Last week, Roger Christian talked to me about his short film Black Angel, which supported The Empire Strikes Back during its initial theatrical release in 1980. In the concluding part of this article, he looks back at his experiences as set decorator on Star Wars, and art director on Alien.
Roger Christian’s Star Wars odyssey began while he was working with production designer John Barry in Mexico on Lucky Lady, building rum-running sets based in 1930s America. “George arrived on one of the sets I was dressing – an old salt factory – and we talked about Star Wars. I told him I’d always imagined that spaceships would be oily, like they were always in and out of the garage being repaired. And George said, ‘That’s exactly what I want. I don’t want anything designed specifically. I want it all to look natural and real.’ So I was on Star Wars right from the very start, and George always says I was one of the only five people who stood by his side throughout.”
One of Christian’s first tasks, together with art director Les Dilley, was to make a prototype R2-D2. “I hired a carpenter – Bill Harman – who’d made all the props for Monty Python. He was brilliant – you could give him anything and he’d make it work. We had no money, not even enough to buy timber, but Bill had marine plywood at home, which he bent around the frame we’d built. In an electrical store, I found an old lamp from the 1940s and fitted that on top. I carved the little moving prongs on the front, and we stuck some aeroplane bits on and got him approved.”
Christian was also instrumental in developing the look of the film’s various weapons. “I went to a gun hire place and got a Sterling sub-machine gun. I glued a T-strip around the barrel, put on a short magazine and stuck an old army rifle sight backwards on the top.” In a similar way, Christian retrofitted a Mauser pistol to create Han Solo’s blaster. “Then I nervously called George and said, ‘You’d better come and see what I’m doing.’ George loved them, which was the signal that he and I were on the same wavelength. He stayed with me and we made Princess Leia’s gun together. The gun hire place gave me a little back room and just let me choose guns. The whole film was kind of done like that.”
The two lightsabers used in the film were also built by Christian using found objects. “In this old photography studio, I found a box with a Graflex inside. The Graflex was a press camera from the 1940s. You could bolt a flash on the side; it had a round chromium disc that made the flash really bright, and the handle had a red fire button. And that’s what became the laser sword. I just sat in my office with superglue, stuck a T-strip round the handle, put a D-ring on the end and stuck on bits from a pocket calculator. It was weighty and it looked beautiful. I think I made it for about £8.”
After Star Wars, Christian went on to art direct Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In its first incarnation, however, the film was cancelled, allowing him to segue neatly on to Alien. Director Ridley Scott and production designer Michael Seymour had already decided to try Christian’s technique of using scrap material to detail the interior of the Nostromo, but the process had proved more difficult than they’d anticipated.
“They’d tried it a little bit, and I could see it hadn’t worked,” Christian recalled. “So we went round England buying scrap aeroplanes and breaking them down. It cost £50 for half an aeroplane, because it was sold by weight and aeroplanes are very light. I trained the prop boys in the technique of using the scrap, because you can’t just randomly do it – in a real aeroplane or a submarine, everything is in order and has a function. We painted everything army green, and I used aging techniques that John Box had taught me when I was tea boy for him on Oliver!, aging down the pipes, adding oil and drips and little graphic symbols. And that became the look of the Alien interiors.”
The interior sets were built as a complete unit, with every part interconnecting. “ You walked in, and you were inside the Nostromo. You followed the corridors round and came to each set in turn. I loved watching people’s reactions when they came to visit. The bridge set was massive – an amazing set. It took months to put everything into it. I wanted it so that, every time one of the crew flicked a switch, a light would come on, or something would react.”
Christian speaks with great pride about his work on Scott’s seminal science fiction horror film. “I think we got it right on Alien,” he asserts. “The dressing, the guns, the props – everything fused together. I think the audience accepted that we’d gone out and found a spaceship, rented it and filmed inside it, and that it was old and battered and used.”
Christian reveals all about his experiences working on Star Wars and Alien in a new book called Cinema Alchemist. Edited by JW Rinzler, the book is poised to secure a publishing deal in the near future.