Read any “worst films of all time” list and there’s a good chance that 2000’s Battlefield Earth will rear its dreadlocked head.
With a story based on a novel by Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, John Travolta as the nine-foot-tall alien villain and a terrible box office performance, it is an easy film to mock. In the words of one online review: “This movie is so bad I walked out of my own house.”
That said, the team behind the film was made up of some talented people, working with a decent budget. So how did it come to occupy such a distinctively awful place in cinema history?
The plan to make a film of Battlefield Earth is almost as old as the book itself. In Hubbard's 1,050-page 1982 novel, a thousand years into the future, Earth – now a wasteland – is run by evil alien “psychlos” who have to fight a rebellion instigated by the few remaining humans left on the planet. An adaptation was planned in the 1980s, but it never got off the ground, so Travolta – who had become a Scientologist in 1975 – took the baton and tried for years to get it financed.
The first to write a script for Travolta was the comedy screenwriter JD Shapiro, but – as is often the way in Hollywood – he was fired after refusing to accept script changes from MGM, the studio proposing to distribute the film.
Shortly after Shapiro's dismissal, screenwriter Corey Mandell was invited to a meeting at MGM. His agent and manager told him he should turn down the script offer. “This has danger written all over it,” they said. Mandell met Travolta and the producers at MGM, but after reading the book said he wasn’t interested.
Before long, the film was passed from MGM to 20th Century Fox, which was less wedded to the book (the ties to Hubbard’s Scientology were what made the movie a risky prospect for every studio that attached itself). At a dinner meeting with Travolta and some Fox executives, Mandell said he would write the script. “Everyone in my life was saying, ‘Don’t do this,’” he tells me. “I wasn’t smart enough to listen.”
Then, before Mandell could even finish the script, Fox pulled out, opening it up to another studio, Franchise Pictures, and a man called Elie Samaha.
Samaha was a hustler, a dry cleaner from Beirut who moved to Los Angeles the year that Hubbard published Battlefield Earth. “His second language was ‘fuck’, so he couldn't speak without ‘motherfucking cocksucker two-ball bitch’,” says Battlefield’s executive producer, Andrew Stevens. In a New York Times piece, Travolta says Samaha called him and told him he was going to make his dream come true. “I didn't know who Elie Samaha was,” Travolta told the reporter. “And neither did my manager.”
Samaha was telling everyone he was a producer, says Stevens. But his original claim to fame was that, in 1990, he was a partner in a club called the Roxbury, and ran its VIP room, taking care of celebrity guests. “If they wanted coke or pot or hookers or gay escorts,” says Stevens, “he’d provide anything and everything to celebrity clientele in order to ingratiate himself.”
Despite my attempts to contact Samaha for comment via the multiple interviewees in this piece, I was unable to reach him.
In early 1999, Samaha set up Franchise Pictures with Stevens and Ashok Amritraj, a producer Samaha and Stevens ended up buying out. Looking to boost their profile, the studio made a deal with Warner Brothers that would involve Franchise procuring big-name movie stars and financing the bulk of the budgets from international sales, outside of North America.
At the time, Hollywood’s two biggest talent agencies were Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Agency. Fred Westheimer, Travolta's agent at William Morris, presented Franchise with a deal: if they could finally realise Travolta's pet project, they would be granted access to a raft of stars, like Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes. “It was a deal with the devil in order to get the pot of gold, which was the movie star clientele from both agencies,” says Stevens.
It fell upon Stevens to visit Author Services Inc – the curators of Hubbard's fictional and secular literary works – to close the deal on making the film based on the novel. He remembers at least a dozen meetings, and when they offered food and drink to him and his colleagues, they always refused, “because my staff were afraid they were going to be brainwashed”.
Samaha was not easy to work with, says Stevens: “My analogy of being with Elie is: he was an elephant with diarrhoea, and I had a demitasse spoon to run behind him and try to scoop up the shit – and no matter how fast I scooped, there was way too much shit.”
Behind Stevens’ back, Samaha colluded with Barry Baeres, the CEO of German distribution company Intertainment, to sign a deal in which Intertainment – which was listed on a new German stock exchange – would co-finance and distribute Franchise's films (initially Battlefield Earth, The Whole Nine Yards and The Art of War) in Europe and China, paying Franchise 47 percent of their budgets.
Franchise obtained a loan from a Los Angeles bank, collateralised by cumulative international pre-sale contracts and Warner Brothers distribution projects in North America. “On Battlefield Earth, I can't lose,” Samaha said in the New York Times piece.
By the time Franchise took on the film, it had been in development for so long that Travolta was no longer eyeing up the role of the young protagonist, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (played eventually by Barry Pepper), but Terl, the psychlo villain. Mandell was therefore told to beef up Terl's part.
“That was the first moment where it really was clear this wasn't gonna end well,” he says.
Roger Christian, the second unit director on Star Wars: Phantom Menace, came aboard as director. “There is NO connection to Scientology,” he tells me by email. “It is pure science fiction adventure, as stated by Hubbard himself in the intro to the book, and nothing to do with his church.”
The director says the team aspired to make the first “pulp science film”. Travolta called it “Pulp Fiction for the year 3000”. He also reportedly called it “the Schindler's List of science fiction” and “like Star Wars, only better”, which may not have helped its fortunes.
Mandell noticed that the budget seemed to be shrinking, so had to make surgical re-writes accordingly. “There’s no way anyone could have shot anywhere near what I wrote on that budget,” he says.
Christian says he had even less money to spend than people thought. The film didn’t cost the $75 million that Samaha claimed; in total, Christian asserts, it was $44 million, with $23 million of that going on actors’ salaries. It is impossible, however, to pin down exactly how much the film cost, with figures ranging from Christian's $44 million, through $65 million, to at least $73 million.
Money wasn’t the only concern. As art director Oana Bogdan explains, the team faced one big challenge when conceiving prosthetics for Travolta and the other psychlos: “How do you design a character that’s alien enough, but still doesn’t hide the actual actor? Because we wanna see John Travolta in there.” The result was prosthetics that ended up taking four hours to put on every day (and at least 90 minutes to take off). Given that Travolta would only agree to be on camera for a certain number of hours on the Montreal set, Christian “had to quickly start compromising on the film”, says Bogdan.
Using graphic novels as inspiration, Christian wanted the film to be full of “Dutch angles” – scenes shot with the camera on a tilt. Peter Benison, a second unit cinematographer, was almost fired after he filmed material without the Dutch angles, as no one had told him of this plan. “To have every single shot of the movie be off-level like that,” he says “... I think, at the time, we were a little concerned about that.” Christian also decided that every scene should end with a wipe – the sides of the screen sliding away to give way to the next shot.
Mandell flew up to Montreal on Travolta's private plane to watch the shoot unfold. “Usually, when you're on a set, it's generally people trying to make the best movie they can,” he says, “and it sort of, to me, felt like they were just figuring out how to make a movie.”
Christian Tessier, who played a character called Mickey, says, “I remember us trying our best to make something out of something that was probably going to fail. I think it was a combination of too many worlds mixed into one. The language never was consistent.” Stevens is less diplomatic: “It was a shit concept with a shit book and a shit script that should never have been made.”
Flint Eagle worked as a stunt performer on the film. “I thought it was gonna rock the world,” he says. He claims his delivery so impressed Christian that the director kept giving him more speaking parts. He also tells me about a moment when, wearing stilts, he picked up a small makeup artist in an alleyway by his head, holding him above him and laughing a “hideous laugh”. Unbeknownst to him, Christian was behind him. Eagle turned to him, said Tim Curry’s iconic line from 1985’s Legend, “Every wolf must suffer fleas; ‘tis easy enough to scrrrratch,” scratched Christian's face with his psychlo claws and cackled again.
According to Eagle, Christian said, “Oh my God, I think I just came in my pants.” Christian did not respond to my email asking if this happened.
Despite this fun, Eagle remembers the long days took their toll: “You could see the exhaustion in every department.” Benison says the film had a “taint” to it: “We were all kinda wondering, 'Well, jeez, if everybody said no up to now, should we really be doing this?’” Supervising art director Claude Pare, who declined to speak to me, left the shoot after four weeks to work on the Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Adventures of Pluto Nash – one of cinema’s few even more catastrophic flops.
For most, though, the experience on set was positive. “There was no sense that this was gonna go south,” says Tim Post, who played one of the psychlos. Post remembers Travolta taking everyone out to dinner after the initial script reading. “I describe him as a benevolent king,” he says. “He was very sure of himself, and comfortable in his skin, and very kind to people.”
Michel Perron, who played a character called Rock, remembers Travolta introducing himself to everyone, not making the assumption that they knew who he was. Eagle says, “It was not John Travolta the actor that we worked with, it was John Travolta the man.”
The actor brought his own chefs and catering truck up from LA. Benison told the production team that if the catering truck left with Travolta once he was finishing shooting, there would be a riot. The catering truck stayed. “We ate not like kings,” says Eagle, “we ate like gods.”
A film’s fortunes can be difficult to predict based on an industry screening, a supportive but artificial environment. At Battlefield Earth's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, Stevens remembers sitting behind Quentin Tarantino, who guffawed and cheered and chanted. Those who worked on the film were more worried, and during other industry previews critics laughed out loud at the film, not with it. In his review, Roger Ebert signed its death warrant, saying it was like “taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time”.
Stevens says Author Services Inc had reassured him of how big Battlefield Earth was going to be. At a black-tie event at the Celebrity Centre, an old Hollywood hotel where celebrity Scientologists hang out, they told him there were 7 million Scientologists and they were all going to see the movie at least three times. “First of all, there aren't 7 million Scientologists in the world,” he says, “and I don't think a million of them went to see it once.”
As well as attending the premiere, Christian Tessier saw it in an LA cinema. When his character says, “They're moving fast!” and the camera cuts to the psychlos moving incredibly slowly on stilts, someone in the room burst out laughing.
Even the people involved are critical of it now. “The thing that I didn't like the most about it,” says Bogdan, “was the Dutch angles and the transitions between scenes – those wipes. Those are the two things that stuck out to me, like, ‘God, this is horrible.’ Why would you do that?”
The film went on to win seven Razzies, an annual awards show that honours the worst films released each year. Mandell feared he would never work again. “This was an objectively terrible movie,” he says. “Yeah, it was about as humiliating as you can get.”
“I'd rather my films connect with audiences than with critics, because it gives you more longevity as a performer,” said Travolta at the time. Christian says that Tarantino (who had declined Travolta’s offer to direct the film) assured him it would be a cult classic in 20 years. Christian also says that Roger Ebert was due to “evaluate the film again”, but died before he could do so.
According to the director, Samaha told him that Battlefield Earth grossed more than $150 million. Even accounting for decent DVD sales, it is not clear where he got this figure from, as the film made less than $22 million in US cinemas and less than $9 million overseas. But Samaha had been lying for a while. As this piece explains, he originally told Intertainment that the film’s budget would be $55 million, then Barry Baeres claimed in a letter to Intertainment shareholders that it had risen to $80 million.
In Stevens’ words, “Elie and Barry colluded in jacking up the budgets to get more money from the Intertainment public company.” Intertainment was paying a much higher proportion than the 47 percent agreed. When the German stock exchange on which it was listed turned sour, Baeres used Samaha and Franchise as scapegoats and, feigning innocence and ignorance, sued them for submitting “grossly fraudulent and inflated budgets”.
“The problem with Elie,” says Stevens, “was that, with his lack of education, coupled with his pathological lying, he would tell anybody at any point anything they wanted to hear.”
In 2004, a Los Angeles court awarded Intertainment $121.7 million in damages, with Samaha liable for $77 million of it. In 2007, Franchise went bankrupt. Intertainment solicited Stevens to settle out of court years before the trial because they did not want him, with his knowledge of their fraudulent acts, to testify against them. Samaha could not have known how right he would end up being when he told the New York Times, “If I was a betting man, and I am, I would bet that this movie is going to change Franchise Pictures.”
In 2010, Battlefield Earth won Worst Picture of the Decade at the Razzies. Only the 2012 film Jack and Jill has won more of those awards. Tarantino’s prediction about its cult status seems to have been wrong and, despite Travolta and Christian’s protestations, it is difficult to find a hardcore fanbase. But it’s impossible to deny that, after all this time, there is something uniquely captivating about the film – and that, despite its faults, it still has the capacity to make some of its stars misty-eyed.
“We made magic,” says Flint Eagle. “We made magic. And there were no serious injuries.”