Robert Watts on producing Star Wars, Indiana Jones and more

We talk to producer Robert Watts about his remarkable career in movies, which includes the Star Wars trilogy, Roger Rabbit and more...

With a career stretching back to the 1960s, British film producer Robert Watts played a key role in making some of the most influential films of the 1970s. Just a quick glance over his credits as a producer reveals an extraordinary career, which includes Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and its sequels, the first three Indiana Jones films, and the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Those films are but the tip of the iceberg; before Star Wars, he worked on two James Bond films – Thunderball and You Only Live Twice – collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, in films such as Man In The Middle, Darling and Papillon, worked with such legendary actors as Robert Mitchum, Dirk Bogarde and Steve McQueen.

What a treat it was, then, to be able to talk to Watts about his career in film, the talented directors he’s worked with, and the technical challenges each project represented. Our interview took place over more than 30 minutes, which still didn’t seem like long enough to cover it all – if you can, you’re strongly advised to purchase tickets for the special evening scheduled at Brighton’s The Space on the 7th November, where Mr Watts – along with TV producer Gub O’Neal – will be talking further about his remarkable life and work.

Until then, here’s what Mr Robert Watts had to tell us about Star Wars, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and lots, lots more.

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You’ve been involved in some truly amazing films going right the way back to the 1960s. Could you tell me a little bit about how you got started?

Well, I always wanted to do it, I reckon, since I first walked into a cinema when I was a little kid. I’m old enough to remember the Second World War. My grandfather, immediately after the war, went to Ealing Studios where he wrote screenplays. The thing about getting into the film industry was, there was no natural path you could follow – it was luck, in a sense.

But my grandfather helped someone who serviced his car to get into the film industry. So when my time came – and my grandfather was dead by then – this guy helped me. It was kind of nepotism, if you like! So I got my first job as a runner on some films this guy organised.

It was a big union-enclosed shop in those days, and the only non-union job you could get in the production department was a runner – like an office boy. So I did a year of doing bits and pieces with this guy who my grandfather helped, and then I got a permanent job at a firm that made TV commercials. They were black and white in those days.

I was with them for two years and three months, and that I look upon as my film school in a sense, because every single commercial is like a mini film. It had all the beats. So it was a good education, that, and the two women who ran it were both from feature films, and we always used feature film crews when we shot the commercials. It was a very different world from today.

I got into the union while I was with them, and went back into feature films as a second assistant director on a film called Man In The Middle with Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard. Then I was the second AD, and I basically worked my way up; I was a second AD on a number of films.

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I didn’t actually do a movie as a first AD. I don’t know why, but I didn’t. One film I completed was a film called Darling. And then I did the first of two James Bond films – Thunderball.

Thunderball was the breakpoint, because I ended up doing a lot of location management on that. I organised the Paris bit, the shooting of the front end, because I speak French fluently. Then we went off to the Bahamas and the rest of it. When the crew went home, I was left behind with the second unit. Then I went to Miami to take care of the end sequence, where the parachutists drop into the bay and all that stuff.

So that was the transition, and I was never second AD again. After that, I worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey with Kubrick. And to be honest, I wasn’t on that all the way through, because he spent two years shooting model shots!

I was invited back to James Bond to work as a location manager on You Only Live Twice. So that’s basically how it happens. In a sense, you can’t plan it – do you know what I mean? 

It just grew quite organically.

Yes, it just sort of lays itself out. If you finish a movie and you haven’t got another one, you’re out of work. In those days, I used to go and assistant direct commercials, being paid what’s known as a daily rate when I wasn’t doing a feature – and that was good.

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I’d been doing a film in Mexico called The Wrath Of God – with Robert Mitchum again, it was the second film I did with him. It was Rita Hayworth’s very last film, so it was historical in a sense, because she was such an iconic person.

When I came back from that film, which was shot there, I was allowed to do it as production manager because it wasn’t shot in America. I wasn’t a member of the Director’s Guild of America, which I would have had to have been to do it there. I went back to LA to wrap up, so I wasn’t staying for the editing, and I was at MGM Studios, and this guy called Gary Kurtz asked if he could come and see me.

He asked me about shooting in England, and later that year they’d be shooting American Graffiti. And of course, all the cogs and wheels turned, and eventually I found myself at 20th Century Fox in London, where they called me to come and meet Gary Kurtz. It wasn’t just me, but I was the only one who’d met him before, so I got the job.

And that, in a sense – I didn’t know it at the time, but that would completely alter my life.

It’s interesting, because those James Bond Films – Thunderball and You Only Live Twice – set the pace for your career, in a way. All of your later films seem to involve a lot of exotic locations, big sets and special effects.

Well, yes. I somehow fell into all of that. The early films I did, no. Darling, The Pumpkin Eater, those kinds of films, no. They didn’t. I did Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the very first film he did.

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The first big film I did like that was called The Yellow Rolls Royce, which had a very starry cast at the time. It had about six pop stars in it. That was a big film for me, and my first venture into that world. Then of course I did the Bond films. So you’re absolutely right – it was a preparation for what would happen.

I did Papillon, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Then of course, when George Lucas appeared on the scene, 20th Century Fox wanted veteran people around him, people who had experience, because George and Gary had none. So we had John Barry, the designer, who was fantastic. He’d done some big jobs. Gilbert Taylor, the director of photography – all these people had come out of a big feature film background.

So what did you make of George Lucas at that time? Had you seen his two earlier films before doing Star Wars?

I’d seen American Graffiti. I’d not seen THX-1138, but I saw it later. It was pre-VHS days, so I had to go to a preview theatre to have a look at it. When I met George – I don’t judge people or anything like that. He was younger than me, and I was still in my 30s, and so was Gary. I just do what I always do, and what I tell everybody in our job to do, and that is to help the director tell a story.

I got on very well with George, and we got on and did it, and when it opened, I had no idea what had happened. I was in Afghanistan, shooting a movie with Peter Brooke, the theatre director who lives in Paris now, but occasionally does a film. This was an arthouse film called Meetings With Remarkable Men.

So I’m in the middle of Kabul when Star Wars opens, but I have no way of knowing because we have no telephone. I couldn’t phone the office in London, I couldn’t phone the studio – we used Telex for communication. The only way I found out was, I got copies of Time and Newsweek. I got Time magazine that week, and [Star Wars] got six pages of colour photos. I went, “Ooh, Wow!” 

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That must have been incredible, because I don’t think Fox had a huge amount of faith in the film’s success.

They didn’t have faith. At that time, science fiction was considered box office poison. Alan Ladd Jr had agreed to the film, but all of the board at Fox – if they could have got out of it, they would have done. And it’s their fault that they didn’t believe in it, because it came back to haunt them. They didn’t tie up the sequel or the merchandising rights – George had it all. And you know how much he sold it all to Disney for!

It was extraordinary, because they were on our backs all the way through shooting. Of course, we had a very tight schedule, and very little prep time, in view of what it was. And we just made it by the skin of our teeth, and they gave us a hard time all the way through it.

We were the only Fox movie shooting at the time, which meant that all their eyes were on us. Then we opened, and within a week of opening, their price on Wall Street doubled. I love it when that happens! [Laughs]

I take it that the atmosphere on the set of Empire Strikes Back must have been very different, without that studio pressure.

It was different. The one thing about working on Empire was, we had to be careful because the first film had been such a phenomenon. People were going to think we had more money and sense, and we went over budget on Empire anyway. But it did really well.

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The third one, Return Of The Jedi, was totally on schedule and on budget. I personally think it’s the worst of the three I did.

That’s interesting, because that was the general critical consensus, too. Why is that, do you think?

I’ll tell you why. I think I do know why. Because it brings all the characters together who were scattered all over the galaxy at the end of Empire, if you like. I find that it doesn’t have as strong a story thrust as the original and Empire. But hey, I didn’t not like it – I loved it. I’d like to see it again now. It just didn’t have quite the same impact, I feel. But it did extremely well, and many years later, he came back to the three prequels.

How hands on was Lucas with Empire and Return Of The Jedi? Was he on set very much?

No. Not on Empire Strikes Back. He was there a bit. He was on the set of Return Of The Jedi a lot more. He was on set pretty much every day, but not so much on Empire.

I’m looking forward to the next one now, because that’ll be the one that comes after the last one I did. With the prequels, I found them more difficult to appreciate, because they started way, way back, yet their effects were more advanced than anything we could do!

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You were an AT-ST driver as well…

Yes! I’m the one who gets ripped out by Chewbacca. We were shooting pick-ups – just bits and pieces – after principal photography had finished. We were down at ILM’s facility in California, and we had this scene to do with the captain and the lieutenant. Someone said, why don’t you and Richard [Marquand], the director do it?

So we thought, why not, and put on the costumes and did it. When I go to some of these Star Wars conventions, I always go with two photographs. One is of me as an AT-ST driver, and the other is a picture of me on location in Norway. So when people come along, I always ask, “Which do you want? The one that took me four hours to do, or this one of me that took six years to do?” And they always choose the four hour one! There we go!

As well as the Star Wars films, you also did the Indiana Jones movies.

Between Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, we also did Raiders Of The Lost Ark. When we were doing some pick-ups at ILM, George came in one day, and gave me this script. He said, “Read this, Rob, and let me know what you think.”

So I took it back and read it that night, and came back, and it was Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I said, “Wow, George, this is one decent movie.” And he said, “Yes, we’re going to make this, but you’re going to have to go and meet Steven Spielberg, because if you’re going to work with him, you have to know whether he’ll get on with you.”

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So I went down to LA, and [producer] Frank Marshall took me to see Steven, and that was alright, and we were off on another one. 

That was another film that had to be shot quickly, wasn’t it, Raiders?

Yeah, that was fantastic. But because Empire had gone over, I was slightly wary. And also, I wanted to find out about Steven. And the way to find out about people is to call someone in the industry who’s worked with them – but not somebody you don’t know well enough that they won’t tell you the truth.

He’d just made a film called 1941, and a friend of mine had actually been on that film in Mexico with me – Jeremy Ziesmer was the assistant director on it. So I rang him, and said, “Jeremy, what’s Steven like to work with?”, and he said, “Expect to go 50 per cent over.”

And I said, “Oh my God!”

So when I scheduled Raiders, I laid it out over 23 weeks of shooting. And when I took it down to Steven and said it was 23 weeks, he said, “Oh, that’s far too long. Take six weeks out of it.”

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I thought, “Six weeks?”

I went to see George, and said, “He’s making me take six weeks out. Are you vulnerable here if we go over it?” And George said, “No, just do what Steven wants.”

So I’ve dropped six weeks out, and we’re now down to 16 weeks. We shot it in 15, one week under that! And I tell you what, Steven was proving something to people after 1941, where he had gone way over. It’s what I call one of his flatulent movies, it really is.

But I’ve never seen anyone work as fast as he did. It was a very complex film, but he has the most brilliant mind. We’d do one take on a really complex shot, and then he’d say, “Cut, print, next shot.”

I’d go, “Steven, you’ve got to do a second one!”

You always need the second take, because it’s for insurance. We call it the Lloyds shot, in case there’s a scratch on the negative or something in the other shot. So I’d make him do another one.

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He was prepared to do just one take and then be packed up and gone. We started getting further and further ahead – and for the first and only time in my life, I went to Norman Reynolds, the production designer, and said, “Norman, speed up the sets, we’re getting ahead of schedule.”

But Steven can do that. He was brilliant.

With all these complex films, where you’re juggling the budget, the locations, the effects, the schedule and things like that, what aspect of your job in those films was the most difficult?

Well, I can’t answer that question with one single thing, because everything builds from the beginning. If you like, I’m the first person on the film, and the very first person I’ll be engaged with is the production designer. And then we’ll go and find the locations and this, that and the other. It all comes together piece by piece.

The most frightening time, really, is the first day of shooting. I’d be like an actor who’s got stage fright. The night before, sometimes I’d throw up. But once that day’s over, it takes on a life of its own. You’re constantly looking at things all the time as you go through. To me, if you’ve got the right people, the heads of department around you, and a director like Steven, or something like that, you can’t go wrong.

I’ve got to know what I’m doing, because that’s how it works. It’s a group effort. Helping, as I said, the director tell a story. It’s very difficult to single out the most difficult part out of that melee of things that I did – they’re all difficult and easy, if you see what I mean.

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Which film do you remember most fondly?

Let me go back pre-Star Wars, and tell you the one I really enjoyed working on. It was an early black and white movie I did. It was a film called Darling, and it had Julie Christie in her first starring role, and Dirk Bogarde and Lawrence Harvey. They were both big stars, and the director was John Schlesinger. He was delightful to work with.

If you were standing behind him on set, he’d ask after every shot what you thought. And if you made a suggestion, he’d do it. And he was lovely. For all those years, that was the happiest film I worked on. It was really fun. Shepperton Studios. Eight to 10 weeks’ schedule. No special effects, no car chases. Just a really interesting story at its time, because it was reflecting what we now know about the 60s. It was a delightful film, but hey – they all were in a way.

When I got to Thunderball, I finally went to America for the first time. The first time I went to the US, I didn’t even spend the night. I was shooting in the Bahamas on Thunderball, and it was only a 40 minute flight to Miami. So the three of us, the other second assistant and the third assistant director, on our Sunday off, we flew to Miami, hired a car, drove all around the place and then got back on a plane and flew back for work the next day.

Then I was asked to do the Miami shoot, so I ended up filming in America for the first time. And it was during the time I was there that I came back via New York, and that was the first time I met Stanley Kubrick. He was still in New York, because he hadn’t yet made his move to England. Stanley wouldn’t fly in aeroplane!

What was he like to work with?

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Oh, I loved working with him. But he could get a bit long-winded about how long it takes to do his films. But some people look upon him as some kind of lugubrious, tedious person, but he was very funny. He made me laugh. He was a brilliant director, God knows.

When we did 2001, we were on schedule for the first six weeks. Then we went on to the centrifuge shots, which were amazing, and revolved and all of that. We were scheduled to be on that set for 10 days. We were on it for 10 weeks! 

Oh my God!

From there on in, our schedule just went whoosh! But it’s a brilliant movie, and I’m very proud to have had something to do with it, in a small way. And it helped me through, because I know now that George asked Stanley about me, so thank you Stanley! But of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was another amazing, challenging film you worked on.

Ah yes, now there’s another situation. Between Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and The Last Crusade, there was going to be a five year gap instead of a three year gap, because Steven was going on to make Empire Of The Sun. So I’m now the vice president of European production for Lucasfilm, which was a silly job, but if anyone in Europe tries to contact George, they get sent to me first.

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At one point, Richard Williams, the animator, who was making commercials, wanted George to see one of his films. So I went down to his place at Soho Square, and looked at 10 minutes of his fantastic film. I said, “Look, I’m going to California, I’ll take it with me and show it to him.”

So I took it and showed it to George, but he never took in outside projects, so that was that. But I took it to LA and showed it to Steven, and he said, “Oh wow, this is fantastic. Look, I’m making this film called Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Would you like to produce it?”

And I said, “I’m supposed to be producing a thing called Willow for George…”

Anyway, to cut a long story short, George couldn’t get the money together for Willow, and Steven kept asking me, so in the end, George said, “You’d better take Steven’s film, because I don’t know when I’m going to get this together for Willow.”

So I signed on for Roger Rabbit, and about three weeks later, George got the money for Willow. And I hate to say this, but that was where lady luck was shining, because Willow wasn’t exactly a hit, whereas Roger Rabbit was a big success. A huge film.

It also was a nightmare to make. 

That was what I was going to ask, because it must have been an incredible technical challenge.

Bearing in mind here, this was a period where there’s no computer work going on. It was all in development. Every single shot in that film was hand painted. Not only that, but they had to be rendered to give them a more 3D effect. Really, the brief was, we’re not going to do any of those things people normally do when they put animation with live action, which means a locked-down camera and flat lighting.

No, we were going to do the opposite. And Richard Williams was brilliant – he was able to do this, and no one had ever done anything like it. It was an extraordinary experience, even though there were some days where I wished I wasn’t there [Laughs].

Now I’ve got Walt Disney kicking my arse every day. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was the president of Walt Disney at that time… we had a $30m budget, and it cost $50m, which is a big overspend.

Cor, blimey. I’d come out of these meetings feeling like I’d been beaten to death. I looked like something out of what’s it called – what’s that videogame that’s just come out? That violent one?

Ah, Grand Theft Auto!

Yes! I looked like a victim of that! [Laughs]

But lady luck was there, because it was brilliant. Zemeckis was fantastic. But he didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar for that, and it was the most difficult thing to direct I’ve ever seen.

It’s criminal, really, because it was a stunning piece of work.

He got technical things, but he didn’t get Best Picture or Best Director.

I was talking to someone the other day about this, that it tends to be the case that science fiction and comedy rarely seem to get Best Picture.

It is rare. But I did win the only award I’ve ever won, though, for Roger Rabbit. And that’s the Italian Oscar, which is called the Donatello Award. It’s modelled after Donatello’s David, and about the same size as an American Oscar, in gold on a marble base.

I was thrilled, because we were in the foreign film section, obviously, and it was a live TV show just like the Oscars. Most of it was Italian film and television, and I didn’t know what most of these things were. But I was up against Rain Man, which had won the Hollywood Oscar earlier that same year. And I thought, “Oh shit…”

I thought we didn’t stand a chance, because we didn’t even get nominated before. Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson, the director and the producer, they were there. We were all sitting together. The third film was The Bear, and the producer of that was there. I liked The Bear. I liked Rain Man – I thought it was a brilliant film.

Then they called out Roger Rabbit, and I couldn’t believe it! That was a great moment, because it was such a nightmare to make.

And much deserved! There was talk of a sequel for years for Roger Rabbit.

I’m still hearing mutterings about it even now. But it’s a different era. Do you know how much easier it would be to make that film these days with computers? We had to get those characters into it. ILM did an amazing job putting it all together.

We were shooting on the set, and half of the actors weren’t there, because they’re Toons.

Bob Hoskins did a hell of a job.

Bob was brilliant. Just brilliant at it. And the other great thing about Bob is that he can do an American accent so well. It was just perfect. I saw him do so many scenes where he was supposed to be with Roger Rabbit, and there’s no one on the set with him. We had a Roger Rabbit, which was like a foam rubber bendy toy. We’d put it into the frame so Bob would know where the eyeline was, then we’d go for a take with nothing there.

All the sets were 10 feet off the ground, because we had puppeteers underneath working things. Because if Roger picked something up off the desk, it had to rise, because it was a real thing and not animated. Like I say, it was a complete nightmare!

But well worth it! Robert Watts, thank you very much for your time.

Robert Watts will be among the line-up of interviewees at The Space on Thursday the 7th November. You can find out more about the event and book tickets here.

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