Conversation With: Nick “Yoda Guy” Maley
On a Caribbean island far, far away (St. Maarten, to be exact), Star Wars make-up artist Nick Maley runs a modest movie museum exhibiting props and creatures called Yoda Guy. Sure, he may have fastened tassels to Greedo’s mohawk and constructed the Wampa ice creature, but he is best remembered for his part in the creation of that diminutive green icon known as Yoda.
From his upbringing in England to the sound-stages of George Lucas’ legendary space saga, Nick Maley has seen and done it all. In a rare opportunity, Myles Herod sits down with him to discuss film set memories, Yoda, and what it’s like to be “retired” in the Caribbean.
You’re known as a make-up artist, but I read it wasn’t your first career choice.
NM: I wanted to be an actor. My dad was an actor, so I grew up in theatre and I used to hangout with actors learning all the skills that actors need. Then when I got to be about eighteen I realized that people had lied to me. I wasn’t going to be tall and handsome and I better make the most of some of those skills I had, otherwise I would be an unemployed actor. I knew a lot of unemployed actors.
A tough gig, isn’t it?
NM: It’s a difficult life. You grow up talking to people about the chances that they “almost” got and the parts that they “just” missed, or when they were the stand-ins for Greta Garbo. I think anybody who works in the entertainment industry and manages to make a living at it should consider himself or herself to be a success.
So you thought outside the box.
NM: I had a very open mind when I went into make-up. I started by teaching at drama school, because I learned make-up from my dad. When he got sick I took over his classes and from there I used that by going to filmmakers and saying, “Look I’m nineteen and I teach at University. I must be a whiz kid. You have to give me a union ticket!” After a couple of years, they did!
How formative were those years?
NM: I honed my craft when I was teaching because I was able to make mistakes and nobody noticed. Some people tend to say things like, “Oh, you have a gift.” Well, I’m a believer in perseverance. I wasn’t a very good artist until I persevered enough to be reasonable at it. There are people who do have gifts and things come to them very easily. Then, when the going gets tough, they give up, because they are not used to having their way.
When did Stuart Freeborn, the man who created Yoda, enter into your life?
NM: I had been in the business for two years when I first worked for Stuart on a movie called Young Winston.
Yes, with Richard Attenborough (editor’s note: old guy from Jurassic Park).
NM: That s right. It was a mixed experience because I was trying to prove myself, and, like all jobs, you’re competing with a whole bunch of other people. Everybody wants to make sure they are the ones who get the next job. Also, it was bloody hot. We would be out in the Sahara desert on a sand dune by six o’ clock in the morning making up the Moroccan army.
Stuart obviously took a liking to your on-set work ethic.
NM: Initially he gave me two days work to get me off his back because I haunted him. I guess you could call it stalking. Ultimately, I impressed him enough in those two days for him to give me sixteen weeks. It wasn’t until 1976 that he included me in a creature effects crew on the first Star Wars film, and that was largely through his son Graham who had become a good friend.
Would you say that your make-up career would have been vastly different if you had not met Stuart or his son Graham?
NM: I think so. Succeeding in any freelance business is about networking. I think one needs to try not to offend anybody. My life would have been totally different if I had not made Star Wars.
Stuart was also known for his work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, creating the apes. Legendary stuff.
NM: It’s the reason I stalked him. I admired what he did with the apes, and I knew that he would get all the best jobs. So, if I were on his team, I would get them too.
In 1976 you were a junior member on Stuart’s team for Star Wars. Any inkling of what you were getting yourself into?
NM: No, not at all. It was just another job. I was happy to be working with Stu. I was happy to be doing make-up effects. I was learning new skills. Truthfully, I was just happy to be working. When you are struggling, you can go for six to eight months with no income, and that can be very tough, especially if you don’t want to live at home with mom.
How familiar were you with George Lucas’ previous work?
NM: Hadn’t a clue. People would talk about this movie he made called American Graffiti. I had never seen it. I certainly hadn’t seen THX 1138, his very first movie, which I personally think is the best thing he’s ever made.
From what I researched, your key contribution to Star Wars: A New Hope was the famous “Cantina Scene.”
NM: A lot of people don’t know this, but the cantina scene was shot in two parts. Part of it was shot in post-production in California. There were a lot of inserts added to that scene. They gave us ten weeks in order to try and fill the room up with creatures, and basically anything else. The wardrobe department was pulling out anything that could be a costume. There were spaceman costumes there that we traced back to six different movies! Someone found an old gas mask and said, “Oh, that looks good, let’s model a head that goes with that.” We would use anything to fill the room.
Fast-forward a couple years, you’re working on The Empire Strikes Back. How did it differ from working on A New Hope?
NM: Being two years later, it was a big difference. Instead of being the new kid on the block, I was the most experienced guy left. I was effectively running the new guys in the workshop. Stuart had his own room where he worked on the prototype Yoda. In our workshop, we were building the Wampa and other creatures. Graham (Freeborn) had done a lot of the modelling, but when we started filming, he became the head make-up artist looking after all of the actors. That left me as a workshop supervisor, although I was never given that title.
Can we talk Yoda? Stuart decided how he looked, and from what I gathered, modelled him after his own appearance. What truth is there to that?
NM: Well, it ended up that way, but I don’t think it was a conscious decision.
NM: There were preliminary drawings of Yoda that looked smarmy and weird with a big head and a skinny body. The bottom line is, he was initially so narrow, that he would have been based on, well, a pipe. As soon as it was decided that it was going to be a glove puppet, then he was restricted by the size of the puppeteer’s arm.
What about the look of Yoda?
NM: At first he didn’t look particularly old. He looked a bit stupid, really. Not the smart, wise character we’ve come to know. So, Stuart experimented with faces that you could say “related” to being smart. If you look at Yoda, his head shape is rather reminiscent of Gandhi. The white hair, the smiling eyes, and the big upper lip all come from Albert Einstein. Albert was old in drawings Stuart was referencing, so by way of that, it made Yoda older. Keep in mind, Stu was 65 by this point, so if there were any bits of Yoda that weren’t detailed, he would look in the mirror and use his own appearance for the finishing touches. The funny thing is, when it was all said and done, it looked so much like Stu that we couldn’t understand why we spent 10 months building when we could have used green paint and stuck ears on him in a couple weeks!
Your involvement with Yoda was making him function, correct?
NM: There were four different versions of Yoda that were built. I made the moulds, the skins, and the skulls. I thought that was all I was going to do. Then they told me they wanted a walking version, so Stuart starting thinking immediately about a walking animatronic figure, but concluded that there wasn’t the personnel, or the time. Since I was the main guy left in the workshop, Stuart came to me and asked me if I had any ideas. I always tell young people, “Make the most of your opportunities.” If something comes to you, just go and grab it.
Even if you don’t know what you’re doing?
NM: Don t hesitate. Just go for it. Because, if you hesitate too long, it’s gone and it’ll be one of those things, like we talked earlier, where these out-of-work actors ruminate on how they “nearly” made it. Getting back to the story, though, I asked Stuart, “Why are we were talking about animatronics when no one knows how tall the trees are?” From there I suggested that we take Deep Roy, who was a little person actor and only ten inches taller than Yoda, and have him dress up and walk through the trees. They responded, “We could do that!” So that was the first one I built.
Were you ever present on the Dagobah set (Yoda’s on-screen home)?
NM: I was down there a few times. I was a filthy set.
Actual mud and water?
NM: Absolutely. I had to put on Wellington boots to get through. But I was only there to take the puppet down, see a couple things, and then it was back to the workshop working on other creatures.
The success of Yoda has always been linked to Frank Oz, who was the voice and puppeteer.
NM: He was the lead puppeteer on Yoda. Frank deserves a lot of credit.
NM: He really brought the personality that everybody loves. He brought the whole thing to life. Not many people know this but there were three other puppeteers, but they never get any credit. With that said, they were all taking instructions from Frank.
The reason I ask is because you and Stuart aren’t as equally recognized.
NM: Well, what happened was there was a lot of publicity about Frank and the Muppets, which led to many people believing that Jim Henson built Yoda. Not true. Although, we did have a lady named Wendy Minder that came from the Muppets to join our department to make sure that we didn’t build anything that Frank wouldn’t be able to operate. She built the foam body and the linkages for the arms as well as maintaining him on set, while we built Yoda’s heads, hands, and feet.
You mentioned that the Dagobah set was filthy. How dirty would Yoda get?
NM: If you look at Yoda on screen, you’ll see him get dirtier and cleaner through each scene.
Can someone say continuity error?
NM: Exactly. The set was filthy, so every time they put him down he would pick up a bit more dirt. Imagine it, though. It’s very hard to be under the ground with your arm through a board covered in leaves watching a television screen. You can guarantee there were moments when Yoda went down into the mud.
We can’t talk about Yoda without touching upon his digital re-imagining in the newer trilogy.
NM: I really didn’t like Yoda in Episode One. I have to apologize to Gary Pollard who modelled him. Unfortunately, it didn’t keep any of the personality of the first movies. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. No one seems to have noticed the great physiognomy Stu originally modelled into Yoda. It was very passive. It had humour, worry, concern. It had so many emotions in that face.
Has CGI ruined today’s cinema?
NM: It’s destroyed a lot of the magic. There was a time when we built Yoda that people would go, “What is that? How did you do that?” It was mystifying. Just imagine if a magician decided that they were going to make videos telling everybody how they accomplished their tricks. How many people would show up to watch those tricks? Today in movies, you can blow up the world and people won’t bat an eyelash. Nobody is amazed by anything anymore.
What did you think of George Lucas going back to his original series and adding new effects and digital creatures?
NM: To be honest, I didn’t mind it. There were a few scenes that were aggravating.
Is it safe to say you’re a Han shot first type of guy?
NM: I was there. Han did shoot first. Not only that, he shot Greedo under the table!
When did you retire from the industry?
NM: I haven’t worked on a movie in a long, long time. Yet, I haven’t sent any letters of resignation. It’s a bit like riding a bicycle. Retirement generally, I’m going to get into philosophy now, is very questionable. It’s something that people make other people look forward to, encourage people to look forward to, just on the basis of spending their life doing something they really didn’t want to do. If you like what you’re doing then giving up work is like giving up sex or ice cream. The last thing you want is to be put out in a pasture, sit in a chair, and wait to die.
Why open a museum on the island of St. Maarten?
NM: I like living in the Caribbean. There’s only three islands that could support a museum in the off-season: St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a city. You have to deal with driving and parking. Not for me. That leaves the other two, and let’s be honest, St. Maarten is nicer.
You’re a contributor to Yoda. Your museum is named after him. What does the character represent to you?
NM: On a simple level, Yoda represents wisdom. For me, it obviously represents making the most of an opportunity that came my way. He’s an icon that I was lucky enough to have been a part of. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be here drinking pina coladas. He also opened a lot of doors for me in terms of getting other jobs. Of course, you re only as good as your last movie.
Why is it important to preserve and exhibit your Star Wars experience?
NM: What I’m trying to do is tell the story of a lot of different effects people. You know, I go to conventions, I’m not putting anyone down, but someone who basically stood next to Darth Vader in a particular scene is doing autographs and has queues of people waiting for them. And yet, you’ll get someone like myself or some of the other makers, we were all at Celebration Six (World’s largest Star Wars convention), and the queues for us were distinctively shorter than other people. Although, the absolute enthusiasts know who we are, the general public really doesn’t care. Even Stuart, for all his contributions, is just a name. The project I’m working on now, which I’m trying to launch in Europe, is a much bigger museum that is Hologram driven. It’s all about special effects, telling the story of historical, landmark things that changed movies. Also, we want to show how things are done, on lots of different levels. People talk about green screen, but how many people really know how it works?
That’s a bit contradictory, isn’t it? Didn’t you say a magician should never reveal his secrets?
NM: I’m at an age now where I believe sharing is the right thing to do. Pass on what you know to other people and let your influence be felt.
As we all know, the Star Wars fanbase runs deep. Fanatical if you will. What’s your take on its seemingly infinite longevity?
NM: You weren’t around when the first movie came out. It was a completely different experience. It shook people to the core. They were used to sitting in a seat watching a silver screen in front of them. Suddenly, all the sounds are coming from behind and they were seeing things that looked realistic, but had never been seen before. Spaceships coming over their heads! It just threw people back over and over again. It was completely groundbreaking in its day. It was also a great story about three imperfect humans: a mouthy princess, a kid who thought he knew everything, and a reluctant hero who went from one misadventure to another. I think the newer ones disappointed the people who loved the older trilogy because they didn’t carry on in the same vein. Instead, they were aimed specifically at kids who would want to buy lightsabers and play video games.
A marketing ploy.
NM: It was. That’s why I’m hopeful about J.J. Abram’s Episode Seven (The Force Awakens) because I think it will go back to trying to capture the spirit of the first movies.
One of your other passions is painting, which has been exhibited in over 18 countries. What has it provided you?
NM: It’s a bit of an old passion. I started in 1973. 1974, maybe. I didn’t do it as a career until I ended up in the Caribbean. I needed to make a living somehow since I wasn’t making movies. So, I started an art gallery selling my artwork that led me onto museum shows. It’s one of those things that I imagined I’d always like to do, so I embraced it when it came.
With all your experiences, what do you know for sure?
NM: I know for sure that people who fail are the ones who give up. I know for sure that “presumably” is the most dangerous word in the English language. I know for sure that if you sit around waiting for something to happen to you, it never does. You have to have an impossible dream; you have to have faith in that impossible dream, even though you have no reason to believe that you’ll ever make it happen. You have to invest your time in that impossible dream to make yourself more capable of fulfilling it, then you have to shorten the odds to have a practical plan to make that impossible dream unlikely, instead of impossible. Then you have to stick it out long enough to make it happen.