Laela French & Sophie Desbiens (Star Wars Identities)

Laela French (Director of Archives Lucas Cultural Arts Museum)
Sophie Desbiens (Comunications & Museum Relations Director X3 Productions)
Star Wars Identities
Interview: September 2017

On september 29, 2017, I had the honor to interview the two creators of the Star Wars Identities exhibit: Laela French, director of the Lucas museum archives, and Sophie Desbiens of X3, the company who created the exhibit (which opened in the Netherlands the next day). Before the interview started Sophie noticed my T-shirt (12 Parsecs but in the HotWheels logo style) and starts to tell how she became a fan of the man who did the Kessel run in less than 12 Parsecs…

Sophie: I was a huge fan of Indiana Jones. We did an exhibit about Indiana too by the way. I did see Star Wars back in 1977 and I was fascinated by Princess Leia but I thought Star Wars was more for boys. But then I fell in love with Indiana Jones and I discovered that Han Solo was played by the same actor. There are even some people who say that Indiana Jones is a dream of Han Solo when he is in the carbonite!

You just mentioned the Indiana Jones exhibit. Is there any chance this one will come to Europe?

Sophie: No, it is finished.

Even now there’s an Indiana Jones 5 in the works?

Sophie: Yes, because when we did the exhibit it was before Disney took over.

Luckily we do have Star Wars Identities! What is your own favorite item of this exhibit and is there a special story attached to it?

Sophie: My favorite is the eyes of Jabba. I think it’s fascinating to see it all because when you see it from the side all the wiring is visible. Seeing the eyes is seeing the rest. I just love it. It’s also a testament of the old ways of filmmaking you know. Before CGI, when things were material and mechanical. I thought that was amazing.

Laela: I’ll go with the Star Destroyer, one of the largest models we have and it’s quite iconic. The opening shot of Star Wars with the Star Destroyer changed movies and the expectations of the viewer forever. George raised the bar so high. You don’t see things made like this anymore.

Sophie: You can really see all these tiny details.

Yes, I saw two years ago when it was in Cologne and I was blown away by it.

Identities has toured all over the world: Canada, England, Germany… and now the Netherlands. Why was the Netherlands and specifically Utrecht selected for Identities?

Sophie: The Netherlands because there are many Star Wars fans in the Netherlands. In Utrecht we found this venue where we are now. As you know we need loads of space, 10.000 square foot (930 m²). So sometimes it’s a challenge to find a place that can host us with all the required conditions like climate control and all that because the objects are very precious. All of it is needed to make sure they keep the right structure and sometimes it’s difficult to find a big hall that has all that is needed. So we scored big with this location. Utrecht is an amazing city and it’s in the center of the Netherlands. It’s very accessible for people, everybody can get to Utrecht easy. So I think it’s a fantastic place and we’re really happy to be here.

Laela: And we’ve never been to the Netherlands. We’ve been touring for 25 years and we’ve been to a lot of European countries like Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Sweden, and Finland… but never the Netherlands.

Sophie: And you get the best of all the exhibits we’ve done.

You just mentioned you’ve been touring for 25 many years with Star Wars exhibits. One of them was Magic of Myth and in 2008 there was the Star Wars Expo in Brussels. What are the differences between the previous exhibits and Identities?

Laela: Every time we come up with a new theme. Magic of Myth was our first blockbuster we did with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was about the mythology. The Star Wars heroes journey was the inspiration back then. Unlike other shows we not just want to show you some artifacts or how everything is done but we want to inspire. We always have different items on display, so people who have been to previous exhibits like Magic of Myth, will discover new things.

And how did the selection procedure go? There are thousands of items in the Lucasfilm archives to choose from.

Laela: When we became partners with X3 Productions it was a matter of how we are going to tell the ‘story’. They had suggested using Anakin and Luke. Same genetics, same upbringing, but very different outcomes. So we have everyone’s favorite character on the exhibition but we’re telling it in a non-linear fashion. And so the artifacts literally fell into place when we got all these ideas about origins, influences and choices.

Is that also the reason why there aren’t many items from The Force Awakens and Rogue One on display?

Laela: We developed this exhibition in 2012 and it was built to go on the road. When you do things like that it’s hard to constantly add new things and change because it is tied to the storyline and identity quest; everything is intertwined which makes us unique and different. It’s not like; here’s a bunch of stuff from Star Wars and that’s it. Still, we did add a couple of things from The Force Awakens, but it was hard to squeeze in. In addition to that, the production team doesn’t allow us to add new things. They’re rolling one movie now as we speak (the Han Solo movie). They’re holding it all together and moving it from one production to the next. Their priority is making movies.

Sophie: Now we have the BB-8 and a First Order Stormtrooper next to the classic one and the three helmets from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Laela: The helmet from The Empire Strikes Back is unique; it has never been on the road before. You now have the whole iteration of Stormtroopers which I think is important for fan groups like the 501st and hardcore fans. So, we try to keep our fans like you happy because you’re our toughest critics.

Why should everyone, Star Wars fan or not, go to Star Wars Identities?

Laela: I think is a great start for Star Wars naysayers, people who are like “Star Wars, no big deal you know, not my thing”. I think it’s great to go see it because it’s about you. You’re learning things about yourself through Star Wars characters and you’re going to learn these are archetypes. Who are your mentors, who are your friends, your influences and how has that shaped you. We’ve heard from people who brought friends that weren’t very interested in Star Wars and they were completely converted after seeing the exhibit. They were like “wait a second there’s a lot more going on that I ever gave them credit for”.
Sophie: We’re now 40 years after the first movie and it is part of pop culture. It’s universal, all over the world, woven into the social fabric of our culture.

Laela: Everyone recognizes Darth Vader for instance. People see the power in the design. And even when it will never be their favorite movie they understand it on a new level. It’s like Shakespeare. Loads of stories tie back to his work and Star Wars is fitting in to that now as well. It is part of that historic mythology. Kids today know Star Wars without having ever seen one of the movies.

That is absolutely true. I’ve got two kids, 6 and 3, and although they have never seen a Star Wars movie they know who Darth Vader, Chewbacca and Yoda are.

Laela: It’s just like kids know who Cinderella is, or a knight, a cowboy. Star Wars characters have the same status. I think it’s a good challenge. You know we’ve never had anyone come out of the exhibit and go “eww”, but you know, there’s always a first for everything! We designed it for everybody. We designed it for fans, non-fans, families. It’s a social thing.

Sophie: Provoking conversation.

I’m positive it will! Thanks for the interview!