Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our forty-third guest was the puppeteer behind Max Rebo, the Gamorrean Guard, the eyes of Nien Nunb and more – Simon J Williamson.
Lightsabre – Simon, welcome to Lightsabre.
SJW – Thank you, Mark, it’s nice to be asked
Lightsabre – What has it been like to be a part of the Star Wars phenomenon?
SJW – Well, because of my work on Dark Crystal, which we finished shooting at the same studio a few months before, I was already known to them, so they asked me to get involved. So, it was flattering and exciting. You can imagine the kind of momentum Star Wars had developed by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, and the level of anticipation being generated for Revenge of the Jedi – as it was called at the time – was huge.
I had also only been acting professionally for less than 18 months, and it was very high profile work to get. I had always hoped that acting work would take me all over the world, and although that has happened less than I would have hoped, in the last year and a half, the world of fan conventions has also opened up for me and that adds another level of excitement and pride. I’m now invited to places such as the USA, Europe and Japan. To have been involved in something that still resonates, so many years later, is extraordinary. I think George Lucas tapped into something very special, and it’s humbling to be part of something so huge and so meaningful to so many people.
Lightsabre – Your work as a puppeteer has been featured in numerous films including Dark Crystal for Jim Henson, a trio of Muppet movies, and Little Shop of Horrors for Yoda himself Frank Oz, yet you are internationally best remembered for your role as Max Rebo in Return of the Jedi. How do you feel about that?
SJW – I read something on the internet along the lines of if The Simpsons had a favourite character it would be Max Rebo, and that Max was “cool!”. What more could you ask for in life, to be proclaimed “cool”, it’s so … cool. But seriously, he’s a very memorable character. In a Muppet film I’m likely to have to describe my involvement as something like “Er, I was the third chicken from the left when the horse and cart went by. no not that one, THAT one..”), and in Little Shop of Horrors I’m part of a plant! Max, however, is instantly identifiable, memorable…cool. Having said that, an actor’s face does need to be recognised to generate more work, and it’s a little difficult if you’re wearing any kind of mask. But thankfully I have also played parts on stage and TV where my face got seen.
Now, in the latest incarnation of my career, as a writer-director I hope one day I’ll be as well known for that as for playing Max. Frank Oz will always be Yoda (and Miss Piggy), but he’s also celebrated as a director, with some great work such as Little Shop of Horrors, Bowfinger and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He even got to direct Marlon Brando in The Score.
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your career. How did you begin in entertainment and what led you to where you are today?
SJW – I originally wanted to be a scientist, studying Zoology at Cardiff University, in Wales. While I was there, I also took up karate and competed in tournaments for the university team. As it turned out, my martial arts-influenced movement style appealed to a number of physical theatre companies, and I started working with them. By the time I got my degree and qualified as a zoologist I had already fallen under the spell of the “Dark Side”, or “theatre” as it’s sometimes known.
I came to London, auditioning for a show in an Off West End theatre, was offered it and moved from Wales to London overnight. I’ve lived here ever since. One day there was an advert in The Stage newspaper for “Equity Actors, Dancers and Mimes” (Equity is the actors’ union) to work on a groundbreaking new film being made by Jim Henson, then known for The Muppets. The kind of work described in the advert was somewhat vague, but the film turned out to be The Dark Crystal, and after an intense series of workshop auditions with Swiss mime Jean Pierre Amiel, I was chosen to be one the ten “mime artists”. I was in the first group of 4, who worked all the way through the film; the other 6 joined us a few months later. We were a separate group from the regular Muppet performers, who did most of their performing upright, (ie The Skekses) whereas we were usually bent over in excruciatingly uncomfortable positions as the Mystics (UrRu). While we were in pre-production and rehearsal for Dark Crystal, they were also filming The Great Muppet Caper at the studio, so we mimes were called in to do some background muppets whenever there was a puppet-heavy sequence. Jim Henson would give us puppetry workshops once a week. He was a man dedicated to his craft, as well as running a big organisation with benevolence, humour and fairness. I was privileged to be at his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and to see and hear St Paul’s subjected to an irreverent chorus of Muppets in full voice was incredibly moving.
The route to Return of the Jedi was quite simple. Having been in Dark Crystal, which had been also been filmed at Elstree Studios, when they started pre-production on Jedi, I was asked to come on board. In between I had done a BBC Shakespeare play. So it was a busy time for me.
Lightsabre – Given your many roles on the set of Return of the Jedi you must have gained quite an insight into the production. How did it feel to be working on what was then the most anticipated film in movie history?
SJW – I knew my way around Elstree after Dark Crystal knew something about puppeteering on large scale film, after nearly a year in production. But at the end of the day, you can’t allow the reputation and scale of Star Wars to faze you, every scene has things which need to be achieved, so you concentrate on the work, moment by moment, beat by beat.
But the puppets or creatures, particularly on the Jabba set, were secondary to the main cast. I did enjoy terrifying Howard Kazanjian, though, the first time I got into the Gamorrean Guard costume. They had had some background artists (extras) in the costume and some of them had fainted on set – so myself and another mime, Hugh Spight, decided to show Howard Kazanjian how a Gamorrean Guard could move and how extreme and violent they could get. We got to play most of the Gamorrean Guards from then on. So there was a lesson there in pushing oneself forward. Sometimes on a busy set, you can get lost and forgotten, so it doesn’t pay to be too shy about showing what you can do.
Lightsabre – Working on Return of the Jedi you covered a number of alien characters, from Max and the Gamorrean Guard in Jabba’s Palace and on the Skiff to a Mon Calamarian officer during the Death Star battle. What were those various environments like to work in?
SJW – Jabba’s palace was hot, sweaty and smoky, the dungeons were. hot and sweaty, the sail barge was… hot and sweaty.. the Mon Calamari set was .. a breeze, so nice not to be in a costume that was as tight as Max Rebo and The Gamorrean Guard. I have to say I always love being on a large, well-built set. The first one I ever worked on was The Mystic Valley on Dark Crystal. Although, in the prequels, George has firmly gone down the path of using CGI sets, for me there’s nothing like being on a proper set. They all have great atmosphere that can’t help but stimulate the imagination and make the acting richer. To have characters and objects to which you can physically relate and touch, on a set, is so much easier than blue screen.
In one sequence in Jabba’s Palace, I was a Gamorrean Guard (Gartogg) looking down on myself as another Gamorrean Guard (Jubnuk), falling through the floor and being attacked by Rancor, the pit monster, and across the room, there I am as Max Rebo. Schizophrenia has never been such fun. Ultimately, ‘though, being inside a costume or manipulating a puppet, that becomes your immediate environment.
My work on Dark Crystal prepared me for Max Rebo. Although Max is bulky, you needed to be agile and fit to get inside the costume and then have the stamina to cope with the heat etc. With the Gamorrean Guards, I was able to take off the head in between shots, to cool down. Picture the scene – my Gamorrean Guard with a cooling fan wedged between my propped-open jaws … and a hairdryer thrust down the front of my trousers – sounds like a night in a Soho nightclub – (or so I hear). It’s a lot of fun playing large, lumbering, stupid characters with mucus dribbling out of their noses. I used to get rid of my aggression by doing karate, but as a Gamorrean Guard I rarely have to attack anyone, I just threaten to dribble all over them. Very effective.
On the Rebel Alliance set, the Mon Calamari were basically humanoid and upright, and the scope for doing something special with movement was much less. You can’t fight the naturalistic style implied by the costume. However, the hands were like a cross between a spare rib from a chinese restaurant and a flipper, and I used a sort of neurotic, panicky undulating movement – particularly when they were under attack.
Lightsabre – Did Max actually have to learn where the keys would be on his instrument, or was it all added during post?
SJW – I can’t play a note on any keyboards – even my typing is slow and frequently inaccurate. However, research is everything, so I talked to a musician friend and made some basic decisions on where the various keys would be, and took home a tape of the music so I could practice the night before the shoot. What you may not know about Max is that, he was a half-puppet and had no legs, so I assumed Max played the organ with his feet. Therefore when he was not at his keyboards I imagined he hopped around on his two “hands”. It was only when pictures of a full length Max Rebo appeared in books and comics that I realised he had legs, too. The discovery was traumatic and I subsequently required much therapy.
Lightsabre – The Jawas soon became fan favourites, appearing later in Return of the Jedi and the prequel movies. What do you think it was about them that endeared them to Star Wars fans?
SJW – They are sooooooo ‘lovable’ and ‘cuddly’!!!!!!
Lightsabre – What would you change about your Star Wars experience if you could go back and do it again?
SJW – In view of my present intention to direct, I would make sure I asked a lot more technical questions of the crew and particularly the camera department. I’d have paid much closer attention to all Richard Marquand’s choices as a director (although it would have been impossible from inside Max Rebo, as I couldn’t see out of the costume), and I would have taken more addresses and telephone numbers from anyone with whom I would conceivably collaborate in the future. I’d also make sure I kept my call sheets – a lot of the fans are keen to see them. I’d probably ask for my Gamorrean guards to have more drool. Oh, and I would have allowed Carrie Fisher to fondle Max Rebo’s trunk. She kept on asking…
Lightsabre – As an accomplished puppeteer you must have been in your element on the set of Jedi. For a film mixing puppets with actors, unlike The Dark Crystal which was entirely puppets, what was the atmosphere on the set like?
SJW – I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of allowing humans on set with us puppets, but Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher generally coped well. Puppets are notoriously more temperamental than humans, and, apart from Carrie’s abovementioned constant desire to grope Max Rebo and all the Gamorrean Guards, there was little disruption. I’d have to say the actors were “almost like professionals”. As for Jabba… well, I’d prefer not to comment, under the circumstances. I want to live. No, seriously, they were very different films and I’m glad to have experienced both.
Dark Crystal was one of the most exciting and unusual projects I have ever been involved with, and physically very demanding. We had to train like athletes and have special diets to minimise any circulation problems from being in painful and crouched positions for hours at a time. Compared to the Mystics (my character was UrSol, The Chanter) in Dark Crystal, playing Max Rebo in Return of the Jedi, although hot and uncomfortable inside the costume, I was largely upright and it was therefore less exhausting to maintain a performance take after take.
Lightsabre – You have broadened your scope into the field of directing, tackling a short film called The Right Hand Man, about a card game in Cardiff. Tell us something about that?
SJW – It’s actually the third film I’ve made, but this is the first I felt was good enough for exposure internationally. The Right Hand Man had its World Premiere at DragonCon – which is a big Sci Fi /Fantasy Convention in Atlanta. It’s a rites of passage story about a young man who is eager to learn the techniques of all about becoming a card-sharp, But he gets overconfident and cocky and is taught a lesson – not so much a lesson in cards as in life. It’s a comedy drama and is a little under 18 minutes long. I have some stills and a synopsis on my website (www.simonjwilliamson.co.uk). It was at the Cardiff Screen Festival, too (it’s set in Wales) and it’s also making an appearance at The Cannes Film Festival this year. I’d like to make a film about the convention circuit, but the first section of Galaxy Quest does it so well, I’m not sure there’s room for anything else, just yet. But maybe one day.
Lightsabre – The Star Wars TV series is due to take off in the next few years. Would you be interested in a position on the show?
SJW – Well, because of my directing plans, acting is generally on hold for a while, but I’d love to get the opportunity to direct an episode or two… so if George or Rick McCallum are at The Cannes Film Festival this year, The Right Hand Man can be seen there, and I’m attending the Festival from 18th to 23rd May, to drum up interest in a proposed feature film. But any opportunity to take part in the Star Wars TV series, in front of or behind the camera, would be difficult to resist.
There’s also talk of a Dark Crystal sequel, and my character, UrSol, is meant to be heavily featured. But news of this project seems to have run dry.
Lightsabre – What do you foresee in the future for yourself?
SJW – I’d like to make the above mentioned feature film, called Manxed. It’s a comedy about an actor who appears in a low budget film, which indirectly causes a series of other disasters in his life. It’s a little like Martin Scorcese’s After Hours in tone. After that I have several other film and television projects to make, and I look forward to whatever good surprises and opportunities life may bring – working with new people and old colleagues. And I’d like to continue my foreign travels to Star Wars and SciFi/Fantasy Conventions.
Lightsabre – A quick question about our site. Any comments?
SJW – Yes, stop making other sites look bad. It’s not fair, Mark. It’s full of great stuff and I like the artwork.
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest on Lightsabre. Just one final question. Max Rebo, Gartogg and a Muppet are guests on a cookery show. The host asks them to concoct the wildest dish they can think of. Which one comes up with the winner?
SJW – Max is your typical band member, he puts all his energy into his music and the thought of spending time concocting any kind of dish is anathema to him. Besides, the food he eats has to be sucked up through his feet – so we’re talking liquid or, at the very least, “sludge”, when it comes to Max’s Snacks. He’s a wild musician, not a cook. He might try and smuggle in some ready made Wookiee Cookies and Yoda Soda and get disqualified, though.
Gartogg is, frankly, a bit slow mentally and not too hot at spelling either. Should he ever go anywhere near a cookbook, he would misunderstand. If it said “baste”, he’d bash, if it suggests “frying” he’d start flapping his arms, and he’d probably get his hands stuck in the liquidiser, as well I mean, it’s possible he would come up with the most extraordinary dish in the universe, but it would be pure luck. And with the notorious Gamorrean appetite, he would eat it before the judge came round to award him his prize, thus destroying the evidence. Hopeless.
My vote for winning cook would be a Muppet, but not all muppets – I mean, Animal would just throw all the ingredients around the room, for example. The particular Muppet winner would be, of course, The Swedish Chef, with a concoction called Yeti Spaghetti, with a Fizzy Bear sauce. The ingredients are secret and difficult to pronounce, (unless you speak Swedish) but it is wild.
Runner up would be Gonzo, with his Gonzo Gumbo. Of course it’s not the winning that’s important, it’s the baking-part. (GROAN)
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk on 7th May 2006.