The Star Wars franchise is perhaps best known for its plethora of memorable characters, but part of the magic of watching the movies is getting transported to the galaxy far, far away. Over 40 years, the films have taken viewers to the deserts of Tatooine, the swamps of Dagobah, and the forests of Endor. The Last Jedi features some of the most stunning locations the saga has seen, with Ahch-To and Canto Bight standing apart from anything else in the series. It was a Herculean task to bring director Rian Johnson's vision to life, but the incredible crew made it work and delivered something the fans have never seen.
Screen Rant got an opportunity to interview Episode VIII production designer Rick Heinrichs about how the earlier movies influenced his designs and what it was like working with Johnson.
Screen Rant: Following The Force Awakens with this one, how did the production design on Episode VII influence your work on Episode VIII?
Rick Heinrichs: That’s a good question. I think both Rick Carter and Darren Gilford on Episode VII, as well as myself on VIII, we were really trying to look back to the original trilogy for inspiration. I spent several days up at Skywalker Ranch going through all their folders of Ralph McQuarrie’s original drawings and Joe Johnston drawings - all of that. And, it was just so humbling to see the mountain of work that had been done. Now, on 7, Doug Chiang was very much involved with, I think a lot of the development of that as well. And, he’s got the DNA in him. So, really we were kind of drawing from similar sources for a lot of this, and trying to make sure that it felt organic to the series and that people were going to see familiar elements, but also that they’re gonna feel they’re in a new story and that the design was evolving. And that it felt exciting and current for them, too.
The big handoff from number 7 for us was the island of Skellig off the coast of Ireland, which is Ahch-To. Rick had found that. And it was just barely reachable for us. They went there for a couple of days when they were shooting there, and we found it likewise to be a challenge. It’s one of those places where you approach it with a boat and the boat is rising and falling eight feet at the docks and you have to sort of time your drop off - your hop off onto the deck. But I’d already seen a lot of photographs of it, and felt like I’d already been there. So, actually seeing it in person was both familiar and an awesome experience. What we did was essentially develop and evolve the look and feel of Ahch-To, both using Skellig and then a number of locations on the west coast of Ireland to augment and develop what that island was - all of the different environments. There was the Temple, the village, there’s the library tree. There’s a Caretaker village that you never see in the film, but I think you might see it on the DVD.
Screen Rant: Yeah, that’s one of the deleted scenes.
Rick Heinrichs: We had all these environments that we had to show. And they’re a combination of location shooting with effects and shooting on the back lot at Pinewood Studios on sets. In the case of the village, we actually had to build it and shoot it at Pinewood first and then we had to take it apart, take all the huts, drive them all the way to Ireland and there’s a huge body of water in between England and Ireland, and take them to the very edge of Ireland on a 700-foot tall cliff and rebuild them. It all worked perfectly, nobody got hurt. But it was one of the most awe-inspiring jobs I’ve ever done, to visit that set while it was being built there. And really to see the village kind of develop from when we had scouted it at the beginning when we were just imagining what it might look like there is incredibly exciting. Does that answer your question?
Screen Rant: Yes, that was great. I was watching the documentary that’s on the Blu-ray, The Director and the Jedi, and they said there were 120 sets over 100 days of filming. So I was wondering if you could talk about the logistical challenges that presented, what sets were the most difficult, stuff like that.
Rick Heinrichs: I mean, it started with a much larger number. Rian did his homework and tried to figure out what sets he really did need and what scenes could get combined in other sets. We tried to figure out how we could turn sets around. It’s a whole art direction thing we did to make sure you’re working efficiently, but also delivering the shooting company what they need. There was definitely more than one set a day in average. What we ended up doing was, for instance, there are 14 stages at Pinewood and we basically visited each stage three times during the production. There was a new set there each time, and often times multiple sets were on stage at the same time. Things like the Jedi cave and there’s the cave that Rey falls into where she has her midnight hour experience. On top of that was also a cave we had used that was part of the Crait mine at the end of the thing. So, essentially there was a cave set that we would turn around and make look different, and sort of customize for whatever the scenes required. So, that was cool. We had all these organic things going on.
Meanwhile, we had all these incredible space vehicles, all these ships - we had to do both the First Order and the Rebels - sorry, the Resistance. As I get farther away, I revert to Rebels. The Resistance vehicles, the cruiser ship that Leia’s on and all of the other ships, the medical vessel, the hospital vessel, the support vessels, and then the transports where they escape to get on the surface of Crait. All of those had to be designed, and we were really trying to offer something that felt both new and familiar at the same time. First of all, there are a number of drawings that Joe and Ralph had done that probably never got made, and so we were also looking for their shape language and tried to get inspired by that. What we ended up doing, for instance, just for the cruiser there were multiple plates and point decks, and hangars, and walkways, and tunnels. There’s the main deck that Leia is at, and there’s the engineers’ deck after the main deck blows up. We were trying to figure out what those things needed to look like, we were trying to contrast what those two things were. The main deck being at the top side of the huge vessel, which is very inspired by what Ralph had done with a particular image. And then the underslung side is the engineers’ deck, where they have to go after the main deck is blown up.
All of the First Order vessels, we had a couple of different ones. There’s the Dreadnaught bridge, and then there’s the other vessel that is right nearby. And the Dreadnaught is the one that Poe attacks and shoots all the guns off so it can be attacked by the bombers. And then of course there’s the bombers and the X-wings, and the A-wings. The A-wings were amazing because they never built a full-size A-wing before. So, really looking at Joe Johnston’s drawings for that and we built a couple of copies of that. And those really do get blown up when the Resistance hangar blows up as Poe enters. But the feel of those, it’s just so great because it has that older feel to it and yet is something that we haven’t quite experienced before. So, that really was our goal - to make it feel familiar, and yet give the audience a novel experience with the stuff that we were trying to build on top of the legacy.
Screen Rant: How did your experience working with Rian Johnson compare to some of the other franchise blockbuster movies you’ve worked on?
Rick Heinrichs: [laughs]. That all comes to the character of the director and the studio aspect of it. It was a dream job working on The Last Jedi with Rian. He’s a very cool guy. Very smart guy. All of his direction is thoughtful, it’s all tied to character and story arcs that he’s got going on in his mind. It’s not like he’s so nice he won’t tell you when something sucks, because he definitely will tell you that. He gets into the process with the rest of us, and doesn’t aim to be above the fray, which it can be at times, to talk about exactly what the feel and what the character of all the design elements are. He had a really good handle on what that was. So where occasionally I would feel like suggesting something that was maybe a little outside of what we had seen before, but maybe where we were using it, it was appropriate. He would really thoughtfully think about it and either shake his head no, or go, ‘Maybe if you did this and that,’ and we would have something which felt like it was based on old elements that felt right. I don’t want to say it was necessarily better than working with other directors on projects I’ve worked on before.
But with Rian, he really came not from a place of, ‘You know, we’re just doing this next sequel here, so let’s just get it done.’ It was always like, ‘We’re making a movie here, with the some of the coolest stuff that one could ever hope to have to begin with. And let’s just do it proud and let’s make it feel appropriate and make it feel earned and let’s get everything in-camera that we can.’ He’s got the best visual effects company in the world that is going to be supporting us and having our back. So let’s go for it, and that’s what we did.
Screen Rant: Thank you.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now available on digital. The Blu-ray hits shelves March 27, 2018.
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019