The Man Who Built R2D2 and Brought us ‘Battlefield Earth’: An Interview with Roger Christian (Part 2)

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Editor’s Note: If you haven’t read Part 1 of this interview, do so before reading on.

What about Battlefield Earth?

Well that was, that was tough to make because, again, that came to me. It was a little bit of a situation, it came to me through Travolta, who loved Nostradamus, and also he had spoken to Lucas because I did a lot of the shooting on Phantom Menace. And the budget originally on Battlefield Earth was like—it was approaching $100 million, I think. But they had like overall twenty to make it, because Elie Samaha was an independent at that time. Travolta called me to dinner and said “You have to do this film, I’ve spoken to Lucas, and I’ve spoken to a couple other people, and they said you’re the only one who could deliver this film for me and make it.” So we went back to almost—it was made exactly in the same way that Star Wars was. We went back to Montreal and they’d never had a big film in Montreal at the time, only small French films, and we basically set up in the back of an old warehouse. The entire budget at the end was $44 million dollars, signed off by the bond company, which, the LA Times reviewer when the DVD went out—and I explained all of this to him—he said, “The director is still delusional, we know this film cost $75 million and was a studio film.” It’s a kind of backhanded comment, you know. It’s a backhanded compliment to me. We made it look huge.

John was very supportive of the film. I was trying to make it more like the book—I was never able to do that, I didn’t have that much autonomy, it was John’s film—but we developed it and got it to where he wanted it to be, and I had to adapt to making it from that.

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Battlefield Earth (2000)

What about the visuals? Because it feels like a lot of what you’re doing visually there is very happening now. The attempt to create sort of a visual comic book, stuff like Sin City is doing that. The angles and the filters.

You got it completely right. That was the DP and I, and the designer Patrick [Tatopoulos]. We said, we want to make a graphic novel—that is what the book is, it feels like that, and Hubbard was the biggest pulp fiction writer ever. So I wanted to do that, and we loved the Dutch angles and things, but afterwards I got accused of being a bad filmmaker because I ‘didn’t know what I was doing’. But it was all done on purpose. It was a graphic novel, that’s what it was. That was the whole, that’s the premise of the book, it felt like that, and I thought ‘let’s just do it that way and experiment with it and try and make it look like that’.

I loved Sin City. I love what Robert does. He’s amazing with his visuals and the way he puts it all together, and had the same attitude at the time that I had at the time. He broke boundaries in the CGI, and the way things were done had caught up for him to be able to do that, but on our film we had to try to do most of it for real, so I couldn’t go as far as I’d like to have gone, which I would’ve done if I could have.

2000, which was the year Battlefield Earth came out, seems like it was a hard year for sci-fi. Supernova and Titan A.E. and Red Planet and Mission to Mars, all these movies came out and underperformed that year. Do you have any sense of why, what was going on?

I don’t know. Sci-fi, you know, traditionally, was always denigrated. Around when Star Wars came out, it was a lost cause, science fiction. Then it went through a certain period, but it seemed to come back down again. Fortunately, it’s seemed to come back to a huge power now—everything’s science fiction. But at that point, it was very low. It’s always being looked down on for some reason. For some reason, science fiction writers aren’t ‘real literature’. But there are incredible writers out there. Very prophetic, for human beings. Now it’s written to—I wrote an article a few years back for Shadowlocked where I was trying to argue for a special category for the Oscars for science fiction, because no science fiction film has ever been allowed to win. Never. Never has one won an Oscar. And we all thought with Avatar that that was it, finally. It’s a fantasy but it’s pretty science fiction-y. Lord of the Rings, I don’t count. And Avatar got locked out, which was shocking to everybody. So science fiction has never won an Academy Award. I think a lot of younger people are joining the Academy, so hopefully that’s going to change in the future, but…

Did you feel like when you were midway through Star Wars and Alien, that that might be changing? Because those movies were embraced.

Yes, I did feel it. There was a lot of negative pressure from the studios always. Both films were made very low budget. I mean really low—they were a struggle to make.

I knew that about Star Wars but I did not know that about Alien.

Yeah, Alien was just as tough. Even a few weeks before shooting, Fox cut the budget hugely. We lost a massive amount out of the art department, because that’s what they always go for first because it’s a bigger lump on a science fiction film. It was a very tough shoot for Ridley. Very tough.

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Alien (1979)

How did you manage to make it look the way it does, though? Because it looks phenomenally expensive. There’s so much metal.

Yeah, that was, I know. Well, with Star Wars, I did a breakdown of all the scripts and went to [production designer] John Barry and George Lucas, and said “I just, I can’t, we don’t have any money to do all of this, we’ll have to think of a way to make all of this dressing in the sets.” I couldn’t even afford the guns or anything. I’d always had a belief that it should look real. I didn’t like the Flash Gordon type of sci-fi that was unreal—I didn’t think audiences connected to it when it was cold and sterile. It didn’t work. So, the first thing I ever did, we had to build R2D2, which we built, and it was a mock-up. Then I went up and took some real guns and stuck sights on them, and stuck t-section around the barrel, and said to George, “Look, this is what I was thinking, because you can actually fire these on set, and this is the look I was thinking,” and he just smiled and that was it. And then I suggested to George and John Barry one day that if I bought airplane scrap—which at the time, no one wanted, because there was no weight in it—then I could buy truckloads of it, and I could break it down and stick it in the walls of the set and make it look like a submarine type of thing.

And George, being an independent filmmaker, thank God, didn’t fire me, and just said, “Go for it, do it.” And that’s how that came about.

Is that repeatable? I mean, could you still go and get a truckload of airplane parts and build a set out of it?

Not in England anymore. Metal is so expensive. We created an industry. Now people rent it. But on Phantom Menace, Rick McCallum had it shipped in from [industrial] graveyards in Texas because it was way cheaper. But it became the standard after that.

And Alien, I think I got the sets really right on Alien. I just think that was the one where it worked. And I took the three prop guys I trained to break it down on Alien, when I first went on, and we built the corridor for Ridley for a screentest for Sigourney Weaver. And that’s where the look came from. And once we sprayed it into green, and I put on special polishes we used with metal bits in it and stuff, and we oiled it down and made it look real, it’s—it was the cost effective way to make the sets, but it was also the look. I just think that’s half of the reason the audience connected into the film— because it felt like we’d gone and rented a ship and shot in it.

It’s very grounded. 

Yeah.

What do you think of Aliens, Alien 3, and Prometheus, the look of them?

Well, 2, obviously, Cameron just went in the direction he went and it was just awesome. It was great that he took it in the other direction. 3, Fincher was struggling with the script. The original script was all wood, and he turned it around and he was struggling all the way through, and I think it looks pretty amazing, what he did with it. And the fourth one, they, I don’t know why, but Fox hired a comedy director to make Alien, and it just didn’t work.

Prometheus is, obviously, none of that could be done when we did Alien, because it didn’t exist, the ability to make it look like it did. I really liked it. I felt Rid did a great job with it. Everybody said to me, “Oh, we prefer the old dirty coffee cups and the tins and the bits of stuck-in stuff from the original one,” because that look is so—I prefer that, slightly, over the kind of stripped down, modern look.

Stranded felt like an attempt to go back to that.

Yes. That was, again, we had absolutely no money and we had to do it and we just got a load of scrap in Regina and we found it, the set, and we rebuilt the sets. We lit it very dark and we did handheld, much as Ridley did Alien, actually—the DP and the operator, they did the whole film on their shoulders. The camera was on their shoulders the whole time—we never used a track or a dolly, nothing. That was on purpose, to give it that immediate kind of connection from the audience.

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Prisoners of the Sun (2013)

Your new film, Prisoners of the Sun, that one’s not out yet. What’s the look of that?

That one? We filmed that in Morocco, we built sets down there, and that was, again, the German financing fell apart after I’d finished shooting. So there was nothing we could do, we just had to let it go. And then four years later, Uwe Boll’s company asked permission to finish it, which they’ve done, and they’re putting it out on television. There is one trailer on YouTube, and you can see there, they filmed some amazing stuff for me down there. They rebuilt some of the Cleopatra sets, so the production value is massive on it. It’s a shame, because it actually was a cool idea and it’s a really good film, but, you know, sometimes that happens when you’re independent. And the German financing, it just closed, it just stopped dead. And there were fights with the financiers, and we had to walk away, there was nothing we could do.

It does sound like it’s a different climate for these kind of films.

Yeah. Yeah, you face that when you do them. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But we had a good thing going in Regina, and I would’ve done this next one over there—which I think is the best of the three—but the Regina government cancelled their tax credits for next year. Overnight, they just took it away. So that disappeared, and you’re dependent on these kind of financiers to put it together. But I have the same opportunity now—I was in Malaysia last year, we made a film for the government, and I’ve just started to work on a World War Two epic about a Malaysian heroine in World War 2. That’ll be a really beautiful film. This one will kind of going back to where I’ve always wanted to go.

Have you done a war film before?

I did—in Nostradamus, I did some war sections. World War 2, he had visions of being in the war. But this one is about the Malaysian heroine and what was going on with the Japanese. It was a pretty horrendous time in Malaysian history, so they’ve asked if I would make this film for them. And, again, I’ve got much more creative freedom to do something more interesting with it. They don’t have an industry as much as Indonesia or India or China, so they’ve asked me to go and help to create that for them, while we’re making films there.

Do you think that’s sort of the future of medium-budget filmmaking? Countries like that?

Yes, I do. Definitely. It’s very difficult—I mean everybody’s complaining about it now, this level of trying to get films made. But they get made. People do it. It’s often the foreign ones that are breaking through. They’re the really powerful films, I think. The ones that when I watch them, are the interesting ones.

Well, thank you very much for this opportunity.

Not at all, not at all. I’m glad you liked Stranded. You seem to understand what I’m doing. I love the Corman idea. We really wanted to do—I had an idea years ago, my son and I and Bob Keen who’s a horror legend—he does prosthetics and make-up, he’s directed a few films—and we wanted to go back to that whole idea where you have low budget but really interesting product, and you just make it one after another in all the different arenas. And I’m still trying to do it.

Yeah, like Jacques Tourneur.

Yeah, exactly.

Do you think DSLR will help? It seems like it’s cheaper to make a film.

Yes, it definitely is. You can shoot much faster. On Stranded, I think I said, I had 15 days, that’s all I had to shoot that in, so I found ways to do it. The film we did before, 13 Eerie, we had 16 days. So you’re up against it, but you can shoot much faster nowadays, using the RED cameras and the digital cameras and shooting different ways. I find the ways where I’m able to get a lot of production value out of it, so you go with that. And that’s gotten a lot easier.

The thing that’s missing is the writing, you know. The writing is what counts. You have to get good stories and good basic material to work with.

Is that hard to find?

Yes. Yeah, because it’s not really encouraged. The bigger films are made with committees of writers. It is hard, yeah.

Alien really was Dan O’Bannon sitting on his couch writing a whole movie by himself. You don’t get that anymore.

Don’t seem to. But, I’m gonna keep trying.

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1 Response to The Man Who Built R2D2 and Brought us ‘Battlefield Earth’: An Interview with Roger Christian (Part 2)

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