Legendary Filmmaker Joe Johnston Reflects on Designing 'Star Wars' and Directing Robin Williams

Johnston with an army of iconic Star Wars models

Over the past six months, movie fans and Star Wars nerds have had the rare opportunity to purchase on eBay the souvenirs and artwork from the personal collection of legendary special effects pioneer and film director Joe Johnston. 

The designer or co-designer of iconic characters (and vehicles) such as Yoda, Ewoks, Boba Fett, the Millennium Falcon, the AT-ATs and X-Wing planes, Johnston has an incredible archive from Star Wars alone, which fans have been eager to bid on. 

Over the course of 2014, Johnston has been selling not only from those films, but from his directorial efforts, which include favorites such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Jumanji; The Rocketeer; October Sky; Jurassic Park III; and Captain America: The First Avenger

Johnston, in New Zealand for pre-production on a new TNT show called Lumen, answered some questions via email about his auctions, Star Wars, his career, working with Robin Williams, and more. You can also check out his site at JoeJohnstonSketchbook.com

So, first off, why put these items up for auction?
I recently moved out of a house I’d been in for over twelve years. I had been storing things in boxes that I had moved from house to house since the ’80s. I had no idea what was in them, just that they were film-related. When I opened up the boxes and found all this stuff that I hadn’t seen or touched, some of it for over thirty years, I thought why should this stuff be sitting in boxes if there are fans out there who would love to have it in their collection?

A young Johnston working on a CR90 Corellian Corvette

What has been the hardest thing to part with? What won’t you part with?
I won’t part with the personal stuff. I have notes from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, telegrams (from before the days of email) wishing me luck on the first day of photography, things like that. I have storyboards that George drew in the very early days of Star Wars that I’ll never part with, even though they’re probably the most valuable things I have.

But I’m not selling the items to make money, it’s more to get it out in the world where it will be appreciated. I’ve let my original t-shirt and poster art go, which was probably the hardest thing to part with, but I don’t hang my own art in the house and I didn’t want to put it back into storage. I’m friends with several of the serious collectors who will allow me to have high quality scans made if I want to reproduce it, but I’m very happy that fans want to own the art and protect it far better than I have over the years.

Of all the iconic elements that you designed for Star Wars, which changed the most from initial draft to final product? How did Yoda develop? How about Boba Fett?
Yoda started as rough sketches that were finalized in a clay sculpt by Stuart Freeborn who, rumor has it, modeled Yoda’s features after his own. Whenever there was a collaboration with the English craftsman the design tended to evolve a little more than the homegrown ILM designs.

Boba Fett stayed pretty true to the original design on paper, the ones that Ralph [McQuarrie] and I had done. The character was originally a “Super-Trooper,” all in white like the stormtroopers, but George decided to make him a bounty hunter so I painted the suit up as a multi-colored, beat-up outfit. Loads of fun!

A storyboard showing Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi

Have you had any involvement in the new Star Wars? Has J.J. Abrams asked you to consult on any designs?
None whatsoever, but I did notice that he’s gone back to the original twin-nacelle X-wing design, much sleeker and aeronautic than the four-engine. Smart.

On your website you say that the making of Honey I Shrunk the Kids was “wonderful and terrible, beautiful and hideous, joyous and infuriating” — could you explain?
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was my first film. I had a studio that was a little nervous about a first time director with a budget that was already bulging at the seams. We shot the entire thing in Mexico City, which can be a beautiful place but with very corrupt systems in place. I had my rented house broken into…by the police!

Everyone took turns being very ill, including cinematographer Hiro Narita who got appendicitis. We had many wonderful and professional crew members but there was very little in the way of safety on the set and several injuries resulted. I could go on and on, but I’ll just say that I eventually came to look back fondly on some of my experiences in Mexico City. That said, I feel that I did my time and paid my debt to society. I wouldn’t go back there again.

What do you remember about working with Robin Williams on Jumanji? What did you think about this memorial?
Robin was a wonderful collaborator. He just wanted to make people smile and laugh whether it was on screen or off, but most of all he wanted to be sure he was doing all he could to make the film a success. He was always prepared to do what was on the page first, and then usually requested a take for himself where he just wanted to try something different, whether it belonged in the film or not.

The day we wrapped he gave me a little bronze goose, and said, “I looked all over Vancouver…that’s the closest I could find to a pelican”. I’ve seen him a few times over the years and he always greeted me as if we’d just walked off the set yesterday. I will miss him. The memorial is just one example of how everyone in the world will miss him just as much.

Drawings showing the Millennium Flacon and an X-Wing fighter

What’s been the hardest character or item to design in all of your career?
I’ll change the question slightly and say that the hardest design to bring to the screen was The Rocketeer. It was of course Dave Steven’s design, and Dave knew the design so well that he could tell us when an angle on the fin or a curve on the helmet was off by a millimeter. We constantly changed it to Dave’s specs to get it as close to the graphic novel design as possible.

In the process, Dave learned a few things about translating from 2D to 3D. He was very surprised at how something that worked on paper didn’t always translate to a three-dimensional sculpt. While it was at times frustrating, I’ll always be grateful for Dave’s insistence that it be just right. More than anything, it was Dave’s relentless monitoring of his design that made the Rocketeer feel like he stepped right off the page.

What’s the experience of working with Marvel studios like? Was there autonomy within such a big machine?
Captain America was probably the best experience I’ve had on a big movie. The production team, Kevin [Feige], Louis [D’Esposito] and Stephen [Broussard] are the most supportive producers I’ve ever worked with. They helped make the movie I wanted to make and pushed to make it better a few times when I was ready to settle. It didn’t feel like I was lacking autonomy because we all wanted the same thing. Those three guys are the reason Marvel has had its amazing success.

Do you think digital effects have become too dominant in our films? Are we missing practical effects?
Any visual effect that helps tell a better story is a good thing. When effects shout at the audience, “look at this brilliant effect!” I go out for popcorn. I don’t know if we miss practical effects specifically, but I think we miss some of the inherent charm in them. Digital effects have made it possible to put anything you can imagine on a movie screen, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

What can you tell me about Lumen and your pilot?
I can’t tell you much other than it’s for Dreamworks Television and TNT, it’s a great script by Chris Black, we’re assembling a wonderful cast at the moment, and we’re shooting in New Zealand in some of the most beautiful country on the planet.

Do you know anything about that proposed Jumanji reboot/remake?
I know nothing about it but if it happens I hope it’s done right. Jumanji had a lot of heart without being schmaltzy. Remakes sometimes lose sight of what made the original a hit.

Johnston making a secret cameo as Stormtrooper

Photo credits: Joe Johnston

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