'The Force' still strong in Star Wars set decorator, 40 years later

It may have been a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away but Roger Christian never underestimated the power of The Force.

So he understands when people tell him every day how Star Wars changed their life.

It changed his.

“George Lucas was on to something there,” he said with a smile in his Etobicoke home.

The truth is Christian was on to some amazing stuff, himself.

This week marked the 40th anniversary Star Wars release and on his desk is one of the legendary prop treasures from that classic movie that turned into its own empire.

It’s the lightsabre, itself. On a bookshelf is the gold Oscar statue he won for his production design.

Now 73, soft-spoken, cerebral and humble, Roger can’t believe it was actually 41 years ago in 1976 when Christian found what become the iconic movie weapon used by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

“The idea of the lightsabre was in George’s script but we still didn’t have it,” recalls Christian, who was the set director on the first Star Wars film and who later was second unit director on The Return of the Jedi, was well.

The problem was the crew was off to Tunisia to start shooting.

“George said we needed to have something because it had to hang off of Mark Hamill’s belt,” said Christian.

Roger was in a photography store in London, England, buying camera equipment to make the binoculars Luke used and before he left, looked through some boxes when it jumped out at him.

“It was a flash handle from an old press camera,” he said. “It was like destiny struck for me. It was Excalibur.”

They added a ring to the bottom of it, and glued some wood dowlings to the base to allow for some modern day swashbuckling on set that would later, with the technology of the day, be replaced with the light that soon became synonymous with the Star Wars signature Jedi Warrior weapon.

“A lot of Star Wars was put together with glue,” Christian said laughing. “We had very little money. We had to improvise.”

The Millennium Falcon is an example.

“We just bought a bunch of old airplane parts and put it together,” he said.

R2D2 and C-3PO and the weapons used by Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Leia were inventions on the fly too.

They are all part of film and popular culture history now.

Four decades after that history being made, Christian reflects on the whole journey of how he got involved.

“George was hoping to make what he called a ‘space western’ and he was looking for a dusty-looking science fiction look rather than a shiny look,” he said. “I was working on sets for a movie called Lucky Lady starring Gene Hackman, Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds in Mexico and George came down to see me.”

Roger was one of the original five people hired on Star Wars. As the project developed, there were many who scoffed at it, but not Roger.

“George was creating something for people to believe in and I saw that,” he said. “It was a heroes’ journey.”

Roger is still on that journey. Having also worked on Alien and many other films, he’s now developing a full-length movie from Black Angel, a short film he did as a prequel to the Empire Strikes Back, and is also working on a documentary of his time working on Star Wars, much of which is outlined in a fascinating behind-the-scenes book he recently released called, Cinema Alchemist.

It’s a page turner and a conversation with him is riveting from his stories about the cast members to his new life in Canada where he’s married to a Toronto lawyer and businesswoman Lina Dhingra and they have a three-a-half-year old son Arjun. Christian also has two grown kids from a previous marriage – his daughter Camille, who lives in London, and his son, Thomas, who also lives in Toronto.

Interesting that his little boy has no idea that his famous dad was the guy behind the lightsabre.

“The other day, he said when he grows up he’d like to work on Star Wars,” said Christian, laughing. “Maybe he heard about it at school.”

Forty years on, The Force is still very much with Roger Christian.

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