Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our one hundred and fourteenth guest was a producer with a pedigree of classic films – Robert Watts.
Lightsabre – Which is your favourite Star Wars character?
RW – Well, there is only one that it can be, and he’s in Return of the Jedi and he’s the co-pilot of this two-legged walker when the bad guys are attacking the bunker. Chewbacca gets on of of the walker and yanks him and throws him out onto the ground. And there is actually a trading card, he’s the co-pilot of that thing, he’s not the captain. Now, that’s me, I played that part, and the other one is Richard Marquand the director. But the reason I’m going to use it is for this, which might be interesting for your Lightsabre audience, I don’t know. I didn’t even know Lucasfilm had received a trading card with my character on it. I discovered it because some fan had got my address and sent it to autograph. I said ‘Bloody hell.’ And the character I played had been given the title of Lieutenant Watts. Now, let’s call it Leftenant as we’re in England. That’s the rank that I hold in the British Army right now because you never lose it. I was a second lieutenant in national service, but after two years you get automatic promotion. So not only is it my name, it’s my rank as well.
Lightsabre – That’s got to be a first?
RW – Well, I don’t think anybody else has got that. I don’t know what Richard Marquands was, but poor Richard’s dead anyway. So, you asked me my favourite character and I probably would have said Yoda, but you know…for the purposes of this, because he’s only on screen for about 1.6 seconds. Because he has his own name and his own rank.
RW – I’m really glad I did it. I didn’t know it was going to happen until that day we did it. Anyway, do you want to go through the questions as listed?
Lightsabre – We can do. We’ll probably go wandering off on tangents anyway.
RW – Well maybe, yes. Now, can I ask you a question?
Lightsabre – Of course you can.
RW – What do you think of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
Lightsabre – You are very perceptive you know, that was going to be one of my questions.
RW – Well I was sure you were going to ask me and I’ll answer it.
Lightsabre – I’ll tell you what I thought, I really enjoyed it. I was lucky enough to go to the press screening on Leicester Square on the Tuesday.
RW – Blimey. Do you know what? I paid to go see it, nobody even invited me to a f****** screening.
Lightsabre – Really?
RW – No, I was supposed to have been but I never did.
RW – Oh yeah I’ve got that, they gave it to me.
Lightsabre – Did you read the little preface that Spielberg wrote?
RW – Err, I haven’t actually read it yet.
Lightsabre – I only got it yesterday myself. I interviewed the author about a month ago.
RW – Jonathan Rinzler, I spoke to him about a year ago when he sent me a copy of the making of the original Star Wars.
Lightsabre – Yeah, that’s a fantastic book. But Spielberg gives you a little mention in his preface, which I thought was very nice.
RW – Well I suppose I’d better read it, hadn’t I? I suppose I feel like yesterday’s man, you know. I suppose I am because it’s nothing to do with me. I laughed myself silly, it was the most bizarre experience of my life because it was very familiar, particularly when Karen Allen showed up again. And yet it wasn’t, because I hadn’t seen any of it, and I didn’t know the script, didn’t know anything about it at all, so it was the most bizarre experience for me in a way. I was looking at something that was totally familiar. I loved every minute of it, I laughed myself silly all the way through because of what it was. Thoroughly enjoyed it, great rollercoaster ride, and nobody does that better than Steven.
Lightsabre – As a summer action movie it worked.
RW – Oh yeah, but Steven does that, he’s the best at that. So, where are we going to start here? Oh, it starts ‘Robert, welcome to Lightsabre‘.
Lightsabre – Robert, welcome to Lightsabre. Ok, question one. You’ve been involved with some of the biggest and high profile movies of all time. As a producer, overseeing the mechanics of making these films, how high-octane is that life? It must be pretty thrilling to be involved in these big budget blockbuster movies.
RW – Yes, it’s what I always wanted to do and yes it is, exciting and everything like that. But it’s relative, it’s what we do. I think the easiest way I can describe it…no, this doesn’t even fit the bill precisely. When doing it, you’re not always objectifying what you’re doing all the time, you’re doing what you’re doing and it’s f****** hard work. Long hours, very complex, particularly Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. Very complex, and so you’re running on a kind of thing that’s going on right the way through the film and I always get the sense that people observe you at premieres and things like that, but it’s a job. It’s what we do, like what you do.
Lightsabre – We only see the end result.
RW – Yeah, and it’s really difficult to quantify it from a perspective of somebody from the outside looking in. It’s better to be right in the middle of it because it’s what you do. It’s your job, and if you do it ok then the whole thing is the same in the whole entertainment game. If you do it ok you get another job. Arriving with George Lucas on Star Wars, I honestly didn’t appreciate it was going to turn into the longest period of employment. Never being permanently employed if you like, I wasn’t then, but the films overlapped. Once Star Wars came out we all disappeared, and George said ‘Well, if it is successful we’ll make another couple.’ And the Millennium Falcon, we put it in containers on the back lot of the studio and one of two things were going to happen, we were gonna put it out and rebuild it or we were gonna junk it. The film turned into something that I don’t think any of us were expecting. I always thought it would be successful, I thought it would do James Bond business which was high end at that time. It went right through the roof, we wrote the gross book. And it still is a phenomenon.
I’d not been to one of these Star Wars conventions until last year when I got invited to Celebration 4 in LA, the five day one. I went to the London one, and one in Paris and Dusseldorf, so I’m a bit more experienced at it. What I hadn’t fully appreciated was my half brother Jeremy (Bulloch) plays Boba Fett, I got him the job and he’s always been off on these thing all the time, and I thought ‘Bloody hell!’ Then suddenly I get this invitation and I realised Celebration 4 is what was called A New Hope, which is what we called Star Wars, and it was the 30th anniversary. And so they dug all the old zombies out of the graveyard and brought us on.
So I’ve done other ones since, and the rest of it and I’m actually quite surprised because that level of fandom really didn’t exist when we made the first three. They didn’t have anything like that at all. It began really at the end of the first three, and now there’s a kind of cult of celebrity around. I even got bloody mobbed at the one in London, at the ExCel. That was something I never expected to happen in my life. I did the last gig, Warwick Davis and I, I was talking about the original trilogy and we went backstage and the whole place was closing, they were telling everybody to leave, and I said goodbye to my minder inside because she was having a little wrap party. And I walked outside, all the fans were out there who’d been at the gig I’d just done. It’s 500 yards to the hotel I was staying and it took me an hour to get there. I never expected that to ever happen to me in my life. Bloody hell.
Lightsabre – Did you enjoy it though?
RW – It was strange, I actually was sweating because they all came up and they all want photographs. You know those tags you have round your neck at those things? The only way I amused myself, there were people who had ones that said’ Three Day Adult’. So I said, ‘What happens on the fourth day, do you turn back into a child?’ And then the ones I liked best, because it was Sunday, the last day, the little kids came up and they had ones on that said ‘Sun Child’ written on them. Oh, I said, so you’re the Sun Child are you, wow! They all looked at me like I was completely mad. That’s how I got through it, until after about 40 minutes the head minder came running out, I told the security guys ‘I never thought this would happen to me.’
And then it happened again in Paris. Rick McCallum and I did one together on stage and we walked out there across the street to this little cafe across the street. It took us an hour to get across the street. I walked out, because I was out there talking to Patrice, who’s the guy from the French fan club and Rick had gone and I said’ I’ll see you in the cafe opposite, we’ll have a drink.’ I walked out and Rick was surrounded, and then they saw me as well. One hour.
They’re so sweet, they’re lovely the Star Wars fans. They’re mad.
RW – Oh well, look, it was a job. I’m always passionate about what we do, it’s really nice when it turns into something, this is something that don’t often happen, does it? By the way in February I went to a get together of people from 2001. I’d never been to one in my life, and it was done in a place at the Elephant and Castle which is an art college down there who have the Stanley Kubrick archive, all his sketches. We showed up there, the American guy who organised it, who I know because I’d met him, he’s writing a book believe it or not about the making of 2001. Bloody hell! So I go there and he’s got us badges for us all, not these things you hang round your necks because it wasn’t an event like that. But he made the badges that looked exactly like the civilian badges that were used in 2001. But the pictures that he’d put on each of our badges were pictures of us 40 years ago. I was 27. Well actually it was more than 40 years ago because I’m 70 now, but I’m looking at it now because it’s on my wall there and it’s me aged 27. Bloody hell. Maybe somebody will ask me to a James Bond one one day. That was a long time ago.
Lightsabre – Which Bonds did you work on?
RW – Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. Shot in Japan, my job was Japan on that, I was in Japan for six months. Right off 2001 on to that. Anyway, come on, what about these questions?
Lightsabre – Ok, the questions. Obviously you worked closely with Lucas and Spielberg on the Indiana Jones films. With Lucas being a producer and Spielberg being very hands-on, where was your place in that relationship?
RW – Well, I was producing the film physically, in other words line producing it, and Steven really professional, really exciting to work with. George used to sort of…we didn’t see a lot of George, George tends to come when we went to a nice location.
Lightsabre – Ahh, smart man.
RW – And so he would come in and out, but Steve’s directing it, trust me to produce it. I had Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy on Steven’s side, and so George wasn’t there all the time and like on Last Crusade, he came when we were going to Venice and on to Jordan. A good idea George. They were great movies to do, really hard work. Really exciting. To be honest I preferred them to Star Wars in a way because they were period related. On Star Wars we had to create everything, we went to real places in a sense, we weren’t pretending it was a bloody other planet and so I found them really exciting and Steven a really exciting director to work with too.
Lightsabre – Is he as enthusiastic as he appears?
RW – Oh yeah. Christ Almighty, when we did Raiders of the Lost Ark, when I first read the script it was when we were finishing The Empire Strikes Back – bloody hell, this is busy, because there were things in that script that weren’t actually in the film when we made it, some were moved into other Indy films. So I like always to do the first schedule myself, early days, so I scheduled the film over 23 weeks and I took it to Steven.
Steven had just come off 1941, which had gone way over budget and I was concerned that his reputation was for going way over budget, so I spread the film out a bit and he took my 23 weeks and took 6 weeks out of it. He said ‘No, I’m going to do it in 17 weeks.’ So I went to George and I said ‘George, he’s taken 6 weeks out of my bloody schedule. I just want to know, are you vulnerable George?’ And George said ‘He’ll be alright, don’t worry, don’t worry.’ So I took six weeks out of the schedule down to 17 weeks. We shot it in 15. I had to go to the art department and go ‘Help! We’re ahead of schedule.’ To make sets. We shot it two weeks under schedule, and I’ve never seen a film shot like that. That energy that’s in the shooting of Raiders, actually you can feel in the film, because it’s right there.
Lightsabre – It’s a fast paced movie, there’s never been an action film quite like it since, not even the other Indy’s.
RW – Well it kind of created its own genre whilst echoing others. They’re still knocking out the old Bonds aren’t they?
Lightsabre – Well the new one’s out this November with Daniel Craig, Quantum of Solace. What did you think of Casino Royale?
RW – Oh yeah, that was the original book that Broccoli and Salztman didn’t have the rights to, that’s why it was made in another form earlier. I liked it, it’s really hard, they started in the 60’s, and to think they’re still going. Bloody hell.
Lightsabre – And Star Trek is back next year.
RW – Well I never did any of those, although I did meet Gene Roddenberry once though, right after Star Wars he asked to see me, he was going to do a film and we talked about it and it never happened and then he died.
Lightsabre – Working on The Empire Strikes Back must have been a strange show, after the huge success of Star Wars. What was the atmosphere like on the set? I asked this question of Irvin Kershner when I spoke to him last year…
Lightsabre – He was amazing. We spoke and he’s so direct and so clear, it was fantastic, it was great fun talking. Big ambition of mine to speak to him, obviously. But coming off the back of Star Wars and into Empire, sequels weren’t the thing then were they?
RW – The most important thing when we approached Empire was to make it clear that we hadn’t got more money than sense, because of the other film. It was really important that we approached it totally professionally, because when they made Star Wars, I mean bloody hell, a company called Star Wars Productions Ltd, a British company, was formed for it, and people would go ‘Star Wars? Star what?’. ‘Star Wars!’, no, it’s STAR WARS, so between that and Empire there was a big shift.
So, it was essential that we didn’t give the impression that we had more money than sense, because that’s not the case at all. And Empire actually did go over schedule and over budget a bit but, conversely probably of the three cinematically it’s the best. Although my favourite will always be the original because of the impact it created. The opening shot with the Rebel Blockade Runner and then the Star Destroyer behind it, I mean Christ, nobody had ever seen anything like it. So that was the impact of that. Kersh is a very good director, no question and I think cinematically he delivered up the best of the three, but where do you place those kind of things? I have to like the third one because I was in it.
Lightsabre – The best 1.6 seconds in the movie.
RW – No, to get back to your question we obviously had to do what we always do. Budget the film for what it’s going to cost and we did it. Yeah, it did go a bit over, that’s because we went a bit off schedule but it was highly successful and made a lot of money.
Lightsabre – Wasn’t there a fire on set and one of the stages burned down?
RW – That was Stanley Kubrick on The Shining, he burnt one of the stages down. I was already going after him and his producers saying ‘Come on, I need this stage.’ Stanley, oh man, talk about over schedule. Then one of the stages burned down. But we made it.
Lightsabre – When did you make the step up from associate producer to full producer credit?
Lightsabre – I remember reading about that in Bantha Tracks.
RW – Oh god yes, I remember being interviewed for Bantha Tracks around that time. Is that still going?
Lightsabre – Yeah, in a different form now, it’s online now.
RW – Yours is online?
Lightsabre – Lightsabre? Yeah. Ten years nearly.
RW – Really? Well done. Right, now then, where did we get to?
Lightsabre – There’s some new Star Wars TV shows on the way, a live action one and an animated one. Are you curious about them, would you be interested to see what they do with it?
RW – Oh, hundred percent, I’m always interested to see it. I really loved that thing, Blue Harvest, which was the name we all made up, for that fake film when we were shooting Return of the Jedi. But that one, Family Guy, I’m not familiar with the show but I watched it and it was fascinating because the sets were totally accurate. And it was like, hang on a minute, I thought ‘I could walk around on that set’, but it was an animated version of it.
Lightsabre – Well the guy that makes it, Seth MacFarlane is a huge Star Wars fan.
RW – Oh yeah, well I saw the documentary stuff as well. They’re going to do the other two, so they said, so we’ll see what they look like.
Lightsabre – It will be interesting, when they do the live action one, I wonder how many old familiar faces are going to crop up and have little cameo roles. I wonder if Lieutenant Watts is going to turn up in a scene somewhere (laughs)
RW – Well, who knows! Probably not right now, but you never know. I’m not retired or anything, I’ve got a new company coming online this year, so I’m going back into production. I really look forward to seeing those things. Now the next question, ‘Which of the Star Wars characters do you feel the most affinity for’, well I’ve told you, it had to be Lieutenant Watts.
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your other interests away from film and Star Wars and everything else, what other hobbies have you got?
RW – Well, my entire life’s been devoted recently to putting this new company together, but I spent many years practising shamanism. That is quite a long subject, but it’s a lot of understandings about thing that we are going to introduce into the films that we will be making fairly soon. I’ve been studying…well, you don’t study it, you practise it for about 19 years now, ever since I left Lucasfilm.
Lightsabre – What brought you to that, what piqued your interest in that?
RW – Well it just sort of happened to me really. Like those things do, it’s like my career, I didn’t set out to meet George Lucas, it just happened. And I think if you tune in to your life properly it happens the way you want it to. I’ve got no complaints.
Lightsabre – You’re pleased with the way everything went?
RW – Yeah, but I’ll be even more pleased when I see how we get the new company up and running and into production.
Lightsabre – So big plans?
RW – Well, wait and see Mark. So that kind of covers ‘what lies ahead for you in the future,’ the question I’m looking at right now. So basically you know, I could spend the rest of my life travelling round all these Star Wars conventions giving talks about the past, I don’t really want to do that because that’s like stepping into God’s waiting room.
Lightsabre – So there’s a lot to look forward to, a lot on the horizon?
RW – Well, you know, I went to see Dougie Slocombe who’s the director of photography on the first three Indiana Jones films, and I went to see him about four weeks ago. He’s 95 years old now and, you know, when we made the last Indy he was 75. And the production designer was 76. And I saw Dougie, poor Dougie, he’s almost blind now and the rest of it, and I went to see him in his flat, and his mind is as sharp as anything. So there you go, there’s plenty of time.
Now, this final question. ‘Kubrick, Spielberg and Lucas are standing at the edge of the gang plank of a pirates ship. The sea is swarming with sharks, electric eels, crocodiles and man eating lions.’ F*** knows what they’re doing in the middle of the ocean. ‘They have only one chance to save themselves from this terrible fate and, using the miracle of movie magic, are able to conjure forth one of their movie creations to help them out. What do they conjure, and which one escapes the plank?’ Here’s my answer. George escapes the plank because he brings Yoda in, and Yoda has one phrase that says ‘There is no try, there’s only do.’ And so he does it.
Steven brings E.T in, but E.T is constant and goes home.
Now Kubrick, I thought about him. If he’s got half an ounce of sense, our Stanley would bring in the Starchild from 2001. He will choose the Starchild at the end, beautiful model made by a lovely girl called Liz Moore who was killed in a car crash. And we photographed kids for that Starchild originally, and so I think if you had the right idea he should have chosen that, but I think he made a mistake, he chose the HAL computer. And that went bonkers, so that was that. George chose Yoda, so he wins.
Lightsabre – George wins.
RW – Of course he does. I did six films with George, I’ve only done five with Steven and only one with Kubrick.
Lightsabre – It’s the loyalty thing is it?
RW – George is the most wonderful person, he treated me so well and with such fairness and I’ve got nothing but admiration for him and everything he’s achieved, it’s absolutely brilliant. But hey, that’s not to knock Steven either, I worked for his company too on Roger Rabbit, and an animated feature I did which he and I produced together. Those are the only two I did for Amblin. But I did three with Steven but they were George, Indiana Jones.
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk in three parts on 13th July, 10th August and 7th September 2008 in has been edited from the original for length and clarity.