'Battlefield Earth,' 20 Years Later: Talking to the Design Team Behind the Looks That We Can't Forget

Twenty years ago, moviegoers got a glimpse of a future they wanted no part of. Battlefield Earth—director Roger Christian's adaptation of the 1982 sci-fi novel written by author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard—brought a messy and bleak vision of the year 3000 to the big screen. In the film, Earth is ravaged and under the rule of humanoid aliens called Psychlos, who have enslaved humanity. But that's not even the worst of it, according to critics.

Released in North America on May 12, 2000, Battlefield Earth was brutalized in reviews (today, it holds a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes) and later showered with Razzie Awards, and it also dented the post-Pulp Fiction comeback of its star, John Travolta. By the end of its theatrical run, the movie grossed just under $30 million worldwide; rather than becoming the first entry in a blockbuster franchise, it turned into a too-easy punchline.

Still, for all its flaws (like the persistence of Dutch angles, the dubious special effects and the tiresome pacing, to name just a few), Battlefield Earth is a memorable movie. And, aside from its disastrous reputation, the most memorable aspect of the film is the look of its characters. Travolta and Forest Whitaker play two Psychlos, which means they're wearing leather costumes and yellow-ish contact lenses; they've got bulky prosthetics on that make their hands look like hobbits' feet; their heads are adorned with tendrils of dreadlocked hair; they're supposed to tower over the "man-animals" (that's how the Psychlos refer to humans), so they're either on stilts or shot to appear several feet taller than they actually are; and their crotches are always bulging.

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In 'Battlefield Earth,' John Travolta stars as a hairy alien hoping to make off with some gold. Getty/Warner Bros.

According to several people involved in the shoot (principal photography of which took place in Quebec), the designs were largely developed by the film's production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos, with input from Christian and Travolta, the latter of whom also served as a producer. (Multiple attempts by Newsweek to reach Tatopoulos were unsuccessful.) Christian has plenty of experience in the realm of sci-fi—he was the set decorator for the original Star Wars, art director for Alien and second-unit director for both Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. With Battlefield Earth, he was hoping to introduce audiences to something they hadn't quite seen before.

"Because I came from Star Wars and Alien and all of this, I wanted a fresh, new look on it," Christian said in a recent phone conversation with Newsweek. "Patrick's incredibly talented. I wanted him to bring a whole new sensibility to it, and then I would work with him, and so would Travolta. That's how we did it—and we developed [Travolta's] look on a computer and then, in Montreal, we developed it for real."

Technically, Christian succeeded—moviegoers hadn't seen anything like Battlefield Earth, or its hairy alien overlords, before. The character designs left enough of an impression that Roger Ebert opened his half-star review by saying, "Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time." They've also lingered enough that, to commemorate the movie's 20th anniversary, Newsweek decided to speak with a few of the people who worked on Battlefield Earth's makeup and hair, to see what they recall of their time on set.

In a series of individual phone calls, we spoke with: Adrien Morot, who said he oversaw the makeup operation for the bulk of the Psychlos and personally handled Whitaker's makeup; Mike Smithson, who said he did Travolta's makeup; Jocelyne Bellemare, who said she supervised makeup application for all of the "man-animals" and also herself took care of makeup for the movie's second-billed star, Barry Pepper; and Ronald J. Rolfe, who said he helped out on set for a couple of weeks, doing hair for extras who played "man-animals" and touch-ups for people who played Psychlos. Christian also participated in this pseudo-panel discussion, answering several of the same questions we asked the others—except he did so through email, before getting on the phone for a followup conversation. Travolta, Pepper and Whitaker all declined to be interviewed for this article.

Overall, everyone interviewed for this piece remembered their experience on the project positively. They would've preferred if the film was more of a success, obviously, and groaned over the long hours, but they said they put forth their best effort and were glad to have had the challenge. (Bellemare also mentioned being given some reading material on Scientology early on, but said she didn't feel pressured to join the controversial religion, of which Travolta is a prominent follower. The other makeup and hair folks said that Scientology wasn't much of a presence at all on the set.)

Christian, meanwhile, seems defensive about Battlefield Earth, somewhat understandably so. "Most people didn't see it," he said on the phone, "they just went along with the wave of the negatives that came out." The director swears that the movie eventually made its money back, thanks to DVD sales, and also insists that the film's budget was not around $75 million, as has been reported. (It should be noted that Battlefield Earth was one of a few films at the center of a successful lawsuit over inflated production budgets against the now-defunct company Franchise Pictures.)

However the numbers shake out, Battlefield Earth has found some admirers—Morot has encountered them. "Once in a while, I'll do, like, a makeup convention where I'm invited to guest-speak, or a horror movie convention, and when I mention Battlefield Earth, there's always a cluster of, like, 20 people [going], 'Whoo!'" Morot said. "Every time, it's always funny."

These interviews have been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

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The official poster for 'Battlefield Earth' doesn't quite show off all of Travolta's dreadlocks. IMDb/Warner Bros.

When I say "Battlefield Earth" to you, what's the first thing that comes to mind?

Roger Christian (Director): A huge achievement by a crew of dedicated professionals who pulled it off for a very small budget.

Jocelyne Bellemare (Key Makeup Artist): I'm just thinking about the film and all the hard work that we did on the shoot.

Adrien Morot (Key Special Makeup Effects Artist): Chaos, long hours on set, waiting.

Ronald J. Rolfe (Hair Stylist): At that time, it was one of the bigger projects that had come to Montreal. It was an unusual science-fiction story, so we all found it kind of interesting to be part of it. And, of course, for hair and makeup teams, it was a crazy project—it was very intense and there's a lot of hair. Barry Pepper had to have hair extensions. And the beards and everything, all the wigs that had to be prepared literally around the clock, almost, to get everybody ready the next day, so we could get them out on set as fast as possible.

Mike Smithson (Makeup Artist for John Travolta): It was just raked over the coals. The one review that came to mind, it went something like, "A million monkeys with a million crayons could not have created something as cretinous as Battlefield Earth." I almost sent you those reviews, but I want to stay positive—at least, try to.

The chance to work with John was amazing. And, I have to say, throughout the entire process, he was incredibly positive and he was great.

What drew you to the project? Was it the cast, or being able to work on a sci-fi film?

Bellemare: It was attractive because it was kind of a challenge. I had to work with the production designer, who was Patrick Tatopoulos, and even if the film was kind of bad—we have to say, it won a lot of [Razzie] prizes—but the people who were involved, the technicians and the artists, they were all very good. Patrick Tatopoulos, he's a great creator.

Morot: It was more the actors that were working on [the film] that were the main draw. I remember, when they gave me the script they gave me also a copy of the book. I read the script and I was like, "It's not that great, but it's not that bad, either." For me, it's not that bad because I can laugh about it with a journalist from Newsweek 20 years later. You never know—and sometimes you don't think much of a script and then the movie comes out and it's like, "Wow, that's actually quite good." So, just reading the script of Battlefield Earth, it was tough to tell if it was going to be the classic that it now is. [laughs]

Rolfe: It was a challenge—because of all the effects for a hair department—so that was really why you wanted to work on it. And they were paying good money, too.

Smithson: It seemed like it had a lot of pedigree when we started [production]. John was involved, Forest Whitaker, Barry Pepper—and all three of these guys, I had worked with afterwards. And we never, ever discussed [the movie]. I did Forest's makeup on several projects with him for a little while, I worked with John again, and I worked with Barry, I think, on Lone Ranger—I did his makeup. I think maybe Barry and I discussed Battlefield Earth a tiny bit, but, not really something we brought up.

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Travolta's 'Battlefield Earth' character tries to stop a resistance fight led by Barry Pepper's character, a "man-animal" named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. Warner Bros./Getty

What was a normal day on the set like for you?

Morot: When Forest was there, it was vacation-like, because I would just go and do Forest's makeup and dedicate myself to just being with him. If it was a day where we had, like, up to 40 Psychlos to do... I had to use war measures, basically. I was like, "OK, you 10, you're only doing makeup application, just the prosthetics application. You're going to glue down, and then you're going to pass—if there's any sort of patching work that needs to be done—to those three, they're pretty good. And then, OK, you're going to move to another trailer where there's gonna be people with airbrushers and just gonna airbrush people." It was like a chain manufacturing process. And on a morning like that, I would go from one station to the next, just trying to help whoever was in need of help and trying to speed up things, and just getting the bulk of the actors processed and out, really, to wait for the rest of the day. Because that's usually what happened.

I remember doing that for weeks on end, where we did, like, 40 makeup every day and we would shoot nothing. And you had those guys in that goofy, ugly makeup, waiting around. First day, they're all laughing and playing football and it's like, "Haha, look at them with their goofy gloves and big head of hair and those giant scalps." And by the third day, they're like, "OK," they're sort of reading magazines. And by the second week, 14th day where they're just in makeup all day, not shooting anything, and just coming back to the makeup trailer at the end of the day to get their makeup removed—you see them, the doors of their trailers are open and they're laying on the floor, they look dead. They're dead inside and outside.

What was the single biggest challenge you had while making the film?

Christian: I basically had around $10 million when we went to Montreal, and had to make it work. It was an exact replay of making the first Star Wars, and so I created a miniature ILM in an old Navy Base with [visual effects supervisor] Erik Henry and relied on special effects. Because Montreal had made art films, I was able to take advantage and film at very low cost. Everyday was a huge struggle to make the schedule and get the work done, the schedule was so tight. I was helped through this by Don Carmody, our producer, who stood behind me like a rock and we worked together.

I only had $21 million to make the film with CGI and SFX. The final budget was $44 million, when [it was thought to be] budgeted at $75 million.

Rolfe: It's the volume of it. And then, if I did have to go touch up on one of those aliens, you'd have to get a 10-foot ladder. They built these special chairs for them—for the extras and the actors. Oversized directors' chairs, so they could sit down. Because the costumes also made them bigger, too, so I think they had to make special chairs so they could sit, and that way we could get close to them without having to put [ourselves] in danger by going up a ladder or something.

Smithson: It was like being a pit crew. There were so many bits and pieces to this makeup: We have to [maintain] the gloves, have to redress the hairpieces, pre-paint all the prosthetics. It was labor-intensive. It wasn't anything we haven't done before—there were a lot of working parts to it.

When you saw the film, did you know immediately that it wasn't working?

Smithson: Well, you always set out to do your best work. On set—and I know other people have said this, but it's the truth—I noticed that every other angle was a Dutch angle. I have to wrench my neck just to watch the monitor; why are we not shooting this in a more straightforward fashion? It got really annoying, watching the screening of it.

But during the whole filming process, there were a lot of things that I was like, "Why is his costume this way?" I had a lot of aesthetic questions, like, "Why are we doing it this way? Why is he in KISS boots? Why is his codpiece so huge?"

Were you surprised by how the film performed?

Bellemare: Yeah, we were all surprised. Because everybody worked very hard and they believed in the film. All the people, we did the best we could. And there were a lot of great technicians. We were thinking, "Wow, we're doing something, it's so amazing and we have great actors and everything," so when it was a real flop, it was a big surprise. But you never know those things.

Christian: We sold 600,000 DVD units in the first four months—Warners was surprised how successful it was. The true cost was $44 million. So it covered its cost. [It] was a backhanded compliment to myself and the crew [that] its cost was estimated at $75 million.

Morot: No, because I had seen the movie by that time and I thought they should've changed the marketing tactics right off the bat. It was being pummeled by the critics back then, I remember. It was like, nobody's gonna go and see a movie that's being massacred like that by the critics. They needed to switch the marketing: "It was called 'the worst movie of all-time,' come and see for yourself!" Something like that. Then maybe they would've had more people coming in.

But, again, it did find its audience because just like, a month ago, I received an email from somebody who's a huge Battlefield Earth collector, who's trying to put together a full display of the aliens and stuff like that, and was asking me if I have any pieces left and if I could sell them.

Rolfe: Yeah, I was disappointed—I think we all were. There was quite a bit of hype about it. We all thought it was going to be something special. Everybody wanted to work on [the film], because everybody wanted to go and see what was going on, and that's usual if you have a large production in town.

Smithson: Oh, I get the feeling we were all disappointed. You always have expectations and you hope that [the project] succeeds, but boy, once the first week and the reviews came out—there's no regrouping from that, it's pretty much over with.

Why do you think the looks in Battlefield Earth leave such an impression?

Bellemare: I don't know if I should say that. Everything was phallic in the makeup, that's what I remember. It's very phallic. The big head, you know, and everything. It was huge.

Morot: It is a very original look, as clunky as it is—the goofy gorilla hands and the ski boots. And there's nothing else like that out there in movie history. It's immediately identifiable. The second you think about those dreadlocks, and that giant cranium, and the gorilla hands, you're like, "OK, that's Battlefield Earth."

Rolfe: They looked amazing. Even in real life, when we were working with them and saw John Travolta and Forest with their makeup and their hair done, it was amazing. It was incredible work.

Smithson: It's completely outrageous. You take an icon like John Travolta, put him in KISS boots with a gigantic, leather codpiece, these sausage-monster fingers and then a gigantic head with dreads—you're not gonna forget that.