Combustible Celluloid

John Travolta

Standing Tall... Nine Feet Tall

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

There are more people waiting to talk to John Travolta now than there are to talk to the mayor at any given time. When we're finally herded in to the hotel hospitality suite, Travolta himself is the only one who doesn't seem in a hurry. He has all the time in the world to meet people, flash his smile, and welcome them into his world. I shake his hand, and he gives me the teeth. He's sharp as the devil, all in black, hair cropped short, clean shaven. Somehow I can't help thinking of Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction (1994). I seesaw my way into a place at the crowded table, full of both radio and internet journalists. Four or five giant microphones are lined up in front of Travolta, making him look like presidential candidate Jack Stanton from Primary Colors (1998).

We're here to talk about Battlefield Earth, a new sci-fi action movie based on L. Ron Hubbard's novel. Since Travolta and Hubbard are both closely connected to Scientology, many people think that the movie is supposed to contain some kind of message. "There is no particular message in this movie other than 'How big is your popcorn and your candy bar?'" Travolta says. "I did it as an entertainment piece. In Pulp Fiction everyone wondered what was in the briefcase. It was a green light! But if you want to think it was something else, that's what good movies do. They provoke thinking of some sort. What did that Band-Aid on Ving Rhames mean? It was probably a cut! But [some] interpretations had it as whatever."

"I wrote a little book called Propeller One-Way Night Coach, and I don't know why, but I got on a roll and 10 days later it was finished, and it had more messages in it than I even knew I wrote. So who knows when you're writing these crazy pieces how half the stuff is going to be interpreted."

Travolta responds to the accusations that the movie is full of subliminal recruiting messages for the Church of Scientology. "Fortunately there's a lot of literate people in the world who know the difference between science fiction and philosophy, and this clearly separates the two. But I was entertained by some of it, to be honest. Especially the 'subliminal' stuff!"

Travolta plays the villain in the movie. He explains that he originally wanted to play the hero, Jonny, but realized that he was "a bit long in the tooth" for it now, and so settled for the role of Terl, the evil Psychlo in charge of operations on Earth. (The Psychlos are a race of 8-foot-tall aliens who take over the Earth circa the 30th Century.) Travolta clearly has a blast being evil and snarling at everyone. "Every day I couldn't wait! It was delicious to say those words. Terl is so full of himself! You're allowed more theatricality to play the bad guys, although Pulp Fiction was more subtle. Broken Arrow started the theatricality and then Face/Off went over the top. And then this, with this get-up, invited me to have a blast!" Travolta breaks into a few lines of dialogue as Terl, minus the hideous makeup.

Travolta spent about four hours a day in the makeup chair getting prepared for the role. "Actually the process wasn't bad. Afterward the claustrophobia and the heat are quite something. But every little trick added to my potential evilness there, so it was fun on a certain level. I liked the dreads. I liked the amber eyes. The teeth I added. You know, they drink this 'kerbango' drink, and I said, I think these teeth shouldn't be perfect. Because they're kinda buzzed off this drink all day. We're all coffee drinkers and tea drinkers, and we get bad teeth. And 'kerbango' messes with their teeth. So I said, 'bring it on!'"

There was also the problem of adding height to the actor. That was easily solved with tall shoes and a high pile of makeup on his head. Then the camera photographed him at a dutch angle, from below, tilted slightly upward. "I was about nine feet altogether, in illusion. 572 pounds is the estimated weight of that guy. Talons for hands. One person noticed I had six fingers. That was very cool. I didn't think people paid that much attention."

Going back to that long-in-the-tooth remark, Travolta muses about the possibility of retiring. "After Pulp Fiction there was all this brouhaha about my performance in that and it had been almost 20 years since "Saturday Night Fever," and I thought, 'OK, what next? If everyone is so excited about that, what do I do next?' And then suddenly scripts fell in front of me that I hadn't had before, like Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, Michael, Face/Off, Primary Colors, A Civil Action. I never dreamed of playing those kind of parts! I knew I could, but I didn't know they would be in my future. Maybe there's something in the future that I will be challenged by but I don't know it now. So I don't think you can put the curtain down on yourself. I like performing too much."

Lucky for us.

May 5, 2000

Movies Unlimtied