One thing Rogue One had in spades was great design. The Force Awakens, too, embraced the dusty, chunky aesthetic of the original trilogy, and particularly its concept artists Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston, but Rogue One went a lot further. Pretty much every scene of the movie introduced some new weathered piece of gear or lived-in nook. It’s an overall earthier movie than any of its predecessors.
One of the most striking images was Darth Vader’s castle, a grand, arcing thing set on a burbling, lava-filled hellscape. It looked more like something from Lord Of The Rings than A New Hope, but it was presented confidently enough to blend right in. Apparently, it was based on designs McQuarrie himself had tinkered with, and it has a surprisingly radical backstory.
In a wide-ranging interview with StarWars.com, LucasFilm’s executive creative director Doug Chiang explains how Darth Vader’s metal-as-fuck castle came to be. Apparently, Darth built the castle on a planet called Mustafar after getting his ass kicked there by Obi Wan. This was the setting of the lava-hopping fight from the Revenge Of The Sith, about which the less said, the better, but here it is anyway.
“We started to come up with a little bit of a backstory,” Chiang says. “That perhaps this place had special meaning for him, and that this is where he comes to meditate and to heal himself.”
Its imposing structure was a collaboration between Chiang’s team and director Gareth Edwards, who was focused on making sure Rogue One’s visual designs were as good as the original trilogy’s. The castle looks like a tuning fork intentionally—Chiang says Edwards thought perhaps it was “tuning the dark side in terms of energy.” The grand white structures in which the Rebel Alliance meets in Rogue One are intended as a visual counterpoint, “tuning” the light side of the force. If the castle itself seems rather inorganic, that, too, is intentional—it was constructed by Vader on top of an ancient source of Sith energy. Says Chiang:
If you look at the finished design, it has this very strong element of a structure that was there for a purpose, and that purpose was to draw energy from the lava lake. If you look at the design of the base, it feels very much like a dam, and how the lava flows through it, possibly getting energy. And so we thought, “Okay, well, that’s the foundation. Maybe even deeper, or underneath that, is an even more ancient part, which is a natural cave where Vader goes to meditate.” Visually, we’re trying to create a sort of history for the tower. The bottom is the most ancient, the lava lake dam part was perhaps what Vader built his foundation on, and then the tower was Vader’s addition.
There’s a lot more in the full interview, including the design of the Shoretrooper uniforms—the ones with the little splashes of blue and yellow on them—and why the U-Wing went through 781 different iterations before the one that appeared in the movie. For even more on the castle, check out the below video, which explains how it almost made it into The Force Awakens.
Whether it is badass or soft to build a castle on the site of your greatest-ever ass-kicking is a matter for another day.