For Lee Towersey, everything changed at Celebration Europe in summer 2013. He’d been a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club for six years, having built his first film-accurate astromech in 2009, when Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy toured the club’s exhibition booth. Three months later, he was hired — along with fellow Builders Club member Oliver Steeples — as part of the creature-effects team at Pinewood Studios for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In 2016, Towersey found himself lying on his back aboard the Millennium Falcon, remote control in hand, as Mark Hamill and Artoo (played by newcomer Jimmy Vee) were reunited for one of the greatest scenes in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. StarWars.com called up the master droid builder to chat about his experience on set at Pinewood and Skellig Michael, adapting his Artoo units for Jimmy Vee, and paying tribute to the late Kenny Baker.
StarWars.com: When you were first hired to work on the new trilogy, you were just a fan like the rest of us. What challenges did you face in getting your droids ready for the big screen?
Lee Towersey: Well, thankfully, Oliver [Steeples] and myself had already built R2-D2s for our own purposes, which is ultimately what got us the job on The Force Awakens. Then, when it came to making a film droid, it was a little bit easier, in part because it doesn’t need to have as many bells and whistles on it as a lot of the builders make themselves for their home projects. Fan-built R2-D2s tend to have more gadgets on them. But, as we discovered early on into the job, the more gadgets that’s on Artoo, the more that can go wrong, which you can’t really afford to have when you’re filming. So we kept them basic — we copied them, as per the original R2-D2, to the best of our knowledge. We had the originals as reference, and the parts we pretty much built ourselves from scratch.
The first job that I needed to do for The Last Jedi was to get [actor] Jimmy Vee in there. For The Force Awakens, we didn’t actually have anyone inside R2-D2; for the movement, when he was in two-legged mode, it was all pneumatics in the feet to make him rock side to side. But for The Last Jedi, we knew Jimmy Vee was gonna be available, so I took the hydraulic system out of the feet and adapted R2-D2 to take Jimmy’s legs. Because his feet go into the foot gels of R2-D2, and you have to do some cutouts in the battery boxes, and then there’s some leg hoses which cover Jimmy Vee’s legs — which is the main method used for Kenny Baker in A New Hope. We had the option of putting Jimmy in greens, so that we could CG his legs out, but as a nod to Kenny Baker we decided to keep the foot hoses.
The first shot we did with the two-legged Artoo was on Skellig Michael. I’d done a recce in early 2015, with Rian Johnson and a few other people on the production, just to make sure, logistically, that we could get R2-D2 over there, and to visualize where the scenes were going to be shot. Getting on and off the island is always by boat, so we couldn’t just stick Artoo on a boat and take him over the sea for an hour. That wouldn’t have been possible, because the saltwater getting into the droid could have caused us problems, so we came up with a method of breaking him down into four parts: two legs, the body, and the dome. And we boxed them up and took them over to Skellig Michael when we started filming, and stored them on the island with all the props and creatures and so on.
We shot a gag scene where he’s trying to get up some steps, to follow Rey and find Luke — a bit of a comedy moment — and his middle foot’s trying to pull at the first step: “Hey, guys, I can’t make it up these steps.” Unfortunately, we tossed it and it wasn’t seen. But the work we had to do with R2-D2 back at Pinewood, knowing this scene was coming, was done with the help of [animatronic designer] Giles Hannagan. Giles came up with this mechanism for the foot to retract in and out, while Jimmy Vee was in the droid, which would go in between his legs. That was remote-control-operated. And then we have the dome, which we control as well, and we had to check the gears for the dome rotation to make sure Jimmy Vee didn’t get caught up in that at all.
The performance of Artoo, as far as the movement is concerned — wiggling from side to side, rocking the body backwards and forwards — is where Jimmy Vee comes in. So the preparation I had to do for The Last Jedi was basically converting the pneumatic R2-D2 to the Jimmy Vee version.
StarWars.com: During production on The Force Awakens, did you ever have a chance to meet Kenny Baker?
Lee Towersey: Yes, I did. I’d previously met him — we’d worked together in the past at comic-cons and so on a few times. But fortunately, he did come in on one day of filming. We were shooting the interior of Maz’s castle at the time, and Kenny Baker came along, and J. J. kindly stopped filming and made an announcement that Kenny Baker had arrived. And he got a round of applause from all the cast and crew that were on set, and then he came to the photography studio and had a few photos taken with R2-D2. So he did come in for the day, and I spent some time with him. He was in good form. He wasn’t very well at the time, but he still had his sense of humor.
StarWars.com: Did the scene with Mark Hamill on the Falcon make for a pretty emotional day?
Lee Towersey: Yeah, it did. I felt at the time that it’s quite an iconic scene that we were filming. I’ve had a few people ask me questions about that scene since The Last Jedi’s come out, and they felt that it was quite an up-there moment in the film. And when we shot it I felt it was quite special, as well. Mark was as professional as ever; he was in the moment. We did a few takes, and I remote-controlled R2-D2 across the floor space in the Falcon.
Something else people ask, with the projection of Princess Leia, is, “Was that an homage to Carrie Fisher?” Because she’d sadly passed away. And no, the answer there is that we’d already shot that; that was always going to happen. But it means even more now — it’s even more special because of that classic scene. And when we shot that, and Luke is talking to Artoo, Jimmy Vee was inside. That’s the two-legged version; we did a quick switcheroo. Jimmy’s in the droid the whole time, I’m doing the remote control on the head, and some of the shots are quite wide, so there’s nowhere for me to hide except for at Mark’s feet. So while that shot’s being taken, I’m lying on the floor in between Mark and R2-D2.
StarWars.com: Do you have any other fond memories of visiting Skellig Michael?
Lee Towersey: What an experience. The recce was fun. I didn’t know Rian Johnson — I’d never met him before, but I got to spend some time with him. He was so down to earth, and was just going along for the ride. He thought it was as cool as the rest of us did. I’ve come into this business being a Star Wars fan first — pretty much all of us are Star Wars fans, anyway — we’re all in the same boat. We all get excited and have to pinch ourselves now and again.
Skellig Michael itself is such a spectacular place already, but now it’s got the Star Wars magic to it. And when we went there, the puffins were still on the island. That was fun. The puffins just sit there and watch you go by; they seem tame. Rian was there just taking it in. He’s always got his camera with him, so he was clicking away taking shots. When we filmed on Skellig, there were these sherpas employed — local guys that worked for the tourist board, I think — who were amazing, because they were carrying all the equipment. Even though we were happy to carry our own gear going up the steps, it’s so treacherous that you have enough trouble looking after yourself.
I believe there’s some photos out in the wild of R2-D2 on a stretcher, the way they carried him up there on a daily basis: literally just two guys on either end of a stretcher carrying him up this hill. And he’s not lightweight; it’s all aluminium, so it’s quite heavy. That was quite a thing to see them working every day, carrying all the equipment up. Including Jimmy Vee! Jimmy Vee was always carried up the hill, as well. I was never fortunate enough to have that luxury, but Jimmy did.
StarWars.com: Tell me about some of the other droids. Are things like the First Order mouse droids sort of the easy part of your job?
Lee Towersey: It is, really. Yeah. It’s good fun. It’s very nice, actually, because I get to make the droids and then I get to carry on and perform them when we start shooting. When R2-D2’s being performed, I’m always there, but along with that comes other remote-control work with things like the mouse droids and the white First Order sentry droids, which we classed as sort of a mouse-droid update, if you like. And I’m usually controlling them on set, as well.
It’s fairly easy, but the trouble with the mouse droids is that they’re black, and they’re driving around on a black floor, so you do have to always be mindful of the cast and crew members that are around, because they easily get kicked or tripped over. But it’s a glorified remote-control car. I’m used to driving remote-control cars, and I’ve been doing it most of my life, so my childhood hobby of racing toy cars down the street paid off. Now, it’s my job.
StarWars.com: What’s it like interacting with some of these great performers — Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley — through the unique mechanism of remote control?
Lee Towersey: It’s two different things, actually, because you’ve got the older cast members that were in A New Hope and so on, such as Mark Hamill. And he’s seen the technology progress. So what they were doing in the ‘70s and the ‘80s — he compares that to what we’re doing now. And as technology has moved on, we’re able to supply a better product than what they had in the original films, so Mark and Anthony Daniels both tell stories about how they used to struggle with Artoo. They used to pull R2-D2 along on wires, for example, because with remote control he used to crash into walls, and it was so unreliable. The radio equipment used to interfere with other things on the film set, so it was easier to just use wires. If I had to do that now, I would feel that I’d failed. Thankfully, the technology hasn’t let us down.
With the newer cast members — Oscar and so on — they started around the same time as me, so we’ve sort of grown into this together, I feel, and it’s a great group of people to work with.
StarWars.com: You’ve traveled the world meeting fans with BB-8; you’ve left your mark on incredible films like The Last Jedi. What’s been your favorite part of that whole journey?
Lee Towersey: Working on set. It’s so nice to be able to make a product, to make a droid, and see it be able to perform, and then go to the cinema and see your work — not only what you’ve made but your performance, as well. And the camaraderie. We get on so well, we spend a lot of time together, and the team spirit is there. There’s such a good feeling on set.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available now on Digital and via Movies Anywhere, and comes to 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and On-Demand on March 27.
Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Glixel, Kill Screen, Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.