Interviews with Industry

Roger Christian, Set Decorator of Star Wars: A New Hope and More

Roger Christian is an oscar nominated set designer and academy award winner, most recognised for his work on Star Wars: A New Hope and Alien. With more than twenty years of experience in the industry he has built a successful career for himself covering many areas including set designing, directing and production designing.

Interview By Lauren Macaree

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career within the industry, specifically as a set decorator at this time, and how did you go about making it a reality?

Putting up marquees for a company in Reading I saw a set in Black Forest and was amazed. I snuck under the fence into pinewood and witnessed a Bond Film being made. The smell and excitement got me. Then seeing Dr Zhivago in London, that did it, I had to enter this industry and make films. I knew no one and got refusals from every letter sent. One producer told me as I’d been to Art School to enter the art department. I had to study two years at Architecture in Oxford to stand a chance, and hitching a ride from Maidenhead home, broke and selling my car for cash there, an Architect picked me up and helped me as one of his team worked on Cleopatra. That lead to an interview in Elstree with Charlie Bishop, who was finishing up Department S so couldn’t take me on but kindly set up a meeting with John Box who was starting prep on Oliver. My first job was a tea boy and coffee maker for him on Oliver and here I was working for the designer of Dr Zhivago, and he was kind and talented and mentored me through a difficult time having come from Art School and loving European cinema. I was in London’s art houses and cinemas every week watching every film I could. Not really the usual art departments interest at the time!

Was there a film that sparked your interest in the industry?

Dr Zhivago. A Man and a Woman. Alphaville and Stalker remain high on my list, but my passions lie at Kurosawa’s door. Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Forbidden Fortress.

You won a very deserved Academy Award for the set design on ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope’, how did that opportunity come about? What was your initial reaction to the story in terms of how you could and would bring the ideas to life?

I was working in Mexico with John Barry on Lucky Lady, creating dusty 40’s rum running locations and sets. George Lucas came to see us as 20th Century Fox gave him 4 million dollars and said as London was half the cost of America, the film could be made there. I had the exact same vision as George that had never been done in Science Fiction before. Real oily ships and dusty western like sets, nothing designed, just everything real and used and part of a natural world. I loved the script as I grew up immersed in King Arthur, myth and legend, so recognised this was a perfect myth, but set in space, and from the six paintings George brought with him by Ralph McQuarrie, that was the world of Star Wars. George Lucas stated in front of me only 5 people truly stood by his side making that first film with no money and a lot of invention. I was privileged to be one of them. We had become friends developing it for 4 months in tiny Lee studios in London, just John Barry, Les Dilley and myself before 20th Century Fox green lit it and we actually went into production. A little late for a sci fi epic!!! Prep started on January the 6th and we were filming in Tunisia in March. I loved every minute of it, the script and the world, finally realising my own dreams of how I saw a Science fiction world.

How long was the process of planning and finalizing how the sets were going to be created?

Les and I made a wooden R2D2 with Kenny Baker inside as without the robots George didn’t have a film. I couldn’t afford to make sets or weapons so set about making them from used practical ones, and showed George who loved my first examples, Han Solos Mauser and the Stormtroopers Blaster. So, I made prototypes of every weapon that way. I invented the technique of using scrap airplane parts, PVC drainpipes and any junked calculators adding machines etc. to dress the sets. I could buy scrapped planes in bulk cheaply, so created a lot of the set dressing and props that way, as budget didn’t allow anything to be made in the studio workshops. It gave that used and real look that I was after. I had to train the props how to do it and they spent time breaking down jet engines and cockpits instead of placing curtains and furniture. 

The millennium Falcon is instantly recognizable, how difficult was it to create that set?

The cockpit was my first set and the hold where they play chess. It drove me mad as they ate up my scrap, and I kept buying truckloads. Before it was finished it looked terrible, so it was an act of faith that it worked. I was worried as it had never been done before. Finally, they transformed into sets that people kept visiting and being amazed how real they looked. Same with the Exterior in the hanger that was so impressive as a set, especially to have a real ship parked in there.

And of course, i have to ask about the lightsaber, how long did it take to construct?

15 minutes!!! True. It took me months to find the right object that warranted the look of a Jedi weapon. The SFX team made some that looked like bare torches and George rejected them. I found the Graflex handles in an old dusty box in Brunnings, Great Marlborough Street, and i knew as soon as I opened the box I had found the holy grail. Rushing back to Elstree, I stuck T-Strip to anything interesting in my office to create the handle. A bubble strip from an old calculator I had pulled to bits in the clip, and a D-Ring on the end to hang it on Lukes belt for the desert scenes, and then showed it to George who smiled. And that was the confirmation we had the weapon.

Looking back on all of those historic sets, is there anything you would change about them if given the chance?

I truly do not think I would. John taking George to Tunisia and seeing that ancient world, made the film possible for the budget. Using the architecture as a look for Tatooine changed with my dressing and small additions, we created a world that the audience connected to for the first time in a science fiction film. There was the dusty western-like setting, but a new vision for science fiction. This echoed in the Tatooine sets on stage, contrasted with the clean almost Speer like Death Star.

Do you have a favourite or most memorable moment from working on the Star Wars sets that you are willing to share?

One standout moment is watching Sir Alec Guinness on his first day and first shot in the valley near Tozeur in southern Tunisia. Everyone was a little awestruck at this great actor being there. Before the take he rolled in the dust to make his costume more aged and feel better, and then went before the camera. That’s why he was such a great actor. That simple gesture gave more impact to the actors and crew more than anything, to try to believe in the work.

That valley is famous not just for that meeting with Luke and R2D2, but was used in Indiana Jones and the English Patient. It is special. When I directed 2nd unit on Phantom Menace, I said to George I’d go back and shoot part of the pod race sequence there for good luck.

Also, my dice in the Millennium Cockpit that are only in one scene in A New Hope as the DP removed them. That simple prop, I thought, was a suitable addition for Hans character and has become a major plot point for the new films alongside my lightsaber.

You also have many directing credits, was directing a career you wanted to pursue from the beginning or was there something or someone that influenced or inspired you to be a director?

From the beginning it was my aspiration. Not being able to get that connection into an industry I knew nothing about as a young kid from Reading, the art department was the only way in as I had been to Art School. I commissioned plays, I had two I directed at London Soho Poly, and a drama crafted as a revue on Leonard Cohens work that ran for a month at Hampstead Theatre. I directed one of the first music videos ever made for a band called Duxe Deluxe, ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’, for fifty pounds, and many more. Anything I could direct to gain experience.

Commissioning my script Black Angel to accompany Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas gave me the break I needed and a thank you for standing by him. With 25,000 pounds and short ends of film left over on Empire Strikes Back, I took a huge risk and filmed for seven days in the most dramatic and mystic locations in Scotland on the edge of winter. Inspired by Kurosawa and Tarkofsky I created a kind of dream about a Knights quest with a crew of 9, 4 actors and 2 horses that cost more than anything else.

It was the first view of Scotland’s beauty in cinemascope for an audience, and it’s impact is still there today after a release of the restored film. This lost film in the Star Wars canon has created a viral interest on the internet.
My 2nd short film ,The Dollar Bottom, won an academy award for best dramatic short film, and then a Bafta nomination set the ball rolling as a director.

What do you look for when looking for a project to direct?

Whatever touches the soul and heart, and is a story that has to be told. I like visionary cinema and science fiction, and fantasy has been a mainstay for me. My film ‘Nostradamus’, that I nurtured from an idea to cinema screens, is my film that has everything. Drama and vision. Making it under impossible circumstances in Romania a year after the revolution, made me realise I could do anything, and nothing would ever faze me again. But I was able to create pre-Medieval France with a tiny budget and remain creatively free.

What do you think the biggest surprise about the process of directing would be to an outsider?

The exhaustion, the loneliness and tenacity required to even get a film set up before the grind of making it. Getting a film made these days deserves an Oscar, just for making it.

What would your dream project to direct be?

I am deep into prep currently on ‘Black Angel’ as an epic feature, thirty years after I made the short and that is proof that tenacity pays off. Thanks to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, the fantasy genre has set audiences alight globally, and BA as an original myth and heroes journey is in that genre. I loved king Arthur, especially the true spiritual Merlin story, that has never been told, but as a classic hero’s journey Arthur failed, so I’m making my own legend with Black Angel.

If someone wants to pursue a career as a set decorator, how would you recommend they go about it?

Do anything you can to gain experience, even mentoring for free. Even arranging flowers at a wedding is decorating. Look at Art, London has the best gems. I spent hours staring at Ingres, Renoir, especially George De La Tour and the great Turner. Watch every Kurosawa movie made, forget they are 40 years old and look at how he created Cinemascope and drama. Don’t ever make a film because you think its market friendly or make it to get to Hollywood, it never works. Only a deep conviction tell’s a story. And most important there is no failure, everything is learning. Don’t listen to critics. It has nothing to do with the work. An honest and open heart tells you what didn’t work or what did, and then build on that.

Find a story that has heart and connects deeply, and that you have to tell. Then prepare for the battle, stick to your guns, and learn. I was fortunate in being able to make two short films for Cinema release and learned my craft. Tenacity is essential, and listen to advice. Have people around you without vested interest or ego, and bring to the screen a story that you would love to share with the world.

What are the biggest mistakes you notice aspiring directors make at the start of their career?

Trying too hard to make a film to be noticed, or making what they think will expose them and get them a job.

If there is one thing you personally think would make the film industry better today, what would it be?

More supportive producers who know deeply what they are doing and know how to support a Director through thick and thin. Developing ideas and helping shape their dreams into a movie. And the encouragement of writers and original material, not committee scripts that are an insurance against failure.

(Any other advice you would like to voice to help the next generation of directors? Or what is next for you?)

I wrote my book Cinema Alchemist as a way to inspire filmmakers using Star Wars, Alien and how I made Black Angel, to give a blow by blow account how these films were made against all odds of getting to the screen, especially with horrendously low budgets. Jon Rinzler, who graciously edited the book for me, says that the section on ‘Making Black Angel’ is a masterclass on how to make an epic vision of a film with no money, but a dogged belief.

The next film I am making is ‘Black Angel’, we’ve been setting it up for over 3 years, keeping independent to try and make the film that I actually want to make.
At the same time; I am making ‘Behind the Force’. A documentary on making the original Star Wars and the five or so people who went beyond convention of the day, and created the means for George to get his film made. These are not very well documented but they changed cinema, inventing techniques,  incredible visions and are unsung hero’s. I’ll be exploring the global connection to Star Wars. Unseen before, or since in movie history, and there is a reason for it.

Look at ‘The Shape of Water’. Guillermo defied Hollywood and the larger budgets. He persuaded Fox Searchlight to give him 20 million dollars, which for him is low, but gave him total control and autonomy. He struggled to make the film in his heart since a young boy.

John Box at my first ever interview for a job, closed my folder of work, and told me he would give me a job making the tea. He said the truest words ever spoken to me in the industry.
‘You are in a desert besides a plane with a bottle of green ink in your pocket. A cloud of dust announces the director and producer. They look and say perfect. Can you have the plane red by tomorrow morning. You either do it, or talk your way out of it on the spot and suggest an alternative. That’s the film industry.’