Updated: Nov 13, 2020
By Flapper Press:
More than 35 years later, the Highlander franchise continues to engender a fanbase of outspoken loyalists and nostalgic admirers—and is preparing to garner even more with a much-anticipated reboot/remake from John Wick co-creator Chad Stahelski. But it was that very first film that started it all off, with its dynamic music-video style, its haunting themes of love and loss, and its rocking soundtrack from powerhouse band Queen.
Recently, journalist, author, and Scotsman Jonathan Melville published what may be the definitive work chronicling the harrowing adventure that was bringing that original film to life. From multiple rewrites, to on set challenges, to legal and emotional conflicts, Melville details every aspect of the process in his new book, A Kind of Magic: Making the Original Highlander.
We reached out to the author to pick his brain about his new work, his insights into the process, and his love of Highlander.
FP: What is it about Highlander that made you want to write an entire book about it?
JM: I’ve been mildly obsessed with Highlander since I first saw it as part of a midnight double bill with The Crow in 1994 here in Edinburgh, Scotland. We’ve never had much of a film industry here, so we tend to take any film that could potentially be said to be Scottish to our hearts, and Highlander definitely fits the bill!
I was looking for a new project after writing my first book on the Tremors franchise, and the combination of being a fan and knowing that nobody had delved too deeply into the history of Highlander encouraged me to start researching the film.
Then, when Clancy Brown attended the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2016 for the film’s 30th anniversary and I had a chance to interview him, I realised I had the first interview for a book.
FP: Why do you focus just on the first film?
JM: The first film is my favourite of the franchise, and knowing that I would be spending three or four years of my life on the project, I wanted to be sure it would be enjoyable. I hoped there would be enough to say about just the first film that fans would feel it justified over 300 pages, and I think that turned out to be the case.
FP: Do you plan any follow-up books about other films or series in the franchise?
JM: I have been asked about perhaps covering Highlander II, as it has such a complex history and the results are . . . variable. But I think the first film is loved by all fans while the sequels are only tolerated by some, so I’m just not sure the audience is there for a book on those. As for the Highlander: The Series and other TV shows, John Mosby covered them in his book Fearful Symmetry, and I don’t know if I can improve on the detail he went into.
FP: What was the biggest challenge writing this book?
JM: Probably trying to make the relatively boring details that go into the financing and production of a feature film sound interesting to readers. When we watch a film, we tend to stay for 90 minutes and hopefully leave feeling entertained—most people couldn’t care less who financed it, how the lead actor was cast, or what the weather was like on set.
I wanted to try and bring the reader into the decision-making process and make them feel like what was going on behind the scenes was a bit like watching a film. A few times I found myself getting bored with sections of the book, so I had to stop, work out what was going wrong, and start again. At its heart, it is a book about business and the making of a product, but I hope it's still entertaining.
FP: How open were people involved in the production to speaking with you for the book? Was there anyone who you wanted or tried to interview for this book but were unable to get?
JM: Because 35 years have passed since everyone worked on the film, I found them more than happy to open up about their experiences. Almost everyone I approached said "yes" to an interview, though some simply didn’t reply or politely declined. I think most people told the unvarnished truth, and there are some stories in there that perhaps aren’t entirely flattering to everyone involved, but I tried to offer both sides to most stories.
I did try to talk to the New York hotdog vendor but didn’t get a response. I also wanted to chat to Sir Sean Connery, but he’s long retired.
FP: After 35 years now, why do you think the original film, and the franchise as a whole, has endured for so long? Why are fans still so passionate about it?
JM: It’s hard to say exactly why the first film in particular has endured, and ultimately I think it’s due to the combination of factors. It’s a fantasy film with action, science fiction, romance, and comedy, a strange combination that shouldn’t really work but somehow does. It’s also got a fantastic visual style thanks to Russell Mulcahy, and Queen’s score is incredible. Personally, I think the love story between Connor and Heather grounds the film—you can believe that he loves her and that somehow makes the crazy immortality stuff work.
FP: Why do you think the original film has stood the test of time while its film sequels haven’t been nearly as well received?
JM: As I mentioned before, the first film has a lot of different elements that just somehow work, but a lot of time and effort was put into the script, and writers Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson really thought about what was at the heart of the film and the characters.
The sequels were made with less care and attention and without much thought about the character of Connor MacLeod. Christopher Lambert does his best to make Connor a three-dimensional character, but I’m not convinced those making the films cared as much as he did.
FP: How much of the series’ success do you attribute to following the foundations laid in the first film?
JM: Christopher Lambert notes in the book that he was originally approached to play Connor in the TV series, but he turned it down as he didn’t want to commit to many years making the show. The creators took the basic elements of the first film and spun them into something that could stretch over multiple seasons, allowing the concept to evolve over time. Having the first film as a template definitely helped the series, but ultimately it became its own thing.
FP: With so much already written about Highlander over the years, what do you want readers to discover in your book? How does yours differ from what has been written before?
JM: When I started researching the book, I soon became determined to uncover stories that even the most die-hard fans hadn’t heard before, otherwise there was no point in writing it. There’s so much on the internet already that you could go and read Wikipedia and some old articles and get a rough idea of the making of the film.
I wanted to put some meat on the bones of what was out there, to start the moment screenwriter Gregory Widen had the germ of an idea and bring the story right up to the present day. I want the book to take readers on a journey and make them finally feel they understand how and why the film they love is what it is, something I don’t think has happened in the past.
FP: What was the most shocking thing you learned while researching this book?
JM: That’s a tricky question, as I found out so many interesting things that I didn't know, from who performed the backflips in the opening sequence to what it was like filming the car ride in New York to who was hiding in the bottom of the boat with Sean and Christopher on the Scottish loch!
Perhaps the most fascinating thing I learned was what the battle sequence was like to shoot, and I spoke to a dozen or so people who were there to get a full picture of what took place. From extras being hospitalised to hundreds of clansmen almost not getting fed, it was an incredible sequence to be in and to write about.
FP: This seems like more than just a curiosity to you, you seem to be a real fan of the film. How have fans changed the general perception of the film over the years? How much of an impact have they had on it becoming the cult classic that it is?
JM: Highlander fandom is relatively small in the grand scheme of things, certainly nowhere near the levels of Star Wars or Star Trek. Fans have had a tough time of it over the years, constantly having to justify the existence of the sequels while knowing that the first film is something special. Then there are the fans of the TV series, with some preferring Duncan over Connor, while other fans have probably never watched an episode.
I’m not sure the devoted fans have had a huge impact on the wider world apart from forcing their friends/family/partners to watch the films with them, but it does seem that a lot of the general public love the first film. I’ve been amazed at the number of people who have told me it’s their favourite film or that it holds a special place in their heart.
I suppose over time the film has just seeped into the mainstream in a way, helped by Queen’s music and that classic line "There Can Be Only One," which everyone seems to be able to quote.
FP: What are your thoughts on the upcoming remake?
JM: I’m 100% for it. The basic concept of Highlander is so simple and yet so complex at the same time. The idea that there’s a hero who’s immortal and he’s been around for centuries trying to protect his friends and loved ones from the bad guys is a dream for any storyteller.
FP: Knowing now the ins and outs of the first film’s production, what advice would you give Chad Stahelski and the rest of the team attempting the remake?
JM: Make sure you nail the script before you do anything else. Work out who Connor MacLeod is and what makes him tick, then build a world around him. Plan for lots of rain when you come to film in Scotland!
FP: What would be the biggest things to avoid and/or include in the remake?
JM: Make the film for as wide an audience as possible, but try not to forget the fans who have been loyal for 35+ years. Make sure Connor, the Kurgan, Heather, and Brenda are in there, but don’t feel like it has to follow the original story slavishly. The world of the Immortals can be huge and span the centuries, but remember to have those smaller moments sprinkled throughout, scenes of two people walking through the streets of New York, of Connor remembering the past, or characters falling in love. Have lots of flashbacks. Oh, and make the swordplay look incredible.
Order your signed copy of A Kind of Magic: Making the Original Highlander. The first 1536 orders will also receive a signed and numbered limited edition booklet of previously unpublished photographs and artwork.
You can also order through Amazon.com in the US.