There is a tale behind the making of the Australian science fiction movie The Time Guardian (1987) and it is not a pretty one. I credit the film to director Brian Hannant (1940-) but he more or less disowns the final product… his only venture into fully-fledged feature directing.
In fact, Hannant wouldn’t talk to me about it because the making of The Time Guardian was such a traumatic experience for him… Yet, if it weren’t for his original story and screenplay which he co-wrote and the fact that he directed much of it, we wouldn’t have this cult movie.
The Time Guardian is one of the first real Australian science fiction movies which aims to be of the scope of such films as Star Wars… Just as Erle Cox’s (1873-1950 long illness) Out of the Silence was one of the first great epic Aussie works of science fiction writing.
Both are landmarks in Australian science fiction history, especially in terms of stories which are more or less set in the outback. And while The Time Guardian may seem to cash in on movies such as Star Wars and The Terminator, it exists in its own universe and thus gains its cult status. Yet, The Time Guardian originally owed more to Cox’s intimate composition with its lone farmer than the overcrowded special effects spectacles of Hollywood. It’s just that The Time Guardian evolved from something envisioned as essentially small in scale into another perhaps greater venture altogether. It just lacked the funds to do so.
The film stars Canadian-born Tom Burlinson (1956-), a beautiful Nikki Coghill (1964-) and Carrie Fisher (1956-2016 heart attack), who was at her post-Star Wars peak when this film was made as it was around the time of the release of her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge.
The Time Guardian is, basically, set in the Aussie outback, and features a time travelling city which is under threat from a race of half-human and half-robot monsters called the Jen-Diki… No prizes for recognising Jedi in their name… also Jen from The Dark Crystal (1982) and ‘dicky’, which is kind of how critics described the movie upon its original release.
The Time Guardian made the almost unforgivable error of misspelling ‘hordes’ as ‘hoards’ in its opening spiel as it talks of the masses of evil Jen-Diki which threaten the remaining humans of the future. One wonders if it was an intentional undermining of the finished product and for most viewers a film can’t recover from such an error. It took me decades for me to forgive… but I’m glad I did! Anyway, the film isn’t to be taken completely seriously.
Director Hannant quit the production of The Time Guardian before it was complete… It brought to an end what was perhaps a wide-eyed dream of bringing a modest science fiction tale, which was not necessarily the semi-spectacle it turned out to be, to the screen… Studio interference saw Hannant’s, as well as co-writer John Baxter’s, dream shattered.
Using an interview with Hannant with film critic David Stratton, I will relate how the dream became a nightmare for the director as well as positively review the end result.
The Time Guardian was the most expensive and ambitious sci-fi film to be attempted back in the mid-1980s in Australia. Hannant and his friend John Baxter (1939-) had met at the Commonwealth Film Unit which is now Film Australia back in the mid-1960s. They rekindled their friendship it the early 1980s and together wrote a treatment called the Time Rider which was a sci-fi love story. The premise, which is retained in the final movie involved a female geologist, a man from the future and the evil Jen-Diki.
“John and I worked on five or six drafts,” said Hannant, who had been impressed by the location of Wilpena Pound in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges as a possible location after he saw it while making Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior (1981). He co-wrote that movie. It is possibly beautiful to note that its aboriginal name Ikara means “meeting place” which is integral to the story, particularly the love story contained within the film, as well as the epic meeting of future and past and good and evil. All that is left is an aerial establishing shot of Wilpena Pound in the final cut of the film which gives us insight into Hannant’s original intentions and the end result.
The script was quickly acquired by Chateau Productions run by a couple of guys who were, according to Hannant: “song pluggers who’d made commercials and documentaries and decided they wanted to make a feature.” These guys were new to the scene of filmmaking and were anti-intellectual but were honest and got the job done. If Hannant and Baxter were to hear any alarm bells in their heads, they would be very soon…
By 1985, New World Pictures in America were interested and Hannant took the script to the US to work with a script editor. In retrospect, Hannant said: “John should have come too” as it this would be the beginning of a fracture in the original authors’ creative partnership and friendship.
Baxter, incidentally, was an experienced film and sci-fi writer who would go on to pen biographies on George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick and Robert de Niro among others. His career was not affected by the fall-out of this movie but like Hannant, he never worked on another feature film. His first published novel was a science fiction effort called The Off-Worlders, so it is not surprising that he helped pen The Time Guardian. Baxter had started his sci-fi writing career in the early 1960s writing for British magazines such as New Worlds and Science Fantasy. He lives in Paris and continues to write.
New World dropped out and it was then that Antony I. Ginnane (1949-) became involved along with Hemdale Film Productions. Ginnane was a man with a reputation of ripping pages out of scripts should their budgets get too tight. He would often deliver a compromised product without compromising himself. He is still a well-respected legend within the Australian film community. Ginnane got The Time Guardian green-lit but that’s when it started to fall apart as the producers suddenly had an $8 million budget and no experience as to how to spend it. Hannant said the budget was worked out on the back of envelopes over a weekend.
“The basic problem was lack of money,” he said and underlined that $12 million could have been raised as people were tripping over themselves to invest due to the tax incentives offered under the system known as 10BA…
This wasn’t a kitchen sink drama filmed in someone’s house, it was a major special effects driven production – almost an epic – or so it would eventually be deemed in the eyes of Hemdale and the producers… Hannant’s original intentions had been something on a smaller scale… Sadly, of the money that was raised, almost ten percent went to the brokers.
“One million went in the first day,” said Hannant, who thought they could have filmed the original draft of the script which was more modest in terms of production costs.
Anyway, the film was underway and this was in an era when there were no major special effects companies in Australia to produce a world class product.
“We knew… we couldn’t make anything really stylish; we knew the limitations,” said the film’s cinematographer Geoff Burton (1946-). Burton said the Aussie’s studied almost every special effect movie of the day and tried to learn the basic techniques used such as rotoscoping. They also acquired a large blue screen rear projection set-up designed by Douglas Trumbull (1942-) which was installed in an old cinema in Adelaide the city where much of the film was shot when it wasn’t using the real desert locations.
It was the best investment they made, as the blue screen effects in The Time Guardian pass international muster in terms of effectiveness and help make the futuristic city seem real.
Meanwhile, the film still hadn’t been cast eight weeks before shooting and Hannant got a call from Hemdale and Ginnane telling him they didn’t understand the script. Hannant went to Los Angeles where Ginnane presented the director with a new script written by an American with a $15,000 bill attached.
“I can’t tell you how appalled I was,” said Hannant. “It wasn’t only bad, it was laughable…”
The director said the original script contained only one monster Jen-Diki and that they’d set aside $150,000 to make that monster appear as effective as possible. The new script had lots of monsters and a big battle at the beginning and a bigger one at the end. It seemed that Hemdale had in mind an epic time travel robot movie much like The Terminator (1984) which had raked in plenty of money for them. They were certainly blinded by that film’s box office success as they didn’t seem to realise or care how little money Hannant had to spend. It should be noted that The Terminator was made on a similarly small budget but that was with James Cameron (1954-) as director who already had sci-fi movie experience as well as having been trained in low budget film creator Roger Corman’s (1926-) production house… It’s that shortfall in what the producers wanted and what eventually hit the screen which disappointed many audience members who saw The Time Guardian upon its release on the big screen… Audiences expected it to be a something between the space opera of Star Wars due to the appearance of Fisher and a time travelling robot thriller of The Terminator type with its monster having red glowing eyes… What we got was not what we expected – the Australian outback with bursts of action.
Anyway, the budget was all but depleted and the film hadn’t begun to shoot. When Hannant told his friend Baxter about the new script, he was shattered and Hannant wanted to wash his hands of the whole affair… But production was well underway and he decided to proceed. Hannant wrote a new script incorporating the demands of head office in America which was found to be acceptable.
This was a good decision by Hannant and one which showed grace under pressure because he managed to produce some minor spectacle and tongue in cheek lines which were desperately needed to joke away the scant budget. Perhaps he and Baxter were naïve when they thought their original script would be filmed unchanged. In Hollywood’s world of script doctors and too many cooks spoiling the broth, it is rare for any original script to hit the screen in its original form as it was envisioned by it creators.
As for the casting of the hero Ballard, Hannant wanted someone who really was world weary like Scott Glenn (1981-) but he had to settle for Burlinson who had some success in the films The Man from Snowy River (1982) and Phar Lap (1983). Also cast was American Dean Stockwell (1936-) who had recently been in Blue Velvet (1986-) and he is the leader of the futuristic time travelling city. Fisher was reportedly cast after shooting had commenced.
Baxter came to Adelaide to work on the script with Hannant for a couple of days and the pair had a bitter quarrel and a falling out. This is perhaps the main reason why the director won’t speak about the movie. Baxter’s name is still credited but he more or less also disowns the movie.
With a script ‘in progress’ and a thirteen-week shoot cut down to nine, Hannant was trapped in an increasingly nightmarish situation… as Ginnane made his usual presence felt with pages of the script being dropped during filming. The director was faced with fifteen set-ups per day which led to numerous night shoots and a final sequence which was apparently never shot.
“It was like watching the Titanic going down,” said Hannant.
Despite the fact the director had first cut, the unfinished film was shown to head office honchos thanks to Ginnane’s insistence. It was a disaster which led to Hannant quitting the film during post-production.
I first saw The Time Guardian in a Sydney cinema on George Street the first week of its release with my girlfriend and a couple of buddies. They wanted to see the latest American release but I insisted we must support the local industry and so we viewed the film with a handful of other people… Hordes or “hoards” of people did not go and see this movie!
Despite my initial disappointment, I have grown to love and appreciate this landmark movie. It is not full of action… but the effects are good even if the Jen-Diki are a bit clunky. Burlinson isn’t quite convincing as the hero Ballard as he is too boyish, despite the scar on his cheek, rather than truly hard-bitten, and you can see him straining in the role. However, he grows on you and he is an orphan with a kind of samurai Japanese father figure – so perhaps we are meant to see that tarnished boy within.
Ballard and Fisher, who plays a sidekick character named Petra, go back in time where they eventually meet the geologist played by Coghill. She will help them build a rock pile which will balance the domed time travelling city when it arrives, as one of its support legs is missing due to an attack at the beginning of the movie by the Jen-Diki.
Just a word on the use of the name Petra and it is an ancient city in Jordan built in a basin surrounded by mountains. It is the perfect accompaniment to Wilpena Pound in terms of epic symbolism as Petra matches the Pound but on a far bigger scale and is also the opposite in terms of human habitation.
The Jen-Diki are led by an evil character by the name of Zuryk who in close-up reminds the viewer somewhat of Davros who was the half human and half robot leader of the Daleks in the Dr Who television series.
The film begins with an impressive opening shot of the futuristic city covered by a defensive dome, something which may have been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative announced in 1983 which intended the protection of the US from nuclear missiles. This was otherwise known as the “Star Wars program” and despite being another concept altogether, it was something of a fiction which was never realised. It would never have been perfect, just like the dome in The Time Guardian is compromised by sustained attacks by the Jen-Diki at the beginning of the movie.
The city is well rendered by the Australian special effects team as we then hear the heavy footfall of the Jen-Diki and the ensuing laser fight between the city’s soldiers and this most ferocious enemy which seems to have the ability to track the city through time. The laser fight is typical of Star Wars and well copied.
Our hero Ballard, incidentally, appears to be named after the great sci-fi author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009 prostate cancer) whose dystopian modernity is hinted at within the bowels and living quarters of the travelling city. Other than that, he wrote a different type of science fiction unrelated to the finished product of The Time Guardian.
There are some great corny lines in the movie, such as when Ballard snarls: “Let’s get these tin cans” just before he engages in battle with the Jen-Diki. Then there’s some amusement to be found, when a character screams in comedic fashion as he falls from a ladder to his death. it’s definitely intentionally comic book stuff at times and successfully mimics the tone of Star Wars on a shoestring. Meanwhile keyboardist Allan Zavod’s (1945-2016) score, no matter how cheap, lifts the proceedings. It certainly isn’t orchestral!
“I’m not concerned with making people glad to see me,” says Ballard, snarling once more.
“Congratulations, you’re a big success,” says Fisher with a straight face after being told she was responsible for the deaths of many soldiers.
The humour extends to the small outback town, where much of the action is set, as an outback cop who “couldn’t run a hot bath” takes a leak during a freak weather event, only to have his urine freeze in mid-stream. It possibly one of the most unforgettable moments in film history!
There is a character named Jake who is some sort of prospector and a key character in Hannant and Baxter’s original treatment, but his role has been reduced to virtually nothing in the film. What remains and yet what seems to unbalance and yet balance the film again is that the spectacular scenes such as the escape from the jail and the blowing up of the gas station make way for more intimate moments in the desert among the lead characters. We can see what the original script contained in terms of its modest intentions and perhaps as a result it makes the action, when it does happen, all the more splendid. The film is like the city without its leg support, living precariously between having a successful landing or ending in total disaster!
There is also a kind of lacklustre casting in the minor characters beyond the main stars of the movie which adds to the strength of the major names used. It is reported that Fisher’s underuse in the film, which may disappoint some, was because she swapped roles with Coghill before shooting started. But this doesn’t make sense as Fisher wasn’t cast until after production began. Perhaps Coghill was given the lead since no one had yet been cast and time was short.
The fact that money had to be spent on numerous Jen-Diki instead of just one, may have harmed the film in terms of the terror they were meant to instil, but the bookending battles in the movie make up for this shortfall. Zuryk is no Darth Vader but he is vile enough to look at beneath his helmet.
The Time Guardian is haunted by The Terminator with Ballard echoing the Arnold Schwarzenegger line from the film “I’ll be back” a couple of times and I wonder if this was a part of Hannant’s piecemeal offering with head office in terms of his revised script. It doesn’t spoil the movie but instead adds to its mashing together of commercial clichés with some of the more original ideas contained in the material.
Burton’s cinematography is a bonus and there’s ingenious use of Indigenous legend in the film with cave paintings which depict the futuristic city as if it had visited the area in centuries past as well as natives performing a ritual dance.
I’ll wind up by saying that once more, the intimacy of the characters compared to the epic surrounds of the outback seem to be the very kernel of Baxter and Hannant’s script… Put this together with the fact that Hannant directed most of the movie despite quitting and disowning it – he still remains the key component in the creation of the finished product. The Time Guardian may not have been what the director initially intended, but this compromise is far from the turkey it has often been reported to be. Or what Hannant would have us believe his only feature film as a director is!
Despite the silly costumes of the residents of the futuristic city, the cheapness of the movie is partially hidden, surprisingly, by the use of anamorphic widescreen and well-chosen effects which helped form the genesis of modern effect production in Australia which thrives to this day.
The Time Guardian still isn’t a great film, as some of the best cult films are not. It remains a pleasing time capsule, just as Erle Cox’s outback set Out of the Silence with its gigantic buried spere is an iconic piece of Aussie sci-fi after it was published in instalments in The Argus newspaper over a six-month period back in 1919. Like the space ship in that story, there are items of popular interest to be found within The Time Guardian.
While Out of the Silence was one man’s vision unaltered, The Time Guardian is the focus of the vision of many, compromised though it is. Even Cox had to stand back and let his story be illustrated by others. The Time Guardian, with its accumulation of disparate points of view in terms of the script, still reached a kind of saturation point, or over-ripeness, within its cornucopia, which offered up something never before seen in Australian film history. It remains almost unique.
Any scar tissue that director Brian Hannant carries to this day should be worn proudly by him like some Aboriginal warrior, as his initiation into major feature filmmaking and the war he engaged in to create The Time Guardian, may have been mentally painful, but what emerged, despite its disputed results, remains a cornerstone of Australian science fiction film Dreaming. Hopefully, as Wilpena Pound was originally envisioned for the movie, The Time Guardian will become a meeting place for future cult warriors as well as past lovers and present dreamers.
For an interview with stunt man Dean Bennett who has an anecdote about Carrie Fisher during the making of The Time Guardian PRESS HERE.