Production Designer (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith), Draftsman (Return of the Jedi)
Interview: September 2010
What made you want to become a production designer? Was it something that fascinated you at an early age?
I was always very interested in film throughout my school days. The two films that were very strong influences on me while I was growing up were Jason and the Argonauts and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe that’s why I have ended up working on the type of films I have been working on?
However, at that time, there was no obvious career path that would lead me into the world of films. So being quite creative at school I went to Art School, and studied Product Design. Firstly at undergraduate level, and then at Post Graduate level at the Royal College of Art in London.
During my time at the Royal College of Art, the first Star Wars film came out, and that again started to bring forward my interest in the film world again as a possible career.
How did you get started in the movie business?
During my last few weeks at the Royal College of Art, by complete chance, Stuart Craig, who has since gone onto become one of the worlds best Production Designers, was designing his first feature film, Saturn 3, and was looking for some designers to help on the prop making-design side of things. So I made the call, and that was the start of my film career.
Your first job at Lucasfilm was in the early 80’s. You were an art department draftsman on Return of the Jedi. How did you get this job?
I worked with the designer Stuart Craig for my first three films, then he was going off to India to make Ghandi, and he couldn’t take everybody in the Art Department. So he kindly recommended me to Norman Reynolds, who was about to start Jedi as the Production Designer, and he was kind enough to give me a job on that show.
How did you approach the task to design the backgrounds and sets for the Star Wars prequels? Did you have a lot of your own input or did George Lucas give you strict instructions?
The most important thing that the art department and I tried to achieve when we started on The Phantom Menace was to keep the visual spirit and identity of all the previous Star Wars films. We wanted the fans to really believe this was part of the same saga visually, and apart from pleasing George, which of course was our professional aim, that was our major personal aim.
George has very precise ideas about what he wants, although you have to put the ideas in front of him for him to react to. So by a process of elimination you would slowly get your ideas closer to the visions George had in his head.
For Episode I you were responsible for scouting and finding all the locations used for the Tatooine and Naboo environments that were shot in Tunisia and Italy. Can you tell how this process went? I guess there was a lot of travelling involved?
We travelled a lot on those scouts, mostly through Mediterranean Europe and North Africa. Sometimes it was just myself, sometimes a small group with Rick McCallum. Extraordinary travels and a once in a life time experience.
For the Naboo environments I travelled to most of the grand and impressive buildings that Southern Europe has to offer, from Cathedrals, Palaces, Monasteries, Grand Houses, etc, and eventually we decided on the palace at Caserta in Italy for the Naboo Palace.
We covered both Tunisia and Morocco for the Tatooine locations, and decided to stay with Tunisia. Rick McCallum and I initially did a tour of all the old Star Wars locations in Tunisia, to see what we might be able to use again, which was almost like an archaeological expedition, and we even saw remnants of old set pieces still lying around on many of the locations, which was extraordinary 25 years later.
What was the most difficult Star Wars set you have worked on in terms of constructing, designing or finding?
They were all as hard as each other from every aspect, as you are only as good as your worst design!
Can you describe an average workday on a Star Wars movie?
There was probably no average workday, and that is what can be so exciting about the film business in general, and even more so with Star Wars. Every day is a surprise and different. You could be in the office all day designing on the drawing Board, you could be on location scouts in different countries, or closer to the studio, or you could be supervising set builds and also supervising all the other design work being done in the art department.
But generally we got into work at about 6.30am every day and finished about 8pm.
Where there, when the Star Wars prequels were released, things that came out better or worse than you expected?
You are too close to the work to make that sort of judgment, so I was just happy that George was happy, Rick was happy and the fans were happy with the way the films looked.
What was it like, working with George Lucas and Rick McCallum?
Only one word really, incredible. Working with George on Jedi was brilliant, but I never thought that a few years later I would be the Production Designer on the Prequels, working with George again and Rick.
Basically I heard about Young Indy, and heard that Rick McCallum was the producer, and he lived in the next road to me in London. So in the days before E-mails, I just dropped a note through his post box, saying I would be interested in that job.
And that resulted in a couple of meetings and I was offered Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, that then led us onto Radioland Murders and then Star Wars.
If I had only done one Star Wars film I would have been happy enough, but to do three with Rick and George was absolutely brilliant, they were both an inspiration.
You worked on the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and even received an Emmy Award for this series. In which ways did working on Indiana Jones differ from working on Star Wars?
TV production is much faster process, you shoot one hour of film in two weeks, whereas with a Feature Film you generally shoot two hours of film over a 20 week period.
So the speed and application of the design work is much faster paced on a TV show. You are living very much on instinctive decision making as there isn’t much time to pontificate about ideas. Also you have a different Director for every two week shoot, so you are continually making decisions about locations and sets, on different episodes with different directors and often in different countries.
I think on all the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles shows we touched down in over 50 different countries, so it was a mad two years.
What would your dream project look like?
Star Wars! How can you get better than that?
What are you doing right now? Do you have interesting new projects we should look out for?
I have been working on a Bryan Singer project for 10 months now, Jack the Giant Killer, but we are still not greenlit, so not sure if you should look out for it yet, it might go away sadly.
Last year I did Gulliver’s Travels with Jack Black and that should be out at Christmas.