of difference was having that extra access to the main star and spending more time with them and getting to know them and telling their personal story and I think that's a side of these people that you don't normally know.
“You can Google the headlines of Joe but you can never know what happened. Why did he end up like that? I hope that's a point of difference in these Life After films.”
The paternal bond evident between Kleiser and Cramer during the production of Navigator is still something the duo share to this day, with Cramer stating that he always looked up to Kleiser as a father figure, particularly as his own father was absent for much of his life, and Kleiser is proud of the progress Cramer has made in recent years.
“Well, I do feel kind of parental towards him” Kleiser says. “Because I see he went through a lot of troubles and I'm happy to help him get back on his feet and I think that's what this movie has done so far. I'm just hoping that he gets some nice acting parts now. You know it would be great if he could continue on and do what he really wants to do.”
It's impossible not to be moved to tears by certain aspects of Cramer's story while watching Life after the Navigator, especially in the moments where he discusses the tough decisions his mother made in an effort to help him beat his addiction and also as Cramer discusses the robbery itself and the sadness he feels for the trauma and pain he caused the bank employee he confronted. While people may not have lived through the same circumstances Cramer has, he believes everyone can take something positive away from his story.
“Everyone goes through stuff, maybe not as extreme as I have been through, but people go through things, so I think to see that we're all human and we're all just living our lives the best that we can and that we can always overcome and connecting to people is one of the best ways to do that,” Cramer says. “We can all relate to feeling insecure, feeling unworthy, feeling less than -- all of those self-doubts that come in, and then realizing, ‘It's okay, that's what makes us human; all of those little flaws.’
"When we can just embrace those things, it opens up our lives to so many other amazing opportunities. Once I shared all of those deep dark secrets it almost freed me from this prison.”
Life After ‘Life After the Navigator’
Downs is currently in production of her third Life After movie, titled Life After Atreyu, which explores the life of The NeverEnding Story star Noah Hathaway.
Cramer, meanwhile, has rediscovered his love of acting again, having already completed work on a few short films, with the documentary a catalyst for him to rediscover his love of the craft. As seen in the movie, he's become part of the convention circuit and has enjoyed connecting with Navigator fans for the first time in a long time.
“It's a journey, it's an ongoing process, but it's been wonderful,” he says. “When I was younger, I fell into acting and everything exploded and I went from a play to a commercial to features and then boom; everything blew up and I understand that's like one in a million.
“So, I'm not expecting anything like that to happen but what I'm finding is that I just love learning the craft and realising that all of my experiences in life are helping me become a better artist. It's exciting and I absolutely have faith that we'll see me again. I'm going step by step.”