When did I interview Harley Cokeliss? I don't have a record but it must have been towards the end of my time on SFX in early 1998. At the time, Harley was developing a slate of films adapted from 2000AD strips. Although none of these projects came to fruition, this is still a fascinating look into what might have been. Of course, I also wanted to talk about Glitterball, The Empire Strikes Back and other cool stuff too.
"Amongst other things. I’ll give you some information, but it has to be cleared for press release. It’s just the clearance from upstairs, because once we did a press release in Variety and the people in Copenhagen got terribly upset. So we have to go through internal announcement before it goes to worldwide announcement."
Who are the people in Copenhagen?
"Egmont Foundation owns Fleetway. It’s now called Egmont Fleetway. One of the largest magazine and comics publishers in the world - hugely successful in Germany - with a focus on children’s books, magazines and comics. The Foundation has a very educationally solid orientation, which is why Fleetway and the magazines are a little bit the black sheep of the family. They don’t really know how to pigeonhole us, but what they see now is that the magazine line is quite an interesting line. If you talk to Steve Macmahon or David Bishop, they’ll tell you that these magazines are not about superheroes. They’re really about ordinary people in extraordinary situations."
You’re in charge of licensing properties that Fleetway own?
I wouldn’t say I was in charge. Ileen Maisel and myself and Duncan [xxxxx?] are engaged as consultants, and togther we created Fleetway Film and Television with a view that FFTV would be there to protect the integrity of what they refer to as the intellectual copyright. I can’t remember if it’s intellectual property or copyright. I think it’s intellectual property. I think they’re concerned that the integrity of the characters are preserved. Because I think they felt that maybe the character wasn’t kept as much as he could have been."
"That’s an interesting question about the colour. You know I developed this about five or six years ago with Joel Silver and Rita Henson at Warner Brothers."
How far did that get?
"Three drafts of a script. They were a little bit concerned about the scale of the script, even though they told the writer: ‘Don’t feel inhibited by budgets. Just write your vision.’ That involved long discussion with Rob Bottin who is the wonderful special effects make-up supervisor. Rob and I had long discussions about why blue is a difficult colour, and how grey is much better colour."
Difficult for blue-screen work.
"Well, there’s that. That is true. But what he was refering to was what he called ‘the mantle of the eye’ and the inside of the mouth. Because the inside of your eye is red, so that makes a very strong contrast between the blue and the red. The inside of your mouth is pink, and the inside of your nose and the inside of your ear. And all these point up the fact that it’s make-up. So he was saying steer away from blue, go more in the direction of grey. We were going to give him a kind of skin texture, because we felt that one of the things that the genetic engineers would do would be to give him a skin that was more resistant to scratches and cuts and abrasions and bullets.
"I’ve just seen Saving Private Ryan, which was a very salutary experience I must say because when we considered how to do Rogue, we always envisioned it as a kind of World War One movie. Certainly like the newsreels that we saw: handheld. That kind of modus operandi was very much in our mind, and Steven got there and did it and did an astonishing job. It’s truly remarkable. I think it’s a remarkable piece of work. But Rogue is going to be a very interesting project. When you look at how long it’s been running, which is nearly 20 years now, we have a great number of stories. There’s always the discussion: ‘Are you going to go for the origin story?’ Which is quite logical. But we have so many extraordinary characters, that it’s really going to be a question of: ‘How do we do the best story and which are the strongest characters?’ Like Venus Bluegenes has an enormous number of fans and I think it would be foolish to ignore her presence."
"I think Levi’s would have a thing to say about that. But I’m a big fan of the chips. A lot of the time when I was developing this in California with Lee Drysdale as the writer, Dave Gibbons was writing his version. Because Dave of course as the creator visually was taking a shot at doing another version that Will Simpson drew but Dave wrote. And we would meet and we’d exchange ideas and talk about the way that I saw the character and the way that Dave saw the character. And Dave decided to go without the chips in war machine, whereas we love the chips. And I’m very sure that in the next development of Rogue, we’re going to be very true to the character - and the chips are back."
It would be a good way to get some big name stars in the film.
"Exactly. that’s what we intend on doing. Of course, in the intervening years since the original development at Warner Brothers, special effects technology has proceded at a pace. There’s some young men and women coming out of the computer animation schools in LA - some even self-taught - and they’re doing remarkable work on home-based machines. You don’t have to spend 35-40 million dollars on a Silicon Graphics machine anymore. So it’s becoming more affordable. My whole orientation with CGI is about making CGI invisible. In other words, if you use CGI, say in the way that they used it in Braveheart, where you have the pikes and the horses nowhere near each other, but when the horses charge and get tangled up in the pikes, you know.
"But before we plunge specifically into Rogue Trooper, perhaps I can wet your appetite and wet the fans’ appetite by telling you what’s happening, what we’re on the verge of announcing. I think a lot of this will be announced in October at MIPCOM, which is the television marketplace. By the time you get ready to go to press with this, we shall have finalised a very protracted negotiation, I must admit, with Showtime Television to make two two-hour movie/television pilots for two of the Fleetway pilots: Strontium Dog and Outlaw."
Remind me of Outlaw.
"In the future, on another planet, the fastest, most skilful user of a particular weapons system has retired but the Powers That Be won’t leave him alone. They bring him out of retirement and when he refuses, they kidnap his daughter to force him to work for them. Because he’s the best. And they want to win because the winner of the conflict obviously makes more sales."
Who created that?
"I don’t know. I was talking to Steve McManus yesterday about this because the character basically had one story. It just ran for one series. I’d say Dan Abnett because Dan writes everything. We’re huge fans of Dan’s. We think that the new storyline that Dan has come up with for Sinister Dexter is absolutely terrific, and we think it has definite movie potential."
"Strontium Dog? Well, guess what, guys? Johnny Alpha returns."
And Wulf Sternhammer?
"Well… I think anywhere Johnny goes, Wulf’s going to be around. But I can’t really say for sure which way the studio’s going to jump."
So as TV movies, these could spin off into series?
"I think they like to call them cable movies. Because they aren’t on broadcast television, they’re on cable television. And I think they’ll be getting some theatrical release in certain territories, depending on how they turn out. They’ve hired John Shirley, who I’m a big fan of: one of the cyberpunk writers who I think has worked with Bill Gibson. And for the writer on Outlaw - I think they’re negotiating with Lloyd Fonvielle, a very interesting LA-based writer who just finished writing Have Gun, Will Travel, the movie version of that, so we thought ‘Brilliant idea: let’s have him do Outlaw. Which is a western a bit like Winchester 73.’ Remember Winchester 73? It’s about a shooting contest. And there’s also The Quick and the Dead which is also about a shooting contest. It’s also a bit reminiscent of a picture that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a hunter in, Commando, where he’s a retired guy and the government want to press him back into service, and find ways of getting him to capitulate."
What sort of budgets are we looking at?
"Well, no-one’s set any budgets, but I think the budgets are going to be modest by movie standards. But I can’t really tell you because the scripts haven’t been written so the budgets can’t be made. But I don’t think they’ll be 78p or a hundred million dollar movies. They’ll be several million pounds, but where on that scale, nobody knows until the script’s written. But the thing is, I think they’re looking to spin off and once you establish basic sets - like the sets on Star Trek: Voyager - you’ve built your sets. You don’t have to keep building them for every show. So those costs, which might be considerable, are averaged over the life of a series. I think those final cost equations will enter into the budget process when they know what they have. And as you know, Spice Factory has been in negotiation with Egmont over Rogue and also Bad Company. I think the intention with Bad Company is that the writer and creator of the series, Pete Milligan, would write the script."
"Pete is a very much in demand young British screenwriter, who’s written for about half a dozen companies: Paramount, British Screen, Handmade, Pathe. He’s a friend of mine; we collaborated on a couple of scripts. One is kind of a hallucinatory crime story, Pilgrim. We’re hoping to put it into production very soon. In fact there might be an announcement within a month or so. We’re out of Development Hell and in the zone of Casting Hell. Because they don’t greenlight movies until there’s someone to play the parts."
Who has final say-so on things like what colour to paint Rogue?
"Well, I speak as someone who was at the table in California a long time ago, when at the time I jointly held the rights to Judge Dredd with Charlies Lippincott. He and I did not pursue business very long, and he went off with the rights. But I remember that discussion - ‘Will he take his helmet off?’ - going on and on and on. The thing is that Egmont has been very fair to the creators and given the creators first shot at creating a treatment or series bible. Then at the point when a major studio or network or production company gets involved and starts spending serious amounts of money, no-one is going to do that without having a certain degree of creative freedom.
"You see, that’s where FFTV comes in, in terms of our brief of protecting the integrity of the character without, I think, becoming obsessive. There is a logic you have to apply. One of the problems is that you get fabulous artists drawing extraordinary images of characters and situations and even costuming them, but when you come to the practical matter of designing costumes that somebody actually has to wear, move around, be able to lift their leg, then a whole different set of parameters comes into play."
It’s like the problems with the Vampirella costume.
"Well, I’m a big fan of Durham Red."
"Let’s just say that she’s in the Strontium Dog universe. I think Durham and Johnny are terrific partners, but whether she’s going to be in the movie I don’t know. Because John Shirley hasn’t officially started work. I think John has been working, but this is all subject to contract. The contract’s on the verge of closing as we speak."
Do the writers have freedom to use all the established characters within each universe and/or to invent new ones?
"Oh, I should think so."
So they could give Johnny a new sidekick if they wanted to?
"Absolutely, because I think what you’re talking about is a very different artform. When you look at a comic series, you see this medium: eight to ten pages in a weekly strip, going over six or eight weeks or whatever it takes to tell the story. It’s exactly like a serial or a part-work. But you know, if you do a serial in the sense that you keep bringing the character back week after week, you never bring your story closure. You keep it suspended, unresolved. Now, that’s fine for the TV series continuations that might be possible spin-offs, but the artform of movies demands bringing a story to closure. There has to be a climax, there has to be a denouement, you have to send the audience out having the feeling they’ve had a complete experience. You can’t jerk out the rug from under them at the last minute and say, ‘The story’s not over. You’ve got come back again.’
"But obviously when you get into a television series, a whole new set of script parameters then apply, where you have a situation in which you have what’s called the long story. Like in The Fugitive: is he going to find the guy with one arm? Then you have the specific episode story which you have to bring to closure. Look for example at the soap opera techniques that Steve Bochco refined with Hill Street Blues. Or LAPD Blue. Rolling stories: that’s much more similar to a comic, but in each story there has to be an element that comes to closure. Because otherwise the audience isn’t satisfied. I remember just recently I was really annoyed because I was watching this really terrific episode of Star Trek: Voyager. That show is remarkable. The writing on that show is truly excellent. The great American shows are great because of the quality of the writing. But anyway, I got to what I thought was going to be the end of the show, and it turns out that it was part one of a two-part thing. And the vagaries of satellite broadcasting was that the second part was going to be shown at a time and a day when I couldn’t see it. I was very cross because the story hadn’t resolved for me.
A lot of the 2000AD universes are interlinked. If somebody has the rights to ABC Warriors, do they also have the rights to Ro-Busters or Nemesis the Warlock as well?
"I think they would probably want to take the characters in that instance and try to avoid cross-examination, violating the rights of the creators, although I think they’re all Pat Mills stories. But I think all of this is possible. We’re at very, very early stages."
When will these start shooting, best case scenario?
"We’re hoping - and maybe this is wildly optimistic - but I’d like to think that we could get two of them into production in 1999. I know that John Shirley has done a lot of thinking about Strontium Dog, so he’d be ready to go into screenplay pretty quickly. I know that Michael Cowan has a particular writer in mind to do Rogue Trooper. I know they’re in discussions with Lloyd Fonvielle for Outlaw."
Spice Factory are talking of Michael Hurst to do Rogue.
"That’s right. But a lot of this is subject to contract."
Let’s move on. I was watching Glitterball last week.
"What? Where? How?"
I have the video from the '80s. Who were the Children’s Film Foundation?
"Well, they’re a very interesting organisation, which I think is mutating to stay alive in the changing media marketplace. They originally were the beneficiaries of some of the funds from the Eady Fund. The late, lamented, much missed Eady Fund, whereby there was a tax on cinema tickets, much as there still is in France. So people going to the cinema to see American movies were subsidising the indigenous film industry. I think it should come back, myself. When I made my two films - I did The Battle of Billy’s Pond and Glitterball - in the middle-to-late '70s, they still had the funding resources that they could make the films. And with the demise of the Eady Fund that was no longer possible.
"So what they’ve been doing recently is get involved in the development of projects. They were involved in the early development of the Borrowers television series. That’s what they do. The new Lottery Commission people regard them with some affection and I think the true nature of their relationship is yet to be defined. Because: what they do, nobody else does."
Was Glitterball made as a second feature, because it’s only an hour long?
"It’s about an hour. They made it and they showed it in cinemas as a Saturday morning picture, which still existed then. There were these cinema clubs where people would go and they’d watch the movies on Saturday mornings. So I don’t know whether you can call that a second feature; it was a Saturday morning picture kind of thing."
Nobody makes hour-long movies.
"No, not any more. Except, of course, television."
"We made the film, an hour-long 35mm movie, for £56,000. For my alien, I couldn’t afford soft, cuddly, fuzzy creatures with arms and legs moving around. I couldn’t afford even reptilian, semi-turtle-looking creatures. So we hit on the idea of a very simple - easy to animate - ball."
A ping pong ball?
"There were three different kinds of ball for three different kinds of motion. A ping pong ball, yes, which you can manipulate with an air-line. An off-camera air-line will blow a ping pong ball away quite quickly. Or a wooden ball, which bounces downstairs differently than a ping pong ball bounces. And a steel ball - we got a big ball bearing and sprayed it with paint - and that was the hero ball. We’d use it for a close-up or sometimes we’d do the stop-frame animation with it. Then there’s a guy who did the Wombles television show. Barry Leith was the animator on that and he animated the ball. The intergalactic stuff and some of the other big stuff was done by the crew of special effects people, lead by Brian Johnson, who were at the time working for Space: 1999.
"We went over and saw Gerry Anderson, and said, ‘You know, Gerry, we can’t afford to put together a special effects team but would it be possible for us to borrow your team and have them do some effects for us?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ He didn’t charge us a penny. He said, ‘Just deal with the crew and pay their overtime.’ I’ll always be very thankful to Gerry; he was very helpful and a true gentleman. So we had Brian Johnson, who then went on to do Star Wars and a bunch of other things, building the mother ship and the little ship with complicated folding hatches and stuff like that."
Where did you find your child actors?
"When you’re acting with children, you have to go through a process where you go to the acting schools and sometimes you find a lot of them are very highly trained so they come on in a more stage-bound fashion. Or you go to acting clubs like Anna Scher’s Children’s Theatre where you find the kids can be very relaxed on stage and give a very cinematic performance. Or school clubs. Ben Buckton, who is now a very successful violinist with a string quartet, we found in a school drama club that the casting director knew. And it turned out that he was the son of somebody that I knew at the BBC."
"Well, I went to the London International Film School and did a bunch of movies there, student exercises, some of which went to film festivals. Then right out of film school I begged, borrowed and cadged some cameras and some friends and we went to Chicago and made this documentary called Chicago Blues. I had Tak Fujimoto as one of my cameramen, who went on to shoot Silence of the Lambs and basically everything that Jonathan Demme makes. And Terry Bedford who became a very talented cameraman and went on to direct movies and television commercials. He’s back in television now. And we had a great time making this documentary that the BBC then bought. I then started directing at the BBC: both documentaries and some dramas."
What series were you working on?
"Horizon. Omnibus. Review - which prefigured Arena - with the late James Mossman. Arena, when Alan Yentob was the producer there. A bunch of shows like that, and I did a kind of drama up in Yorkshire. Then I had this idea and wrote a script and got it to the Children’s Film Foundation. They liked it, and that was The Battle of Billy’s Pond, the first one, which I went off and made. Then I came up with the idea of Glitterball the following year and we made that."
A lot of people have commented on Glitterball’s similarities with ET.
"That was five years later. Inbetween the two times, I had worked as second unit director on Empire Strikes Back, and I showed George some of my films. I showed him the science fiction documentary I made for Omnibus called It’s Fantastic! It’s Fatalistic! It’s Futuristic! It’s Science Fiction! I loved that film because I got a chance to meet a bunch of really wonderful and exciting science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Damon Knight, Ray Bradbury, people like that. And I showed him The Glitterball, which George liked. And then when I saw ET I kind of recognised certain jokes. When you do a film with the Children’s Film Foundation, you sign all your rights away, so there was no way I was ever going to benefit or anything. But I think the Foundation had a copyright attorney look into it.
"You know, whether Steve saw it before, I have no idea. But I guess the potential jokes and gags and situations that you think of when an alien comes to visit and maybe hangs out in a garden shed, then goes rummaging around in a refrigerator - the certain kinds of jokes that you can do there are finite. So, much later, when Spielberg was in London doing Raiders, we had a mutual friend in the producer Robert Watts, who I had met on Empire Strikes Back, and I gave Robert a copy of The Glitterball to give to Steve. Steven - I call him Steve; I’ve never met the guy - looked at it and sent me a very nice note saying that he liked it and ‘admired my economy … the narrative compression’ that we were actually able to get through the story in an hour."
As second unit director on Empire, which scenes did you direct?
"Well, Peter McDonald did the snow scenes in Norway, and I came on board once they got back to Elstree through the tragic death of a wonderful guy called John Barry who was the production designer on the first film. I knew John through mutual friends like Tony Craft[?] and I was as shocked as anybody when John died so quickly. He got a form of meningitis which killed him very quickly, like within a day. So the crew is shattered and I happened to be in Elstree looking through publicity photographs for a movie that I did called They’re Coming[?]. And I went to the set to visit my friends. Chris Menges who had shot Battletruck for me in New Zealand, as well as a documentary. He did an extraordinary job shooting Chicago Street for me for ATV. Amazing film: Chris is an extraordinary cinematographer and a truly gifted operator. And David Garfath and Madelyn Most: a lot of the camera crew were friends of mine.
"So I went to say hello and they were extremely downcast, and when they told me I too was upset because I’d known John and he was a real gentleman. They said, ‘Oh, what are we going to do? We have so much work and we don’t know which director we’re going to get?’ And I said, ‘Listen, if I can be of any help, let me know.’ So I got a phone call from Robert Watts and I came down to the studio the next day again to meet Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner, and I started the next day and did it for four months. I thought it would be a four-week job and it turned out to be a four-month job. I got the nicest compliment from George Lucas who said to me: ‘Harley, your unit’s not the Second Unit, it’s the Other Unit.’
"They were shooting so much stuff because there were just so many sets to get through on that movie. What would happen is that Kershner would come onto a set, stage a scene, block it, shoot the key angles, get the performances he wanted, then he would have to leave that set to move onto another set. Which left me with all the actors shooting side angles, anything with a window that had to have a blue screen, back angles through a window, anything that had a special effect. There was a sword fight that had to have squibs. If you remember the famous sword fight between Luke and Darth Vader, my unit did most of that because of the time it took. Every time the lightsabres touched the railings and there was a discharge of sparks, those squibs - as they’re called - had to be individually set. So for take two, you had to wait while they reset the squibs and rebuilt the set if anything had broken. So it was a very time-consuming process, so it fell to our unit to do all the shots that were time-consuming, difficult, involving stuntmen.
"Like a lot of the acrobatics of Luke when he was fighting Darth in the carbon-freezing chamber, the orange, glowing set. Those were particular stuntmen: sometimes they were wired, sometimes they weren’t wired, sometimes they used trampolines. So there was a lot of time-comsuming set-up time, becuse when you’re working on stunts and special effects, the last thing you want is for anyone to get hurt. You take the time it takes to get it so it’s safe. Likewise with the blue screen shots. There were days when we had about thirty brutes, the old-fashioned carbon arc lights, burning to try to get the correct exposure to get the perfect blue screen. Because George wasn’t interested in doing any substandard work. It had to be perfect. We had to take the time to do it perfectly. It was a great experience."
Were you working with the principal actors?
"Oh absolutely. Everybody. Obviously when you do a side angle, it’s still got to be Harrison’s profile, it’s still got to be Chewbacca or Tony Daniels, who I bumped into on the street a couple of days ago. He was doing some looping on the new movie."
Why didn’t you work on Jedi?
"I was in New Zealand. I can’t remember exactly the timescale of where I was but I actually had to leave about three or four weeks before the second unit actually wrapped. I talked to George and he basically said, ‘Fine’, because I had the opportunity to direct Battletruck in New Zealand. So I went down to New Zealand to do that and it took the better part of a year. I visited the sets of Jedi out in Arizona. Harrison filled me in on his experiences on Blade Runner and things like that."
Was that when it was still being disguised as Blue Harvest?
"I don’t remember, but it could have been. It was a great team of people and I’ve stayed in touch with Gary Kurtz ever since. Any Star Wars fan would be insanely jealous of the R2D2 cookie jars which the crew were… well, not given, but there was a limited run of these cookie jars in the shape of R2D2. Everyone on the crew signed up for them. I didn’t keep any bits of the set."
Were your bits updated for the Special Edition?
"The Special Edition of Empire? Nothing struck me as being majorly redone because I think the big changes were done in the first film, where they had a chance to redo a lot of the early effects on the first Star Wars and they replaced Jabba the Hutt. Most of the changes are in that one. The clean-ups and the wrap-ups in the subsequent films; I think by then the technology was pretty damn good. So there was a bit of reworking but fundamentally the shots were the shots."
Battletruck was part of the post-Mad Max 2 genre of the early ‘80s.
"Well, there was a certain zeitgeist and it was pretty funny because the film won the jury prize at the Avoriaz Festival when it was still a science fiction festival. George Miller was the chairman of the jury. So George and I sat down once and I said, ‘I haven’t read your script but we set our script in Australia because… blah blah blah.’ And we basically agreed that certain ideas were just in the air at the time. He was very complimentary about the film. What’s extraordinary is it’s not a post-apocalyptic story, it’s a post-economic collapse story. The film opens with the oil fields of Mesopotamia burning and the world economy which was so dependent on oil goes backwards.
"Well Mesopotamia is the area that is now called either Iraq or Kuwait. So when we’re talking about the oil fields of Mesopotamia burning, we’re talking about Kuwait burning, and of course we had all those extraordinary images from the Gulf War. I actually called up Roger Corman who distributed the film in America and I said, ‘Roger, you really ought to re-release this movie.’ Because it’s all about how society regresses to kind of western times in a world that is suddenly without oil.
"After that, it was back to England to do Dream Demon. I got a phone call the other day from a horror writer by the name of Nick Royle. ‘Funny you should call,’ he said, ‘because we were just watching Dream Demon the other night.’ He had some friends round and he just wanted to show them the opening sequence. He just wanted to see their reaction to the big surprise in the opening sequence. After Dream Demon I went back to California and worked on the development of the Rogue Trooper movie. That was three years, just working on that, going back and forth, because we really thought that it was going to take off. It was a big commitment of time and resources, and in the end, when you’re dealing with a major studio and a major producer who might have 50 or 100 things in development, it was not high priority for them. Which was a great pity.
"Then what happened is I got a phone call from Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert, who I had met originally at the Sitges Festival through the people at Palace who were releasing Evil Dead. And Sam and Rob asked me whether I’d like to go back to New Zealand and do the pilot for the Hercules series, a two-hour movie called Hercules and the Lost Kingdom. They did four two-hour movies in New Zealand. This was the pilot script but Bill Norton shot the second script first because there was still some script development work they wanted to do on the pilot episode. Amazon Women was shot first and I think goes out first sometimes, even though there’s a bit more of the origin story in the pilot episode. So whether the pilot’s the pilot because it was written as the pilot, or is not the pilot because it wasn’t shot first: other people can split those hairs, but it was written as such. Then I did a couple of episodes of the first season and I did an episode of the first season of Xena.
"I think Sam and Rob had a great concept. They wanted to do the characters from Greek myths in a way that Sam refered to as ‘non-toga’. This was going to be a non-toga version. They didn't want to get trapped in any of those Charlie Schneer movies where the Greek gods are presented on Mount Olympus with olive leaves or laurel leaves or whatever they put on their heads. So they went for this slightly fantastic, imagined, primitive world where anything could happen. And of course they looked at various places for locations and New Zealand was perfect becuse it has an extraordinary, other-worldly quality about the landscape. And there aren’t pylons and roads everywhere; it’s still very much an unspoilt country.
"And of course Sam and Rob are huge fans of Hong Kong martial arts movies, so they’ve really done an incredible, in-depth study of some of those sequences and analysed the way that some of those techniques can be applied to episodic television. As you may or may not know, some of those Hong Kong-style movies take a very long time to shoot, because of the time it takes to do stunts safely and carefully and effectively. A lot of it is wirework which is very time-consuming work. So this is kind of a stylisation of the Hong Kong-style fights which became the imprint or the stylistic signature of the show, that kind of fantastical action."
Was it planned as TV movies which would lead to a series?
"They had the commission from the network and from the studio, Universal Pictures, to do four two-hour films as part of something called the Action Wheel. That was basically the studio testing about half a dozen ideas for long-running series. Each of those potential series got this budget to make a number of movies, some of which came off and some of which didn’t. But the one that clearly was the star of the show was the Hercules films which then got commissioned very quickly to go to series. Then, when they came up ith the idea for Xena, they didn’t even go to pilot; they just said yes right away. It’s created a new genre, there’s no question of that."
Have you done any recently?
"No, I had to move back from New Zealand but I’ll be going back there soon to do a new series that I’m involved in, which is called Ivanhoe, The Dark Knight. It’s a kind of sword and sorcery X-Files in which we take the characters from the Ivanhoe book - Ivanhoe caught between the love of two women and fighting Prince John and trying to raise the ransom for King Richard - and also introducing some really wonderful other characters of our own creations. Such as Friar Bacon - Roger Bacon - who as you know was an early alchemist. He actually lived fifty years after the time when Walter Scott set Ivanhoe, so we just pulled Bacon back into that time zone. Bacon was an early alchemist who died during one of his experiments when his lab blew up, and accounts refer to him being ‘carried away by a red, winged demon’ - which could have happened! This is being developed by TVNZ, Television New Zealand, and a producer called Terry Marcel.
"A writing partner of mine, Mark Ezra, and I did the script at the end of last year. It’s being set up at the moment and we’re hoping actually to shoot the two-hour pilot before the end of the year. We haven’t cast the leads yet so we might have to push it back into the early part of 1999 but of course, as you know, the weather in New Zealand is upside-down. So we’re still in the summer, so we can come back in January and have the best weather of the year. We’re probably going to use the cameraman that both Terry Marcel and I worked with in Lithuania who does a remarkable job.
"We’re very excited about it because we think we have a new and original take on this material, because we’re not going down the Herc and Xena road. Too many people have chased after those shows to imitate them, and of course, why bother looking at an imitater when you can look at the original Herc and Xena shows because they do them so well? So Ivanhoe, The Dark Knight is a whole different take on that particular genre. We’re not doing Hong Kong-style fights. It will be much darker than Hercules and more sword and sorcery. Which I do think is coming back in a big way, with Peter Jackson, also shooting in New Zealand, getting the commission to do a three-part version of Lord of the Rings. It’s being financed through Miramax and New Line Cinema. He’s got $130 million to make three movies.
And that was?
"Heaven’s Gate. Heaven’s Gate spent the entire production budget of United Artists, and one of the films that got hit was Thongor in the Valley of Demons. It was a really neat script and we had some fabulous designs. Tony Pratt was production designer and did a great job. It was going to be terrific. So the idea of coming back to the genre of sword and sorcery after all those years will bring back that particular story to closure for me anyway."
I understand it’s fairly primitive out there in Lithuania shooting Robin Hood.
"Yes, it’s not a Hollywood studio. But the Lithuanians are lovely people and try really hard. And there’s a team of people who are being trained up by the production who are good at their jobs and their English gets better every year. The key thing is to make sure the scripts can be accomplished and I think that Fred Weintraub and Tom Kuhn are smart enough to know how to do that."
It always seemed to be the poor relation of the genre.
"I think what happened was they had a little bit of difficulty finding their particular niche, and what we’ve seen in England is they’re actually playing it as a daytime show - Saturday mornings, Channel 5 - and I think it’s probably doing fine there. I knew Fred from way back and he knew that I’d done Herc and Xena shows and he asked me to come out because they were setting it up. I did some of the early episodes and I had fun, I enjoyed being in Lithuania. But the shows are international co-productions so they were edited in France and for whatever reason the directors never went from Lithuania to France to edit the shows. So my shows were never put together in the way that I envisioned."
Lithuania is a strange place to shoot.
"I think when they began work there, it was an extraordinarily cost-effective production base. But what’s happened is: the longer they’ve stayed, the more it’s coming up to standard international or European rate. But it was just a studio facility that they could get a hold of; there was a very co-operative studio management and a whole base, in terms of electricians and grips and things like that. It was actually quite fun because the first season especially was a very international enterprise, because the special effects guys were from America, the stunt men were Russian, the script supervisor was French, the cameraman was Hungarian, the sound man was English - Harry Brooks - and the directors were both English and some American. But if you were an American director you had to have an English domicile, because they had to qualify as being a European production."
What was a film you did called The Ruby Ring?
"It was a very sweet movie. It was the Showtime Thanksgiving Special ‘97, and it was one of four movies that Hallmark made in Scotland at the end of ‘96, beginning of ‘97. It’s based on a book called The Ruby Ring by an Irish writer, and it’s a fantasy about a girl who makes a wish and unfortunately that wish comes true. Because she finds herself propelled back in time and living in a Scottish castle as a scullery maid. And she’s lost her ring which enables her to magic her way out of this time that she’s been trapped in. The head groom, played by Rutger Hauer, gets ahold of the ring, so the question is: how can she get it back? It was absolutely delightful.
"Working with Rutger was a treat, and there was the lovely Samantha Bond and Judy Parfitt and some young actors and actresses. Christian Anholt played the son of the family and Emily Hamilton played the girl, and her friend Emma Culloch. Wonderful young actors and I had an absolutely delightful time up in Scotland. We had a little bit of CGI special efects during the time transition scene, but they remained very modest. We didn’t go too crazy. But I’m very pleased with the way things worked out, and it had a good response in America over Thanksgiving, and kids seemed to like it, and when it’s going to show in this country I have no idea."
Was that the last thing you did?
"Since then there was the second season of Robin Hood, and then I’ve been doing The Professionals. There were some episodes shot in South Africa, some shot here and some shot in North Carolina. I did one here and one in North Carolina. These are high-energy, high-action, very slick shows. Working with Edward Woodward was a complete delight, and the two young lads are fun and the young Canadian lady that plays the third new agent is great. Her name is Lexa Doig and she’s a kind of Scottish Filipino, originally from Canada. The style is very hut-hut-hut: a lot of action, very fast, trying to be a hip show. I think some territories are showing this already, but my two shows aren’t even finished. They haven’t done the sound yet. I heard that they’re just picking the sound on now."
What stuff is in development?
"Any day now I might get the phone call to go to Canada and start pre-production on Pilgrim, which is the hallucinatory crime thriller written by Peter Milligan. Peter and I have been developing this one for a number of years, almost made it three times now, and we think this is a lucky time. It’s going to be a Canadian/UK co-production, we’re shooting it in British Columbia and probably do some of the post back here. Basically, the way to sum up this movie is if you imagine a Parker novel; I don’t know if you know the books of Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. He writes as Richard Stark when he writes things like... the Boorman movie Point Blank was based on a Richard Stark novel called The Hunter. It was one of the first Parker books; he’s written 16 of them. As you know, Bill Gibson just remade the first one, Payback. Well, imagine a Richard Stark novel on acid, and that’s basically what we’re trying with Pilgrim.
"I don’t know whether you’re familiar with Pete Milligan’s work as a comic writer. One of his most famous series, which he wrote for three years, was called Shade the Changing Man. That was always leaping back and forth in time and space and dimensional shifts. Pete does that really well and he’s given our character a particular kind of problem. He has to cope with it and figure his way out of the mental maze that he’s in. So we’re very excited about that. Pete and I have done a number of things together. Pilgrim was the first, and then we developed something for Ileen Maisel at Paramount when Ileen was running Paramount UK, which was kind of a take on Death Takes a Holiday, which in fact somebody has now remade. We had a go at it and it was an interesting script but somebody got there first.
"What I did was I spoke to the people at the Children’s Film Foundation and they were very complimentary and said that my two films, The Battle of Billy’s Pond and The Glitterball, were two of the best films that were ever made for the Foundation, and what did I want to do in this genre? I said I’d go away and think about it and come up with a book because I didn’t want to start from scratch. Both The Glitterball and Billy’s Pond were originals and it just takes so long with an original. So I went to Dillons, to the Young Persons section, and I saw this wall of books. It was like: how do you start? Over there in the left-hand corner and read your way across? So I did some research and found some people who really know the area well. There’s a BBC programme that deals with children’s books, and I actually did some research and went into the prize-winning young people’s books for the last ten years and that focused it down much more.
"Then I started doing some reading and the one guy whose work leapt out at me was Melvyn Burgess. Melvyn who just recently won the Guardian Prize for Junk, which I understand is going to be a television series, about young people getting addicted to heroin. He had done a book earlier that had been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. It’s called An Angel for May and that is another kind of time-shift story. But that’s not the important part; the important part is the relationship between two youngsters, two sub-teens, and the girl is autistic. It’s such as extraordinary book, such a moving book, and really I guess it’s about the power of love.
"There are certain technical problems: when you’re dealing with any kind of time-shift story like that, there are difficulties. You get into loops and paradoxes. So I gave it to Pete to read and he not only loved the book but had a way of fixing the problems. He’s good at these kind of metaphysical dilemmas. I suppose you could say that’s true of Pilgrim too: Jack Pilgrim has a metaphysical dilemma. So Pete is currently scripting. We’re expecting the first draft by the end of the month, and we’re very excited about getting it together.