Roger Christian, the Academy Award-winning set decorator of Star Wars, began his journey to a galaxy far, far away while working with production designer John Barry in Mexico on Lucky Lady, building rum-running sets based in 1930s America. “George Lucas arrived on one of the sets I was dressing – an old salt factory – and we talked about Star Wars,” said Christian. “I told him I’d always imagined that spaceships would be oily, like they were always in and out of the garage being repaired. And George said, ‘That’s exactly what I want. I don’t want anything designed specifically. I want it all to look natural and real.’ So I was on Star Wars right from the very start, and George always says I was one of the only five people who stood by his side throughout.”
One of Christian’s first tasks, together with art director Les Dilley, was to make a prototype R2-D2. “I hired a carpenter – Bill Harman – who’d made all the props for Monty Python,” related Christian. “He was brilliant – you could give him anything and he’d make it work. We had no money, not even enough to buy timber, but Bill had marine plywood at home, which he bent around the frame we’d built. In an electrical store, I found an old lamp from the 1940s and fitted that on top. I carved the little moving prongs on the front, and we stuck some aeroplane bits on and got him approved.”
Christian was also instrumental in developing the look of the film’s various weapons. “I went to a gun hire place and got a Sterling sub-machine gun,” Christian explained. “I glued a T-strip around the barrel, put on a short magazine and stuck an old army rifle sight backwards on the top.” In a similar way, Christian retrofitted a Mauser pistol to create Han Solo’s blaster. “Then I nervously called George and said, ‘You’d better come and see what I’m doing.’ George loved them, which was the signal that he and I were on the same wavelength. He stayed with me and we made Princess Leia’s gun together. The gun hire place gave me a little back room and just let me choose guns. The whole film was kind of done like that.”
The two lightsabers used in the film were also built by Christian using found objects. “In this old photography studio, I found a box with a Graflex inside,” recalled Christian. “The Graflex was a press camera from the 1940s. You could bolt a flash on the side; it had a round chromium disc that made the flash really bright, and the handle had a red fire button. And that’s what became the laser sword. I just sat in my office with superglue, stuck a T-strip round the handle, put a D-ring on the end and stuck on bits from a pocket calculator. It was weighty and it looked beautiful. I think I made it for about £8.”
This article first appeared in slightly different form on the Cinefex blog. Content copyright © Cinefex 2014.