Exclusive interview: director Philippe Mora on his films with Christopher Lee

Legendary actor Christopher Lee is best known for his numerous collaborations with British outfit Hammer Films, but there is a subset of genre enthusiasts who particularly enjoy his pair of collaborations with Australian filmmaker Philippe Mora. The director first cast Lee as a singer villain in the quirky 1983 superhero parody Return of Captain Invinciblethen tapped it for 1985s Howling II… Your Sister is a Werewolfthe sequel that spun Joe Dante’s hit original in bizarre new directions.

Return of Captain Invincible, which recently debuted on Blu-ray courtesy of Severin Films, sees Lee play Mr. Midnight, the titular costumed fighter for justice’s World War II nemesis. In the 1950s, government persecution leads Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin) to hang up his cape and crawl in a bottle, but the re-emergence of Mr. Midnight leads him to attempt a comeback. It’s not easy, for a variety of reasons, including a musical number in which Mr. Midnight tempts him with an alcohol-focused song called “Name Your Poison”, written by none other than The Rocky Horror Picture ShowIt’s Richard O’Brien.

Lee’s rich baritone voice had previously been heard in the Robin Hardy classic The wicker man, and although Mora is an admirer of this film, “it had no bearing on the casting of Christopher,” said the director. “I knew from conversations with Christopher that he liked to sing, and I had heard him sing, in fact.” He had also been familiar with O’Brien’s work before…and admits he wasn’t as impressed initially. “Jim [Sharman, Rocky Horror’s director] and I was very close friends in London, and when he got a tape of the [stage] Richard O’Brien show, he said, “Come on and listen to this, I want to do this.” He played me the whole tape and said, ‘So what do you think?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I think that’s a little corny. Frank N. Furter? [Laughs] So that shows you what I knew!

O’Brien, adds Mora, jumped at the chance to write a song for Lee, and guiding the actor through the role of Mr. Midnight was “a pleasure, a pleasure.” He was an accomplished professional. I remember that on Captain Invincible there was a tracking shot, and every time the camera passed in front of Christopher, he leaned forward about six inches. After the second time, I said, ‘Chris, why are you doing this?’ And he said, ‘My dear boy, I’ve done hundreds of movies, and I’ve looked at the focus puller, and it doesn’t know what it’s doing. So I concentrate. [Laughs] I said, “Congratulations, you’re the first self-centered actor I know!”

Lee also worked well with co-star Arkin, Mora says, even though the two seem like very distinct types of actors. “That’s actually why I chose them,” he says. “They were totally different; the English style and the American style are diametrically opposed, and I thought it would be really good for the hero and the villain. I liked this tension. They were both professionals, so they got along really well on set, even though they weren’t hanging out or anything like that.

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When Mora got the Howl II concert soon after, he was faced with a dilemma: “When you do a sequel, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t do it like the original, fans of this movie say you messed it up, but I chose to do Howl II very different. It’s a bit comical, really. I have a sense of humor, and I have a hard time not… I mean, how seriously can you take it?

As such, he knew exactly who he needed to play lycanthropy expert Stefan Crosscoe, who helps Ben White (Reb Brown) and Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe) take on the immortal Werewolf Queen. Stirba (Sybil Danning). Amid the over-the-top action and dialogue, Lee is “an amazing straight guy,” Mora says. “This movie wouldn’t have worked without Christopher being absolutely deadpan. For example, when he puts on those sunglasses at night [to infiltrate a punk nightclub], it’s just beautiful, but it wouldn’t have worked if he wasn’t deadly serious. We knew it was funny, but funny is serious business.

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Shooting the punk club sequence also created a situation that could have been a lot less fun, Mora says. “We fired Howl II in Prague, Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, and during the punk scene, the assistant director came up to me and said, “There’s a problem. There is a Russian general outside who wants to see you; he wants to know what you are doing. So I walked out, and this general looked like he just came back from the war in Afghanistan, a terrifying guy. There was an interpreter there who said, “The general wants to know what you’re doing, because young people don’t have the right to meet like that. And I said, ‘Oh, I’m doing a werewolf movie.’ The interpreter then says: “The general wants to know: what is a werewolf? [Laughs] And I said to him, ‘A werewolf is someone who turns into a wolf when there is a full moon.’

“The general looked at me and I was like, oh, what’s going to happen now? And he burst out laughing, and I thought, oh, thank God! Then he said, ‘ You have half an hour to finish what you’re doing, and then everyone has to leave, three at a time every 10 minutes, because it’s an illegal assembly, of werewolves or whatever. other. you do.'”

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Filming the Werewolf Adventure Behind the Iron Curtain also led Mora to some surprising discoveries about Lee’s background. “We were landing in Prague, and there was a military welcome committee there, and I said to Christopher, ‘I wonder who that is.’ He said, ‘This is for me, man! I’m a war hero here; I was involved in the assassination of [Nazi official] Reinhard Heydrich, who terrorized these people.

“It was a whole new side to Christopher that I didn’t know. He said he had been in British intelligence and involved in the planning of Heydrich’s death and the hanging of the Nazis. And because Prague was occupied by the Russians, the KGB was following us and monitoring our hotel calls and stuff, because I think they knew Christopher’s background, as far as I know he may have reported to the Secret Service British people about what was happening in Communist-occupied Prague.

“So there was all this actual spy stuff, and when I saw it after we did Howl II, he told me that he had told me a bit too much, because he was still under the Official Secrets Act in London, which is very strict; you never really escape it. He said he had been visited by the intelligence people, and they told him he was still under confidentiality and to shut up!

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“Christopher saw a lot of horrors during the war,” adds Mora, “and I think that gave him a gravity to his game that you can’t fake. He had witnessed all those terrible things, and I believe that it gave him power on screen, as he subconsciously projected the gravity of this true horror.

Mora is now paying homage to this part of Lee’s history with a project called Dracula, Nazi hunter, a hybrid of documentary and recreated scenes chronicling the actor’s activities during World War II and the post-war era. Although Lee’s death in 2015 prevented him from offering advice on the film, “He showed me some places, when we did Howl II, where he described scenes from the war he had been involved in with the Resistance. Christopher was very emotional about the whole thing, so I just think it’s a great project. It’s about history, but it’s also about movies.

Mora had a film crew in Prague during Dracula, Nazi hunter, “including a Czech-Australian collaborator of mine called Tom Fantl. We were really paralyzed by the pandemic, and it slowed us down. embodying Lee in recreations. “It’s practically impossible,” Mora acknowledges, “because if it’s not really precise, it becomes comical. It’s very hard to cast real people when the audience knows what that person looked like. I mean, Baz Luhrmann found assets with the guy [Austin Butler] who played Elvis; it was absolutely amazing, he is one of the best look-alikes in cinema. But it’s a tall order.

The director also returns to the world of werewolves with a film currently titled The growl. All he’ll say about this one is, “It’s on the back burner, but it’s definitely here. I wrote it myself, and I had to summon magic to come up with a werewolf idea that wasn’t done.

“Magic” is also a word Mora uses to describe her moments with Lee. “Working with Christopher was one of my great life experiences. You know, when these things happen in that moment, you often don’t realize how big they are or how important they are. J I certainly enjoyed doing those movies with him as they were happening, but now that he’s passed away, I realize how valuable those experiences were and what a special person he was.