The Den Of Geek interview: Roger Christian
From Star Wars and Alien to Battlefield Earth, designer and director Roger Christian talks about the highs and lows...
Roger Christian is a man with two Oscars on his mantelpiece, and whose art direction and set design work on Alien and Star Wars made him very much in demand. Here, he tells us about his career, from his aborted project with Russ Meyer through to Oscar night, and then discusses his directorial outings, including the now-infamous Battlefield Earth.
In the very early stages you were doing some work for Hammer and the like. Can you tell us more about that.
Very early on, I was trying to find interesting projects always and I was getting them as an Art Director. Actually, we did one in the Hammer Studios. It was the first Sex Pistols project called Who Killed Bambi, - it was a quite interesting one - with Russ Meyer directing it. And we built all the sets, got everything ready. It was actually a really great project. He's fascinating and it was a perfect marriage between the two.
But, Princess Grace got appointed to the head of Fox's board and she said, "I'm going to take this very seriously. Everyone thought this was frivolous." And I remember being in Malcolm McLaren's office and saying, "You know, I think you're dead." [laughs] And it [the movie] was cancelled a week later.
That's a great pity. Working with someone like Russ Meyer must be absolutely fascinating.
It was deeply fascinating. He was actually a very intelligent, very unique individual. Yeah, it was an interesting period.
You also did Randall and Hopkirk and Jason King?
I did. What happened was I was just desperate to get into the film industry and it was hard in those days. You had to go up through the ranks and having been through art school already and a movie lover, I was hungry to leap forward. So I studied at architecture school for two years, trying to get my shoe in as I was told to try the art department. I was fortunate that John Box took me on as teaboy on Oliver, and mentored me. He was brilliant. He designed Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago so I started with the top. He mentored me through Oliver, and through him I met Charlie Bishop, who took me on Randall and Hopkirk.
I was stuck in the office drawing and I hated drawing, I hated being in the office. One day the set decorator had a mental breakdown and never came back, so Charlie threw me onto the floor and said, "Quick! You've got to do these sets." And Charlie said, "I think this is what you'll be good at." That was it, the directors loved what I did. They said, "Great. You're staying now."
That must have been great.
Yeah. I learnt a lot, you know. Because TV series were relentless. Like every ten days you had to turn around new environments. You basically learned to get out of trouble quickly. And be inventive.
Did that tie into some of your very high profile commercial work later on in your career?
Yes, it did. Very much so. I think they were for me, a bedrock of experience. I learnt very fast. Then I worked with another very talented designer, Philip Harrison on several movies. We did some hugely experimental sci-fi movies that were amazing at the time like Michael Moorcock’s Final Destination.
We did some amazing sets at EMI studios, and Philip taught me a lot as well. So all of those things were pushing the areas that I like to go in [which was] fortunate. I art directed a film called Akenfield that I was very proud of, which we made as a co-operative for £70,000. Sir Peter Hall directed and Sir Michael Tippet did the music and Ronald Blythe wrote it. They were the three big Suffolk contemporaries. We filmed over a year and it was absolutely beautiful film that was premiered on ITV to much acclaim.
Again, it was always that kind of work that I was getting. I designed Mahler for Ken Russell. I got on really well with him.
That must be almost refreshing, being able to bounce off such very individual directors as Russ Meyer and Ken Russell.
Totally. Because they're kind of always the innovators. They may not always be in the box office, but they're the innovators.
Les Dilly was an art director I worked with a lot. He was in Mexico on this film, Lucky Lady. They called me out to help. There was only four of us in the art department. It was a huge movie - I mean really huge. They called me out to come in and help set decorate it. We were all given individual areas because it was so big. It was in North Mexico.
It sounds like your career was built on the old adage that once you've done one well, the calls keep coming.
Yeah, that's what happens, Lucky Lady it was set in the 1920s about rum running in America and Prohibition - one of the most beautiful scripts I've ever read, I have to say. It was written by Gloria and Willard Huyck, who had written some concept ideas for Star Wars for George. He needed to find the people who understood this vision of ancient worlds applied to the future. They said to George, "You and Gary Kurtz have got to come down to Mexico."
So they came down to meet John and I and DP Geoffrey Unsworth in particular. George came round and looked at the sets we were doing. I was dressing a salt factory set in 1929. It was all broken down. It was like a Western. That was it. We got hired. When I came back to LA I had been sick as a dog. I had paratyphoid and we had a meeting with John Barry who said, "Look. I've been offered this science fiction film. They want you to do it. This is what it is." I said, "Yes. I'm in."
Are you a science fiction fan by nature?
Yes. Growing up in this strange world of Britain, [laughs] myth and legend and comics like the Eagle, really they were my saviours. That's what I read all the time. It gave me a feeling that yes, there was more than what I was experiencing all around me. Because it was not the best times then.
When you met George Lucas for the first time, where you particularly aware of him? Had you seen THX or American Graffiti or any of those?
Yeah. I knew American Graffiti and THX. THX, obviously, we all kind of loved. It's like one of my favourite movies Alphaville, that Jean-Luc Godard made. It's all that vein of stuff I loved and understood.
So, George then came to England with Gary. We spent five months in a little tiny studio in Kensal Rise working out how the hell to make this film with the money we had because it was not enough budget. I came up with the idea of making the dressings from scrap. That was my invention because I couldn't afford to dress it.
I've always had this idea. I used to do it with models when I was a kid. I'd stick things on them and we'd make things look old. I found all these scrap aeroplanes that no one wanted in those days and bought them... They thought I was mad. The big prop master who'd done Lawrence and Zhivago saw these low loaders coming into EMI Studios with jet engines and half of planes on them and computer factories that had been pulled down and stuff, and he kept saying to me, "You're mad, boy. I don't know what you're doing."
I take it George Lucas locked into that very quickly?
Yeah, because I understood the film. I understood what was beneath the surface. This was my homecoming and I took George, for instance, to the gun hire place, and I said, "Look, I've always hated science fiction guns. They're like these plastic things that go 'boop'. They're not real." So I said, "This was my idea." I got a Sterling submachine gun. I got some car weather stripping from around car windscreens, and I stuck them on, with George, with Super Glue. We did it ourselves for three days and we created all the guns. We got a Walther for Han Solo, and the joy is they could fire on set.
Is pathfinding the thing that really fascinates you?
Absolutely. They're the motivations. Trying to find ways out of impossible corners. It's interesting in telling stories.
You know, George had a terrible time on that film. The crew didn't like it. Science fiction was really out of favour at the time. The crew thought it was a pile of rubbish; we were supporting Americans making science fiction. It wasn't really highly within the consciousness of British cinema at that time. All of that stuff. So, I stuck by George's side. The four of us did. And his thank you to me then was to give me the money to make Black Angel. My first directing piece, which he tied to Empire Strikes Back. That was the thank you I got and it kicked me off as a director.
How did Black Angel come about? Was it literally he [George Lucas] came to you with it or were you talking to him about it being a project you wanted to do?
No, I was having a hard time to get it made. I art directed Alien for Ridley Scott with my team because he was struggling to get the designer and the art department to understand 'that look' I created with the dressing on Star Wars. I was working on Life of Brian at the time. I was doing that with Terry; we were designing it together and that suddenly got cancelled. That same afternoon Ridley pulled me down to Shepperton [Studios] and said, "I don't care. You're starting here."
I went into Shepperton, and we built and dressed the first corridor section - actually for a test screen for Sigourney Weaver, who the studios were not sure about. I brought my little team of prop guys who'd understood then the process of what to strip down and how to place it. Because it was not something you just do randomly. It had to be done based on a kind of knowledge.
This is where it all comes to fruition. I love Solaris. Tarkovsky, I love his work. So, all of those visceral backgrounds in my education came into play at those times, it's a kind of destiny and education, if you like.
The stories of that shoot [ Alien ] are that Ridley Scott was under the most intolerable pressure. That it was just a small gang of you who were sticking by him trying to help him and deflect a lot of this pressure. Is that how you recall it ?
The fourth day in I remember there were several Fox executives sitting on the stage on chairs, looking at their watches, and Ridley was shooting so fast. They hadn't given him any pre light days on a film like that. So he was finding his way to get "the look", as we were shooting the bridge. I remember one of [the producers] coming to me and saying, "Why is he taking so long? Why is he taking so long?" And I said, "He's done like thirty-five setups. I don't understand what you guys want from him". And the rushes are awesome! Just awesome every day."
He actually exploded one day. I was right next to him because I went onto the front line. I'd got the look of the dressing working and the art department, my section, sorted. I went on to be standby art director, because no one else wanted to do it. But that, for me, is where filmmaking is, and especially being with Ridley. I'd done commercials for him. He was a mate. I knew him. I went stand-by art director on the floor the entire time. Ridley exploded one day. Put his fist through the ceiling in frustration at the pressure that was on him.
Had you seen pressure like that on a film set before? Or since?
[Contemplates]...It was different. No one understood. Because when you saw the rushes every day we could all tell this was something amazing. But I don't know. I don't know what they expected in those days. I guess because he'd done Duellists they all thought, "Oh, well, he'll turn this into something 'arty'." But, I don't know.
When do you think they all got it? Was it not until the tills started ringing?
Yes. Then. I remember they told me a story, Ridley and Ivor Powell, that at the first [screening] … because Ridley pulled his Directors Guild rights to have a screening with an audience. They [the studio] were really not backing it. And at that screening people were running out - and I remember somebody broke their arm running out into the toilets - and they told me people were stuffing towels into the speakers in the toilet they got so scared. That screening made the film a hit, when it got out.
Were you at that screening?
That would have been amazing.
It would have been, yes. [laughs]
It's interesting that Star Wars and Alien, in different ways, seem quite parallel projects. With Alien, in the rushes, you saw it straight away. Would you say it was the same case with Star Wars? Did you see that that quickly?
Yeah, I knew. I knew what was under the surface, this was pure mythology, it was a classic heroes journey tale. I could see it. I could see what George was trying to achieve, and also I understood the process, where the special effects and sound is so important. We'd had a few of the effects boys over with us, and this was ground-breaking for the day. A taste of what was coming in the future. I understood, from seeing the WWII footage that George had cut together as a mock up sequence, what George was going to do. So I knew this would rise like a phoenix. And it needed to be finished to rise. The way that George wanted.
Do you recall seeing the film for the first time?
Yeah. I actually held off watching rushes then. I didn't see anything. I went to the music recording sessions at Denham with John Williams and the full orchestra, that was awesome, goose bumps time! But I held off seeing it and went to the first crew screening in the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. I felt I left my seat. I just came out of my body. It was just one of those moments that you think, "My god!" and everybody was affected by it, the buzz in the cinema afterwards was just awesome - I'd not felt that before.
How did it feel when you saw Alien for the first time?
The same. Ridley's more visceral in the way that he makes films and you could feel that one coming, what was there. And the set was great. Just being in it you kind of plunged into that world. It felt like being in a ship.