He was responsible for co-producing two of the most successful and loved movie trilogies ever: Star Wars and Indiana Jones and worked on the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I am very proud to present you this interview with the great Robert Watts.
How did you get started in the movie business?
I began in the movie business in 1960. It was hard because there was no formal method of getting in, the business being a union closed shop. You had to be a member of the union to work in a union job and to become a member of the union you had to have a union job, a catch 22. The only job you could get was as a runner which was not a union job. These jobs were few and far between, so it was difficult.
I got my first job from a production manager who I knew, because my grandfather had helped him get his first job. My grandfather, after a varied career, became a script writer at Ealing studios in the years following the Second World War. He wrote the 1948 Royal Command film Scott of the Antarctic, starring John Mills. He used to get his car serviced in Ealing, and the guy who managed the place asked him if he could help him get a job at Ealing Studios. This my grandfather did, and many years later, after my grandfather's death, he did the same for me. I was a runner on a Boulting Brothers film called A French Mistress. My two half brothers were child actors, one of whom continued in the movie business as a career. His name is Jeremy Bulloch and many years later I was able to get him the part of Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back.
I scratched about for the odd job that year until I got a permanent job, as a runner, with a company based at Shepperton Studios, which made TV commercials and documentaries. I stayed with them for just over two years, by which time I was their production manager. It was my equivalent of film school. I got union membership during this time and when I left I returned to feature films as a second assistant director on a film called The Man in the Middle, starring Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard.
That is how it began.
You worked on all three original Star Wars movies and the first three Indiana Jones movies. How did you get involved with Star Wars and Lucasfilm?
In 1971 I was at MGM Studios in Culver City wrapping up my work as Production Manager on a film called The Wrath of God, starring Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth, which was her last film, when a producer called into my office. He wanted to know about filming in England.
His name was Gary Kurtz and he was preparing American Graffiti with George Lucas.
About a year later he contacted me in the UK to ask for a resume, I sent it and heard nothing.
Some three years later I was working on a film in Greece called Skyriders for 20th Century Fox, when the head of Fox London, Peter Beale, called me and said they wanted me in London for a day to meet Gary Kurtz. I flew to London and the next day met Gary at Fox in Soho Square. Peter had lined up a bunch of production managers/supervisors to meet Gary. I got the job and I reckon it was because I had met Gary those years earlier.
Can you describe in your own words what your tasks were regarding the original Star Wars movies?
This is a massive question and could run for several pages, so I will keep it simple.
My job was to first schedule the film to see how many weeks it will take to shoot, and when the various crew members should begin. Next is the preliminary budget, based on the schedule, to see how much it will cost. This is not the final budget; this will be dictated by where we will shoot for the location elements of the film. The first person to be hired, apart from the production secretary, who starts the same day as me, is the Production Designer. He and I will travel to wherever to find the locations required. For example, on the original film John Barry and I travelled to Morocco and Tunisia to find the elements required. We all chose Tunisia because it had some very interesting actual buildings as well as all the desert and salt flats needed. Morocco architecturally was just too Moroccan.
During preproduction the art department assembles and prior to their engagement I meet them to do their deal for the movie. I, with the designer will take the director to see the chose sites so he may approve them. The director of photography is also taken to see the locations, often he comes for, say a week or two, before his full engagement commences. The sets are being built; other department personnel are engaged as preparation for shooting continues. Finally the first day of principal photography arrives and off we go. This is the most expensive part of the production and only now will the schedule I have done and agreed with the director, be put to the test.
So my job with the help of the heads of department is to oversee and be responsible for the running of the show. The director directs the film and all of us, every crew member is there for one reason, to help the director tell a story. When shooting is complete, the editor, who has been on for the full run of shooting, now takes pride of place. My job is easier now as the crew is quite small and not so vulnerable to going over. The composer joins and we organise the music recording sessions.
Finally it is all sound mixed and the first print of the finished film arrives. So my job is to coordinate these various stages of production.
In other words, if the shit hits the fan, it hits me first.
What are your fondest memories regarding working on the Star Wars movies?
My fondest memory of working on the Star Wars movies was working on the Star Wars movies.
Seriously though, things that stand out:
1. Finishing shooting the first movie.
We were under a great deal of pressure from 20th Century Fox. They were under great financial problems themselves and did not believe in the movie. At the time we were the only Fox movie then shooting anywhere in the world. Their eyes were focused on us and George was under a great deal of pressure. As a result so were we all. We split into three units to complete the film.
Gary Kurtz directed the second unit, shooting, for example, the hologram of Princess Leia as in "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope". I did the third unit which was just inserts, as in a close up of R2-D2 third leg coming down. So we finished shooting. When the movie opened Fox's price on Wall Street doubled. What a result.
2. Working with Irvin Kershner. A great director who directed The Empire Strikes Back. This, for me, is the best piece of film making of the three on which I worked. We did go over schedule and budget which I found difficult as George was financing this himself.
3. Completing Return of the Jedi, all units bang on budget and schedule.
What difficulties did you experience while working on the three Star Wars movies?
All the usual problems plus on the first film we were greenlighted at the last moment with very little time to get it together. All the props and costumes had to be made, plus robots and a mass of creatures. The R2-D2 we had on the first film could not turn its head whilst in the three legged mode. And although it was radio controlled, we often had to pull it along on a piece of piano wire. The head could turn in the two legged mode because Kenny Baker was inside. We made it but only just. The C-3PO costume was finally put on Anthony Daniels complete on the first day of shooting in Tunisia. That is the scene where Uncle Owen and Luke Skywalker buy the droids from the Jawas outside the homestead set.
Did any strange, remarkable or funny things happen while working on the movies?
It is hard to pick out individual moments. It was remarkable we finished the first one.
I always knew it would be a hit. I thought it would do James Bond type business, but it exceeded all expectations and rewrote how much a film could take. I would have to think long and hard for individual moments. Perhaps one moment sticks in my mind again from the first movie.
That day we were due to shoot the last day on the homestead set in Tunisia. I was out very early that morning and it was raining very hard with a strong wind. I knew that we were in trouble to go on the salt flats as when they were wet the salt would crack. Underneath the salt there was greasy mud which would stop the vehicles moving, even those with four wheel drive. I called the assistant directors and told them to tell the crew I was calling a rest day. I then went out to the set with Les Dilley, the unit art director. The roof of the homestead was nowhere to be seen, it had blown across the salt flat heading for the Algerian border. Other bits of the set were damaged. Les got his crew together whilst I figured out what to do. We continued the next day shooting the other sets scheduled for this part of Tunisia. On the last day at this location, we returned to the salt flat to complete the homestead sequence. The last shot was done as the sun was going down. It is the shot of Luke gazing out as the twin suns are setting. One is the real sun the other was laid in by ILM. Just as we cut it started to rain and we were in a mad scramble to get all our vehicles off the salt flat. We got them all safely off with the exception of six wheel drive crane, which helped the other vehicles. The crane was on hire from the Tunisian army. We left it stuck in the greasy mud. Luckily we did not need it any more.
So all was well.
In Return of the Jedi you had –along with director Richard Marquand- a small role as an AT-ST driver: Lieutenant Watts. Whose idea was this, did you enjoy it and can you share some memories of that scene?
We were shooting pick-ups at ILM having finished principal photography. I had no idea that I was going to do this when I came to work that morning. We had two extras lined up for this when, I think it was George, suggested that Richard and I played the roles. So we donned the costumes and did it. It took about 90 minutes. I'm glad I did it now. I'm the one who is yanked out of the vehicle. On the exterior it’s a stunt guy falling. They produced a card with my character on it and called him Lieutenant Watts, which is my own name. What they did not know was that I actually hold the rank of Lieutenant in the British army. I am old enough to have had to do two years national service. I got a commission and spent the rest of my time in The Royal West African Frontier Force, Queens Own Nigeria Regiment. Eight months after I left, Nigeria became independent and my regiment became the Nigerian army.
There have been a lot of rumours about deleted scenes from Return of the Jedi. There is one rumour that in the original cut the Millennium Falcon was destroyed in the Death Star battle. This scene was cut after a test audience saw it and didn’t like it. Can you confirm this? Or is it just a myth?
As far as I know this is a myth.
Every Star Wars fan knows about the deleted scenes from A New Hope; for example the ones in which Biggs and Luke are seen on Tatooine. Are there deleted scenes from the original trilogy the public doesn’t know of?
Not that I can recall right now. I find that the Star Wars fans tend to know much more than I do.
I read something about an abandoned concept for The Empire Strikes Back; the Elite Stormtrooper. It was basically an all-white Boba Fett. The concept was abandoned and Boba Fett was created out of this. Can you give more insight/information regarding this? Why was it abandoned and what did George Lucas initially want to do with it?
I remember it being called a super stormtrooper. What happened was that the character of Boba Fett appeared and the costume in a different colour was perfect for him. Remember that the screenplay was still being written whilst we were preparing so changes happened. I think the super stormtrooper was thought of for the Hoth sequence and became the snowtroopers you see in the movie.
What are you doing these days? Can you tell us something about your current or future projects?
In 2000, I and my partner Linda Lowrance, founded Transformer Entertainment. During the years, we have worked with a plethora of emerging writers, directors and producers to assist them with the development of a wide variety of entertainment projects. I have reached the point that I want to begin producing films again. Transformer has several viable projects under consideration.