To celebrate Highlander’s 25th anniversary, we talk to the director, Russell Mulcahy, about the fall and rise of the film that started it all...

 

For the immortals that exist within the seemingly eternal world of Highlander, a quarter of a century is little more than a few beats of the heart. Yet, for us mere mortals, 25 years is a huge chunk of change. It’s in the time it’s taken for most of us to grow into adults (or mature into older ones), that Highlander has metamorphosed from a box-office failure to a worldwide brand worth millions of dollars. But we’re not here to go over the facts and figures, we’re here to discover how this evolution began, and who better to elucidate on this unparalleled change of fortune than the man who helped cement the foundations on which the franchise now stands.

 

“I’d done one film before, a film called Razorback,” explains Australian-born film director Russell Mulcahy. “And when they brought me on to do Highlander, I don’t think they really had a visual concept.”With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Mulcahy was hired. While at that time he may only have had one film under his belt, he did have a very strong resumé of ground-breaking music videos behind him. In the lead-up to the director’s feature film career, Russell had crafted some of the most memorable music videos of the time, including classics such as Duran Duran’s Wild Boys, Rio and Save A Prayer, not to mention Elton John’s I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart and Spandau  Ballet’s True.

 

“They didn’t hold any reins on me,” Mulcahy says of his producers. “They sort of just let me do what I wanted. I just went out there and had fun and broke some rules.”Many would argue that it was that very visual approach to the story that made Highlander stand out from the crowd.“Doing videos, I was alerted to how a story is shot,” Mulcahy elaborates. “So with Highlander – a lot of the time – I just tried to convey emotions and excitement in a clearly visual and visceral way.”

 

Looking back now, it’s clear that Mulcahy succeeded. While the mid-80s were littered with fantasy action films, Highlander broke new ground, something that its director acknowledges modestly, (“I was just doing my shit”) although it clearly wasn’t apparent at the time.

 

“When it was released in America it was not a hit,” Russell clarifies. “[Twentieth Century] Fox didn’t understand it maybe and sort of threw it away. They came out with this dreadful black and white poster and it lasted about four days and that was it.”

Costing around $16 million to make, the film only brought in around $6 million while on release. In breaking the mould, it was beginning to appear that Highlander had isolated itself from the mainstream US studio movie.“Fox agreed!” laughs Mulcahy. “They went, ‘What the fuck?!’ God bless them, but I think, like me, nobody really knew what they had.”While the US had all but turned their back on the movie once it was released, the European premieres – Paris’s in particular – provided an entirely different, and somewhat surprising, experience.

 

“Queen turned up,” Mulcahy marvels. “There were crowds of fans outside and giant cut out billboard things of Sean [Connery] and Chris [Lambert] and it was just like, ‘Woah!’ It was this whole totally different experience. Years later, it came out on video and caught on and it became internationally successful. The Paris premiere was really a shocking surprise though. It was like going to a rock concert. It was quite emotional.”So why did Highlander strike such a chord with European audiences?“Maybe the fact that I was working, for many years, in England and Europe,” Russell reflects. “Maybe there was kind of a European feeling about it, I don’t know.”

 

 

 

Or maybe it was the film’s enigmatic star, Christophe Lambert. Fresh from Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke and the French hit Subway, Lambert was the man of the moment in France, something which became very clear during the Parisian premiere screening. “[In] the sequence where he goes into [Brenda’s] apartment with a bottle of wine,” Mulcahy discloses, “she walks up to the door, she opens the door and there’s this beautiful close up of him and the audience erupted. Like, [he was] their hero.”Clearly, Lambert’s casting was no mistake. It’s been well documented that, even at the point where Lambert accepted the role of Connor MacLeod, his English was minimal. But something as small as language wasn’t going to get in the way of such perfect casting.

 

“I was sitting there when we hadn’t cast the part yet,” Russell says of the moment his eyes locked on the French actor. “And I saw this picture from Greystoke and I said, ‘He’s perfect’. He came, he couldn’t speak much English but he just had that eerie, eternal quality about him.”Thanks to its bold visual approach, unorthodox storytelling and mesmerizing star, in the years that have passed, Highlander has not only shed its reputation as a box office squib, but it has gone on to stand alone as a true classic of its genre. This in spite of the odd dodgy sequel. (“I stopped at maybe [Highlander] 3,” Mulcahy chuckles).

 

But there is one other element that the director feels contributed to the film’s enduring success.“It’s got action and all that, but when I was making it, I always thought it was this extraordinary love story, a sort of tragic love story,” Russell says. “So it was the passion [that] drove it.The action was all fun and crazy, but I thought of it as a big epic romance over time.”In closing, given that Mulcahy played such a vital role in the creation of such an enduring franchise, how does he feel about the Highlander legacy?“The really sad thing about this is when I did Highlander I wasn’t [part of] the Director’s Guild,” laughs the director. “I get no money. It’s one of the most successful films I’ve ever done and I don’t see zilch!”

Grant Kempster