Return of the Jedi production manager spills the beans on unruly Ewoks, Leia costume worries and more
As Return of the Jedi turns 40, we turn back the the time to 1983 and speaks to one of the filmmakers responsible for Star Wars: Episode VI.
George Lucas was confident enough in Star Wars being a trilogy that he was happy to announce the title of third film a week before The Empire Strikes Back came out.
Revenge of the Jedi, as it was originally known, would tie up the strands in the Luke/Leia/Han story and complete that “dumb screenplay I first wrote ten years ago”, as Lucas would tell Rolling Stone.
The franchise’s creator knew he didn’t want to write or direct this third instalment, so started looking round for possible helmers. His best friend Steven Spielberg was first choice, but that didn’t work out due to union issues and other contenders included David Cronenberg and David Lynch, the latter of whom was wooed at Skywalker Ranch before turning it down.
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Instead, Lucas turned to the little-known Welsh director Richard Marquand, primarily, it seems, because he would be vigilant about the budget – but also he would understand that he wasn’t the ultimate decider when it came to Star Wars.
“I think George was happy to let [Marquand] be the director,” the film’s production manager Robert Latham Brown tells Yahoo UK in a new interview.
“My sense was that George was more involved in the technical aspects, the visual effects and knowing that that was proceeding well. He wasn't hanging around on the set second-guessing Richard.”
In fact, Lucas was struggling in his personal life at the time. He and his wife Marcia had recently adopted a baby girl and their marriage was floundering.
He had turned down Harrison Ford’s request to be killed off in Return of the Jedi mostly because, others have said, it would have damaged the merchandising, but also he believed in happy endings and wanted one here.
During the script stage, he had joked to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan that when Luke took off Darth Vader’s helmet, the hero would put in on himself and say he was going to take over the galaxy. Kasdan was keen, but Lucas was horrified that such a thing could have been considered.
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With Star Wars fever at insane levels and following the plot twists of Empire, secrecy was paramount on the Jedi set.
“It was a request and everybody honoured it because nobody wanted to spoil the surprise,” says Latham Brown, who had come from working on The Thing to monitoring the American-shot portions of Jedi. “We were all big fans of the trilogy and were proud to be on the third one."
The production was nicknamed Blue Harvest to try and throw people off the scent, not that it worked that well.
“I remember being in Yuma, Arizona, getting ready for the arrival of the cast, because we were going to shoot Jabba's barge sequence there,” reveals Latham Brown. “And I turned to [producer] Howard [Kazanjian] at one point and I said, ‘So when Chewbacca gets off the plane, are we still supposed to say we're doing Blue Harvest?’”
“We had set up this chain link fence and people were on dirt bikes and ATVs and that sort of thing, roaring around the dunes all the time,” he continues. “And they would come up to the fence and say, ‘Come on, you can really tell us, this is Star Wars.’ I would say, ‘No, it’s Blue Harvest.’ Or Beyond Imagination. That’s what we were told to say.”
Production was high stakes. Latham Brown had been told the budget was entirely funded by Lucas with a loan from a Boston bank, so he was conscious of trying to stay on target.
“I remember concerns over Yoda,” he recalls, “that Yoda wasn’t going to be done on time. We had lots of cables going back and forth between Marin [County, California] and London, between the model makers and so on.”
Filming in the desert, Latham Brown, then a licensed pilot, would be able to jump in his plane back in Hollywood and fly out to the set to check on how things were going.
One of his biggest worries was how far they were from a hospital.
“I knew that we would have a difficult time if somebody was seriously injured,” he remembers. “So I checked around and I found out there's a Naval air station in Yuma, I told them we were shooting this movie out there and what could I do if somebody got badly hurt? They said, ‘We’ll give you a radio and you can call directly to the Medevac dispatcher from your set.’
"“We were shooting one day and Jabba's barge had steam coming out of ports on the sides. And those were fed by a boiler inside. We had a San Francisco effects technician in there and for some reason, the boiler wasn't heating as fast as he wanted it to, so he thought if he tightened down the safety valve it would work better, but unfortunately it over-pressured and it blew.
He was burned over 80% of his body. Fortunately, we had that radio and a helicopter was there in minutes and they took him directly to the UCLA burn centre and he did recover.”
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Latham Brown says the dress rehearsal for the barge sequence still sticks out in his mind.
“All the cast and extras were all there and they were all dressed up in their costumes and had their props and so on,” he says.
“I had the impression [Carrie Fisher] was uncomfortable in that costume. She was a really nice person and very easy to work with, but I could feel her discomfort in that costume. And I think the other cast were giving her a bit of a hard time about it.”
He adds, “The other thing I remember is they had all the pig [Gamorrean] guards lined up on the deck of the ship with their weapons. George looked like a general inspecting his troops. He was walking down the line, looking at each one of them. And he stopped at one of them and he grabs their weapon and he turns to all of them and says, ‘A pig guard would never use this’.
"And he reaches down on the deck and there’s another type of weapon. He says, ‘This is what a pig guard would use.’ And he very forcefully gave it to the poor pig guard who didn't realise he had the wrong weapon.”
While most of the film was shot on stages at Elstree, Latham Brown was also in charge of the Ewok forest sequences, which were filmed in upstate California.
[The Ewok actors] liked to play practical jokes,” he laughs. “Every morning a bus would show up at the motel they were staying at and all the Ewoks would get on this bus and [a production assistant] would be sure they'd come on up to the set. One morning he pulled up to the hotel with the bus and no Ewoks were there. He went and knocked on a few rooms – nobody answered their door.
“He got back in the bus and came up to the set and he was panicked. He said, ‘I can’t find the Ewoks, they've disappeared’. He was just beside himself.
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"They were all hiding – they had come up early on their own and they just wanted to give him a bad time. I had heard all these rumours about what it was like on the Wizard of Oz set, there were some pretty scandalous stories.
"And I think our Ewoks were trying to outdo them. They were a wild bunch.”
Filming completed, posters had already been printed with the title as Revenge of the Jedi when Lucas decided he wanted to change it to Return, apparently because Jedis don’t take revenge.
“While we were making it, as far as we were concerned, we were Revenge of the Jedi,” says Latham Brown. “I think my daughter took it, but I have a T-shirt with that on.”
Nevertheless, Return of the Jedi was a box office smash, with desire to see it so high that Screen International reported 20th Century Fox offering a £5,000 reward when a print of the movie was stolen from a Hastings cinema. In 2021, it was inducted in the National Film Registry acknowledging significant cultural impact.
For Latham Brown, who wasn’t even working in film when he saw Episode IV, being a part of Jedi was a huge personal achievement.
“It was a highlight of my career,” he says now. “I’m very proud to have been a part of it.”
He recalls with fondness walking with Lucas to watch footage each day.
“We would leave through the back door of the building and go into the building where Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was located,” he says. “We'd walk through the shop and it was fascinating for me. They had the Death Star and all kinds of models of spaceships. I got a 30-second tour as we walked through there and it was like a high point in my day.”
He continues, “One day we walked through there and George stopped and he looked at everybody working in the shop and he said, ‘You know, it's a shame we have to disturb you all every day like this. It's a shame there isn't a hallway here.’ And he just kind of shrugged it off and we went into the projection room.
"The next day when we opened the door and walked to go into the model shop, it had been all closed off inside. ILM did that, it wasn't George that did that. They just took that remark and they built a hallway. It was that kind of devotion.”
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi is streaming on Disney+. Watch its teaser trailer below.