The 1980s were the heyday for the fantasy genre; seeing similar sword ‘n sorcery flicks come and go. While some were outright hits and many barely made a profit. But they have all gone on to cult favorite status including: “Dark Crystal”, “Clash Of The Titans”, “Labyrinth” and “Willow”.
Of the bunch, director Ridley Scott’s “Legend” remains a particularly tricky case. On its theatrical release, it wasn’t just a box office failure, it was so terrible that even after much pre-release tinkering by the studio, it still bombed. Ridley Scott has released various cuts, endings, even multiple soundtracks exist, but nothing that studio Universal Pictures had changed could attract the desired audience. Conceived by Scott as a bleak and lavish twist on the Walt Disney fantasies and the Grimm Brothers tales, the film was a flop that suffered from endless studio tinkering and earning less than $15 million on a $25 million budget.
Indeed, for many years there has been an consensus that “Legend”, should be quietly forgotten. While Ridley Scott, the director of the sci-fi classics “Alien” and “Blade Runner” had quickly moved on from “Legend”, never did another fantasy film again. Over the next four years, Ridley Scott had released the criminally under seen films: “Someone To Watch Over Me” from 1987 and 1989’s “Black Rain” (while “Black Rain” fared better than the previous film. it’s still underrated Ridley Scott classic). Ridley Scott would bounce back two years after “Black Rain” with his multiple Oscar nominated “Thelma & Louise”.
As for the then 22 year old Tom Cruise, had rebounded almost immediately after “Legend”, with “Top Gun” that was ironically directed by Ridley’s brother Tony Scott. While Ridley Scott comments on “Legend” every once in a while, Cruise hardly merits any mention of the movie. “Legend” was toppled in the United States by Tony Scott’s “Top Gun”, after an underwhelming $4.2 million opening weekend. “Legend” had opened three weeks before “Top Gun” and had bounced “Legend” out of every theatre. Nevertheless, “Legend” lived on in cult status and endures as a pop culture footnote.
Depending on how you look at it, “Legend” could either be the film Ridley Scott made after “Blade Runner” or the film Tom Cruise starred in between “Risky Business” and “Top Gun”. However, the stories behind the chaos and creativity of “Legend” is alluring. It was what became the extinction event that brought to a close the early eighties mini-boom in fantasy movies.
While filming his theatrical directorial debut “The Duellists” (1977) in France, Ridley Scott had conceived “Legend” after another planned project, the “Gladiator” style epic “Tristan and Isolde”, fell through temporarily. Scott went on to make “Alien” and did pre-production work on “Dune”, another project that halted, which was eventually finished by director David Lynch. Frustrated with all the production halts, he came back to the idea of filming a fairy tale or mythological story.
For inspiration to “Legend”, Scott read all the classic fairy tales, including ones by the Brothers Grimm. From that, he conceived a story about a young hermit who is transformed into a hero when he battles the Darkness in order to rescue a beautiful princess and release the world from a wintery curse.
Ridley Scott wanted “Legend” to have an original screenplay because he believed that it was far easier to design a story to fit the medium of cinema than to bend the medium for an established story. Scott had discovered several books written by American novelist William Hjortsberg and found that the writer had already written several scripts for some unmade lower budgeted films. Scott asked him if he was interested in writing a fairy tale. Hjortsberg was already in the process of writing some and agreed to work with Scott and his team.
Ridley Scott remembers, “The first notion was to actually make a classical fairy story, but if you actually analyze a classical fairy story, most are either very short or very complex”. In January 1981, just before beginning principal photography on “Blade Runner”, Scott spent five weeks with Hjortsberg working out a rough storyline for what was then called “Legend of Darkness”.
Scott felt his magical tale should contain a quest, unicorns, magic armor and swords. Hjortsberg suggested plunging the world into a wintery darkness. Hjortsberg’s first draft of “Legend of Darkness” also had Princess Lili slowly transform into a clawed and fur-covered beast who is whipped and sexually seduced by the antagonist (originally called Baron Couer De Noir).
Initially, the quest in “Legend” was longer, but it was reduced as Ridley Scott wanted to avoid too many subplots that departed from the main story and go for a more contemporary movement rather than get bogged down in too classical of a format. By the time Scott had finished “Blade Runner”, he and Hjortsberg had a script that was lengthy, hugely expensive and impractical in its size and scope”. They went through and took out large sections that were secondary to the story. The two had gone through a total of 15 script revisions.
To write a ready for filming screenplay, with a mediocre budget and dueling creative preferences with the studio. Then you’ve got an idea of what screenwriter William Hjortsberg’s struggle was like. There were constant reworkings necessary for the script. Decisions made to fix tonal issues, mass marketability, and figuring out how to remove 60 minutes from the runtime without breaking the film were just a few of his tasks.
While it was no walk in the park for William Hjortsberg, he remained hopeful throughout. Many elements may have been changed, but in his eyes the foundation of “Legend” remained. Hjortsberg says “The reviews slammed the screenplay as extremely shallow. I felt really bad about that. I did everything they wanted me to do. My first draft was a lot more intriguing…I was disappointed to get slammed for being a shallow screen writer…I was just doing my job”.
The look Scott envisioned for “Legend” was influenced by the style of Disney animation. He had even offered the project to Disney, but they were intimidated by the film’s dark tone at a time when Disney still focused on family friendly material. Visually, he referenced films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio”. Early on, Scott worked with Alan Lee as a visual consultant who drew some characters and sketched environments. However, Scott eventually replaced Lee with Assheton Gorton, a production designer whom he had wanted for both “Alien” and “Blade Runner”. Scott hired Gorton because he knew all the pitfalls of shooting exteriors on a soundstage.
At one point, the director considered Mickey Rooney to play one of the major characters but he did not look small enough next to Tom Cruise. Edlund considered shooting on 70 mm film stock, taking the negative and reducing the actors to any size they wanted, but this was deemed too expensive. Thus, Scott was tasked with finding an ensemble of small actors. “Legend” would be financed with a budget of $24.5 million and would be distributed by Universal Pictures in America and by 20th Century Fox in all other territories.
In order to achieve the look of “Legend” that he wanted, Scott scouted locations in the Sequoias of Yosemite National Park to see the grand scale of trees there. However, it would cost too much to shoot on location and he decided to build a forest set where they film 007 on a stage nearby, at Pinewood Studios. The crew spent 14 weeks constructing the forest set and although Scott was worried that the set would not look real enough. Only days before the start of principal photography, Ridley Scott approved the sets as it looked good enough to film. The trees were 60 feet high with trunks 30 feet in diameter and were sculpted out of polystyrene built onto tubular scaffolding frames. In addition, other sets were constructed on five huge soundstages.
Early casting before Tom Cruise, now A-list actors were considered for the role of Jack. Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey and Robert Downey Jr. were all considered. Ridley Scott watched “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and saw Tim Curry. He thought Tim Curry would be ideal to play Darkness because the actor had film and theatrical experience. Tim Curry’s makeup as Darkness in “Legend” is considered to be one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy cinema. Scott discovered Mia Sara (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) in a casting session and was impressed by her “good theatrical instincts”.
Scott contacted Rob Bottin, who designed the special makeup effects for Joe Dante’s werewolf film “The Howling”, about working on “Blade Runner”, but Bottin was already committed to working on makeup for John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Scott told him about “Legend” and toward the end of production on “The Thing”, Bottin had read the script for the film and saw an excellent opportunity to create characters in starring roles.
After wrapping his work with Carpenter, Bottin met with Scott to reduce the thousands of creatures suggested by the script to have a manageable quantity. The process would involve complicated prosthetic makeup that would be worn for up to 60 days with full body prosthetics. According to Bottin, at the time, “Legend” had the largest makeup crew ever dedicated to one project. Bottin divided his facility into different shops in order to cover the immense workload. As actors were cast, Bottin and his crew began making life casts and designed characters on drafting paper laid over sketches of the actors’ faces. He designed the prosthetics in his Los Angeles studio and spent some time in England occasionally helping with the application of the makeup.
With the exception of Tom Cruise and Mia Sara, all the principal actors had spent hours every morning going through extensive makeup applications. Between 8 and 12 prosthetic pieces were applied individually to each face, then made up, molded and grafted onto the actor’s face so that the prosthetics could move with their muscles. Each person needed three makeup artists working on them for an average time of three and a half hours spent applying prosthetics. Actor Tim Curry took five and a half hours because his entire body was encased in makeup.
Curry had to wear a large, bull-like structure atop his head with three-foot fiberglass horns supported by a harness underneath the makeup.The initial design of the horns placed a strain on the back of the actor’s neck because they extended forward and not straight up but Bottin and his crew eventually reduced the weight of the horns. At one point, Curry became claustrophobic, got too impatient and pulled the makeup off too quickly, tearing off his own skin in the process. Scott had to shoot around the actor for a week as a result.
Principal photography began on March 26th 1984 on the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios. On June 27th 1984, with only ten days of filming left on the stage, the entire set burned down during a lunch break. The set that cost $10 million had reported flames from the set fire leapt more than 100 feet into the air and the clouds of smoke could be seen five miles away. “I could see from all the buildings a giant column of smoke, like from a battleship that was sinking”, Ridley Scott later said of the incident. “All my gas bottles were exploding inside the steel corrugated walls. Every time a bottle exploded, the walls ballooned. A fireman said, ‘I think you’ve lost it’. I said ‘I think I have, mate’. I went immediately – because this is what I always do, it’s slightly Zen – I went and played tennis”.
Scott quickly made changes to the shooting schedule and only lost three days moving to another soundstage. Meanwhile, the art department rebuilt the section of the forest set that was needed to complete filming. Due to the fire, the scenes of Lili meeting the unicorns for the first time and finding the cottages in the snow were filmed in the garden of the main house behind Shepperton Studios. The underwater scenes were filmed in Silver Springs, Florida for the “purity” of the water. Cruise did all his own diving and swimming in waters that, according to Scott, had real alligators 25 feet from where they were filming.
Ridley Scott and Universal delayed the North American theatrical release until 1986 so that they could replace Jerry Goldsmith’s score with music by Tangerine Dream, Yes lead singer Jon Anderson and Bryan Ferry.
Scott allowed Goldsmith’s score to remain on European prints and composer Goldsmith said, “that this dreamy, bucolic setting is suddenly to be scored by a techno-pop group seems sort of strange to me”. Normally, Goldsmith would spend 6–10 weeks on a film score, but for “Legend”, he spent six months writing the songs and dance sequences ahead of time.
The initial reactions from the preview audience were negative, with some singling out Goldsmith’s score. Many changes were made to the overall product because of this, like bringing in electronic band Tangerine Dream to help the movie be more youth-friendly. Goldsmith was then left in the dust, along with his original score.
The European cut of the movie came with the original score attached, allowing the movie to play out similarly to its original test version. It’s not quite the same, but at least something closer to what Ridley Scott originally envisioned. It’s up to audiences to determine which score is better suited, but at least Goldsmith’s hard work was still able to be appreciated. American audiences eventually did get to experience Goldsmith’s work in “Legend”, it just was from a different movie.
Goldsmiths music from “Psycho II” is used in “Legend”. For American audiences, it’s the only time they get to hear Goldsmith’s work during the theatrical cut. But at least his work could finally be appreciated once Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut would be released.
Test screenings can be the defining moment for movies. It determines whether a studio has a hit on their hands, if it’s doomed or if it’ll need trimming in the editing room. In the case of “Legend’s” initial preview screening, things really didn’t go as the studio had hoped.
This test screening ended up bringing “Legend” to some dramatic changes. Most prominent among them were the cuts to the runtime, eventually reducing the film to 89 minutes. Rumor is that the credit for this decision were a couple of audience members who were supposedly smelling of illegal substances that expressed their displeasure during the screening. While most may not have minded, Ridley Scott seemed to see their comments as constructive.
As “Legend” went through a massive series of edits that resulted in a sharp difference from the project’s original form. This led to multiple different versions being created that varied across multiple platforms. In total, there ended up being up to four different versions including: the original 94 minute European release, the 89 minute theatrical release in America, a 94 minute release on network television, and a Director’s Cut that ended up with a 113 minute runtime.
The American version was ultimately the most edited-down, while network TV incorporated an opening title crawl narration and some scenes from the European version. Besides the Director’s Cut (which didn’t come out until 2002), the European cut had the most authentic version.
A film like “Legend” proved to be somewhat difficult to market, but it could’ve been much more of a challenge had they stuck with certain creative choices. When writing the first screenplay draft, there was a scene in which the Lord of Darkness torments the Princess until she loves him. The scene wouldn’t have ended there either, as the two would’ve supposedly had violent relations immediately after. Although Hjortsberg undoubtedly had reasoning behind this idea, the concept was one of the first things scrapped in the editing bay. He voiced his heavy amount of disappointment, but remained agreeable when some rewrites were requested.
Legend had also found one of the unicorns shot with a crossbow and as it jumps up, it scratches the princess on the shoulder. Where later, she notices hair sprouting out of her nasty wound. She then wanders to a pond and sees her reflection in the moonlight and turns into a beast. That’s when Tim Curry’s Darkness looms behind her and basically seduces her. They are found coupling frantically when Jack and the fairies break in to save her.
In 2000, Universal unearthed a print of the 113 minute preview cut with Jerry Goldsmith’s score. This print had minor visual anomalies that were eventually digitally replaced, occasionally with finished shots from the 89-minute U.S. version. This edition is Scott’s preferred 2002 “Director’s Cut”, with the restored Jerry Goldsmith soundtracks. The Director’s Cut’s source is one of only two prints of this extended version known to exist, used for Universal’s 2002 DVD and eventual Blu-ray labeled the “Ultimate Edition”.
“Legend” is a remarkable and bleak fantasy thriller from our greatest living filmmaker Ridley Scott. It’s a movie for cinephiles that like their fantasy based on characterization, with trademark high quality Ridley Scott visuals and less of the Peter Jackson fantasy style battles. Led by a performance from the unrecognizable Tim Curry who gives an excellent performance as Lord Darkness and that’s where “Legend” is it’s most effective in rendering the evil personality.
“Legend” was ahead of its time, for certain it was much too ambitious for its budget and it’s era. It nevertheless remains a fascinating film, that’s enchanting, visually poetic and has it’s own special magic. A movie that defines the definition of cult following, especially among the diehard devotees of fantasy films and Ridley Scott fans like myself.