The lost film that accompanied The Empire Strikes Back
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
'Black Angel', the stunning short film that accompanied the original theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back, is found after thirty years...
Roger Christian (far right) on location in Scotland directing Empire Strikes Back second feature Black Angel
If you are old enough to have seen the original release of The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema in 1980, you almost certainly remember the extraordinary short film that preceded it. Otherwise you won't know a damn thing about it: with not one picture or accurate plot summary anywhere on the web, Black Angel has become a bit of an internet holy grail in itself. Those who saw it remember something extraordinary. A spiritual work set in the middle ages with amazing cinematography and music, Black Angel took the gritty medieval realism of Monty Python And The Holy Grail and returned it to its roots in Mallory, Tennyson and Kurosawa. It was to have a huge influence on how cinema would perceive (and film) works set in medieval times in years to come...
Black Angel was conceived and directed on location in Scotland by Roger Christian, who had made his name as the ground-breaking art director of Stars Wars (1977) and Alien (1979). It was made for only £25,000, provided by George Lucas in gratitude for Roger's extraordinary contribution to Star Wars.
Here Roger Christian only provides never-before-seen pictures from Black Angel, and finally discusses this highly influential short film. Click here for the complete interview, and to read more about his work on Alien and Star Wars and an Oscar-winning directing career that hit a speed-bump with the bleak critical reception of Battlefield Earth in 2000. We'll hear how Quentin Tarantino re-cut and rented-out Christian's lauded The Sender (1982) when he worked as a video-store clerk, what Ridley Scott has in mind for his Alien prequel, what he's writing about in his new book Cinema Alchemy and much more...
I was, because it was the first film I made and I didn't have much money to make it with [laughs]. I had all the short ends off Empire. I guess it's typical of me that I was very ambitious. I learned early on to never let yourself be constricted by your budget. Just go and try and do what you want. I was completely enamoured of Kurosawa, as most of us were.
Tony Vogel (kneeling) as 'Sir Maddox' in Roger Christian's Black Angel (1979). Picture © Roger Christian
You mentioned before that you came up with the story when you were unwell…?
It's weird, actually. Writing Cinema Alchemy has been quite cathartic and quite revealing, because it forced me to go into things that I had never really gone into in depth. I really wanted to do a medieval myth - I was completely in love with King Arthur and Merlin and all these great historical stories and epics, and I loved graphic novels even at that time. So I had this idea to do a story around a knight and 'the last quest'.
Now, when I really delved into it I realised that I was really on the point of death in Mexico after Lucky Lady; I had paratyphoid and I was down to eight stone, and I was thrown into this terrible hospital - who saved me! But on the wall was a picture of Scotland. Really strange, completely out of context in this tiny clinic. It was the lochs…I know there was a castle there with the loch, and this light was amazing.
It kind of went into my subconscious. There's a point at which you're so ill that you think 'Shall I just give up?'. But I didn't, I fought. The story of Black Angel is the story of a knight, and that last moment that he's dying is in fact the entire story of my subconscious and the quest, and the realisation of dying, which is at the basis of all spiritual work.
There's no other Star Wars film besides Empire that would have been so suitable as a main feature to Black Angel. In Empire there's Luke fighting himself, and a year later in Boorman's Excalibur there's Lancelot fighting himself. These films seem to have taken a lot from Black Angel - not just the style of cinematography, but the dark theme of internal conflict .
John Boorman - bless him, I love John - he was really one of my avid supporters, in the early days. When Black Angel was shown, industry people just told me to go back to art directing - to stop directing. And I don't know why they said that, but they were really negative, and some really big powers in the industry. But Lucas loved it, the Americans loved it and the public were writing to me. So on the one hand I was being kind of rejected and on the other hand I was getting these letters from the public saying that I'd touched their hearts, and so much. And I should have realised - this is how my career's gone from then on in! [laughs]
And that's okay, you've got to do these things.
Roger Christian directing Tony Vogel on location in Scotland, Autumn 1979, for Black Angel. Picture © Roger Christian
When John Boorman saw it, he asked myself and Roger Pratt, the director of photography, down to Pinewood at the big theatre 7, and screened it. And he invited Derek Vanlint [apparently the original DP on 'Excalibur' before Alex Thomson took over], his designer, the costume designer…everybody was at the screening. Roger and I were sitting there thinking that this was a tiny film we'd made with £25,000 [laughs]. He screened it and then said to his entire crew 'That's what I want. That's all I want you to do.'
At which point we were kind of hiding under the seats in embarrassment. [laughs]
I apologised to Derek - he said 'No, it's fine!' - and to the designers. I said to John 'You know, there is a reason that I could get into these amazing locations: I had a crew and cast of eleven people. You're going to be stuck with two hundred people with caravans…you can't get to where I got to, because that was part of it'. He agreed on that, and he was really kind to me. He said 'Listen, I really love the underwater piece - do you mind if I use that? Because I have a sequence I really want to put in'.
Paul Geoffrey as Percival in John Boorman's Black Angel-inspired underwater sequence in Excalibur (1981)
Interestingly enough, I then met George Miller, the Mad Max director. The Sender  was chosen to open the International Festival of Fantastic Film, Avoriazl, which is a long story in itself…but George Miller asked me along to do a radio interview with him. He was the head of the jury, and he said 'I've been really naughty - I've praised your film on television across France. I love The Sender so much. And then he said 'I want to talk to you about Black Angel, because I saw this in Australia'. He said 'Oh yes, of course you're another great fan of Joseph Campbell'.
Roger and DP Derek Pratt (left) on location in the Highlands for Black Angel © Roger Christian
And at that stage I had not read any of Campbell's books. I said 'What are you talking about?'. We had this long discussion. When I went to Australia finally, first thing he did was he took me to dinner and gave me a copy of Hero With A Thousand Faces, and said 'Read this book!'. [laughs] He said 'You've done what I did with Mad Max, what George did with Star Wars…it's the same story'. So I think we do plug in to the unconscious…
I'm not so sure. Talking with George, that's his least favourite of the Star Wars films. He likes the lighter side of it, and he kind of handed the reins on that one to the director Irvin Kirshner, and to Gary Kurtz, and had less involvement in it. But I know that there is dark and light playing in George's mind - that's what Star Wars is about, what every myth is about, and I think he played on that with it.
I know that when he saw Black Angel he loved a slow-motion step-print fight that we'd done - I'd done it because I didn't have enough footage to make up the time [laughs], and Alan Strachan, the editor said 'I know what we can do - we'll step-print three times and it'll slow the fights down'. And I just loved the look. And I know that George did that with the laser-fights afterwards.
He's the great myth-maker of modern times, George; he's the one telling the fairy stories as they were, and I guess that was more in his mind, I think.
Do you think that Black Angel might be seen more as some kind of a reference text for the films that followed its style, such as Dragonslayer, Excalibur, Legend, Robin Of Sherwood and so on, if it had been available in any form at all after its rounds with Empire Strikes Back?
I think I caught something, for sure. If you ask any of these directors, they all love Kurosawa [laughs]. If asked who's really the master, they all say 'Kurosawa'. Roger Pratt and I were so lucky - there was a retrospective of Kurosawa's work at the old electric cinema at Ladbroke Grove, and we were watching three a day. It was brilliant, soaking up what he did, how he did it. That certainly was a major, major influence on me.
Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954)
I remember that at that time Ridley had wanted to make Tristan And Isolde, and then couldn't do it, and then his agent - we had the same agent at the time - he was trying to get me to do it as well. We were trying to develop it and I just couldn't get anyone to fund it. It's also a very, very difficult story to tell.
It's an odd path when I look back at it; because I was so affected by the negative stuff that was thrown at me from industry peers, I found Dollar Bottom (1981), and in their eyes it was a redemption because it was a full acting piece and it won an Oscar.
Roger Christian directing Dollar Bottom (1981). Picture © Roger Christian
But in my heart I would love to have gone on and done Merlin, or…I had a great Suffolk writer Ronald Blythe, who wrote me an amazing medieval story, which - if I'd been true to myself - I would have gone on and tried to get made at that time.
"Cinema has changed so much, and I bless Peter Jackson, because he gave the world what it didn't know it wanted, and brought this kind of fantasy world into huge mainstream cinema"
You've mentioned by now an extended new version of Black Angel, Merlin, and this Ronald Blythe story…do you think you'll return to that kind of rustic medieval theme again, perhaps with one of these projects or a combination of them?
I think now…and it's really fired me up, I'm telling you! [laughs] I looked at my notes, and the original story of Black Angel is a huge epic. It starts in the Holy Lands and it's actually like an amazing graphic novel. And it does touch fantasy. So I think I'm going to write this out as a treatment and going to try and see if I can't get this made, because I think the time is right now as well.
Cinema has changed so much, and I bless Peter Jackson, because he gave the world what it didn't know it wanted, and brought this kind of fantasy world into huge mainstream cinema, finally. And did it so beautifully.
That's what I thought I'd explore now. I've got a very big agent now who's dealing with the book that I'm doing [Cinema Alchemy], which is all of these stories. Star Wars, Black Angel and Alien are of course the major stories within that, so I'm thinking maybe that this would be a way to get it done. I only started thinking about this a few weeks ago - I woke up in the morning and I suddenly thought 'My God, I've got this huge story, and it's in my head, and it's the same story I started with, and I should really try to do this now and go back to what I absolutely love.
I guess it would give the film a better chance too..? Ridley Scott was in the vanguard in storyboarding all of Alien for Fox and getting the budget doubled on the basis of it. Graphic novels seem to be the new treatments….
Yes. So I may try to do that, to do it that way round. It's certainly suitable for it, because it has got a lot of fantasy elements to it. I did a huge amount of work with Bob Keen - he's another industry legend, and Bob and I are great mates. Bob and I, while we were trying with this American producer to get Gilgamesh made, he and I created some incredible sequences, which are ours, which I realise in a way are part of the Black Angel story. I've got a lot of really imaginative material already kind of formulating, so I'm definitely going to explore that this year.
I'm very fond of Black Angel. I had to write it, and I created it, and that first work that one does is always very special, and I know that it is deeply ingrained in what I love. And I think also that I was able for the first time, truly, with Nostradamus to go and start exploring that type of work.
I had a 35mm copy. Richard Edlund's company, Boss [Films], they chucked it all out. I've never forgiven them for it [laughs]. George Lucas had a copy on the ranch, which their archivists cannot find. They've been searching and searching for me. I know that [Lucas] showed it to Spielberg in the early days, and it may have got left somewhere…
Do you mean to say that there isn't a complete copy anywhere now?
Well, by weird coincidence, Les Dilley, the other art director I worked with…Les wanted to be a producer. We weren't working so I said 'I'm going to make this film'. He said 'Oh, I want to produce!'. I had to go and sit with his wife and say 'Listen, I've got no money, nobody's going to get paid - if he's going to do this, you've got to be okay with this'. So in the end he did come and do it.
Les called me out of the blue after about a year and a half, two weekends ago. We were catching up and talking about Black Angel and he said 'Well blow me, I made a copy!'. I said 'From what?'. He said 'You gave me a print!'.
I remember now that you got three prints, in the early days, from Rank. There was a bit of slight re-grading to do on his one, a few shots, so we gave him that print. So I've got a print of it now at my disposal. I have a half-inch copy. I regraded it - when I was doing commercials, somebody cancelled five hours of time at one of the best facilities in Los Angeles, and the owner, who's a friend, phoned me up and said 'Do you want to use this time?' , so I went and regraded Black Angel. And I have a three-quarter inch of that in storage.
"I still get letters and emails about Black Angel - there are threads on the IMDB going on and on about it - people guessing the story and how much it affected their minds"
But do your other plans for the Black Angel story make you think twice about releasing it?
Do you know something? I'm wrestling with this. I was talking about it yesterday. I still get letters, still get emails, there are threads on the IMDB going on and on about it - people guessing the story and how much it affected their minds…but I just wonder if I brought it out now, thirty years later…
I haven't seen it in thirty years myself, but I wonder if its imitators have devalued it a little, the way seven years of The X-Files made Silence Of The Lambs look dated…
It might look like a copy of the films and TV that it inspired, which have been in circulation ever since.
That's exactly my philosophy on it. I think it would seem very slow. I know the music was beautiful and the landscapes and so on, but I've got a feeling that it won't match up to what people remember. So maybe I'm better to leave it…[laughs] I'm not sure.
I'm going to put whole sheets of the [Black Angel] contact-sheets into Cinema Alchemy. I've got the original script and I've got my really rough storyboards. I only had enough money to shoot each piece that I wanted, so I had to storyboard it very carefully, and I've got all of that. I'll put that in the book, I think, because it is 'archival material'.
If you do nothing else with the print, I think you should have a select showing of Black Angel at somewhere like the NFT or the BFI, a chance to put the film in context of what came before it and after it, and the influence it went on to have.
I think that's a good idea, because up on the big screen it was quite impressive. I looked at it just in despair, thinking 'Gosh, I've got no money', and I was trying to get so much done. And [Black Angel actor] Tony Vogel and I were trying to have him speak as a medieval man would speak, so the dialogue sounds a bit odd, but it was true. So I think that might be the best way to do it, actually.