Nightflyers is now a TV show on SYFY, but before that, in 1987, it was a movie... a movie that flopped, although the founder of the Saturn Awards, Dr. Donald A. Reed, actually called it "high art."
Both the original movie and the television series are based on author George R.R. Martin's 1980 novella of the same name, though both take varying liberties on the original story. Because SYFY's Nightflyers premiered this week, SYFY WIRE reached out to some of the 1980 film's stars — lead actress Catherine Mary Stewart, who played "improved model" Miranda Dorlac (named Melantha Jhirl in the original novella and TV series), Michael Des Barres, who played telepath John Winderman (Thale in the novella and TV series), and Helene Udy, who played cyberneticist Lilly (Lommie in the novella and TV series) — to learn more about the making of the original adaptation.
Here are their still-painful recollections of the film, assembled from separate conversations with each actor.
Helene Udy: Catherine Mary Stewart was a big deal at the time. Huge. Like Ariana Grande now. No, maybe that's not the best example. Justin Bieber's girlfriend? She was in Night of the Comet, and there is still a huge fan club for that movie.
Catherine Mary Stewart: I didn't audition. The Last Starfighter and Night of the Comet were considered science fiction to a certain degree, but with light, humorous narratives. This was dark, futuristic science fiction with a strong horror element.
Michael Des Barres: My agent called and said, "They want a horrible monster with high cheekbones. Are you available?"
Stewart: Annabel Brooks replaced Bianca Jagger after one day on the set. I don't know what that was all about, but as an actor, it's never easy to drop into a role under those conditions and I think she did a great job. My character Miranda was described to me as sort of half-A.I., half-human, with incredible intelligence, physical faculty, and a controlled sense of emotion.
Udy: When I auditioned, the character was kind of a nerd, who was gay, who was in love with her boss. And I made a lifelong friend out of my co-star Lisa Blount, who played my boss. She definitely took me under her wing, and the closeness that we had carried through. She was just a wonderful person. She had a really deep soul.
Stewart: Lisa Blount was an absolute doll. And the rest of the cast — Michael Praed, John Standing, Glenn Withrow, James Avery, Helene Udy, Annabel Brooks, Michael Des Barres — every one of these actors was stellar in every way. When Lisa and James passed, it broke my heart.
Udy: I noticed the director had this beautiful blonde wife with like a tiny, short, diamond-shaped face, and it occurred to me, whether wittingly or no, that all the women in the film looked a lot like his wife. Even though we looked very different from each other, we all still had this kind of diamond-shaped face.
Even Michael Praed had a diamond-shaped face.
Stewart: I loved my character Miranda's look! It was the ultimate '80s version of futuristic. The sunglasses were specially made for me.
One of my favorite images is the opening shot where you see Lisa Blount's character Audrey reflected in one of the lenses. And I thought the spacesuits were a big success. So often you have an issue with these kinds of bubble helmets getting fogged up, but there was never any evidence of that.
Des Barres: I never take much interest in how things are done. I was just a hired gun. I just put the bullets in the gun and shoot. But if I'd read the script, I probably wouldn't have done it.
Stewart: The filming felt somewhat problematic from the start. I felt like the production itself was solid in terms of sets, props, special effects, and stunts, but the script seemed to be in flux.
Des Barres: The movie was directed by a guy who's not really a director. It was a low budget movie, and very haphazard.
Stewart: The atmosphere smoke they used on the sets was oil-based, so that, combined with the very smooth floors that were created for the spaceship's large common area and kitchen, was a recipe for a slippery disaster. One of the makeup/hair people did fall and was injured.
Des Barres: That spaceship made us look like we were about as much in space as you are when you're at Starbucks!
Stewart: I did gymnastics when I was quite young, but by the time we shot Nightflyers, there was no way I would have been able to pull off the gymnastics required of this super-human character.
The bars they set up for the stunt double were not official uneven bars. I doubt they were even the right distance apart for her height. I'm not sure if they even provided her with the chalk for her hands. Her poor hands were ripped to shreds. It must have been very painful. But there was a priority to train us to shoot, fight, and fall, as Helene Udy had to do when she was sucked out of the Nightflyer ship.
Udy: I was sent to learn how to fall 20 feet onto an airbag, and I took lessons with the best person in the industry. But on the night we were going to shoot that scene, they could not rig that for 20 feet. They could only rig it for 40 feet, between two buildings. That's twice what I had trained for. The first time I did it, I was terrified. I was like, 'This is high, this is high,' and I started to shake. I dropped onto the airbag, and then they said, 'You did it too gracefully. You need to do it again.'
The second time, I didn't drop, I slipped and fell for real. When I hit the bag, my chin banged onto my chest, really hard, like, 'Boom!' and I heard my neck crack. I thought I was dead. I was so lucky that I wasn't. And I have a dramatic fear of heights now.
Des Barres: Everything was a hiccup.
Udy: The final scene for me, going out of the spaceship, we rigged me up over the camera so I was like Peter Pan on a wire. I'm supposed to fly over the camera and flail out with my arms and legs. I do it. And after I land, I look around, and everyone was just agape. And that is because my chin was maybe one millimeter from the camera. If I had been any closer, it would have split my lip and my chin open. It could have taken my face off. I was so close, people thought I hit it. We probably should have paid a stunt person, you know what I mean?
Des Barres: Friends send me pictures to this day of me being dismembered on that table, my jaw coming open. I think that's pretty hilarious. That should be the cover of my biography.
Stewart: The fight scene with Michael Des Barres makes me laugh/cringe every time I see it! And the headless corpse of Michael Des Barres' character was hilarious! I had to flail around with a dummy trying to make it look like it was attacking me. I was literally attacking myself while trying to look like I was fending off this creature!
Udy: We felt like it was going to be a great movie. So I was shocked when whatever internal combustion occurred.
Des Barres: I think the director [Robert Collector] was a little lost. He took his name off the film and used a pseudonym instead [T.C. Blake]. Very wise.
Stewart: I think they struggled throughout the production with the flow of the story and how to wrap it. I have no idea how they came up with the ending, but I feel like it leaves the audience hanging. I love the ending in the novella. It was touching and beautiful.
Des Barres: I'm surprised it was even completed. I thought it was hilarious. When I saw it, I turned to whoever I was with, and I said, 'It should have been a musical.'
Stewart: A friend of mine who was my publicist at the time went to a test screening. I didn't attend, because I was on another shoot at the time. She said after the screening, people offered opinions on the film with a mic that was passed around, and one of the comments was by the late founder of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, Dr. Donald A. Reed. He called the film 'high art.' I think that's pretty cool!
Des Barres: I'm in a great outfit, and I'm a telepath, and I'm in space! But it's a shame they dismembered me. [Laughs]