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Exclusive interview: The worlds of Roger Christian

INTERVIEWS - FILM

From Alien to Star Wars and beyond, the production designer and director who survived Battlefield Earth talks about the Alien prequel, Tarantino, Travolta, and one of the most mysterious films that ever influenced Hollywood...

Roger Christian

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.

In this interview, Roger Christian not only provides pictures from Black Angel, but finally discusses this highly influential short film, as well as 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...

See bottom of this page for the link to part 2 of the interview (Tarantino, Battlefield Earth, The Final Programme etc)


Index of selected topics in this interview (not a complete presé of the interview):

Alien (1979): Alien Prequel [2] | Set dressing | Dan O'Bannon | Fighting Studio Execs | Opinion On Alien Sequels | Jon Finch as Kane |
Battlefield Earth: Getting the job | Tarantino Recommendation | Lucas | Dutch Angles | Return to Franchise |
Black Angel
(1979):
Kurosawa [2] | Influence on Excalibur | Influence on Empire Strikes Back | Graphic Novel | DVD |
Nostradamus (1994): [1] |
Star Wars (1977): 'Missing story' | Scrap tech | Old Airplanes | Look and Feel | 'Foss' Robot | Phantom Menace [2] |
The Final Programme
:
Lost opportunity | 'Sci-Fi 007' |
The Sender
(1982):
George Miller | George Lucas | Tarantino recuts (and rents out!) The Sender when video-store clerk |
Book Cinema Alchemy: [1] [2] | Release date |
Upcoming and other projects: Prisoners Of The Sun | Zounds | Remember The Future | Transmission |
Misc: Dollar Bottom (1981) | Peter Jackson | Alphaville/Solaris | Underworld (1996) | The Final Cut (1995) | 3D movies |


Were you surprised how many people were affected by Black Angel?

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
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…?

Review of 'Black Angel' by Frances Lynn for ShowBiz mag, 1980It'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'
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)
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 [1982] 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
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…

Luke about to fight himself in Yoda's cave in 'The Empire Strikes Back' (1980)Since this was a theme and a tone that seemed to be 'in the air', do you not think that Black Angel may have had some inspiration on the dark tone of The Empire Strikes Back?

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'
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
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.

You mentioned the possibility of a graphic novel too for Black Angel. Is that just a notion at the moment, or are there any definite plans for it?

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.

Is there any chance that we'll see Black Angel released on DVD?

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…

Exactly.

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.

What can you tell us about progress on your book Cinema Alchemy?

I call it that because it's about turning scrap into gold [laughs]. Turning it into an Oscar…

David West-Reynolds, who wrote all the Star Wars books, he's been on at me to do my story. He tried to do it as a Lucasfilm book, but they couldn't fit the timing in, because they didn't want to look back on the first one. They were always very concerned about the three prequels, and then they're now trying to get the books for the Making Of and the re-releases. He said that he could just never got it scheduled.

[David West-Reynolds] emailed me and said 'You've got the last untold story', and that ours is actually the most important story because nobody has remembered what actually happened at the beginning. He said 'The blog-sites are all asking where the laser-swords first came from'.

They'd lost my original interview, where I lucked out. David said 'You've really lucked out, Roger, because if they'd interviewed you it really would all have been in there'. So with John [Barry] dying, there was just his old interview…


"Interest in Star Wars is constant. Here in Toronto I'm constantly signing autographs. Kids come round dressed in Star Wars stuff. It's extraordinary how it keeps going and getting bigger and bigger. "


I think that's going to be the real interest in Cinema Alchemy - making the first R2D2, making the weapons and how the actual laser-sword came about. They're all in the book. That's taking up about 170 pages, really, the story of how I got to Star Wars and met George, and how this all happened.

Interest in this is constant. Here in Toronto I'm constantly signing autographs. Kids come round dressed in Star Wars stuff. It's extraordinary how it keeps going and getting bigger and bigger.

So I think the timing is right now. It's serendipity, really.

Was George Lucas's reference to ariel fights and footage from The Dambusters anything to do with your decision to outfit Star Wars with parts of WWII bombers?

No, that was a coincidence - it was later that we saw those. A lot of the book goes right back to the beginning, to the alternative thinking...I just didn't follow the path. I was always able to work my way round problems and do things a different way. I used to photograph model cars and stuff in the back garden, even when I was eight or nine, and I tried to make them look real and stick things on them, and tried to make crashes that look real, and stuff.

I kind of grew up with this. In fact, in Mexico on Lucky Lady, I had to go and buy scrap and dress some of the boats and other pieces and make some of the really old 1920s sets look older.

It kind of came out of that, and me hating science-fiction weapons in films before that.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) firing a blaster in Star Wars (1977)On Star Wars, I went off on my own to the gun-hire place and got a Sterling sub-machine gun and adapted it with super-glue and other bits, Babty's gave me the permission to do it because they knew me well, and I created the first storm-troopers' weapon out of those and showed them to George and said 'Look, they can fire on the stage so you get smoke and fire, and backfiring…I hated in previous films that they just gave you a little 'beep'; it didn't look menacing. And George just loved it.

So that was brewing in my head all the time. We had so little money to make that film with that I couldn't dress it traditionally. I looked at my budgets and looked at my list of breakdowns and thought 'If we make all of this dressing, I can't do it'.

If you had been given higher budgets for Alien and Star Wars, what would they have looked like compared to how they turned out under these cannibalising techniques?

I would have done the same thing! [laughs] Just in a more expensive way. I just loved the idea. Take Harrison Ford's ship - it's like you own a car, it's all new and shiny and then you buy it second-hand and you keep repairing it and fixing things and it gets dented…and in the end that's how it is. I remember seeing a Russian submarine of that era, and they were not polished plastic and very clinical interiors. They were just dripping with oil, and that's how I always thought it should be.

The Millennium Falcon interior and a real-life submarine interior

I was very influenced by Alphaville - the way that Godard took a little hand-held Bolex and created a sci-fi world in the streets of Paris, and just out of found stuff. And Solyaris, where he'd gone and made this fairly scruffy space-station.

A corridor in Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' (1972)
A corridor in Tarkovsky's Solyaris (1972)

It's that minimalist drabness of those Solyaris corridors that sell it - as if it was made in a low-budget Soviet era of space exploration.

Yes, exactly.

There are a few bits and pieces in the corridors in Alien that I'm able to pick out, having seen it so many times, like perhaps a sprayed vegetable crate in the shaft where Dallas gets killed. On repeated viewings, are there any bits of set dressing where you go 'Oh, I hope nobody notices that'?

[laughs] There is a bit on the bridge with a lamp-stand in it! But that was on the fourth day of the shoot, and Ridley was arguing with Derek Vanlint. He wanted to back-light it and said 'Just stick a red-head in, it'll be fine on the stand'. Derek looked at me and I said 'Don't worry, I'll disguise it', and I went over and stuck things round it. And Derek was arguing 'You can't do that!' [laughs]. Ridley said 'No-one'll know, it'll melt in'. And it did, nobody knows,

What was slightly different on that one to the Star Wars look was the military green colour, and everything got 'sprayed in'. That was the process. Once we dressed in all the scrap and the pipes and so on, then it got sprayed in and aged.

Roger Christian synthesises the work of Moebius and Ron Cobb in Alien (1979)
Roger Christian synthesises the work of Moebius and Ron Cobb in Alien (1979)

We had Letraset in those times, stick-down letters - we spent days with Letraset putting numbers on, symbols and stuff like that. So it actually unified into that kind of military look.

Letrasetted type and model-kit frame-holders at the end of 'Alien' (1979)
Letrasetted type and model-kit frame-holders at the end of Alien (1979)

It disguised a lot more than on Star Wars, where we had that kind of gritty, oily look.

Have you noticed over the years how bits of these sci-fi interiors tend to turn up in other films and in TV?

[laughs] Yes, I have!. You know, I was kind of lucky - I was this long-haired set-decorator and George Lucas thought very similarly. Because he made THX-1138, and because he struggled with low-budget movies, he had that attitude to it. And [Star Wars production designer] John Barry did too. He was brilliant.

They finally said to me 'all right', and arranged a trip for me to the airfield scrap-yards of Britain, and I went round…the thing is that nobody wanted this stuff at that time. Because scrap-metal was sold by weight, aircraft scrap is very light. So for fifty pounds, I was buying half an aeroplane!

This is what made sci-fi movies great in the 1970sSo we bought a lot, and it was just never-ending, because once you start dressing this stuff, these sets eat it up, so it was a continual buying process. With Alien I did the same thing when I came in on it, and after that, it's finished - you cannot buy it in Britain. It became an industry. You could rent it. And so that's why all this stuff went round and round.

In fact, on Phantom Menace, Rick McCallum flew it in from Arizona. It was cheaper to buy scrap in Arizona and stick it in a big transport plane and fly it in - which shows you what happened [laughs] after we invented this technique with nothing, because we had no money to get the right look

On Alien, how did this team of art geniuses in the art department, the likes of Moebius, Foss and Ron Cobb, feel about the way that bits of their designs would end up incorporated into the Nostromo sets, melded together by yourself and your team using this scrap technique?

No, I think that was all just an integration of ideas. We all fed off each other, I think [laughs]. The 'cricket-pad' look for the suits came from Moebius…I think science-fiction artists are very generous with each other. They feed on ideas and build on it.

In Star Wars, there's a robot in the line-up with the sandcrawler when they're buying R2-D2 and C-3PO…I did do a homage, because I felt I should, to Chris Foss, because he did some very early designs for that and he was always a favourite of mine. So I made one and designed it up out of scrap as if it might have been in a Chris Foss painting, and that was my homage to him, because I always thought he was a genius as an artist.

Roger Christian's tribute to SF artist Chris Foss in 'Star Wars' (1977)

I interviewed Chris Foss last year, not so long before Dan O'Bannon died, and Foss was saying that O'Bannon's role on Alien wasn't really official. What role was O'Bannon actually performing there?

Dan was there meddling! And being there. And they kept pushing him away [laughs]. It's this terrible thing with writers - I don't know what it is, that directors and producers never want them around. I was always fascinated with Dan, because I thought Dark Star was just amazing as a piece of work. And he'd written this thing.

[Dan] and Ron Cobb were great, great friends, and Ron and I just were compatriot spirits. Anything I needed, I went to Ron. I'd go to him and say 'If I were in a hole and we needed a ship that would go down and collect scrap - say - from this planet…?' and he'd draw me a sketch of it, and I'd go away and show the prop boys and we'd create it.

So Dan was kind of a part of that. But I remember that something happened…something he did with some computer read-outs…I can't remember what it was, but he was on the next plane back to L.A. They sent him home! [laughs]

Foss told me that O'Bannon wasn't generally well-treated on the set except by Ridley, who was particularly fond of him.

Yes, that's true - Ridley and me. But otherwise he wasn't, no, not at all, and they were always trying to get rid of him. But again, that's this writer thing. Writers have always said on movies that they've been the worst-treated, worst than the lowest tea-boy. I don't treat mine like that, but it is a funny thing…

Were the doors genuinely hydraulic in the Nostromo, or was it done Star Trek style - manually?

No, a lot of it was actually the grips pulling them on chains, because they always work. When you read my book, it actually explains my whole philosophy, because I start with a story that happened to me when I went to see the Star Trek sets in Hollywood.

Shooting is such a pressured environment - there's light and heat and actors, and things go wrong. The moment you start putting in computers and electronics, it goes wrong [laughs]. But you can always turn to a grip and say 'Can you do this?' and they always say 'Right-o guv', and they go in and they do it. And it works, and you can repeat it.

So a lot of it was done like that, but I have to say that [Alien special effects supervisor] Nicky Allder is just a genius. He was always able to make things work, when a lot of the others got too complicated. Nick always got it. Anything that was hydraulically done, he made it work.

The piston-powered hypersleep chamber in 'Alien' (1979)
The piston-powered hypersleep chamber in Alien (1979)

The flower-opening, the wake-up scene, that was cut out. Fox said that there wasn't the budget to do that scene. But we secretly built that set without [Fox executive] Peter Beale knowing, although he suspected that something was going on. [The hypersleep chamber incident] was one where I found that Nick Allder had eight or nine pistons that he wasn't using, and we got Benjamin Fernandez, an art director that we got in, to draw it up, And we used those pistons and it all worked perfectly, and it's a beautiful moment, I think.

It seems there was a great deal of secret set-building and secret set-cancelling on Alien

Yes! [laughs]

It seems to have been a kingdom divided against itself. Was that throughout the entire production or when they decided that Ridley Scott wasn't working fast enough?

It was right throughout. I remember at about six or seven weeks before shooting, about $600,000 was just cut out of the budget. And whenever that's done…if you look at a film like Alien, if you look at the budgets, the construction and set decoration is always the biggest lump. So that always gets attacked first. It's easier for accountants - they just go and say 'Oh, there's a big lump, just go and take ten percent of that off'. That makes a huge dent in what you're doing.

I remember very clearly, Ridley and I were talking on the stage, and he said 'I don't know what to do - these [sets] are out', and I said 'Don't worry, I'll do it'. He said 'No, do it if you can, but don't tell anyone. Can you do it round the back?' and I said 'Yeah, we'll do it' - and we did.

And that happened to several sets. We resurrected some that wouldn't have been in the film otherwise. And it was done without much cost, and it was going on all the time.

You've obviously moved on beyond that stage of your career, but will you have any involvement in Ridley Scott's Alien prequel?

I hope so. I actually met Ridley here at the film festival. We had a chat to catch up, and he was going on about how much I'd 'got it' on the first one. I guess that's because of Star Wars, where I had a trained crew with me...and we learned how to do it. It's not a technique that's easy to do - it's something I'd learned. So [Scott] kept saying how I was the one responsible, really.

I did build the first corridor for him ever, when I joined, which was the Sigourney Weaver test. They couldn't get the look, so Ridley said 'Why don't you do it? You know how to do this'.

I'd joined a little bit later, because I was on Life Of Brian, and I built that set and we dressed it and got it painted, and that there was the look of Alien. That became the corridors - we dressed everything after that.

Sigourney Weaver screen-tests for Ripley in one of Roger Christian's off-the-cuff sets (never used in the movie)
Sigourney Weaver screen-tests for Ripley in one of Roger Christian's off-the-cuff sets (never used in Alien)

I always made only one promise to myself. I said if ever I went back to designing, the only film I would ever want to design is Alien, if Ridley re-did it. I could never understand why they didn't pull him back in.

Is that a possibility for you now?

I don't know! We'll see [laughs]. I would do it if it came up, depending on what I was doing at the time. To me it was such a landmark film, and it was such an amazing experience being on it. Ridley's very loyal as a friend to the few people who've really helped him over the years, so who knows?

Have you enjoyed many - or any - of the Alien sequels up until now?

Cameron's second one was brilliant. He took it in his own direction and just made an amazing piece of work. It was the right thing to do. You just couldn't repeat what Ridley had done. Ridley had the advantage that he was able to create the tension, because you really didn't know what was coming. Cameron was faced with that possibility and turned it into war, and really, really pushing this female heroine idea before anyone else did it. So I think he did a brilliant job.


"David Fincher walked into Fox and said 'I don't know what you're doing - Alien is all about dirt and filth and oil and a hardcore technical world - why are we doing this 'wooden' thing?' "


I think Fincher did as much as he could. I was doing commercials at Boss studios during the third one when he was there, when they were shooting a few bits. He inherited a script where the whole alien world was built in wood, and forests, and no time to re-do it.

He told me he got the job. He walked into Fox and said 'I don't know what you're doing - Alien is all about dirt and filth and oil and a hardcore technical world - why are we doing this 'wooden' thing?'. And he got this job, and I think he did the best he could do under the horrendous time-restraints.

And then, I remember, a young writer friend called me when I was in LA, and he called me from London after the fourth one and said 'I'm crying'. I asked why and he said 'I've just come out of Alien [Resurrection], and they've turned it into a comedy!'. He said 'The world of Alien is just going to collapse - this is the end of it'. And it's true - you don't hire a comedy director to make Alien.

From what you know about it, is Ridley's prequel likely to get the franchise back on track, or at least be a worthwhile successor to Alien?

I do. Ridley told me some of his ideas when we were here in Toronto. He will - there's no question. He has a very clear understanding of where this should go. They kind of stopped dead one of the greatest horror franchises there's ever been, and it had legs to go on. So I'm hoping he'll revive another three, because that would be brilliant. The world certainly wants it, and the fans want it - everybody. It's a landmark. And that first film - you can see it on television and go in three quarters of the way through and you're sucked into it.

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO OF THE INTERVIEW


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#1 Guest 2010-03-12 00:57
Is Part ll of the interview supposed to be there? I keep getting "Can not connect to MySQL" blah, blah, blah.
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#2 twoshedsmcginty 2010-03-12 13:49
Quoting Daniel Middleman:
Is Part ll of the interview supposed to be there? I keep getting "Can not connect to MySQL" blah, blah, blah.


I'm afraid this site is enjoying greater success than its modest server can handle. We are working on it.

Leo Porter, editor shadowlocked.com
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