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John Travolta's Alien Notion

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He rallied to Scientology's defense in the mid-'80s after juries awarded former followers millions of dollars for fraud and mental abuse they say they suffered as church members. (One judgment was upheld on appeal, and others were settled out of court.) When some of the sacred scriptures--including the Xenu story--ended up in a court file, 1,500 Scientologists crammed the courthouse to block public access to the documents. In 1986 Travolta himself marched into Los Angeles Superior Court, hoping to make a pro-church speech in the case where the documents had been revealed. (The judge instructed Travolta to sit down, and he complied.)

Detecting Enemies

He's legendary among reporters for being a gracious and accommodating interview subject, known to give a hug or offer to relieve a sore throat using Scientology techniques. Many acquaintances talk of Travolta's warmth and kindness. But he shows a more pugnacious side when talking about church enemies--described in Hubbard's writings as "suppressive persons." Skeptical journalists, ex-members who sue Scientology, government investigators or family members antagonistic to the sect would all qualify.

Travolta has taken special courses to help him detect enemies. "I don't think anyone should be tolerant of suppressive acts," Travolta said in a 1990 interview with the church's Celebrity magazine. "I no longer doubt when I am in the presence of suppression. And I am very unreasonable about it."

In Scientology writings, a suppressive person deserves no mercy. He may be "deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist," according to a 1967 Hubbard policy letter. "May be tricked, sued, or lied to or destroyed."

Travolta never speaks about such policies in mainstream publications. Nor does he mention his Operating Thetan status, which, according to church teachings, gives him the ability to control "matter, energy, space, time, form and life."

Travolta renewed his OT studies in the 1990s after teaming up with fellow advanced-level Scientologist Kirstie Alley for the "Look Who's Talking" pictures. In 1996, he told a Scientology magazine about a new course he was taking called "L10"--which, according to church literature, helps Operating Thetans "unleash potentials not seen in this sector of the galaxy for a long, long time." (Price: $1,000 per hour.) At the time, Travolta was starring in "Phenomenon," playing a lunkhead who, after a presumed alien encounter, becomes a genius with superhuman powers.

In the same Celebrity interview, the actor cited the popularity of his '90s films "Pulp Fiction," "Get Shorty" and "Broken Arrow" as evidence of his "upwards statistics," thanks to Scientology. But he has never publicly faulted Hubbard's teachings for his career lows. According to Scientologists, the founder's technology can never be wrong.

Travolta's career seemed to enter a death spiral in the 1980s. "He was poised on the edge of oblivion," Clarkson writes in his otherwise gushing biography. "He was accepting bad parts, and turning down good ones, with unerring consistency. By 1989, he was seriously considering a new career."

His comeback was launched when he accepted the role of a heroin-addicted hit man in ultra-violent "Pulp Fiction," directed by Quentin Tarantino. The filmmakers were offering Travolta a fee of only $150,000. According to some former Scientology insiders, the church wasn't enamored of the grisly role. None of that deterred him.

"It is a very anti-drug, anti-crime story," Travolta told Celebrity in 1993. "It shows the brutality and crudeness of it all."

The part won Travolta his first Oscar nomination since "Saturday Night Fever," and good scripts started coming his way again. Soon he was commanding fees in the millions. In 1994 the church named him as L. Ron Hubbard's "personal public relations officer" at a Los Angeles ceremony, and he has since become its best-known disciple.

(When quizzed in recent interviews about the impact of gory imagery and murder in his last film, "The General's Daughter," Travolta said he didn't think the media inspired anyone to commit acts of violence. What's to blame for crime, he declared, are psychiatric medications. He mentioned Prozac and Ritalin. It was pure Hubbard-speak: Psychiatry causes crime.)

In 1996, after winning a Golden Globe award for "Get Shorty," Travolta acknowledged and quoted "a great man, L. Ron Hubbard." Later, backstage, he told reporters he wanted to make a movie of Hubbard's life.

A Subtle Strategy

When Hubbard's swashbuckling epic was published in 1982, Scientologists immediately saw parallels to the life of its author. Some figured Hubbard had based its fair-haired hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler--who almost single-handedly liberates Earth from the vile Psychlos--on himself.

"This was Hubbard building his own mythology," says Gerry Armstrong, a former Hubbard aide who lost faith in the founder in 1981 and left after a dozen years on staff. "Hubbard had developed his own hagiography."

In "Battlefield Earth"--the book and the movie--Tyler takes on the head of the Psychlo security force, Terl, who lords over a mining operation on Earth. Terl rounds up humans and feeds them a diet of raw rats. He is obsessed with spying, blackmailing and manufacturing evidence to be used against his enemies. (Some who had known Hubbard and personally felt his wrath detected traits of Hubbard in Terl, too.)

Soon after the book came out, Hubbard autographed a copy for Travolta, says former Scientology public relations official Robert Vaughn Young. "I delivered it into his hands," Young recalls. "I am sure that Hubbard wanted John to play Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. It surprised me to learn that, as it ended up, he was going to play Terl."

(This summer, at his only news conference about the movie, Travolta said he'd always wanted to be Tyler but too much time had passed. "I'm too old. . . . Imagine me, as fat as I am, running around with guns.")

No matter what Travolta's role, disaffected former Scientologists say the movie will serve to boost the church's membership and reinforce Hubbard's anti-psychiatry message. But Young--who worked as an image-builder for the church for 20 years before he became disgruntled and quit in 1989--detects a more subtle strategy.

"In one sense, John Travolta is right--this is not a book about Scientology," he says. "But it's a way for people to discover Scientology. It's a lead-in."

Scientology officials have been hoping to see "Battlefield Earth" made into a movie since at least 1984, when they unleashed a 30-foot-high inflatable figure of Terl on Sunset Strip as part of a publicity blitz. A director was hired and auditions were held in Denver, but the project fizzled.

Around that time, Travolta first took interest in making the movie. He just didn't have the juice in Hollywood to pull it off. Over the years, the script went through about 10 revisions. In 1998 Travolta contacted Corey Mandell, a 33-year-old screenwriter who had worked with Ridley ("Blade Runner") Scott but had yet to get a script produced.

"I am not a Scientologist," Mandell declared in an interview with The Post. "I came on board because John asked me to read the book and said, 'It's not a religious book. It's a science-fiction story. There's nothing sacred about the story, nothing of the religious philosophy.'

"I was given this to read purely as science fiction--to see whether it was intriguing as a movie. And it was."

Travolta and his longtime manager, Jonathan Krane, arranged financing and distribution. They hired Roger Christian, who had worked with George Lucas on "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace," to direct.

"It's the pinnacle of using my power for something," Travolta told the New York Daily News in explaining how he came to finally make "Battlefield Earth." "I can get things done that a studio might not normally do. I told my manager, 'If we can't do the things now that we want to do, what good is the power? It's a waste, basically. Let's test it and try to get the things done that we believe in.' "

The Secret Ingredient

At the military base in Montreal, "Battlefield Earth" crew members politely decline to be quoted. They have signed nondisclosure agreements. Beefy security men quickly affix tarps to the chain-link fence at the first sign of an unauthorized photographer. They position catering trucks to obstruct the view of a reporter.

But they can't hide everything, including props that look like they came from a '50s B-movie: old baby buggies, gas pumps, street lamps, a phone booth, rocket parts. (These items bring to mind the Marcab Confederacy, which Hubbard defined in a church dictionary as "a decadent kicked-in-the-head civilization that contains automobiles, business suits, fedora hats, telephones, spaceships.")

A Psychlo wanders by, partially costumed. He looks like Bigfoot gone Rastafarian.

"Seen any aliens?" a reporter asks a tattooed biker type guarding the gate.

"No, that guy's from Florida."

Why all the secrecy?

In part, it's just how the movie business works these days. The studios and stars want publicity only when it suits their goals--that is, to promote a picture upon its release. Travolta usually offers scads of interviews to support his movies, but only under tightly controlled circumstances. He is among the celebs who have the leverage to handpick the writers who will interview them.

"It's not the kind of publicity we want to do right now," explains production spokeswoman Pamela Godfrey. "Your agenda and the marketing agenda for the film aren't in sync with each other. So, sorry."

The producers say they also want to make sure nobody steals their high-tech look--or their surprises. In a hotel bar in downtown Montreal where the crew is unwinding after a long day of shooting, the set's official still photographer holds up a bottle of beer.

"This is a movie," he says. "It's a product just like any other."

Consider the star to be a secret ingredient in a soon-to-be-marketed new brand of beer, says the photographer, David James, who has worked on "Saving Private Ryan" among other major releases. In this case, he says, Travolta playing a nine-foot hairy alien is the draw, certain to be a subject of worldwide fascination. "Why release the secret ingredient early?"

As for L. Ron Hubbard, James had never heard of him before he started working on this movie. "I don't even know about Christianity, let alone Scientology," James says with a wry smile, putting down the bottle of beer and holding up a tray of peanuts.

"This is a movie . . ."


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