Lisa Downs on Transforming Her Fandom into the Celebratory ‘Life After Flash’

We chat with the director about assembling a gargantuan amount of footage into one cohesive documentary.

Life After Flash Fantastic Fest
Fantastic Fest / Jack Plunkett

Some films inspire more passion than others. Star Wars caught the world’s attention and sent producers into a frenzy to recapture that particular blend of sci-fi enthusiasm. From that storm came everything from brilliant imitators (The Last Starfighter) to dreadful dull dreck (The Black Hole). Flash Gordon fell somewhere in the middle, but over time managed to carve out its own corner in fandom.

When it came time for Dino De Laurentiis to make a play for those galactic bucks, he spared no expense. Every one of his dollars can be seen in its production design, radical special effects, and that raucous Queen theme song (“Flash, a-ah, savior of the universe!”). The film was a modest success in the states but found longer legs overseas. However, 40 years later, the cult of Flash Gordon is as loud as its color palate.

Director Lisa Downs never had a doubt. She’s loved the film from frame one and was determined to use her enthusiasm for the material as a beacon to guide others to the party. With her producing partner, Ashley Pugh, the two filmmakers sought out the guidance of Flash himself, Sam Jones. From there, the three of them ventured to capture the joys and frustrations of the Flash Gordon production as well as how the film shaped the lives of its fans and stars. Life After Flash is a jam-packed doc featuring nearly every possible member of the cast as well as numerous sound bites from celebrity admirers.

I spoke to Downs after the film screened at Fantastic Fest. She was riding high on the enthusiastic response from the crowd and was thrilled to keep the conversation going. We discussed the mammoth undertaking of assembling nearly 30 terabytes of footage, and the challenges of scoring essential interviews with Brian Blessed, Topol, and Brian May. We also talk about the tricky path she had to travel in terms of Sam Jones’ willingness to share the more personal aspects of his life story.

Downs is stunned that the film is behind her, and she’s eager to get back behind the camera. Fingers crossed, but Life After Flash is meant to be the first in a series of documentaries. She is already deep into production on Life After Navigator, another detailed exploration of a cult classic.

Here is our conversation in full:

Let’s start with the screening itself. That was a really fantastic, large crowd, and a very responsive crowd.

Yeah, I think that was probably one of the best yet.

How many times have you screened it for an audience?

Well we had two private screenings at the beginning for backers and cast and crew, but that version was 15 minute longer than this one ’cause it had been a month and I hadn’t had time to process it. So this is probably the fourth time.

You seemed a little nervous about the Q&A. You were trying to prep everybody before the film.

I did. Because a couple of times it’s happened that they go to the questions and it’s just silence and then you think do people not like it? Or are they shy?

It turns out you had nothing to fear. We had a lot of questions here, and it was such a perfect crowd for the film. Everybody was pretty much already a Flash Gordon fan going in. There were not many people raising their hands beforehand indicating that they hadn’t seen it.

Yes, I think two.

We’ve talked about this before, but I’m still struck by is the amount of footage you had to edit. So many interviews. You talked to practically everybody who’s associated with the film, plus anybody who ever liked the movie it seemed.

Yeah.

How do you go about assembling those interviews?

It was a process. Because all the interviews we actually had a proper sit down for at least an hour long, like a minimum for everyone. So you have all this content and then all the additional footage. I hadn’t planned to edit it at the beginning. You know, the luxury of having an editor, I wanted someone to come in to see it from a certain point of view.

It was just really baby steps. I did the first interview with Sam in Laredo and I just laid down a timeline and then thought, “Okay, what do I need to maybe tell the story?” I had this plan that I actually wanted it to parallel Flash Gordon at one point. So I had this storyline of Flash Gordon with cards and maybe what happens with Sam to relate to that. Then I thought, “Maybe I’m trying to be too clever with it.” But it was just every time I did an interview I had different things that I knew I wanted to cover. Like the auditions, Timothy Dalton, the music. So I had these sort of sections that I would piece them all together. Thinking I’m just organizing it for when they come in.

And then every single interview kept coming in and I just kept doing that. Then eventually my producer asked, “You should just do this yourself. By the time someone else comes in there’s too much to backtrack and it would take a few weeks to look at the footage anyway.” I know every single shot. I can recite the whole film probably. So it really helped that I had that background with it.

Then I did a little Excel spreadsheet and color coordinated all the themes from each section so I could see how it varied between the story and the film to try and weight it a little bit. Then I just kept trimming and trimming and trimming and trimming.

And tell me again, how many terabytes of footage did you get?

It’s probably like 30 terabytes or something. ‘Cause also we shot in 4K so that helps a little with the numbers. But it was an insane amount of footage.

Now some of those interviews look like you actually had very little time to get a good blurb or a soundbite. And then others, you know, Brian Blessed, Brian May, it seems like you had a lot more time with them.

The comic-con ones were probably the ones that I had the shortest amount of time. Particularly Stan Lee. For three days I just kinda waited and his people said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll do it. We’ll do it. We’ll do it.” You know, if you wait for them to come to you it’s never gonna happen. Matt Egan who was at the screening last night, he’s from San Antonio, literally spent three days like, “I got you. I’m on this.” And he was there watching Stan Lee. It was probably five minutes before he left on the final day that he kind of infiltrated him and just got one question like, “Let us do it.” And then the minders said, “Yeah we can do it right now. You can have it.” And we just-

Why was it important for you to get Stan Lee?

You know that’s a good question. I think because he is such an icon when it comes to superheroes. There was this debate going on about whether or not Flash Gordon is a superhero. So I really wanted his point of view as to like the ultimate superhero guy. Does he think Flash Gordon is a superhero? Which was gonna be my next question but I only had one. So I said, “What does it take to be a superhero?” And also I wanted to meet him, but that was probably the reason why.

At the comic-cons, you only have a limited time to really set up and there are people queuing. But all of the cast was really good. We got at least an hour for everyone to do it.

When did Sam become involved in the project?

He was very beginning.

How did you approach him?

It was through a mutual friend who worked on this TV show and then I put a proposal together and she sent it to someone who was kinda repping him at the time. Then we arranged a Skype call. I pitched it to him on the call and he is like very intimidating ’cause he’s very to the point.

Yeah, he’s intense.

I was just thinking, “You know we can chat about it.” He’s like, “How are you gonna raise the money? Where is it gonna be shown? How are you gonna do it? How much time do you need with me? Do you need to come in the house?” It was just very overwhelming but I had to think it through on the spot. But yeah I approached him and he had just happened to be speaking to his wife, Ramona, a couple days before about getting a platform to be able to tell his story. And then my email came through.

When you reached out to him, did you know that he would become as big a part of the narrative as he is? I mean, obviously, he’s Flash Gordon but beyond being Flash Gordon, so much of the Life After Flash is about the man that he became his philosophy.

I had no idea what his story was. So I even started to second-guess it at the beginning ’cause in working in a lot of TV a lot of my friends also ask the same thing. So when I’m talking to them they keep saying, “Well what’s the story? Where’s the drama? Where’s it gonna go? Where’s your three act structure?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know.” Maybe it’s not gonna turn out well. So I did start to doubt it at the beginning because I just had no idea what I was gonna create at the end of it.

But it was to start as a film on Sam and his life and what he was doing. Then it organically grew that if I was to focus on Sam I would have to talk to Melody about what happened on set. Then I thought I’m gonna talk to her, as fans of the film, I would probably wanna see bits of making-of too, and it just grew from there.

So, Sam was always going to be the focus. You were not interested in making a simple Flash Gordon celebration documentary.

The very first interview I did was very top level. Like “How did you get through the audition? What was it like on set?” You know, very generic questions. ‘Cause I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me and we were kind of just sussing it all out. Every interview I asked something a bit more personal. When we shot in September 2015 that was when we did a little bit of San Diego stuff and Mexico stuff. I got to spend more time with him. And it was during then that we met his family and his friends.

Then you learn that he’s into private security, and he invited you down on one of his missions to Tijuana.

Yeah.

What’s your thought process there?

Well, I had these grand visions of like guns and whatever. It’s so subtle when you’re there, everything is under the radar and he says. So it really was just us driving around in his car. But it was very cool to see this other side of him ’cause I didn’t know about that. He just said on the phone, “On my job, I do security.” And I’m like, “Okay well we gotta come and film you doing that then.” And he would organize it all.

Yeah, it was just very interesting to see that he puts 110% into that job as well. Like ridiculous getting up at 3 AM to be at the border by 5 AM. Then he gets to bed at 10 PM and he does it again. Like he said in the film “If you’re gonna do it, do it with the spirit of excellence.” And he did. It was very good to see.

It’s impressive to me, even here at the Q&A, and this morning when we talked to him, how open he is about past failings. Regarding the troubles that he had on set, but also afterward. Dealing with infidelity and raising his kids. When you’re talking to him about that, was he always willing to unload this information? Or was there a bargaining there?

Yes and no. I had not really gone there at the beginning as I said, ’cause I wanted to get to know him. That actually came out when we spoke to his friends. It was Rick Hill, he told me about the brother. And Patrick [St. Esprit], he talked about the infidelities and his time in the psych ward. I didn’t know any of that. I had done about three or four interviews with Sam already and I had mentioned his sibling to him and he just kinda brushed it off and changed the subject.

But I knew that there was something else. So I kinda said to him, “Well your friend didn’t say that. This is what he said.” He was very guarded then. When we finished that I wrote him an email and I said, “This is what all your friends have talked about. So I need to sit down with you one last time.” And then we sat down, right before the reunion, when he came to London. He spoke to Ramona the night before and she said, “You know what? You should use this as a time-” ‘Cause I don’t think his family knew about too much of it either. I think he was maybe nervous.

And obviously I’m shouldn’t be talking for him now but he was maybe nervous that they would find out about all of this. You know, it was a very big thing to him, I think. It was in that final interview that he just came clean about everything that I asked.

So you know, when you get this-

I don’t mean came clean, that’s probably poor wording. But he told me about everything.

But when you get that information, the sibling story, which is just such a tragedy, how do you then incorporate that stuff alongside clips of Flash Gordon or the Brian Blessed interview?

Well, I tried to separate them a little bit. So act one you kinda get into the film and it’s a bit making of, and then there’s that segue. I wanted people to come away with the idea that Sam is Flash. You know, that he had such a big role in the film and the film had such a big role in him. All the things that Flash stands for, Sam does as well. So it transitioned about the moving idealization with Flash Gordon’s dad happens to be like Sam’s dad.

I was trying to have elements that joined the two but then have them kind of separate so when you go into the home life it moves back into the film again and you get a bit more of Sam. So yeah, I was conscious to not obviously distract from that and then maybe give people a break from the anecdotes of the film, and then you get a bit of break from Sam’s story, and you’re back to the film. That was my Excel spreadsheet with my colors to try and even it out a bit. ‘Cause that was the two-piece part. How to navigate the film and Sam’s story.

The film addresses his banishment from the set of Flash Gordon, but no one ever gets into specifics with what eventually got him kicked out. Did you ever probe a little deeper into that story?

For me, it was actually interesting because I keep forgetting that this is something that happened 38 years ago. I’m asking these people as though it was last week. But everyone’s memory was actually surprisingly amazing. I did actually hear different stories from people, a couple of cast members, like someone, would say, “You know, I was standing there when this happened.” And then someone would say, “I heard this.” I just thought, “Well I have to go with what Sam says on this.”

He says the representations told him to hold up production till he got paid. So that’s what is ultimately in the film. He was not the only one that said that.

It’s a tricky conversation to navigate because you set this all up with a strong relationship with Sam, and you want to push but you don’t want to push too far.

Yeah. There are elements where you’re kind of interviewing and you can kinda feel that that’s the right thing to put in.

We should have probably already talked about it, but why do a Flash Gordon documentary in the first place? Are you a massive Flash Gordon fan?

I am. I am. But I’m a bit sad because everyone that I’ve been interviewing and nearly pretty much everyone, has the same story that they were eight or nine and they went to the cinema with their dad and they saw it and it was amazing. I never had that memory and I still haven’t seen on the cinema screen still.

Did you not see it last night?

No.

Nooooooooooooooooo.

But it’s playing at Beyond Fest next week. So I will be doing the double feature there.

Oh. Okay. Good. Good.

Yeah, so I’ve never seen it in the cinema. But in England, it’s a classic Christmas film. Like you look at Twitter at Christmas and the whole of England is like “Flash Gordon’s on Film 4.” It’s such an iconic Christmas film for Britain.

I just remember seeing it as a kid and it was always a part of my childhood. You know, The Goonies, Neverending Story, Flash Gordon, Labyrinth, they’re all a collective of my childhood favorite films. I don’t remember when I first saw it, but I just remember wanting … I might even think it existed in real life. I wanted to go live there and be there. It’s like this fun little place to escape to. But I didn’t sit down and go, “I wanna make a movie about Flash Gordon.” It came to me when I started to speak to a friend who worked for Sam.

It was just perfect timing. If I had approached Sam five or ten years ago to do this film it wouldn’t have been the same because he wasn’t in the right space to do it. So it worked out perfectly with timing.

So as a fan of Flash Gordon, what was the most surreal moment from the entire experience?

There’s a few. The very first time we came to America was January 2015. And it was the first time I met Sam. Melody was at that con as well, and we all had dinner. This happens a lot, halfway through things kind of trigger the reality of it. I was sitting there eating and I just had this moment of, “I’m sitting with Flash and Dale.” And I didn’t know what to do and I had to keep excusing myself to go to the bathroom to kind of just decompress a little bit and work out what the hell is happening. ‘Cause suddenly they’re there in front of you and they’re talking about things that happen in the film that you’re so familiar with and it brings it to life.

So that very first meeting is probably one of the most surreal. Then there was hanging out with Topol, who you know, he was so lovey. I did that trip, with my sister, to Israel and we went to his house. The night before we went out for tea. We had a little tea party. Then the next day he took us all out for sushi lunch with his friend. And then he drove us up to his charity, which is maybe a couple hours drive from Tel Aviv and we were all singing in the car. We were all singing Beatles together.

That was, again, one of those moments thinking “Is that Zarkov singing Beatles and Fiddler on the Roof songs while we’re driving in Israel?” You know, that was strange. And then, of course, Brian May was … We went to his house and we played the piano. He chose to wear that shirt. We were setting up and he wasn’t there yet. Then I saw this kind of gray hair out the back door in the garden and I just thought, [whispering] “Brian May is here.” I was so excited. He came in and we said “Hi.” We did one of those awkward kisses where he went for a second one and I didn’t. Then we just kinda stared at each other and it was a bit awkward. He went upstairs to get changed and he came down in that Flash Gordon t-shirt. Yeah, he said, “Is this is too much?” He had a Flash mug and the album.

Well my favorite bit, at the very end, during the credits, there’s a shot of you playing Flash Gordon pinball with him.

He was thinking what else can I say about it? And then he’s like, “Have you seen the pinball machine?” And we just played pinball for a little bit. But it’s funny how many people have that pinball machine. Bob [Lindenmayer] has it, Alex Ross has it, Sam now has one. I feel like I need to have one.

I certainly want one.

Yeah, everyone has one.

Life After Flash was quite an undertaking must feel good to be done, and getting it in front of an audience.

I think I’m just really glad that it’s finished, to be honest. It was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I feel really grateful of all the people that supported it with crowdfunding. I guess the one thing that I’ve kind of taken away from this whole process, which is the kind of mental state. I’m a big believer in energy and if you’re positive and positive things.

I know there was a period in 2016 where it was like the time that I realized I probably would have to edit it and I had interviewed a lot of people so far but there were certain names that I was really struggling with getting and locking in like Brian Blessed and Brian May, how can I get to them? And I had that Alex Ross Flash Gordon poster on my wall and I would sit there for hours just going, “I don’t have you. I don’t have you. I don’t have you. I don’t have you.” And it was really weighing on me. It just got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t finish it.

Then I was walking my dog home one day and I just thought to myself, “I’m being so selfish. How many people get the opportunity to be hanging out with people from their favorite film? Doing this project and flying to Israel.” I just had to change my attitude. And that day I just became incredibly grateful to everything. Then from that point on people started confirming and things were happening. It was a big kind of realization to me that I shouldn’t be bitchy about it.

You know, ’cause it’s so stressful and so hard. I was on my own a lot, like in this room in the dark with no one else to talk to. I live on the South coast as well, so I didn’t even see people in London. It was me, my dog, and Ashley telling me to get back in the editing room. So it was really quite a tough time and-

Isolating.

Really isolating. And for me just changing my attitude halfway made such a difference with it. So that is probably something I’ll take away from the experience.

And yet you’re eager to jump into Life after Navigator?

Yeah. Watch this space for the next four years. I mean the tough thing with Flash too, I had no proof of concept. You know? I’m pitching this to Sam, and I’ve not done a feature documentary before. I’ve done a drama film that was never released. I thought it was good but it was never released. You know, and I’d done a couple of short documentaries but I didn’t really have anything to show. So the fact that he even said yes. Wow. I’m hoping for future projects, now that I have one under my belt, become a little easier.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.