An Interview with Roger Christian
Academy Award-Winning Director on the making of Battlefield Earth the movie.
Roger Christian’s interview has been transcribed and edited for print. Listen to his interview in full at: www.SoundCloud.com/TotheStarsPodcast
Roger Christian is the art director for the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV – A New Hope) for which he won an Oscar. He was later nominated for an Oscar for his work on Alien. He directed second unit on both Return of the Jedi and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace as well as feature films The Sender and Nostradamus. In this article, Roger discusses the movie he directed in 2000, Battlefield Earth.
How did you come to direct Battlefield Earth the movie?
Through Star Wars as a prime kind of connection that led me to Battlefield Earth. John Travolta was asking about directors for Battlefield Earth when the trailer for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace broke. A lot of the shots in this trailer were mine. And John had seen another film I had made, Nostradamus, and said, “Well, you’re not afraid of actors, and you’re not afraid of powerful performances.” So John and his manager called George Lucas as they’d been looking for a director because it was independently financed. This was fairly new for John. At that time, the budget was quite low. Elie Samaha partnered with John and said, if you could do it for this budget, we will do it. And George Lucas apparently said that there was only one person who could do it for that budget. And that was me. And Star Wars are always independent movies.
John asked me if I knew how my name came up. I had no idea. He asked if I knew Quentin Tarantino. I replied that I had never met him. I admired his work, no end. And he was a champion of The Sender. I mean, hugely championing it. And he said he had gone through many directors and kept telling Quentin the names, and when mine came up, he went, “You got it.” So that’s how it came about.
I was invited along with Barry Shapiro, my manager, to a private dinner with John and Elie. And it was Jonathan Crane, and myself, and Barry, my manager. John was the biggest film star at that time on the planet. And I said, of course, it’s going to be just an honor to meet him anyway. So I walk into the meeting. And John enveloped me in a huge hug and said, “I just want to thank you for Nostradamus.” And then he said, “We’re just gonna have dinner, but I really admire your work.” I explained how we’d done Nostradamus for $4 million in Romania. He was confounded how I did it for that much money. It’s a big movie. So you know, all of those things together. And then, at the end of the meal, he said, “Well, you’ve got to do this film. I’ve told William Morris, I’m not doing another film until I do it. I’m able to do it now.” So that’s how it came about.
How did you view L. Ron Hubbard as an author, and how his stories translated into images?
I knew his name. He’s one of the most prolific pulp fiction authors on the planet. Huge number, over 200 books he’d written. And then, Battlefield Earth is one of the highest-ranked in number of best-selling books of all time. It’s very, very high. It’s just great science fiction. And also, Ron is a very prolific science fiction writer. He’s written some great books, exploring ideas and characters, everything. So I knew this book, obviously. And I thought, well, how do we do it? Don Carmody, the producer for Elie Samaha, did all his movies in Canada, said we’re going to make it in Canada. We get these tax credits and all of this, and I think I went into Montreal with $9 million.
Newsweek and a lot of other media said it was a $75 million movie. So what’s the actual truth on that?
It’s a backhanded compliment. The truth is absolutely signed in legal documents by the film finance company. Because at the end of the day, the film financiers lock the budget. And they’re the ones, if you go over budget, who come and remove the Director, and they take over all of this. So you have to adhere to a budget. This is a very, very tight legal document. I signed with John Travolta; the final budget fully done, everybody paid, all the stars, actors, and it was $44 million. Out of that, I only had $21 million for the entire production and the entire special effects. That was locked in stone. That’s all I had.
So it looked like a $75 million movie. And I was very proud of that. And that was my intention to make this look double the budget that it was, and we did that by being in Montreal and finding incredible locations. Very much like Star Wars.
Montreal at that time only really made small French art films. So we went into the city with something so new that nobody really knew what we were doing. I went to an old marine base and used their warehouses for stages. We didn’t go to a studio. It saved a fortune. We discovered ways to do things which were learned on Star Wars, principally. Even on Alien, all these films were under budgeted. So I had a handle on how we could do this. And that’s what we did. I don’t understand why it’s never defended. That was the budget. That’s what it was. They said this director is still delusional. He thinks he made a film for $44 million. We all know it was $75 million. Well, what can I do? It’s very strange in this industry that I’m being backhandedly praised for what I did.
Is it true that the special effects budget was only $9 million of that $21 million?
Exactly nine. And we had a fledgling company called Hybrid who’d started in Montreal. I went to them because the big company we were supposed to go with, on their showreel, all of the best work was from one creator, a technician who moved to Hybrid, and we followed him. And we gave Hybrid 85 shots, and it launched them. And then, right afterward, Steven Spielberg, who loved our ships, asked where they were done. And John told him Hybrid. And he’d never ever gone anywhere but ILM. But they re-clothed our ships. If you look at Minority Report, they’re my ships that we designed and did with Hybrid. They’re the same. This is how things work. I love this, you know. So we did that. And we chose different houses all over the place. Someone even did a whole sequence for free. They said, “We really love this. We want to do it for you. If we can use it for a showreel, we’ll do it.” So they did. We were kind of doing whatever we could to get all of these up on the screen. There was one section missing. And when John saw the entire film, he said that section would be great in the film. And I said, “Well, yeah, but you know, we would go over budget.” John put up his own money and paid for that one additional sequence.
What was the single biggest challenge in producing Battlefield Earth?
There was a big challenge with the makeup with John. And I still think I was right. Because Patrick Tatopoulos, who designed it, and I and even John were not akin to it. We wanted to do him like the book; we wanted to cover him more, make him more like exactly as it was identified. You know, the argument was always against. We’ve got John Travolta; he’s the biggest star on the Earth, you’ve got to see who he is all the time. So I would have preferred if we could have gone further. You would have known it was John. The voice was there, and we would have had the eyes and bits of the face. I think that was a challenge.
The second challenge was the Psychlos were huge. So Patrick came up with the idea of the boots, which were logical because they came from another planet where the gravity is not the same. So they had to kind of hold themselves down. And that solved the problem of making them intimidatingly huge. In Lord of the Rings, they can afford to go and re-composite the characters with CGI and do it. But I had to do everything virtually for real. So that was another challenge. And just trying to get this done in the time we had. You know films like this, like when you look at Star Wars, it has about two years in post. I did Battlefield Earth in five months from start to finish when we landed back in LA and at Warner Brothers. I tell this story that I had a Jeep, and in the back, I had a box of bananas and a box of corn chips, and I was eating that driving between effects houses and the cutting rooms for three months at that time. I had nothing. There were seven days a week. This was it. I thought, can we do this? Well, there are no excuses. And you get your head down and do it. You don’t start complaining; you do it. So we actually finished that film in five months, which was entirely and to the sound mix in Warner Brothers, everything. It was exhausting.
One of the things that comes up as a major misconception in the movie is the use of Dutch angles. And it’s interesting because so many major movies use Dutch angles as a key part of the photography. Quentin Tarantino uses them all the time with his movies, like Inglourious Basterds. Inception, Dutch angles there. Harry Potter did, and even the current Mandalorian uses Dutch angles constantly as well as the wipes. It’s used so much right now. But yet, it’s been a point of concern. Why was that such an important part of the movie?
Because the DP (Director of Photography) Giles Nuttgens and I really looked at this whole idea. And it came because the Battlefield Earth novel is pulp science fiction. This is very much the tone of the movie. Coming from a long list of graphic novels, and you look at them all. You look at the Batman novels early. All of these, they are all angled, everything. There’s never a straight frame in them. And we wanted to create that experience and to say to everybody in the audience, we’re making a kind of pulp fiction science fiction movie. That’s how you judge this. This is what the book is, and this is what’s written, and there’s nothing wrong in that. It also helped us to get the Psychlos into the frame sometimes, because we could with a slight higher elevation on that side, which meant I could do it without always cutting and looking fake. So we tried it out.
It’s just people wanted to condemn something about it. Then they condemned me, saying I didn’t know what I was doing. And I did know. I’ve made a lot of movies in my life. And I’m not somebody who doesn’t know. It was very much an intentional experience for an audience. We were a little bit early, I have to say. After that comes in all of the sci-fi kind of superheroes and everything like that coming in. So we were a little bit experimental, a little bit early for people to fully engage with an idea that we had.
Another point that gets asked is in the book, you’ve got the co-heroes who are from Scotland, they’re Scots, and you ended up with cavemen who became Jonnie’s cohorts. How’d that come about?
I always look deeply under the surface, like Star Wars, and I grew up with mythology. And I’ve really studied it. And I go into a lot of all of this in the documentary we’re doing now on Star Wars. And when I took the book, and I went below the surface of it, which is where you find the kind of truth. To me, it was exactly the story of early America and the indigenous Indians. And I knew that Ron Hubbard grew up when he was six years old next to an Indian Reservation. And in fact, he was made a blood brother at a very young age. So I realized that what was deeply underneath it was this kind of metaphor. When you think the indigenous Indians in America had lived in this country for as long as they could remember. Go back in history, and they roamed the plains, and everything was great. Within 60 years, everything was collapsed.
People came in, the immigrants and everything, and started farming and taking the lands and doing this, and this is progress suddenly happened. And I realized that the way to kind of show this was to have Jonnie, really, as he’s written, he’s a kind of early, organically motivated, wild kind of character. That’s the good. This is the good. The other side is the evil. It’s like in Star Wars, you know, look at Luke Skywalker is a farm boy living on a farm on a remote planet. And there’s this massive technical machinery that’s coming in destroying them, and the fight is on. This was why I did it like that.
Another question that came up is—it might be just strictly because of the budget—you’ve got the Harrier jets that you used, but in the book, it’s the Psychlo planes. Was that just a budget thing?
Yes, it was a budget thing. We thought, how can we do this because they existed. And it seemed to me to be in the learning curve, and you also have to include some things that the audience can relate to. It‘s like in Star Wars; there are things like the guns I used. They are only a slight modification of a World War II pistol. They’re not like sci-fi guns. So they kind of somehow, deep into our subconscious, they connect. So we thought, if we use these jets, then that would be a logical way they could fight back. And they could learn it, because that would be something that is in the consciousness of these people because they were intelligent communities that had just gone back to the ways of old of dealing with the land and things. So there was a logic behind that, too.
I’m sure it’s logic to everything. I just want other people to know the logic so that we put it there so people can actually have it. If somebody is actually willing to listen and not just forward things that are just untrue. Just because they like to do it without ever even experiencing what the thing is they’re writing about.
Yes, I agree.
One thing that’s come up is the nosepiece that they use for their breathe gas. But then I look at the most recent production of the movie Dune, and it’s pretty darn close.
Yeah, it is. And again, it was a logical way for everybody. You know, you can go they’d all have masks, and they’d be all closed and everything like that. But that wasn’t the world. This is a fantasy world, that kind of creative. But his science fiction is very much like mine, where it’s embedded into a reality, embedded into a kind of logical way. Which is why I connected with George on the first Star Wars because no science fiction film before this had ever done that. They were all fantasy and didn’t connect to an audience. Star Wars did because we created something very real that people could identify with and not question in the cinema. You weren’t all going look at those guns. They’re really beepy (in reference to sci-fi guns before Star Wars where the sound was beepy, not real), nobody questioned.
This was a part of Battlefield Earth that I think was very important to do. We discussed how do they breathe and everything. And then, we came up with this idea, and it left the emotions of the actors to be able to be expressed correctly. And it was a kind of logical idea that probably in the future, you know, you can’t judge everything by today. Science fiction is open book, and as long as one connects to something, that might be possible. And I look at the spacesuits they’re doing with Elon Musk and Richard Branson; they’re all big glass, and you can see. It’s like Dune is using it. Alien started that because you don’t want to be all enclosed, and you can’t see anyone.
You need to be able to experience the characters and what they’re doing. And I think these are the motivational things that are coming through the centuries on through. Now with movies, they’re passing on in short periods of time. But it’s great. We all feed off each other. Battlefield stands as a landmark, but you know, I was feeding off, and now it’s feeding other things, and it’s feeding Dune. It’s feeding all sorts of things. Star Wars is feeding Mandalorian. And Star Wars was fed from Kurosawa. And now Mandalorian, it’s gone back to those. So these things are to be looked at and embraced and discovered, not to be criticized all the time. This is how work continues and grows organically.
I read on the various interviews done with the actors and the production people there that it was just a really fun movie to do. People were so excited about it. A lot of innovation went into this movie. So talk about that. Because I think that’s really important, people really get just how much creativity is represented in that movie?
Yes, everybody was really on board. We didn’t have the money to do the special effects. So what did I do? I said, “Well, you know what they did with ILM in the first days? They set it up.” So we took a stage in the old navy base and built models of everything. I took an English Bill Pearson, who I traveled the world with doing models. He was brilliant. But Bill came and taught all the Montrealers how it’s done. They’re now world-class people. We set up ILM with plastic sheets. We build all the cities. We crashed the stuff down.
I brought in an explosive expert for the one explosion from LA, and they all learned from him.
And Patrick Tatopoulos, the designer, was really inspirational. I told Patrick I didn’t want to do what Star Wars did; I didn’t want to do Alien. Bring me the vision of this that is in the book, which he did. He designed the ships, which I would never have designed. They’re great. These ships are really good. And I said Spielberg loved them. So they can’t be too bad.
And I think everybody was on board, especially in Montreal, because they’d never done something like this before. And we had an impossible schedule. I brought in a very experienced first assistant director from Toronto who scheduled it, and he said, Roger, we’ve got an eight-week schedule. He said I can schedule it for six weeks. We can keep to that. After that, we’re out of control. But we did it, you know, we got there on budget and on time. We became a second unit afterwards.
And there was a huge sense of camaraderie, of learning. And you know, all of the actors who came on, everybody, Kim Coates, loved it. It was something that was special. And sometimes when you have so little money, and you’re up against it, but you’re doing stuff that they were seeing in rushes, and everything.
John was there. John was bringing in the most amazing food; I have to say. I had to beg him to stop at one point because everyone was getting fat, including himself. I said, John, you got to stop. But he would bring it. There’ll be six different things flown in from Maine, of fish, and meat, and everything. It was wonderful. No one’s ever had that before. But John always said, “I cover the budget of the food. And we like to eat well, and I like my crew to eat well, you know, and let’s keep them all happy.” And he did. Got them fat, too.
So, what was it like working with John? He’s such an amazing person. You don’t hear bad stories about him, but he is such a nice man.
Very honorable kind of strength about him. And he was incredibly supportive. And just to give an example, on the first day of shooting—he wasn’t in for a few weeks, I left him out so that he could do what he does and get prepared and all of this stuff—we’re out in the wilds, miles out in this “Jonnie’s village” and there he is, turned out. He said, “I have to support my director.” And he helped me age down costumes himself and do stuff to get them done. This is on the first shots. That was John.
And he was always incredibly, incredibly supportive right the way through, I still say. And if everybody wants to know the truth about this man— When we’d finished, when it was released, then they said we’re going to do the DVD release. And he said, you know, whatever happened with the film, the DVD release is going to be our forever kind of document of Battlefield Earth. So he said, what we’re going to do, Roger, you do your cut. And the editor did his cut, and John did his cut. And they said, we’ll give everyone six weeks, and then we’ll come together, and John would decide which one he used. Now, I took out several of John’s most favorite scenes, because I centered my version back to the book. And I made the through line much closer to what Ron Hubbard had written. And I thought that would be a better through line for people to follow than we’d ended up with some of the scenes that writers had written. So then, six weeks later, I got a call: Who did number four? I said, “Oh, that was me. Number four. I thought, oh, I’m going to get lambasted and fired.” She said, “Well, that’s the one John chose.” Now, John allowed the most favorite scenes of his that I didn’t think helped the plot move for an audience. He allowed those to be taken out on this first Blu-ray release. That is John. So that shows the kind of integrity of his and lack of ego.
So you know, I was working with him and Kelly, and you know, they had the most wonderful relationship, the two of them, and John’s lost the two loves of his life. And he’s still young. And, you know, he still maintains who he is. It’s tragic that this has happened to him. And in such terrible ways, and how he kind of disappeared. But then he told me himself on Grease, his first love, he would fly back from the shoot in New York City and fly to LA because she was dying with cancer and was with her at the end, nursing her through it. This is John. This is the truth behind this man. And he just happens to be a wonderful actor. I mean, wonderful, you know.
What for you was the most fun part of making the movie?
Just doing it, you know, the whole thing. I mean, it’s rare that you get these things that are so out of the ordinary that they’re really kind of— And it was at the time when we made it with such a great kind of literate background to it. And a novel like that. My only regret is the second half of this book is extraordinary. And we had planned to do that. You know, maybe in hindsight, it would never have happened. But we should have made the second part first because it’s so full of action and packed. It’s just wonderful. But just doing it was fun for me, the whole thing. It was exhausting. I mean I had no time ever, but you know, when you’re working with the top racehorses, which John is and Kelly and Forest Whitaker, you know, this is for any director, it’s just standing watching daily these people doing their job, and they’re at their prime kind of power. It’s just thrilling.
I don’t know Forest, but definitely, I knew Kelly, and I do know John, so I can appreciate that.
If you wanted to use the word jazz, what jazz represents, and put it into a human being, it’s Forest Whitaker.
So what were you trying to achieve with Battlefield Earth in terms of making it different or a notch up or just moving the genre forward?
Yeah, I was moving the genre forward. You know, I love science fiction. It’s just I’ve grown up with it. And I love— Nostradamus is a deep, ancient kind of epic from a true story and drama. I love doing this stuff. But as I was mentioning earlier, I just wanted to establish a new genre in science fiction, which was pulp science fiction. And I think maybe if we’d been a few years later, it would have been received differently. And as the experiment that we did, and just to show people. Like the first Star Wars, we had $4 million when we started it. I think the budget was only $6 at the end of it. It’s impossible. When you look at it, I wanted to do the same. That’s why I felt very bad for all the crews and the people who put so much into this. The lack of respect that went to that side of the movie, because when you watch it without prejudice, it’s got a lot going for it. And it’s got a lot of ideas in it. And those ideas all eventually come true, teleportation ideas, and the way that he did because L. Ron Hubbard had an eye into the future that was very unique.
And I think a lot of these things, as I said, it’s very true. And I see it as a kind of metaphor for the age. It’s a metaphor for the power of good and the power of evil and that the two sides of our psyche that they go hand in hand. There’s never one without the other. And the good will always triumph evil. And it’s always displayed in stories of the few people fighting the big, evil empire. Well, when you look at it, some friend of mine, a distributor, said, “Wow, with Battlefield, you did a kind of metaphor for America.” And it’s a metaphor for the world. So that was always important to me that and I just hope people will kind of see that as well.
In the back of the book in an interview that L. Ron Hubbard had with the Rocky Mountain News, he made the comment about the book:
“In Battlefield Earth, I present a situation where mankind has almost been wiped from the face of the Earth by advanced technology and is now imprisoned not so much by the aliens who dominate the planet but by superstition. Man has dwindled to the point where the few surviving tribes—hiding like frightened animals—have actually forgotten about the aliens and have taken to superstition instead.
“Thus they were first trapped by their own ideas.
“When the hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, decides to leave the mountain sanctuary of his dying tribe, he is first of all breaking free of superstition.
“Again, look at the story in E.T.
“It is also a story of superstition and fear and how it is overcome—by children.”
So he’s definitely pushing heavily on—it’s the youth. And there’s another point where he said, “The message is just this, whatever happens, you can win.” And that’s something too that really came very clear. It’s that you can learn the human spirit will ultimately overcome and beat out the evil.
This is what I was attracted to, in the book and in the movie, and I tried to portray that in the right way that this was a group of people, they’re good. People who have that and they triumph over evil. And that’s what every— The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell’s great book that we all now feed off. The whole world and filmmakers all feed off. It’s personified directly into Battlefield Earth. It comes straight from the guidance of Joseph Campbell gave on how the hero’s journey works and how the philosophy works globally. So I just hoped that was coming through to people to see it.
I think the only redemption I found was when John Flynn, the reporter, wrote to Roger Ebert and said, would you please reevaluate this film because it’s actually got a lot of interesting things within it. And he wrote back an email to him and said, I have, and you’re right. It actually has. It’s a very interesting movie. And John lost that email. I said, this is one of the most important emails to me on the planet, but he cannot find it. I tried. I bugged him and bugged him for years. He doesn’t know where it went.
But you know all of these things are in there. They’re there. And very important to all of us. We’re all going through these COVID times. Who would have thought? We’re all being decimated. People are dying. We’re weak as human beings, but if fought back, this is what happens.
Did Quentin Tarantino make any comment to you on the movie?
Well, John, as a thank you to me when we finished the tour, he said, “Oh, I’m putting you on the plane back to Los Angeles. And by the way, Quentin’s with you.” So I met Quentin. Quentin went on and on about The Sender. He was acting scenes out for me; he loved this movie so much. And we talked about Battlefield. And he actually said, “Actually, Battlefield is the kind of movie I really want to make.” That came from him. So yeah, he really got it. But he understood the pulp science fiction aspects, and he understands what’s under the surface that we’re trying to portray all of the time. And I’m just sad that the film was never given the opportunity and the chance for all of that to be seen for what it is.
The Blu-ray came out a few months ago, and it wouldn’t have been released had it not been something that someone is going to make some money with.
Yeah, I guess so. And you know that this is the other thing that I’ve been accused of, that it’s a disaster. It’s not. And Elie Samaha, who financed the whole thing—I went to meet him a few years back, and he said, “Roger, the only two movies I’ve made a lot of money with are Whole Nine Yards and Battlefield Earth.” And that last check with all the sales and global sales, it was over $150 million revenues had come in.
And this should be lauded and appreciated, but it’s just gone into this internet repeating negatives, which is who human beings kind of flock to. But you know, that’s something underneath the film that you need to go against that. You need to win against that. You need to go to the positive, all of us do. You have to find that way.
And so, by now, we out-gross Gladiator on DVDs in the UK by far. Warner Brothers estimated they would sell 200,000 DVDs on the first release in the first six months. They sold 600,000 in three months. So it was never a financial failure. When you make a film for $44 million, and it’s grossing $150 million, it’s as profitable as Hollywood big movies.
I wanted this interview so we could just give the facts and figures on this stuff here. And I wanted it from the Director. So you can just say, “Look, here’s the story. Just listen to me. And this is what I have to say. I have a story to tell you.”
And it’s the truth. You know, I only deal in the truth. As a director, I have to, you know, there are no lies, and this is fact.
Other articles and resources that may be of interest:
Dune and Battlefield Earth—Science Fantasy & Sci-Fi Worldbuilding
Battlefield Earth Universe and Compendium
… scrap the original movie and start anew. Johnny Tyler was flying space shuttles that flew on their own power using Psychlo technology. The Psychlo mother ship was destroyed by the Scottish and it fell to Earth landing at the edge of a lake. Read the book and make a damned movie. Johnny was alone at the beginning when he ate the rat (raw not cooked) because he couldn’t find a rabbit, and he new Terl would be looking for him … and on and on …