Warning: This post contains major spoilers for a key scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Just as The Force Awakens re-awakened our collective love for Star Wars by remixing elements from George Lucas’s original 1977 space opera, The Last Jedi is packed with callbacks to the original trilogy’s middle chapter, The Empire Strikes Back. Once again, the bad guys are ascendant, the heroes are on the run, and hope (both new and old) seems in short supply. For Jedi‘s standout setpiece, though, writer-director Rian Johnson skips straight past Empire‘s Cloud City finale right to the Skywalker vs. Skywalker vs. Palpatine face-off that concludes Return of the Jedi. Like Luke before her, next generation Force-wielder Rey confronts a Dark Side master and his apprentice, Snoke and Kylo Ren, on their own turf — a blood-red throne room — hoping that she can persuade the latter to turn on the former.
As the elder Jedi teases earlier in the movie, though, this encounter doesn’t go the way you think. Where Darth Vader battled his son before turning on his superior, Kylo slays Snoke and then turns on Rey when she declines to join him as part of the new galactic order.
The throne room scene arguably the most surprising turn of events in a movie filled with moments that cut against the Star Wars grain… much to the ire of some fans. It’s also the film’s most artfully staged sequence, with Snoke’s surroundings evoking comparisons to classic filmed operas, The Wizard of Oz, the samurai stories of Akira Kurosawa, and even Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria. According to The Last Jedi‘s production designer, Rick Heinrichs, the real inspiration for Snoke’s lair lies a bit closer to home. “There’s an old Ralph McQuarrie image from the late ’70s or early ’80s of a Darth Vader throne room,” Heinrichs reveals to Yahoo Entertainment. “It’s almost like a depiction of Hell — a throne with flames all around it.”
Obviously, that piece of McQuarrie concept art never became a practical set in the original trilogy, especially once Lucas shifted the balance of Dark Side power from Vader to Palpatine in Episode V and VI. Elements of it can be glimpsed in Return of the Jedi, specifically the fiery-red robes worn by the Emperor’s royal guard — fashion forerunners of Snoke’s Praetorian protectors. But Johnson and Heinrichs saw a place for McQuarrie’s original vision in their Jedi tale. “We used it as a metaphorical inspiration: this sense of a supreme leader in an elevated position, but without getting too far away from the hellish aspect of what he represents. It is, if you will, a very elegant Hell.”
That elegance is glimpsed in the room-spanning red curtain that frames Snoke’s chamber, which takes on an even more sinister hue when glimpsed reflected in the black floor beneath his throne. “The idea of the floor is that it’s kind of a black hole in a way; it swallows up light and humanity,” Heinrichs says, adding that the he used actual dance flooring right out of a Busby Berkeley musical to give the set that classic First Order sheen. “It’s got a cold, harsh contrast and reflective look that defines their ethos and aesthetic. It’s striking to see black and red together like that, and it makes Rey stand out in this kind of decadently extravagant throne room. It’s a way of having this amazing look with very simple means.”
As The Last Jedi VFX supervisor Ben Morris remarked to Yahoo Entertainment recently, Johnson preferred practical simplicity to complicated digital effects whenever possible. That approach also applied to sets like Snoke’s throne room. In other words, yes, that is a real red curtain hanging behind his seat of power. “We wanted to make it part and parcel of how the set works,” Heinrichs explains. “So we came up with this idea of the drapery and how it is pulled around the whole environment until, ultimately, it burns and falls apart as the action of the scene spirals out of the control.” For the record, Heinrichs emphatically states that the curtain wasn’t painted by an actual — or a digital — brush. “We selected that color from the available stock of fabrics. It was difficult to find just a straight red, so it’s a red that leans slightly towards yellow as opposed to magenta. We had to get it stitched up because it was so enormous, and the set itself ends at the very top of it. So in the widest shots, you’d see the rafters of the set — those are in the virtual world.”
Johnson and Heinrichs similarly took advantage of the virtual eraser to eliminate the wires and fire pits that dotted the set as part of the complex action choreography. “The way they do wirework these days is amazing,” Heinrichs marvels. “Daisy [Ridley] was suspended from four pick points with a multiple 360-degree axis. We also had to plan for the fire; we wanted as much of it as possible to be real in the frame, but we also couldn’t have a huge sheet of flames shooting up to the ceiling of a soundstage. So that’s a combination of practical and virtual. There were these pits on set that people could accidentally fall into. In fact, the health and safety person fell backwards into one right after warning everybody to be careful! Maybe to demonstrate how dangerous it was.”
In addition to the Busby Berkeley-inspired black dance floor, Heinrichs confirms that Johnson did indeed have Kurosawa on the brain as Snoke’s throne room came to life. The Japanese cinema icon is a longtime reference point for Star Wars; after all, much of Lucas’s original vision was heavily influenced by the 1958 adventure, The Hidden Fortress. “The ornamental aspect of it is very Kurosawa. And the use of red is partly ceremonial, which brings out a bit of the samurai influence that goes to the roots of Star Wars.”
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is currently playing in theaters.
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