When audiences first discover Luke Skywalker's remote island hideaway at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, they saw only its rugged natural splendor and sweeping panoramic views. The exiled Jedi's actual accommodations atop the mountain on the planet Ahch-To were not revealed in that final scene, resulting in a (literal) cliffhanger that allowed director J.J. Abrams to create a sense of mystery… and his production design crew to pass a big assignment on to the team that would work on the sequel.
The responsibility to actually figure out what Luke's castaway village looked like thus fell to writer/director Rian Johnson and the staff he assembled for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Johnson, as the mastermind behind the project, came up with the broad concept for the ancient Jedi holy ground aesthetic and made final decisions. But the heavy lifting and nitty-gritty of turning the Irish island of Skellig Michael into Ahch-to fell to production designer Rick Heinrichs, who inherited that role from The Force Awakens' production designer Rick Carter.
"It was up to us to figure out how we were going to do all the rest of the scenes that take place on the island," Heinrichs explained to SYFY WIRE. "And it was like, 'This is fantastic Rick, thank you very much, it's beautiful, but it's a real pain in the ass to shoot at,'" Heinrichs added, laughing.
The Force Awakens shot its single, fleeting Ahch-to scene on location at the rocky island, because all Abrams' team had to capture was Rey (Daisy Ridley) huffing up a mountain and then handing Luke (Mark Hamill) a lightsaber. The Last Jedi screenplay called for significant time spent with Luke and Rey at the island birthplace of the Jedi Order, and it was clear from the start that it would have been impossible to stage the entirety of a substantive shoot, with significant practical sets and creatures, on such a remote and inhospitable rock.
Thus began the search for a comparable location along the Irish coast that could stand in for Skellig Michael. "You've got two views there: one is into the rocks and the other is out to the water, and what we needed was a place for our own village that had both of those things in the same shot, and that was tough to find," Heinrichs said.
They wound up settling on a piece of the coastline not far from Skellig Michael, and in some shots in the movie, the actual island is even visible in the distance. But being on land made it far easier to construct the original Jedi Temple, Luke's hideaway and the rural village belonging to the island's caretakers, all of which Heinrichs was in charge of designing.
Each element of the island presented different histories that had to inform their designs and decorations. Luke's hut had to be simple, but also look worn-in, given the crestfallen Jedi's lengthy residence and isolation.
"It was a function of coming up with something that felt hermetically satisfying, in terms of what his lifestyle would have been, but also with some interesting aspects to it," Heinrichs explained. "We used a panel from the X-wing for the door, and originally we dressed it to the nines with lots of different elements we thought made sense. The idea was for Rian to look through it and see what stuck, and ultimately he got rid of a lot of that stuff and just kept it very simple with a few very interesting and precious objects."
Cutting down on the possessions made sense, given Luke's decision to live a monastic life. But they did keep a few meaningful objects, items that carried too much personal and sentimental value to toss, even for a man who wants to burn his entire religion to the ground. Most of these items were committed to film but eventually got cut from the movie in the editing room, though they may be shown in deleted scenes on the home video release.
"Luke's got an amazing amulet; it's not something he wears, it's something that you can see amongst things, and so keep your eyes peeled," he teased. "And then we had some sort of little token figures that he had, just to create a little bit of a sense of company."
The Jedi Temple and the Force-sensitive Great Tree is equally as sparse, though it was initially conceived as a more grandiose structure.
"The temple and the tree were meant to be built structures initially," Heinrichs said. "Lucasfilm had done some images to that effect, and one of the things I felt was more important was to put across a slightly simpler and more kind of gnostic version of what the early Jedi religion was. A temple that wasn't quite as a built structure. The Jedi, who are masters of balancing the light and the dark, probably worked a little bit more with the nature and the natural configuration of caves. If you ever go to Skellig Island, it's weird — the top of it looks almost like a cathedral, it almost has a very holy feel to it just from that."
They used the natural scenery as an inspiration for the Temple, deciding that "there wasn't a whole lot of intervention from the Jedi" in converting a natural setting to a spiritual place. Initially, they wanted to build out the Temple in Iceland, and film everything on location, but a rainstorm convinced them that the weather was too untrustworthy; these were big scenes they had to shoot. They decided to build the Temple at a studio, though they still worked with what earth presented to create a more natural feel.
Ultimately, the Temple was constructed at Longcross Studios, built atop a slope that had been used for testing tanks during World War II. The elevated geography meant that they could burrow into the slope to add important production elements, like a place for Frank Oz to stand as he puppeteered Yoda in the Temple.
As for the interior of the Temple itself, that too was sparse. "One of the things that helped me along the way was that I thought, this library has got like a lot of books, you know? And Rian was like 'No, there's like eight,'" he recalled, laughing.
Luke was not the only resident on Ahch-To. The island was populated by Porgs, of course, which counted as the island's wildlife, as well as the more humanoid alien creatures known as the Caretakers, which resemble turtle-fish people in nun's robes (aquatic humanoids are very in right now). Heinrichs went all-in on designing their village as well, which allowed him to work more with natural items to build a more complete setting. They first built it on Skellig Michael, recorded the setup with drones, scanned the ground, then rebuilt it at Pinewood.
Once again, not all of his work got into the final movie, and the larger village was indeed cut.
"They live near the sea, and they take care of Luke, so there was a whole aquatic scene," Heinrichs said. "We brought in enormous shell and fish bone/scales, things like that. it was a pretty cool scene between Rey and Luke too which is too bad, but I think they just had to cut some stuff and that was one of them."
Good news: that scene, along with a look at Luke's hut, are indeed on the home video release.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now available for digital download and hits Blu-ray on March 27.