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

Darth Vader on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Albert Watson
Darth Vader on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

How did James Earl Jones get involved?
I said right from the beginning that I was looking for a voice for Darth Vader. I went through a lot of different tapes of people, including Orson Welles. But then I landed on James Earl Jones, because he's a superb actor. And I was so worried at that point, because it's minimalist acting in a mask: He doesn't get a huge range of stuff to deal with. I was looking for him to pull a realistic performance out of this constrained reality I had created and really grab the audience. It's one of these horrible acting exercises – sometimes directors put themselves in a corner, and it's thankless for the actor.

The same thing happened with Padmé in Episode I, when she had this very stilted dialogue as the Queen. And also with Hayden in Episode II. He said, "I don't want to be this whiny kid." I said, "Well, you are. You gotta be a whiny teenager."

Like father, like son.
He said, "I want to be Darth Vader." I said, "You gotta be a petulant young Jedi. You're not going to be the guy you thought you'd be when you signed your contract." Hayden was grateful for this last movie, where he actually got to be Darth Vader.

Why do you think people have focused so much on Vader?
People like villains because they're powerful and they don't worry about the rules. And as you go through puberty, you have to break off your social bondage and become your own person. So when you have a film aimed at adolescents, the movie is there to say, "Well, all well and good, but this is what happens to you when you do that. This is why you're compassionate, and why you join together as a group to help each other." These are the same basic stories that have always been told.

It was interesting how many people wanted to see Darth Vader massacre the Jedis.
Well, when I said I was going to do the prequels, everybody said, "That's great, we get to see Darth Vader kill everybody." And I said, "That's not the story." When I announced that the first story was going to be about a nine-year-old boy, everybody here said, "That's insane, you're going to destroy the whole franchise, it's More American Graffiti all over again." And I said, "Yeah, but this is the story."

I don't have energy to just make hit movies. I'm not going to make James Bond Pt. 21 – I'm just not interested. Everybody said to drop the stuff about the midichlorians, it makes it too confusing. But it's a metaphor for a symbiotic relationship that allows life to exist. Everybody said it was going to be a giant turkey: "This isn't going to help LucasFilm at all." I said, "This is about the movie and the company is just going to have to deal with whatever happens." That's one of the reasons why there was so much hype on the first prequel: Everybody was terrified.

Having thought of Darth Vader as this ultimate evil, it was alarming to see him as a cute kid in "The Phantom Menace," as if we were watching home movies of Hitler.
Well, a lot of people got very upset, saying he should've been this little demon kid. But the story is not about a guy who was born a monster – it's about a good boy who was loving and had exceptional powers, but how that eventually corrupted him and how he confused possessive love with compassionate love. That happens in Episode II: Regardless of how his mother died, Jedis are not supposed to take vengeance. And that's why they say he was too old to be a Jedi, because he made his emotional connections. His undoing is that he loveth too much.

Anakin has no father. Do Christ overtones—
Oh, it's not just Christ. Christ is one of a long, long, long line of heroes who don't have fathers. There's a long tradition of mythological heroes.

Can you name a few others?
There are a lot of Greek gods who came down [and impregnated mortal women], and so the heroes didn't have fathers. Whether it's Hindu, Chinese or Middle Eastern, all the mythological heroes didn't have fathers. The fathers were the gods.

Now in this particular case, the gods happen to be a life-form that allows a cell to divide. So it's a metaphor: that which brings life. I don't want to get too controversial about this – some people believe it happened in other ways, over seven days, but if you listen to biology, there's another theory, which begins with an e. If you study microbiology, you will come to the realization that this alien life-form, which has a completely different DNA, helped create life on earth and within the galaxy. But every cell has one of these life-forms in it. It's a simplified version of relationships – that symbiotic being goes through everything. That's why Han Solo joins the Rebellion, that's why Luke saves his father. In Star Wars land, all these relationships are necessary to bring forth a greater good – and evil.

Now, there's a hint in the movie that there was a Sith lord who had the power to create life. But it's left unsaid: Is Anakin a product of a super-Sith who influenced the midichlorians to create him, or is he simply created by the midichlorians to bring forth a prophecy, or was he created by the Force through the midichlorians? It's left up to the audience to decide. How he was born ultimately has no relationship to how he dies, because in the end, the prophecy is true: Balance comes back to the Force.

Vader is largely machine. Is that a reflection of Anakin having lost his humanity?
It's a metaphor: As your humanness is cut away, your become more like a programmed droid. Even though some of the droids, like C-3PO, are very human in nature, caring and worried that they're going to do the wrong thing. But they're programs – there's a difference. Even with R2, who is clever and ultimately the hero of the whole piece. He's the Lassie of the movies: Whenever there's a pivotal moment of real danger, he's the one that gets everybody out of it.

One of Vader's favorite ways of dispatching people is by strangulation. Is that because of his inability to breathe without the iron lung?
Well, it's a bigger metaphor than that. Strangulation is always a theme. Life is breath. It's a powerful idea in Buddhism: Cutting off life is cutting off breath. The road to the Force is through the breath. Impotency is cutting off hands and legs and arms. That's a theme too.

Since Vader is the ultimate bad father, I wondered what your own dad thought of him.
I don't think it even occurred to my father that there was any connection. There wasn't, other than his being a father. All fathers are oppressive at times, especially with teenage boys. Even though he loved me and I loved him a great deal, he was strict. But my father gave me a sense of fairness. He never said no: He said, "This is the consequence of what you're doing and why I'm not going to allow it. When you get to be eighteen, you can do what you want, and you'll probably go to jail." Now I've got teenage girls. If they don't listen, I say, "Well, I'm the father and you're the child, and you do what I tell you to do. Because I'm the emperor of the universe and you're not."

This story is from the June 2nd, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 975: June 2, 2005