Hi Nick, two months ago I asked you in our Rogue One interview if you were in The Last Jedi. You couldn’t answer then but you can now! How did you get the specific part of your character Snook Uccorfay?
The year before we filmed The Last Jedi I had played the character of Bistan in Rogue One, so Neal Scanlan, the Special Creature Effects Supervisor, already knew me as a performer and fortunately he asked me back.
Originally I was being considered for another character on Canto Bight, the alien Dowager that is holding Space Gary (the tribute to Carrie Fisher’s dog). The idea was that there would be two performers working inside the Dowager, myself and Paul Warren who also plays Varmik in The Force Awakens. Between us we would puppeteer the Dowager’s left arm, her head and Space Gary.
Plans developed, as they often do, and somewhere along the line I was given the character of Snook Uccorfay instead. The Dowager would be puppeteered by Paul on his own which was a lucky escape for him as sometimes, when I’m working in these suits, I can radiate heat like a furnace.
At my first fitting for Snook, Neal described the character as a mixture of the British actors Terry Thomas and Brian Blessed to give me a starting point to work from. I took that to mean that Snook was a cad, a bounder and a bombastic randy bugger too! From that moment I knew that Snook Uccorfay was going to be a really fun character to play.
What can you tell about the suit?
The original concept for Snook Uccorfay was designed by Jake Lunt Davies. Some people have described Snook as mole-like. When I first saw him I thought he looked like a Space-Hippo.
I believe his hands were taken from the same mold as Unkar Plutt’s hands (Simon Pegg’s character in The Force Awakens) but they were then re-worked and given a different paint job. Upon seeing how short and stubby the fingers are, I made the decision that Snook probably couldn’t keep hold of his money and as we were in a casino he must be a terrible gambler. When performing a creature, I like to study the physical form of the creature suit for clues to imagine that character’s history or life.
Underneath Snook’s beautifully tailored tuxedo I’m wearing a body suit that gives Snook his portly shape. It is fabricated so that it strikes a balance between being light enough to wear and perform in for extended periods of time yet still strong enough to maintain the desired shape through a useful range of movement.
There is a lot of room inside Snook’s head and it’s not that tight fitting to my face, which is good. However this does come with its own drawbacks. Snook’s snout is long with animatronic servos at the end controlling the mouth and each individual nodule surrounding it. This means the headpiece very front heavy and strenuous on your neck. The forward/downward force is counter balanced by a bungee cord that runs from the top of my skullcap to the small of my back so at rest, Snook’s gaze is horizontal.
I see out of Snook’s nostrils that are quite far away from my face. Imagine having a long tube attached to your face and everything is black inside except for two very small holes at the far end of the tube. This limited vision and the audio instructions you receive on an earpiece from your facial puppeteer are pretty much all the information I have to perform and navigate my way around the set.
At this point I must give credit to the team that designed and made Snook Uccorfay. These artists, fabricators and engineers are the unsung heroes that make these creatures look as amazing as they do.
Snook’s designer was Jake Lunt Davies and his sculptor was Louis Wiltshire. The body suit fabricators were Alan Murphy, Caz Gladwin and Fiona Pollard. Hair was by Maria Cork’s Hair Department and his skin was painted by Goran Lundstrom. Giles Hannagan was the animatronics designer/engineer and Snook’s costume was by Michael Kaplan, Samantha Keeble and Gary Page.
So much care and consideration goes in to making these creatures and I am very fortunate to be given the opportunity to bring them to life.
What are the big differences (if there are any) between filming a Star Wars saga film and a Star Wars spin-off movie?
There was very little difference between the experience of filming a saga film and a spin-off movie. It’s all Star Wars, whether the film has an episode number or the words, “A Star Wars Story” in the title. For me, it’s just as exciting, just as fun. You’re still surrounded by cool alien creatures, on amazing sets, creating stories about a galaxy you love. Also, no matter what the title of the film, working in these creature suits is just as claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Ha ha! That never changes.
Maybe it also felt similar because I was working with the same core Creature Effects (CFX) team. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces from Rogue One and I also got to know some of the CFX team from The Force Awakens that I had not met previously, which was cool for me as I am very much a fan of that film.
Actually, when I think about it, there was one big difference on The Last Jedi and that was getting to see Mark Hamill on set. That never happened for me on Rogue One.
We were stood around in a group, waiting for the order to get into costume when Mark Hamill just came up and started chatting to a couple of the puppeteers with us. They had already been working together in Ireland filming some of the Ahch-To sequences. Of course, everyone was very relaxed and professional but there was a small voice inside my head screaming, “HELLO LUKE SKYWALKER! YOU’RE MY HERO!” but that’s normal, right? It would be weirder if my inner-child wasn’t thinking that.
As Luke did not appear in the Canto Bight scenes I think Mark had just come down to see what was going on (although I’ve since read that he did voice one of the casino characters). Later that day I remember him walking around the set on his own whilst we were filming, no entourage or anything, just taking in the creatures, picking up and examining tiny props and seeming genuinely interested in everything. I thought that was very cool of him.
All of your scenes are in the casino on Canto Bight, with a lot of aliens… how did the filming of these scenes go?
There were indeed a lot of aliens on Canto Bight. The CFX team had been asked to create even more characters than what had appeared in Maz Kanata’s castle in The Force Awakens, which they did with incredible results.
In theory, shooting the Canto Bight sequences was the most glamorous filming experience I’d ever had. The decadent casino set could have come straight out of a Bond movie (in fact it was built on the 007 Stage at Pinewood) and we were surrounded by hundreds of immaculately dressed SA’s many of which, both male and female, looked like absolutely stunning fashion models.
However, the reality of performing inside a creature suit on Canto Bight was more like going to a high-class party and accidentally getting locked in a cupboard. You’d get flashes of colour through the keyhole and it sounded like everyone outside was having fun. Meanwhile, you were trapped in the dark and it was slowly getting hotter and hotter.
I did enjoy the experience though. This was, in part, because of working with Snook’s main facial puppeteer Patrick Comerford. He would be operating Snooks facial expressions from a vantage point off camera next to a monitor. I could hear Patrick’s voice through my earpiece and although I couldn’t speak back because there was no microphone in my creature suit, through a combination of hand signals from me and yes/no questions from him we were able to have a very basic dialogue across a busy set.
In some of the shots where I’d be traveling in between gambling tables and up and down steps, Patrick would be telling me when to turn left, turn right or stop to avoid other creature performers who were also on the move and equally as visually impaired as I was. He’d tell me when we were on camera and would perform a character voice for Snook as he remotely puppeteered my face to whisper amorous advances to a beautiful female alien named Derla Pidys whom I was accompanying (played by Latesha Wilson). All the time I would respond to his words with my physical performance.
In between takes we’d find ways of amusing ourselves. Patrick would put on different voices and make up conversations Snook would be having with an SA who just happened to be stood next to me. Sometimes he’d even sing daft songs to make me dance. I would react to him and play along physically, not only because it made us laugh and took my mind off the physical restrictions of the costume, but also I think we were subconsciously developing a shortcut to performance between us. It felt like we were getting to know each other’s rhythms and how the other performed. Patrick could experiment with different facial expressions to try on the next take and I could practice improvising movement instinctively, reacting to whatever Patrick fed me until it felt instant and natural.
On a production where you get very little rehearsal and you never know what you’re going to be asked to do next, whatever exploration time you can get is invaluable. Maybe all the other creature performers and puppeteers also do this in between takes, I don’t know, I’ve never asked, but we found it worked for us.
Filming on Canto Bight was tough at times too. Often we’d get shots quickly but due to some complex camera moves and the sheer number of performers on set, at other times you’d have to do quite a few takes. I remember being in the middle of a crowd scene for about two hours one time with a broken bungee cord. This meant that Snook’s head constantly wanted to drop forward. After two hours my neck was in agony but until we got the all clear from the First AD, my dresser couldn’t come on set to fix it or give me water or blow fresh air in to my costume with a fan. You just had to keep going. That was a long day, but even then, with Patrick, I remember we laughed a lot.
How would you describe the way Rian Johnson directed this movie?
Unfortunately I was not directed by Rian Johnson personally so I cannot answer this from first-hand experience. Although, I did get to watch him work from a far and he seemed not only incredibly thoughtful and engrossed but also really happy on set.
If you’re asking me from a more general perspective about the movie, I think Rian should not only be commended for the story he told but also how he told that story.
May we edge into spoiler-ish territory here? Surely no one will have found their way to this interview without having seen The Last Jedi already. I will try to keep my points vague just in case but if you’ve watched the movie, you’ll know what I’m referring to.
I loved the Rashomon film reference, the re-telling of a specific event depending on a characters perspective in time. It’s quite meta in how it refers to the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s films on the Original Trilogy. It’s brilliant because it works effectively as a plot device within the film and also draws upon the history of cinema and signposts where, in part, this wonderful space opera we enjoy came from. It shows us that Rian’s direction is rich and multi-layered.
Also, at another point towards the end of the film, and I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, Rian chooses to play with the audience in a way I can’t remember being done before in a Star Wars movie. We are used to being “in on the joke” whenever a Jedi uses their powers but this was the first time I’d ever felt that I, an audience member, had been mind tricked and I loved it! For the more observant there are clues as to what is really going on but I’ll admit, on my first viewing of the film I was totally duped.
These are just a couple of examples of how Rian took what we already know about the Star Wars universe and re-focused our view of how these stories can be told. The Last Jedi is jam packed with surprises, which is no mean feat considering we’ve been following these stories for around 40 years. It gives me hope for the stories yet to be told. In short, I would describe the way Rian Johnson directed this movie as bold and beautiful.
There were two main characters on the casino set; Finn and Rose, and there was also a cameo of well-known actor Justin Theroux as the Master Codebreaker. Did you get to interact with one of them or did you see them perform ‘live’?
When John Boyega first came onto set, I (or Snook) did almost walk into him. I turned to find a brown jacket right in front of Snook’s nostrils. I looked up and there was Finn. He’s taller than I imagined (or maybe I’m just shorter than I think). I was quite surprised because I wasn’t expecting to see him so all I did was give him a little wave. Yeah, ice cool, I know.
In the film, when Finn and Rose enter the casino Snook is gambling on the table directly behind them. I couldn’t see what they were doing as I was trying to wrangle my props and interact with the characters next to me but later on I did get to watch John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran perform live. They looked like they were having a whale of a time. They had such great chemistry on set.
I didn’t see Justin Theroux but I did have one other encounter I’d like to share. I was told this later by CFX stalwarts Tim Rose and Phill Woodfine. I was in Snook at the time and so couldn’t see what was going on around me.
Phill was puppeteering my/Snook’s face and we were working with another creature Pemmin Brunce, the casino’s bouncer. Pemmin was being played by the actor Cavin Cornwall and being puppeteered by Mark Jefferis. Although we were deep in the crowd, between the four of us we had quickly devised a sequence where a slightly drunken Snook had offended Pemmin who then proceeded to man handle Snook towards the exit.
Cavin was totally blind in his suit but with audio guidance from our puppeteers, we made it look as if Pemmin was carrying Snook by the scruff of his neck across the casino with Snook’s little legs thrashing around underneath him. Apparently it looked very funny. Now Anthony Daniels was also on set that day, not in costume but working instead as a movement consultant for the many Protocol Droid performers in the casino. Tim Rose, who was puppeteering next to Phill called Anthony Daniels over to watch what we were all doing for a while.
“That’s fantastic!” said Anthony Daniels, “Does the director know you’re doing this? I must let him know.” And off he went.
I don’t know if word did get to Rian Johnson and obviously our improvised scene didn’t make it into the film but that doesn’t matter to me. For that brief period, I was in a creature suit, on a Star Wars film set, entertaining C-3PO who, through the Original Trilogy, had partly inspired me into becoming a creature performer and eventually working in Star Wars myself. There’s something cyclical about that and it makes me smile.
The Last Jedi is without a doubt the most talked about Star Wars movie ever. While a lot of fans love it… there are also negative reactions to the story, more then there have ever been, especially online. What is your own opinion about the movie?
I loved The Last Jedi. It sounds corny but I was thrilled, I was moved and I was entertained. It makes me happy to watch it and I am proud to have been part of making it.
The risks Rian Johnson took worked for me but I can understand that they might not have worked for everyone and that’s ok too.
It has been pointed out that The Empire Strikes Back also received a lot of criticism when it was first released and look at how beloved that movie is now. I think it will be really interesting to see how The Last Jedi is regarded in, say, five years time perhaps, once the dust has settled.
One comment that has stuck with me as a result of all the heated debates about The Last Jedi is from stand-up comedian and Star Wars podcaster Steele Saunders. He tweeted,
“Love a Star Wars film like a child. Hate a Star Wars film like an adult.”
I like that because I think the sentiment goes way beyond Star Wars.
You did an interview for the website last year… now you’re doing it again because you were in The Last Jedi… will you do it again later this year when Solo: A Star Wars Story is released AND in 2020 after Episode IX? I think you know what I mean with this…
If I’m lucky enough to appear in another Star Wars film, I’d love to do another interview. My wife’s eyes start to glaze over if I talk about Star Wars for more than five hours at a time so I have to get my geekiness out somehow!