Roger Christian interview: Part 2
|INTERVIEWS - FILM|
Continued from PART 1
In researching this piece I finally got to see the Michael Moorcock adaptation of The Final Programme from 1973 [on which Christian worked as assistant art director], which I really enjoyed. It occurred to me that if it had been made three years later it might have been a bit less like Barbarella and a bit more in line with the 70s sci-fi aesthetic up until Star Wars…?
Jon Finch (centre) - nearly a new 'sci-fi 007' in The Final Programme (1973)
Yeah, it was true. Philip Harrison was the designer and Bob Fuest directed it. He had crazy ideas! They're great books, aren't they? The Michael Moorcock books. I think Bob Fuest had a very whimsical attitude to everything in the way he makes his films, if you look at what he made. So I think that was his sensibility, and Philip and I were trying to drag it down a bit into the more fantasy/grounded level. But I think yeah, if it had gone three years later with another director, that would have been a great franchise. There were several more of the [Jerry Cornelius] Moorcock books.
Oh, definitely. I thought he was a very powerful actor, and he was kind of in his game at that point. And what a great character. And if you read the books, read them not thinking of that kind of fantasy - more whimsical way, I call it - if you read them, they're much more hardcore so, I do think they would have made a great series.
No. But I'd constantly seen him and kept up with him. He looked really ill [on the Alien set]. Despite what the books and the other sites say, he actually did three days of shooting.
Jon Finch as Kane in the first days of production on Alien (1979)
Most places say that he only did one shot - even the Quadrilogy documentary, which includes the shot where he looks so unwell.
No, he did more than that. But the smoke, after the first two or three days…Ridley loves smoke, and that was when we were using the bee-puffer, the incense smoke. At that stage, that was really upsetting him. Plus there was the diabetes, as it transpired. But no, he did more than one shot - he was there for the first couple of days.
He was really trying, and he looked great, actually, as the character. And then he got so ill he just couldn't carry on, and Hurt just took over and Ridley didn't have to re-shoot that much; just the parts with [Finch].
Timing can be very interesting…I met [film distributor Harvey Weinstein] once, and he said 'You made that film three years too early'. Because they weren't there then, and if they had been, Nostradamus would have gone with [The Weinstein Company] as a release. It would have done way better.
The reviews in America were astonishing. We were the highest box-office at an arts cinema in Santa Monica when it opened, but the company that they chose to release it were going bankrupt. They had no money and they couldn't push it out. It's done very well all over the world, and in Germany it played for sixteen weeks in I don't know how many cinemas. I still get fan mail from Germany, and it was a massive, massive hit.
I was in Mexico a few years later, I was with a family, and we were down in this place miles from anywhere, and my then-wife - who's Spanish - was talking in Spanish to this whole group at the table and suddenly they all came to me and were asking for my autograph. I said 'What's going on?', and she said 'Nostradamus - they've all gone insane!'.
They said to go down to the local video store, so I did, in this little town, and there was the poster of Nostradamus on the wall. So I spoke to the guy and he said that this was a bigger hit than True Lies in Mexico. So it kind of had this life that none of us really knew about. The German producer now knows…and they never released it on DVD.
I know, I had to rent it on VHS.
There are a few DVDs around…a little company in Holland tried to do it, and then it got stopped. When I made the film, it was about three hours long, so there's all this amazing material. We always said we should do a director's cut, but we couldn't even get it out. I don't know why. It's one of those things that slips between the net, and it was because of the way the financing was done through the Berliner bank in London, who had a film division then. And then it all collapsed in a lot of legal vitriol.
I can well understand why John Travolta and Ellie Samaha credited you as an actor's director on seeing Nostradamus, but was it also your experience with sci-fi that made them want you to take on Battlefield Earth?
Yes, it was. One other thing was that with Nostradamus, when we were with Working Title, the budget was twenty million and we couldn't get that so we made it for four in Romania. All in - that's with cast and everything. So that was one factor - they knew I could make Battlefield Earth with a budget…well, originally it was around $80-$100 million, and they had $21 million at that stage. The producers said 'You can do it in Montreal - it's very cheap and we have these amazing tax deals'. So that was it.
John Travolta in Battlefield Earth (2000)
I was invited to dinner with John, and it was a great honour just to go and have dinner with him - I love him as an actor. He kind of hugged me when I first met him and said 'Nostradamus! You're not afraid of actors!' I based my characters in Battlefield Earth on the old kings, that kind of arrogance, so that side of it he loved, and the visionary aspects of it.
By chance the first Phantom Menace trailer had broken in America at that time, and I think our unit had shot more than half the trailer - just one of those coincidences that all the second-unit shots I'd done were in the first trailer.
"John Travolta said every director that he put up for Battlefield Earth, he would first go to Quentin and ask his approval. And Quentin said 'no' to all of them. And Travolta said 'When I mentioned your name, Quentin screamed and yelled "Yes!"'.
But it was only in the year after we'd made Battlefield Earth that Travolta and I had to go on a press tour. He and I were sitting alone one night somewhere in Atlanta, chatting, and he told something about Tarantino. He said 'Of course you know Quentin' and I said 'No, I've never met him - I love his work but I've never met him' and [Travolta] said 'Of course you have!'.
I said 'No, I haven't, John', and he said 'Well…you don't know this story?'. I said 'No! [laughs] 'What's this story?'.
[Travolta] said every director that he put up for Battlefield Earth, he would first go to Quentin and ask his approval. And Quentin said 'no' to all of them. And [Travolta] said 'When I mentioned your name, he screamed and yelled "Yes!"'.
I asked him what this was based on, and he said 'Didn't you know? The Sender, the first film you made, is one of his all-time favourite movies.' So [Travolta] said 'Right, I'm going to put you together with him!', and he put us together on a plane from New York - we had to fly back from the premiere. So I was there on a plane with Quentin and he spent about an hour going on about my film The Sender. [laughs]
[Tarantino] told me that when he was a video assistant he'd seen [The Sender] on television and taped it. He said 'When it first came out in the cinemas, I realised that the studios were just against you on this, so I took people every night to see it, because I knew it wouldn't be in the cinemas very long.'
"There is a kind of world 'sheep-speak', I call it, a kind of coalescing, and that becomes like the standard. No-one thinks about it and they don't really go into it, they just repeat what's said"
So he'd taped it from television, and when the video rental came in, he looked at it and said 'They'd cut some of your scenes'. He said 'On my own money, and I was only a video assistant, I went and re-cut it - and I cut back in the scenes that they cut out, from my television recording' [laughs]. 'And that's what we rented out. I've still got the copy somewhere at home'.
There's another Tarantino connection for you, in that he read and loved the script for Underworld [which Christian made with Dennis Leary and Joe Mantegna in 1996] directly before coming up with Reservoir Dogs. So even though Underworld pre-dated that hallmark Tarantino 'gangster-ramble' style, is it fair to say that your take on the film was 'pre-empted' by the time it got made and released?
Yeah, a hundred percent. It was just a brilliant script, and it was offered to me right on the back of doing The Final Cut. Dennis Leary came in when I said I'd do it, and then Joe Mantegna did it, so I thought 'I'd better do this'. But I didn't know, because this was done after Reservoir Dogs, that [Tarantino] had already set the benchmark for this type of stuff.
But I wanted to do it anyway - I thought it was brilliant, the dialogue and the scenes in there…so it was a chance to explore that. And the film was destined for HBO again, so it was okay to do that. I had great fun making it.
Just going back briefly to Battlefield Earth - Tarantino said that it's time would come...when was the last time you actually re-watched the movie?
A couple of years back. Not on the big screen, but I saw it then, and…I don't know. This wave of stuff against scientology, I think, is too much. I don't understand - the film's nothing to do with it. But that kind of campaign that came…mostly at John, it didn't come at me, though I got labelled afterwards…but it was mostly at him, at the beginning, for doing it.
But there is a kind of world 'sheep-speak', I call it, a kind of coalescing, and that becomes like the standard. No-one thinks about it and they don't really go into it, they just repeat what's said.
I hadn't seen it until a week ago, pretty much for the reason you state, and I was surprised to find it was a pretty straightforward sci-fi yarn…
It's a science-fiction movie. We had hundreds and hundreds of e-mails and letters saying 'I don't understand why people are saying this about it - it's a good romp and a great yarn' and this and that. People were praising the effects and all this stuff, and some of the scenes in it. People seemed to like it, so…I'm fine with it. It's what it is. We experimented and we tried to create some new cinema, but it proved too much.
Were the Dutch angles and wipe-dissolves in Battlefield to accentuate the fun of the piece, and maybe defuse some of the controversies you might see coming because it was L. Ron Hubbard source material?
Absolutely, yeah - it was kind of like comic strips, which I often looked at. They're all Dutch-angles and stuff like this, and we did that on purpose. And the wipes - the editor suggested that he'd seen another sci-fi movie that had those kind of wipes, and so we thought, yeah, let's play with this. George [Lucas] had used different ones, but I liked that idea, because it moves things along and it makes it what it is. It's not melodrama, it's just sci-fi fantasy.
Battlefield Earth (dutch angles)
The Dutch angles solved something else too. I always had a problem because the Psychlos were 8ft "6, so by dutching the camera, we could get them into the shot very often and create the illusion of height for real. What you could do now, as they did in Lord Of The Rings, stripping them out and putting them back in at a different size - we didn't have the budget for that, nor the technology. So it enabled me to do height differences on set and not have to constantly cut to make it work.
Giles Nuttgens [director of photography on Battlefield Earth] is a really brave DP. He's always doing very brave stuff and experimenting and doing different things, so we kind of devised these processes in early tests.
The second half of the book is amazing - just amazing. It's in much darker territory, and there's an incredible sequence which would have been inside one of these dirty, dark drones - a huge sequence. I would love to do it, but I just don't know - John [Travolta] wanted to do it, always.
But I think it would be a hard one, so… [laughs]. But he's written some great books, Ron Hubbard. Just some amazing stuff.
I saw The Final Cut about three days ago, and it's got what appears to be the best 'building explosion' since Zabriskie Point. Assuming you didn't actually blow up a shopping mall, how was that done? An optical, CGI…?
[laughs] We had three million Canadian dollars for that film. I'm really proud of it, and it was also rather prophetic, because just as we started shooting Oklahoma [the bombing] went.
But I knew I had to do a really good explosion, and again it was a case of me being more down and dirty. I never liked big 'gas' explosions. People get enamoured with special effects. They do these petrol bombs and up goes the petrol and they think it looks really great. But I've been very close to IRA bombs exploding in London, and it's different - there's debris flying, that kind of stuff.
I was determined to do this despite the budget, and again with this attitude of 'Let's just do, let's find a way round it'. So I found a shopping mall that they'd built in Vancouver and it had closed down - run out of money. But it was dressed. [In the movie] It was literally as it appeared. I got my special effects guy there - who, of course, was in love with me for this [laughs] - look, if we double-skin the building and put in twenty mortars, it's cheap. And they said 'This is what we always want to do, but everyone wants petrol explosions!'.
So we did it. And in the entire building, we cracked only one pane of glass in the course of doing that shot. I had huge fights with the producers to get eight cameras, but they gave me seven. Anyway I managed to get eight - I sneaked a Bolex in.
When I got to London Steve Kenis, who was then the head of William Morris, he asked me to lunch, as he wanted to represent me. He'd got me John Hannah, who was then between jobs, and so they made it possible for him to fly in and do the day for me. He said 'You only had three million Canadian! I don't understand - how did you blow up that shopping mall?'. And I said 'We just blew one up, John - where there's a will, there's a way' [laughs]. I never let on what we'd done.
Of course Final Cut stands in that body of pre-9/11 American movies like Arlington Road and The Peacemaker, that kind of preface what was coming. Did it seem increasingly less far-fetched as Oklahoma cut in, and you were making it?
I just went back to my European roots. I just thought 'this is going to come', and in fact there's a speech that Sam Elliot gives after some of the bomb squad have died and Anne Ramsay's character was really shocked. He tells her that America's just going to have to get used to this - it's a fucked-up world out there, and it's coming.
I wrote that because I could see it coming. It had to happen. America had never had to bother with any kind of threat. It was just so big and isolated as a country, but you could see, looking at what was happening in the world, that it was going to come on their doorstep at some point.
"The special effects guy on Prisoners Of The Sun and I saw the effects that they were doing. They were so bad that I said 'My name's off this, we won't have anything to do with it'. "
The film is stuck in legal problems in Germany at present and work done without the Producer or Directors knowledge or approval is holding up procedures.
The special effects guy and I saw the effects that they were doing. They were so bad that I said 'My name's off this, we won't have anything to do with it'.
It's gone into such a bad legal battle…it's lost its time too, because the story was pre-Raiders  coming out, and it was a kind of similar story, although it's Egyptian. At its time it would have been okay, but now it's lost its place.
I'm not encouraging it now. In the end I don't know what'll happen with it. My German producer who made Nostradamus with me, he was fighting the battle to try and get it resurrected, because he said 'This is such a commercial film'. And I still get buyers, especially from a lot of independent distribution companies saying 'We want to put this film out - how can we get it?'. It has huge production value; we shot some really great stuff and had a really good cast too.
But for now it's locked in a legal battle.
It's a great script. Again, my Nostradamus producer brought it to me. He's trying to make it. They have the blessing of Von Daniken and I was blessed to make it with them. I don't know whether it will ever happen or not, but it's an amazing story. I completely rewrote the beginning and we put it right back into ancient Jerusalem and how it all started, so that I can show a modern audience how the attack came at that time and the Israelites were driven out.
And then there was Von Daniken's first major experience, which I wrote up from this whole thing. The writing of Ezekiel clearly came to be interpreted a lot about the craft coming down, alien visitations, and being 'taken'. I went out to Kashmir where Von Daniken found the very ancient temple that's exactly a copy of Solomon's temple, which was built way, way back. It's quite interesting, the challenge of trying to show a modern audience how his mind was working.
And it's a great adventure! Von Daniken is kind of a real-life Indiana Jones. I don't know if it'll get made or not. Since the banks went down, we're all struggling to get films made that are…visionary, if you like.
"Britain's become the home of low-budget 3D - it's amazing, the amount of talent there and experimentation going on"
There are two films now going side by side. Zounds will get made, I think. I'm not shooting it yet. It's a thriller set in a seaside town in Wales, which is a really beautiful script. So that one will go.
I'm just now involved in a 3D project called Transmission, and that's kind of delving into hardcore sci-fi set in modern-day Britain. There's an alien…it's a mystery - you're trying to find out what's going on, but there's been an eclipse and everything's gone dark. All the people who are above ground are just floating about an inch and a half off the ground, just frozen…
Yeah. I went to Britain for four weeks to work out how to do the 3D. Britain's become the home of low-budget 3D - it's amazing, the amount of talent there and experimentation going on. When I started to watch scenes then in 3D and then in 2D…it's really another dimension. Not so much things flying out at you - as filmmakers quickly learn, that kind of stuff is okay in a bit of a horror film, to make you scream - but the depth that you get into shots creates this next dimension, which will be amazing.
Ridley's doing the next Alien in 3D. I saw a [3D] television that doesn't need glasses [during the visit to Britain], and it's starting to come. When I saw it there in Britain [the glasses-less 3D TV] had just come in.
Watching sports, even. When you're watching a football match and seeing the stadium, it's weird. I think in the end this is going to become a standard for our industry.
So you have a genuine interest in 3D as a film-maker, rather than the many directors who are less interested in that technology but know that it can get their movies green-lit?
No, I'm really interested, creatively. Paul Anderson, who I know, was here shooting the next Resident Evil in 3D, so I went down on the set with him. Watching shots of zombies and stuff in 3D is amazing. I got really excited [laughs]. For horror films and stuff [3D] is brilliant, what you can do…
Look at Black Angel. If I could have made that now in 3D, it could add something to it, I think. Watching Avatar in a 3D IMAX theatre was really a pretty mind-blowing experience.
Have you seen Alice In Wonderland yet?
Not yet. It's come now and we're just going to go and see it.
I think, as always, there'll be a lot of low-budget stuff coming out just so they can get it made, and it won't be that good, and it'll put a dent, as it always does…it's like horror movies. But I think in the end the good work will come blasting out.
"Watching all of the Alien interviews, they're nearly all wrong on their facts"
I'm just dealing now with the publishers. I'm working on it. I've done [laughs] a huge amount of work. It's easier making a film, actually, than writing. I actually have a very clear memory. It's interesting…I was watching a lot of the Alien stuff, the interviews with Ivor Powell, the producer. Completely wrong! He's saying 'I think we started with the flower opening [hypersleep scene]…just no recollection of what things were. I have a very, very good memory, and I guess taking Ginko Biloba for all these years has paid off!
So you'll be setting the record straight on a few matters?
I think so. A lot of the stuff has got muddled, and watching all of the interviews, they're nearly all wrong on their facts. Nothing's ever been written about Alien, ever - there are two books, perhaps. One I think is The Alien Quartet, which deals with all four of them, and there's one called Beautiful Monsters. And also my part of Star Wars.
So as it's the Alien anniversary in October with Ridley, when I think it'll start to come online about him doing the next one, once they've got the script right, it would be a very good time to bring it out - so I'm really pressuring to try and get it out this year. And I'm pressuring myself too.
My very great thanks to Roger for his co-operation and tremendous help with this interview, and for the pictures that he supplied. Here's hoping for a little Cinema Alchemy in the autumn!
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