George Lucas asked Michael Smuin, founding director of Smuin Ballet, to choreograph the scene from Jabba’s Palace that he wanted to drop in for the re-release of Return of the Jedi. Michael recommended several of his dancers, myself included, and so we auditioned for the casting director, Robin Gurland. Michael, who passed away in April 2007, and George were friends and George would often come to our ballet performances, since we’re located in San Francisco, where Lucasfilm is also based.
Can you share some of your memories regarding the shooting of the Return of the Jedi scenes and your time on the set?
Surprisingly we didn’t spend more than the better part of two days on the set, one day for a dress rehearsal and then a second day of shooting. We had rehearsals in a studio when the dance was choreographed prior to shooting . When we went up to ILM where the shooting took place, we had a practice rehearsal on a friday. George was directing things that day, as he was planning to shoot this scene. He was very clear about which angles he was going for at each moment. I understood that George hadn’t been behind the camera in nearly 20 years.
How long did the shooting of your scenes take, and how much time did you have to spend at the make-up department for the mask and prosthetics?
We were involved for one full day with the shooting. Some of my colleagues had a very early make-up call, 4:00am, since their makeup was more intricate. Since I was in the full latex suit and mask, I required no make-up and didn’t have to arrive until 6:30am. Prior to the dress rehearsal on the set, I went to ILM for a costume fitting. This was the first time I had tried on one of the masks. At that first fitting, I wondered if I would have to back out from being involved — it was awful having that mask on my head. I became claustrophobic since it felt like putting a bag over your head! They actually gave me a practice mask to use to put on for a few minutes at a time so that I could grow accustomed to wearing the mask for longer periods.
On the day of shooting, George told me that he would only shoot for 15 minutes at a time. This was due to the heat inside the costume and the heat on the set with all the lighting equipment. I was the only dancer wearing a full mask that covered my entire head, so breathing was challenging. The Lucasfilm staff learned this technique from experience with the original Star Wars film with C-3PO. Short takes were the safest way to manage filming the scenes. One take ended up going nearly 30 minutes that day and I did, honestly, think I would pass out from the heat. I can’t imagine how it was out in the desert for some of those characters being filmed in the original Star Wars films! With my entire body covered in that latex suit, it was suffocating on the sound stage.
George Lucas is a very dedicated and creative man. As a person, he is rather shy, socially, and yet when you meet him when he is in his element – on the set of one of his films, he is very animated and clearly loves what he does. I admire him tremendously for his work that has affected generations of movie goers.
Did any strange, weird or remarkable things happen on the set?
There is an enormous staff working on a sound stage such as the one at ILM. Everyone is there trying to realize one person’s vision. It was impressive to see that in action. It was fun to see Max Rebo there, as his band accompanied our dancing! He was one of the few characters that was actually there on the set that day, but he is operated from below and is actually a puppet. The crew on a sound stage is not that different from the production crew in a theater, so the environment wasn’t too foreign to me.
How do you look back at your part in Return of the Jedi?
I did not fully appreciate the whole phenomenon of the Star Wars movies. I now realize that I’m a part of cinematic history! I must say, after spending my life dancing classical ballet, I get far more fan mail from my Star Wars fans than I do from my ballet fans! Perhaps because the audience for the Star Wars films is worldwide.
Had you seen the Star Wars movies before you got the part? What did you think of the movies?
I had seen the original films – I certainly remember well seeing Star Wars when it first came out on the big screen. I never thought I’d be a part of it though! I am not a huge sci-fi fan, but my children were and they were thrilled to be able to come on the set that day we filmed and to meet George Lucas!
It took the same rehearsal and focus doing the dance in the scene as it would in a performance. When you are working on a film, there is constant repetition to capture things just right, from different angles, focusing tighter in, or from above, etcetera. In a performance you have one chance to get it right. These film sequences were very different choreographically from what I danced in a ballet performance.
You are currently the artistic and executive director of the Smuin Ballet. Can you tell something about your current or future projects?
I retired from performing four years ago and had intended to focus on my job as associate director. Eight months after my final performances, Michael Smuin, our founder, passed away. I have been running the company since then, first solely as artistic director and now also as executive director, where I manage the administrative issues. Our three programs annually feature the work of Michael Smuin, so we keep his legacy alive, but we also present the work of other choreographers. I create all the programming each season. We are currently preparing to premiere a new ballet by American choreographer, Trey McIntyre. He has choreographed his ballet to the indie rock group The Shins. It’s very fitting for our company, because we have a very different and non-traditional style at Smuin Ballet. Every dancer is classically trained, but we take things in a different direction beyond the strictly classical.
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May the force be with all of you!