CINEMA ALCHEMIST: DESIGNING STAR WARS & ALIEN - THE FILM CAREER OF ROGER CHRISTIAN
By Roger Christian
Published by TITAN BOOKS
Reviewed by Scott Weller
1975. From almost dying of typhus during the location filming of the ambitious period comedy/drama star-vehicle LUCKY LADY in Mexico, to coming back to the UK to becoming part of a small early team of visionaries bringing to life an epic space fantasy vision concocted by the then still relatively unknown filmmaker George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz- a project that he had wanted to make since childhood dreaming, designed in a revolutionary “used universe” style the likes of which had never been done before, Roger Christian, Set Decorator and later acclaimed director, takes himself and us back in time in a way that Doctor Who’s TARDIS never could, to a world on the cusp of STAR WARS (and beyond), with his candid and revelatory CINEMA ALCHEMIST, out now in hardback from TITAN BOOKS.
|One of the original STAR WARS greatest behind the scenes contributors: Roger Christian.|
As the book begins, Christian has already enjoyed a successful career as a film, commercials and TV set decorator, very much the young rock star-type of the UK industry, but his talents are soon put to better, brighter use via a new wave of filmmakers coming out of the UK and Hollywood, involving him in the biggest and most iconic film productions ever conceived, of which he'd also be blessed with some of the best friends and contacts in the business that anyone could have, of which Christian’s respect for production designer and trusted friend, the late John Barry, and his comrades in Les Dilley and Norman Reynolds, is clear across the seventies (and afterwards). This was a time when the impossible was (almost) becoming possible, as his work on the at first named THE STAR WARS would soon prove, bringing to life an incredible futuristic but believable reality with a set decorating budget that was a meagre $200,000 dollars- the kind of fee today that wouldn’t even pay for the catering on one of the TRANSFORMERS movies!
|Christian with Les Dilley, John Barry, Bill Welch and Norman Reynolds at Elstree in 1976.|
Working from Lee Studios in the project’s infancy, as it took its bold first steps, Lucas and Christian bonded well in a shared visual cause, fighting further budget cuts, and a shorter and shorter time frame pre- production window going into filming for the following March 1976, hindered by a stingy and faithless FOX licking its wounds from several flop films of the early seventies (including LUCKY LADY!), of which sci-fi was then a dirty word in Hollywood, despite Alan Ladd, Jr.’s true belief in the genius and talent of George Lucas, a man of true courage and a respected director who equally respected and encouraged Christian, on a project like STAR WARS that was lots of trial yet thankfully not error!
Ralph McQuarrie’s conceptual paintings would also be an incredible and inspirational start alongside the Journal of the Whills script for Christian, Barry and company, as the race against time in constructing the prototype for the most important make-or-break roles of the film beckoned, namely the two droids in R2-D2 and C-3PO, which had to look believable in their comic and dramatic scenes together, and in their interactions with others within a variety of landscapes. The squat R2 would be the hardest to realize, alongside the overall challenges of creating the shell/suits, and the right look, as well as nailing down the casting of the actors vitally needed to inhabit them. Christian’s early wooden prototype was instrument in telling FOX and the rest of the crew that this ambitious film could be realized.
Equally important and the touch paper for the ultimate look of STAR WARS was Christian’s finding and using of old airplane scrap parts across the UK, sold cheaply but soon a rich commodity, as part of the film’s memorable dressing, vitally needed and never more successfully showcased than within the interior and exterior of the used Millennium Falcon pirate ship, a vehicle littered with “greeblies” (a fun term created by Lucas). As well as the Falcon, the remaining list of challenges and things to be created were a veritable mountain to be traversed for Christian, mostly working alone until early 1976, his talent and enthusiasm ultimately finding others who recognized his ideas for the movie, of which his quick and cheaply made lightsaber prototype would soon become the stuff of modern cinematic iconography.
Star Wars: ‘Designing The Lightsaber’ Bonus Clip | Official HD - YouTube
Star Wars: ‘Designing The Lightsaber’ Bonus Clip | Official HD - YouTube
As things were hectically progressing and the days of filming dawned, other problems awaited, primarily the New Wave versus the Old Wave (notably led by cinematographer Gil Taylor and, to a smaller degree when reading the book, Peter Beale at FOX UK) at Tunisia and the studio- grumbling personnel at the time not ready to accept George Lucas and his ideas for a film they thought was just a kiddy flick, and not warranting such detail- never really believing or knowing the story during the entire UK shoot, whilst Barry and Christian tried to be the middle ground in diffusing the uneasiness whilst staying true to their ideals in getting the vision George wanted up on the screen.
Christian vividly recalls the first hectic and chaotic day of filming in the Nefta salt flats of Tunisia with the Sandcrawler and Lars Homestead, as droids went wrong and a unique back-up plan was initiated by him and John Barry, both of whom shared a lack of faith in UK practical effects man John Stears’ too ambitious ideas for the radio controlled droids, which ultimately worked but had problems early on. It's clear reading the book that Christian regarded Stears as being very much a part of the Old Wave.
In between the rising problems during studio filming and its blurry last few weeks, Christian also gives us some nice reminisces and observations about the cast, like Harrison Ford, early on happy to be at work with the carpenters at Elstree, a clearly insecure Carrie Fisher, and being impressed by Sir Alec Guinness in Tunisia.
|Problems within the corridors of the Nostromo in ALIEN. Image: FOX.|
Completing the experience that was STAR WARS, the intergalactic terrors of ALIEN soon arrived. Christian’s skilled and thoughtful on-screen work for George Lucas finally appeared in cinemas in May 1977 and was soon a quick influence on a young Ridley Scott’s career path after his first successful period film in THE DUELLISTS. Hiring Christian was a no brainer, though, like STAR WARS, his new assignment had as equally little precious time for pre-production, and was on an even bigger scale at Shepperton Studios. Thankfully, like Lucas before him, Christian and Scott were to think on the same shorthand wavelength as creation and set decoration commenced on the labyrinth once you’re in them its difficult to get out of them, claustrophobic sets of the commercial towing vehicle, the Nostromo, soon turned killing ground slaughterhouse for the most unusual and vicious Xenomorph life form ever conceived in cinema-dom.
Helping to launch Sigourney Weaver’s career with an important screen test as the gutsy heroine Ripley, there’s many anecdotes and remembrances to savor from Christian, talking in the fullest detail yet about the filming of the infamous “chest burster” - one of the greatest scenes in film horror ever.
|Modern movie art poster for Christian's directorial debut: BLACK ANGEL. Art by Mark Raats.|
In between such two great space epics, Christian returns to Terra Firma with the on and off and on again experiences of working with the zany and beloved Monty Python team for their controversial but inspired LIFE OF BRIAN and Marty Feldman’s innovative THE LAST REMAKE OF BEAU GESTE. Then he makes the bold leap of becoming a feature film director in his own right, bringing to life the story that literally came to being in his mindset via his aforementioned death’s door experience in New Mexico five years earlier: the now cult classic, low budget fantasy shot in the realms of an atmospheric Scotland: BLACK ANGEL, the cult short film made with little money but loads of enthusiasm by Christian, with the very best support from friends, getting the incredible advantage of being seen in 400 UK cinemas in deliberate pairing opposite THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and a final production much admired by the likes of Spielberg and Lucas, the latter taking a gamble that soon paid off in supporting Christian’s debut, with BLACK ANGEL perfectly complimenting and setting the tone for this dark new 1980 offering to the STAR WARS saga. Many years later rediscovered and restored to become an internet viewing hit, BLACK ANGEL is now on its way to becoming a major motion picture experience in its own right, of which we wish Christian success on his endeavours.
|Back in Tunisia filming Pod Race footage for EPISODE I.|
Having won an Academy Award for STAR WARS, Christian never forget the space epic roots that truly put him in the map, returning uncredited to help Lucas on several sequences for RETURN OF THE JEDI in 1982, and vitally helping to bring the new Prequel saga to life with EPISODE I in 1997, as second unit director. Sadly, his book recollection experiences on the latter are way, way too brief.
Rounding things out, and only available in the printed edition, is a nice selection of rare colour and black and white photos (and early concept drawings/blueprints), mostly linked to Christian and his work STAR WARS, though the caption for a colour image of Luke’s Landspeeder is incorrect- it was taken at ILM (as Paul Huston can be seen in the shot) presumably for January 1977's additional shooting in Death Valley, California, and not at Elstree.
A few other little editorial errors here and there also fall through the cracks (for STAR WARS there was no cantina band in the UK filming- all of it was done later by ILM in the US), but this is nonetheless an indispensable book for fans of set design, decoration and the STAR WARS and ALIEN films in general. CINEMA ALCHEMIST is the ultimate book for any budding enthusiast wanting to know why, how and where the incredible props and set decorations came to be on two of the greatest films of all time, and Christian should be applauded for his incredible memory, particularly in dispelling many of the behind the scenes modern myths that have been expounded over the years about the making of the original STAR WARS in later interviews, magazines and blog pieces.
The kind of comfortable to read memoir/book where you’ll learn more within its pages than attending three years of studying at film school, a key to Christian’s success hasn’t just been luck, he clearly had to get his head down and get on with things for the most part, finding a way, sometimes simple, sometimes difficult, to get things done. At its heart, Christian’s mantra of “if you want to do it, you have to go for it”, shines through, of which a certain green Jedi Master would no doubt be proud…
AFICIONADO RATING: Perhaps it still needed some mild editing here and there, but CINEMA ALCHEMIST’s meticulous, often unprecedented detail makes it a terrific companion to J.W. Rinzler’s Making of Star Wars book from 2007, as well as other ALIEN related materials. 4 out of 5
Get the book here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cinema-Alchemist-Roger-Christian/dp/1783299002/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1471873236&sr=1-1&keywords=cinema+alchemist