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Star Wars: The Last Jedi Production Designer Speaks at COM

No spoilers about new film from Rick Heinrichs (CFA’76)


Star Wars: The Last Jedi was the one film that everyone wanted to hear Rick Heinrichs talk about when he spoke to College of Communication students and faculty last Tuesday. But he couldn’t.

“I can’t talk much about it or show you any artwork,” movie production designer Heinrichs (CFA’76) told his audience, citing contractual requirements of secrecy about the film, which opens next Friday.

“I feel like the Lucasfilm lasers are on my chest right now,” he said, looking down as if he expected to see a couple of red dots on his T-shirt.

Heinrichs was able to show a trailer for the movie and talk in general terms about his contribution to director Rian Johnson’s film. Production designers work closely with a film’s director and cinematographer to create the overall look of the film. “Unless they’re documentaries, movies don’t really come together unless there’s a designer creating the world of the film,” he said.

Johnson, who also wrote the film, approached Heinrichs about working on the project, which stars Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, and John Boyega, as well as original Star Wars icons Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher. “He pitched me the story three years ago, and I loved it,” Heinrichs said. “And as happens so very infrequently in our business, the movie you’re going to see a week from now is the one he pitched me. It didn’t change.”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t detours along the way. “Rian’s script at first count had something like 160 sets,” he said, one side of his mouth curling up in a smile. “And it was a 100-day shoot, so…” They ended up with approximately 125 sets at England’s Pinewood Studios and locations around the world, saving time and money by building a cave that could be quickly and easily re-dressed and relit to serve as three separate settings.

In a separate interview, Heinrichs said that there are things in Last Jedi that are “completely original to myself, coming from me and working within the language of the Star Wars universe.”

A city scene from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

A view of the city Canto Bright from the new movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo credit ©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd.

A Hollywood veteran, Heinrichs did have plenty to say about other projects. He showed film clips of his work on Beetlejuice, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the forthcoming live-action Dumbo and many more. He won an Oscar in 1999 for best art direction for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and was also nominated for Lemony Snicket and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

His passion for films dates to his childhood watching black-and-white Million Dollar Movies on TV in Baltimore. “Movies went down deep inside me,” he said. “There was something that made me immerse myself in that environment that I found to be the most amazing experience anyone could ever have.”

By the time he got to BU in the 1970s, Heinrichs was focused on fine arts. He majored in sculpture at CFA, where he received “a superb training in studio art,” he said. But moving pictures, specifically animation, continued to exert a pull, and after graduating from BU, he studied for a year at the School of Visual Arts in New York before landing at the Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts, aka the freewheeling CalArts.

“The character animation program was sort of this nerdy island in the middle of this avant-garde arts college,” he said. “I remember working down in the basement—it was Disney’s idea that the arts would intermesh—and while we were working down there, we’d have naked dancers running down the hall, and you’d hear Gamelan music. I’d have impromptu life-drawing sessions by the clothing-optional pool.”

Rick Heinrichs teaching a class

Production designer Rick Heinrichs was apologetic when he told students at COM that even though he worked on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he’s not allowed to say much about it. Photo by Cydney Scott

You don’t get that on Comm Ave. But Heinrichs’ most important acquisition at CalArts was a new friend, a fellow basement oddball named Tim Burton. They made an animated student film that got them a lot of attention and gigs at Disney Animation after graduation. But they bristled under the factory-line ethos at Disney, working on the 1981 kids’ film The Fox and the Hound.

“We got a little bored,” he recalled, and he and Burton created a six-minute, off-the-books stop-motion animation film called Vincent, about a seven-year-old who wants to be like horror film legend Vincent Price, who narrated the film. It was enough of a creative success to get Burton a job directing the short Frankenweenie for Disney—after which he was promptly fired.

The two were soon reunited when Heinrichs was chosen as animated effects supervisor on the hit Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Burton’s full-length directing debut. He’s worked since on several more Burton films, including Beetlejuice, The Nightmare before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and 2012’s Dark Shadows.

Along the way, he said, he “deciphered” the spooky appeal of Burton’s highly specific art: “In Tim’s world, what may seem safe may be anything but, and what seems monstrous may be delightful. What comes across most strongly in Tim’s work is the heart at the center of the monstrous…the simple fact that even the monsters have feelings.”

Heinrich’s other top credits include two Pirates of the Caribbean films—he built millions of dollars’ worth of pirate ships and a custom sea-creature guitar for Keith Richards for those—as well as 2003’s Hulk and 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.

Aside from Last Jedi, the credits that got the biggest reaction from the COM audience were two Coen Brothers films, Fargo (1996) and cult classic The Big Lebowski (1998). Fargo was his first credit as a production designer. Before that, he had been a set designer, art director, animator, or visual effects consultant.

The macabre woodchipper scene in Fargo always gets laughs, but Heinrichs got an even bigger one when he said, “I never realized how much that scene looks like Star Wars.”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens nationwide on Friday, December 15.


Joel Brown, Staff Writer for BU Today, Bostonia and BU Today Marketing & Communications
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

One Comment on Star Wars: The Last Jedi Production Designer Speaks at COM

  • Garland on 12.08.2017 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks so much, Joel. Great story on the fabulous Rich Heinrichs.

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