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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Interview with Director, Harley Cokeliss

Over the past couple of years it has been my absolute pleasure to speak to a wide range of movie individuals. It doesn't matter whether they have been in front of or behind the camera, there literally hasn't been one disappointment amongst them. I would love to think that I also have been perfectly objective and professional at all times (stop laughing you there at the back!), though admittedly those qualities were tested once or twice - especially when I managed to land an interview with one of the scream queen loves of my life - Adrienne Barbeau.

Harley Cokeliss
This week, my much renowned, ahem, calmness and objectivity were well and truly put to the test when I had the chance to talk to someone whose work I've admired for such a long time. When I also say that while there may well be some folk who are unfamiliar with his name, any self -respecting SciFi geek, especially when it comes to a specific film that took place A long time ago, In a Galaxy far, far away, will shudder with uncontrolled excitement when they realise what he has on his impressive CV.

For those of you that have been hiding in cave somewhere in the deepest reaches of the Amazon rain forest for the past few months, the BFI's SciFi: Days of Fear and Wonder season has been in full swing for some time now. "Pray tell me Mr Fifth Dimension Sir, just what is this season of wondrous fear? I must know, after all, I've just returned from darkest Peru you know"

Well, in order to answer your question my intrepid traveler, you could do one of two things; Firstly you could read some of my previous blog articles on the very same project, or you could chose the admittedly less self-indulgent and less rambling version of the event from the BFI itself.....

"SCI-FI: DAYS OF FEAR AND WONDER will be the BFI’s biggest season to date, with over 1000 screenings of classic films and television programmes at over 200 locations across the UK.  It includes a three-month programme at BFI Southbank, from 20 October until 31 December 2014, with special events, guests and screenings right across the UK. With outdoor events at iconic British sites, classic Sci-Fi titles released into UK cinemas and on DVD and Blu-ray, 50+ films available online through BFI Player, a BFI Sci-Fi Compendium and much more, SCI-FI: DAYS OF FEAR AND WONDER, presented together with 02, will celebrate cinema’s most spectacular and visionary genre, exploring how the fear and wonder at its heart continues to inspire and enthral in one of the largest and most ambitious Sci-Fi projects ever created."

Now, it was my pleasure a couple of weeks ago to receive from the BFI and review the latest DVD release forming part of the season - the collection of classic releases from the Children's Film Foundation - Outer Space. During the course of this I became aware of the opportunity to interview the director behind perhaps the most lauded of the films in the DVD, the fabulous The Glitterball (1978). The Director in question is the redoubtable Harley Cokeliss.

So just in case you are aren't 100% familiar with his work, here's an excerpt from Harley's IMDB page....

"Writer/director/producer Harley Cokeliss was born Harley Louis Cokliss on February 11, 1945 in San Diego, California. He was raised in Chicago, Illinois. He moved to England in 1966, studying at the London Film School, and started making TV documentaries in 1970, among them It's Fantastic! It's Futuristic! It's Fatalistic! It's Science Fiction! (1973) and The Need for Nightmare (1974). Cokeliss made his first foray into feature filmmaking with the family adventure outing The Battle of Billy's Pond (1976). This was followed by the charming children's science-fiction offering The Glitterball  (1977) and the engaging adolescent picture That Summer! (1979).

After handling second unit director duties on Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), he has gone on to make a handful of movies in the action, horror and science-fiction genres. His most notable films are the enjoyable futuristic sci-fi/action opus Battletruck (1982), the entertaining action outing Black Moon Rising (1986), and the creepy fright flick Dream Demon (1988). Moreover, Cokeliss has also directed episodes of such TV shows as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995) , Xena: Warrior Princess (1995), Dark Knight  (2000) and The Immortal . He's the owner of Barzo Productions Ltd....."

So here I go, chatting to a person whose work I have greatly admired for what seems an age - Excited, Moi??!!

First of all Harley, many thanks for taking the time to answer a few of my questions for my blog at . It's a genuine thrill for me as I've been an admirer of your work for many years.

Q) As the BFI are into their season of SciFi celebration, I'd like to ask you about The Glitterball to begin with. I was enthralled when I first saw it as an 11 year old. Why do you think its appeal has endured?

The Glitterball (1978) - It's magnificent.
HC) I  remember approaching the project from the point of view that, while the film would be appropriate for children to see, I didn't want it to be only for children. I wanted it to be a film with a broad reach that just happened to have children at the centre of the story. We told the story from their point of view and I wanted the kids to be real and for their reactions to the extraordinary event of the arrival of an extra-terrestrial visitor to be as natural as possible in that particular circumstance. And as to why the appeal of the film has endured. I think that could be because it worked first and foremost as an adventure, and happily the story did engage people across the age groups, maybe because no matter what age we are we all appreciate stories that are about discovery and adventures, especially those that involve the strange and the mysterious. I'm very happy that the BFI is bringing out the DVD of The Glitterball because now whole new generations of viewers will be able to watch it.

Q)  What do you remember about the filming of The Glitterball?

HC: I remember quite a bit about the filming of The Glitterball, making it was a lot of fun. It was the second film I made for The Children's Film Foundation, The Battle of Billy's Pond being the first, and I was working with many of the same crew members, and Ben Buckton was again playing the lead. There was a great atmosphere on the set and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Q)  Despite the constraints of budget for special effects, The Glitterball is a rollicking good scifi yarn. What would you have done differently, if anything at all if the budget for Special effects had been larger?

HC: I was very pleased with the effects we were able to achieve on the film. Brian Johnson and Barry Leith did excellent work, but if we had been gifted with a larger budget I'm sure we could have expanded our horizons even further. On a film set having more money means you can have more time to achieve your vision in more detail. What we achieved on our budget told the story well and I'm happy with the film as it is. Sometimes a simple effect is all you really need and it can be all the more convincing for its economy.

Harley directing the wonderful Tommy Lee Jones
on the set of Black Moon Rising (1986)
Q)  You have worked with some 'intense, charismatic' actors, including two favourites of mine, Tommy Lee Jones (Black Moon Rising - 1986) & Ray Liotta (Pilgrim/Inferno 2000). What challenges for a director do individuals like them pose and what are they like as actors?

HC: Both Tommy Lee and Ray are consummate actors and it was a privilege to work with them. Both of them embraced the project we were making and applied their talents and intelligence to bring those characters to life. Their commitment was total, Tommy Lee studied some classic film noirs and Ray immersed himself in his character’s multiple amnesia. They both made the action real and they both did much of the stunt work. There was one day on Inferno when Ray’s reaction to an explosive blood squib used to simulate being shot was so convincing I thought the explosive had actually blasted through the safety plate he wore underneath the charge. And both of them have the gift of being able to communicate emotion and engage directly with an audience. Audiences always care about what happens to them.
A cult classic all right 

Q)  Battletruck ("Warlords of the 21st Century") is still lauded amongst Scifi fans and is a long time favourite of mine. Is it true that you 'pitched' the idea for the film to Roger Corman in an interview with him?

HC: Yes, I was interviewing him at his hilltop house in Pacific Palisades, California for the BBC Review programme and we were walking back to the house when he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him about this futuristic western I was working on and he literally stopped then and there and said: “Yes, I can see the poster, if you can find half the money I'll put up the rest.” I asked him if he would put that on paper and he said he would. 

He suggested that I might find the money in Spain and could shoot it somewhere like the studios at Almeria. But in the end we found the matching finance in New Zealand and shot it on the South Island near a range of beautiful mountains called 'The Remarkables', which would feature many years later in 'Lord of the Rings'.

Q) I simply have to ask you about The Empire Strikes Back if that's ok. You were the 2nd unit director on that, if I'm correct. What is the role of 2nd unit director for those who don't know?

HC: On big productions with lots of action, stunt work and special effects they often break up the workload between the main unit and the second unit. Sometimes on complicated shoots there are even third and fourth units as well. The main unit with the director shoots all the key scenes with the main actors, while the second unit takes on much of the action, stunt work and special effect work, as these shots are usually very time consuming. I was the Second Unit Director for the work done at Elstree Studios and to get through the difficult schedule there, with a large number of sets to be built and only 7 stages available, we needed to 'shoot out' a set - that is get all the necessary shots needed for all the scenes that happen on that set - as fast as possible so they could strike it and build a new set on that stage. 
Hi, I'm Harley  - yesterday I made the mistake
of looking this Wookie in the eye....

To speed up the process they integrated the units more. For example on the Millennium Falcon scenes Irvin Kershner would stage the scene and set the performances. He'd shoot the master shots and all the front angle close-ups on the principal actors. He did everything he wanted that didn't have a window or a special effects or stunt work. The main unit would then move on to another scene and the second unit came on with the principal actors of that scene still there. Having a window in the background was a problem in those days because windows needed a time consuming blue screen shot, with the view out of the window being done at ILM months later, so all that fell to the second unit.

Q) Which scenes from the film were you involved in?

HC: I was on the film for over four months and, as I was saying, our unit got involved with shots for any scene that was time consuming and/or dangerous, whether it be blue screen, stunt work, or special effect. Occasionally we would do a whole scene. For example when Darth Vader and Luke have their sword fight in Cloud City the second unit was assigned to shoot that scene because almost every shot had an effect or a stunt: laser swords needed special lighting for the 3M material on the swords and the electrical discharge when a sword hit metal were explosive charges that had to be individually wired and carefully timed with the fight choreography for each take. We had a stunt man in the Darth Vader costume, but Mark Hammell did most of Luke's swordplay, though sometimes we had acrobatic doubles for the jumps and falls. It boiled down to this: if it was difficult or time consuming to shoot we would do it, usually based on the extensive storyboards. 
"C'mon Luke m'lad....kissing your sister aint that bad..."

There have been a number of television programmes that have counted down to the best film and several times Empire Strike Back has been named as the best film ever made, or the best science fiction film ever made, or whatever, and each time they announce the results on TV, if it is Empire, the scene they usually show is the sword fight between Luke and Darth Vader which ends with Darth cutting Luke's sword hand off and Luke falling through space and the Cloud City ducting system before ending up hanging upside down on an antenna. The Second Unit shot that.

Q) What are your views, if any, on the newer Star Wars films and the ones in production?

HC: I'm looking forward to the new generation of films; it's going to be great to see the story continue with original cast back in action.

Q) Any regrets? For example, one film you could remake or even that one elusive film you wanted to make but missed out on?

HC: One elusive film that never got made was 'Eli Lambourne', a powerful story set during the English Civil War. I'd met Sean Connery at a lunch with Irvin Kershner & I told him about the story. He kindly agreed to read the script & liked it. He said he'd do the film if we made certain changes to the script, which I was happy to do. But by the time the new script was ready he was booked up for years ahead & I moved on to other projects.

Q) And finally, what does the future hold for Harley Cokeliss? Once again, many thanks for taking the time for the interview, Harley.

HC: It was my pleasure. We have projects in development for both television and feature films. One of the film projects is a young adult crime story set in the near future based on a book by Melvin Burgess, who also wrote the novel on which I based my time-slip film 'An Angel for May'. And we're also developing a 'cyber thriller' set in the world of computer games that we hope to make in Australia next year.

Once again I'd like to extend my thanks to Harley for taking time to talk to the unashamed sycophant that I am. For more information about the man himself, then visit his IMDB page at

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