Most folks know Roger Christian as the director of Battlefield Earth, a film considered by some to be among the worst ever made. Whether or not that's fair, they seem to be overlooking the fact that Roger Christian has a resume that extends back decades, to the Oscar-winning musical Oliver! Christian was also the art director on Monty Python's The Life of Brian and Ridley Scott's Alien, a film for which his work has been undeniably influential.
Roger Christian's latest film, Stranded, about the horrifying plight of a small crew of astronauts on a failing moonbase, is in theaters now and also on VOD, so I took the opportunity to catch up with the director about his long, storied career in the industry, the fallout from Battlefield Earth and also the current fate of Black Angel, the short film he directed in 1979, long thought lost, that was recently rediscovered and is currently being restored – for free – by Pixar, just because they love it so much.
CraveOnline: I was looking you up and I saw somewhere you said your first film you ever worked on was Oliver!. Is there any truth to that? I couldn't find much to substantiate it.
Roger Christian: Yes. The film that got me to want to go and work in cinema was Doctor Zhivago and by sheer magic of destiny… I was broke beyond belief, sold a car, my father wouldn't support me. [Laughs] He said, “Go and get a proper job like a priest or a doctor.” I said, “No, I’m going in the film industry.” I hitched a ride and the man I hitched a ride with, it led to an interview [for] a job, with Charlie Bishop and he was the art director on Doctor Zhivago. He built all the ice palaces and he said, "No, I'm just finishing a series. I'd take you on, otherwise," because I'd been to art school and architecture school, and he sent me down to meet John Box, who designed Doctor Zhivago and he took me on as [a] tea boy on Oliver! and mentored me through. I got so fed up making tea after a few months, and John that knew that I could draw and I was beyond that, and did the construction manager so I started to make worse and worse tea and coffee. I just grimaced as I gave it to them. And I took a gamble I'd either be promoted or fired and I got promoted, to the drawing board. So, yeah, I was on it for, oh I don't know, about nine months I think.
Man, that's amazing. I always loved that movie so that's just really, really cool.
John Box taught me techniques. He was a very simple, very humble man. He was wonderful, John, and he really mentored me because the rest of the art department wore suits and ties, telling me to get a haircut and smarten up. I could never get on like I was. I'd talk about Bergman and Fellini and they looked at me cross-eyed, you know? [Laughs] And John mentored me through and the sets on that film were just incredible.
They really were. Fagin's lair is, like, my dream apartment. It's so gorgeous.
Yes. Exactly that and I made Fagin's box by hand.
John gave me and said, "You better make this box, because it has to do this and do that," so I spent four weeks at home, making this box and polishing and burning it. That was the first thing I ever made.
That's so cool! We only have so much time but I want to move on to talk about other things. And I really want to talk about Stranded but while we have the time, I want to ask you about some of the other parts of your career.
You were the art director on two of I think like, the best art directed movies: Alien and Life of Brian. My Dad was an expert in Roman history and he always said that Life of Brian is the movie that looks like it captures it right.
I designed it with Terry Gilliam, the two of us and then there was a fight. He was the co-director and there was a fight between him and Terry Jones, and Terry Jones wanted to be bossing people around, so in the end I said, "You take the designer credit. I'll be the art director. Don't worry about it." Politically, to get them out, because the producers didn't know what to do. Terry Jones wouldn't have any form of directing titles. He was doing it to boss them all around. So, Terry and I went to Rome and we looked at [historical] drawings, which was our inspiration. We lucked out in Tunisia because it was a pretty low budget. Zeffirelli had made a beautiful TV series, Jesus of Nazareth. We managed to get one of his ships. They gave it to us and we found these old, beautiful forts and ruins that we were able to use because we were determined to make it look like Rome, like it really was Jerusalem.
The giant wall of graffiti, was that a matte painting or did you actually make that? The whole thing?
I built part of it. That was in a real building. It's a beautiful, huge old… It probably goes back to almost biblical times. It's a massive […] It’s like a big fort. So, we picked the wall, where we knew the light was right and then I built, in skin on top of it because we didn’t want to harm the original, so I built part of it that we could actually graffiti and then we did as a matte shot, the rest of it. Kind of low budget. [Laughs]
Well, it looks great! I actually didn't know.
Yeah. It looked really wonderful. And then before we get to Stranded, I also wanted to ask about, I read recently that Black Angel had been rediscovered.
Yes! We'd been looking, the Lucasfilm archivists, Fox, everybody. All the archivists. The negative was lost, forever, and I got a call a year and a half ago, before Christmas from an archivist in Universal. He said, "Are you Roger Christian?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Did you make this film, Black Angel?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, I think I've got your negative here and all these tins of film." It turned out to be. And then I couldn't afford to get it out, and get it all restored and all of this. I didn't know quite what to do, I kind of waited and then out of the blue, I got another call, from two of the heads of Pixar. They said, "Listen, we read a Wired magazine about your film and we've been following it since we started. Could we please restore it for you? We'll do it all." So, they're doing it and they've got Lucas Sound, Skywalker involved. Everybody. They just said, "It's a labor of love for us and if you'll allow us, we'll do it all for you," and they're doing it, which is just an incredible honor.
That is incredible. Is there an ETA on that?
They will try to get it done for screening because they're screening [Return of the] Jedi, but you know, they're busy as well. So, they're doing it in between but they're keeping me updated. It'll be done this year, for sure.
Alright. The long and short of it is, I want to see it so I hope it just gets released somehow, because I missed it, initially.
Yeah, it'll be released. It worried me and I really debated because it was made so long ago. I went into places in Scotland no one had every filmed and it was stunningly shot by Roger Pratt, the music was beautiful and everything then but I kept thinking now, people are going to watch this and go, "Is that really what we thought it was?" [Laughs] Everyone said, "Don't worry about that. You've just got to put it out. This film was an influence and it doesn't matter you made it for no money and all this stuff. You just gotta do it." So, I gave in. I'll bury my head when it comes out, in case anyone attacks me. [Laughs] “Is that what it was, [what] we remember…?]
Well, I can't wait to see it.
Yeah, it's beautifully shot. It's a kind of meditation on poetry. I was trying to be Kurosawa, basically. It's a homage to him.