Director Lisa Downs’ Life After Flash is an excellent feature-length documentary which not only looks at the making of the 1981 cult hit Flash Gordon, but also the life of its star, Sam J. Jones.
Filled with plenty of heart and anecdotes, Downs’ film is a beautifully crafted (and rather emotional) piece which looks at how Jones dealt with his rise to fame, how things went off-the-rails and then how he turned his role in Mark Wahlberg’s Ted into a career comeback.
Life After Flash features interviews with Sam J. Jones and a wide-range of the Flash Gordon‘s cast and crew. It gives fans of the movie a wonderful insight into the making of the beloved adventure and a positive message on how you can find redemption no matter how dark the path might get. Read the Movies In Focus review of Life After Flash.
Movies In Focus caught up with Lisa Downs to discuss how she brought her documentary to the screen.
So, how did Life After Flash come about?
I didn’t set out to make a film about Flash Gordon. I’d been working in television for a while and been producing factual entertainment and it was stuff that I wasn’t really interested in. I wanted to do something that was my idea – creatively to have that freedom.
I was talking with a girl I used to work with called Lisa Doyle, who did The Jump with Sam. He never actually made it on TV because he hurt his shoulder. She spent about three months with him and we were at this party for a mutual friend and we were talking and she mentioned he was on The Jump. I said, ‘Oh god, I love Flash Gordon. I would love to something on him’. I didn’t know what happened to him, I was a huge fan, but I hadn’t seen anything of his work, apart from Ted. She put me in touch with his manager and agent, I Skyped him and he’s very business-like- so it was very stressful. Fair enough, because he’s being asked to tell his story. He was like ‘Where’s it going to go, who’s going to see it, how are you going to do it? What’s your plan with it?’
That was October 2014 and in January 2015 we flew to Lorado, which is the opening of the film. So that’s the first time we met him and it was maybe for him to make sure we were okay and to talk about crowd-funding perks. And that’s how it happened.
How much time did you spend with him? I noticed that his hair changes throughout the film. How many times did you meet up with him?
Well, it was shot over three years. We had about five interviews. To be honest, in America we only did two trips to the states. Then he came to Rochdale, England where we got all that actuality of him and then the final interview where he was really open about everything was shot in London before the 35th reunion that I organised. Probably, collectively, only about a few weeks to be honest – across the three years.
In-between it was additional shoots in the US, Israel and Italy. We were very lucky that the film was shot in England, so in-between when I was trying to raise the money from crowd-funding and trying to build an audience and trying to get to the states I could at least start interviewing people in England, which really helped.
You spoke with pretty much the entire cast. Was anyone difficult to pin down?
Everyone who was in the film was not difficult to pin down once I connected with them. They were more than willing to be involved and everyone was friendly and keen and wonderful about it. People were difficult to find – like Topol took a long time to find. Brian May took a long time – his diary- because he’s so busy.
You’ll notice there are some key characters who aren’t in it – and for various reasons. I never actually connected with them personally, except for one. And they were in a place where they didn’t want to be involved – and fair enough. I couldn’t pay anyone and they didn’t owe me to be involved. One was just too expensive. But I did certainly try to do it. A lot of the time it’s just trying to get a hold of people and pursuing them and convincing them to give up their time to do this for the good of the film.
Was Sam the draw? Did that help get the other people onboard?
Definitely Sam was the first person onboard and if he wasn’t involved then I couldn’t have done it. It did help. Someone like Melody is very much, ‘Anything for Sam’. Brian Blessed, ‘Anything for Sam, I’ll do it’.
There’s a lot of these homage films that are coming out, that only focus on the making-of and some of those don’t have any of the main cast and I was conscious that I couldn’t make a film about Flash Gordon without him in it. There were certain key people – like if Brian Blessed’s not in it, I don’t know if I can still release it. How can you have the film without Brian Blessed?
Once we got Sam onboard, it helped enormously because people realised it was a serious project.
You touch on the dark times in Sam’s life. Was he open to go there, or did you have to tease that out of him?
From the beginning I didn’t go straight into it because he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. He didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know what to expect. So, we started off very top level. The first interview you’ll see, with the Flash Gordon merchandise to the right of him, he very much only talks about the film and the audition process and what it was like to be on set.
As we increased, I wanted him to feel more comfortable about it and he was amazing. It was a quicker process than I thought it would be to get him to start to open up. We were very lucky that he approached all of his family, all of his friends – he has a close circle of friends that you see in the film – he spoke to all of them and said ‘as long as you tell the truth, I don’t care what you say. It’s the truth’.
Part of what he wanted from this film was for people to see it and have this message: humble yourself – it’s not all about you and you have to live for the people around you. I said, ‘if people can’t see how far south you went then they’ll never appreciate what you’ve went through to get to where you are’.
There were a few of the really hard-hitting stories, that I had done maybe four interviews with Sam and I’d interviewed his friends and the stories came out and had to go back to Sam the final time – the one in London and say, ‘look, they’ve told me these stories, we need to sit down and talk to you about it’.
He spoke to his wife the night before and they both discussed and it said, ‘if we’re going to do this, we’ll use this as a platform to really open up about everything’. I think he really appreciated that and I certainly did. I was very, very lucky that he was able to be so honest.
He was incredibly self-critical of who he was – and you rarely see that when someone is being interviewed.
Yeah, but I don’t think that the film would have worked if he had put the blame on other people. He’s right, we are all responsible for our own actions. I cut this bit out, but he said, ‘unless you’re kidnapped and chained to a wall, it’s not your fault. But everything else, you’re responsible for your own actions.
I don’t think it would have worked and I don’t think that he would have been likeable if he was still putting blame on other people. He had gone through a learning process. The fact that we was able to own-up to everything he did, I hope inspires people when they watch it to see themselves differently.
He seems very happy now of who he is.
He does regret what happened and there’s reasons why he doesn’t want to watch the original film anymore – but he’s in such a good place now. I feel like he’s able to reflect on it objectively and say. ‘this is what happened and this is how I dealt with it’. And hopefully, that’s part of the journey that people can see and be inspired by it. Otherwise he’d come across as asshole – and you wouldn’t have that connection with him. I hope you come out the film really rooting for him – and I came out of the filming rooting for him. We felt really protective of him. He was just so honest.
That’s just it – everyone seems really protective of him. Even Brian Blessed and Melody Anderson. Even though the film was made 35 years ago.
They all really care about each other. That’s what’s really lovely. The three of them together, and the rapport that they have. They really look out for each other and it’s really lovely to see. Even interviewing Richard O’Brien and I mentioned Melody, his eyes lit up and he was’ give her my best and I’d love to see her again’, It means a lot to them.
Was it difficult getting Martha De Laurentiis – because of what happened between Sam and Dino?
No, to be honest, I googled her and I emailed her. I think she also had had a relationship with Sam and I think that he had emailed too and I think that could have helped. But by the time I had connected with her, I had so much in the bag already. And Dino was really proud of the film. Dino loved the film and I think that she likes to continue that as well. Obviously, I can’t talk for her – but that’s the impression that I got.
Did Sam go into detail about how he made up with Dino?
Only what you see in the film. The phone call, ten of fifteen years later where he called and made amends. I think Sam was really happy about that because obviously Dino died shortly afterwards. what you see in the film is pretty much what he had told me.
Skipping away from that – Brian May. What’s it like meeting Brian May?
I still get tingles. He’s just the loveliest guy. It was so funny – we were in his house. When we were organising it he was like, ‘I really want a piano because I want to play this little bit that no-one sees’. Which is what you see in the film.
I got there and there’s obviously so many people around doing various things and I see him through the window in the garden and that hair. He walked in and he was super nice and he said. ‘I have to go and get ready’ and he comes out with his Flash T-shirt, Flash mug and Flash album and he was like, ‘is this too much?’. That’s the reason he’s wearing that shirt. It was a very surreal experience because he’s so iconic, so talented and so amazing.
It really hit me when I was interviewing him and he started playing the theme and I was like. ‘you’re the one that wrote this’. Then you start think about all the other songs he’s written and there’s photos of Freddie around it’s the most surreal moment and then we played the pinball machine.
I can’t praise him highly enough. Just to be an amazing person and so gentle. Such a gentle energy.
I was surprised with how proud he is of the movie and the soundtrack.
He is. Originally we had tried to get an interview with Roger Taylor because a friend of ours had been working with him. Roger said, ‘you know what, this is really Brian’s baby. He’s the one you should be taking to’.
We’d thought that as well, but we didn’t have the direct connection to Brian at that point, but it worked out really well and you can tell by the way he talks about it that he’s really passionate about it. So that was a very surreal moment in the whole filming,
He plays the guitar with these little sixpence and he gave us these sixpence, which are framed now in my house. The sixpence that he used on his last tour. It’s just really cool.
I do have to ask – why does he have that massive piano stuck in that little corner?
If you saw what else was in his house, you’d understand why it’s in the corner. He’s got a throne when you walk in. There’s a lot of memorabilia. I think they collect everything. There was someone over there at that time archiving everything – it’s like a museum. it was amazing. I guess that’s why the piano was there.
What was the highlight of making the film for you? Was it meeting Brian May or spending time with Sam?
It’s surreal because you’re a fan of the film, so everyone you meet has some sort of an impact in one way or another. There was one moment when I first began in Texas when I met Sam. We were having dinner with Sam and Melody and it hit me halfway that I was having dinner with Flash and Dale and I had to go and compose myself in the bathroom for a little bit because that was the start if it all.
Definitely Brian May and Topol were the other two that I got nervous about. Hearing Brian on his piano and then Topol, being in his house in Tel Aviv and then he drove me and my sister to his charity in the north of the country and he took us out for sushi and we were singing along in the car. Topol’s singing to me in the car, Beatles songs and Fiddler on The Roof. That was probably the second most bizarre interview moment.
You travelled all over the world making it. Logistically it sounds like a lot of work. How did it all come together?
It goes back to the crowd-funding, I guess. We did two rounds of crowd-funding. The first round of crowd-funding did one initial trip with Sam in San Diego and Alex Ross in Chicago, We went to Mexico we went to Alamo City Comic Con in San Antonio, Which is amazing – everyone should go to Alamo City – it’s brilliant. So we had footage and then we kept filming in the UK but there were missing pieces. So, I was like we need to do a second round of crowd-funding to get back overseas. So the second round of crowd-funding was to do the LA trip with Martha, to Seattle, we went to Oregon for a comic con. And it covered Israel and Italy as well.
It was really just the crowd-funding. Crowd-funding’s tough because everyone is so wonderful to put money in, but when you ask for more for a second round. A lot of people ask, ‘why? We already donated and we thought the film was going to be finished’. It was tricky to explain, but I think that everyone was very understanding about it. But that’s kind of how it had to happen.
And now you’re doing one of Flight Of The Navigator?
I am. In addition, there’s two others I’m in the early stages of- but Life After The Navigator is the next one. We went and filmed that with Joe (Cramer), for only three of four days at the beginning of the year and again, I’m in the same position – how do I film when I don’t have a budget. So, I’m thinking about doing crowd-funding but I haven’t decided yet because its been such hard work.
He’s doing his first comic con, funnily enough at Alamo City in October. Buy yeah, I’m really excited because he has just as an incredible story and he’s such a lovely perosn and it was just a film that I just adored, and still do.