Clancy Brown on Highlander, Connery & Starship Troopers

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 24 Jun 2016

80s fantasy romp Highlander made a triumphant return to Scotland with a 30th anniversary gala screening at the 70th Edinburgh Film Festival. Guest of honour was the Kurgan himself, Clancy Brown. He reminisces about shooting the film and slaying Sean Connery

Cinema restoration is an elitist's business. Second lives for old movies on the big screen are rare, and they're usually reserved for venerated classics by respected auteurs. So far this year the few big screen revivals we’ve seen include Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In July, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon returns. Great films from giants of cinema.

As for all those less reputable titles, the genre films by journeyman directors with less celebrated stars, they fall through the cracks of critical opinion, drop out of circulation, and simply disappear. One scuzzy 80s throwback upended this trend at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, however. Appropriately for a movie that refuses to die, it’s a story about a group of immortals who want to live forever. We speak, of course, of Highlander.

For those uninitiated in the Highlander lore, the 1986 film follows fresh-faced Scottish warrior Connor MacLeod, who discovers he belongs to a band of immortals who've been engaged in mortal combat through the ages. Discombobulatingly, MacLeod is played by French actor Christopher Lambert. To add to the confusion, the world’s most famous Scotsman, Sean Connery, plays MacLeod’s Egyptian mentor, who teaches him the immortal ropes.

The film skips back and forth through time, from 16th century Highlands to a very 80s New York City, which is all neon light and dry ice. Chicago Reader film critic Dave Kehr wrote very astutely at the time that Highlander  “plays like a lot of hyperkinetic three-minute movies stuck together, and you get the feeling that changing the order of the scenes wouldn't make a whole lot of difference to the narrative.”

Clancy Brown, who brilliantly plays the film’s antagonist, The Kurgan, a 7ft brute with a punky sense of style, whatever century he’s in, agrees when we suggest that narrative cohesion is not Highlander’s strong suit. “You’re right, it's a weird movie,” he says. “There are strange acting styles, strange art direction, strange costumes.” Despite its jarring qualities, there’s something irresistible about Highlander. Its frenzied pace and go-for-broke performances more than compensate for its incoherence.

Christopher Lambert in Highlander

Brown suggest Australian director Russell Mulcahy, at the time best known for his music promos for the likes of Duran Duran and Bonnie Tyler, should be thanked for much of the film’s qualities. “It shows that Russell being a video director was the right choice,” says Brown. “He wasn’t fazed by anything that didn’t make much sense, as long as it made enough sense. You know, there are huge holes in the plot, and the motivations are all out of whack, but Russell could always have a cool smoke effect or some kind of spotlight come through the fog or whatever to break it up.”

Brown was guest of honour at Edinburgh International Film Festival’s world premiere of the new 4k restoration of the film to mark its 30th anniversary. He tells the sold out audience how Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was hot off The Terminator at the time, was the first choice to be The Kurgan, but turned it down because he wanted to play a good guy, and that Sting, who’d just played Frankenstein to Brown’s Monster in The Bride, recommended him to Mulcahy at a muzo party in London. “You should talk to this big American bloke Clancy Brown,” Sting told the director, “he’s a nice fella, and frigging huge.” “It’s the first and only time really that I haven’t had to audition for anything,” says Brown, “so thank you, Sting and Arnold.”

 Read more from The Skinny's coverage of EIFF

When we speak to Brown in person a few days later, he recalls receiving the script. “I thought it was a really cool idea,” he says, “the only problem with the script really was that there wasn’t a lot of character description about the Kurgan written into it, and there was certainly no story, no explanation.”

As convoluted as Highlander's mythology was, with its "gatherings" and "quickenings", the plot was simplicity itself: these characters will fight until one is left standing in the end, for ''there can be only one.'' This left plenty of wiggle room. “We had a pretty empty canvas, which was filled up with the makeup department, the wardrobe department, Russell’s visuals, and I added some shit too.” Some of the “shit” he added were some killer lines quoting Neil Young lyrics (“it's better to burn out than to fade away!”) and moments with him terrorising unsuspecting nuns (“Happy Halloween, ladies!”).

He also reminisces about his epic onscreen battle with Connery. “Ah, killing Sean, that was quite an honour,” says Brown. "I think at that point only one other person had killed him on screen.” He even drops a few digs in about the former Bond’s famous financial situation, telling us that Bob Anderson, the film’s chief stuntman, doubled much of Connery’s scenes because “Sean had to get out of the country. If he stayed more than ten days he had to pay taxes – a true Scotsman.”

Clancy Brown arriving for Highlander screening at EIFF 2016

Brown was particularly enamored with the athleticism of Connery, who was 55 at the time of shooting. “He’s a formidable, physical guy, very coordinated and knew his way around a stunt,” says Brown, who, despite the avuncular white hair and beard he now sports, is still an intimidating physical presence himself, with piercing blue eyes. “What was so impressive is that Sean didn’t seem to have to work that hard at it.”

Not that Connery liked to work very hard, anyway. “I remember we were rehearsing a fight that had been choreographed and they started to change it. Sean stopped everything and he took the producers and the director and the first assistant into his trailer… basically what he was telling these kids was, ‘You don’t just make it up as you go along, and you certainly don’t make it up with me.’ His time was really valuable; he was getting paid a tonne of money for not much time, so he did Russell a favour.”

EIFF’s screening sold out almost instantly, such is the cult around this strange and endearingly goofy film, especially in Scotland, but it was hardly a hit on its original release. It only made $12.9 million back from its $19 million budget (to put the figure in context, that’s $4 million more than Top Gun, 1986’s biggest box-office hit), although its later success on VHS led to four sequels and a TV series.

Brown is used to his films having these bumpy beginnings. The Shawshank Redemption, in which Brown plays the titular prison’s sadistic guard, was a slow burner too, but is now an audience favourite, sitting pretty at number one on IMDB’s film rankings, ahead of the likes of The Godfather and The Dark Knight.

Brown also perks up when we mention another of his films that was initially derided: Paul Verhoeven's war satire Starship Troopers. “It’s such an interesting adaptation,” he says. “Verhoeven had a very traumatic youth because he grew up in occupied Netherlands, so he’ll tell you lots of stories about him dealing with Nazis, and that pervades his work. All of that fear, all of the terror, you see it in the films, especially in RoboCop and Starship Troopers. It’s obvious, right? Then you take [Robert A.] Heinlein, who wrote Starship, and he’s an American who wasn’t able to serve. He was imagining himself in this idealistic society that ended up being a very fascist imagination. So you had those two sensibilities clashing in that movie and I thought it was freaking brilliant. It’s another one of those movies where it comes out and nobody sees its genius until years later.”

Brown reckons the same will be true of his most recent movie, which is currently taking a beating from critics. “A similar thing is going to happen with Warcraft,” he says. “The critics, all they see is a big video game movie, but in five-ten years from now they’re going to see that it’s much more interesting. It’s a movie about ideas in the same way as Starship.”

And does the same go for Highlander? “Well,” he laughs, “I think maybe the critics had a point with that one.”

Highlander screens again at EIFF as part of "Best of the Fest", Cineworld, 26 Jun

This 4k restoration of Highlander will also play the Prince Charles Cinema in London, 26 Jun (with Christopher Lambert as guest); Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen, 15 Jul; Filmhouse in Edinburgh, 18 Jul; and Eden Court in Inverness, 29 Aug

The new print is released on DVD & Blu-ray on 11 Jul via StudioCanal