Interview: Roger Christian (Black Angel / Star Wars)

Martina Pilcerova art - Black Angel rides into battleOscar-winner Roger Christian is well known for his work on the original trilogy of Star Wars films, and as Second Unit director on Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. He was also the director of Black Angel, the short fantasy film that accompanied The Empire Strikes Back in UK cinemas back in 1980. Long thought lost, the film was rediscovered, cleaned up and can now be seen on YouTube. Christian is now embarking on an indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to make a full length version of the story, with John Rhys Davies and Rutger Hauer potentially involved. From his home in Canada, Christian chatted with Paul Simpson about the power of myth and legend…





Thank you for a reason for going back and reliving something from my teenage years: I haven’t seen Black Angel since it was with The Empire Strikes Back back in 1980.

I’ve had this reaction so much: I took it to four cinemas in Scotland and there were crowds of people there who said that it affected them when they were young. I was very influenced by [Solaris director Andrei Tarkovsky] at the time and how he made cinema that connected to the subconscious – and I guess it worked!

The film stars Tony Vogel, who at that point was best known as Dick Barton, Special Agent on TV.

That was how I found him; the casting director showed him to me in that.

It’s a very different sort of part from the clean-cut hero…

When the casting director told me to go and meet him, he looked exactly as he does as the Knight – he had long hair and a beard. He said he was made for this role; he had to do it!

Green arthurYou’ve told the story of how the film came to be made, but had the story itself been rolling round your mind for a long time before you came to write the script?

Yes definitely. I think it was an odd time after the war in Britain. King Arthur, Merlin, the Norse tales, all those different legends got me through my childhood – literally. I would read and read all these things, so it was always embedded in my mind. I had worked out a huge saga that I would have loved to have made. I tried to do King Arthur, I tried to do Tristan and Isolde at the time but I couldn’t get anyone interested. There was no audience apparently for this genre at that time.

I knew that I had to make a film. I couldn’t talk about it anymore after all the art directing and designing that I’d done. I had to put my money where my mouth was. It’s always best to go where your passion lies. The grant, if I could get it, was only £25,000 which is not a lot to do an epic with, so I took a little bit of the story, and wrote it from that.

So is this new version that’s being crowdfunded an extension of the original, or a new version altogether?

It’s my full Black Angel epic feature. This is the actual story I always wanted to make: it’s very down and dirty. I wanted to be as real as I can but it’s the entire story of the Knight in the desert lands, which we call the Southlands, where he’s fighting, and his return. There’s a reason he has to return: he’s given an artefact. It’s all part of the classic hero’s journey in legend.

In very ancient Scottish history I found a sorcerer called Myrddin, and some people think that maybe Merlin was a reincarnation of his original. He became my sorcerer, because I needed one as a guide for my Knight. The Black Angel has an army of the undead, who are there to take over the land. I had to give him a reason for it: there’s a Demon King of the underworld who is the master of the Black Angel. My Knight has to go on this huge journey, and fight the Black Angel. The whole thing as always is that we’re at the mercy of the multitude of gods playing.

Belinda Leung art - Teuton worm fightI used similar themes to the original – he does get killed by the Black Angel but there’s a whole story that comes as part of it. It’s all part of his destiny right from the word go.

I’ve added in a Hunger Games type princess, who’s the daughter of a rival King; she’s a renegade and she joins him. A couple of others go on the journey as well. It’s much wider, much more for today, if you like, because I had to update the original story and bring it into today’s world.

The Lord of the Rings films and Game of Thrones have created a voracious appetite for fantasy of this type: very real fantasy. It’s taken a long time, but the moment has come: now is the time to make it.

What do you think makes them so popular?

I think attitudes have changed a great deal. I remember living in LA and watching the first trailers for Lord of the Rings. I was so excited but my manager was saying the film was going to bring the studio down. No one would watch people on horses…! They were all negative about the whole thing.

Which is very similar to the reaction to Star Wars when it was in production.

Exactly the same! I think Star Wars ignited the passion. I think Joseph Campbell saying that George was the only true mythmaker working today still holds true. Part of my work on Star Wars and Alien was to make things as real as we could. I think that reality started to creep into the audience who were finally watching things they could believe was real.

Science fiction goes both ways – forwards and backwards – and there’s something in the human DNA wherever you live that connects to the past. These great legends, like Arthur have endured throughout history.

I talk about this in my pitch: when I look at the last 12 years, the one film that has really lasted in people’s memories is Gladiator. Ridley [Scott] made it so real, and the audience was taken there, and I think that’s where the connection came. That’s certainly what Peter Jackson did: he was enabling the audience. They’ve got used to superheroes and all this flying around, but they know that’s not real. Somehow they think The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are real.

You’ve worked on a lot of very well-known films, but at the time they were being made – particularly Star Wars and Alien – they didn’t have a big buzz about them. Did you feel when you were working on them that there was something more to them?

Star Wars lightIt’s very much a part of the whole Star Wars story. George said it to me personally that there were only five or six people who stood by his side throughout the whole making of Star Wars, and I was one of them. Nobody else really believed in it. But when I read the script, since I was so engrossed in myth and legend and knew the stories so well, I knew there was something here under the surface. As soon as I saw the lightsaber being presented I thought, “here comes King Arthur for the new age”.

I connected to it, and to George, immediately, because in our first conversation ever in Mexico when we met, we both had the same vision of down and dirty, oily spaceships. Everything was used. George didn’t want anything pointed out: he just wanted an environment that he happened to be filming in.

Don’t forget at that time in Britain, American culture wasn’t very highly regarded. Science fiction as at its lowest ebb ever: its literature was thought of as not really literature, and here was this young American director coming over with his fantasy story for children. Most people were doing it for the money, it was just another job.

The same with Alien: there was very little faith from the studio when it was being made. Both films were made so low budget: it was an absolute struggle to get them made and up on the screen. Both were fired up by directors who had a vision and were determined to get it there whatever the cost. I think those two changed the world of cinema for sure in a big way.

Blade RunnerYou can add Blade Runner to that as well..

Yes, look at that: crucified by the critics and in America it never had a good theatrical release. It was condemned by everybody. I couldn’t understand it. I handwrote a note to Ridley when it was coming off the cinemas in LA, saying, “You have to know you made a masterpiece. Just stick by this film.” He put up people’s vision of a nightmare of the future. Maybe they ran from it – I don’t know. It’s now become recognised as the classic that it is. No question, it’s right there.

Did you follow the progress of the Star Wars sequels, or are they not something that you’d choose to go and see?

No, I love them. I love the world, all of it. I’m excited to see the new one. George had me direct second unit on Return of the Jedi and I directed the entire second unit of The Phantom Menace. It’s a world I feel very close to and because George is the one putting really amazing fairy stories up for young people, I’ve always applauded them because they’re very correct in the mythology, in the keys they give young people. I get more kids asking me questions now than ever before.

It’s endured, and I think it’s going to be the King Arthur of the cinema. It’ll last and last.

Are you involved with Episode VII?

Not really. They had me up at the Ranch for two or three hours being filmed talking about how we did stuff. Not much else: I would have done but they have their own ways of doing things now.

Black AngelWill the new version of Black Angel be all practical effects?

I’m going to do it really down and dirty as much as I can. I’ve got amazing locations to film in, and we have a partner in the studio in Hungary and I’m using a lot of sets there that I can adapt, like I did for Nostradamus. I do have a flying demon in the film, and I’m talking with John Knoll and ILM for advice on how to make it absolutely integrated and real. I will use CG: I reference the first Jurassic Park in my crowdfunding speech – I think Spielberg allowed himself 75 CGI shots in that, but it felt real. That’s what I’m going for. I want people to be smelling the blood, the sweat, the tears in it. The only way to do that is to go down and dirty.

I was asked a lot about this at the Q and As in Scotland: would I use CGI to do all this, and I said no, I was sticking to what I believe in. In a way it’s what Star Wars did.

Storytelling can go out of the window if CG is overused…

That’s what happens and I think there’s a wave going on. When I put Black Angel on YouTube I was worried that it’s 35 years old and the pacing is slow. It’s different, not really a film for now. But the reaction has been 97% positive and young people are saying they really like having the time to absorb the music and the story and the vision.

I notice from the announcements for the new Conan movie that they’re trying to keep to the original Conan, and the way that was made. Maybe I’ve picked a time in cinema where the consciousness is actually changing…

Assuming the funding goes ok, when will you start and how long will it take?

The plan is to start this year, in September/October because I like the winter light that I used in Black Angel. It’ll take about eight weeks of shooting. Then it would be ready for next year. We’re getting actors coming on board.

I’m really excited: this is truly my passion project. It’s the first thing I ever did in my life, and it’s the thing I’ve held a dream of making my entire life. This is the one that I really wanted to do: this is a world that I have created, and a pretty unique version of it. It’s got a great history to it because of Star Wars; it’s made the dreams come true. Patience is a virtue!

For details on the campaign, including the opportunity to own a piece of the Star Wars film negative, click here

Thanks to Chloe Parker at Cherish PR for her help in arranging this interview


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