The director and comic book creator talks about his parents' Empire Strikes Back surprise, what makes Han Solo essential, and more!
Rob Schrab is a modern master of fun, weird, energetic, and heartfelt visual storytelling. His 1994 cult-classic comic Scud: The Disposable Assassin stars a vending-machine robot killer turned hero who falls in love, told in a bold, kinetic style; the children's animated horror-comedy Monster House, which he co-wrote with Dan Harmon, doesn't shy away from scares and puts a fresh spin on haunted house tales; and his directorial efforts on TV shows like Community, including the dead-on G.I. Joe tribute/send-up, "G.I. Jeff," often go to very strange, and very funny, places. This blend of sensibilities comes from Schrab's affinity for different facets of pop culture -- filtered through his own creative lens. See Scud #1 for a more overt tribute to Star Wars, in which the villainous (female) Jeff shouts, "Now, young Skywalker, you will die!" Though she does it from her mouth-knees.
StarWars.com recently spoke with Schrab about getting exposed to Star Wars through a droid impression, what he loved about Revenge of the Sith, and talking Hoth creatures with his visual-effects hero.
StarWars.com: I want to start off by asking you not about the first time you saw Star Wars, but if you remember the first time you heard about it?
Rob Schrab: My older brother Jeff Schrab was talking about this movie that was coming out, and I remember him describing how R2-D2 was like a robot who had legs, but also had wheels at the same time. I remember him acting out how Artoo moved. He would kneel on the floor and put his arms back in a very R2-D2-like stance. "He rolls around like this, and there's this bad guy who breathes really heavy." And he hadn't even seen the movie yet. He saw the trailer for it, and like, everybody was freaking out. So that was my first, "Oh, what is that?"
Then, of course, when I went to see it in the theater I was blown away. That was back in the day when you would brag how many times you went to see a movie. "I saw Star Wars six times in the theater, and that was before it was rereleased!" I'm from a small farm town in Wisconsin called Mayville, and they used to have a movie theater there. They don't anymore, and it actually turned into a washing-machine retailer or whatever. But whenever I bring friends into this very small, under-5,000-people little town, I go, "See that place? That's where I saw Star Wars." [Laughs]
StarWars.com: How old were you when you first saw it?
Rob Schrab: I was seven years old. Very impressionable, and it's a cliché, but my life was never the same. I quickly got out my grandfather's Super 8 camera and started doing stop-motion movies of clay dinosaurs that would shoot each other with lasers and eat each other. It was very much inspired by Star Wars and action and monster movies of the time. Yeah, I'm a total cliché.
StarWars.com: It's a good cliché.
Rob Schrab: Yeah, it spawned some good people.
StarWars.com: How did you react to The Empire Strikes Back when you first saw it?
Rob Schrab: Here's the thing. My older brother Jeff, who told me about R2-D2, ruined the ending of Empire Strikes Back for me.
StarWars.com: Is that why Jeff is the name of the villain in Scud?
Rob Schrab: [Laughs] Maybe, maybe. I did name the character after my brother. I'm making my brother sound like such an evil person.
Any time there was something about Star Wars, we would buy it, ingest it, read it, watch it. Before Empire Strikes Back came to the theater in Mayville, he went out and bought the paperback [novelization], and read it. And I remember one afternoon, hearing him go, "[Gasps]." And I go, "What what what?" He comes in with the book, opens to the page, and points to, "No, I am your father." I was like, "Argh!" We were so obsessed, and it was one of the biggest spoilers in the history of the world. We were [fans] back in the day before the term "spoiler" was even coined, but it was events like this that made spoilers such a geek sin.
This is how cool may parents are. After church on a Sunday, my parents were like, "We're gonna go to McDonalds afterwards." We were like, "Oh, okay, cool." Then, they said, "Oh, there's a movie theater. Let's go see a movie." We didn't look at the marquee. I don't know why. I remember sitting down in the theater, and then the curtain opening up, and it was Empire Strikes Back and we were just freaking out. I knew it was out because my brother spoiled it, but I didn't know we were going to see it. It added to how fantastic the movie was.
That movie... AT-AT walkers, IG-88, the designs of everything are just gorgeous. There's that whole sequence where Darth Vader is hanging out in that chamber where he gets his helmet taken off. It's such a great moment, because you're shown for the first time that there's a man inside there.
StarWars.com: And there's something wrong with that man.
Rob Schrab: Yeah. That was one thing that I thought Revenge of the Sith really got well was when the mask was coming down on Anakin. I remember as a kid having a fear of, "What would it be like to be trapped inside that?" The look on Anakin's face as this mask is coming down on him -- this is the rest of your life -- was pretty frightening and horrifying. Masochistically, I'd been wanting to see it for decades. [Laughs] So, I really appreciated it.
StarWars.com: Did you find Return of the Jedi satisfying as a kid?
Rob Schrab: I did. It was Star Wars. It wasn't until college that I encountered people criticizing it. I watched it recently. There's good and bad. Jedi kind of stepped backwards [in tone]. But, it's Star Wars, you know?
StarWars.com: Right. There's speeder bikes.
Rob Schrab: Speeder bikes! The Millennium Falcon flies inside the Death Star. That's crazy and insanely cool. Those space battles are just jaw-dropping. To this day, it's like, holy cow. Gorgeous. So beautiful.
StarWars.com: A lot of your work, especially Scud, has a sci-fi bend to it. But more than that, I feel like you maintain this balance of having material that can be dark and even violent, but there's always a good spirit to it, which reminds me very much of Star Wars. Did it influence you in that regard?
Rob Schrab: Well, I think it's like, not talking down to the audience, especially children, and I think any good storytelling has a very real threat. That goes back as far as early Walt Disney movies, or even Wizard of Oz. Those flying monkeys are pretty terrifying, you know? I think what [George] Lucas and [Steven] Spielberg and Joe Dante and some of my favorite filmmakers of the time [did was], they made movies you could watch as a kid.
I think kids like to be not-talked-down to. Remember the first time you saw Star Wars and they showed an X-wing fighter pilot getting blown up inside the cockpit, and he's screaming, and fireworks are going off? It's pretty horrifying. We don't realize how horrifying it is. But what I appreciated is, they didn't sugarcoat it. This is life and death here. Even though it's up in space and there's robots and fun aliens, kids can handle it. It's all about committing to the story that you're telling. When you do that, you can have a movie that can be thrilling and scary and action-packed and funny.
The thing about it is, in Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Jedi, there's a lot of funny moments. Jedi, moreso, because it leans more on the comedy, but in Empire, there's some pretty good gags. And it wasn't set out to be a comedy! It was just that, we love those characters so much and we're just smiling every time they're interacting. They use this very whimsical "I'd rather kiss a Wookiee" moment between Han and Leia to [lead into] the bad guys showing up. "I don't want these people to die, so get on the Millennium Falcon and get out of there, because Darth Vader's on the way!" You just get excited about it. There's such an amazing balance.
StarWars.com: Well, it's interesting that you brought that up about Empire. A lot of fans talk about how it's great because it's dark, but people don't realize how funny that movie is. I would probably put Empire as the funniest out of all of them and the darkest.
Rob Schrab: There's some really creepy moments. Luke cuts off Darth Vader's head in the dream sequence, and the mask opens up, and it's his face in there. A disembodied head. That's hardcore stuff.
The universe matured with the audience. A seven-year-old goes to see Star Wars, then three years later, Threepio is blown apart. You grew up.
[The original trilogy] is the beginnings of modern cinema, or contemporary cinema. Everything today, after all this time, is still trying to be Star Wars. It's a hard nut to crack. You have the chemistry of the cast, which is amazing. There are so many great moments in there because it's all about cast; there are those three pioneering characters in there working together, and working off of the straight men of R2-D2 and C-3PO. It's such a very simple, likable, charming world. It's magical how that happened.
It's like the Beatles. The Beatles will always be the greatest band ever. There are people who say, "Oh, [this new band] is the next Beatles." And they come and go. The Beatles will always be the best ever. Same with Star Wars. Star Wars will always be the best.
StarWars.com: I've often made that comparison. To me, Star Wars is in that category of the Beatles and Michael Jackson, where it appeals to people across gender, races, and cultures, and has that special something that takes it to a different place.
Rob Schrab: Yeah. And [it appeals across] age, too. This is something that your mother and father can go see with you. Also, if you're not a fan of science fiction, you still can like Star Wars.
I went when Harrison Ford showed Empire Strikes Back [for a charity anniversary screening] at the ArcLight. It was pretty amazing. He said something that I thought was so brilliant, and something as a writer and as a storyteller, that I go, "Yes, every genre movie needs to have a character like Han Solo." People say, "Why do you think he's so loved?" And he said, "Well, I think it's because I'm the entry character for the non-fan." You know, Luke Skywalker dreams of flying in space and being a Jedi. And Obi-Wan has been there, and goes, "Hey, you should come with me to space and fly around!" Darth Vader is the evil out there. Then there's Han Solo, who's like, "Hey, I don't care about the Force or the Alliance. I just wanna make out with chicks and get paid and get out of here."
StarWars.com: And there's kind of a "prove it to me" element about him. He's sitting there with his arms crossed.
Rob Schrab: Yeah. He was always a curmudgeon, and it totally works with that character. He's like Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. He's the guy that goes, "I don't believe in any of this stuff that you guys are into." Peter Venkman is going to Ray Stantz and going, "Yeah, I don't believe it. I'm just in it to make money." Then he sees Slimer and says, "Okay...this is for real." It's more of a believable arc.
As sci-fi fans, we're there. You don't have to prove anything to us. We want to go there from the get-go. But the movies that do it the best are the ones that take you from a very emotionally real place of, "I don't believe this could be real, ever. I think it's kind of dumb, actually." But then, at the midpoint, the character starts tipping and goes, "Wait a minute, this is serious. People could get hurt. We need to take care of this." At that point, the person is so invested that he's willing to risk his life to save this thing that earlier he thought was so stupid. That's why when Han Solo comes back at the end [of A New Hope], it's such a stand-up moment. "This is amazing."
StarWars.com: Can you talk about the influence of Star Wars on Scud? Scud, much like Luke, had the capacity to do evil but instead chose good. And visually, Scud always had a great energy similar to the speed of Star Wars.
Rob Schrab: Scud's speed and energy come from that old school Lucasfilm editing. Throw your protagonist in an impossible situation then watch him fight like heck to get out of it. I kind of patterned Sussudio, the love interest in Scud, off of Princess Leia. Being a strong woman, who kept telling Han, "You're not all that," even though she was totally into him.
StarWars.com: Your short film, Robot Bastard!, and Scud, have a real handmade and warm look to them. That's something that I feel when I watch Star Wars. Did those aesthetics make an impact on you?
Rob Schrab: Oh, of course. [For] Robot Bastard!, I watched [From Star Wars to Jedi]. I like things that are tactile. I like building the models, I like building the laser guns. I wanted to be Phil Tippett when I was a kid. I wanted to be one of those guys blowing up models and stuff, but I was born in the wrong time. I just adore it. CG has its merits, but not at the cost of practical effects. There's got to be a way that both can live together.
I like to draw, I like to build things, I like to edit, I like to make music. When you have science fiction or fantasy filmmaking, you can have all the things you love to do and put them into your story. I've done a lot of TV stuff, and they're great. But when you're working on something like Community where you can do an animated story one episode, then a Logan's Run homage next, then a Goonies episode, that's the kind of stuff I like to do. Anything else is me working at 20 percent of my ability.
Robot Bastard!, I look back at it and am pretty embarrassed. It's the very first thing I did, shot it all on film, spent way too much money, and I look at it now and go, "Oh my gosh, I could do so much better." It is really hard to not go back and do a...
StarWars.com: Special Edition?
Rob Schrab: [Laughs] Yeah. There's some charm to it being my first movie, but I really didn't know what I was doing back then.
StarWars.com: Well, I thought it was so cool. I thought it was great.
Rob Schrab: Thank you. There was a lot of really fun stuff in it, and I'm proud of it. Thank you so much for saying you liked it.
StarWars.com: In "G.I. Jeff," was there a TIE fighter sound effect?
Rob Schrab: Oh, yeah. [And] the Wilhelm Scream, of course. G.I. Joe would use a lot of the same library [as Star Wars]. I believe when Zartan would get angry, and his chest would glow red, that was a lightsaber sound effect. They knew what they were doing. So, yeah, of course.
StarWars.com: Do you have a favorite Star Wars memory?
Rob Schrab: My parents taking me to see Empire as a surprise is definitely up there. It was like Christmas!
I recently did a Q&A with Phil Tippett, and we talked about tauntauns and stuff. [Laughs] I have to admit, I was pretty starstruck and got a little tongue tied a couple of times. But, I mean, I'm sitting next to the guy responsible for me wanting to do what I'm doing today. It's pretty incredible that I even could do that.
StarWars.com: One last question for you. If Jabba had hired Scud to find Han Solo, how would that have gone down?
Rob Schrab: I think Scud would've joined forces [with Han]. In the beginning he was like, "Will kill for money," but toward the end he recognized cool people from not-so-cool people. [Laughs]
I always wanted to see what would happen if IG-88 and Scud met up. Somebody [asked me], "Who would you do a crossover with? Would it be Spider-Man? Would it be Batman?" IG-88, I think would be pretty interesting.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm's senior content writer, and spends his days writing stuff for and around StarWars.com. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.