“A long time ago…” before iPads, smart phones, and the proliferation of laptops, an entire generation of fans stood in lines around the block to see the new phenomenon called Star Wars on the big screen. Now, all these years later, the phenomenon continues, as Walt Disney Studios, Lucasfilm Ltd., and 20th Century Fox make it easier than ever to experience Star Wars with the release all six epic films in the saga, from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi, on Digital HD beginning April 10.
To celebrate, D23 spoke with Roger Christian, the legendary set designer who literally molded, glued, and bolted together the bits and pieces of George Lucas’ “galaxy far, far away” in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope. Since nothing like that had ever been created before, Christian fashioned it out of scrap airplane metal and low-budget ingenuity—and won an Academy Award® in the process.
“I never connected to all those science-fiction films,” he says. “I liked science fiction, but it never matched up to how I saw the vision of it. I grew up more with King Arthur and legends and Hobbits and I always thought of things as very real.” It’s that “realness” that’s so palpable in Star Wars. The dirt. The rustic settings. The banged-up spaceships and dented robots. Before this film, science fiction was all clean, shiny, and “plastic.” But Lucas had a different vision. And so did Christian.
D23: What inspired the look of the film?
ROGER CHRISTIAN: My first conversation with George is that I thought a spaceship interior and exterior should look like an old car that had been repaired many times and was dripping oil. And he said, ‘That’s it. That’s my vision of what I want,’ so from the very start we were on that same plane.
D23: How did the limited budget affect your work?
RC: When we got to London, the budget we were given at that point was about $4 million. We spent four months in a little tiny studio in London before Fox green-lit the film and we had to figure out how in the world to make this film with no money. When I’d broken down my script, I just couldn’t afford to dress the film. I knew that I needed all these interiors and exteriors and things. So I suggested to John Barry (production designer) and George Lucas that if I bought airplane scrap from junkyards, I could stick round the walls and create a mix of what I saw was an old submarine. And George, being an independent filmmaker, he knew what I was talking about and said, ‘Go ahead and do it.’
So I crossed my fingers and we bought truckloads of airplane scrap. I mean, it never stopped coming into the studios, we ate up so much.
D23: What did George Lucas think about it?
RC: George has always said he didn’t want anything that looked designed, anything that would point it out, ‘Wow, look at this science-fiction thing.’ He wanted everything to be real.
D23: How did you create the battle-worn, rustic, lived-in look of the film?
RC: Most of the crew had a hard time understanding, because they thought science fiction should be like Flash Gordon. So George showed them Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone’s great cowboy movie, and that was very dusty and very real. That was the look that we were trying to get. After that, I was aging the sets and throwing dust on them and making everything look very natural.
D23: What were some of your most challenging sets to put together?
RC: The Millennium Falcon was the biggest challenge. I did the cockpit first, and the area where the chess game is set. It was a wing and prayer—it was the biggest challenge—but I had faith it would work. We were doing something that had never been done before, so I had to train the prop men that when we broke down the jet engine, to keep duplicates—because on a real ship or airplane, nothing’s random. It’s all very carefully structured and organized. There are duplicates and triplicates of everything. I had to train the prop men how to dress this stuff into the walls and make it look like it’s been engineered. And while you’re doing it, it looks terrible. The cockpit itself took weeks. Eventually, when you get to a certain point, you suddenly realize, ‘Ah, this is working.’ And we go around with waxes and start to age it. And I did it on budget.
D23: When did you know it was a success?
RC: I knew on the floor. Being out in Tunisia [northern Africa, stand-in for Tatooine], and being in these ancient worlds, and dressing it in these little bits of elements that turned it into another planet, but it was so familiar—I knew then. I knew that there was something special here. And we got the robots working, which was a challenge beyond anything, to see R2-D2 and C-3PO actually functioning—seeing those two actually squabbling on those first few days of shooting, I knew that something good was coming. And when the great Alec Guinness [Obi Wan Kenobi] arrived and got into costume and rolled in the dirt—no one asked him to do it, he just did it to get it dusty—and when I heard him speak those lines, I knew there was something special here.
D23: What do you think is the genius behind Star Wars?
RC: Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist who wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces, says that George Lucas is one of the only true living mythmakers working today. I think that’s true. And like the story of King Arthur has endured, these myths and legends connect very deeply with thousands of people, and George is very knowledgeable about legend and myth. His great ability is to take the exact keys that are necessary for a true myth, and then arrive on the surface for a Saturday morning cinema ride that everyone could relate to.