Production supervisor on A New Hope, associate producer on The Empire Strikes Back, and co-producer on Return Of The Jedi, Robert Watts was the most experienced of the senior crew when the saga began, having cut his teeth on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey amongst other things. But not only did his nightmare in the Tunisian desert mark the beginning of Star Wars, but the start of a long and fruitful relationship with George Lucas that continued into Indiana Jones.
What was your first encounter with George?
“I was actually engaged on the movie before I met George, I met [producer] Gary Kurtz at MGM Studios some years before in LA. I’d been doing a film in Mexico [1972’s The Wrath Of God] with Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth – it was her last film actually – and I was back at MGM Studios wrapping up, because I’d often do the post-production, and an American producer rang up and said, ‘Can I come and talk to you about filming in England?’ and I said yes. It was Gary Kurtz, and he and George were about to make American Graffiti, so basically, to cut a long story short, it was some while after I said goodbye that about a year later he asked for a resume which I sent, and I didn’t hear anything, and then I was down in Greece where I went in as a bit of a troubleshooter on a film called Sky Riders with James Coburn and Susannah York [later to play Superman’s Kryptonian mother Lara-El in Superman, Superman II and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace] and a few people like that. And while I was down there I got a call from Fox in London, and it was a Fox film I was on, and I went back to London for a day to meet Gary Kurtz again. Peter Beale, the head of Fox in London had all the usual suspects hanging around, but I think I got the job because I’d met Gary before. Anyway, I started on the film in September 1975, and then shortly after that I went to LA and George had at that time really small offices in Universal Studios, and that’s where I met him for the first time.”
What was it like working with George?
“How can I put it? It was different in some ways, for George obviously it was because George had never made a big picture like Star Wars, nor had Gary. A few had actually, those of who were working, I did 2001: A Space Odyssey for example, a couple of Bond films, Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, these were all quite big films prior to that. George had a vision, he was quite lonely there because he was shooting in England and the rest of it, and there were the odd difficulties on it. One of them being that 20th Century Fox didn’t believe in the project and didn’t give us much support except to beat us up, and I think that was difficult for George as well the whole way through. I always thought the film would be a hit because it was very different from the normal science fiction films, you know, the space craft leaked oil, which you don’t normally see, hence the Millennium Falcon’s inability to make the leap to light speed and things like that, and nobody had done anything like that before. It was a labour, it was a very hard thing for George – he wasn’t at home, he was in England, and he liked the British crew except one person. I don’t want to talk about that particularly because I don’t like to badmouth people, and I’m not sure if this person is still alive or not. And this one member of the crew who was in a senior position, did not support him, treated him like a know-nothing little boy, and lived to regret it. Now we all got on with it, it was difficult because we had a very small budget and a very short shooting schedule, and by the time the I came on the film in September, George was paying for us all personally at that point because Fox had still not greenlighted the film, and they didn’t do that until January. With the dates that we were working with, all our particulars – the weather in Tunisia dictated a certain time to shoot, and of course there was a release date before we even started shooting – so there was no margin for error. We got on, we did it, and we only went a tiny bit over budget. And once we’d finished shooting, George had said, ‘If it’s a hit, I want to make three’. So we did packed up some of the sets, in particular the interiors of the Millennium Falcon, and put that on the back lot of Elstree Studios, and locked them up wondering if we’d send somebody back to junk them or whether they’d be taken out again. Then 1977 came and the three day weekend when the movie opened, and of course it was a phenomenal hit in a way that no movie had ever been before. I personally didn’t know, because I was in the middle of Afghanistan shooting a movie where there was no television station, nothing, and the only way I found out was when I bought my next edition of Time and Newsweek and I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my god!’, because they had several colour pictures of the film in Time magazine. When I got back after the shooting in Afghanistan, a pal rang me up and said, ‘Robert, that film you worked on’s come out’, and I just went ‘Woooah!’, and so it opened, and as a result we all came back to make the other two. We started Empire Strikes Back, then towards the end of Empire Strikes Back we were shooting some pick-up shots at ILM in San Rafael and George came in one day and said, ‘Read this Robert and tell me what you think’ – it was Raiders Of The Lost Ark. So we made that one next and then came back for Return Of The Jedi and completed the three films that George had always talked about. And Raiders was a success, so obviously we did two more of those. And of course there was a lot of time between the three we did which were chronologically later than the three subsequent ones til the three subsequent ones were made, and I’d left Lucasfilm by then and it’s the same thing with Indiana Jones, the fourth one of that – years it was before that appeared. But there we go, Star Wars is a phenomenon – my youngest grandson is eight years old now and he absolutely adores it.”
That must be immensely rewarding, to have that bond across the generations.
“Yes, yes it is, because I’ve never seen anything like it – of course Harry Potter has gone by as the most successful franchise now, and good luck – I love those movies.”
Did your work on 2001 inform your approach to Star Wars?
“I want to say no, but I’ll say yes and no. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars are two completely different entities. Stanley Kubrick required 100% accuracy in 2001 as it was known at the time, and in fact the first photographs of the dark side of the moon came back while we were shooting it, and as we were building a moon model, we were able to build the dark side of it – it was the first one ever built probably to show the whole of the moon as it is. And do you know what? We never used it. Stanley was a stickler for authenticity, we had to deal with weightlessness, airlocks, everything. So in a sense it was pure science fiction, except when you get to the end and it gets a bit more esoteric [laughs], whereas I think Star Wars is more science fantasy. Nobody in Star Wars has an airlock, and as for weightless conditions… we were shooting a movie in a space setting, and disregarding all the laws of being in outer space, whereas with Stanley it had been the other way around.”
What was your favourite moment working on the entire trilogy?
“Depends what you’re looking at, I could say that it was the last day of shooting on the first film for the simple reason that as soon as we’d done, the relief to have got through it without being blown apart by 20th Century Fox was quite considerable. We started shooting in Tunisia, the homestead and all the rest of it, at this strange place called Matmata where they live in holes in the ground that were real that we used, and the island of Djerba, and the reason we went there is because architecturally it doesn’t have that Arab feel. I went with [set designer] John Barry to Morocco and looked there, but you know, Morocco looks like Morocco and you can’t get away from that style of building. I think I really enjoyed the Tunisian location because we were beginning, for me, organising everything, the first day of shooting is a moment of sheer terror, because I used to throw up the night before sometimes – I’m sorry to say that – it’s like stage fright. Once the film began and it was working, all that fell away and you had the joy of doing it. And it was so interesting shooting there, and strangely enough we returned to an identical place – even one of the locations was identical – for Raiders Of The Lost Ark, so we were old Tunisian hands by the time that was all over.”
You’ve been to a lot of hot and sandy locations!
When we were shooting on Star Wars it was kind of late winter, and when we shot on Raiders Of The Lost Ark it was August – and that was hot. It also happened to be Ramadan at the same time, and because we used local crew they weren’t allowed to eat and drink all day. It was tough, but on Star Wars, to give you an example – we were going out to the homestead to shoot, and we had one day’s shooting that was left at the homestead and that was on a salt flat, that runs from that part of Tunisia right to the Algerian border. I got up that morning and the rain was falling like you wouldn’t believe, I mean there was wind – so the rain was going horizontal instead of vertical and I thought, ‘Oh my god!’. And I called the assistant directors and said, ‘Call a rest day, we’re not shooting today – I’ve got to find out what the damage is’. And I went with Les Dilley the art director, we drove out to the set and it ended up almost in Algeria! I thought, ‘Oh Christ, we’re gonna have to redo it’, so I sat down and we rescheduled and put it right on the last day of shooting, because we had to basically rebuild it. So once we’d done all the other bits we had to do, we came back on the last day and the last shot that we shot there was the scene where Luke Skywalker is gazing out at the future and there’s twin suns – one of them’s real, the other one’s put in by ILM. We shot that shot and as soon as George said ‘cut, print’, it started to rain and that salt flat, if the crust breaks it’s like grease underneath, so I said, ‘Quick, get everybody off!’ because we had to get everybody off before we got completely stuck in there. And we got every vehicle off there, except one vehicle that we’d been using to get the others out and eventually we couldn’t get it out. But it didn’t matter, because it was a six-wheel-drive crane that we’d rented from the Tunisian army – that’s what helped us out and that’s the only one we didn’t get out, we left it there! So I have to say, getting off there when the rain came – it was a moment of panic, followed by a moment of such relief.”
Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray box set is available September 12 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, priced £67.49, and SciFiNow’s collector’s edition Star Wars issue is available now from all good newsagents and online from the Imagineshop.