Interview: Roger Christian Talks ALIEN, STAR WARS, THE SENDER and being a ‘Cinema Alchemist’

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SHOCK talks to visionary movie mythmaker Roger Christian.

Roger Christian is cinema royalty. Here is a man who has done and seen it all and has marked his artistic imprint on dozens of important Hollywood films. Christian has run the gamut of positions from production designer to assistant director, right up to taking the director’s chair for his own films (see THE SENDER for some of his best work). The multi-hyphenate has worked on Ridley Scott’s ALIEN and MONTY PYTHON’S THE LIFE OF BRIAN and has even won an Academy Award for his substantial production design work on STAR WARS.

Now, via Titan Books, Roger Christian has released an incredible new book entitled Cinema Alchemist, which is an extensive, elaborate, personal reflection of his vibrant professional history. Titan just launched the eBook version on April 19th, with a hardback edition slotted for July 26th this year.

SHOCK excitedly touched base with Roger Christian to discuss the book.

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SHOCK: This is an extensive and personal collection of anecdotes, a truly insightful glimpse into the Hollywood machine; how did Cinema Alchemist come to fruition?

ROGER CHRISTIAN: David West Reynolds, the head of Lucasfilms’ literature department before Jon Rinzler, hounded me for years to tell my story. As set decorator he maintained I was the only one who was right at the heart of the making of Star Wars from the very beginning with George before the film began pre-production, and he knew my interviews from the time had been lost.  John Barry the designer died from meningitis working on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

SHOCK: Has this experience been cleansing for you?

CHRISTIAN: It’s been an amazing celebration of just how we pulled off the impossible and an examination of my life that enabled me to clearly think outside the box and be able to invent new ways to make science fiction cinema look real, for the first time in cinema. This applies to ALIEN as well. Also examining where the story for BLACK ANGEL originated was an incredible exploration into my own creative processes and an exploration of comprehending the power of myth. STAR WARS and BLACK ANGEL are linked at the core as classic retellings of the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell.

SHOCK: Do you feel privileged to have your fingerprints all over important films like STAR WARS, RETURN OF THE JEDI, ALIEN and your own gem, THE SENDER?

CHRISTIAN: Yes. To be part of the STAR WARS universe and legacy, it is an honor and it fits into my strong belief in myth and legend being very important to us as human beings; especially the young growing up. It’s missing from our worlds now, and George has brought back the power of myth to a global audience of the young. Contained in the STAR WARS stories are keys to help us understand our place in the universe. I was privileged to be asked by George to work as 2nd Unit Director on RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE PHANTOM MENACE was a gift of trust by George in helping to make these enduring classics.

When I found out that THE SENDER was on Quentin Tarantino’s favorite film of 1982 and what he personally did to support the film and that it has become a cult classic…that was a vindication to me of the tough time making it.

SHOCK: Are there any juicy tidbits from the book you can share with us now?

CHRISTIAN: Luke’s light-saber I made from an old Graflex press camera flash handle from the 40s with T-strip cut for the handle and a strip of bubble strip from an old calculator, all held together with superglue. I made a few for the film by hand, including the one that Obi Wan Kenobi presents to Luke as his father’s weapon for about nine pounds each — that was around twelve dollars.  Gary Kurtz kept my two of originals and sold one for two hundred and sixty thousand dollars a few years back!

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SHOCK: Who is Cinema Alchemist geared towards?

CHRISTIAN: Jon Rinzler describes the book as a kind of masterclass in creative film making, struggling against a lack of sufficient budget and pioneering both science fiction and the techniques to pull off the real worlds envisioned by George Lucas and Ridley Scott. The book is particularly interesting to all Star Wars and Alien fans and to anyone interesting in how films were made in the 70’s and early 80’s before CGI. J.J. Abrams has returned to the techniques in making STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, as it helps audiences connect to the truth of a story.

Also so many fans have inquired over the years about the origins of the props and robots and sets in A NEW HOPE and many claims were made over the years by people claiming to be the inventors of various props and weapons to make money. So I felt the time was right to put down the truth. I was right at the heart of making the first STAR WARS from the very humble beginnings in a tiny studio in London working with George and designer John Barry for four months before we even started the film to the amazing struggle to bring of an epic on a truly shoestring budget. The same applies to ALIEN, working with Ridley and exploring how to make the Nostromo feel one hundred percent real.

BLACK ANGEL was a Kurosawa inspired epic, filmed for twenty five thousand pounds, commissioned by George Lucas to release with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I describe in detail how to make an epic for such a low cost and it’s amazing how the internet exploded since the negative was found, the film was restored and shown again at Mill Valley Film Festival and Glasgow Film Festival; this lead to me filming the feature of Black Angel, as I had always wanted to make.

SHOCK: Your hardback edition is slotted for release July 26th, and the eBook came out April 19, 2016; why did Titan Books choose go in this direction?

CHRISTIAN: Originally we were supposed to release right before THE FORCE AWAKENS, but there was so much being released in the way of literature and so much press, it was felt the book might get lost. As so much of THE FORCE AWAKENS relates back to A NEW HOPE, especially the light-saber that I made by hand playing such an important role, it was felt we should soft release the eBook with a fully promoted release in July.

Be sure to visit Titan Books for more info.