Taken from Film School Rejects (Apr 18, 2018)
“Gordon’s Alive!” And Other Tales from ‘Life After Flash’
Life After Flash is the discovery of a massive community of fans, friends, and family united by their desire to see the real Flash Gordon, Sam Jones, find success in life and film. And it’s beautiful.
by William Dass
Flash Gordon! Ah-aaaa. Savior of the universe! It’s impossible to hear that name and not put on your best Freddie Mercury impression. Through scientific observation at the Chattanooga Film Festival, we found that exactly 100% of people will sing “Ah-aaa” after hearing Flash Gordon. The only variance was: how long would the A Capella Karaoke continue? Flash!
You just did it. It’s okay! No judgment. That’s the kind of passion for which we are searching. Let go of your cynicism. Give us your heart.
Flash Gordon has had a hell of a life. The film is campy and silly. But, it’s full of heart, amazing actors, and possibly the best rock music score of all time. You know, despite its reputation for campiness, the reality is that the technical elements of the film are top-notch. At the least, you can feel the passion that went into the film almost four decades on.
Passion is a beautiful thing. It’s infectious. Lisa Downs and Ashley Pugh have that to their core. As filmmakers, that heart-on-their-sleeves trait has allowed them to build a community around the story they wanted to tell. That earnestness allowed them to connect with the people whose lives the film has touched.
You should expect wonderful cast and crew interviews. Brian Blessed gives the most Brian Blessed interview ever – so booming and ostentatious. Did you know he lived next door to Brian May, of Queen? In our chat, Downs revealed that Brian May could occasionally hear Blessed shouting from his house “Gordon’s Alive!” Is that not the most Brian Blessed fact you’ve ever heard?
Downs and Pugh had the opportunity to play pinball with Brian May during filming. What a dream come true for any Queen fan? We get into that experience and so much more in our conversation with them. It gets wild. What they’ve created is a recounting of the history of Flash Gordon and its lasting impact. But, it’s also the story of redemption for Flash Gordon. And it made me cry.
As beloved as Flash Gordon has been, it wasn’t the breakout hit Sam Jones was hoping to realize. What happened to him? Where did he go? Where has he been? I didn’t know anything about Jones’ story. He got booted off the set of Flash Gordon and was not invited to participate in the post-production additional dialogue recording. From there, his acting career was a tumultuous series of ups and downs. His family life was rocky and fraught with destructive mistakes.
As they dig into this story, a beautiful thing starts to happen. You find that the Flash Gordon community has been rooting for Sam Jones to succeed.
Check out our conversation with the filmmakers, and be on the lookout for the documentary.
But first check out this special message from Flash Gordon himself, Sam Jones, to all you Film School Rejects readers.
Brad: My immediate takeaway from Life After Flash was: holy crap! You talked to a lot of people.
Lisa: I did. I was trying to throw names in there everywhere.
Brad: Stan Lee pops up. Richard Donner! Lots and lots of different folks. How did you go about deciding who you wanted to track down?
Lisa: It was very methodical. It had to be, at the very beginning. Because with a documentary obviously to get a budget’s difficult. Really, for anything when you’re doing an independent film. The first thing I did, I went on IMBD and wondered: who is still around? Who lives where? I started from – I don’t want to say the smaller names – I guess the smaller characters like a Hawkman or someone from the crew. I started to build up the story from their responses at that level.
And obviously, we had Sam on board already.
Ashley: Yeah, we wouldn’t have done it obviously without him on board. It would have been a no-go to start with. That was the first conversation you had, wasn’t it? Through your friend meeting him?
Lisa: Yeah. And instantly obviously I wanted to get as many of the cast as I could. Methodically.
But, then we were lucky enough to film at Comic-Con because Sam has a lot of signings. We just picked people around the rooms at Comic-con that I liked. It was surprising how many people genuinely loved the film. Robert Rodriguez had gone over and bought a signature off Melody and bought a signature from Sam. And he was like a fan, like a little kid talking to them.
That was great. There are all these names that pop up that I would never have thought of contacting the agent or trying to get a hold of them.
Ashley: They all had a story as well. For example, Robert Rodriguez was talking about how music in the movie was so important to him. It was the relationship with Queen. With Flash. And-
Lisa: And that’s why he started his band!
Ashley: Yeah, so everybody had a really interesting perspective or story on why the film meant something to them.
Lisa: So, with cast and crew it was very much just trying to get as many people as I could. I wanted to tell the special effects guys’ stories. So, I needed someone from that. And we had the score. We had Brian May and also Howard Blake. He did the full score behind it.
Ashley: It took two years to get Brian’s interview. He said, “Yes, no problem, I’ll do it.” But, obviously someone as busy as him, it was like next Thursday! Oh, it’s off. Three months later? It’s next Friday! It’s off. That’s why the film took so long. It was people’s availability that was trying. Especially someone like Brian who’s so busy.
William: Speaking of Brian May. Like. You guys played pinball with Brian May. In his house. How does that happen?
Lisa: And I lost! There were certain people that I wanted to have a solid foundation before we approached. Because then I could email and go, “Right, we got Sam, Melody, Richard, and Brian Blessed. And all these people behind it. We can’t film without you!”
But, Brian May was tricky. A mutual friend of ours had worked with Queen. So, he had spoken to Roger Taylor, Queen’s drummer, about the documentary. But, the film’s music was Brian’s baby. Roger had said yes, but it just never happened.
Ashley: Yeah Roger said, “Speak to Brian.” And he did an email introduction, which is quite nice.
Lisa: So I emailed. I remember I was in the middle of an editing session and I get this email. Like, BING! Brian. May. I was like, “Oh my god!” And I ran downstairs!
He said, “I would love to do it. I would love to do it somewhere with a piano because I want to play this little bit that never happened.” Eventually, he said, “Let’s do it at my house.” And it took about six months and six different scheduled dates with him. But, you get there, and you go through these amazing gates.
Ashley: The gates open, and this guy comes out. It’s Brian. Wearing this Flash t-shirt with a Flash mug and he goes, “Hi guys! Is this too much?” We were like, “Yes!” It was the first thing he said when he introduced himself, “Is this too much?”
Lisa: There are Queen photos everywhere. And a throne! One of those Alex Ross posters we gave him at the reunion screening. He was so lovely. I had that awkward moment where I hugged him, but he went for a second hug. We kind of had this moment like, do I give him a second kiss? And it was uncomfortable.
I was like, “Oh god, I just embarrassed myself in front of Brian.” But he was super lovely in the end. You see his Flash pinball machine in the film. He’d taken us over. And we played, and it was amazing.
Ashley: And we still get the odd email from him.
Lisa: Yeah he’s like, “Is Max Von Sydow still around?” And I’m like, “Oh, Brian. Hi. How are you?”
Ashley: He’s also said, “The minute you release, just let me know, and I’ll tell everybody.” He’s Team Flash, which is great.
William: I’d like to talk a bit about “Team Flash.” Before we came in here, you had mentioned how Sam Jones was very much on the team. I feel like you’ve built a little bit of a community around this project of people who are motivated to make this documentary happen. What has that experience been like?
Lisa: We were super lucky. When you do a film with crowdfunding, you have to build the audience first. It’s the people who help that are keeping it going because it takes so long to do. We were super lucky with this kind of family of people that have been like, “How can I help? What can I do?” I had someone send me a hard drive because I couldn’t do any more editing.
I didn’t have any money left for travel, and someone is just like, “You can sleep on my couch when you come over.” The whole team was like that. It feels like it’s been made by everyone that has been involved. People who would email and say, “I can’t put any money into the crowdfunding, but what can I do? Can I promote it? Can I do podcasting? Can I do something?”
Even beyond that, with the cast and the crew. Melody said she would be there to help. She was like, “Anything you need.” And so everyone has been supportive of it.
Ashley: I think that’s the only way the film would have been made. You’ve been working on it solidly for pretty much two and a half years trying to fit paid jobs in amongst it. I’ve got a production company back in London, so I was able to help get involved from that side and put time into the work.
Lisa: We had friends who would come and donate time to do camera operation on a couple of days.
Ashley: Friends like Bob Lindenmayer, who did the title sequence, who collects the props from the movie. Everybody just cared. They were like, “What can I do? How can I help? Can I introduce you to this guy?”
Lisa: “Can I give you a location?”
Ashley: Yeah, that’s what’s kept it going. It’s this feeling, as you guys know. Independent film is for the love. This has been a lot of love. You know, we shot on 4K. So we were filling up huge drives all the time. We have an edit suite in our house, and it’s literally a room full of Flash Gordon drives. And we still love it. That’s how this film has been made really. That community fell in love with it.
Lisa: They’ve been very good and patient-
Ashley: And they’re all asking, “When is it out?”
Lisa: Yeah! They say, “Don’t worry, when it’s done, we’ll be fine. We’ll be excited.” But it has felt like a film made by the fans. It’s been really good.
Brad: To take a step back a little bit, a Flash Gordon documentary. You’re obviously massive fans. But, you commit a whole chunk of your life to telling this story. Why?
Ashley: You don’t realize that when you start!
Lisa: I did the first crowdfunding in like January 2015. It failed. But at the time, I was like “you’ll get the film September 2015.” And you don’t think.
Ashley: Hashtag naïve!
Lisa: At first, I was very naïve with crowdfunding. I thought I could raise the whole budget. I didn’t plan enough time to build a whole audience. And, then I had to cancel it and re-pitch it to Sam to explain why we could do it again. Because he was like, “Well it didn’t work.” And I was like, “No, give me another chance. I think I can do it.” But it just grew into a three-year project. I had a goal in mind that I would finish it at a certain date. But, when you have that date come up, and you don’t have Brian Blessed, and you don’t have Brian May, how can you release that?
Ashley: That’s the thing. We said we were never going to release it until we had certain key things in place, and that was the main factor. Also, you were doing the 35-year reunion at BAFTA at the same time. You decided half way along this project to put on a reunion of BAFTA, and that was a whole other project where we had a big black-tie charity event to celebrate the film.
Lisa: Which is where Alex Ross did that amazing poster he did for everyone who came. You can see it in the credits! But, that took me out of Life After Flash a little bit.
William: Whose idea was the film?
Lisa: I brought this into his life. Sorry! No, I come from a background of producing factual entertainment, but before that it was documentaries. I had always loved documentaries. I spent my day in an office making other people’s passion projects happen. And I was like, “Well, why can’t I be the one doing my ideas and traveling the world and doing these cool things?” I had wanted to get more into feature documentaries, and a friend of ours, Lisa Doyle, had worked on this T.V. show in the U.K. called The Jump, which I don’t know if you have here.
Brad: It’s causing a splash right now.
Lisa: It is! What a ridiculous show to have. Everyone’s getting hurt. Sam went on it, and he got hurt. So he was never actually on screen because he hurt his shoulder during rehearsals. But, she was producing that show. I was at a party one night with her, and she had told me Sam was on it. I was like, “Oh my god. You’re working with Sam? That’s amazing.” I said I would love to know whatever happened to him.
And then it just grew. She said, “You should do a documentary.” I said “I would love to do a film on it. We should call it Life After Flash.” Then we poured some more wine.
It was one of those things you think you talk about that you’d never eventuate. The next day, I was like, “I would love to write a proposal.” She sent it to Sam’s agent, he loved it, and then we were Skyping him.
Ashley: Yeah, the next thing we were in our apartment with our computer set up with Skype. “Hey, this is Sam.”
Lisa: I’m messaging everyone, “FLASH GORDON!!!!” and trying to focus on the conversation. You know. And message all of my friends at the same time.
William: It’s a challenge.
Lisa: Yes. I never set out to do this. It all just happened organically. If she hadn’t worked with him, it never would have been something I had thought about. Or, even if I did think about it, I would never have thought it would have been possible.
Ashley: You were always a fan, though. And, then the opportunity came, and it was like we had a connection to Sam. And this fandom. And it all just converged.
Lisa: And then we just started it. If you wait for the full budget to come in, or if you wait for something, it’ll never happen. So, let’s pick up a camera. We started shooting little interviews.
Ashley: Then we flew to Laredo to meet Sam and do our first spell of interviewing. We had a sit-down, three hours, just-spill-your-life-on-the-camera with him. The first one, so we could understand his story.
Then once we learned all of that, we were like, “Right, this is the story we need to tell.” We knew we needed to speak to the De Laurentiis family, and we needed to speak to all these key people. And work out the story. So it was reversing it out of that first interview. A lot of the stuff, we didn’t realize. We knew about his dubbing.
Lisa: But, a lot of the really deep stuff we learned through Patrick St. Esprit. So, we did his interview, and then I had to go back to Sam and go, “These are the things I need to talk to you about, that you didn’t mention.”
Ashley: And you made Flash Gordon cry!
Brad: So then you get all this material. How do you assemble it all?
Lisa: I never wanted to edit it. I never did want to edit. I never planned on it. It was one of those things. I had just had all the footage, and as it came in, you were like, “Oh, you should start maybe organizing it a little bit.” So I thought, “I’ll organize it for the editor.” And then as time went by, I couldn’t afford an editor, too.
Ashley: Also, you get so involved that it’s hard to hand it over to an editor when you know the footage so well. And, we’ve got hundreds of hours of footage.
Lisa: For me, I struggle because I was so close to it. I wanted someone objectively to come in and look at. I was putting in scenes that you were like, “you don’t need that.” And I was like, “But I love it! And it took ages to get it!”
Ashley: The first cut was like two and half hours.
Lisa: I struggled with the edit because I hadn’t edited a feature documentary before. I struggled with trying to navigate how to do the film in his story. I hated cutting scenes. And, you were like, “Ninety minutes.” I was like, “It’s two hours and fifteen. I’m finished. It’s a masterpiece!” And you were like, “Get back in there.” It was a really big struggle.
William: What was your approach to figuring out how to go from two hours fifteen to 90 minutes?
Lisa: I was forced to!
Ashley: We also had some viewings. We had a private screening in London for people’s opinions that we wanted. And then we had another one in L.A. As a combination of those two sessions; we went back in to edit for another two week period.
Lisa: Seeing what feedback I had from it then, I had a map. I could see it objectively. What bits I felt were slow, which I was so attached to when I was editing it. I didn’t want to cut it out.
Ashley: The funny thing with the edit though was it was about a year-long process. And, because it was in our own house, I got used to hearing “Gordon’s alive! Flash! Ah-a!” And crying coming from upstairs. That was like the three things over and over. Sobbing and then Blessed booming, “Gordon’s alive!”
William: That interview with Brian Blessed is amazing. How long did you talk to him for?
Lisa: You should have seen what I cut out of that.
Brad & William: Yes, please!
Lisa: There were things that no human should ever need to hear. He talked about Patrick Stewart’s foreskin at one point, which was, well. I wanted to put that in.
He was in a recording studio, and I spoke to him for an hour and twenty minutes only because I had to get out. I had another session. And I asked him two questions in that whole time. I just said, “How did you get that role?” And, “What was it like filming Flash Gordon?”
What you see is me sitting there listening to him. He’ll tell a story, and he’s like, “What else?” And go into the next story. He’s so good at animating the story and telling the story, and he was exactly what you would expect to see when you meet him.
Ashley: We heard a lovely story from Brain May as well, who lives in the house in front of Brian Blessed. Occasionally, you’d hear Blessed go, “Gordon’s alive!” Like now. Just wandering around his house shouting it out.
Lisa: He’ll go out and stand on the balcony and yell it to the town when no one else is in there. He loves it so much. He says he laughs because he can hear it echoing through the valley.
But, you can’t do a film without him.
Ashley: He was another difficult one to get. We had him at the reunion, but at the time he had an eye operation, so he didn’t want to be filmed. That took another year of scheduling. He had a book launch he was doing and-
Lisa: He was going around the country.
Ashley: But he was always very like, “I’ll do anything for Sam.” All the people involved were like, “We’ll do anything for Sam.”
Lisa: And that was lovely, wasn’t it?
William: Why do you think that is?
Lisa: When you meet him, you will know. He is the most selfless and generous person. I was really surprised, I thought maybe you go to Comic-Cons, and people are there to work. And it’s a job for them. But he genuinely stays to talk to people. And he talks to them about their problems. He’s like a therapist.
Ashley: He wants to help people. He’s learned his lesson in life, and he genuinely seems to want to help people.
Brad: I don’t want to spoil the film because his story is so fascinating. But towards the end where you see where he has gone in his own career, I was not expecting that. I knew nothing about that.
Lisa: We came away from it like, “What film can we write for him?” Like what can we do for him now?
Ashley: And his family is wonderful as well. The great thing is that he is a really good dad. You meet all these kids, and he’s that All-American kind of hero. He’s learned his lessons. He’s obviously been to the dark side and back.
Lisa: But, when you meet him, you’ll know why people would do anything for him.
Brad: So, you were talking about how he wasn’t necessarily upfront with, at first, about why he left the production and those darker elements. When you went back to him and said, “Oh, I’ve got questions about this stuff.” How did he feel about that process?
Lisa: There was one particular thing, about his brother, which was one of the main things. We had spoken to him before about siblings, and he was like, “Oh, I had a brother who died in a car crash.” And I was like really sad to hear, you know? Maybe we’ll talk about it later.
But, then it was Patrick who told us the whole story. And Sam hadn’t told his family what had happened. He had this big conversation with his wife. And we did the follow-up interview the morning of the reunion when he was in London. He had just spoken to Ramona, and she said, “If you’re going to do this, I support you. And use this to let everyone know what happened.”
Ashley: There’s got to be trusted as well, I think. It took a period of time for us to gain his trust obviously because he didn’t know us. We’re just these crazy English filmmakers who want to do a documentary. At the time, we had been showing him and working closely. I think he could tell we had our integrity in the right place. If a T.V. station made this in England, it’d be called Flash in the Pan. It would be focusing on the fact that it was a car crash story, whereas we came at it with reverence.
Lisa: And it was important for him also to show where he had come from, to show people if you’re going through this too. For him, it’s the message. If you’re going through this, this is how I did it. This is how you can do it. To give people the hope of being healed or helped. He wants to inspire people, to motivate people, and help people. So for him to go, “Okay, well I’ll tell you everything because then that shows more where I’ve come from.” That was important for him.
William: I am very drawn to this idea of treating the subject matter with reverence. I like the idea of lifting things up and celebrating the things that we love and spending my time talking about what I love. We write for One Perfect Shot. I think that’s part of our ethos and celebrating what we find beautiful rather than perpetuating the things we’re frustrated with. Do you bring that spirit organically to this, or did you discover that through interacting with Sam?
Ashley: I think as filmmakers, that’s where we’re coming from. We have a lot of other projects that we want to bring the same ethos to. We’ve steered away from British television; it’s very trashy. And I’m sure America’s is as well. They do this stuff, and we call it “gutter press.” It would just become lowest common denominator. We wouldn’t want to make films like that. We wouldn’t want to also make film about something we didn’t care about. I think it’s part of our ethos.
Lisa: Yeah, well also as a fan, you know what you want to see that other fans might want to see. So, you have to be true to that as well.
Ashley: You’re not going to get rich doing this. So, you might as well do it for the right reasons.
Lisa: It’d be nice!
William: It’s really hard to make movies, right? Especially as indie filmmakers. So when you’re having a crap day because it’s just not working right, what moment do you look back on that reminds you that this is all worth it?
Lisa: The biggest thing for me during the process was in 2016. I had a period of months where I hated the film. I hated being involved. I hated what it was doing to my life and my bank account. But then I was walking along near the house one day, and I had gotten an email from Topol. I was like, “what am I doing?” These people don’t have to give me anything, but they’re giving me their time. They want to be involved. I’m having these amazing experiences with Topol and Brian May and traveling the world with Sam. And I just thought, how selfish am I being? Not appreciating this?
I completely turned my attitude around. After that, everything just started falling into place. Interviews were being locked in, and I started to enjoy it again. I got excited about it. And for me, not even projects I’ve worked on in the past, that was the moment that made me realize what I wanted to get out of making films. It was a real turning point. Because I did resent the film for a while. Which, I mean, how selfish of me. People would kill for the experiences we were having.
Ashley: I saw a quote the other day. It said, “Life isn’t a series of days. It’s a series of moments.” Now analyze the film. It’s like the moment Brian walks us into his house. The moment you walk into a suite with Brian Blessed. The moment Sam brings me over for a birthday cake, and I’ve got Sam and his wife on video singing me happy birthday because we were at his house that day.
Lisa: And the moment Melody made us tea!
Ashley: Yeah, there are just a series of moments. It’s sometimes those moments go over quite a long period. So you have to keep the upbeat.
Lisa: Of everything I’ve worked on, this has been the biggest learning experience, emotional and mental learning, of how I want to approach a film.