Rogue One designer on the backstory for Vader's awesome castle

Contributed by
Jan 2, 2017

One of the most intriguing details of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story​ has its own even more intriguing backstory.

One of the things fans love so much about Star Wars is its detail work. For four decades now a legacy of brilliant designers, artists and builders has been giving us ships, creatures, weapons and worlds so fascinating that we can't help but leave the theater with questions. Rogue One, with its many callbacks, references and new designs, gave us plenty more of these, but if you're like me, one such question reigned supreme:

What's the story behind Darth Vader's rad lava castle?

This ominous black structure on the familiar planet Mustafar is only in the film for a single scene, but as with so many great Star Wars creations, the design process brought about details that add even more significance to the location. As many Star Wars fans know, the idea of a castle for Vader goes all the way back to the development of The Empire Strikes Back, when legendary designer Ralph McQuarrie even sketched out some ideas. For Rogue One, director Gareth Edwards and crew revisited the concept and started conceptualizing around the questions of where the structure would be built and why. Here's Rogue One co-production designer Doug Chiang with more:

"The initial idea was, 'Why would Vader live here?' In our minds, we started to come up with a little bit of a backstory. That perhaps this place had special meaning for him, and that this is where he comes to meditate and to heal himself. We started with the idea that maybe it should be built around his bacta tank chamber, and he comes back here to rejuvenate himself and also to meditate. So from there, the structure itself grew out from the bacta tank, and there were certain ideas that we tried. We were trying to go for a very iconic shape, and we always love tall towers. Ralph McQuarrie actually drew quite a few small thumbnail sketches [of Vader’s castle] that were very intriguing. They were kind of angular versions of a tower, and I saw the potential of where he was going, and I just exaggerated that quite a bit."

To add to the significance of the location itself, Chiang and his team went deeper, both conceptually and literally, building on the idea that the structure is built atop an ancient cave, perhaps even a cave that carries special significance for a Sith Lord.

"It went back to the original idea of, 'Well, why would Vader be here?' and there was a series of paintings and sketches that Ralph McQuarrie did, where Luke actually visits Vader in this underground lava cave. I always thought that was such a compelling image, because you have this lava lake inside this cave and there was Vader’s throne. So we took that idea and thought, 'Okay, well, maybe on the lower levels of Vader’s castle, there’s a more ancient part. That he actually built this castle on a foundation of an ancient structure.' If you look at the finished design, it has this very strong element of a structure that was there for a purpose, and that purpose was to draw energy from the lava lake. If you look at the design of the base, it feels very much like a dam, and how the lava flows through it, possibly getting energy. And so we thought, 'Okay, well, that’s the foundation. Maybe even deeper, or underneath that, is an even more ancient part, which is a natural cave where Vader goes to meditate.' Visually, we’re trying to create a sort of history for the tower. The bottom is the most ancient, the lava lake dam part was perhaps what Vader built his foundation on, and then the tower was Vader’s addition."

So, in the end we have not only a cool location for one of the film's most memorable moments, but also a host of ideas that future storytellers could build on in books, comics, TV shows or even future films. At the moment, we have no idea whether we'll ever see the castle again, but it's not hard to imagine where this could go. For instance, how could Darth Vader superfan Kylo Ren pass up the chance to see what secrets this place holds if he found out it still existed?

For more from Chiang on the entire Rogue One design process, including how the castle might serve as a "tuning fork" for the Dark Side of the Force, check out his interview at StarWars.com.