Yesterday’s “casting announcement” for Star Wars: Episode VII shouldn’t come as any shock to those who’ve keeping track of every single bread crumb that director J.J. Abrams – along with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy – has dropped for fans to snack on, in lieu of a proper meal (read: human casting news).
Nevertheless, Disney/Lucasfilm has deemed the news that plucky astromech droid R2-D2 will appear in Episode VII to be worthy of an official confirmation announcement, what with the robotic character – alongside his golden counterpart C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) – being one of the rare citizens of a galaxy far, far away to have shown up in all six of the previous live-action Star Wars movies (with Kenny Baker behind the wheel… er, under the dome, rather).
What’s far more interesting than this “reveal” is the story of the two gentlemen who have produced a fully-functioning R2 unit for Abrams’ film. The creative and talented men in question are Oliver Steeples and Lee Towersey, a pair of longtime Star Wars fanatics and members of the global R2-D2 Builders Club (Star Wars fans of the world unite!). Both of these fellows were featured in the first official Episode VII pre-production image that dropped online last week, along with Abrams, Kennedy and R2 himself at the Bad Robot studio’s workshop (appropriately enough).
Here is the official story of how Steeples and Towersey became official members of the Creature Effects team for Episode VII:
“It all started when Kathleen Kennedy toured the R2-D2 Builders area at Celebration Europe this past summer in Germany,” says Steeples, who finished his first R2-D2 in 2007, after 10 years of collecting parts and researching. “She posed for pictures with us, looked at all the droids we’d built and was very complimentary. I mentioned that the R2-D2 Builders in the UK were available if required, as a semi-joke. When I was contacted to work on the film by [executive producer] Jason McGatlin, it was on her recommendation.”
Steeples, from Berkshire, England, and Towersey, from Middlesex, England, are working full-time on Star Wars: Episode VII at Pinewood Studios (where the Twitter photo was taken), focusing solely on astromech-building — for now. Keeping an astromech droid in working condition throughout the production of a film is a challenge, as it’s filled with gears, lights, and electronics; Steeples and Towersey were chosen because of their expertise and experience, both having worked on Star Wars-themed commercials for the UK appliances megastore Curry’s. “We know the pressures of filming, prepping, and being able to assure reliability throughout the shoot,” says Towersey, who built the droid seen in the tweet. “We have a good knowledge of Artoo, with a large stock of parts for reference and drawings, plus we know what is involved throughout the whole building process, as well as potential problems we need to avoid.” Despite their impressive understanding of how to construct an astromech droid and keep it functioning, Steeples and Towersey still have a goal for Star Wars: Episode VII: to build a better R2-D2.
You have to give Kennedy and the other Episode VII producers credit, they have put together an impressive crew of craftsmen and filmmakers who grew up loving George Lucas’ space opera. That includes self-admitted Star Wars lover Abrams – whose visual approach on the rebooted Star Trek franchise reflects that influence – and co-screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3). Of course, Abrams is also collaborating on the Episode VII script now with a celebrated alum of the franchise, in the form of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi scribe Lawrence Kasdan.
Does this guarantee that Episode VII will have the same wondrous spirit that made the original Star Wars movie a delightful celebration of genre, more than thirty years ago (or even the dramatic complexity of later installments)? No, but so far it’s reason enough for us (or me, at the least) to stay optimistic about the future of this series.
Star Wars: Episode VII opens in theaters on December 18th, 2015.