Production assistant (The Empire Strikes Back)
Interview: December 2019
You were in your early twenties when you worked as a production runner for The Empire Strikes Back. How did you get this job?
I failed my exams to go to University so I thought I should try a ‘different’ career to what was normally considered when leaving school. A career that did not ask for exam qualifications! I became the ‘Post boy’ at 20th Century Fox in London…and worked in the mail room. During my time there, the Production Office for The Empire Strikes Back started their pre-production before moving to Elstree Studios. I delivered the mail to them! A few months later when they were at Elstree Studios, the General manager at 20th Century Fox received a call saying that the Production had ‘fired’ their runner and could I join them at Elstree Studios? I was allowed to leave and join the Empire Production Office.
Did you see A New Hope before you got the Empire job? If you did I bet it was a fantastic job for someone your age at that time?
I had seen A New Hope before joining 20th Century Fox but I had no idea how the film industry worked or what was involved to make the Production. It was an exciting prospect but I don’t think I fully realized how amazing an opportunity it really was! The prospect of working on it was a little frightening at first and I had to rent a small room to be near the studio.
What were your exact tasks as a production runner?
To go round to all the departments in the studio and deliver memos or information from the Production Office. I also made the tea and coffee and got the sandwiches for lunch!
I would then have to help with any photocopying of documents and call sheets. I would then take the call sheet to the Set for distribution. I would also help to get supplies for the actors dressing rooms when required.
Do you have any favorite anecdotes?
I remember the actors were always very friendly and joking, particularly Carrie. I was always in awe of them and most of the crew! I had my 21st birthday during filming and was given a huge birthday card signed by all the actors, crew (including George Lucas on a rare vist?!), Gary Kurtz, Irvin Kershner… I still have it! I was also given a set of Star Wars prints signed by Ralph McQuarrie. I always remember him being a very quiet and good man. The cast and crew also had a collection of money (£500) to enable me to buy a car (a Mini!) so that I could travel back home each day and move out of the local rented room! Amazing generosity!
Did you get to meet any of the principal actors or even George Lucas or Lawrence Kasdan?
I met all the actors as I sometimes had to pass on messages, but I never met George Lucas during The Empire Strikes Back. I met him briefly later when working on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. I was not aware of Lawrence Kasdan coming to the Production Office.
I bet almost no one knows that Luke’s bionic hand we see at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is actually your hand. I am sure there’s a good story attached to this.
I was working in the Production office, when one of the Assistant Directors came in to say that they were looking for a ‘young, virginal hand’! I was recruited! I went to the 2nd Unit Stage for the rest of the morning and the false forearm was attached and a number of takes were filmed. It was fun being out of the office. Strangely, the ‘fame’ of Luke’s hand has grown more in recent years than at the time!
After Star Wars you worked on some real classic movies like The Dark Crystal and Superman III as an assistant director. You were still in your twenties back then. What were your experiences on these movies?
The Dark Crystal was not a great experience for me. I was still very inexperienced as an Assistant Director and lacked confidence in what I was doing. I was looking after the actors and performers as they developed movements for the various creatures. I would have preferred to be on the set… but I did not have enough experience at the time.
Later, I worked on the Flying Unit of Superman II at Pinewood Studios. It was not a job I was particularly looking forward to, but it turned out to be really enjoyable with a good crew! The flying ‘technology’ was very secret at the time!
In the mid 90’s you worked on the Lucasfilm TV series Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, again as an assistant director for several episodes. Did they remember you from Empire? How do you look back at this groundbreaking TV series?
No… there was no connection to The Empire Strikes Back. I think `I got the job more on the basis of having worked in various foreign countries and I had just finished working on a film in war torn Mozambique called A child from the South. The Young Indy series was groundbreaking in so many ways. Even now, I am amazed how much we achieved with a very small crew, often filming in remote locations, without the use of mobile phones or email! The producer Rick McCallum took so many bold, innovative decisions and it’s amazing what was achieved. He and George Lucas wanted to get away from the Feature film ‘circus’ of a big crew and wanted to do it with a small ‘guerrilla’ team going in to each country using local crew and resources. I worked on episodes in Spain, Italy, Kenya, Turkey and what was then Czechoslovakia.
Even now on productions, I try to think of how a production can work more simply and efficiently?! That is the legacy of Young Indy. In the beginning it was fun, and we worked really hard in amazing locations and situations.
Your career spans over four decades. What are you most proud of, and what was your favorite project?
So many memories and experiences to consider!
I am proud of having worked on The Empire Strikes Back as a piece of cinema History! I am also proud of having worked with one of the greatest directors, David Lean on A Passage to India. I have been lucky to work with some great assistant directors like Gary White, Guy Travers, Patrick Cadell, who helped me in my career, and showed by their example how to treat everyone with respect and courtesy. I had an amazing experience working on a film in the Himalayas, Ladakh, called Samsara. The film was in Tibetan and it also gave me the brief opportunity to direct Tibetan monks in the opening scene! I have enjoyed working in harsh environments; The Claim and Touching the void, but some of my best experiences have been in rural areas of Africa dealing with local villagers in Nigeria and Kenya!
Working with Sally Potter on a film called Yes was a great experience in so many ways. We filmed in London, Belfast, Beirut, Dominican Republic and Cuba on a really low budget and wages!
The Constant Gardener in Kenya was a life changing film for me and my Family. My two young sons and my wife travelled with me, and as the boys were in a local school in Nairobi, my wife had the opportunity to learn to fly. After getting her pilot’s license we decided to travel onwards to South Africa for her to take a commercial pilot’s course. We went for a one year family adventure…but have remained in South Africa for the past 15 years! My wife is now working as a police helicopter pilot!
I am currently working on the Netflix series Narcos – Mexico which is an enjoyable challenge!
From a career point of view, I am proud of having been a producer on the British feature film Fish Tank which was directed by Andrea Arnold.