IT IS A DARK TIME FOR THE REBELLION. Speculative fiction, with its mania for dystopian futures and resistance, has over the past hundred years or so provided canvases for us to paint our fears of helplessness, of social decay, of a complex world that seems more and more out of our control. Star Wars is no exception. In fact, it is arguably the most popular and enduring canvas, with its fully realized vision of the Empire and the Rebellion. (Now, the “Resistance.” OK, J.J.) The Denver Art Museum’s director Christoph Heinrich, in opening the DAM’s new exhibit, Star Wars and the Power of Costume, calls Star Wars the Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total” or “universal” work of art that synthesizes visuals, music, set design, costume design, and all the innumerable artisan crafts into a unified vision of a galaxy far, far away. And it’s these comprehensively imagined worlds that stick in our dreams and give us a language to articulate complex, overwhelming ideas about our own world in new ways.
Star Wars and the Power of Costume, opening this weekend, takes us into the creative process behind the saga’s stunning visuals, with concept sketches, fabric swatches, and finished gowns that rival haute couture in their handcrafted intricacies. The exhibit, by focusing on costume design, draws our attention to how these visuals shape our understanding of the world and the characters: the Rebels, with their scuffed, utility-rich jackets and belts, scrappy and resourceful; the Empire, with their sleek jodhpur pants and simple tunics, aloof and cheerless in their lack of need.
The exhibit draws heavily on the conceptual design work Iain McCaig did for Episodes I-III, which, say what you will about them, had phenomenal costumes. There’s an emotional charge in the Old Republic gowns, the colors and opulence of a prosperous, somewhat corrupt age in its twilight, moving unseeingly toward dark-side fascism. From the Emperor’s crimson velvet robes to his fungal fingernails, Star Wars and the Power of Costume showcases the power of McCaig and his team thinking through every detail.
During the opening press event on Thursday (at which, it must be mentioned, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper attempted a Jabba the Hutt impression that would have got him trap-doored into the Rancor pit), our own C. S. Peterson had a chance to speak to McCaig about how he turns the words on the script page into the rich, unsettling visuals of Darth Maul and Coruscant. Their interview (edited for clarity) follows below.
CS Peterson: When you hear the story, or read the script that George Lucas gives you, it evokes something. People have been saying all afternoon that Star Wars resonates at the level of myth. What do you do find the visual inspirations that evoke that same feeling of deep mythology?
Iain McCaig: There are two answers to that question. The general answer is that you read the story and get lost in it, you dream it. Drawing is dreaming on paper. If someone tells me they can’t draw, I say “Really? Did you dream last night? Were there people?” The answer is always yes. Beautifully proportioned, well lit. You didn’t have to work at constructing that in your dream, your brain just did it. Now it’s just learning to do that with your eyes opened. So I get lost in the story, dream the story, become the characters from the inside out. What the characters look like and what they’re doing is secondary to why they’re doing it. What they want, why they can’t get it and why they’re trying really hard to get it anyway. The basics of storytelling.
The specific answer for Star Wars is that George was notoriously bad at handing in his scripts. We wouldn’t see them until the last minute. But he was darned good storyteller, an oral storyteller. We only got a little piece at a time. George would lean back in his chair with his eyes closed and tell you the next part of the story like it was a bedtime story. Then he’d break off and look at you and walk out of the room and I’d be like “What do I draw?” And he’d say “Oh, Darth Maul. He’s a Sith Lord. Yeah.” Off he’d go and I’m like, “Eh?!”
I’d have no idea what a Sith Lord was, but I’d remember the story and try to get in it and try to live it and put down what I would do if I were making up the story based on myths. George’s true genius was that then we’d lay it all out on the table, a hundred or so drawings on the table every week, and George would go “This one, that one, the head of this other one on the body of that.” And we’d look at them and think “Of course! Those are the only ones that fit together.” My god—it’s like they’d always existed. It was as if there was a dinosaur skeleton in the rock and he’d just brushed the dust and stone away from it.
CSP: And would that be one iteration? Or would you go through that same process again and again?
Iain: We would end up with thick ‘approved’ and ‘unapproved’ folders. We never called it unapproved actually. George always had a little tray and there were two stamps on it. One was “O.K.” and one was “Fabuloso.” He would look at the drawing, pick up a stamp and mark it. We used to have an “It sucks” stamp too, but it got too depressing.
OK meant maybe it would go in this film and Fabuloso meant those would definitely go in the film. We were always so proud when that happened. But you couldn’t always spot what it was going to become once the audience responded to it. Darth Maul was an “O.K.”
CSP: I love that quote by the Darth Maul concept sketch: “Draw your worst nightmare.”
Iain: The one extra bit of information I had when I was drawing the original Darth Maul was that he was “a vision from your worst nightmare.” So I knew my worst nightmare. It used to be I’d find myself sitting alone in that studio at night. I’d hear rain on the windows, and feel someone’s watching me. When I look at the window there’s a face pressed up against it. It’s dead white. The eyes are glittering, but they’re not smiling. The mouth is full of black metal teeth and it’s raining so the face is all distorted. And I shriek and wake up. So the original concept face for Darth Maul is really just a stylized version of that.
CSP: And the ropy red hair draped over the eyes?
Iain: The ribbons are supposed to be the rain coming down. The face is the face pressed up against my window. So I put inside a little folder and waited for George to come up, I didn’t put it on the wall, and I handed it to him and he opened it up and gave a little shriek. He handed it back to me and said “Give me your second worst nightmare.”
CSP: That’s hilarious!
Iain: I thought “What did I do wrong? I thought you wanted scary?” And I pondered and pondered and realized that my nightmare sketch was too real life. Star Wars isn’t real life, Star Wars is mythology. He doesn’t want my serial killer looking through the window, he wants mythological evil. What is my mythological evil? Clowns! They scare the crap out of me.
CSP: In Europe clowns got their start as the trickster demons in medieval mystery plays.
Iain: Of course, absolutely, so they are scary, or they can be. I both love and am afraid of clowns, even though I’ve done clowning.
CSP: Hey, me too! But the make-up I wore for Ringling Brothers is meant for the big arena, to be seen from far away. Up close it can be grotesque and disturbing.
Iain: Yeah, right? There’s something scary about painting a smile on your face, you’re not sure what the expression really is underneath. So Darth Maul is my Bozo the Clown. He’s frightened me since I was three years old.