Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our thirty-eighth guest was the brains behind Star Wars Legacy, a noted composer, special effects artist and logo designer – Mike Verta.
Lightsabre – Mike, welcome to Lightsabre.
MV – Thank you!
Lightsabre – Star Wars has had a profound effect on all of us – it’s why we’re here talking about it, but what was it that started you off on your Star Wars journey?
MV – Star Wars was the first film I ever saw; I was five years old. At the time, of course, every kid was freaking out about Star Wars – I was obsessed with it. For awhile I didn’t have any of the toys, but I had the soundtrack, and the “movie on record” and I listened to them in sequence over and over and over again, all day long, every day. My mother came to hate Star Wars. This was also the time I was learning how to swim, and I was deathly afraid of letting go of the side and swimming a width of the pool, which was a requirement to pass the course. On the day of the test, my mother leaned over the edge and whispered to me, “If you swim the width, I’ll buy you the X-Wing and TIE Fighter toys.” I swam the width. And the length. Twice. So thanks to Star Wars, I learned to swim. And my mother was spared listening to the soundtrack for a couple of hours a day.
But the real influence of Star Wars on my life was to come some months later when we inherited the family grand piano. Shortly after it arrived, I went over and managed to pick out the opening notes of the main title theme. A light went on somewhere very deep inside me, and I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing music for movies. I went straight to the kitchen and asked for piano lessons. That was 29 years ago, and I’ve studied music every day since.
So for me, my association with Star Wars is intensely personal; through it I was to discover music – my life’s purpose. I’ve been fortunate never to have had any doubt about what I wanted to do with my life. That’s a tremendous gift, and a testament to how powerful movies, music and art can be. I’m forever grateful to be a part of those worlds, and I’m reminded that you just never know how your work may affect people. George Lucas and John Williams didn’t set out to change my life… but they did. I’ve never met either of them. One day I’d like to say, “thank you.”
Lightsabre – Your work on http://www.starwarslegacy.com/archive/Star Wars Legacy is clearly a labour of love, borne out of your frustration with the 1997 Special Editions. Luckily, you have the talent to be able to do something about it. How far do you intend to go with the Legacy edition, and how do you feel Lucasfilm would feel about it?
MV – Well, I intend to finish what I’ve started! Given the role that the original has played in my life, it’s an important part of my personal history, and I feel a strong need to have that history preserved, and not revised. It’s just for me; so I can watch it from time to time as it was, flawed and beautiful and utterly inspiring. I know Lucasfilm has seen the site; they’ve let me be, for now. I assume it’s because they know I’m serious about not profiting or distributing the project. That would represent a level of righteous hypocrisy beyond measure, as far as I’m concerned. But if they decide to shut the site down, it will only mean the end of my telling the world about the project, not the end of the project itself. It is, as you say, a labor of love. There are plenty of other people to prosecute with far less scrupulous aims, if Lucasfilm is so inclined.
Lightsabre – Which of the six episodes stands out as your favourite?
MV – A New Hope, by a mile. The first movie happened without self-conscience. It was a fun piece never intended to change the world, and I think that’s a large part of why it worked out so well. We tend to do our best work when we don’t think about it too much. I think that Empire is the requisite “legitimization piece” that artists feel compelled to create when they suddenly get a lot of attention for work they feel is beneath their true potential. It happens all the time – they desperately want to say, “wait, that was nothing! I’m capable of so much more!” and so Empire begins with what I feel is forced dramatic tension and “adult” relationship themes, and then proceeds to get heavy from there. Fortunately, the dramatic points in Empire are truly interesting and compelling, which is why they’ve been staples in countless films over the last 100 years. I just always felt this level of “seriousness” came out of the blue, and that makes Empire fairly depressing to me. I don’t actually enjoy watching a lot of it. Jedi, I think, rounds out this archetypal artistic psychology-play: With the first film comes the attention, with the second film comes legitimacy, and now the creator is free to relax a bit. I’d say the best word for Jedi, for me, is “relaxed.” With Jedi, Lucas knew how to do it, and he knew he knew how to do it, and he’d silenced his commercial and artistic critics, so he could have fun again. But personally, I fast forward to Ian McDiarmid’s scenes – otherwise it feels a bit like the Muppet Show. The prequels I can’t even sit through. I’ve tried, though. And I gave my $8 at the movie theater once for each of them, as any self-respecting Star Wars fan should.
MV – Am I? I’m certainly a sucker for Star Wars things, that’s for sure. The Pink Five fan films are the only ones I’ve considered doing, because they’re actually good films. Trey Stokes knows how to tell a story, which 99% of other fan film directors don’t, in my opinion. I don’t think lightsabers are interesting; it’s the characters that make the lightsabers interesting. So it’s not enough for me to see people in costume – no matter how authentic – doing their best Star Wars impressions. Filmmaking requires disciplines vast and diverse, and you can’t just show up with your camera and a brown robe and think you’ve got something, no matter what Apple Computer tells you. When I say that, people accuse me of taking the whole thing way too seriously. They’re probably right.
MV – I can’t imagine topping the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time in 1977. And to be honest, I don’t participate in many fan-based activities. I’ve never been to a convention, and I don’t have any close friends that are Star Wars fans. It’s always been intensely personal for me. My house has many Star Wars artifacts in it, and I’m building my own life-size R2-D2, so my inner Star Wars geek is alive and well. But whatever Star Wars-related thing I might do, I tend to feel a bit of disconnect with the people around me. To be honest, I think they have more “fun” with it than I do.
Lightsabre – Which of the Star Wars characters is the closest to you?
MV – Darth Vader, no question. To me, Darth Vader, by succumbing to his ego and his power-lust is the tragic character I most fear becoming. When you do work that people enjoy, they tend to tell you so. The challenge is not to believe it beyond what’s healthy; not to let self-exaltation consume you. You have to cultivate your humility, or you start to feel entitled and superior. So I keep Darth Vader iconography close to me all the time, to remind me that there’s always a temptation to go down one’s personal path to the “dark side”.
Lightsabre – What would you change about Star Wars if you could go back in time and make alterations?
MV – Nothing. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in “going back,” because it’s self-indulgent, artistic masturbation. But I used to… I had to learn to let that go. You see, we’re always going to grow in our art, and as we do, we can look back and see what we’ve done and find ways to improve it. But you could stay in that loop forever; it’s the end of growth. Being an artist has been defined as being possessed of a certain, perpetual, “divine dissatisfaction,” and I think you have to realize that. You’re probably not going to be the best judge of your work, and you’ll always be fighting your ego. For me to go back and change or revise music I wrote 10 years ago – even though I could make it better – would only be for me. Once your work has been released into the world, it’s like a child – it will influence people in ways beyond your control. It becomes a part of their life-experience, and in many ways, helps to define their lives. You do your best to “raise” your art properly, but then you have to let it go. It can become very personal to people, and that’s a gift for both the artist and those affected by it. But you can’t take it back again. You have to move on and make new art. And so I feel it is with Star Wars. Plus, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you know?
Lightsabre – You are probably best known for two things – your special effects artistry and your composing, both of which are highlighted on your IMDB page. Which gives you the greatest pleasure, and which the greater exposure?
MV – They bring me different kinds of pleasure. I enjoy both, but music is my first love, no question. As for which gives the greatest exposure… I’d say it depends on how you measure “great.” I’ve gotten a lot of letters over the years for my jazz albums, many of which say things like, “We heard your music the night we met, and it was the first dance at our wedding…” Or one musician who wrote me to say my music made him want to be a composer. I’ve never gotten any kind of feedback like that from visual effects work. I think that stuff is really special, and it’s humbling, in way, because it shows me the power of the music – it’s just my job to be the messenger. My hope is that long after I’m gone, the music will still be here. I think about what I’m leaving behind almost every day.
MV – I’ve been fortunate to work on a number of high-profile films, especially from Warner Bros. Pictures, and usually in advertising, so the pressure factor wasn’t an issue. But there’s no question that anytime I get asked to work on something so well-known, I feel a strong responsibility to “really get it right,” for fans and for myself. The challenging part of jobs like the Superman shield is that it’s really not up to me; I’ve got to execute someone else’s design and vision. As much as you can, you want to choose your projects carefully, because they’re collaborative efforts, and your name will be up there, too. I was lucky to have been offered the opportunity. I thought it was a great design, and I like Bryan Singer’s work, so it was an honor, all the way around.
Lightsabre – Now that Revenge of the Sith has been released, where do you think Lucas will take us next on our trip through the Star Wars galaxy? And would you like to be a part of it, on the other side of the production?
MV – I used to think that I’d like to make a Star Wars movie one day, or something related to the mythology, but that’s George Lucas’ world, and I think the prequels have planted a stylistic flag so disparate from the original direction that you can’t ever go back. I have my own art to do. “Never say never,” they say, but as it is now, I don’t think I’d want to be involved in any future Star Wars projects… I’m a student of an aesthetic long since gone. I say that with the exception of possibly heading up a restoration team for preservation of the true originals; that I would do in a second. I suppose if the powers that be came to me and said, “Do this-and-such Star Wars project the way you see it,” that would be entirely different… but what are the chances, really?
Lightsabre – What do you foresee for yourself in the future?
MV – I began as a composer, and it’s my first, best love. But along the way I’ve had a chance to work on a lot of marquee projects in many capacities, whether it’s as a visual effects artist, or director, or editor or sound designer… What I’ve learned is that I like to stretch out as many of my creative muscles as I can, but if someone came to me tomorrow and said, “pick one,” it’d be music, hands-down. Writing music for movies, or at least for projects where music plays that sort of role, has always been how I want to spend my life.
MV – It never ceases to amaze me how broad and profound an effect that first movie had on the world, that nearly thirty years later people are still endlessly compelled to talk about it… to share the experiences… I think it’s great. Star Wars provided a common bonding experience for vastly disparate cultures in the world, and sites like yours on the internet help to strengthen that bond. So, hat’s off!
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest. Just one final question. Artoo Detoo and Superman are playing chess in deep space by a red star, so Supes has no super powers to intimidate the astromech. Who has the smarts to outwit the other?
MV – Tough call. But Artoo would cheat, so my money’s on the astromech.
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk on 26th February 2006.