You can’t do much better (or worse) than the gloriously cheesetastic, action-fantasy film that is Highlander. With a sweeping score by Queen and Michael Kamen, a super-cool concept and the (over?)acting triad powerhouse that is Sean Connery, Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown, it remains beloved to this day. Using nifty transitions to “time travel without time travel,” director Russell Mulcahy put his heart, his own money, hubcap rolling skills, and a death cameo (killed by The Kurgan’s car) into making a movie that he considers “quite good because of bad critic reviews.” Though talks of a remake have been in the works for years (to be directed by Justin Lin, 2014), as the tagline goes, there can be only one.
Director Russell Mulcahy started off his career making music videos, including the very first MTV outing, The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star. He also directed many videos for Duran Duran, including Hungry Like the Wolf, The Wild Boys, Is There Something I Should Know, Save a Prayer, The Reflex, Rio and Planet Earth, Spandau Ballet’s True and The Vapors’ Turning Japanese.
In the original script, the opening wrestling scene shot at Meadowlands, NJ, was supposed to be a hockey match. Producers were unable to get approval from the National Hockey League because the league thought the film would portray hockey as a violent sport.
The long shot moving into the arena was completed using the relatively new (1984) Skycam; a camera mounted on wires, with movement controlled by computer. After Highlander, the camera went to Tokyo and fell off the wires; according to director, Russell Mulcahy, it wasn’t used very often because of such issues. The Skycam was invented by Garrett Brown, who also invented the Steadicam.
For the Fox American release of Highlander, approximately 8 minutes of footage deemed “too confusing” was cut from the European version. Mulcahy said that the footage, in fact, made perfect sense and that people underestimate the American audience. In addition to “confusing” back flips, head-butts, parts of fight scenes thought too violent, and character history scenes were also cut.
Cut from the American version was a WWII scene, where MacLeod (Lambert) rescues a little girl. Without seeing that, the audience has no idea of the background on this woman (Rachel Ellenstein [Sheila Gish]), who later is shown as his assistant and clearly has a relationship with Nash/MacLeod. According to the director, MacLeod raised the little girl, she became his lover and then his assistant.
A high-ceilinged, painted over Fruit market in London subbed for the Madison Square Garden parking garage where the first fight scene takes place. Greatly expanded from what was originally only two lines in the script, the fight features a sequence of backflips by Peter Diamond (Fasil), who was also the film’s stunt coordinator. The director noted they had to bring in a “special guy” to do graffiti on the walls because “the English weren’t sure what American graffiti would look like.”
Christopher (aka Christophe) Lambert, the son of a French diplomat, was born in the United States, but raised primarily in Paris; Highlander was his first film in English. Before the director and producers saw Lambert, they were told by Lambert’s agent, “Of course he can” (speak English) and admitted to being thrown for a loop when they first heard the actor’s thick accent. Lambert spent six weeks working on his English and the director felt the film worked fine because of the character’s line, “I come from so many places.”
In preparation for the film, Lambert trained extensively with Sword Master and Canadian Olympic champion, Bob Anderson, who also trained Errol Flynn and was Darth Vader’s stunt double in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
The first battle scene was filmed at a tourist attraction, Eilean Donan Castle; the parking lot was covered over with dirt and grass and the entire village constructed. Mulcahy said battles were filmed in all kinds of crazy weather including snow and horizontal rain. He spoke highly of the extras, all of whom were locals and wanted “nothing but a good bottle of scotch at the end of the day.” The director marveled that they would even sleep outside, drink half the night and show up for work in the morning.
Though they were originally going to do only one song, after seeing footage, Freddie Mercury and Queen composed eight, with each member of the band writing songs for particularly meaningful scenes. Mulcahy noted that Mercury didn’t want to sing “New York, New York” until the director played Liza Minnelli’s version (which Mercury liked).
Nash’s New York apartment had great views…of photos of New York, blown up and cut into shapes that fit the windows.
The tower was built on location in Glencoe (also home to Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Queen Victoria’s cairn—a pile of rocks upon which she had rested—was a memorial that was not supposed to be disturbed. The director said they built the set, secretly moved the rocks and then put them back when filming was done.
Because of his other commitments, all of Sean Connery’s filming had to be completed in seven days. The actor filmed many reaction shots in advance, with direction to “Look angry. Look shocked,” etc. His fight scenes were primarily shot alone (later, Clancy Brown fought with a stunt double). The director donated Connery’s peacock feathered costume to the London Film Museum.
Sean Connery’s opening voiceover dialogue was recorded by a sound man at the actor’s villa in Spain. Producers listened to the recording over the phone and it sounded fine, but on film, (because it was taped in a small room) an echo can be heard.
Mulcahy said filming the stag “was a nightmare.” Because at the time of filming all stags had lost their horns, it was decided to glue on antlers. A veteranarian put the animal to sleep, the horns were glued on and then, they had to wait for it to awaken; once it did, all the deer wanted to do was shake off the antlers. During filming, the stag ran away and never came back. It was found later, 25 miles away and without the horns. Some of the stag scene (standing in water) is National Geographic stock footage.
Calling this particular scene inside the castle “extraordinary,” Mulcahy said the first time they shot The Kurgan bursting through a door to cut the table in half, Clancy Brown instead ran in and cut through the candelabra, nearly decapitating Sean Connery. Sean stormed off the set. Later, Connery returned and Brown apologized, saying he was very nervous.
Clancy Brown almost turned down the role (which required prosthetics) because he had experienced an allergic reaction to prosthetic glue. Brown had just finished portraying Frankenstein’s monster in The Bride and production had to be shut down for three weeks, his allergy was so severe. The crew felt that Brown became The Kurgan; according to the director, some people didn’t want to go near him. In the American version, Brown licking the priest’s hand was considered too controversial and was cut out.
To create the sparks when swords clashed, the actors were hooked up to car batteries (down by their feet). The wires ran up their arm sleeves—one negative and one positive—when the swords touched, voila! Because the sword handles would get hot and the actors received shocks, only so many takes could be completed.
A special light—next to the camera lens—made Lambert’s eyes sparkle on film.
According to the director, Highlander (at the time of the DVD commentary) holds the record for most cuts in a reel.
Mulcahy said that the biggest dilemma of the film was “the visualization of the prize.” He said, “Not knowing what to do, we did what we did.” A combination of lighting effects and animation was used; the “electricity” seen was to cover the wires holding up Lambert, and the animation represented “Demonic souls of the past and all the immortals who have gone before him.”
Highlander in 30 Seconds (re-enacted by bunnies)
There can be only one Cindy Davis.