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Sunday, 27 October 2013

THE UNSUNG HEROES OF 'STAR WARS': DAVID TOMBLIN

Legendary First Assistant Director David Tomblin clowning around with Anthony Daniels at Elstree.

One of Britain and the world's finest and most respected First Assistant Directors, literally immersed in his homeland's film industry since the age of 14, David Tomblin's entry into the universe of STAR WARS didn't originally start off well. Interviewed for the role of Assistant Director on the original STAR WARS in 1975, his job interview with writer/director George Lucas (likely at the London FOX offices) was a disaster-the pair failing to click personality-wise, with the resultant position going to later James Bond series Associate Producer Anthony Waye-a shame really, as Tomblin, who'd had some background in doing pioneering UK sci-fi and fantasy with his writing/directing superb and exciting live-action episodes of the hit Gerry Anderson series UFO and SPACE: 1999, as well as co-creating, writing and directing the cult phenomenon that was Patrick McGoohan's mystery thriller THE PRISONER, would likely have been in much better stead and mental sync with Lucas in the creation of his universe than Waye, who proved to be amongst the majority of the UK team who originally just thought of STAR WARS as a mostly unintelligible, little league kids film- a vibe that I don't think Tomblin would have shared had he been by the director and producer Gary Kurtz's side in March 1976.

In discussions about the in-development Yoda dummy with Irvin Kershner, Stuart Freeborn and co., at Elstree in 1979.
On the Bespin set of EMPIRE, clowning with Carrie Fisher: circa April 1979.
Far left, with Kershner, Billy Dee Williams and others.

Nonetheless, things would improve for Tomblin by the time of UK pre-production on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in late 1978/early 1979. Having previously worked with Irvin Kershner on the Richard Harris starring wild west sequel adventure THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE, a project which had some tricky production areas, the director remembered him and recognised his co-ordinating and directing talents (especially with large crowd groups or extras)- a soon vital  requirement for the next STAR WARS film with its hordes of clashing Rebels and Imperials, quickly signing him up. It was here that Lucas, dipping in and out of the UK filming, got to know and respect the real Tomblin, who re-acquainted well with the director and got on famously with the cast (especially the fun loving Carrie Fisher and fellow Brit thespian Anthony Daniels)- often well remembered on set for his post National Service-era personal discipline, deadpan but creative humour and bark worse than his bite demeanour, alongside a talent for keeping morale up, especially with the behind the scenes team working on the films often fraught and lengthy, sometimes seemingly unending, shooting from March to September 1979: travelling from the difficult climes of location filming in Norway, to the intensely hot and debilitating Elstree Studios and its Bespin Carbon Freeze Chamber. Additionally, Tomblin brought into the UK filming many experienced extras that he had known and used in previous film and TV productions, like Quentin Pierre and Boba Fett costume tester Alan Harris (both of whom he knew and liked from his SPACE: 1999 Season One filming days at Pinewood in 1973-74).

Tomblin with an Ewok-suited Warwick Davis (presumably doing second unit work elsewhere), plus Nicki Reade (middle), on the Jabba's Throne Room set, circa Jan/Fen 1982.
A David Tomblin improvised scene for JEDI, featuring Bob Fortuna and Salacious Crumb, sadly cut from the movie.
On the STAR WARS STAGE, David Tomblin gives instructions to the many background extras playing Imperials via microphone.

Straight after EMPIRE, Kershner recommended Tomblin for his speed and inventiveness to cinema wunderkid Steven Spielberg, hiring him for what what would be all three Classic Indiana Jones films- often seen in behind the scenes footage with a bullhorn in his hand, barking out orders to extras and flapping smoke across the studio soundstages- being an all-round team player with the acclaimed director. Richard Attenborough's epic movie autobiography of the influential Indian leader and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi soon followed into the second half of 1980 and proved to be one of his and film-makings biggest ever production undertakings, with Tomblin proudly putting on his CV the fact that he had organised one particular scene with 250,000 extras! All of this work on that and the overall film would put him in good stead in early 1982, as his trusted right-hand position saw him alongside director Richard Marquand for RETURN OF THE JEDI, which, for six epic months in London and the US would be even bigger in scale than EMPIRE, with larger sets, and a more diverse amount of first and second unit shooting needed for George Lucas's manipulation in the editing suite. It was on JEDI that Tomblin, heavily involved in the Jabba's Palace sequence and its numerous grotesques, even got permission to improvise some comedic material with some of its supporting characters: Bib Fortuna and the on-set much loved little beast that was Salacious Crumb: though that material never made the finished film, some of it can be found in the later MTV video of Lapti Nek. Additionally, working with the cuddly Ewoks in their village setting at Elstree, Tomblin was quick to recognise the talents of the young eleven-year old Warwick Davis playing the inquisitive and heroic Ewok later to be named Wicket, deciding to create a little 16mm "mini-film" for the star and his adventures in the STAR WARS universe: Revenge of the Ewok (later titled Return of the Ewok), which also secured the talents of the films cast and crew in certain areas (contributing because they liked Davis and Tomblin so much). Later on during extra location filming in the California Redwoods after the main shoot had been completed, Tomblin and a small team would capture vital action/comedic sequences for inclusion during the Battle of Endor sequence.

Giving young Warwick Davis some movement tips on location in 1982, likely for Return of the Ewok. Image via the ACROSS THE STARS website.
With Ford, Lucas and Fisher during JEDI's outdoor Endor Bunker filming in May 1982.

In and out of his completion of the STAR WARS and INDY films, Tomblin, who, sadly, was very rarely interviewed about his work, especially on STAR WARS, and never, to my knowledge, did any conventions or signings (likely because he was so in-demand for productions), would continue working on a diverse array of movies, including Irvin Kershner's unofficial James Bond adventure: NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, the first two SUPERMAN movies for Christopher Reeve and director Richard Donner, BRAVEHEART for Mel Gibson, plus many more classics. He would finally, deservedly receive a BAFTA award for his immense services to the film industry in 2003 (with a video tribute which included a scene from JEDI), before his sad passing, aged 74, in June 2005.

IMDB: David Tomblin - Biography

Remembering David Tomblin, First Assistant Director | Star Wars Blog | Star Wars Blog

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