The Den Of Geek interview: Roger Christian [part 3]
Continued from part 2...
Off the back of Nostrodamus, there were three very quick films in succession after that.
Yeah, that was because the producer of Nostrodamus and I were doing a fantastic project about the radio stars, propaganda stars in Nazi Germany and it collapsed on the day we were to start shooting. The money fell out and it was another brilliant idea - it would have been - an amazing film. Just stunning material.
My manager called me over to America and said, "I've got this film, Final Cut, and I think you' be interested in this." So, I went and made it, and that film with the wonderful and talented Sam Elliot has done amazingly well, it was prophetic actually to 9/11. While we were making it Oklahoma happened and - as sometimes happens to me, I'm a bit ahead of the game - I wrote a speech in 94 that Sam Elliott said after a massive bomb went off, that America's gonna have to get used to this. This is what's coming at us.
While I was doing it, the producers gave me Underworld to read, a script written by Larry Bishop, that I thought was brilliant. And they couldn't get it made. They couldn't get Denis Leary to actually attach to it. And [they] said, "Would you just do this?" Right on the back of Final Cut. It was a script that Tarantino read right before he wrote Reservoir Dogs. He loved it. So I said, yeah, why not. I went straight into it because I called Denis Leary and we spoke. There was an end scene he didn't like and I told him what I was going to do with it and he said, "Oh, fuck that. I'm in!" That was it. We were shooting six weeks later.
It was as simple as one conversation cleared it up?
Yeah. One conversation cleared it up with him. I got Joe Mantegna and Annabella Sciorra. For me this was working again with the cream of actors. It was brilliant. As I was mixing that movie , they asked me to do Masterminds in Vancouver. So, I stayed and made it. It was a kind of kids' Die Hard. Patrick Stewart produced and starred in it, he was wonderful, and I got Brenda Fricker to do it. I was working with legends.
I thought this is all great experience. This was a period that just went, yeah, one after the other.
I'm curious where Battlefield Earth came into the mix.
The trailer for Phantom Menace came out and, by chance, I'd shot a lot of the shots in the trailer. This script arrived on a young agent Jeff Goren's desk in ICM. He thought I'd be interested in it and he'd sent it to John Travolta, along with Nostrodamus and the trailer. I got called, by Travolta, to dinner.
My manager and I went. John was there with Elie Samaha, the financier, and he said, "Listen, Roger. This is a fact. I loved Nostrodamus. You're not afraid of actors. You're not afraid of this power of actors, are you?" And, I said, "No. It's just part of my work." And he said, "I want to make this film."
He said, "I've told everybody that I'm not doing another film until I make Battlefield Earth. I've got the chance to do it. We have the independent finance." The budget was $120 million. He said, "We've only got 30." [laughs] He said, "I've phoned George Lucas and George said probably you're the only person who can make this happen. With the budget and pull it off." He said, "I'm sorry. You're gonna have to do it."
Did he pay for dinner?
He did. No, no, the financier did. The producer. [laughs]
So, it started to fall into place after that?
It was a difficult one because I read the script and I wasn't too keen on parts of it. But I loved the book. The script needed work, which we did. John had developed it for himself. That was a long process. And then I also knew that, though the film is pure science fiction, it had nothing to do with Scientology. I knew the war that was against Scientology and the church in America was very powerful. We were going to be up against that. But in the end I put that aside because it was nothing to do with it. I was just going to have to do it.
Everyone advised me not to. Everybody. All the advisers and lawyers said, "You can't do this. You're going to get taken apart." And, you know, what could I do? I had to do it.
At the point where you're actually doing the shoot and on set, putting the film together, was that reasonably relaxed? Or was the pressure really coming in at that point?
Aw, the pressure was horrendous.
Right from the off?
Right from the off. The pressure on that was the budget was small and we were making a big film. We went in to Montreal because of the tax deals and no one had made a film like that in Montreal. So I was pulling together all of my experience. All of the crew I was having to mentor how do things. It was like going back in time to the first Star Wars, I have to say.
John was amazing. He was the producer and he's so supportive. He's one of the world's great human beings. He's a wonderful man. He was there, staunchly, by my side. Forest Whitaker is an incredible human being too - Forest doesn't say much. He just gets on with it. And one day he came and he said, "I need to talk to you." And I say, "What is it, Forest?" And he said, "I don't understand. This floor where we're working is like a Zen zone of concentration and tranquillity around us and the actors." And he said, "But there's this circle around us - it's chaos and mayhem and confusion beyond it. I don't know how you're doing it." [laughs]
John Travolta can't work with any tension around him, he likes it very calm. That's usually how I've worked. If the actors are secure and comfortable they are able to go much farther and deeper, it's a matter of trust.
And also there were the time restraints. Because they wanted it out the following May. We finished the entire effects in six months, the entire post, everything. I had bags of chips in my car and bananas and that was my supper every night while I was driving between effects houses and the editing rooms. It was madness.
You completed the film and it started its journey out into the world and that's where you found yourself in the eye of the storm very, very quickly?
Full-blooded, yeah. I didn't expect the vitriolity of that attack. And it was weird because we were getting e-mails from people who were seeing it - because most of the attacks were from people who hadn't seen it - who were just loving the film.
Travolta and I took it to the ranch and we showed George and three hundred of the ILM people and everybody. They loved it. Tarantino came to the premiere, sat with me, and he hugged me afterwards and said, "This is what I want to write. This is amazing stuff. You're gonna be killed, all of you. But, [I] just loved this film. Wait ten, twelve years, it'll all come 'round." He said, "Forget it now. You're gonna go through hell."
And how bad did the hell get?
It wasn't very pleasant. I'm also wise enough to know that it's got nothing to do with it. That you do your work and we set out to be experimental and we set out to do something different. What appealed to me about it especially was the characters are the two sides of humanity. On one side, the aliens, are all greed, lust and the dark side. The humans are the good side. So already it was pushing buttons in people.
I think, if I could have had a choice, I would have made the second part of the book first and gone back to the first part as a prequel. I think we would have done better. Because the second half of the book is a huge, dramatic experience.
Had you started working on the follow-ups?
Yeah, we'd all talked about it. That's the next part of the book. That was very much in mind, yes.
If you could go back in time, with hindsight, would you still do it? Or would you just roll the dice again?
No, I would do it, yeah. Because John is a giant in American cinema and it was a great experience with him. John Travolta was on Barbara Walters a year later. He'd never been on before and to sixty million people she said, "What is the film you're most proud of in your career?" And he said, " Battlefield Earth."
That, to me, made it worth all of this vitriol and nastiness that people throw at you.
It's always said that Hollywood is unforgiving when they lose money on a project or when something's deemed not to be successful. Did you find that? Or did you find that the next project was as you planned it?
No, that was difficult. But, you know the irony of this? Elie Samaha, who produced it, and John, said that the film has grossed four times its budget. That's quite rare. So, Elie Samaha is overjoyed. He's making money out of it. We questioned him and he said, "No. Whole Nine Yards and Battlefield Earth are the two films I'm actually making money out of, to date it’s made over $150m”
So, the irony is - and this is the thing that never came out in the press - the film is actually profitable. That's part of our business, for the producers. So, in my terms, it's not deemed as a failure at all. Some films get it to an audience, some films don't. A lot of people hated it. That's their right anyway. It's not your usual type of movie.
It was four years before American Daylight hit the screen. Was there a break in there for you? Was it that you needed to get out of the Hollywood system?
Yeah, I had to leave anyway for personal reasons. It was not just me and Battlefield. It was drying up. At that point I could tell, I was going through a bad time and it was difficult to get stuff made. Anything that was really appealing to me, certainly.
I did do an independent film with Carlos Gallardo.
Which was fun. I went down and did that, It was a fun movie to make. It was a kind of follow-on to El Mariachi with a different character. That kind of revived my spirits because we were pretty free and there was some experimental stuff in it. So that was okay.
I took a break, and I went to India, made American Daylight. I'd got a phone call in LA, and the reason I went to India was to do the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has been a burning ambition of mine. So they sent me to India. We worked for a year on the script, to get it right, to be true to the epic. I used all of my wisdom of legend and myth. Gilgamesh is the epic of all epics. So, I was working on that all of that time.
And what happened there?
Well, I went into India for a few months. The funding for Gilgamesh I realised wasn't there at that time, and it was difficult to pull off in India. I was offered American Daylight. So, I stayed and did it because I love Farrukh Dhondy, who wrote it. And I wanted to work in India. I wanted, again, to be ahead of the game. Because I could see that everyone was flirting with India, but no one dared to do it. I made the first high def there, and met a lot of interesting people. After I made that movie, which was destined for television, I carried on with Gilgamesh, for another two years- I was in Romania, then I was in Turkey for a year trying to get it made.
I wasn't on sabbaticals. [laughs] I can't tell you how hard we tried. And the producer never pulled it off. Despite everything. At one point, I had Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif cast, part of a really great cast. Just a fantastic epic. I'm gonna make it one day.
Is that the dream project that you've not made?
That would be one of them. Yeah. I want to do Merlin, That's my all-time dream project. The actual true story of Merlin.
At the moment, you've got Prisoners of the Sun and 97 Minutes . Could you tell [us about them]?
Prisoners is in post. It's in a bit of conflict between the producers and financiers who are sadly fighting. So I just left it. They'll resolve all of that I hope and put egos aside. Then Harald Reichebner my Nostradamus producer who started it and I will get back and finish it, the way it should be done. Especially the CGI effects as they have to be up to modern standards. But it was a fantastic project to do. It's a really interesting one, so hopefully that'll get done.
97 Minutes, I'm working on. I really like the script on that. A really tense thriller on a plane.
What I'm actually doing now and I've gone back to my roots is the story of Erich von Däniken, who wrote Chariots of the Gods. He's really the one who exposed the legend of the crystal skull to the world.
I'm doing a film called Remember the Future, which is the two or three years of his life story, covering the time when he wrote an article titled Is God An Alien.. and he got into huge trouble with the churches, [laughs] Very similar to Nostrodamus in a way. They got him in jail on trumped up charges. Chariots of the Gods came out and was a massive seller, and then he wrote his second one while he was in jail. His life story's amazing. Him going to Kashmir and Egypt and Peru, that whole adventure. Also a love story, when he met his wife.
So that I'm doing now. We're actually in production on that. Also a movie called Devil's Patriot which is imminent. It’s like a British American History X about the Muslim hard core second generation in England and the BNP gang war. a story needing to be told.
Is that over in Toronto?
No. My partner Lina lives and works here, so it’s my base now, but we are doing all of the post on Remember the Future in Canada. We're shooting that one in Argentina and Morocco. We have to go to the various locations. I have to duplicate Kashmir because we can't go there. Some parts of Mexico we can't go. We'll do all of that in Argentina.
Is it fair to say your passport's got a lot of stamps?
Yeah it has. I'm returning to these epic period piece roots now. Remember the Future came up and it will be like following on from Nostrodamus. Carrying on in that vein. Erich von Däniken is right up my alley, as you can tell. it's serendipitous that this suddenly came up.
I've got another one we're going to make afterwards at some point, which is from a book called Buried Alive by a slightly forgotten British author called Arnold Bennet. That's already finished and scripted and we already have John Hannah and Julia Ormond cast. That will follow on the other ones. It's a classic novel set in 1929 Britain. It's a beautiful script. It has a chance to be a British classic, I think. I love those kind of historical dramas. And especially great love stories.
Looking back over your career now, if you could give a piece of advice to a new filmmaker, who's looking to break in, what would that be?
You've got to be resilient. To everything around you. And what anybody says. Just try to find a voice. Because it's very hard. I watched Ridley go through it after Legend and I loved that film. I thought it was beautiful. Some of the most stunning photography ever put on the screen. He got so lambasted after it. But you've just got to carry on. You've just gotta do what you do and however you can break down the door, you've got to break it down.
I am actually writing a book now that's been commissioned about my experiences on the first Star Wars, Alien and Life Of Brian. An amazing period and I was very much at the core of these movies and their look. I have so many requests from fans that I am finally doing it. As set decorator, especially on Star Wars and as art director on Alien, it was ground breaking. I will include directing Black Angel and Dollar Bottom so will be interesting to fans and to young filmmakers.
We need Directors Anonymous so that they have someone to call and bring encouragement to. George Lucas and Jeremy Thomas were great mentors to me when I was starting and struggling as a director, and that encouragement is a lifeline.
Roger Christian, thank you very much!