The soon to be released documentary Life After Flash directed by Lisa Downs follows the making of the classic film Flash Gordon as well as the aftermath involving the star of the film Sam J. Jones along with both his personal and professional struggles. Brian Taylor of The Cine-Men sat down with Lisa and Sam at this years Fantastic Fest to talk about their new film as well as everyone’s favorite savior of the universe.
Brian Taylor– I’m here with Sam Jones and Lisa Downs to talk bout Life After Flash which is a great documentary. I’m gonna start with you Lisa. When you were making this film, besides obviously Sam, did you have a wish list of other actors and crew you were hoping to involve?
Lisa Downs– Yes I certainly did. When I started, I scoured the Flash Gordon IMBD page, because I wanted as many people involved as I could from the fans point of view. Also I wanted to include them (the actors), because I think the film is as just as important to them as all their other bodies of work. So I wanted to give them the chance to be involved with it too. But it was forty years ago, so some of the people I would have like to have spoken to aren’t with us anymore. But I certainly feel like I have done justice to the cast and crew that I could get. I didn’t want the fans to come away from the film like there was something missing from it. Actually one person who was on my wish list that I didn’t get was Seth Mcfarlane. Who actually agreed to be interviewed, but with me living in the U.K. I don’t get to the States very much, so when I was out there he was so busy and with scheduling, it was close but just didn’t work out.
BT– It looked like you pretty much had all the major players that were still alive, except maybe the actress who played the princess-
LD– Ornella Muti was one. Yes, there were three actors and the director who was actually in the reunion scene, but for various reasons were unable to be involved. But I did certainly do my best to contact everyone, that was the biggest part of it, finding people was so tricky as well, but I really did try to get everyone involved in the film.
BT– Out of all of those interviews that you did get, who one were you most excited to sit down and talk to?
LD– The two highlights would have to be Brian May, because it was so surreal, halfway through the interview when he was playing the piano it just hit me, you know, I was thinking, “this is actually Brian May!” he wrote all these amazing songs, and he’s there playing Flash on the piano in front of me, and I had this kinda clammy moment when it occurred to me who I was interviewing so I had to calm myself a little bit, but that was very exciting. Just to see his house and be in his presence that was incredible.
And the second one was Topol (Dr. Zarkov), because I flew to Israel for that interview, and we met him in his house and he took us out to a sushi lunch with his wife, and he drove us to his charity up in the north of his county and we were singing songs from The Beatles in the car along the way. Was was so sweet and so welcoming, he got us out for tea the night before, he was such an incredible man to be around. And he was so talented, he’s a portrait artist now, he showed me his portraits, it was all wonderful.
BT– I read somewhere that you play the piano?
LD– I do, yes.
BT– When you sat down with Brian May did you take a spell on the theme?
LD– Oh no!, No, I wouldn’t even! It’s funny, my youth 12 performance, I played Bohemian Rhapsody so I was thinking, could I remember it? Could I still do it, but you don’t take up that challenge, it would be too embarrassing.
BT– How did you ultimately choose the total amount of material to use in the film? I heard the original running time was 2 hours and 50 minutes?
LD– It was. Yes, my producer Ash, who is also my partner was very adamant, saying you gotta keep cutting, it has to be a little shorter than 2 hours and 50, and I was like, no, it’s finished, I love it. So it was really difficult, and just a case of taking a step back and watching again and seeing where I felt like it was maybe a bit slower, where I could move things around. And I would love to release Special Features, so there was always, if I take it out, I’ll put this aside for the Special Features. That was my mentality. You know the first cut was 5 hours, it really was, and everyday you just chip away at it.
BT– Yeah I can’t wait to see more of that Brian May interview. Sam, some questions for you. What’s your favorite memory of actually filming Flash Gordon almost 40 years ago?
Sam Jones– I guess it was mostly being in England, that was kinda surreal. I did have some interesting things happen when I first got there. I got a call, this guy called me and said, “Hi I’m Burt Reynolds, I’m in town, and would like to take you and your lady to dinner.” I said, look buddy, don’t call here anymore. You know it was 1979 and Burt Reynolds was a huge mega star, I just thought it was a prank call, so I hung up. He calls again and says “Sam, this is really Burt, I’m in town with Sally Field, we’re screening my movie.” So I say okay give me the info, so I write it down and told my lady, I don’t know who this is, he says it’s him, I couldn’t get anybody to corroborate that. He says it’s a party, so lets just show up tomorrow night, we’ll show up an hour late you know? And so we show up an hour late and walk into the restaurant and there is Burt Reynolds and Sally Field sitting at a table for four and my girl and I are an hour late. (Laughs) There was no party except us, and I told him that I was so sorry, he goes no, its fine, but he was so humble and super nice, and it was wonderful. We hit it off so well, that the next night he took us to a screening of his movie Starting Over, we even saw Superman, Chris Reeves was there, and the third night he took us to see Yul Brynner in The King and I and we went backstage, it was unbelievable.
BT– That sounds like quite an experience. Watching the doc I noticed that a lot of people, when they play an iconic character they want to try to get away from it. And it seems like you’ve really embraced being Flash. Has it always been that way or did it take you some time to fully embrace that?
SJ– Well, you know, some of my early representation after Flash said, you gotta walk away from that, and I said why? I mean we’re here right now because almost forty years later because of it. It’s who I am, it’s part of me. And some of the similarities are really uncanny. Me Sam Jones and the character Flash Gordon are so similar, so I embrace it.
LD– You can see it come across in the film [After Flash] the similarities really are there.
BT– Yeah I think they are as well, you can certainly see him embracing that character and the fact that he will always be know for that really is something in the documentary, you can see his enthusiasm for it all.
LD– And as a fan of the original film too, you have that whole thing of ‘be careful of meeting your idols’ but it’s nice to know that a guy that you grew up with in this film, loves it and embraces it as much as you do, which I think can be quite a rarity these days.
BT– That brings me to a question I wanted to ask. When did you first see Flash Gordon and where?
LD– You know what. I have no idea, I know I have never seen it at the cinema, to this day. In L.A., next week is going to be my first time seeing it on the big screen. I think it must be growing up in the U.K. it’s like Labyrinth is a staple Christmas film in the U.K., and I think Flash Gordon is a staple Christmas film. It’s almost a rite of passage growing up. I think it must be from that, because I am a little too young to have seen it at the cinema. I don’t remember when I first saw it, it was just apart of my childhood. (To Sam) I don’t know if I told you this, but when I was five or six I used to take my sister into the garden and make her stick her hand in various holes in case something would bite her, based on that scene. It was just part of growing up, which has been interesting because of fans that we interview remember exactly when they saw it, some say “My dad took me when I was nine to the cinema, and the music hit me.” And I don’t have that memory it’s just always been apart of my childhood.
BT– That is pretty awesome. Sam, most people do know you as Flash Gordon, but is there another role that you are especially proud of that you think fans should seek out?
SJ– Well, one of my favorites was a series called The Highwayman. It was 1988 and I loved it because I got to dress up like The Road Warrior, Mad Max, carry a big sawed-off shotgun strapped to my leg, drive a big 18-wheeler and shoot in the great outdoors of Arizona. We did exteriors almost everyday for six months. I loved being outdoors in all the elements.
BT– Now since we are in the age of sequels and reboots I wanted to ask if they came up to you and said we are making another Flash Gordon and offered you a choice of any role you wanted, what character would you play and why?
SJ– Well it would have to be Flash Gordon, or even the father of Flash, it would almost have to be. I did a lot of roles with prosthetics, I think when I was thirty I played a seventy-five year old man, that was pretty cool. They gave me a beard and wooden leg. My son was seven that the time, and he didn’t recognize me, I didn’t mean to but I scared the little dude. People have said I should play Ming, and that’s fine, but I think we should have a Chinese actor play Ming, like a major star from China for the role. But I would have to be Flash Gordon.
LD– Just to topic of sequels, I actually did have a segment that went into more detail. I don’t know if many fans know this, but the sequel was written to set up for Klytus to take over, because that was Klytus’s hand at the end with the ring and there is a really great photo with Ming standing with all these different Klytus heads, and the idea was when Klytus dies, he just gets replaced so we got this kind of Klytus army.
LD– That was going to be the sequel also to have Flash Gordon under water.
SJ– Yeah! Underwater!
BT– That’s great. Now there is actually a lot of honesty in this documentary. (To Sam) How difficult was it to open up about your past troubles?
SJ– I found it difficult not to. Ya know, otherwise its like not going anywhere. There’s gonna be no life, just standard. In my Marine Corps type of thinking, to me standard is sub-standard. The kids are doing homework and their goal should not be just to getting a passing grade, to get a C. And they say “Well dad, that’s the standard.” No it’s not. Its sub-standard. Shoot for an A, okay? And my thinking is just like that in about everything. (Laughing)
BT– I have to say it was really refreshing to hear you speak about it last night.
LD– Yeah, you have to see how far it went, you have that realization of how far one person’s journey really is.
BT– That’s very true.
LD– And I think people respect that. You know, we live in a time where people’s pride gets in the way and they don’t admit when they are at fault. They want to put the blame on other people. And to actually see someone being so open just to say, “Yeah I did it.”
SJ– And things like that, I never really talked about my brother all these years and she brought that up, think we actually had to cut camera for minute there if I’m not mistaking.
LD– Yeah, we were in Mexico and I asked if you had a sibling and you mentioned the car accident. That was the last interview we did when we talked about it.
BT-Just a couple more questions, (To Lisa) I read that you are a photographer?
LD– I think I was just filling out my IMDB page, I mean I got photos published in this book, but I wouldn’t call myself a photographer.
BT– I was just going to ask because, I was wondering how much of the camera work did you do on the film?
LD– I did only a couple of interviews, my producer shot most of it. You know as with indie films you just shoot when you can. But with the big interviews like with Brian May we called in a couple of favors with friends for much better cameras than we had. My producer did shoot I would say 80% of it. But you do what you can.
BT– Last question. Most people will see this documentary because they love Flash. But I think coming out of it, they will love Sam more. But what do you hope people will take away from this film?
LD– Well a few things. I wanted to make the fans proud of celebrating the film [Flash Gordon] as well, but the main thing was Sam’s story, and I just wanted to get the truth behind who the person was that so many people idolized. I didn’t really know Sam’s story before starting, so I didn’t know what it was going to be or where it would go, so the more we sent time with Sam, the more I learned about it. That became very much more the focus to inspire people by that. If they are going through a tough time or in similar situations that Sam was in. I wanted people to come out and maybe that could help them in some way. That would be the main thing. But you know, I want to have Flash Gordon fans be happy with the film too from that aspect.
BT– As a Flash Gordon fan I was very happy.
LD– Well good, thank you.
BT– Thank you both for your time.
SJ– Thank you! Get a little croissant before you go.