James Bond. Harry Potter. Han Solo.
Think of any of these leading men and it's likely that Neil Lamont had a hand in creating parts of their now-defining environments. After working as a supervising art director on The World Is Not Enough, seven Harry Potter films, and many others, Lamont joined Lucasfilm to work on J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He then took on the task of co-production designing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with the legendary Doug Chiang. And then he literally went solo as production designer on Solo: A Star Wars Story.
With Solo out on digital on September 14 and Blu-ray on September 25, SYFY WIRE spoke with Lamont to get the details on this latest entry in a galaxy far, far away. We talked about how the mid-production change in directors, from Phil Lord and Chris Miller to Ron Howard, impacted his work, how Savareen almost turned the crew into puddles of goo, and what environment proved hardest to create.
Rogue One was a retro piece that had to fit into the existing look of A New Hope. Did going back in time to research that project inform your aesthetic approach to designing Solo?
Well, there wasn't really an aesthetic. Of course, we'd have all of our standard stock elements. We know what the Empire feels like. We know what the Rebels feels like. Of course, this time we're not quite Rebels. We're sort of gangster-esque, or like [a] ranch owner of this huge herd of cattle that wants to take over the world kind of thing. We [knew] from Rogue the methodology we wanted to do. On it, we knew we were before Episode IV, of course, if only slightly, but we knew that that film was made in 1975 and '76.
During Rogue, [we asked] what was the height of technology in 1974, '75, '76? What was the height of manufacturing at that time, too? What were the big methods they used for the film at that time, and how can we improve it using 2016, '17 manufacturing techniques? That's how we started with Solo. Of course, Solo is now pitched in the late '60s, so we've got a little bit of retro, and we've got a little bit lo-fi.
What were your biggest influences for Solo?
One of the biggest influences we looked at film-wise was McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and things like Slow West (2015), and stuff like that. A journey, a coming-of-age kind of thing for Han Solo. What were, at that time, the best things in the '60s? What was the best manufacturing? What were the best cars? What did people aspire to? What was the height of technology? What was the Cold War like at that point? We were well into the Nuclear Era, that's stage two, so that had a huge influence on what we did, as well.
Mainly, that was the methodology with which we tried to find our design aesthetic.
Was Lord and Miller leaving towards the end of production a disruption? Did it change much of what you and your team had already produced?
To be perfectly honest, at the point where Ron came in, we weren't able to [change much]. Of course, when we did rebuild some sets, we obviously took his notes in hand, but we had created such an aesthetic by that point that either way, we're going to be using some of the footage, and therefore that would mean that we would have to stick to the same design aesthetic.
We may have built some of the sets slightly differently, with regards to say, the tunnel sequence. Maybe not done quite the same in terms of the layout of tunnels, but aesthetically everything still remained the same. Of course, Ron came in very graciously and said, "Yeah, this cannot change. It has to stay in this world."
Was there a sequence that you enjoyed the most in terms of design to execution?
Definitely. Things designed on the kitchen table on a Sunday evening with a glass of wine in your hand are always the best. Without any doubt. And to me, that's how Savareen, the distiller at the end of the film, was really born. We had scoured a lot of Europe for an interesting environment. We went with Phil and Chris to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. We ended up choosing this one location, and I came back, and it came to the point where we said, "We're gonna have to shoot this when? Good lord, really. In May? I thought we weren't shooting it 'til July!" Locations are like, "No, no, no, it's got to be May because the winds come in June/July, you fool!"
So, the heat was on at that point. We knew what we wanted to do. We'd already got to the point where we had concept-ed something, but we needed something to really work from. And on a Sunday afternoon, we went home and did a little bit of work on my drawing board in the house. And we went into the office the following day and we met one of our art directors, Alex Baily — a clever young man — to start drawing up the exterior of Savareen. Within a few weeks, we were out on location, with our white card model sitting on the location with a table, and everybody standing around it.
Everybody was looking at what the sun was doing at various times of day, especially Bradford Young, the DP, figuring out how to fit a whole day [of] shooting within that environment. We'd maybe run for interior cover at the height of the day, when the sun is at its lowest. We'd start the sequence in the morning, keep doing that whole sequence every morning, and then do a sequence in the afternoon, and keep repeating, or going back to those sequences that had to be shot in the morning or the afternoon. Logistically, design-wise, technically, and physically, it was a massive challenge.
As a creative person, do you work well under that kind of pressure?
I like to be under pressure. To be able to understand how we want it to look, it's like being asked by a painter, "What do you want this to look like? How do you want it to look?" Of course, I know I want it to be concrete, but I haven't told you that I want it to be really distressed, or finished to the point where it looks wet. So, you go and start looking for inspiration and images that you can show these guys.
That's a big part of the job actually, the journey of pushing everybody to get it all the way there, to the point where you can go home and have a decent night's sleep, really.
Of the film franchises you've worked on, including Bond, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, which design has given you the most personal jitters to get it right?
I supposed one of the trickiest things, which took a long time to come to, really, and did some big, physical samples, set decorating finish, was — it's going to sound ridiculous because it's so small — but the [Lah'mu] homestead on Rogue One at the beginning of the film.
And not so much the exterior, but the interior, and how to stay within the parameters and the sensibility of what we first saw in Episode IV as Luke, Beru, and Owen's homestead. To not pull away too far from that, and make it feel it's within the same time period, but within a different environment, and still say it's also Star Wars. I have to say that was probably one of the biggest things that I really enjoyed doing.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is available on digital on September 14 and Blu-ray on September 25 .