Black Angel: The quest to make a feature version of The Empire Strikes Back's long-lost short film
"I feel like Luke staring at the twin suns, and there’s your destiny ahead of you…"
An obscure legend. A lost artifact. A man fulfilling a life-long quest against ominous odds.
In the broad strokes, the true story behind the 1980 short film Black Angel has a lot in common with the sword-and-sorcery tale’s fictional narrative, only the real-life version involves YouTube and crowdsourced financing.
Here’s the backstory: 35 years ago, Roger Christian, the Oscar-winning set decorator for Star Wars, made a short film about a medieval knight facing down a wraith-like foe to free a literal damsel in distress. Black Angel had the seal of approval from George Lucas, who hand-selected the short to play before The Empire Strikes Back overseas, where movies still had opening acts.
Years later, the negative for Black Angel was lost, and rather than release a substandard version to home video, Christian chose to let the project drift away in a haze of mystery and nostalgia.
A clean print was discovered several years ago and restored, but … the largely forgotten film didn’t cause much stir until it was uploaded for free to YouTube last month. Now that it’s being shared and rediscovered, Christian has announced plans for a feature-length remake.
“This is my dream project, my life’s passion project, and I could never get it made,” said Christian, who also was the art director of Alien and Life of Brian, and, less auspiciously, was the director of the 2000 John Travolta bomb, Battlefield Earth.
Now because of the online cult-fandom surrounding Black Angel, he is assembling $15 million in independent financing to make a full-length version, and an Indiegogo campaign is underway to raise $100,000. It allows fans to pay for a chance to, among other bonuses, be an extra in the film’s undead army.
The Empire Strikes Back connection has helped a lot, with this December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens revitalizing passion for everything connected with the original trilogy. Even Christian gets swept up in it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How frustrating or maddening was it for you, knowing you created this thing and now it was impossible to find?
ROGER CHRISTIAN: It’s very frustrating, because you know that if you have the negative, you’re okay. I tracked one print down, but I knew it wasn’t the finished one. So it was frustrating, indeed. In a way, it’s a relief that digital is now there, because now we can preserve things and can keep them forever on a little memory bank that you can keep yourself.
What emotions did it stir when an archivist from Universal called and said “We found it?” Finally, there was something that can be restored and fixed and reintroduced…
I dropped on the floor and picked myself up and I actually said, because it was not long before Christmas, “This is the best Christmas present I think I’ve ever had.” Then I said “But what have you got exactly?” I was trying to find out if it was real—and it was.
I assume there were remnants of the film. That there were tapes of it or lesser prints, is that right? So you did have some record that this movie existed.
I had a record it existed. I had a three-quarter inch tape. But it was never a quality that could be broadcast. But I did have a record of it, yes. That and an old VHS of it, so I knew it was there.
And who owns it?
I own it. What happened was the government in those days—it was a great scheme in Britain—they could give up to £25,000 to make a short film. It was a government grant so [repaying] wasn’t necessary. George [Lucas] read my script at the last minute. They’d almost chosen [another short to accompany Empire] and mine, through an accident, went to him. And he just said “Well, let him go and make it.” Their guarantee was Fox would put it out with Empire.
You say it made its way to him accidentally but you knew George from the original Star Wars? You won an Oscar for it! I assume that helped.
[Laughs] It did help. George was very kind; he said, “Let Roger go and make the film he wants. No one is to look at it, touch it, have any influence on it. Just let him make whatever he wants.” And that is typical George.
You’d been working as a set decorator, but was the ambition always to direct?
I had written a huge epic idea at the time and I plucked out a few little moments from that for Black Angel as a special short. It was one of those things I kept talking about. All I wanted to do was direct. I was directing theater and commercials and things and I thought, “In the end you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. I’ve gotta make a short film and prove myself.” I had a crew of nine people and four actors and I spent most of my money on two heavy horses that we had to bring up from London.
You spent more on the horses than the human actors?
Oh yeah, much more! [Laughs] And they got better fed than us. We were surviving on porridge and sandwiches.
Tell us what’s happening now. You’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $100,000. That’s not a lot… But you plan to make a feature-length version of Black Angel?
We’re going to shoot in huge sets we’ve got in studios in Hungary and Belgium, and some in Morocco because I have desert scenes in the beginning, and some in Scotland. So we’re asking Indiegogo because I do need help to get more costumes, I need the sets to be bigger, the Black Angel has an army of undead, and we now have a demon king who is the god of the underworld who really is behind all this. I need to try to elevate that and it seems crowdfunding is a fantastic way for people to be involved and it can help the funding for sure. It also builds your audience, which we have to do now. I like Indiegogo. They’re an independent spirit, like my film is really.
These epic sword and sorcery stories can run north of $100 million easily. You’re getting most of your financing independently from Indiegogo. But what kind of budget are you working with?
We’re making it for $15 million, and for that I can make an absolute epic.
You already have some actors lined up, right? Rutger Hauer, John Rhys-Davies, Laura Weissbecker.
Laura Weissbecker, yes. She just starred with Jackie Chan in his new, huge action film [Chinese Zodiac.] She’s going to play the renegade princess. John Rhys-Davies is a friend and he really wanted to be in this and he fit so well into this world, so I needed him to play the big rival king in the city, a city called Sterling. He’s a tyrant. He is joining forces with the evil side.
And Rutger Hauer ….
There’s a very wonderful high priest who’s kind of a guardian of this temple in the southlands, and he’ll travel back up into the northlands as well. We’ve got a few others lining up right now and I’m not allowed to say, but exciting. I’ve got a younger lead that’s being put in place right now, and I’ve got another wonderful actor who’ll come in and play Myrddin, who’s got an amazing face. You’ll recognize him immediately. We’re just trying to sort out dates for him; he’s got a few bookings, but I think we can fit him in. They’re coming in very quickly.
It sounds like you’ve got your own quest ahead of you.
I feel like Luke staring at the two twin suns and there’s your destiny ahead of you and you have to take it or not—the same as Arthur pulling the sword out. I reckon I’ll pull the sword out.