Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Man Who Literally Built Star Wars — Roger Christian


Set decorator Roger Christian tells us what it was like making George Lucas's dreams out of scrap metal

One of the most memorable elements of the original Star Wars in 1977 wasn't the story, or characters, or even the soundtrack. It was the set design. Back in the 1970s, you didn't just get the interior of the Millennium Falcon spaceship made. You had to use unconventional methods and items to achieve the desired look. In Roger Christian’s case, he used scrap airplane metal.
Back then, the hired set decorator was tasked with helping a young George Lucas on Star Wars: A New Hope, creating prop prototypes and decorating sets in a way that hadn’t ever been achieved before in science-fiction films. Presented with a low budget forced the Londoner to more or less create something from nothing. His work earned him an Academy Award for set decoration, and every film of the Star Wars franchise has been trying to achieve that inexplicable rustic and authentic appearance ever since.
After we wrote about Christian's long lost and now found Star Wars short film Black Angel, we spoke with the 70-year-old again about his earliest anecdotes working on A New Hopeand his thoughts on the franchise's future with Disney.
ROGER CHRISTIAN: Well, George flew down to see us. [Eventual Star Wars production designer] John Barry and I were doing these amazing sets on a film called Lucky Ladyand it was set in the "rum running" era in the 1930s of America. And George came to the set I was doing, it was an old salt factory design and he helped me shovel salt, just like two students in plaid shirts and sneakers. And we spoke and he looked at the set and couldn't believe it wasn't real.
ESQ: What did you two talk about?
RC: He didn't want anything [in Star Wars] to stand out, he wanted it all real and used. And I said, "Finally somebody's doing it the right way." All science fiction before was very plastic and stupid uniforms and Flash Gordon stuff. Nothing was new. George was going right against that. My first conversation with him was that spaceships should be things you see in garages with oil dripping and they keep repairing them to keep them going, because that's how the world is. So we had the conversation and I got hired. I was the third person hired on Star Wars, in fact.
ESQ: How did you guys proceed from there?
RC: Well, we worked with George for four months, trying to figure out how to make the film with no money. This was all before anything. Fox wouldn't greenlight the film. So George paid us with money that he was promised from American Graffiti. So the whole thing was done completely unconventionally. 
ESQ: What were the most challenging sets to create?
RC: The Millennium Falcon was difficult, because I had to train prop men to break down jet engines into scrap pieces and then line them all up into different categories and stick them to the walls. 


ESQ: How did you come up with the initial idea to use scrap metal?
RC: I told George gingerly one day, "I cannot afford to dress these sets, I can't get anything made in the studio," but my idea was to make it like a submarine interior. And if I bought airplane scrap and broke it down, I could stick it in the sets in specific ways — because there's an order to doing it, it's not just random. And that's the art of it. I understood how to do that — engineering and all that stuff. So George said, "Yes, go do it." And airplane scrap at that time, nobody wanted it. There were junkyards full of it, because they sold it by weight. I could buy almost an entire plane for 50 pounds.
ESQ: So how much detail was involved in the Millennium Falcon?
RC: The chess set scene in the hold of the Millennium Falcon took me weeks and weeks to get that, it's the most encrusted set. Some days I thought, "Wow I'm mad, this isn't going to work," because we were just piling the stuff in, but it did work, thank God.

ESQ: What else did you have a difficult time dressing?
RC: The garbage compactor was also pretty hard, because I knew I had actors in there and the walls had to come in, and they had to be in dirty water and I had to get stuff that would be light enough so it wouldn't hurt them but also not bobbing around. That was a difficult one. 
ESQ: Talk to me a bit about what the experience was like creating the prop prototypes. What did you begin with?
RC: I had been successful showing George my idea of adapting real guns so that they'd look used and natural. For Han Solo's blaster gun, I wanted it like a Western gun, so I stuck old sights on it and everything. And I called John Barry and I said, "You better get George around here to see this idea," because we could afford to do it this way. Plus these work, you could fire them and get the recoil, on-set, and not like actors going, "Beep beep." So George came around, and that was the point where I'd either be fired or stay on. But George just smiled. And he stayed with me to help make Princess Leia's gun the same way.
ESQ: And you also did the first light saber, or "laser sword" as it was called, right?
RC: Yes. The laser sword was one of the most challenging props to find. Several attempts at mock-ups made by John Steers' SFX department had been rejected. I knew the laser sword or light saber had the potential to become the symbol of Star Wars, like Excalibur was to King Arthur, so it had to look the part. And the Prop Master Frank Bruton, who had to get everything on trucks for Tunisia for the start of filming, was hounding me, and nothing I had found to adapt was feeling right. One day at the camera shop we rented equipment from, I asked the owner if he had any spare parts somewhere. And he pointed to some boxes buried deep under the shelves and there in the box were several Graflex flashgun handles. They were perfect, heavy, and had a red button for firing the flash. I could not believe my luck. I used rubber T-strip as a base, which I had also used for the Stormtroopers' Stirling sub machine guns, and I pulled out my superglue and stuck strips along the base to form a handle grip. Then I had found some interesting bubble strip from an old calculator LED strip and they fit perfectly into the grip where the Graflex attached to the camera. I placed some chrome tape over the Graflex name and voila.
ESQ: What did George say?
George Lucas with an R2D2 prop.
RC: I called him over to my office to show him, and he held it and smiled and that was George's seal of approval. He asked me to attach a D-ring on the end, as he wanted to attach it to Luke’s belt for some scenes in Tunisia. With this attached I mocked up a second one to go to Tunisia and gave a third one to John Steers to adapt for the laser light effect. The one I made is the one that Obi Wan Kenobi brings out of his trunk and gives to Luke in his cave.
ESQ: And you also helped create the first R2D2?
RC: Yeah, we had a little tiny studio, Lee International Studios in London. George and Garry Kurtz were there. And I hired a carpenter, Bill Harmon, who used to make all the props for Monty Python for no money, and I knew he had a sense of humor and wouldn't moan if I asked him to do something. So with him, we basically made R2D2 out of wood to get the size right. We also brought marine ply from home, because we had no money to make anything with. And we used that to make a wooden R2D2 and took a top from a lamp store and put the top on it.
ESQ: What was your memory like of working with George during production of the film?
RC: Oh, we had lunch together every day. We were like film students with common knowledge of film. We'd watch films in the evenings that were an influence to us sometimes in Lee Studios with a projector.
ESQ: Did you become close?
RC: Yeah, it became a very strong bond, because most of the crew thought that Star Wars was a children's film that would never see the light of day and treated it that way. So most of the crew was not with George on it at all. But I was and John Barry. Only five of us really. George says this now: Only five people really stood by him during the entire film. That's why I'm still friends with him.
ESQ: What are your thoughts on the upcoming Episode VII? Do you hope to be a part of it somehow?

RC: It's a different animal now, because George really isn't involved at all. John Rinzler [Lucasfilm executive editor and writer] said, "Look, you should be an adviser for them, because they're trying to do what you did with the [production set] look and everything." He gave my name. So we'll see.

ESQ: Looking back on your experience, what do you think Disney has to do to getEpisode VII right?
RC: Well, George's genius is that he can tell a "ride" and people will go and enjoy the "ride," but underneath it is ancient mythology that connects it to your soul. I just hope Disney continues that ride. Today, you'll go to the cinema to get your thrills, but these old films, they stay in your head forever. And Star Wars did that, no question. — Esquire.com

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