Roger Christian [Interview]

I am compelled to preface today’s feature by stating that this is officially our 200th interview here at Trainwreck’d Society, and I am extremely thrilled to bring it to you fine folks today. We have had the honor of sharing some great words with some amazing people over the years, and to mark this amazing milestone we definitely have something pretty special for you all today. And let it be known, it will most likely not very long before we are telling you that we have our 300th interview coming soon. Exciting times around here in the Trainwreck’d world.

And we are excited to announce that today’s interviewee is known other than the Academy Award winning art director, writer, and filmmaker Roger Christian. Roger is the mastermind behind some of the most iconic figures and images known to man. It is because of guys like Roger that even the most casual movie goer knowns what a light saber is, and fell in love with the happenings of things that took place in a galaxy far, far away. Yes, he is the man who helped make Star Wars to be the visually fascinating masterpiece that we all know and love today. He was the man who was entrusted by George Lucas as the art director of what would be one of the most famous films in history, as well as being entrusted to join him on his journey through The Return of the Jedi and the saga’s return in The Phantom Menace as 2nd A.D.

But while Star Wars is obviously a major feat for Mr. Christian, it is important to mention that he has brought so much joy to the world beyond the likes of the Jedi. He was nominated for an Oscar once again (and unfairly robbed of a win, in my opinion) for his work in art direction on another classic film we all know and love known as Alien. Yes, that Alien. Beyond the world of art direction, Roger is also an accomplished filmmaker who has been behind the camera on some of amazing projects that were actually the catalyst for why I wanted to talk to him.

I will honestly admit to you all, here and now, I was not interested in Roger’s work on Star Wars, as this is not a world that entirely fascinated me. So, it brings me great joy to be able to say that all Star Wars related questions in this interview are either inspired by or directly from none other than the brilliant Brady “Berzerker” Berkenmeier from my favorite podcast known as Super Geeky Play Date. A huge thanks to Brady for coming through for us on this one. Once again, help from a dear friends is what we rely on to make this site a success!

As I stated before, those of us who are less familiar with the Star Wars world will definitely know who this man is. In a career spanning over 50 years, he has been the man behind films like the 1997 Patrick Stewart fronted film Mastermind, 2013’s Stranded that features Christian Slater’s finest performance pre-Mr. Robot, and most importantly, the upcoming creation of the passion project he has had funneling through is brain for the last 50 years (and has released in short versions on at least two occasions), Black Angel, which will be coming soon and will mention in great detail. In fact, once you have completed reading his great responses, you can scroll all the way to the bottom of this interview and find the FULL version of the original short.

Yes, Roger Christian is a legend in the world of filmmaking, especially in the visual sense. He is the man behind the fucking light saber for shit’s sake! For that alone, it is an honor to have him featured as our 200th interview here at Trainwreck’d Society. It has been a long and winding rode to make it to this milestone, and I speak for all of us who have made this happen when I say we are so happy that you have chosen to take this journey with us. So before I get to sappy here, please enjoy some amazing words from Academy Award winner, Roger Christian!

What inspired you to join the world of art direction and filmmaking? Were you always interested in the world of a film from a young age?

I grew up in the country near a town called Reading, with no access to theatre or any knowledge of the film industry. I was given instruction by my Father to be an architect, Doctor or Priest. Escaping the brutal way we were treated at school, to an arts college, I went one day with friends to London to see Doctor Zhivago and Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman. David Lean’s film made such such a powerful impression on me, I literally had an out of body experience in the theatre when the music rose as the young Zhivago stood by the grave at the burial, and it is still one of my most favourite films of all time. I was hooked, and A Man and a Woman cemented a passion. The driving jazz and the power of images with emotion, was a new kind of filmmaking. I remember having huge arguments outside the theatre about its style and impact.

Working every summer to survive putting up huge marquees for shows all over southern England, we were in Black Park, and I saw a prison camp, so realistic, a tramp used to offer food every day to the men who built it. They told me it was a film set, and we were next to Pinewood studios. So squeezing under the fence that lunch time I watched James Bond being filmed through an open stage door, the smell and the lights and sets, was it, I had to do this. I spent years trying to get into an industry where I didn’t know anyone, even doing two years at Oxford School of Architecture, as I was told to enter through the art department as I’d been years at Art school.

I spent all my spare time watching films by Bergman, Felini, Pasolini, Truffault, Godard, Lean, Powell etc and my master and mentor Kurosawa. I ate up his work, and giants like Visconti. My first job ever was where destiny struck. I was tea boy to John Box who designed Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. John mentored me closely in an industry where it was run like an office, and I was told daily to get a haircut and a suit and tie, and stop talking about these art films and knuckle under and work my way up slowly on the drawing board. It wasn’t for me and I quickly worked my way to be a set decorator, and using the money I earned to direct theatre plays I commissioned and music videos, anything I could get my hands on.

We all know that Star Wars: A New Hope, now 40 years old, was a groundbreaking masterpiece that changed the world of cinema forever. And it was pointed out to me that the film also marked one of the first times that art direction and special effects really became extremely popular. What was this experience like for you? Was it surreal to finally get the credit you deserved?

Yes it was surreal. There was no faith that Star Wars would make a dollar, as Science Fiction as a genre was dead at the time, and worse this was regarded as a Children’s fantasy. I shared George Lucas’s vision, that space should be dusty and real, and the world used and old and natural. With the budget, when we started off with four million dollars to make this epic, it was daunting. I had to buy scrapped airplanes and break them down to encrust the interiors. I used real guns with pieces stuck on, and made the Lightsabre with an old camera part and superglued on T-strip and an old calculator part.

John Barry the designer was brilliant, taking George to Tunisia where he found the ancient world and deserts, adapted by our dressing and props to the world of Tatooine. The majority of the crew, thought the film was a Children’s story and being sci-fi, would never see the light of day. The worlds of myth and legend got me through my difficult childhood in the grey times after the wars, and so John and I and the two art directors stood by George Lucas’s side when few others did, and built his world for Star Wars, difficult as it was.

Star Wars was the first science fiction film ever where the audience believed the film was real, set in its world, old used and natural. This was my world and I was finally able to put on screen my vision for how it should look. Being awarded an Academy Award, so unexpected, was an honour and a recognition that all the hard work and belief where most people doubted it would work was justified.

What was it like jumping back into the world of Star Wars in the late 90’s to work on The Phantom Menace, over 15 years after the release of Return of the Jedi? Did it feel like a whole new experience for you?

It was like coming home. Being trusted by George to film alongside him, we had the two crews who filmed Indiana Jones making this epic in just twelve weeks, there was no time to think. Star Wars was my world to enter back into, and little had changed. Being back in Tunisia was inspiring especially the huge set for Tatooine built in the desert near where we filmed the first film and filming the pod race. Directing instead of designing, was a joy for me. I worked with all the main actors and some amazing stunt and action scenes, so it was like being in heaven despite working 14 or more hours a day. George had to leave at the end, so I finished the filming.

I am very intrigued about your project Black Angel. Can you tell us a bit about how this project has come about? What made you want to tell this tale?

The short film I wrote as my debut directing film, was commissioned by George Lucas to release with Empire Strikes Back and funded by a twenty five thousand pound grant from the British government. Following Kurosawa’s influence, I was the first person to film Scotland’s stunning and ancient landscapes in cinemascope as a background for my ancient myth. It inspired John Boorman Excalibur and George step printed a Yoda fight in Empire when he saw mine. I received many letters from the audience at the time, how I had touched them deeply, and that was my intention to connect to the subconscious as Tarkovsky did.

I made the film as I love mythology and legends and wanted to explore the last moment in a Knight’s life as he honoured the code they lived by, to find a maiden in distress and rescue her. I went deeper as it was a fight against death, a huge theme in mythology.

The negative was lost after Rank in the UK went bankrupt and found three years ago in Universal studios after I had almost given up ever seeing it again. Restored to its original powerful imagery, it screened again as closing film at the Mill Valley Film Festival to ecstatic reviews and even more popular at the Glasgow Film Festival where we sold out a four hundred screen cinema. I got five hundred thousand hits about it from a BBC online article, and social media went viral after. Not bad for a thirty five year old film.

This led to Alex Tate a UK producer wanting to make my original epic fantasy feature idea and we are filming this year in Hungary and Scotland. The popularity of Game of Thrones and Star Wars have created a massive platform for fantasy which is real and down and dirty, and thats how we made the original Star Wars and Alien. I am following my original desire to create a very real and down to earth epic set in amazing visions, in the same vein as these powerful films I was involved with connected to the audience. That desire is more and more prevalent in audiences, who want to connect to worlds they can identify with, but be carried on an exciting journey.

And you have mentioned in a previous conversation that you are very fond of the music that is set to be used in Black Angel. Can you tell us a few details about said music? And, as a huge fan of well composed music in film, I am curious to hear your personal insight as to why music is a critical element to any good film?

Music and sound create the power of a movie, equal to performance of the actors and characters they have created, and the director’s vision. Turn off the sound on any movie and its power collapses. Who can forget those simple notes on Jaws, and the Star Wars theme that takes you right into the saga when you hear it. My number one favourite, Dr Zhivago‘s score is as epic as the film.

I spent weeks and weeks gathering reference for Black Angel to influence Trevor Jones. Vangelis was unknown in England at the time, but I had gathered sound tracks from French documentaries he had composed the music for. A huge influence, Stomu Yamashta an amazing Japanese composer who created Red Buddha Theatre, and other music I found inspiring to create a musical landscape, the soundtrack takes you deep into the mystic soul of Black Angel.

What else does the future hold for you? Anything else we should be looking forward to in the future?

I am deep into the epic feature film of Black Angel, a passion project for me since writing and directing that short film as a launch for my career. Finally I am able to get it made and this is my legacy really, and has taken this time for the global market to get recognition for this type of fantasy, so I can get funded. I am also making a documentary/drama on the Creative Force. Inspired by the five rebels who made Star Wars when nothing else existed in cinema and with the smallest budgets way below what it would have taken using conventional techniques. So they echoed Luke Skywalker, heroes journey moment and let out of their comfort zones and because of them Star Wars got made. This extends to some incredibly famous people in their chosen films who saw Star Wars and became so inspired they followed their dreams and left their comfort zones. Based on my book, Cinema Alchemist, which is a blow by blow account of how Star Wars, Alien and Black Angel were made on way too low of budgets, I was intent on inspiring people and that is the overwhelming response to the book. So I am interested to explore this and help people follow their dreams and inspire them to follow their own heroes journey as thats what its all about and why myth and legend is so important to everyone.

And we always ask our statue holding friends this question: Where do you keep your Oscar? And does its physical location have any significance to you?

When we got ours, it was the worst thing you could do in England to embrace it or shout out about it, the familiar place everyone kept theirs was to hold the toilet door open. That was to do with the British establishment looking down on Science Fiction and American culture. Star Wars helped change that and Alien and the films that followed quickly made getting an Oscar a huge honour.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Seeing the lightsaber I created for 12 dollars gaining iconic status as a main plot point in the final scene in A Force Awakens and coming to fruition in The Last Jedi. – R

Do yourself a favor, and check out the amazing short film that is Black Angel, which Roger Christian has so kindly put on YouTube with a lovely introduction as well. Check it out here:

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

One Response to Roger Christian [Interview]

  1. albertcwchessa says:

    Cannot wait for this film. The 1980 film, honestly, is a ‘happy place’ for me — even though it deals with the rather dark subject matter of a Knight’s final moments, it nevertheless is so enrapturing in its scope, enchanting in its imagery, and powerful in its timeless myth and symbolism. Among my favourite films of all time, and without doubt the film I put on whenever I need to center myself in that nostalgia-tinged way — watching the film somehow always makes me very emotional, I can’t quite explain it. Like I’m seeing a bygone world, one I resonate with so much (both the 80s and those wild, untamed, fog-enshrouded forested environs)…words are failing me, it seems. Thank you Mr. Christian, and to this site for this lovely interview. Kindest and Appreciative Regards, Albert

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: