George Lucas and the Cult of Darth Vader

As the 'Star Wars' saga reaches its conclusion with 'Revenge of the Sith,' the men behind the masks look back on the greatest villain in movie history

June 2, 2005
Darth Vader on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Darth Vader on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Albert Watson

Iaccomplished what I set out to accomplish," says George Lucas. After thirty years of immersion in a world of Wookies, droids, Jar Jars – and one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Darth Vader – he's finally completed the six-part Star Wars saga with Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. "I'm very happy that I reached the finish line," he says. Content with his movie and refreshed from a Hawaiian vacation, Lucas sits on a couch in his office at the main building of the Skywalker Ranch complex in Marin Country, California, a room large and plush enough for Jabba the Hutt. Lucas turns sixty-one the week of his movie's release but still sports his low-key geek uniform: jeans, a plaid shirt and sneakers. He's suffering from a bad cough, but it seems like a badge of honor after the marathon rush to complete Sith. (Lucas' own cough was used as the sound effect for Sith's evil wheezing droid, General Grievous.) Between bronchial hacking and sips of Diet Coke, he reflects on the creation of Darth Vader.

Has Vader ever appeared in your dreams?
No, I don't dream about Star Wars, to be honest. I've had a lot of waking nightmares on the set, though, imagining the mask won't fit on, or the guy inside can't breathe and faints, or he can't sit down in the suit.

What was the greatest challenge with him?
I had to make Darth Vader scary without the audience ever seeing his face. Basically, it's just a black mask. I said, "How do I make that evil and scary?" I mean, he's big and black and he's got a cape and a samurai helmet, but that doesn't necessarily make people afraid of him. His character's got to go beyond that – that's how we get his impersonal way of dealing with things. He's done a lot of horrible things in his life that he isn't particularly proud of. Ultimately, he's just a pathetic guy who's had a very sad life.

The first film, people didn't even know whether there was a person there. They though he was a person there. They thought he was a monster or some kind of a robot. In the second film, it's revealed that he's a human being, and in the third film you find out that, yes, he's a father and a regular person like the rest of us – he's just got a bit of a complexion problem.

Even as you were building up this iconic villain, you knew the tragedy behind it.
He's so overwhelming in that first film, but you get to the point where you say, "Wait a minute, if he's so powerful, why doesn't he run the universe?" He even gets pushed around by the governors! They know the Emperor is the final word, so what happens is the same thing that happens in any corporation: Everybody worries about the top man, they don't worry about his goon. And by the time the Death Star is finished, it gives them the sense that they have a bigger, better suit than Darth Vader. In a standoff between the Death Star and Darth Vader, they have no question about who would win, and it's not this mumbo-jumbo Sith guy. So it's even more tragic, because he's not even an all-powerful bad guy, he's kind of a flunky.

He's not Satan, he just goes down to the corner and gets Satan's cigarettes.
You got it. And when he finds out Luke is his son, his first impulse is to figure out a way of getting him to join him to kill the Emperor. That's what Siths do! He tries it with anybody he thinks might be more powerful, which is what the Emperor was looking for in the first place: somebody who would be more powerful than he was and could help him rule the universe. But Obi-Wan screwed that up by cutting off his arms and legs and burning him up. From then on, he wasn't as strong as the Emperor – he was like Darth Maul or Count Dooku. He wasn't what he was supposed to become. But the son could become that.

When you were growing up, what villains made an impression on you?
I was more impressed by the good guys. But I remember the bad guy in Ben-Hur who got dragged behind the chariot. John Wayne films had a lot of bad guys, but I can't remember any of them. Most of the movies I liked didn't really have strong bad guys. In films like Bridge on the River Kwai and Citizen Kane, the bad guy's the good guy.

How did you get the name Darth Vader?
"Darth" is a variation of dark. And "Vader" is a variation of father. So it's basically Dark Father. All the names have history, but sometimes I make mistakes – Luke was originally going to be called Luke Starkiller, but then I realized that wan't appropriate for the character. It was appropriate for Anakin, but not his son. I said, "Wait, we can't weigh this down too much – he's the one that redeems him."

Rewatching the Star Wars films recently, I found it interesting how the new films reframed the old ones: They now seem primarily concerned with the tragedy of Darth Vader, rather than the triumph of the Rebels.
Yeah, I made a series of movies that was about one thing: Darth Vader. Originally, people thought it was all about Luke. The early films are about Luke redeeming his father, so Luke's the focus. But it's also about Princess Leia and her struggle to reestablish the Republic, which is what her mother was doing. So it's really about mothers and daughters and fathers and sons.

So now, instead of all these surprises that aren't actually surprises, when you get back to Episode IV, as soon as Darth Vader walks through that door, and you see Princess Leia with R2, you're going to say, "Oh, my God, that's his daughter. Are they gonna find out?" And you get through the whole first movie and nobody figures anything out. The figuring-out part is mostly done off-screen. The first three episodes are a tragedy, and the second three go slightly goofy, but they're inspirational: Even the worst, most evil people find compassion. Darth Vader has compassion for his children, and that's ultimately what children are for.

Often, in classical tragedies, there's a final moment when the scales fall from the hero's eyes.
Well, in real Greek tragedies, the kids are usually the problem. They're the ones that are killing the parents, but this is more uplifting: It's up to one generation to fix the sins of the last generation.

What was the visual evolution of Vader? Originally there was a Bedouin concept—
No, that was more the Tusken Raiders. Darth Vader has pretty much always been Darth Vader. When he's first mentioned in the script, he's a guy in a helmet with a breathing mask who can't breathe because of this fight with Obi-Wan. And I took that description to [designer] Ralph McQuarrie. He did different drawings, but they're almost all the same: a guy with a cape, a portable iron lung, a mask, a samurai helmet and a chest piece that had electronics on it.

Where did the samurai helmet come from?
I was introduced to samurai movies in film school. And I became infatuated with Japanese culture; I was going to do my first film, THX 1138, in Japan. Then reality set in.

Just how restrictive was that costume?
He couldn't move at all, really. We had to keep modifying the suit so people could move in it. By the time we got to the first light-saber battle, we realized we weren't going to be able to do much. And so I accepted it was an old man vs. a half-man, half-machine. But Jedi were supposed to be quite active. So for the next one, we got a really good stunt guy in, one of the best sword fighters in England. And Mark Hamill is a good sword fighter. For the final film, Hayden [Christensen] and Obi-Wan – I mean Ewan – took it very seriously; they trained for months. Those swords are carbon fiber: We went through lots of them, because they were hitting so hard, they would get bent. It's like learning to dance, only if you make a mistake, you really get hurt.

Did you ever know anybody who was in an iron lung? Vader's breathing sound is so scary.
No. Soundwise, the idea was that he had been almost killed, so his breath was much louder than anybody else's, like a monster breathing. I hired Ben Burtt to do the sound effects before I even finished writing the screenplay. I had given him a huge list of tasks before I went off and shot the movie: "R2 needs a voice, and we need lasers that are different from what anybody else has ever done, and I don't want the engines for the spaceships to sound like rockets or jets. And this guy is in an iron lung, so figure that one out." When I came back, he had this whole library of sounds. And he came up with this iron lung that was a combination of other sounds, and it was eerie and deeply disturbing, and I said, "That's it."

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