Did you know that back in the day at the time of the original Star Wars trilogy, one man made every set interior, every prop including light sabers and blasters for every character? Well that man’s name is Roger Christian, the set decorator and production designer for the original trilogy. Learn more about Roger Christian and his impact on one of the most iconic sagas in history, in this Q & A.
How would you describe your role in the Star Wars franchise?
Originally, I was hired as a set decorator for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. In those days, that meant I worked on every interior of every set and location. I had to make all the weapons for every character, including the laser sword. Under my role came all the weapons, part of the robots and part of the vehicles. I had to come up with the entire ‘used’ universe of Star Wars for George Lucas.
How did you get involved with the Star Wars movies?
I was working in Mexico on a movie called Lucky Lady with production designer John Barry when George came to meet us. It was a very aged, dusty set for a rum-running movie based in the 1920s, and I was dressing an old salt factory when George turned up wearing his plaid shirt. George said, “I’m trying to make a science fiction film.” My response was, “Well, I hate the plastic world they always use for sci-fi. I think it should be a used, old universe with spaceships dripping oil in garages.” That’s exactly what he wanted. We had dinner and I was hired as soon as Lucky Lady finished. We were hired directly by George, who paid us himself for four months. John Barry, [art director] Les Dilley, a carpenter and myself worked in little, tiny studios in London for four months where we had to work out how the hell we could make this film with such a small budget.
Did you immediately know you were working on something special?
As soon as I read the script, I knew it was special. Being English and coming out of a terrible time after the World Wars, I was a free thinker and I had a different attitude to the old Britain. I got through my childhood with King Arthur, Norse legends and myths, so as soon as I’d read the script, I knew what was under there. Here was a modern version of King Arthur in its own way. None of us knew that the movie would do what it did – but it’s understandable because George connected into that mythology that every human being has a response to. When I read about laser swords and stormtroopers, I knew I was doing what I’d always wanted to do.
On the new bonus extras for Star Wars: The Digital Collection, you reveal some interesting insights into the weapons you created for the Star Wars saga. What was your biggest challenge?
The laser sword was the biggest challenge. George’s mantra to [concept designer and illustrator] Ralph McQuarrie was: ‘I don’t want anything to show up on-screen to look as if we designed it specially; everything should look like it belongs in the real universe.’ Having little budget, I knew that I could take old weapons and adapt them for the movie – but trying to find something for the laser sword was much tougher. I knew the laser sword would be the iconic image for the film, like Excalibur is to King Arthur. I searched and searched and searched for something to base it on. The special effects boys came up with ideas, but George kept rejecting them. And then, eventually, I found this Graflex handle. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was right. I could have used it as it was, but I had to adapt everything to give it our Star Wars look. That was definitely the most difficult item to find.
In the bonus extras, you mention that you found the Graflex flashgun handle in a random box. Where was the box?
There used to be a camera store on Great Marlborough Street in London. It’s not there anymore, but that’s where I used to rent all our cameras and other equipment. One day, I was buying lenses to stick on Luke Skywalker’s binoculars in the store and I said to the owner, “Have you got anything hidden away? Have you got any old stuff that I might look through?” He said to me, “There’s a load of old boxes under that shelf over there. Go and have a look.” The boxes were all incredibly dusty and they obviously hadn’t been opened in 10 or 15 years. I pulled one out and I opened the lid – and then everything moved in slow motion. Inside the box were several of these tissue paper-covered Graflex handles. I took one out and I immediately knew that I’d found the laser sword. It was a very iconic moment.
How long did you spend looking for inspiration for the laser sword?
It took months. I believe 20th Century Fox green-lit the film at the end of December and we moved into the studios on January 4th, but we were shooting in March. No one seems to realize this, but to prep a huge science fiction film in two months was some doing. In fact, I was panicking about it. The props master had to get everything to Tunisia in time for filming, including the laser sword. It didn’t need to be a fully functioning laser sword, but it had to hang on Luke’s belt. I didn’t find the Graflex handle until very late in January.
What other challenges did you face when you created the iconic weapons of Star Wars?
It was a challenge to come up with all of the weapons in the movie, although Chewbacca’s was particularly difficult. Ralph McQuarrie had drawn a gun for Chewbacca, but I found what’s called a ‘bow-caster’, which is a crossbow with two balls on the end. I loved the look of it, so I showed it to George and he immediately changed the vision of Chewbacca. He loved the bow-caster, and it became Chewbacca’s weapon.
What can you tell us about the creation and inspiration behind other key props in the movie?
Some things were certainly more difficult to find than others. For example, I spent a long time looking for a comlink [a handheld communication device] for the movie. I couldn’t find anything that would work. Back then, I had one office and I put every interesting piece of jet engine or airplane junk that I’d stripped out on to shelves in the office. Eventually, I kept so much that I had to have a second office. Well, I hadn’t found anything I really liked for the comlink, but I was with [Star Wars production designer] John Barry when an urgent call came through from the floor. George said, “I need a comlink now. I need one for this scene.” It wasn’t on the schedule, but George had added the comlink to the scene, so we had to find something quickly. At the time, I was showing John some plumbing pieces for a set he was designing – but out fell a valve from inside a filter. It just dropped in my hand and I said, “Oh my gosh… Look, there it is!” I quickly rushed to my office, stuck something around it and I took it to the floor. George looked at it and smiled – and put it straight into a stormtrooper’s hand. It went straight on camera.
What other anecdotes can you share about Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope?
The garbage room – the incinerator – was pretty hard to create because I knew those walls would compact everything. Grips would push the walls, so the room would get smaller and smaller, which meant that I had to come up with junk that would be safe to put inside a room where all the actors were going to be up to their waist in water. Secondly, Harrison Ford has to grab a pole to stick between the two walls to try to keep them apart. That was another difficult prop to find because I couldn’t get anything that long that he could carry. I stuffed some drainpipes together for that prop. Bless Harrison for being such an accommodating and intelligent actor. I said, “Harrison, this is all I can do.” He made it work. It’s literally two pieces of drainpipe that I put together with a kind of sleeving. It had to bend slowly as the walls came in. I didn’t think I’d get away with that, but I did. That was definitely a tricky one.
In another of the new bonus extras for Star Wars: The Digital Collection, you meet art director Joe Johnston for the first time and talk about working on the Millennium Falcon. How did Han Solo’s iconic spaceship design come about?
The original shape of the Millennium Falcon looked like one of the ships from Space: 1999, so George wanted to change it – and that’s when they came up with the iconic hamburger shape. It was pretty late in the day and we only had enough money to build half of it, but that meant we had to dress half of it, too. In those days, we knew we could paint in the other half of the vehicle by using a matte painting – but there also wasn’t a stage big enough that we could afford to put the whole thing in, so we only built half of it.
What did you use to dress the inside of the Millennium Falcon?
I bought so much airplane scrap from junked airplanes for the inside of the Millennium Falcon. I had lots of heated containers that airplanes use to put food in; they went into the Millennium Falcon. I also bought miles of drainpipes, from a quarter-of-an-inch up to two-feet wide. I had a stack of drainpipes next to the prop room. All of the pipe work is that; it’s drain piping.
What’s your proudest achievement when it comes to the sets of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope?
The set I’m most proud of is the Millennium Falcon hold where they play chess in the movie. My idea was to have it be a cross between a submarine and an old bomber, so that set is encrusted with pipes and airplane parts. The walls are thick with it, but it looked real. That’s what I think helped the vision of Star Wars, because people believed in it. It had never been done before. George Lucas was an independent filmmaker who’d made THX. He knew filmmaking and he knew what he had to do to get there – and he always said yes to my mad ideas. For that, I’m incredibly grateful and happy.
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