This week marks the 25th anniversary of a little movie called Highlander. In honour of this historic occasion, here's an article from the May 1986 issue of Cinefantastique.
Rock Video Stylist Russell Mulcahy Films Epic Fantasy of Swashbuckling Immortal Warriors
by Alan Jones
A wrestling match in Madison Square Garden. A Skycam shot swoops over the crowd and homes in on a motionless individual sitting in the bleachers out of place in the mob frenzy. The haunted look in his eyes immediately sets him apart. His Scottish name is Connor MacLeod. And he is immortal.
This is the opening of Highlander, an unusual epic fantasy backed by Thorn-EMI Screen Entertainment to the tune of $16 million. The film is produced by Peter S. Davis and Bill Panzer, who made The Osterman Weekend for the same company. 20th Century Fox will release the picture March 14 in the U.S., while Thorn-EMI handles all other territories and worldwide video rights.
Highlander is directed by Russell Mulcahy, his second feature following the critically acclaimed Razorback, a horror film about a giant killer pig. Mulcahy turned to film directing after a successful award-winning career making rock videos for such artists as Culture Club, Duran Duran, Elton John, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart. The film's screenplay is by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson from a story by Widen. The musical score is by Michael Kamen whose recent credits include The Dead Zone and Brazil, with songs produced by Queen, including a version of "New York, New York."
Starring Christopher Lambert (Tarzan in Greystoke), Roxanne Hart (Tony nominee for Broadway role in Passion), Sean Connery (who received $1 million for seven days work), Clancy Brown (the monster in The Bride), and Beatie Edney (daughter of actress Sylvia Syms), Highlander began its 70 day shooting schedule in late April 1985, basing production at the new Jacob Street Studio complex in the city of London. Filming in Scotland took place throughout May in scenic areas including Upper Glen Nevis, Glencoe and Loch Shiel.
June was spent filming in London locations as diverse as the South Metropolitan Gas Works in Greenwich, Scotland Yard and Shad Thames - the latter a favorite location of Mulcahy where he shot countless videos, including Culture Club's "The War Song." Shooting wrapped in July after two week's work in New York, filming a car chase and a duel atop a famous Manhattan landmark, the Silvercup Studios neon sign.
The story of Highlander spans four centuries. Mulcahy continuously flashes back and time shifts via camera tricks and dissolves. Chronologically, the story begins in 1536 when MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a Scottish clansman, is mortally wounded in battle by a warrior from the Russian Steppes name the Kurgan (Clancy Brown). Miraculously MacLeod recovers but is branded a warlock and banished by the superstitious villagers.
MacLeod settles at The Forge in a remote rural spot and marries a simple farm girl, Heather (Beatie Edney). A few years later he is sought by Juan Ramirez (Sean Connery) a flamboyant Spanish/Egyptian nobleman who informs him that they, like the Kurgan, are immortals fated to duel down through the ages to a pre-destined time called "The Gathering." He becomes MacLeod's mentor and teacher but the Kurgan finally catches up with Ramirez and decapitates him - decapitation being the only sure way of killing an immortal.
The distant time and far away place that Ramirez speaks of in telling about "The Gathering" is in fact present-day Manhattan. MacLeod, under the adopted name of Russell Nash, owns an antique shop in Greenwich Village filled with artifacts he has accrued through the ages. Manhattan is in the grip of a reign of terror as a series of headless corpses are discovered in the city. The police are boggled and so is Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a weapons expert who finds an ancient sword at the scene of one of the crimes, dating back to 600 B.C.
MacLeod knows the Kurgan is closing in for the climactic showdown and the bestowing of a promised ultimate power. There can be only one victor. Will it be the Kurgan who through his hatred for the ancient Highlander sees Brenda as a pawn in the deadly game? Or will it be MacLeod show romantic entanglement with Brenda leads her to utter these prophetic words: "Most people are afraid to die. But you are afraid to live!"
Highlander is the brainchild of 26 year-old Gregory Widen, a script he wrote as a class project while at UCLA, studying film. "I owe the concept to a hitch-hiking trip I made across Europe when I was 20," said Widen. "I was standing in the Tower of London amid the world's largest armory collection. And it suddenly struck me, what if I owned all this and had actually worn the armor in battle?"
With that initial premise in mind, Widen wrote a treatment that drew on his holiday memories of Scotland. The treatment was bough by producers Davis and Panzer in 1982, and since then Widen's career seems to have exploded. Widen sold his UCLA thesis to Warner Brothers, a script called Clan of One, about some college kids who get wrapped up in a board game that takes on darker implications when they use an abandoned church full of ancient monks. Widen has also sold ideas to Embassy and Warner Bros. "In the last six months, five deals have happened, which has filled with Spielberg-type aspirations," he said jokingly.
Although Highlander was rewritten by two other writers Widen never met, he isn't too concerned. "I was a young, green college kid and the producers ultimately didn't trust my instincts," he said. "That is their right." Widen's deal for the script called for payment indexed to the film's budget, which was upped substantially with the signing of Sean Connery. "The script was originally conceived to be budgeted much lower," he said. "I'm only to happy with the way things worked out."
"Widen feels the film has gone in a different direction than the one he originally envisioned. "My script was much darker," he said. "It has gone from being brooding to something more like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Along the way it has gotten more black and white in the lines drawn between who is good and who is evil. In my version, the hero could easily have done evil if he wasn't careful."
"Scene for scene it is almost exactly the way I wrote it except the dialogue has been altered to give the characters a different feel," continued Widen. "It is now more high-gloss, high-adventure than leaning towards a favorite book of mine, Interview With A Vampire. Immortality plainly sucks and I'm not sure that quality will come through in the finished product.
While on location with the company in Scotland, Widen discovered that there is a famous legend that paralleled his story. "People felt all I had done was simply utilize this myth," he said. "The immortal clansman aspect was sheer coincidence. It's a theme that seems to occur commonly in most cultures."
Widen is happy with the choice of Mulcahy as director and Lambert as star. "Lambert has an interesting animal look to him," said Widen. "He is obviously not the boy next door. And Mulcahy is the classic example of a visually kinetic director. There is a scene in the film where the Kurgan bursts into The Forge to kill Ramirez. My low-key, gritty approach was originally set in a little wooden hut. Mulcahy changed that into a fantastic Errol Flynn-type winding staircase duel. Both of them tear the place apart so that only the staircase is left, pointing toward the sky. Mulcahy's made it bigger and better in a way I can respond to."
The Highlander title came about during a think-tank session with Widen's two UCLA roommates, Ethan Wiley and Fred Dekker, who wrote the story and screenplay for House, recently produced by Sean Cunningham. "We went through endless lists of titles," said Widen. "We originally had a joke one - Sword of Bad, which you have to say fast to appreciate. Wiley liked it so much he included it in House, as one of the lead characters is an author."
Producers Peter S. Davis and Bill Panzer formed their filmmaking partnership back in the early '70s. Davis' background includes being an attorney and running a steel company. Panzer produced television commercials. Their fist film together was Death Collector starring Joe Pesci which Davis admitted "cost 160,000 dollars - half the amount of our transportation budget for Highlander." Their films include Mount St. Helens and Jupiter Menace. Highlander is the first fantasy project to catch their eye.
"We like adventure movies and Highlander seemed to have a lot of elements that coalesced well to appeal to a wide audience," said Davis. "The script spans every area - fantasy, romantic adventure, contemporary comment, even period comedy."
Davis and Panzer also saw a certain amount of risk-taking in the Highlander project. "The material seemed to cry out for an unconventional approach," said Davis. "We realized very early on that we had two choices. We could have chosen a conventional director and played it safe. Or we ha the opportunity to go with a young director with a unique shooting style who could elevate the material into something special. We opted for the latter. We both saw Razorback plus a collection Russell Mulcahy's video work and felt his style had an edge-of-the-seat quality." Both producers spent as much time on location and in the studio as possible. Not an easy task as Highlander was beset with one of the worst British summers in memory. Freezing rain was the norm in Scotland and damp unseasonal weather dogged the London locations. "There were times when I wished I hadn't been so conscientious," shrugged Davis, "but you can't be an American independent producer unless you feel the pulse of the production. There are many vital decisions each day that affect the creative end product." Ultimately, David pegs Highlander's success on its uniqueness. "It is very different from anything else in the market place," he said. "That is why it will succeed."
Highlander will come as a pleasant surprise to those who figure that a director famous for his flashy over-the-top visuals can't keep his flashy style in check for what is essentially, in his own words, "A real movie." Nowhere is this more evident than in the Scottish scenes spring boarding the major themes that resonate throughout the modern day sequences. Russell Mulcahy, Highlander's 33 year-old Australian-born director, neatly lets the story unfold and pulls out the emotional stops, especially when MacLeod's Scottish wife (Beatie Edney) eventually ages and dies, making him vow never to fall in love again during the centuries to come.
"One of the best comments I had concerning Razorback was that it was like I had been told it was to be my one and only movie so I threw everything in," said Mulcahy. "I was guilty of trying to cram too much in. Here I'm standing back and letting the story unfold,but keeping the pace and the visual excitement at a constant level."
Although he still involves himself in the video industry - the latest Elton John single is one his clips - Mulcahy really doesn't like talking about that aspect of his career anymore. "I'm always asked the same questions," said the bemused Mulcahy. "When I first started doing promos, it was always the band back-lit with dry ice everywhere. If I'm responsible for anything it was taking videos off into a surreal narrative in order to pursue other creative avenues in getting a song across without seeing a band just play instruments. With the media blitz and MTV, images started being repeated and became cliched very quickly. I'm guilty of that as well, as we all became too clever by half. Highlander will hopefully redress the balance."
The opportunity to direct Highlander arose for Mulcahy while another project stalled creatively. Heavy Metal: The Movie was to be a combined effort between Mulcahy's company MGMM (standing for Scott Millaney, Brian Grand, David Mallet and Mulcahy - the four kingpins of the worldwide video industry) and National Lampoon, with a budget of $16 million.
"The theory was to combine everything we learned in the video field to try and do something different," said Mulcahy. "Instead of doing just a pale Mad Max imitation we saw the chance to explore the directions our careers had taken within the context of the Heavy Metal format which is really only video clips in comic book form." The project foundered when the MGMM principals failed to agree on a central storyline.
"Highlander was given to me to read," continued Mulcahy. "And I loved it. It leaped off the page as instant visuals. It was as different a fantasy as you could get, considering all the teenage adventures around at the moment. I realized very early on that film would stand or fall on making the period changes flow without seeming to jar, although they would have to be sharply contrasted. I saw it as imperative that the audience be drawn back into the airy, open romantic past through the very hard, electric '80s, but in a very believable fashion."
There weren't any major problems during the principal photography on Highlander except those caused by Mulcahy himself! He explained, "I work extremely fast and I often shoot multi-camera, ending up with about 50 hours of footage for a 5 minute sequence. During the first week of shooting a lot of people had difficulty falling in with my working methods. Some of those people felt the schedule was too tight and they found they couldn't keep up the pace. Those departments left of their own accord. Other individuals I've clashed with stood their ground and in all honesty the film is better for it."
Working with a $16 million budget hasn't kept Mulcahy up night. "It has had the effect of keeping me awake during the day," he quipped. "Obviously there is more pressure. What surprised me is that it isn't as free or as open as some of the lower budget promos I've done, where organized chaos is the norm. There isn't as much creative improvisation. The magic is harder to come by in this form." Mulcahy wasn't overawed y working with a legendary pro like Sean Connery either. "I don't think Connery ever believed seven days would be enough time to get all of his material in the can," said Mulcahy. "He kept saying, 'When I'm here on the eighth day...' He was really surprised when I told him we had finished with him, although I'm not including in this time his contracted day of dubbing chores.
"Actually, Connery was great - a real professional and very good to work with," continued Mulcahy. "He can't stand inefficiency of any kind and occasionally we would have what came to be known as our 'Connery Meetings!' He would group us together and air his views on why so and so wasn't doing his job correctly. This was free advice - very expensive, I might add - that none of us needed. When he saw the rushes though, things changed.
Connery and Christopher Lambert got along well together as their scenes were shot chronologically. The teacher/pupil bond became very visible as they developed an on as well as off-screen relationship. Clancy Brown's first day was with Connery, and because we had Sean for a limited time, I told Clancy that although we had five cameras in the scene, four would be on Sean and the other on his back. Brown ad to do his reverses with a double for Connery. It seemed to upset his method acting, but we sorted it out."
Connery's flashy cameo role comes to an end in a fight in The Forge between Ramirez and The Kurgan that Mulcahy said "was very much influenced by Wagner, Errol Flynn and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." For the climactic showdown Mulcahy chose a more basic approach. "I didn't want to have the screen cluttered with references, machinery or the usual climactic trappings," he said. "It is just two immortals battling in a theatrical void, against a window 60 feet along and 80 feet high, with Arlene Phillips' choreography telling the story."
Looking back over the arduous weeks of shooting, Mulcahy remembers the bad weather most vividly. "This is one wet movie," he exclaimed. "Even when we were filming the opening scenes in the car park below Madison Square Garden, the sprinkler system came on by mistake. It rained inside as well as out. I remember having to hose out the building in Greenwich Village where we filmed the dangerous stunts with the Silvercup neon sign. Originally it was an ammonia warehouse, and it made our eyes smart."
Trivia buffs may wish to note that Mulcahy has two cameos in Highlander. he is the man run over by the car during a chase through Manhattan streets and he is also the first person you see upon entering the births, marriages and deaths record library.
The original casting for Highlander included Catherine Mary Stewart (The Last Starfighter) and Kurt Russell as MacLeod. Stewart had a life-cast made but suddenly became unavailable and Russell decided not to take the role on advice from his girlfriend, Goldie Hawn. The role of MacLeod was then offered to 29 year-old New York born actor Christopher Lambert, a superstar actor in France because of the enormous popularity of Greystoke and the art house hit Subway.
Lambert has been called the sexiest actor in movies today. It is a title that greatly amuses the down-to-earth actor. He never took it seriously until a French magazine published his fetish for collecting teddy-bears and he found himself inundated by thousands of toys sent by admirers. The actor is well-known for striking up romantic relationships with his female stars. His affair with Beatie Edney on Highlander was a major, if not crucial, gossip source among crew members. The relationship greatly helps their love scenes together. Roxanne Hart, Lambert's love interest in the Manhattan scenes, appears to have gotten short-changed.
Lambert comes from a wealthy family but knew at the age of twelve that he wanted to be an actor, although he started his working life on the London stock exchange. After six months he left to help a friend run a shop in Paris and was later accepted as a student at the famed Conservatiore. Lambert landed parts in French films which led to an audition as Tarzan with Hugh Hudson for Greystoke. Lambert's next film will be an English language, French backed venture based n the mystical '70s novel The Third Eye by Lopsang Rampa, although rumor has it that Cubby Broccoli offered him a blank check to star as James Bond in the rest of the 007 series.
Lambert accepted the role of MacLeod in Highlander because the script didn't bore him when he read it. "Movies are meant as entertainment," he said. "That is their major purpose. I found the Highlander script fun to read. And I loved the idea of playing an immortal. I like being immortal. At first I wondered what the story was all about, with this lunatic hacking people's heads off in New York, but after the third page I realized what the major crux of the film was about. It was also the first time I had read a script where the flashbacks didn't seem intrusive, but were an integral part of the story."
Lambert enjoyed working with Mulcahy. "It was very important for me to learn Russell was 33 years old - my age group so to speak," he said. "Russell has an amazing sense of action and framing. He instinctively knows what to shoot, how to shoot it and from what angle."
Prior to the start date of Highlander, Lambert underwent dialogue coaching. "Everyone agreed that my natural accent worked well enough for the part of an immortal who is 500 years old," said Lambert. "No one would stay in one place and not travel the world under those circumstances. I have a mild Scottish accent at the beginning of the film and a mi-Atlantic one for all the New York scenes. It took four or five weeks for me to get that right, and I continued the coaching on set. I was actually striving for an accent that was unrecognizable." Lambert wasn't daunted working with a legendary pro like Sean Connery, but found the schedule grueling. "Although Sean was only on the picture for seven days, we were shooting 19 hours a day, so it seemed like three weeks!" said Lambert. "He always gave me something to react to even though I felt sometimes he didn't particularly want this relationship."
By his own admission, Lambert doesn't take stardom or the filmmaking process very seriously. "I very rarely go to see dailies unless I'm worried about certain aspects of my performance," he said. "I don't have a high opinion of myself. I was lucky with my career - 95% has been luck in my case. I never had to struggle and I never would have bothered if I'd had to. All I can say about fame is that it is similar to wearing a new jacket. It may be more expensive each time, but I'm the same guy inside that I was five year so when I was unknown."
Dean Semler, who lit Razorback, was Mulcahy's first choice as lighting cameraman on Highlander, but union rulings barred the Australian from the production. Mulcahy chose Gerry Fisher instead, whose only other work in the fantasy genre includes The Amazing Mr. Blunden and Wolfen. Fisher is probably best known for Joseph Losey's The Go Between. Fisher liked the challenge of working with Mulcahy. "Russell is not limited by conventional filmmaking techniques," he said.
Fisher provides a varied look to the confrontations as the immortal warriors battle down through the ages. "I realized the strange forces of the immortals would have to be lit differently each time to avoid repetition," said Fisher. "The first sword fight in the underground car park takes the form of lights going haywire and pulsing. The second fight in The Forge made use of lightning effects for a more Gothic mood as opposed to something too harsh and modern."
Unlike the rest of the crew, Fisher welcomed the constant wet weather. "It has been advantageous to the look of the production despite everyone complaining about it," he said. Fisher often shot with multiple camera, all with extreme wide angles, including close-ups filmed at the same time, but strove for no deterioration in quality. Fisher also used Louma crane and Steadicam. If most people think that being a lighting cameraman just involves walking onto a sound stage and setting up, Fisher proves them wrong. "With each film I undertake, I have to know what the story is in detail," he said. "When I light something, I take into consideration where it occurs in the script, the mood of the set-up - whether comedy or drama - and what exactly is going to happen."
Highlander, by its very nature, has nothing at all to do with the real world as we perceive it, so stylization from start to finish was the key. Russell loves beams of light - he always wants more - and he is very keen on light and dark shades. We have been putting in long and unpleasant hours on this production because we all feel we are achieving something new and different."
The credits of Highlander list Nick Maley (Krull, Lifeforce) as makeup effects design consultant. In reality though, the man in charge of this department was 26 year-old Bob Keen - Maley's protegee. Maley was forced to bow out of the film early, due to nervous exhaustion and a mild heart attack. When a four month red/holiday in Antigua was prescribed, Maley left the work in the capable hands of his second in command. Keen had nothing but praise for Maley. "He is one of the people who takes his work with him everywhere he goes," said Keen. "That is commendable, but it can also be a great strain."
The major effects in Highlander involve the victor after "The Gathering" changing into 24 different immortals on screen. Said Keen, "We didn't have the time or money to go through the standard on-screen changes so we opted for a variety of techniques. Originally the entire sequence was going to be resolved with mechanical heads until we hit on ice sculpture. We artworked ice in a freezer - well worth the time and effort - hit it with an industrial heat gun causing the artwork and ice to melt almost instantly, leaving a clear skull underneath. You see the skull for a split second until the intense light from the heat guns streaks back and melts the whole head in about eleven seconds. We filmed at eight frames a second so it took about four seconds for the face to run off completely."
The end result of Keen's ice sculpture transformations was frame-cut by Mulcahy to make it quicker, so that the entire sequence lasts for just 15 seconds. "Edited together, the heads melt and reform with the actor looking into the camera and saying his lines before a mechanical head breaks in half and the process is repeated," said Keen. "While all this is happening, spirits are being released that were filmed with a combination of simple rod puppets similar to the ones in Poltergeist and animation." At one stage, Keen tried using actors wearing wraith-like costumes, but abandoned the idea.
Other problems on Highlander paled by comparison to the film's climactic transformation effects, "A lot of effects had to made up on the day," said Keen. "Russell would come to me and say 'Can we see this character's stomach slashed?' So we would ready a gelatin appliance only to find that it didn't work due to the angle of the camera. We would end up having to improvise with waxworks on the studio floor. Often we found that simpler methods worked better than ones that had been planned for months.
"We also got into some very interesting contact lens work. We made some lenses with 3M projection material sealed into them. By putting a light in the camera lends projecting at the actor, when he opens his eyes the lenses almost emanate a beam of light. I don't think this has ever been done as successfully before."
Scars, wounds and basic dummy makeup was also required of Keen and his ten-man crew for the Scottish battle scenes involving 300 extras. And as for working with Mulcahy, Keen found it difficult but rewarding. "Russell never left me alone," he said. "That isn't a complaint. He was always confronting me with details he wanted to accomplish. His energy was infectious."
Depending on how well Highlander does at the box office will determine if an already talked about sequel will get the go-ahead. Said Mulcahy, "It's early yet, but we all feel we are onto a winner. Whatever the audience's preconceptions of Highlander, they will be shattered within five minutes of the movie unspooling. It is so different from anything else I've been involved with or probably will be again."