Exclusive Interview: Roger Christian on Stranded

His latest sci-fi thriller, his work on Alien, Life of Brian and Battlefield Earth, and the short film Pixar offered to restore for free.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

So, Stranded. You haven't written most of your own films.

Yes.
 

What was it about Stranded that…?

This one, well, we decided… The writer, Christian Piers Betley and I, we kind of formed a team. We kind of wanted to do what Roger Corman did and do a low budget horror film and do a whole series of them, with different genres. And we managed to get 13 Eerie made. Somebody suggested to me, why don't I do a paranormal in a space station? I thought, "Well, that's a good idea but we'd never be able to make it."  Afterwards, I was thinking and talking to Christian about it and we both love Demon Seed, the Julie Christie film. I said, "You know, let's go in a completely different direction. Let's do something rather unusual and make this really low budget, visceral tension." And so we wrote it. I wrote out the whole idea of it and then Christian wrote it for me. 
 

The movie begins very quickly. Like, normally, I'd expect about ten, fifteen minutes of introduction, development, here's a layout of the space station and Stranded just… BAM! Meteor shower.

Yeah. Christian did write all the stuff. How they go and make eggs, how they go to the toilet. You know, what it's like there. We took it all out. I said, "No, if it's low budget and it's visceral…" Alien was a benchmark because the moment that film opens, you're in tension. I like that whole idea that we begin this thing and just don't let people off, until the end. The editor really helped with that, Daryl Davis. He and I crafted it in the cutting room, from all that footage.
 

Tell me about the set on this because it's a space station and like, the lights were broken for a lot of it. Did that save you money or was that strictly a mood for like, building the set?

Kathy McCoy is the designer, who's the producer's Wife. She did 13 Eerie for me and Kathy's, first of all, very like I used to work. We were given two pounds, an 18 hour day working. We'd deliver. We'd always make it work, whatever was thrown at us. And Kathy's the same. Very unusual for art directors today. She just gets in and does it. So, I knew with her we could do it and then there was this set that was in Regina, that was just in pieces and stuff so I knew from my immense experience with Star Wars and Alien and all these things, I knew that if I could make it into one whole set you went into, we lit it, you could shoot anywhere. I could shoot this thing in the 15 days that we had, which is nothing. And so we rebuilt the set, using the same technique. Scrap and whatever we could find and built it piece by piece. No one noticed but we were revamping rooms into other rooms, so that I could just keep shooting the whole time. And it's very important for me that it was real, that you get into this thing and you don't question where you are. Nothing stands out. It's an equal kind of… It's like a viscous feeling with the actors. They're inside this real moon base.
 

And I really like that look and feel of it but I'm wondering now that you brought that up, has art direction changed dramatically since you were a dedicated art director?

It has changed, in terms of… Budgets changed, obviously, and people just build everything. I mean, the Python films were made with no money, literally. You found objects. And the same with Star Wars, we had so little money. It was all airplane scrap and I was lucky to have a director who didn't fire me when I suggested it. He said, "Oh, go ahead and do it." I think those experiences were special and Alien, I got right. I always say that was the film where the sets and the look and everything was right on the nail. I think it's probably hard to do an Alien now because people just rely on CGI so much. And there's nothing wrong with it, it's great, but I just think… Duncan Jones went back and made Moon with old techniques, and I think people tended to believe it better. I think there is something to the reality, if you can pull it off, connecting with the audience and that in the end is what we're all trying to do. We're all trying to connect to an audience and make them believe.
 

Did you have to work with CGI at all when you were 2nd Unit on Phantom Menace?

A lot. Huge amount. [Laughs] Rick McCallum, the producer came to George and I and said, "There's more blue screen on this film being used than I've ever seen on any film, ever, and yet, you still ask for more. Every time you're shooting you're always asking for another bit, here." They were constantly shifting between George's unit and my unit because there's never enough places where you'd need to matte. What was amazingly productive on that was that John Knoll, from ILM, had on his computer, the sets and he had 360-degree views and you could look through different lenses on what it was showing. So, as we were filming, we knew exactly what was going to be in there, in precise detail. 

But even so, George had… When they do the pod race, and the Tusken Raiders are up in the valley, shooting at them? I said to George, "You know, just for old time's sake, I'm gonna go back to where we shot Star Wars, in the valley." And we had to get on donkeys to get up to the top. [Laughs] George had, on a little playback machine, he put in Gurkha fighters from some 1930s' Indian film and showed what he wanted and we just reproduced that but I shot all that for real as guys up on the dust line. Me, I love that stuff.
 

Yeah. That's the stuff I liked, the stuff that felt real in The Phantom Menace. A lot of the stuff in like, Mos Eisley, because it looked lived in.

Yeah, that was all shot for real. We shot a lot of it, as it was. George was particularly keen on that. He's always said that, "If you can make it real then you should, first off." Even though he used CGI, relentlessly and kind of pushed all the boundaries, he still always tried to, whatever he could shoot that looked real, he'd do it.
 

Now, there's something I was wondering about Battlefield Earth. So many shots in that movie are canted like, really consistently. I've never seen a film, except maybe The Third Man, with so many canted shots. What was the thought process behind making that a consistent style?

The designer, the DP and I got together and we were… Hubbard was the biggest selling, pulp fiction writer I think of all time. Huge number of novels in the early days. And of science fiction, so we kind of thought with this film, it is a fantasy and it's got these elements to it. We wanted to try to make the first kind of graphic novel that was on film. When you look at graphic novels, they're all canted angles. They always do it for effect, so we chose that and also we were able to get the big, tall Psychlo creatures into the frame; we found that if we angled it, rather than having to cut them off every time and do extra shots. So, it was done on purpose because of that.
 

The reputation that Battlefield Earth has… is that frustrating? Part of me is like, "Well, at least everyone remembers it."

Yeah, it's kind of frustrating because the war against it is against Scientology. I'm not a Scientologist, I never have been, nor has the film anything to do with it. It's a basic, sci-fi novel that Hubbard wrote, so the war that came is against a religion. That's what's frustrating to me because no one looked at the film itself. We made it for $44 million which is nothing, despite all the critics say I'm delusional and they know it was 75 Million Dollars. It wasn't. The bond company signed it off at 45 and it grossed $150 million. None of the Producers are out there saying, "The film is really successful. Financiers have made lots of money out of it." Nobody stands up, anymore and says, "Just have another look at this." [Quentin] Tarantino came to the premiere and hugged me and John [Travolta] and said, "Right. Forget about it for 18 years. It's gonna come flying back. You watch. It's gonna turn around." It kind of has been turning around and it's a shame because a lot of work went into it. And it was all made for fun. That's all it is. But there is a huge war against this religion, for some reason. It just fuels the anger in many people, so I think it was just too much, the two names, even though they've nothing to do with it.
 

Is there any talk about revisiting Battlefield Earth, trying to get it out there again, maybe in like, a Special Edition? A nice commentary track, something like that?

None. No. I think the producers just buried their heads. 
 

Aw, that's too bad.

Yeah. I guess they just thought, "Well, if we just go quiet…." Which is a shame, I think. But John's very proud of it. That's the one thing I do like. He said on Barbara Walters, she asked him what was his proudest, filmmaking experience and he said, "Battlefield Earth. That's what I'm most proud of, in my entire career." So, that was to 60 million people. That was a very comforting thing for me, to hear him say.


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.