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Exclusive Interview: Roger Christian Revisits The BLACK ANGEL

Exclusive Interview: Roger Christian Revisits The BLACK ANGEL

The Black Angel will ride again.

In 1980, Roger Christian, the art director for Star Wars and Alien, was given a chance to write and direct Black Angel, a short film commissioned by George Lucas himself for the sum of £25,000.

On that shoestring budget, Christian completed the 25 minute tale of Sir Maddox (Tony Vogel), a knight returning from the Crusades who discovers that his home has been touched by the darkness of an enigmatic knight known as the Black Angel. The Black Angel short then ran in front of The Empire Strikes Back in a few international territories.

For years, the Black Angel negative was missing and it was widely believed to be lost forever. The Black Angel negative resurfaced in 2011, and the short film was restored. Recently, Christian released the original Black Angel short on YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Christian has also announced that a feature-length version of Black Angel is underway, with an IndieGoGo campaign that has already passed $125,000 dollars in under 30 days.

Nerdist recently caught up with Christian to look back at the original Black Angel, and to get some insight into how the new Black Angel film came about.

Black Angel Poster
Nerdist: How long have you had the Black Angel story in mind?

Roger Christian: I grew up with Merlin and Arthur, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood…all of these [legends] had struck with me since childhood so I structured my film as something I wanted to do. And when I finished Star Wars, Alien, and then Life of Brian, I got a chance [to make the short film].

N: How were you able to revisit Black Angel after so many years?

RC: I tried to make this story for so many years. It’s my passion project. Finally, now I think that Lord of the Rings changed the arena for audiences, and now Game of Thrones has just set it on fire. So I’m riding a wave where I have a really great adventure story that has a whole history behind it and it seems like that’s now gone into the moment in time where it’s going to get made.

I had to go back and rewrite the whole story. I had to restructure it. I’ve taken the last four months off with a writer [whom I work with] to restructure treatments and boil down the story for now. [It is] all based on the same underpinnings that the short was, but quite different for the new age.

N: Regarding the short, what were some of the things that you had to cut out of the original Black Angel?

RC: All the drama of the story! I had nine crew, and I could afford four actors. And they gave me the short end of the film left over from The Empire Strikes Back that they hadn’t used.

I could do one shot sometimes and then move to another location. I kind of took the Tarkovsky way where I set the film on the subconscious because it was a myth. I hung it on enough moments that it could connect into a kind of mythic saga. I had no fight arrangers. I had to do what I could do with the two actors while I was literally running out of film.

So, a lot, actually! [Laughs] I cut a lot out. I could afford two horses, which I had to bring from London to Scotland and I kind of made it as best as I could and following my mentor, which was [Akira] Kurosawa by setting the drama in massive landscapes like he did. And Scotland gave me that, where I was able to show that beauty which had never been seen on cinema before. So I think that caught a lot of attention at the time

Black Angel 2
N: How was the original Black Angel short lost for so many years?

RC: Well, we were with Rank Laboratories. They were the big laboratory in London, so everybody who made a film, the negatives stayed in the laboratory. And they actually had World War II bunkers that had foot-thick concrete walls and they were a stable environment and they were safe.

There was a lot of buzz going on about [Black Angel], Wired magazine did a huge article on it, and I thought “I’d better see where the negatives are.” Then I found out that Rank had gone bankrupt in the ’90s and everything had gone missing. I went to the Fox archivist, and they couldn’t find anything. There were no prints left. There were 400 prints made at the time because it was bigger release, but they couldn’t find it.

The archivist at Skywalker Ranch tried for a year, and he couldn’t find it. So I thought “the universe is telling me that no one should ever see this film. They should all remember it as they remember it.” I was a bit worried about it being 34 years old and people seeing it.

N: How did the negative finally turn up?

RC: I had almost given up and the phone rang one day. The voice said “I’m Bob O’Neil,” and I’m at Universal Studios Archives.” He asked if I made a film called Black Angel. I told him that I had. He said “I’ve got your negative and some elements.” So you can imagine, my phone almost fell to the floor. He sent me a detailed description, and everything was there!

We can only surmise that when Rank went bankrupt, they were phoning all around the world saying “we’ve got all of these negatives, do you have room for them?” And Universal at that time, said that they did. This time, it was two years ago, and [Bob] had been given orders to find all of the owners of the negatives and make space by getting them out of there. So it was just an amazing journey that this film has had.

N: What did you do to restore the Black Angel negative?

RC: While I was thinking “what do I do?!,” another phone rang. The two people on the other line said “We’re David Tanaka and Brice Parker. You don’t know us, but we belong to a [film] restoration society up in Mill Valley.” One of them was with a company in San Francisco that had done some of the restoration work on Star Wars.

They said “We’ve been reading about your film, and it’s part in cinema history, we’re offering to restore it for you because it belongs back out now.” And they did! I shipped it up to them, and they were amazing! They spent the whole summer doing it, frame by frame, putting back as we shot it. I couldn’t believe that they got it back like that

Then Mill Valley had [Black Angel] as their closing film at their film festival. I watched it, and it seemed to go okay with the audience. I was really worried, but all of the young people really liked it.

Black Angel 3
N: How was the restoration of the film’s audio done?

RC: I went to Skywalker Sound, who are the best in the world, to me. We showed them the film, and they said “Look, we made a mistake. We learned our lesson doing all of the Star Wars movies. Don’t digitize the sound, we’ll put it into digital format. We’ll just widen out the music and clean it up. That’s all you need to do.” They did a beautiful job with the sound, and that’s how it was done!

N: How did all of this lead to the new Black Angel feature film?

RC: A man came to Mill Valley, and he’d seen the film when he was five years old. And he said he had a film festival in Glasgow, Scotland and they wanted it there. So, we took it on a tour, and the BBC Online did a huge article on it that got 500,000 hits in a week! It went viral on the internet, and we had millions and millions of hits.

I was in London, in a film company talking about another movie. I was in talking to them and their acquisitions head said “We want to do a fantasy with you!” We started talking, and when he realized I had a huge ending for Black Angel, he said “that’s it! We’re doing it!”

We’ve pursued it with them, I’ve got the script written and we’ve decided that the story is fairly unique, and because it’s got all of this history and this buzz about it, that we’ve canceled every other project. This is what we’re making this year.

N: Do you have a timetable to begin production?

RC: We’re going into production in October, November, and December. We want the winter light, We’re shooting in Hungary, and Belgium, where Sir Maddox, the main knight comes from. The Southlands, so we’re filming in the South of Morocco. I’ve very carefully structured it the same way that I made the original Black Angel.

We’re doing it in as many stunning locations as I can get. We also decided to go independent. We only have a $50 million dollar budget, which is very little for an epic, but it’s doable. And I’m going back to the way that the first Star Wars was made. It was so under budget that we scrambled to put every bit up on screen. The same with Alien.

I have to use a little CGI, but not much. And I think instead of going the way that The Hobbit went, with thousands of [soldiers] fighting, I’m keeping it one-on-one, these are down and dirty battles, very much inspired by Kurosawa’s Lone Samurai. I’m trying to stay within a traditional structure that for me, that works.

Black Angel Poster 2
N: Tell us how fans can participate in your indiegogo campaign for Black Angel.

RC: The London film company said that they wanted to do it this way, because it helps with the budget. I know it’s not much, but each contribution gives me another undead army, another sense of the drama, another extra, all of those things. It’s also important to connect with fans when you’re on an independent movie so that’s why we’re doing it.

And there are really good things that we’re offering. There will be the usual stuff, scripts, DVDs, premieres and all of that. But we’re also offering props from the amazing art that I’ve already got already painted by illustrators. They look beautiful. That will be building up as we go.

N: You’re also offering some mentorships on IndieGoGo. Tell us about those.

RC: I didn’t know anyone in the film industry. I was ordered by my father to be a doctor, a priest or an architect. I [wanted to go] into the film industry and I was so broke, I hitched a ride. And the guy who picked me up, it led to a job in the film industry. I’ve always believed in giving back, so we’re offering some mentoring programs, and already a few have been picked up.

If you’re determined, all you need sometimes is one contact. There’s thousands of people everywhere who have no idea. And I get so many comments from the people on IndieGoGo saying “we’re happy to support this,” “this is the film that we want.” So, we’re reaching out to fans and we’ll give back really interesting perks and it’s a connection. I think that’s really valuable.

To contribute to the Black Angel IndieGoGo campaign, click here!

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