Brendon chats to David Whiteley, who’s been exploring the UK’s link to Star Wars.
Last night saw the premiere of not one but two new Star Wars documentaries on BBC Four, each of them produced and presented by David Whiteley (and both now on BBC iPlayer). We caught up with Whiteley to hear from him about why these two films aren’t like any of the other myriad Star Wars documentaries.
The version of The Galaxy that Britain Built going out this Christmas is different from one screened a couple of years ago. Not only do we wantto know, then, how this film came into being in the first place but also how you’ve done that thing we normally associate with George Lucas and revised your own film.
The original idea came not long after The Force Awakens came out and reignited my passion for Star Wars. I think I saw it nine times in the cinema, so excited that it was a fantastic Star Wars film. I’ve always been a massive fan of Star Wars – I was born May the fourth, Star Wars day, in 1977, so talk about a Star Wars birthday.
I was coming back from a shoot in London, beginning of 2016, and I saw from Twitter that Mark Hamill was going to do a talk at the Cambridge Student Union and I thought “Wouldn’t it be great to look at doing a documentary about Star Wars in Britain?” I knew it had been filmed here but I hadn’t really looked at it yet, and realised how much it really was British.
You watch the making of Star Wars documentaries and they touch upon the fact that they filmed at Elstree but you never really heard from the British people that were surrounding George Lucas and Gary Kurtz.
I got in touch with Disney and they let us film at Star Wars Celebration in London that summer. Then I wrote a letter to John Mollo, the costume designer who won Oscars for Star Wars and Ghandi. It went to the wrong address but it was passed on because it had BBC on the envelope.
Then I managed to get Robert Watts to shoot at Elstree, and we had the bones of a documentary.
To cut a long story short, it started off as a half hour, then BBC Four said they wanted an hour, so I ended up spending a long time on making phone calls until we eventually tracked down Les Dilley the Art Director, we got Roger Christian the Set Decorator and flew him in from Canada. We went to see Nick Maley in the Caribbean because he’s got a museum there. Gary Kurtz and Gareth Edwards in London, and Colin Goudie who edited Rogue One. It gradually pieced together. We wrapped in May 2017, just before my 40th birthday so I remember it very clearly.
We decided to structure it chronologically. I transcribed one hundred thousand words of interviews. Slowly it all came together.
Then what happened?
When it went out at Christmas 2017, the critics loved it, we got fantastic reviews, the fans were very kind. That was my biggest concern. I’m a massive Star Wars fan so I wanted them to not hate it, to learn something from it and enjoy it. Mark Hamill Tweeted about it and sent me a couple of messages, which was nice!
It went out around the world about 12 times. This year I decided to re-pitch it. There were so many great stories that didn’t make the original cut. Roger Christian had told all of these great stories about how he made Han Solo’s blaster, Princess Leia’s gun, Chewbacca’s crossbow, Stromtrooper guns. We had a wonderful section about the London Symphony Orchestra under John Williams, telling the whole story behind the music.
There was so much left that we could tell, I thought we should also do some new interviews. I went back to BBC Four and reminded them that the Star Wars saga was coming to an end, the end of the Skywalker story, so I said “Let’s extend this.”
I managed to get hold of Ann Skinner who was continuity on Star Wars. She hadn’t really done any in-depth interviews before though she was on every single take of the entire movie. She took all of these continuity Polaroids, took notes on the script. In fact, she even helped Sir Alec Guinness with his speech about the force. They asked George if they could change it, and we went to the BFI archive and Lucasfilm gave us permission to film the Polaroids and the annotated scripts, where you can see how she helped Sir Alec rewrite his speech. All of these Polaroids behind the scenes, with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and all the guys that hadn’t seen the light of day in 40 years.
We expanded the whole music section with two of the principals of the London Symphony Orchestra at the time, the principal bassoonist, Robert Bourton and principal trombone Denis Wick. They played under John Williams. They went into the recording thinking it was going to be the run of the mill movie score but they did the first take, which was the opening title. John Williams stepped back into the booth and on playback, all of the musicians turned round and saw what they had been playing to, the opening titles and then the blockade runner and star destroyer.
Apparently John Williams then came back and they all stood up and applauded they were so impressed with what they had just seen.
We’ve totally gone back and made the film as we wanted to make it originally. There were things we weren’t particularly happy with but it feels like a completely different film now.
So did you wake up in the night sometimes over the last few years, sweating about the original version?
All films get abandoned, you never finish them. I was very happy with it overall, but when you get the opportunity… and what we’ve got now is far more comprehensive and conclusive. There’s mention of The Rise of Skywalker in there. I feel like we’ve finished the film as this generation of Star Wars comes to an end, before the next one begins. It was a privilege, really, to be able to go back and revisit the film in view of this.
This is the version, I think. We’re done now.
I got the same guy, Matt Wildash, who directed and edited both of the films. He’s very creative so I just leave him to it with the edit script, I come back a couple of days later. Things evolved a lot in the edit suite.
It’s a wonderful luxury to be able to do this.
Very much, yes.
But I’m very pleased to just get more and happy that there was so much more you could draw on. What sort of shooting ratio was it, from hours shot to final edit?
Oh my word. I’ll give you an example: Roger Christian’s interview was almost three hours. When we were doing the interviews we had just a rough structure. We did 13, 14 interviews in total, maybe 20 hours of interview.
Quite an extreme deforestation job just to wrangle it all.
The logging notes were just vast. The execs wanted extra commentary but we said no, we’ll get that on the sync. So we looked for the footage that explained something. I’m of the opinion that it’s far better to have the people telling their own story. That was something I was very conscious of. I present the beginning, give reasons for me to be a presenter, but after that I wanted to be invisible. With a documentary it’s either all their story or if it’s presented, it should be a respectful reflection of that story rather than a presenter getting in the way. So the pieces to camera are quite pithy.
We hadn’t really heard their story. Star Wars is a massive thing but over the years, there was Norman Reynolds in the Empire of Dreams documentary, but nobody had really spent any length of time talking to these people on camera, give them the opportunity to tell the world what they had contributed.
It’s very sad because John Mollo died before it went out, Gary Kurtz died last year, and the new version is dedicated to the memories of both.
As a journalist many years ago I interviewed Spitfire pilots know they were the last, and now this generation of filmmakers… they’re all getting on a bit.
Irrespective of the angle that Star Wars is a British production made by British talent, part of the story you’re telling here is that films are made by people. We know it but don’t necessarily connect to it. Films are made by craftspeople, technicians and artists in great numbers and they are sometimes overlooked. The auterist idea can sweep this idea under the carpet, but part of your thesis is that films are made collectively.
I think so.
Robert Watts sums it up beautifully, calling it an Anglo American production. Written by George Lucas, created by George Lucas, Gary Kurtz was American, the ILM guys are American, all these amazing American actors, but equally, this band of talented people working in and around London. To this day, really. [On Rogue One] Gareth Edwards got his AD to spend a day filming inserts of X-Wing pilots and the AD turned to him and said “It’s funny but my dad did this exact same job on the original Star Wars.”
I think there’s an irony here. You work with the BBC where we can do the whole thing, our TV production is fantastic, we’re as good as anybody in the world, but in terms of feature films, I think we’re very much a service industry.
Disney has got Pinewood booked for god knows how many years, but we don’t put all of this great craft behind our own work. The Harry Potter films, for example, are American product in the sense that the investment is American, the financial reward goes to America, but it’s our industry that gives those films their qualities. Your film does expose this in a way. We think of Star Wars being a Hollywood product but, well, here we go.
The British industry are the facilitators rather than the originators. They’ll happily get on board and do the job, do a damn good job. You only need to go down Soho to see all of the post houses. But how many original films are there these days? It’s the next Marvel, the next DC. You’re not getting as many breakthrough films. Not all studios want to take a risk.
Where the hell would the next “first Star Wars” come from today? How can something new get the breathing space it needs?
Look at Disney now and it’s all Mandalorian and Obi Wan Kenobi and that’s great, I’m not complaining about that. I love Star Wars. But what is the next Star Wars? Where will that come from?
Where’s the next first, not just the next next. Now, clearly you used your day job skills to make this film but it’s different, it seems more self-initiated.
That’s absolutely spot in. The job I do is very rewarding but making a ten minute film is like falling off a log compared to making this. I don’t know if anybody in BBC regions has made a feature length film before. I produced and presented it, Matt directed and edited it.
And did you have camera and sound in one body?
Matt the director had one camera on me, there was one on the guest and away we went.
It’s brilliant that you’ve broken the mould once but are you harbouring another ambition? Is there something else you’d like to cover?
Well, we already made another one, Toy Empire [that also went out last night on BBC Four]. A completely different thing. It was all part of my pitch to BBC Four. I said we’ll do a 90 minute Galaxy that Britain Built and a 30 minute film about Palitoys Star Wars toys. They said yes to that as well! That’s why I’m now so ill. Be careful what you wish for.
We’ve done a whole half hour on Palitoys Star Wars toys. We’ve got the designers, the former MD, people who worked on the assembly line. We went to an auction to see how much they’re worth now. It’s a real bit of nostalgia for people who love their Star Wars toys. I’ve still got all of mine. Without Palitoys we wouldn’t necessarily have so many in the UK.
There are great little stories that mirror the story of Star Wars in a sense. The [toy] trade weren’t interested, they watched the [original 1977] film and said toys connected to films traditionally don’t do well, if the film bombs out, you’re left with all of the merchandise. They couldn’t get the trade to take it.
In the UK the the toys didn’t launch until December 1977, so Christmas. They had to worry about cost. In the US the toy was a whopping great Death Star but in the UK, they made the Death Star out of cardboard to save money. That cardboard Death Star is now worth a lot more!
The guy who designed it hasn’t got any. It was the guy who worked on Action Man, he designed his gripping hands.
We focus on Palitoy. We’ve got lovely old adverts that are really going to take you back, we’ve got archive footage of the AT-ATs coming off the production line.
Sounds like a concentrated nostalgia hit. Beyond Star Wars, David, is there anything else nibbling at you? Or is it time to ruminate for a while on what you might do next?
I think that’s the case. This has been nearly four years of my life now. My youngest daughter is six, she has never known anything else. I asked her last year “What do you think Daddy does for a living?” and she said “You work at the BBC and you make Star Wars.” But if Disney want to hire me to make any of their behind the scenes documentaries would be great.
I must mention a guy called Rick who founded Channel Star Wars and who pitched the idea of Toy Empire to me. I wasn’t sure if the subject of toys was going to take off, I was thinking “Are people that bothered?” There’s a fantastic Netflix documentary series and I watched their Kenner one, and it was great. So we did it. And when you meet these wonderful toy makers you think “Yeah, I want to hear their stories.”
And… I was turned into an action figure for Toy Empire!
Everybody has a story and you tell them well, and thanks to Star Wars you have a great way in for audiences here. Thank you David for talking to me.
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