In February 2010 I had the chance to ask Mr. Flyng some questions about his work, Star Wars, and getting Han Solo frozen in carbonite.
Enjoy his great stories!
How did you get started in the movie business as both an actor and working in the costume department?
I first appeared on camera in 1977, as a supporting artist on Quatermas and the Planet People, a rather under-budgeted and misconceived piece of drama, which, I fear, never made a big splash! This was at the recommendation of fellow actor friends filling in between jobs, by appearing as supporting artists. I went along and found myself wearing an army blanket with a hole cut in it to make a poncho and the least imaginative make-up available: lines painted with fingers on my cheeks and a bandana on the head. I, and my friends, trudging across a wet Black Park near Pinewood Studios looked like escapees from a badly dressed hippy commune! And that started it all off.
I had worked before on stage as an actor and had some experience as a singer in clubs and concert stages, since I had been trained from an early age as a professional singer.
From that point on, I appeared in further films and TV programs ad nauseam, often in small supporting roles with little dialogue and just as often dancing or singing for my supper. I never aspired to leading roles. I was always the jobbing supporting actor, a friend of the lead, in the background of historical epics like Clash of the Titans, The Last Days of Pompeii, Ragtime, A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court, Victor Victoria… the list is endless! Amongst those titles was also The Empire Strikes Back. And all the time, I was working also as an interpreter and tourist guide in London and further afield; working for a publisher; working in a disco and occasionally making sandwiches for members of the Royal Family and their staff! I was never going to be type-cast!!!
How did you get cast for Return of the Jedi?
And how were you assigned the roles of Stormtrooper and Imperial Officer?
Along the way, I also worked at the Royal National Theater in London, where I helped out in the box office and also made costumes, until the chief cutter had a breakdown and I stepped up and took over long enough to be offered my first film in the costume department. It transpired that the British TV station Channel 4 had just started transmitting and was commissioning their very first films for their ground-breaking series, Film on Four. Ironically, at the same time, I was also cast to appear in Return of the Jedi. I had no illusions about myself being anything of import, indeed, I arrived at Elstree Film Studios and was whisked into Wardrobe and dressed in a black jumpsuit, and there is a polaroid of me published on the web at that fitting. I went onto the stage and was turned around and taken straight back to be changed into an Imperial Officer, a Commander. By pure fluke, the actor cast to deliver the line for which I am known turned out to have a severe stutter and had been relaxed to his dressing room. The first Assistant Director, David Tomblin knew me of old, confirmed aloud I was an actor and a member of Equity and that is how I ended up with that line!
Alan Flyng as the Imperial Officer in Return of the Jedi
I read that you were one of the Stormtroopers that puts Harrison Ford in position in the carbon-freeze chamber. Can you share some memories of the filming of that scene?
On this particular set, you will have no doubt seen the images of the circular gantry surrounding the central lift platform. What you cannot see is that the area beneath was a tangle of steel scaffolding poles and heavy black electrical cables strewn all over the place. Lighting beneath the set was Spartan and moving through the area in armor was dangerous and difficult.
In addition, the access route to the set was a planking and scaffolding staircase which was permanently blocked by members of the crew trying to remain as close as possible to the set in stand-by mode and the cameras and attendant crews! Inevitably, we, the lesser mortals in this situation, were directed to make our entrance to the gantry level by ladder! This was even more taxing than navigating the area below as the ladders were not easy to climb with helmet in one hand or on the head! Nevertheless, it was achieved and over a period of a few days, as the action played out, it became necessary for us all to be brought into various pieces of interaction with the cast. We had marched them on on another set and we carried the action on down a flight of Perspex stairs, which were extremely slippery and we couldn’t see through our helmets!
My action culminated in manhandling Harrison Ford with a stuntman into position. Others, supplemented by stunts fought with Chewbacca as he resisted the action.
In which scenes can we see you in the Stormtrooper uniform besides the carbon-freeze chamber scene?
We worked on and off over many weeks in the Stormtrooper armor, often moving from one set to another with no idea of what the action would be or where it fitted into the storyline. I am never certain, viewing the film again, as to whether I am this one or that one, but, one wag on the web dubbed me in the carbon-freeze chamber ‘The Chunky One’! I was by no means the fattest of the Stormtroopers, but that name was probably very true!!! And that is also how I may be identified elsewhere. Each of us labored with our individual armor suits, which were all a stock size and we fitted into them, whether it was large enough or not! It split and flaked all the time and running repairs were often achieved with white camera tape, which is sometimes visible. But we all suffered with red, sore marks on out necks, arms and legs! Unlike the costumers out there today, we did not have the benefit of well fitted fiberglass, but had thin and sharp vacuum-molded armor made to fit a mannequin. It is also worth noting that on some days, when the sets were being moved around, we even were changed into Hoth Base rebels to run though the ice tunnels!
I’m sure a lot happened on the set. Can you tell any remarkable, unique, strange or funny things that happened?
Whilst the cameras were moved around to represent the point of view of the various actors, we, the Stormtroopers were directed to move forward or back or camera left or right to frame the shots best and to cheat angles. Inevitably one of our number fell from the gantry, which had no safety rails and that was a major wake-up call to all of us to be more careful, we had become somewhat over-confident. The action with Han Solo is as close as I came to any of the cast of The Empire Strikes Back. But that, as they say, is another story! I have written a full account of this scene on my website, which is still under construction, but which can still be seen at www.alanflyng.com.
Can you tell something about how Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi?
I had worked with many directors both old-school and new. I was intrigued to see the directors remain seated and staring at live monitor links. Most directors until this time stood or sat beside the camera, using their knowledge of the lenses and the framing, as agreed with the camera operators, to direct their actors. This, however, was more immediate and a lot more impersonal. I remember no directions coming across the floor, other than the first AD relaying quiet remarks from the monitors! On Return of the Jedi, I was directed personally, but, once again, it was Dave Tomblin who took me in hand. He made me go to all corners of the set and shout at the top of my voice and as fast as possible the offending line, which had proven impossible for the other actor! I must have shouted it over a dozen times, whilst the crew and supporting actors and cast stood around empathizing with me! But I performed it properly every time and when I came to the set and into position, I did it again and again, close-up, off-lines for Admiral Piett’s reactions and lines and I was finished and gone! I was not thanked by the director, but did get a round of applause! There is more to the story than that, but once again you can find out more on my site.
Have you met George Lucas? I’m always wondering what the people that have actually worked with him see him. Every actor I have asked this said that he’s great, a visionary…nothing but good words, while a lot of fans criticize him because of the prequels, the new digital effects he put in the Special Editions and say he doesn’t care about the fans. (I’m not one of them by the way; I think he’s a legend). What is your view on him?
I am sorry to tell that I never met him! I am not even aware that he was present when I was working! I wished I had, as I am as much a fan as the next nerd! So, I can only give you another fan’s perspective! I am in awe of the young George Lucas, who took a story and turned it into a visionary saga. That he had no money to speak of with which to produce the first film, is an understatement! I must say, however, that that vision is as much the work and vision of the world-class constructors, costume technicians and designers and the innovative cameramen with whom he had the great fortune to work! With the success of the first three films produced and screened to huge acclaim came a call for more. Mr. Lucas came up with the prequels, which although they benefit from all the technological wizardry available since the first films were made, seem to lack some of the darkness and drive of the first three. That is just my opinion and I am sure it will provoke a furious response! But I cannot fail to say that, in all, he has left us with a legacy of great film-making and elevated science fiction to the place it always deserved, but seldom had the budgets to achieve. I personally thank him!
Over the last 30 years you have worked with movie costumes. What was the most difficult movie you ever did regarding costumes?
I have worked in all sorts of genres and all sizes of production. Nearly every film has a ‘money-shot’, by which I mean a scene buzzing with crowds, stunts, special effects or casts – or indeed all of them at once! From organizing a film like Ronin and a half million dollar budget I have mapped out on a sheet of paper on arrival in Paris and delivered within $1000 under-budget, to working on Ian McKellen’s Richard III, or Zeffirelli’s Hamlet with Mel Gibson etc., they all have presented their difficulties! I suppose I would have to say that the most challenging for me must be one of my earliest films in costume, Ellis Island. I was a dresser/wardrobe assistant and was placed in the position of dressing the entire male cast and extras. In those days, men did not dress women, nor vice versa! On many days I would have an ailing Richard Burton, Peter Riegert, Greg Martin, Stubby Kaye, Ben Vereen and 100 other male actors to dress in evening dress or tuxedos with self-tie bow-ties and then a crowd of five hundred men in a theater audience. I would have cramp after two hours of inserting studs, cufflinks and tying one bow-tie after another. It is worth noting that we washed and ironed shirts ourselves after filming every day! This is not the norm in the United States and shocks many actors when they come to work here! To a young and inexperienced dresser it was daunting, but I did it, day in and day out for five months. I learnt an awful lot in a very short time on that picture and I will always be grateful to Barbara Lane, the costume designer and Rita Wakeley the costume supervisor.
Suppose you could dress any character from the Star Wars movies: who would you choose? Or: who needs a change of clothes in your opinion?)
I am in as much awe of the designs of John Mollo (with whom I also worked on Revolution and the Hornblower series for TV) and his successors as the next man and, as a fan, I accept the universe that is Star Wars exactly as it is. But, I might have chosen a different plastic for the armor in light of my experiences wearing it!
What are you up to right now? Do you have new projects coming up?
I am not engaged in any films at the moment, as production has dropped off badly in the UK with the recession. I am making personal appearances in another guise, that of King Henry VIII of England; a role I have played on and off for many years. I am also booked to quite a few signings and appearances at conventions this year, having only started last year. I am talking to a film company at the moment about future projects and I await the release of my last film, Re-Uniting the Rubins, starring Timothy Spall, Rhona Mitra, James Callis and Honor Blackman this Spring!
You recently did your first ever conventions. Did you enjoy these? And what do you think of all the fans that have you sign photos and memorabilia?
I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting other fans and they have been surprised, I think, to find I am as eager to meet them! In Germany I made a lot of friends and keep in touch with them as much as I can, mainly through Facebook. But chatting to real fans still enhances my experiences in two successive Star Wars films with the intelligent and knowledgeable questions they pose!
How do you look back at Star Wars?
For over twenty-five years I have worked successfully behind the scenes on very many celebrated and worthy films, but the memory of my days in front of the camera are still fresh and happy for the most part. My contribution to Star Wars seems small to me, but I am very proud to be a part of that great legacy!