Nick Maley talks about the making of HIGHLANDER, the first movie of a saga that spawned the popular TV series. It should be noted that they were not made by the same company ... Ergo
An introduction to the HIGHLANDER stories.
As soon as I read the script for HIGHLANDER I knew it should be a great movie. Little did I realize that it would also be my greatest disappointment. I would like to be able to tell you that the joys of being a Head of Department always out weight the stress and anxiety that come with the turf. Unfortunately, they don't and even the most entertaining of movies can be less than enjoyable to make.
Director Russell Mulcahy, who I had worked with on the GRAMMY winning music video WILD BOYS for Duran Duran's video album ARENA, had invited me to join the movie which was scheduled to shoot at Twickenham Studio. Russell is very up beat. He has a uniquely creative mind and is open to any idea that adds to the impact of the project. He and I had developed a very trusting relationship on WILDBOYS where he gave me free reign to develop anything that fitted within the loosely defined guidelines he dictated. In that tradition we discussed the beheading sequences, the Quickening, the Prize, and he left me to prepare storyboards with my storyboard artist Tony Beesley for all those sections of the film.
We all know what a beheading should look like, but the script was very vague about how The Quickening and The Prize should look. I suggested many of the physical attributes that defined those experiences.....the concept of energy sources being interfered with when two immortals were nearby, that tendrils of energy should escape from the beheaded body, that the body would lifted off the ground, rotate to form a whirlwind of energy and light which would then be imparted to the victorious immortal. My basic approach to revealing this to the audience was that they should see different aspects of the Quickening in each sequence. In the first (car park) sequence I felt they should see the effects of the Quickening in other objects and reflected in the faces of the participants. Then, in the alley and castle sequences, I felt we should demonstrate the power that was being unleashed with distant shots of the experience and that we should then finally reveal everything in all it's glory with the beheading of the Kurgan.
Tony and I produced drawings for the underground car park fight first. We started our drawings a little before the beheading and introducing the superhuman elements...... the sword lodging in the concrete pillar, the raising of the body viewed under the car, the tendrils of energy invading the vehicles, blowing out head lamps and activating windshield wipers, all those shots, which Russell brought to life so brilliantly, originated from our drawings. I also introduced the elements of wind and light in McLeod's face to suggest the power of what was not being seen.
For the sequence in the alley we demonstrated the power of the experience through the blowing out of the windows and man hole covers. I proposed using the swirling litter and garbage fired out of air cannons to confuse the scene and block the viewers perception of what precisely was transpiring. We also incorporated a long shot of the body rising and rotating and another with McLeod silhouetted against the whirlwind of light and energy to develop the viewers perception of the Quickening further. In the final cut, you didn't see the whirlwind until the Prize.
Tony worked directly with Russell on Sean Connery's fight with the Kurgan and they demonstrated that power again in the crumbling stone work, the lightening. The symbolically isolated staircase was a particularly nice touch that came from Russell (though I secretly suspect that the inspiration lies in Frank Frazetta's Conan paintings).
During the day, between building the dummies for these sequences, I was also preparing a 23 piece prosthetic aging make-up for Catherine Mary Stewart who had been cast to play the part of Heather. Then I would work late into the night with Tony preparing storyboards for the final sequence. I was used to working long hours but the production had moved from Twickenham to Jacob Street Studios in the heart of London's derelict docklands and that added the better part of two hours travel time to my day, (my first disappointment).
To call Jacob's Street a movie studio was a joke at that time. The facilities were very primitive and there was no permanent plaster, electrical or carpentry workshops there. A lot of extra work was needed before we could start making anything. Shooting hadn't even started and I was getting very tired... working over 100 hours each week.
Tony and I did initial storyboards for the rooftop fight. Russell already had a pretty good idea of what he wanted. We incorporated his concepts of the illuminated sign, it's collapse, and the water tower, adding the electrical elements, the fall through the skylight and the pause & grin before the Kurgan's head rolls off. At Russell's request we continued the sequence to include a monstrous snake-worm Kurgan that burst from the decapitated body and continued the fight. Russell really liked the sequence but the writer didn't and it was abandoned.
Although I was getting pretty run down, I wasn't overly concerned about that. It was common for me to push myself beyond normal limits to meet tight deadlines. However, an unfortunate combination of events was about to provide me with an abrupt reminder that I was no immortal!
The first really serious blow came when my recommendation to shave Clancy Brown's head was over ruled. I had suggested that before Clancy signed on to the project he be told that the shooting schedule was too tight to make and apply a prosthetic bald head (with tattoo and pony tail) as well as the prosthetic cut throat (sutured with safety pins) each day that the Punk Kurgan shot. Some one was afraid he wouldn't commit to the movie if he was told that, and once Clancy had signed he made it very clear that he would not shave his head under any circumstances. I had to find time for these prosthetics.... time to model, time to cast, time to foam the latex pieces and an extra hour a day to apply them. The only saving grace was that the finished make-up (executed in collaboration with make-up Supervisor Lois Burwell ) was very effective.
The second bombshell came when "Heather" was re-cast only 3 weeks before the almost completed old age prosthetics were due to shoot. British Equity had pressured the Production Company to use more British actors and Catherine was replaced by Beatie Edney. Beatie did a nice job and was very accommodating, but I was very depressed at being pressured to work day and night to produce what would ultimately amount to a second rate job. That couldn't be good for the movie or my reputation. None-the-less, the Producers were determined not to re-schedule. In hindsight I blame myself for not refusing to adapt the pieces for use on Beatie whose face was nothing like Catherine's. I should have quit the movie at that point. But I had invested so much of myself into it..... I didn't, and the extra hours that I put in pushed me to the brink of exhaustion. I would leave for work at 5.30 am and get home at 11.30 each night.... 7 days a week.
Against this background we started shooting. We completed the car park sequence, and spent a week filming the battle on a freezing Scottish bog in constant rain. That chill stayed with me as I made the 700 mile drive between the location and the studio four times in order to stay in touch with progress in the workshop and get Beatie's prosthetics to a shootable level. In the final analysis my efforts were wasted. The prosthetics were not well received. They looked like what they were .... a 13 week job skimped to suit a 3 week schedule (less the time I had spent actually filming) and they were never used. To say that I was upset would be a huge understatement.
Then the final straw..... During the course of developing the storyline I had made it clear to Russel that I expected to Direct the effects insert shots that I devised (as I had on LIFEFORCE) but this understanding was undermined by a senior key technician, who appeared to be unable to accept the concept of a second unit director emerging from the make-up department. His persistent negativity lead to a decision that second unit Director Steve Hopkins would Direct those effects. My enthusiasm was crushed. I struggled on for a few days to completed the fight in the alley but that night a giddy spell sent me back to my make-up wagon and there, without my usual drive to sustain me, I was engulfed by exhaustion and collapsed.
It is not uncommon for Heads of Departments to push themselves too hard. Stuart Freeborn went to the brink on EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Five people went down with exhaustion on THE KEEP, and I am told that Rob Bottin has experienced similar problems. Many technicians, like veteran Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, have simply keeled over on set and died and at first it was suspected that I, like Dougie, had been struck down by a heart attack. My Doctor demanded at least 4 weeks rest so despite protests from the Production Manager my Workshop Supervisor Bob Keen took over and finished the movie.
Most of the required elements were close to completion anyway, although Bob re-designed The Prize and added a few new gags of his own along the way. Bob tells me he insisted that I be credited at the end of the movie but I have been unable to find my name on the credits, despite the fact that the beheadings and Quickening sequences followed the story boards I designed almost shot for shot.... and I supervised three of the four beheadings personally.
The incident was a wake-up call for me. I decided to take a few months out for a convalescence trip to see old friends in the Caribbean and along the way discovered how easy (comparatively) it was to make a living as an artist in the islands.
As months progress various pages will emerge with stories and technical info about the movie. You will be able to access them directly from the HIGHLANDER link in the index.
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