Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy found early success as the most in-demand and groundbreaking music video director of the 80s, working with artists like Duran Duran, Billy Joel, Elton John and many many others. His 1984 horror film RAZORBACK (1984), set in the Australian Outback, is now a cult classic, as is his 1986 fantasy adventure HIGHLANDER, which starred Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, and launched a huge franchise of films and TV series. Russell's career has had its ups and downs, but he has travelled the world, worked in a variety of genres, and directed films such as HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING (1991), the revenge thriller RICOCHET (1991) with Denzel Washington, the spy thriller BLUE ICE (1992) with Michael Caine, the heist thriller THE REAL McCOY (1993) with Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer, the superhero film THE SHADOW (1994), and the horror film RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007). He is now one of the most successful directors working in television, and is currently an executive producer and recurring director on the hit show Teen Wolf. In the final part of our two-part interview we talked about his two HIGHLANDER movies, RICOCHET, BLUE ICE, his time on RAMBO III, THE REAL McCOY, THE SHADOW, RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION, and directing for TV, including Teen Wolf. 

Part one of the interview. 
With HIGHLANDER, what was the hook that got you interested in making it? 
It was a brilliant script. It was from an original draft by Gregory Widen. He had originally written it as a thesis at UCLA. Larry Ferguson and Peter Bellwood came along and did a rewrite, which was actually called The Dark Knight. I read the script when I was cutting the Wild Boys video. I loved the genre, I loved the action, and I loved the strange complexity of the intercutting timelines. What really grabbed me though was the sense of tragic, epic romance in the story – the man who couldn't die and had to watch people he fell in love with wither and die in front of him. That continual pain and angst was a driving force in the character of Connor. He wanted to win the Prize because he was sick and tired of being Immortal. 

What made you cast Christopher Lambert in the lead role? 
We were sitting in the office in Los Angeles looking at a list of the usual twenty actors that was bandied around. I was flipping through a magazine and I saw a photo of Christopher in GREYSTOKE (1984), and I said ''This is our guy. This is him!'' The producers said ''Yeah, but he can't speak English. '' I said ''Well, I am sure we can work that out.'' And we did! We got a coach in, and he learned very quickly. As well as in GREYSTOKE, I had also seen his work in SUBWAY (1985. He was an extremely good-loking guy. But it was so much to do with what he told you with his piercing eyes. They seemed to span centuries. He had an air of mystery, and he could convey something with just the flick of his eyes. They told a thousand words. Christopher is also kind of an old soul, and his character had to carry this burden of living for thousands of years. He was so right for the role. It would have been so wrong to put a known actor in the role. He needed to be an unknown or an unknown to a lot of people.

During the Paris premiere, which was a massive event, we were driving up the Champs-Elysees and there were these gigantic 60ft wooden statues of Christopher and Sean on either side of the boulevard. The film played to a huge audience and there were fans outside trying to get in. I remember that everyone just stood up and applauded at Christopher's first big close-up in modern dress. He looked like a million dollars. He wasn't just a French star at that moment, he was a bona-fide international star. 

How was meeting Sean Connery for the first time? 
Sean came on board, and I was piss-scared meeting him. I knock on his hotel door, he opens it, and there he is - Sean Connery, James Bond 007, who I first saw in DR. NO (1962) and grew up watching. Sean turned out to be a complete gentleman. I remember we sat down and had tea and cucumber sandwiches or something, and talked about the film. 

What qualities did Connery bring to the set? 
We only had seven days with him, so every moment counted. We always had multiple cameras on him, and we also had to do things like shoot over Chris to Sean, and then weeks later we would shoot across a double back to Chris. We didn't have time to finish full scenes with him. Sean came with great enthusiasm and was very prepared; very energetic, and very smart, and great fun to work with. On his first day, we flew up to Glencoe, and on the plane, he opened up this bottle of home-made Scotch and said ''Try this. '' I had a shot, and I don't know what proof it was but it blew my brains out!

On his last day, we had like thirty minutes left. He was going to get paid a lot of money if we had gone over. Sean looked at me and said ''You're not going to finish. '' I said ''Just stand there for a sec. '' We put three cameras on him with a very neutral background, and I said things like ''Now stand to the side. Now swing your sword. Now take your hat off. Look angry, scream. '' And so on. We did this for a while. I kept looking at my watch. It came up to the end of the thirty minutes, and then I said ''Right. Cut! That's a wrap. '' Sean laughed and said ''You bastard!'' I remember we had a farewell party in some little pub in Glencoe.

He was such a treat to work with. I was such a fan of his. Everybody respected him so much, but he was so respectful of others too. He was so helpful with everybody, and when he was on set, the bar was raised and everybody rose to the occasion. 

To what do you attribute the success of the film? 
Well, for one thing, we got great people involved on it. Aside from Sean and Christopher, we also had Clancy Brown, who was wonderful as The Kurgan, and we had Allan Cameron for our production designer, who went off and did THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994) and THE MUMMY (1999). James Acheson did the costumes, and he later did THE LAST EMPEROR (1987). And we had this great marriage with the music and Queen. Michael Kamen had this great rock and roll background, and was a fantastic composer. He had just done BRAZIL (1985). It was just a great combination of talent.

None of us quite knew what we were doing. I remember the costume designer reminded me that in 1558 Scotsmen didn't fight in kilts. They didn't start wearing kilts until the 1700s, and they actually battled naked before that. I thought ''Well, we probably can't do that! '' We broke the rules a little bit there. I don't think anyone cared. We had a Frenchman playing a Scotsman and a Scotsman playing a Spanish-Egyptian. I think people were driven by the story more than anything. 

One of the most distinctive things about HIGHLANDER is the use of the Skycam. How did that come about? 
During pre-production, we heard about this device. I think when we used it, it was only the first or second time it had ever been used on a film. We only had ten minutes to shoot the wrestling match in Queens in New York, and I wanted to start the film off big, so we used the Skycam. These days, I guess you'd use a drone. We also had some hidden hand-held cameras. Later we got together again and built the audience area at a different location, and did some extra close-ups of Chris. 

How do you feel about HIGHLANDER II now? 
HIGHLANDER II was basically a mistake. The original film had been written as a one piece story. It wasn't written with a franchise in mind. When the film became a hit in Europe, they wanted to do a sequel. There were a number of bad drafts. I was signed on by my agent without my even knowing. There are a number of different cuts out there, but whatever version you're talking about, the story is a real stretch. Even though we worked long and hard on the film – 6 day weeks for 12 weeks, all night shoots – it didn't work. The whole shoot was a trial. We shot it in Argentina, and it was the wrong country to do make that sort of film in. I never bitch about tough shoots, because you end up working harder on them. I like them. But when you don't get a rush from the end result, it's very disappointing. It's weird how they built a huge franchise off of the first film. I can't quite understand it. It's like they say in the film ''There can only be one. '' In a genre film you can create any scenario you like, but once you break your own rules, the audience feels betrayed, which is what happened with HIGHLANDER II. 

How was the experience of making RICOCHET? 
Before the movie, I had been directing on Tales of the Crypt with the producer, Joel Silver. There were big holes in the original script, so there was a major re-write. Originally, in the opening gunfight, the bullet ricoched off something, which was why it was called RICOCHET. In the re-writes, the title stayed but the story changed. As far as making the film went, it was fabulous. Denzel is an extraordinary human being, and always totally in the part. We did a lot of scenes where he was drugged up, beaten up and disgraced and whatever, and I remember on a Friday night I would say to him ''Denzel, don't take this home with you!'' John Lithgow was brilliant. He was playing this evil villain but once you called ''Cut!'', he'd start talking about some baseball game or something he was doing at his college. He could just switch in and out of character. He and Denzel had different styles of acting, but both were wonderful. After we finished filming I called up Denzel and he said ''Oh man, I've just been sitting on the couch, watching TV, and eating lots of cake!'' He had had to stay fit, and be put through all these things by John. It was a rigorous, tight schedule; long hours and exhausting. 

Do you prefer fantasy films to more grounded stories? 
I love all kinds of movies. I just like good stories. I grew up with genres and I have a great passion for them, but RICOCHET, like most if not all my films, has its dark side, and I do like to explore the different sides of humanity - the light and the dark, which of course have to co-exist. I like filming that battle between them. 

Making BLUE ICE, how much were the Harry Palmer films on your mind? 
We purposely tried to make something different than those films. We knew there were going to obviously be comparisons to Harry Palmer, so we just decided to go with Michael's character as written, and have him be different, like loving jazz for example. I didn't watch any of the Palmer films when we were making it. Working with an icon like Michael Caine was great. He's such a wonderful man and such a pro. When you work with a guy like him, it makes your life a lot easier. I learned important things from him like always doing three takes – one for me, one for you, and one for the camera. 

How different do you think your RAMBO III would have been? 
There's still 20 minutes of my footage there in the middle, with the attack on the Russian fort. It was a career decision to do the film, after the success of HIGHLANDER. I was also in serious talks with Dino De Laurentiis about doing TOTAL RECALL. Sly called me up and offered me RAMBO III and I guess I got starstruck and said ''Yes, of course. '' We got along like a house on fire at the beginning. He was very supportive. I travelled the world trying to find locations and we ended up shooting it in Israel. After a couple of weeks of filming, it became clear we had some creative differences. I was trying to do something with the scope of HIGHLANDER, and I had forgotten I was filming a billion dollar face, and should have been filming more close-ups. I wanted something darker and more epic, with stranger undertones. We decided to call it a day. It was all very amicable. It was nobody's fault. Sly is a wonderful man, and we still remain friends. 

What did you enjoy the most about working on THE REAL McCOY? 
Kim Basinger was a delight, and one of the most amazing women I have worked with. Marty Bregman, who produced it, was great. It's not often you can put rain towers on four blocks and just take over a whole square of a city basically. We shot it in Atlanta, which was a wonderful, giving place to film. They opened up a bank for us at the weekend so we could shoot in there, and let us have full access to the safe. There was great trust on that film. It was another one that was shot very quickly. Working with a pro like Terence Stamp really pushed me and everyone else to do their best. 

Were you a fan of THE SHADOW character before you took on the movie? 
I'd heard some of the radio shows and watched some of the films growing up, and I did a lot more research after being offered the project. We had the Northridge earthquake during filming, which slowed us down for a little bit. One of my favourite memories is of filming on the famous Universal New York street before it burned down, and of having to stop filming when the tourist bus came through. We'd wave as it drove past. Alec Baldwin is a genius and a joy to work with. He's a ball of energy, and has a great sense of humor. Tim Curry was great, as was the wonderful Ian McKellen, who I have remained friends with. He was a driving force on the film for me, and always kept me going. 

How was the experience of directing RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION? 
It was a delight. It was one of the toughest films I've done because of the extremities of the heat. We filmed in Mexicali and it was 125 degrees every day. We had zombies fainting left and right. I remember we had about thirty guys with these big water tanks on their back with a hose attached. You'd go up to them with a plastic cup and they'd give you water with lime and salt. You'd drink it and then put a bucket of ice water over your head! You'd come home at night and your T-shirt would have these rings of salt from all the sweat.

The cast was great – Milla Jovovich and Linden Ashby, for example, who is now in Teen Wolf. My friend Paul Anderson, who wrote and produced it, was there and supportive and positive throughout. I came in with 70 pages of very rough concept drawings I had drawn up and he and Jeremy Bolt took a look and said ''Oh wow! You want to do all this?'' We did have a difference of opinion at the beginning because I wanted to shoot it during the day. They had never shot zombies in sunlight before, and they were worried they wouldn't look scary. We went out to the desert in California to do some tests, and they looked at the rushes and were surprised that it all worked. My idea was that if we shot it at night, we'd run into problems in Vegas. Plus, the first two films had already been set at night. I wanted the third one to be a breath of fresh air. We also had some extraordinary landscapes in Mexico, so we could do helicopter shots and wide, panoramic shots. 

You've become very successful directing for TV, currently with Teen Wolf. How different an experience has it been? 
You get your scripts a lot later, usually about a week before you shoot. You have to think fast and get your ducks in a row very quickly. You have to stick to a 12, maximum 14, hour day. Budgets are very tight. But it's been a great experience. We have an incredible showrunner, Jeff Davies, who also did Criminal Minds. We are on the sixth season, and I've been with him since the pilot. When we did the pilot we felt like we were the little train that could. Nobody really believed in the project because we were based on a very campy, humorous movie. We wanted to make something that was darker and had more reality and humanity to it. We had a byline for ourselves that we wanted to make it sexy, scary, and surprising. We've tried to keep that mantra going. 

Does directing TV sharpen your skills? 
It keeps you on your feet. When you're on the set, you're always prepared, but when you're blocking you might realise that there is a better way of doing it. The germ of the idea always has to be spontaneous. My clock is basically my watch and my assistant director. You have to make the best with the time you have, and the challenge is that if you have to rethink things you still have to stay visually and emotionally effective. Working on Teen Wolf for so long, it has very much become a family. We know each other so well that a nod or a gesture says a thousand words. All of us have been on the journey together. It's been a fun ride. 

 Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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