Roger Christian’s long-lost directorial debut has resurfaced and is flying high, says Alistair Harkness
IF YOU saw The Empire Strikes Back on its first cinematic release in the UK in 1980, you may have vague recollections of seeing a strange sword and sorcery-themed short film running before it. Entitled Black Angel, the 25-minute film marked the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Star Wars set designer Roger Christian and played exclusively with the Star Wars sequel across Britain, Scandinavia and Australia. But the film, which was made with the support of George Lucas, became a legend in its own right when it subsequently disappeared – never receiving a video or DVD release or playing in cinemas again… until now.
Having recently been uncovered in the vaults of a Hollywood studio, the thought-to-be-lost curio has been fully restored and is receiving its first British screening in nearly 34 years later this week at the Glasgow Film Festival – an appropriate homecoming given Christian shot the film entirely in Scotland.
“I wanted that romantic look and those dramatic landscapes,” recalls the director over the phone from his home in Toronto. “Eilean Donan Castle was my anchor. I’d never seen that on film. And the skies in Scotland are just the most dramatic I’ve ever seen anywhere.”
Shooting the film in cinemascope in just seven days during the winter of 1979, Christian fondly recalls driving his 11-strong crew in an old campervan around the rain-lashed locations. But he’s realised recently that there might have been a more subconscious connection to Scotland. Revolving around a knight confronting death in a plague-ravaged mystical realm, the story of Black Angel stems from a bout of paratyphoid Christian contracted while on a location shoot in Northern Mexico.
“I was on the point of death, lying in this sanatorium and weirdly enough, on the wall was a picture of Scotland. And it was only when I was starting to analyse all this that I realised it all comes from that point.”
The film itself emerged in a very serendipitous way. After helping revolutionise the look of science fiction with his props and set design work on Star Wars and Alien, Christian had gone back to film school to learn to be a director. Writing the myth-heavy script for Black Angel, he knew he couldn’t afford to do it on a film school budget, but while visiting Ridley Scott during post-production on Alien, he found himself chatting to the European head of 20th Century Fox.
“He asked what I was up to and I told him I’d written this short film. He asked me to fax it over and then he rang me and said: ‘This is perfect: George Lucas was really upset with us in London because he felt the short we booked with Star Wars alienated the audience and he’s instructed that a short film be made to go out with Empire Strikes Back.”
After Lucas, pictured below, read Christian’s script, he told Fox to let him go off and make the film any way he wanted. “That’s the way George is,” says Christian. “It was an extraordinary act of faith on his part, so off I went to Scotland with bits of film left over from The Empire Strikes Back shoot.”
The finished film found an appreciative audience among Star Wars fans, Lucas himself and other filmmakers (John Boorman used it as a benchmark for Excalibur). But that didn’t stop it dropping out of circulation soon after. The negative disappeared when the film processing lab Rank went bust, Christian’s own copy was accidentally thrown out after a commercials company he worked for went bankrupt, and Lucas’s copy remains lost somewhere amid the vast LucasFilm archives.
It wasn’t until Christmas 2012 that Christian realised he might one day see the film again when an archivist at Universal Studios rang him up and told him he thought he’d found the negative. “It was the best Christmas present I’ve ever had.”
Though initially dubious about letting it out into the world (“I was thinking it’s maybe better to leave it almost as an enigma”), Christian has come round to the idea that Black Angel still works. The restored film received a rapturous reception when it made its American debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival last year and after taking it on a mini-tour of Scotland this week (after Glasgow it will play in Dundee, Inverness and Edinburgh), plans are afoot to release it again, possibly in cinemas with the next reissue of The Empire Strikes Back (“I went to see George about it”), and almost certainly on DVD and download at some point in the future.
“I have to do that,” says Christian, who’s also publishing a book about the making of Black Angel, Star Wars and Alien that will, he promises, answer every unanswered question about how Star Wars was made – just in time for JJ Abrams’ new Star Wars film next year. “Black Angel has got more press for me than anything I’ve ever done; it’s got a lot of positive energy to it.” • Black Angel (with Roger Christian Q&A) will screen at Glasgow Film Festival on 27 February; Dundee Contemporary Arts, 28 February; Eden Court, Inverness, 1 March; The Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 2 March