The Den Of Geek interview: Roger Christian [part 2]

Continued from part 1

How was it for a guy from London going over to LA for an Oscar?

It was kind of unbelievable. In those days it wasn’t such a big thing. All of us going over there – we never thought we were going to get it, we just said, oh well, this’ll be a great night to see George again and to celebrate it. It was a huge shock that we got it. I think it shows on all our faces. [laughs]

Between John Barry and John Box, I worked with two men I’m deeply, deeply fond of who were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant and unusual talents. Because of all the endless speeches and thanking everybody we just said, “John, you say a few words for all of us.” And he got up and John, in his speech said, “You know, every single frame of this film belongs to that man down there, George Lucas.” But George wasn’t recognised. He never had a nomination. And I think that summed it up for all of us. Because it was George’s vision, totally, one hundred percent.

Ad – content continues below

Then you got nominated again, after that. Was your experience different the second time ’round?

It was, yes. With Alien, it was different. With Star Wars, because we came back to England and there was a tiny party. There was nothing in the press about it. Nothing. Even though the film had won about seven or eight. And I think science fiction was still in its infancy in cinema and not recognised. Then with Alien it was different in that there was a lot more reverence towards it.

Do you find it odd that the rewards for both of those films were coming from basically the same industry that was giving you so much trouble the year or two before?

Totally. It’s one of those ironic things and I thought, “Well, this is the path.” John Boorman helped me a lot starting out as a director. John is another of the UK directors who’s always been brave, like Terry Gilliam. John had a screening of Black Angel for his entire crew preparing Excalibur, which was daunting. Roger Pratt, my DP and I had made Black Angel with short ends with little money, standing in the rain in Scotland trying to make something epic with absolutely nothing. We didn’t even have money for tea. To show it to his DP, Set Designer and costume designer and everybody, we were kind of hiding under the desk. But John kept saying, “No, this is what I want, this feel and look. Look at what these guys have done.” And I said, “John, we had a crew of eight people. I could go into difficult locations that were stunning. You’re stuck.” And that’s what everyone kept telling him – you’ve got a crew of a few hundred people. You can’t do the same thing.

And the pressures of a big cinema movie are different. I was just going out to experiment and create what I want.

And can I ask about The Dollar Bottom, which again got an Oscar.

Ad – content continues below

Ian Scorer, I’d met. He was the head accountant at Paramount in Britain at that time. He helped to found the Eady Fund, which was a government programme to fund the short films attached to features in that era to help young directors get started, and which Black Angel came under. It was ending, the government had sadly once again destroyed something really helping the arts and cancelled it. Ian called me in and he said, “Look. I have to do the last film under the Eady programme and I’d love to do something special and I’d really like you to do it.”

So, Lloyd Phillips – the young producer I chose who I had met at Beaconsfield film school – and I went away and sought stories to make. On the day we met, I’d got my three stories and I think two were Hemmingway’s and he had his. And on the day we met at his house, I remember, he said, “Before you do anything, here’s a cup of coffee. I want you to read this. It just came this morning from an agent.” And I read The Dollar Bottom. I went in the kitchen and said, “But, we have to make this.” And he said, “I know.”

James Kennaway is one of the foremost contemporary Scottish writers, he wrote Tunes of Glory. He died in a terrible accident and his widow had been totally protective of this story. It set him off as a writer. He sold it to Lilliput magazine for 11 pence. I had to go and tell her what I was going to do with it and how I would make it. It would be a short film for the cinema and one hundred percent faithful to his writing. And she said, “Well, I’ve had so many offers for this for television, everything, but I wanted to make a film out of it.” And she said, “I’m going to give you the rights. I believe in what you’ve just told me.”

We hired a young writer starting out, Shane Connaughton who went on to win an Oscar for My Left Foot. He and I were on a train to Scotland trying to work out how to get the story down in length because it was too long and I came up with the idea of making two characters into one and that did it. The film got an Academy Award, that was really gratifying.

On purpose I’d made that film, because Black Angel was very visual and mythic, it related to a lot of people. I got an enormous amount of letters who said they’d been touched very deeply by the story. That’s how I intended it, but I thought I better do something a bit more in line with dramatic structure – so I chose the most difficult, right? – with kids, eleven-year-old boys acting who’d never acted before. I did it as a kind of really strong, dramatic acting platform for myself as well.

Was it any kind of release after the pressures of the years before? Or was it just a different kind of pressure?

Ad – content continues below

It was a different kind of pressure. Yeah, because then the benchmark goes up. It becomes difficult. [laughs]

Did you find that when you returned to Star Wars as well? That the goalposts had changed significantly? Or were you able to go back and do it the way you did before ?

No, I was able to go back as before. George has not changed, just that the success of Star Wars made people more conscious that he really knew what he was doing. It was easier on Return of the Jedi when they asked me to help out, directing second unit. Which I did. Phantom Menace was the same, we had two crews shooting side by side, George and I, because it would have been a 20-something week shoot to get it all, and he’d only got twelve weeks. But, it was the same spirit. The only pressure that wasn’t there was because George was funding it. He was in charge. There was nobody there telling him what to do. Nobody questioning anything. It was purely a matter of just filming.

I wondered if Phantom Menace, ironically, was easier just because, in a strange way, it was an independent film.

It was easier because it was an indie film. Totally. The pressures were on them because they didn’t know if this would work or not – that number of years later. They had their own pressures because it was his own money backing it. But it was very similar way of making it. They chose the Young Indy [ Young Indiana Jones ] crews.

Yes, you had involvement in that as well, didn’t you?

Ad – content continues below

I did a link sequence for an episode. Those crews were great, and nobody was questioning what George wanted. That was the biggest thing. That he could just film it. And so, in a way, it was a tighter ship.

Off the back of The Dollar Bottom you built your own directorial career up across the 80s and 90s. Was that always the ambition?

Yes. Totally. That’s where I started and that’s where I wanted to go. When you end up art directing these films like Alien and Life of Brian, when I was trying to make Black Angel I was really broke. I was offered Conan, to go design it. I would have loved to have done it, but I turned it down. I thought, “If I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it.”

Ridley asked me to design Legend for him. Which, I can’t tell you, I angsted at home over it for days and days. Because I really wanted to do it.

I’d imagine you’d have quite a broad selection of offers even on top of those, off the back of the work of the last few years.

Yeah. And I see films and you think about it. But I came in wanting to tell stories so I thought I’ve got to stick to it however hard it’s going to be. I’ve got to do it.

Ad – content continues below

How hard did you find it to make the transition? Did you find people accepted it fairly quickly or was it a real uphill battle?

It’s a battle. It’s a battle anyway and then it’s always a battle. The Sender, which was my first feature, was very much European sensibilities, an American film. That got some of the most amazing press I’ve ever had. I was compared to Hitchcock by one of the major Canadian papers. But the studio never got behind it. It got dumped. So, that was the battle, yes.

Sender got a Best Film nomination from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films as well. For genre fans to react to a genre film like that must be quite satisfying.

It was. It’s only later in life I understood. A few years back, everybody kept telling me, “Have you not read all the stuff about it?” That it’s become a worldwide cult classic. In fact when I went to Japan, they were all bowing to me and I said, “Why?” [The reply was..] “’Oh, Sender ‘, ‘ Sender ‘. ‘ The Sender ‘”. [laughs] So I realised then that whatever, you’ve just got to stay focused and do what you do. And try to be innovative. And try to be reverent to cinema ideas.

I met amazing directors who were huge fans of the movie like George Miller, Alan Pakula, who helped me enormously, and Quentin Tarantino who John Travolta introduced me to. Tarantino was such a huge fan of the movie and told me some very amazing stories about it when he was working in the video store. So here were giants of the cinema praising my work that was not being supported at all by the studio. Welcome to the film industry…

You spent most of the time between Starship and Nostradamus doing commercials?

Ad – content continues below

Yes. That was after the mainstay. Partly because my son Thomas was born during The Sender and it was a bit difficult. And then my daughter Camille was born and I went to America and I thought I’ll just do commercials for a bit because I could actually take them to school and bring them home and be with them and take time off and stuff and be around with them.

Thomas was about eight, nine, ten years old, and she was four or five, so it was that important time.

I joined Boss Films as a commercials director, Richard Edlund’s company, which was great. We did some great commercials there. That was kind of an interesting period. It was actually a phone call that sent me back – it’s a funny one. A friend of mine David Mintz had became a yoga master, he used to manage The Average White Band and was the accountant for The Rolling Stones.

He phoned me from England one day, he was working for PolyGram. They were doing a new age label and he called and said, “Here, Rog, I’m gonna do a musical, it’s Nostrodamus.” He said, “I’m gonna get Boy George to play the lead and you’ve gotta do it.” I said, “What!? Let me think about this, David.” And I went back and I looked up Nostrodamus in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and I realised there was the story I’d been looking for. This was a classic hero’s journey. This was everything I’d been looking for. And I realised the name was famous throughout the world but no one really knew about him.

I called David back and said, “You know what? We’ve got to make a film of this.” He’d fired up that voice inside me again, with a passion. We got it made within two years. I got it written and made.

And that one did quite well as well, didn’t it? I remember at the time it was quite warmly received.

Ad – content continues below

Very, very warmly received. It’s made huge amounts of money – that the producer Harald Reichebner is still trying to track down. About $100 million over its period. My proudest moment was that it was selected in France and Spain into the education system, as one of the truest evocations of the age. I made it, with little money, in Romania. At a time one year after the revolution when there was no food in the country. This was not an easy shoot. [laughs] I think, because of the nature of Romania at the time, Transylvania was very feudal it gave the film an authentic look. It was very like the Medieval Ages. It gave it a kind of truth, I think.

If you had had more money, do you think you’d have made that radically different choices on it anyway?

We would have done some other choices but, in the end, it’s what it is, and the faces of the Romanian people and the beauty of the country helped the feel of the film, that’s visceral. Also being in a country like that which had been through such an appalling time, the spirit of those wonderful people both on the crew and in the movie was humbling and really helped me to create a bonded working atmosphere despite our hardships making it. Tchéky Karyo is a wonderful actor. I had great actors in it. Julia Ormond, they were all…

And F. Murray Abraham

And Rutger [Hauer] too, playing this mystic monk. He chose it himself, that part.

Talking of Rutger, were you a Blade Runner fan as well?

Ad – content continues below

I was in America, cutting The Sender having a very difficult time with the studio who just didn’t understand what I’d made, and Blade Runner came out and was universally disgraced in America at the box office, as you know, at the time. The night I saw it, I hand wrote a note to Ridley, and said “Fuck them all, Ridley!” Because his and my agent were going down to see him in Mexico, and I said, “You’ve made a classic masterpiece. Do not listen to anybody. Do not ever doubt it.” And I wrote this whole letter to him because I was so angry at its reception.

Click here for the final part of the interview

Interviews at Den Of Geek