Interview with J.W. Rinzler, author of The Art of Star Wars and The Making of Star Wars Revenge of the Sith
At LucasBooks -- a small department within Lucas Licensing -- J.W. Rinzler edits various fiction titles such as Scholastic's Jedi Quest and Boba Fett series, as well as the Making of and Art of Star Wars books for Random House. He also edits the Dorling Kindersley Visual Dictionaries and Cross-Section books, as well as Star Wars Tales published by Dark Horse.
As Episode III began production, Rinzler became the chronicler of the process for two books that will be coming out from Del Rey this April: The Making of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and The Art of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.
Question:With Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas’s monumental epic draws to a close, tying together the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy. How did you feel while working on these two books?
Jonathan W. Rinzler:For me, working on these books actually goes beyond Star Wars. I remember seeing American Graffiti and being completely blown away in 1973. I must have been ten or eleven, and I remember thinking I’d never seen a film that had that kind of kid’s humor! And of course the music changed my life–it was the first soundtrack I ever bought.
Star Wars came about four years later–and was another life-changing experience. So to be able to observe and interact with George Lucas over a period of years has been an unforgettable experience. That it was Episode III–the last Star Wars film ever–was icing on the cake.
Q: You’re a senior editor at LucasBooks. Is your life all Star Wars, all the time? Or do you work on other projects as well?
JWR:I have to admit it’s mostly Star Wars. We did do a book called The Cinema of George Lucas, which covered many of his other films, both directed and executive produced–THX 1138, Mishima, Kagemusha, Labyrinth, and so on–so that was a change. But I also have the luxury of going back and forth between the fiction of Star Wars and the nonfiction of Star Wars. And in the nonfiction world, there are many interesting fields that our books cover: animatics, concept art, visual effects, model making, computer animation, sound design, etc.–so it stays pretty varied. And of course there’s Indiana Jones, from time to time.
Q: You were present almost from the beginning of the film, from pre-production at Skywalker Ranch, to shooting in Sydney, Australia, to post-production in London and California. That must have been an extraordinary experience! Had you ever watched a movie being made before? How was it different from what you might have expected?
JWR:When I was a kid, my dad had an office at Universal Studios, in the mid-1970s, so I happened to see the shark from Jaws on a soundstage, as it was being prepped for the attraction. And I saw them shooting part of Car Wash and Baa Baa Black Sheep (aka Black Sheep Squadron). But I’d never ever seen the filmmaking process from start to finish as I have the last three years. It’s been an amazing apprenticeship, so, yes, an incredible experience meeting the actors, master craftspeople, talented artists, producers, George and Rick McCallum, and many, many others.
As for surprises, I think when you experience the physical side it’s an eye-opener. Unless you’ve lived it, it’s hard to imagine how grueling it is making a movie (not that I was making it, but even as a witness). Particularly on the set, it is just nonstop from before daybreak till well into the night, day after day after day. The making of documentaries can’t or doesn’t get into that physicality and the effect it has on people’s psyches. Hopefully that comes through in the books.
It’s also incredibly interdependent. There is almost none of the “star” attitude; from the actors to George, everyone is very low-key. At certain periods you’re practically living together, so it becomes more of a family feeling because of the long hours and interdependence. It’s a somewhat stressed family, admittedly, whose members change depending on whether it’s preproduction, production, or at ILM. The constants are of course George and Rick and a few key collaborators, such as Rob Coleman, John Knoll, and Ben Burtt.
Q: What kind of access did you have to George Lucas and other members of the creative team in preparing these books?
JWR:Probably more than any other writer of a making of book, barring Carl Gottlieb on the Jaws Log and a few others. I went to nearly every concept art meeting, and got to know the artists, as I was also working at Skywalker Ranch. I was on the set and had long conversations with many of the actors and technicians, and heads of department. And at ILM I attended dailies, animation dailies, and got to know many of the lead animators, model makers, the crew, etc. I even recently interviewed John Williams after attending a couple of recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios. Plus, I’m working on books with some of these people now!
George has made himself available, too, as has Rick, with formal interviews and many off-the-cuff talks, particularly on the set in Sydney and at Shepperton Studios. It’s the kind of access that only someone who works here could have. A freelance writer who had to fly up here for every meeting–it just wouldn’t have been possible.
Q: Did you get a walk-on part in the film?
JWR:If you look closely, I’m in the background in a couple of shots on Naboo–unless they wind up on the digital cutting-room floor!
Q: I was surprised by the number of people who contributed creatively to the film, both onscreen and off. Scene design, costumes, sketches and paintings of planets and aliens . . . It reminded me of Renaissance painting studios, where a master painter employed a number of journeymen to assist him in the execution of his conceptions.
JWR:That’s exactly right. I agree that moviemaking is very close to that sort of Renaissance studio collaboration–and George has made the analogy many times that digital filmmaking is closer to painting now than photography. You really do have a director-writer who is supervising a select team, who then delegates to a slightly larger group–but then it all comes back to the director for further input and adjustments. This kind of digital moviemaking is perhaps the most crafts-intensive and ambitious undertaking of the 21st Century arts. It calls on artistry from a staggering array of disciplines, some of which I didn’t even know existed prior to these books.
Q: More than half of the final footage of Revenge will be computer effects and animatics. First of all, what is the difference between the two? And second, is this reliance on technology making actors superfluous?
JWR:Animatics are not present in the final film. The are really digital storyboards that are key in the making of the film, as they’re created by Lucas and the animatics team–but then ILM actually makes the final version of the shots. The same is true for concept art. Both the art and the animatics come first, but the computer effects, or the visual effects, are actually what’s on the screen.
Actors will never be superfluous. Without them no performance would be complete. Even the voice-over actors are key. Lucas has in fact always been disappointed by the fact that Frank Oz has never been nominated for an Oscar, as he feels, and rightly so, that Oz’s performance is as important to the film as any actor who is actually on the set. And of course there are things that actors do that can never be replaced by technology.
Q: How would you characterize George Lucas’s approach to filmmaking? Is he the kind of director who has every shot storyboarded before each day’s filming, or does he rely more on instinct and inspiration?
JWR:I think that readers of the book will come away with an image of Lucas as someone who is constantly improvising on the set and elsewhere. In fact, I don’t remember him ever consulting a storyboard while shooting. Some storyboarding was done for the film, but I think George considers them as vague guidelines. When he’s on the set, or directing animatics, he goes from a gut instinct. In fact, he’s said he’s very much getting footage on the set–and much of the making or the directing of the film takes place in editorial.
Q: I understand that Steven Spielberg was involved in some of the animatic sequences in the film. Can you tell us about that?
JWR:As George explains in the book, he gave Spielberg a few scenes to play with at the animatics stage: a bit of the Mustafar duel, and Yoda’s duel with the Emperor, along with a couple of others. How much of Spielberg’s contribution made it to the final film, only Lucas or Spielberg could say, particularly as George revised and reinvented every scene in the film so extensively in editorial.
Q: Are there particular moments during the shoot that stick in your mind?
JWR:Well, I certainly remember the day the Darth Vader scenes were shot! When Hayden came out dressed as Vader, the crowd that had assembled just went silent and then applauded. It was a great moment. Also, the last scene with Anakin and Obi-Wan was very emotional–both Hayden and Ewan gave great performances, over and over. Hearing Frank Oz do Yoda was another great experience–it really felt like Yoda was in the room! And just in general watching Lucas direct was an incredible treat, being there able to interact with the sets (playing with the knobs and buttons) and being able to talk to the crewÉ
Q: What projects lie ahead for George Lucas now that the Star Wars saga is wrapped up? Will he direct again? And if so, do you think he’ll stick with fantasy and science fiction, or will he go back to the realism of American Graffiti?
JWR:Only George can answer these questionsÉ Personally, I hope he’ll do more directing, whatever the subject.
Q: Do you have a favorite Star Wars movie?
JWR:The 1977 Star Wars was a moment in time. But of course Episode III is another candidate for favorite–impossible to say.
Q: What about a favorite character?
JWR:Again, hard to say. I am partial to Qui-Gon Jinn and Luke Skywalker, but Yoda’s pretty amazing. I also love the villains: Vader, the Emperor, and Maul.
Q: Once Revenge of the Sith is out, people are going to be able to watch the entire sequence in chronological order for the first time, from Episode I, The Phantom Menace, right on through to Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. Is that going to change the way people think about Star Wars and its cast of characters?
JWR:As George says in the book, depending on what order you watch the movies–saga order or the order they were released–you get a different story. Most will watch I through VI, and so Anakin Skywalker becomes the central character. And he’s no longer as bad as we thought he was in 1977. And people will certainly think of Obi-Wan differently. Until I actually sit down and watch them all, it’s hard to say what else will change. Whatever the case, it’s going to be an amazing experience.