Jedi Knight and Contemplating Homicide
Updated: Apr 19, 2019
In 1996, LucasArts and Steve Dauterman called again. Did I have any interest in producing Jedi Knight? A more complex videogame requiring a lot more actors and ones that would actually have to be able to act and not just ensconce themselves in a rib-crushing costume or rocket seat the size of basic coach as they had in Rebel Assault II, my previous effort for George Lucas.
Me: "Uh, yes?"
Steve: "How soon can you get here?"
I arrived at LucasArts, just as Dauterman hung up the phone.
He handed me the cut-scene storyboards. They showed Aliens requiring original design, set pieces needing original construction, and wardrobe not currently in the Lucasfilm Museum. We had cannibalized the company’s museum for its stock of costumes from the Star Wars canon for Rebel Assault II. That first game also needed no Aliens.
All these tasks in the previous paragraph translates to a real job. At Lucas this meant I’d have to be blessed by George since a lot of the art direction, costumes, and other visuals would be original and not stock. This would entail me meeting George . . . at Skywalker Ranch . . . in his office.
And more than the time I’d spent in the business being embarrassed in public by the topflight commercial directors of the 80’s, or my own personal Nightmare Before Christmas with Tim Burton and the coffee maker, or even having to ‘handle’ the likes of Carol Channing, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bill Cosby (Jell-O pudding. Mmm. Mmm. Good.) nothing could have prepared me for actually sitting down to get vetted by George Lucas.
The closest experience to professional fear I could remember was being cut right away, more than once, by Michael Bennett during auditions for Chorus Line. Or, having to sing ‘Blue Skies’ acapella for Bob Fosse. Or, maybe it was the time one of the ensemble dancers in Hello Dolly picked up a napkin as opposed to a tablecloth during the waiter’s ballet.
But that’s another book.
After a coin flip, I’d have to say the knee-knocking of my illustrious dance career came closest.
And like most things in life, the anticipation exceeded the actual event. Not the part about meeting the man who changed filmmaking forever, but the fear factor. George Lucas could not have been nicer. I don’t recall a lot of the conversation. He did ask me about my work on Nightmare and, of course, on Rebel Assault II.
George impressed upon me the same things he probably imparted to everyone who worked on Star Wars franchise projects. Consistency with the mythology (For lack of a better term) was most important. The archetypes of bad guys. Wardrobe choices for good guys, particularly those of the Rebellion. Color palettes for certain planets depending on their ‘role’ in the video.
Found him to be soft-spoken and genuine.
And, again, though I don’t remember much, I will never, ever forget that meeting, which took place at Skywalker Ranch in West Marin. I walked into the antebellum house that served as his office and sat with him and looked out over the beautifully manicured landscape through the bay window in front of the house.
If not for the fact that he looked like an Ewok during this Heavy-Facial-Hair-Period of his life, I’d have passed out. I just kept imagining him as a little furball, per Harrison Ford. It made me exhale enough to not hyperventilate.
Jedi Knight inflicted one of the most dreaded departments in the history of filmmaking on me.
Wardrobe, which is part of the Vanities Department. If I could have dressed and made up actors all by myself, I would have. Nothing gave me more understanding of serial killers than having to deal with the collection of Macy’s make-up floor rejects that passed themselves off as hair stylists, two-legged cosmetic applicators, and the worst of them, costume or wardrobe designers.
I’d much rather deal with Directors of Photography on their overloading of lens orders than have to discuss fabric textures with these recent escapees from the Lord & Taylor couture department.
We cast a very trim and beautiful woman for the female bad guy on Jedi Knight. As I sat in the costume shop at Lucas, cleaning my .38, I was subjected to the following from some Coco Chanel wannabe as she did her level best to hide the actress’ well-toned figure.
Coco: “I think it should have a soft drape. Perhaps tulle?
Me: “Something used for ballerinas ain’t a great idea for an evil FEMALE Sith Lord.”
Coco: “Really? And what did you have in mind, Mister Producer?”
Me: “Given her figure and her role, how about Vampire chic?”
At this time the use of the bloodsuckers for reference in films and TV shows was not a microwaved concept. True Blood hadn’t arrived to tantalize us with its brilliant dialogue and ridiculous concept of somewhat benign predators purchasing a house in a quiet suburban neighborhood.
Dimbulb Neighbor Wife: “Honey, look there’s a new family of vampires moving in next door. I should take something over.”
Dimbulb Neighbor Husband: “That’s nice. There’s still some type O in the freezer from the last vampire family. Where did they move to by the way?”
Dimbulb Neighbor Wife: “The Arteri clan? I think they went back to Italy.”
Dimbulb Neighbor Husband: “Okay. Take the leftovers, and if you never come back, I’ll wait for your metamorphosis and then you can come home and feed off me for an eternity.”
Dimbulb Neighbor Wife: “Oh that would be lovely.”
As an aside, when my good friend, Dan Ogawa, got hitched I attended the wedding. He put me at a table of production professionals, but since they all worked for public television, it put me in the difficult position of carrying on a conversation, especially after the wife of one of the guests postulated DIVERSITY as the overarching concept of True Blood.
Me: “Is that right? From what I can tell, the cast had just finished a series of L’Oreal commercials. So does the diversity of True Blood lay in the difference between a nine and a ten?”
If not for the presence of a justice of the peace and Dan’s elderly parents, a wedding cake food fight might have ensued. After Lee kicked me under the table several hundred times, I relegated my comments to oohing and aahing over the DIVERSITY of True Blood.
However, had I known that Dan would be divorced within two years I’d have stood on my chair and castigated the politically correct twit for daring to virtue signal at my table.
But back to the Coco Clone, the head of the Vanities Department for Jedi Knight. She had drawn a line in the sand over her wardrobe choice for evil female Sith Lord.
Coco: “I think the actress playing Sariss will be able to perform admirably in tulle.”
Me: “I’m sure, but I’ve got a market of teenage boys whose hormone levels are in the red zone 24 hours a day. If I put her in tulle, sales will drop by millions. I guarantee it.”
Coco: “I don’t think we should get hung up on stereotypes.”
Me: “No one is stereotyping Sariss. The actress is a workout freak. She’s cultivated that body for jobs like this. So, let’s get to work on spray-painting some black spandex on her shapely behind and move onto one of the guys.”
Coco was about to accuse me of some heinously stupid crime of sexism, but before she could the marketing department of LucasArts lined up behind me, as did the director, and Steve Dauterman. The marketing department and Steve had financial success and hormone clanging male customers motivating them. The director would have preferred that Sariss perform the entire game naked, but spandex provided the next best glimpse.
All I wanted to do was move onto the rest of the 14 leads that required specialty wardrobe, which we did after agreeing that Sariss needed to having nothing between her and her catsuit.
The other attractive female in the cast played the Princess Leia knockoff role, so that limited the controversy to what shade of white battle ensemble we needed to squeeze her into. The male parts, a collection of good and bad guys occupied the rest of the meeting.
Coco, however, kept gravitating towards her Marin County roots, which consisted of channeling ideas germinated from Woodstock. If she hadn’t been a Lucas employee, I’d have bounced her right off of Skywalker Ranch.
Me: “No. Tie-dye is a bad fit, unless we’re in Mos Eisley, which we are not.”
Coco: “Mos’ what?”
Me: “Are you f$#king kidding me? How did you get his job?”
Coco: “I’ll have you know—”
Me: “Don’t want to hear about it. It probably involves a wet—”
Dauterman: “Okay, let’s move on.”
So I did.
Me: “Colors in a darker palette for the bad guys. Lighter palette for the good guys. Don’t know how much clearer I can be. I can’t put Sariss’ consort in hippie-wear. This game is about a war between these two factions. The concept is military. I need form-fitting outfits that are just loose enough to allow for quick movements. The fight choreographer is on this job for every shoot day for good reason.”
I got my way, but discussions like this, now a regular occurrence on any job with a Vanities Department exhausted me. More than most, I appreciated a well-developed POV on creative matters. Missing the concept, or letting your ego sidetrack a project is crippling.
Jedi Knight needed so many stellar resources that I opted to shoot in Los Angeles. Kooktown, USA (That’s San Francisco, for those of you reading this as your first excerpt.) just doesn’t have the talent level to pull it off. On many levels, a great call on my part. On just a handful, a stomach acid producing one.
First up for indigestion, studio space. While an abundance of it occupied much of southern California, stage owners and managers have a tendency to look at out of town productions as a way of boosting their profit margins from 1% to 50%.
The local production manager, Beth, toured dozens of stages before taking me out to look at three prime candidates, and after a negotiation that consisted of lowering expectations of the rapacious owners, we settled on Hayvenhurst Studios, a home to early TV and film westerns. It still had the sheriff’s office building, replete with hitching post and horse trough, which it used as an office.
Beth and I moseyed on inside the office. First order of business? Getting the deal in writing to avoid any surprises on the back end. Guaranteed, if a stage contract doesn’t include everything down to paper products, the invoice will have a charge for toilet paper higher than the entire Lighting and Grip cost.
Beth: “$1200 for load-in. $1500 for Pre-Light and Shoot. $1200 for strike.”
Sheriff Hayvenhurst: “Rate card is $1750 for—”
Beth: “Don’t care what rate card is. $1200 for load-in. $1500 for Pre-Light and Shoot. $1200 for strike.”
Deputy Hayvenhurst: “Next item.”
Beth: “Grip and Electric package as listed in the stage’s package is $500/Day flat. Items not listed are a la carte, but must be approved prior to use by me or George.”
Sheriff: “Rate card is $800—”
Beth: “Don’t care what rate card is. Grip and Electric package as listed in the stage’s package is $500/Day flat. Items not listed are a la carte, but must be approved prior to use by me or George.”
This went on for another hour. By the time we had moseyed out of the Sheriff’s office, Beth had a signed contract that fit within the confines of our budget. Eternal vigilance would be required for the duration of the job, since any crack of fiscal daylight a vendor in the film industry can find would be exploited to the point of financial ruin for producers.
We moved into the studio on a Monday for the build and pre-light day. This is what greeted us on the main wall of the cyc. (See Below)
Here’s the view of the left and right side walls of the cyc. (See Below)
And here’s the floor. (See Below)
Beth George stopped everyone just inside the studio. She had a look on her face that would have scared the Gestapo out of Poland.
Beth: “Nobody f$%king move.”
We all froze, including Jason Chin, the game supervisor from Lucas, who had a thousand pound desktop computer under each arm. Nick No Last Name, the prop department intern who talked me into working on the project, started giggling like a fourteen-year-old at a Jon Bon Jovi concert, didn’t stop walking and found himself face down on the floor. Beth had him in a hammer lock.
Beth: “No one walks on that floor without these.”
She stuffed a pair of the dreaded clean room booties into Nick’s mouth. The poor guy, so traumatized by his first encounter with an experienced P.M., did not wear regular shoes for a month after the job finished. I went back to visit him at his regular job at Kinko’s and when I heard the shuffling noise emanating from the supply closet, I knew he still wore the accursed footwear.
I hate booties. I also hate clean room masks, coats, gloves, and pants. Add hardhats to the list, along with steel-toed boots. Over the years the enthusiastic Safety Overlords, have trussed film crews up in every capability killer imaginable. It only took one job in one high-tech chip manufacturing facility to make me swear off entering any similar business.
Oh, I’d take the job, but only at the point of gun would I ever slide one of those dopey white jumpsuits over my clothes. Not after seeing the employees walk in to these supposed sterile environments carrying a Sloppy Joe lunch and smoking black cigarettes.
But Beth would not be denied. We all changed our shoes. Oddly, production and folks on flat rates put them on so quickly we went back in time. The hourly hires took most of the morning to do the same thing which neutralized any positive use of the clock.
And there we stood, surrounded by . . . (See Below)
Me: “I really like what we’ve done with the place.”
For two weeks, I lived at the Van Nuys Best Western. I endured about a dozen shooting days of one way conversations with my deaf DP, but the absolute soul-crushing interactions continued with the, ahem, Vanities Department. See the short list to follow.
1. Coco and her colleague, Igor, both of whom were forced hires because they were Lucas employees, delivered a grand total of Zero of the 14 principal wardrobe pieces on time, which was the aforementioned Monday build and pre-light. We were supposed to do the fitting that day as well. More on that to come.
Early on I clearly told them I would NOT be taking them to southern California for the shoot and was assured everything would be finished in time for me to ship and/or drive said wardrobe for the first shoot day. The first people that greeted me at the hotel? Coco and Igor. They had just finished dinner and wanted to know about per diem.
Me: “F$%K off.”
2. The efficiencies of Coco and Igor necessitated the hiring of a full-time seamstress to both finish and adjust the wardrobe. I had just added a seamstress and her assistant to my Vanities Department, in addition to the two incompetent Lucas employees who decided NOT to deliver the wardrobe when they said they would. With Prosthetics, I now had ten people in Vanities.
And I needed two fittings. Not one. Two. And in the interest of elucidation, I had ONE WARDROBE PER ACTOR. Not two. ONE.
And why did I need more than one fitting?
I’ll tell ya.
Despite the theoretical calculus employed by the Vanities Department our lead bad guy looked like someone had taken half of Siegfried’s costume and half of Roy’s and sewn them together in an ugly Yin/Yang combination the size of Totie Fields. His henchman, a part-time bouncer for the southern California mob, took a gander at his getup in the mirror after his fitting. He called Billy Barty and joined The Lollipop Guild. Coco and Igor looked the two actors over.
Coco: “Looks like we were slightly off in our measurements.”
Me: “If you try and put Sariss in tulle, you’re leaving Southern California in a body bag.”
The last time I heard someone say they were slightly off in their measurements, an actor took a joy ride through Central Park while tethered to a medieval catapult launcher, also called a flying rig. Images of Coco and Igor landing in the Loeb Boathouse Lake, as the aforementioned performer had, drifted delightfully through my head. Also, holding them underwater for several hours made me giddy.
Me: “Would you like another fitting? My current record is two unnecessary fittings per outfit, and there is a personal best is in my future. I can feel it.”
Coco: “I don’t see any other way.”
In order to avoid raiding petty cash for bail money, Beth and the director carried me out of the fitting room while I screamed, if memory serves, “I’ll tell you what else we could do. I could go back in time, and abso-f$&king-lutely refuse to hire any of the slugs that draw a paycheck signed by George Lucas.”
The job finished on-time, only $10,000 over budget, and without homicide.