A FOTF exclusive interview with the visionary filmmaker, author and trustee of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation John Walsh
Imagine being invited to become the custodian of the legacy of the godfather of special effects. To become the caretaker of a treasure trove of a true Hollywood titan credited with changing the face of cinema as we know it. A man who breathed life into some of the most recognisable creatures ever to grace the silver screen. From Talos to the Kraken and Medusa to the Cyclops, the creatures of the great Ray Harryhausen are regarded as the epitome of cinematic icons and are credited as the source of inspiration for filmmakers and fans everywhere.
His contribution to the Hollywood landscape can never be understated. So, imagine the reaction of visionary filmmaker and author, John Walsh when asked to become the custodian of his wonderful legacy. After working closely with Ray to record audio commentaries for some of his greatest movies, Walsh was invited to become a trustee of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation and he never looked back.
Since Ray’s passing, John has devoted himself to the preservation of Ray’s work and during the process of restoring many of his greatest triumphs, he stumbled upon a cave of wonders. A treasure trove of unseen projects, creatures and storylines which sadly never made it to the screen. In response to this incredible discovery, John has been commissioned by our friends at Titan Books to explore these remarkable finds and unveil them to the world for the very first time.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with John to discuss his work with the Foundation as well as what we can expect from the upcoming book: Harryhausen: The Lost Movies.
John Walsh | Harryhausen: The Lost Movies
Hi John, welcome to The Future of the Force. Before we talk about your wonderful new book, I thought we’d discuss your career before you met the great Ray Harryhausen. So, let’s head back to the days before you became such an intricate part of the Harryhausen legacy.
Phil: Your work has led to you into becoming an accomplished BAFTA-nominated filmmaker, but what first inspired you to launch a career in the film industry?
John: I would make my own tabletop animations on super 8 when I was at school aged about 8 or 9. Later, I was more ambitious and when I was 15 won an award on BBC Young Film Maker of the Year. By the age of 18, I had won a place at the London Film School. This was unusual as this is usually a post-graduate course. My classmates were 25 and older. It was at film school I first met Ray Harryhausen and made a documentary about his life and work. Seeing Ray’s films in the cinema had been as much influence for me as King Kong was for him in the 1930s.
Phil: After graduating from London Film School, you swiftly established yourself as a renowned filmmaker and produced the controversial feature film, ToryBoy: The Movie. The film uncovered a major political corruption in the North East of England and propelled you onto the front page of every newspaper in the land. What first attracted you to the project?
John: I was always interested in films that would get people talking. Or that give a voice to the vulnerable. Much of my work is a counterpoint to Ray’s fantasy genre. The UK has one of the oldest democracies, yet there are significant faults within the system. During a general election, these often get overlooked and in more regional towns ignored entirely. I decided not only to make a documentary about an election but be part of the election itself and tell the story from the inside as a candidate for a leading political party. Little did I know that I would uncover one of the biggest scandals in recent UK political history.
Phil: Your work on restoration projects saw you collaborate with a true Hollywood titan in the great Ray Harryhausen. What was it like to become one of the custodians of his legacy?
John: I had known Ray for many years, so when he asked me to become a Trustee of his Foundation, I was truly honoured. Our work is varied as we have the physical assets of the collection to maintain such as the creature models seen in Ray’s films, but also a vast amount of material that details the production and creative processes. This also includes test special effects footage and sound recordings from the sessions legendary Bernard Herrmann. I talk publically about Ray legacy at events, film festival and screenings. I just did my second panel at San Diego Comic-Con in July this year. I also co-host the Ray Harryhausen Podcast too. I came up with the idea of a podcast as we have a vast amount of audio material to share along with 25+ hours of commentaries I recorded with Ray.
Phil: Working with Ray must have been a truly special time in your career. What are your memories of working with the godfather of visual effects?
John: I would love to have known Ray during the years he was making films. I got to know him in the late 1980s. When I made my film school film with him, he was patient and always interested in any advancements in the film or editing processes. I would always let him know if I had a film on television or at the cinema. His large house in west London was home to the stars of his movies. To see Medusa alongside Talos and Gwangi was a fan boy’s dream come true.
Phil: You worked closely with Ray to preserve his legacy and the creature collection and even helped to record commentaries for his films. What was your relationship with Ray like?
John: I was surprised that Ray had not recorded commentaries for many of his classic films. I put this right in 2012 when I sat down with him in his home in London and along with my documentary crew recorded and filmed these tracks. Sometimes we would have extraordinary guests chat with Ray. John Landis sat in for the recording of Mighty Joe Young. Ray thought he would not remember much and that there was nothing new to say. Once we got underway, it all came flooding back to him. Many of the anecdotes I have worked into the new Lost Movies book.
Phil: Your relationship with Ray blossomed, and he quickly asked you to become a trustee of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. How did you react to being asked to become a trustee?
John: There is an enormous sense of pride, followed by an overwhelming feeling of responsibility. Ray’s legacy and his place in cinema history is something which I believe the worlds needs to appreciate. He made an enormous contribution to the cinematic landscape. When Ray died in 2013, George Lucas said: “There would likely have been no Star Wars without Ray Harryhausen.”
Phil: What is your role in the Harryhausen Foundation, and what does the work mean to you?
John: There are three Trustees in the Foundation which also includes Ray’s daughter Vanessa. We have only one member of the permanent staff, our Collection Manager Connor Heaney. Each of us brings a skill set that compliments the smooth running of the Foundation. Our mission is the protect and preserve Ray’s legacy while educating and entertaining those new to his work. As a filmmaker, I am acutely aware of protecting your films and related materials. I made my first feature film in the late 1990s, and for a while, the camera negative had gone missing. In 2014 I had the film restored and scanned in HD after locating the original film elements. Luckily the studios have looked after Ray’s films. The work of looking after the creature model collection falls to the Foundation. Until recently there was a vast amount of unidentified material in our archive from Ray’s unmade films. The new book has helped us focus on that part of his career.
Phil: Being the custodian of his legacy, you must have seen many figments of Ray’s imagination that many of us may never get to see. What can tell us about the creatures and stories that never made it to the screen?
John: Ray rarely discussed unmade films. When I asked him about them, he was not forthcoming about the details and lamented the work that would never be seen, until now. When I was commissioned by Titan Books to write Harryhausen The Lost Movies I estimated there would be about 45 films to include. That’s is to say films Ray planned to make and didn’t; those films he turned down, and scenes cut form his own films. The book has been almost 100 years in the making as Ray developed his ideas at a very young age. The final book has nearly 80 films, many more than I would have imagined. With over 50,000 items in the collection, it is the largest of its kind in the world outside the Walt Disney company. I was amazed by the number of artworks, models, and in some cases, test footage that existed. Ray’s version of War of the Worlds (1949) would have had the Martian invaders bestride the landscape as HG Wells intended, on tripod legs. Iconic poster artists Graham Humphries has reimagined a full-colour poster for the book working from Ray’s pencil sketches. The publisher chose this image to create a limited-edition bookmark.
Phil: This unprecedented access to Ray’s archive has led you to write a new book based on this amazing treasure trove of lost content. What can you tell us about Harryhausen: The Lost Movies?
John: It might not surprise you to hear that there are some unmade Sinbad adventures or indeed dinosaur stories. You may be surprised to hear that Ray tried to secure the rights to the Conan series of novels ion the late 1960s. Sinbad On Mars (1978) has beautiful concept art by famed illustrator Chris Foss. A rare occasion when Ray was too busy working on another film to create the design work himself. At the same time, Chris Foss was working with Ridley Scott on Alien and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. Chris’ work for this Sinbad has echoes of the industrial brutalism he lavished on those other film projects. Most striking for readers of Future of the Force was Ray’s involvement with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We have a fantastic still image of Ray visiting ILM which they have kindly given us permission to show in the book for the very first time. He is pictured with a TaunTaun. This was one of many finds that got my fanboy heart racing. Ray also turned down the very first Marvel movie in 1984!
Watch the trailer for Harryhausen: The Lost Movies book here.
Phil: What was your inspiration behind writing the book?
John: I am a loyal Harryhausen foot solider but also an enthusiast for stories that have gone untold. The two seemed like an ideal combination for a new book and a new perspective on Ray’s work. There have been books before, many of which Ray wrote himself. But this book finally brings into the light those films, which had been a rumour on the fan pages of classic sci-fi magazines such as Starlog or Famous Monsters of Filmland.
Phil: Which aspects of the book gave you the most enjoyment?
John: I drew enjoyment from matching up images with the stories behind them. For Ray’s completed films, there are detailed production documents, but for the unmade one’s pictures and written material were scattered amongst thousands of items in the collection. It did sometimes feel like an Indiana Jones adventure as some of the collection is housed in very secure crates. I have favourite films too, so to find production art from a missing scene from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or Clash of the Titans was a real thrill.
Phil: Of all the lost movies you’ve uncovered, which one would you love to see make it to the screen?
John: The film that deserves to be seen first from the Lost Movies is undoubtedly Force of the Trojans. Of the others, Sinbad Goes To Mars and The People of the Mist have the potential to find large audiences that appreciate fantasy film making. The People of the Mist was a collaboration with Death Wish director Michael Winner who lived a few doors away from Ray in west London.
Phil: In your opinion, what is it about Ray’s body of the work that inspires so many people?
John: Ray’s work endures because his performance is in the very souls of the creatures he brings to life on screen. There is a technical achievement combining actors and model animation, but if that were the sum of his talents the films would not be remembered so fondly and receive such royal attention from the studios, then they restore them. I will be presenting the 4k premiere of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in London’s Regent Street Cinema on Sunday 15th September at 3 pm. Before that, there will be a book signing at London’s iconic Forbidden Planet.
Phil: The Foundation recently shocked the world when it announced the possibility of a new movie; Force of the Trojans. What can you tell us about this “lost movie” and its newly rediscovered creatures?
John: Next year mark’s Ray Harryhausen’s centenary, and with Hollywood now looking to its past with great success remaking The Lion King, Aladdin and others the Foundation has set up a new film company, Ray Harryhausen Films Ltd. I hope to get some of Ray’s unmade films up onto the big screen where they belong. Force of the Trojans was to follow Clash of the Titans. With a full screenplay, production artwork and model sculptures by Ray himself, it would have the most original materials from any of the unmade projects. I have created a new storyline which keeps all of Ray’s stunning creature designs but focusses the human story. Originally the film was due out in 1984 with standout creature animated sequences more spectacular than Clash of the Titans. This included a giant talking Sphinx; the octopus-tentacle sea creature, Charybdis and on land a vicious jaw snapping creation called Scylla. And for the film’s grand finale, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All the recently found materials are in the new book Harryhausen The Lost Movies and proceeds from the book go towards the Foundation’s creature collection restoration project.
RELATED: Force of the Trojans | Ray Harryhausen’s Creatures Will Return in an All-New Motion Picture
Phil: When can we expect this amazing event to hit the screens?
John: We are a step closer to bringing Force of the Trojans back after almost 40 years. There is some way to go yet but certainly the good early buzz the book is receiving will help. I was at San Diego Comic-Con this year, and after my panel about the Lost Movies book, a well-known producer told me this is a great pitch document for all the unmade Harryhausen films.
Phil: Next year, fans of Ray’s work have the chance to immerse themselves in his brilliance when the Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema Centenary Exhibition opens to the public. What can you tell us about this incredible exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art?
John: There have been exhibitions, but next years will be the largest and most comprehensive to date. We are exhibiting materials that have never been seen before, and we want to give an insight into Ray’s unique working practices too. The creature collection is the main star of the show, so they are all getting restorations to ensure they are showing their best for 2020 and for the years to come.
Phil: And finally, of all the wonderful Harryhausen movies Ray devised, either produced or still on the drawing board, which is your favourite and why?
John: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for me captures Ray at the peak of his powers. The storytelling and casting make this the most effective of Ray’s films for me. It’s an atmospheric combination of black magic, and fast-paced plotting makes this the most viable for a remake too. At Comic-Con, I signed a limited-edition art card of an unrealised creature battle. I have drafted a new version of Golden Voyage which wraps a contemporary skin around the original story that Ray created. As they say, what is old is now new again, so who knows.
I am a temporary custodian of Ray’s legacy. I hope my contribution on bringing his lost films into the spotlight adds to his legend.
As a lifelong Ray Harryhausen fan, it was an absolute pleasure to interview John Walsh. His adoration and passion for Ray’s work are refreshing and his enthusiasm for shining new light on Ray’s treasure trove of undiscovered wonders is the essence of what dreams are made of. Harryhausen fans have speculated about these “Lost Movies” for decades, and now, thanks to John, Titan Books and the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, we are set to embark on a whole new journey into the imagination of a genius. As John eluded to during our interview, Ray’s characters resonate with so many people because every single one of them serves as a vessel for his spirit and embody the “dream world” aspect he worked so hard to preserve.
Whether it be 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or Clash of the Titans, every single one of his movies has helped to redefine modern cinema as we know it; and with an entire exhibition devoted to his work coming our way in 2020, we can all look forward to peering through the looking glass at the most comprehensive showcase of his work ever attempted.
Until then, we get to rummage amongst the pages of John’s incredible new book and peel back the layers of Ray’s brilliance. The idea of opening the cover of Harryhausen: The Lost Movies is an exciting prospect, one that many of us believed would never come to pass. And yet, as we near the centenary of his illustrious life and career, we are set to bask in what amounts to be the holy grail of a true visionary and the man who made us believe that the Rhedosaurus was real and that Pegasus could fly.
Without the devotion of John Walsh, Connor Heaney, Vanessa Harryhausen and the other trustees of the Harryhausen Foundation this opportunity to go beyond Ray’s movies would have never been possible. It is their tireless work behind the scenes that has ensured Ray’s legacy and for that, we owe them our gratitude.
And finally, I would like to extend my personal thanks to both John Walsh for giving up his time and granting this exclusive Future of the Force interview and to Connor Heaney and the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation for making this possible.
Harryhausen: The Lost Movies by John Walsh is published by Titan Books and will hit bookshelves on September 10th.
For more details about the Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema (Centenary Exhibition) and the legacy of the great man himself, head over to the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation website. Follow John and the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation on Twitter here: @walshbros @Ray_Harryhausen
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Phil Roberts is the Owner, Daily Content Manager and Editor of Future of the Force. He is passionate about Star Wars, Batman, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, King Kong, and the Ray Harryhausen movies. Follow him on Twitter @philthecool where he uses the force frequently!