In a recent interview with Simon Williamson, we discussed his work as Max Rebo in Return of the Jedi, his journey to Star Wars, other characters he would like to play and loads more.
Max Rebo was a male Ortolan from Orto and a popular musician who led the Max Rebo Band. He mainly played the red ball jett organ, which he played with his feet; he and his band often performed for criminals and otherwise sleazy clientele.
How does working on Star Wars compare to all your work on other projects?
Star Wars has certainly had the longest life and the biggest public impact – for well over thirty years, now. That and Dark Crystal form one strand of my work, with the less extensive puppeteering work on a couple of Muppet movies and Little Shop of Horrors forming a similar strand. All filmed in England, with a truly international, costing and making loads of money. As my roles in these were silent, that’s very different from the more orthodox acting work I have done, where I got to speak and show my face as well: contemporary British TV series such as the Bill, Casualty and London’s Burning, theatre plays in the West End and elsewhere and radio plays, series and audiobooks. More recently I have been writing and directing, and being involved creatively right from the start is my favourite work process of all. However being invited to work on Star Wars, in a unique and physical way, is a pretty close second – and it has now taken me to many places all over the world for conventions.
How did you get the job puppeteering Max Rebo?
Because I had been in Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s Dark Crystal, doing similar work playing otherworldly creatures, using a combination of body puppeteering and puppetry, they asked for me. At that point I was just hired as one of a small group of puppeteers (several of whom were from Dark Crystal). I have a feeling that Phil Tippett, the creature designer, and now an Oscar Winner and Director in Visual Effects-heavy movies, wanted to do it, but found the costume too restrictive, so he asked me to perform as Max Rebo. I was used to playing characters in cramped, backbreaking positions from having played Ursol in Dark Crystal and I took one look at the big bright blue fella and said “Yes please”. I’d been slated to puppeteer Sic Six, a dark brownie-purple slug like character with multiple eyes, on the floor of Jabba’s Palace, up until that point, and Max seemed far more exciting to play. I also knew that, being bright blue, he’d show up nicely in the dark, underlit interior of Jabba’s Throne room set and have real impact. I took a tape of the music home with me to practice the hand moves and the next day we were shooting.
Puppeteering for Max Rebo wasn’t your only role though, you also played Gamorrean Guard Jubnuk, a Mon Calamari Officer and you also puppeteered Nien Nunb’s eyes, can you describe each of these experiences?
Max Rebo was difficult, no question, being inside him was cramped, hot and I could see nothing and hear very little. They had to give me a small earpiece so that I could hear, and react to: “Action!”, “Cut” and of course “..thermal detonator!”. As I could see nothing, before getting into the Max Rebo costume, I had to remember where everything and everyone was on the set, so that I would be looking in the right direction, and react accordingly. He was also the most fun character to play and usually the fan’s favourite amongst the characters I played, when I go to conventions.
In the early days of filming, the production had previously used some performers (possibly extras) who had fainted, or nearly fainted, under the weight of the Gamorrean Guard costume and the heat of the studio lights. Having both worked on Dark Crystal, Hugh Spight and I took it on ourselves to give a little demonstration of how to properly bring them to life and from that point on we became the first choice “Pig Guards”. We did a lot of sequences and, for me, playing Jubnuk, who gets eaten by the Rancor, was probably my favourite individual Gamorrean. A stuntman did the fall, and I took it over from Jubnuk getting up off the floor to cowering under the Rancor’s arm (all added later as an effect), before being grabbed. And then a digital version of Jubnuk got eaten. Then I got to come back later as different Gamorrean Guards on different days. I think it was only after filming that they gave them names, such as Jubnuk and Gartogg.
The Mon Calamari’s came a bit later in the shoot, after we had completed the Jabba’s Throne and Jabba’s Sail Barge studio sequences. The Mon Cals essentially followed the normal human body shape and proportions, being upright with two arms and two legs. The main non-human elements were the hard, scaly hands (so not many adventourous movement and articulation possibilities there) and the head, where the eyes were high up on the head and the performer inside had to look out through the nostrils or mouth.
Then I came back for an extension to my contract to be a support puppeteer (on the “cable crew”) assisting Mike Quinn, who was the main puppeteer on Nein Nunb in the cockpit with Lando Calrissian. I did the eye blinks. We also shot Ten Nunb and “Ernie Ackbar” all on the same day. Tim Rose, Mike Quinn, and I all combined to complete the characters by variously taking on the eyes, ears, second hands, etc on these characters who ended up on the cutting room floor. They are on the Blue Ray outtakes ‘though.
What are some of your fondest memories from your time in Star Wars?
Well, that sequence of being eaten by the Rancor, for a start. I also enjoyed the fact that many of the same crew from Dark Crystal were involved and it was shot at the same studio: Elstree in Hertfordshire. It was also heading to the end of an era of using puppeteering in these types of movies. The Muppets had by then relocated back to the US, from having been based in the UK for several years. CGI was soon to arrive in a big way. So these were among the last few films made in this way in the UK. Return to Oz was another.
Was there much interaction between yourself and the directors, if so, what sort of things would you discuss?
There’s a nice shot of Richard Marquand directing me in Max Rebo here, although I’m sure he’ll have had to shout, in order to be heard through the thick rubber, but it’s not much of a two-way discussion. The Gamorrean Guards were easier to direct and more mobile than Max, and Hugh Spight and I did a lot of discussing between ourselves about where we’d go and which guard would do what, once given the basic blocking by Richard Marquand and/or First Assistant Director David Tomblin.
If you could play any other characters, who would it be and why? Who are some of your favourite characters from the franchise and why?
Other characters from the franchise? Well playing a human would be a nice reward for having sweated and toiled in the world of creatures. I really like Darth Maul, though. I used to do a bit of karate, and Ray Parks’ martial arts style and weapons skills are so impressive. If I were (the voice of) a CGI creature I think one like Watto would have been fun, but I still prefer a character who is actually there, in the scene, on the day, in the studio. Although the sky’s the limit with motion capture in many ways, that too, has a level of unreality that men and puppets don’t suffer from.
If I were much shorter, and female, I’d like to have played one of the Ahch-To Caretakers in The Last Jedi. I liked them from the first frame. Why I like characters or not depends on how visual, odd or inventive they are, I think, with an added bonus if it’s not too obvious how the character is being created by the performer inside.
What does Star Wars mean to you?
Well, it has become such a community since I started doing the Conventions, both amongst us performers and also the fans who keep coming back. Often I see the same fans and supporters from one country, travelling to other countries. I remember when I went to Celebration in Indianapolis, I met some of the prequel performers for the first time, many from Australia, and there was a sense of us Classic Trilogy performers handing over the baton to a new set of performers. And of course, now there are Episodes 7, 8 and shortly, 9 – so there will be more to get to know. As a community, I’m not sure there’s anything like it. Once when I went to DragonCon in Atlanta, it seemed that everyone wanted Lord of The Rings that year, at the expense of Star Wars. But soon Star Wars was back on top, where I seems to be staying. People still want to meet me and grab an autograph.
Did you ever think your work would lead you to be in a franchise like Star Wars?
It never crossed my mind. When I started in physical theatre in Cardiff, there had only been one Star Wars film, and maybe I wasn’t even aware that it has been filmed in Britain. It was only after my mime and physical theatre skills gave me an opportunity to work on Dark Crystal for a year, that I sensed the possibility of where else I could use those skills on films. Then when I was asked to work on what was then known as “Revenge of The Jedi”, without even having to audition, it all happened so quickly and suddenly.
What are some of your favourite scenes from the Star Wars films and why?
I’ve probably seen my own contribution, Return of The Jedi, more often than the other films, so my favourite scenes tend to come from that instalment of the saga. Chief amongst them is the Emperor trying to tempt Luke to the Dark Side, observed by Darth Vader. Ian McDiarmid’s acting is great, the variety, the intensity, the voice and the way his hands are so weary and limp as he blasts Luke, and his contorted, decrepit body is all stiff and contorted as Darth Vader picks him up and hurls him to his death. And the light reflections that are superimposed on Vader’s face as he does so are a nice touch. It’s such a pivotal scene in the story as well. Another is the whole Speeder Bikes sequence filmed in the California Giant Redwoods. As we weren’t given the full Jedi script, only a few pages about the scenes we were in, seeing this sequence on the big screen at the Premiere was a total surprise. I don’t think there had ever been a chase scene quite like this in movies before. It was so exciting and visceral.
Do you attend many comic conventions, if so, what does fan interaction mean to you, and do you have any appearances coming up?
Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes not so busy. I am choosy, though – as it’s not always great for the fans to be part of the same group of guests who’ve appeared before at the same place within the same year. I took a year out a while back for that reason. However, I’ve only been to a US convention twice in the last ten years (Colorado Springs and Connecticut), so there are still plenty of unexplored possibilities in America. It may need enough fans to chant, email and lobby, en masse: “We Want Rebo” for this to happen. I also understand that there’s a Max Rebo comic on the way soon, so that may create a good appetite and put me in the forefront of fans’ minds. There are now so many Star Wars signers, after 8 films and two spinoffs, that it must be a real challenge for fans to get everyone’s signatures. But the fans are generally fun, polite, animated, very well informed and eager for more and more information. Quite often it makes me feel humble in the face of such a continuing thirst for stories and interaction concerning something I worked on over 35 years ago. And sometimes you get given remarkable fan-made gifts and pictures. It is a phenomenon and a lot of the fans also have a sense of humour about their hobby. You know that at a big convention of two or three days there are a lot of people having a great time in a party atmosphere. You have to love their sense of enjoyment and they often know the Star Wars universe so much better than the actors who worked on the films.
I’m not good at updating my website (www.simonjwilliamson.co.uk) regularly (sorry), but I do have few appearances coming up: Film Borse at Oberhausen in Germany on 8thJuly, London Film and Comic Con on 27thJuly, plus two more in the UK in August and September – still to be confirmed.