"Star Wars" fanboys take their obsession for the saga very seriously, and Chris Lee is no exception. He's a Storm Trooper in the elite Imperial costuming group 501st Legion, he's built a 1:1 scale R2-D2, and in some circles he's known as his alter ego the Disco Trooper, where he dresses in an Afro and bedazzled Storm Trooper uniform.
Lee's latest tribute to George Lucas's mythology may be the most ambitious project attempted by any fan for any franchise ever. He's currently building a full-scale version of the Millennium Falcon. That's 114 feet in length and over thirty feet high (counting the ship's dish), according to his calculations.
Since getting the idea in 2004, the 47-year-old VP of a media productions studio in Nashville has been methodically planning how to create something that the wizards at Lucasfilm couldn't pull off. With a combination of family, friends and fellow Falcon fanatics he's found online, Lee is currently underway with creating portions of the ship. He's also received the approval from Lucasfilm. Lee's clearing away close to 90 acres of land off an Interstate in Nashville where the Falcon will be built, and hopefully one day you can come and sit in the cockpit like Han or play at the chess table like Chewbacca.
We chatted with Lee about his tireless work — no one is getting paid to do this, by the way — to bring to life the legendary ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.
Learn more about the project at FullScaleFalcon.com.
strong>Did you alone decide to build the Millennium Falcon, or were you with a group of people having drinks one night and you all decided to take it on?
You'd think it would be one of those things that would happen at a bar, but really the idea popped in my head one day as being a possibility. It had always been in my head as a dream. As a kid seeing "Star Wars" in 1977, I was going on 12 years old, and I thought it was one of the most awesome ships I'd ever seen. But as you get older, you think, maybe I'll build a giant model of it, and then it got to the point where I'm getting along in my life and I thought screw it, let's just do it for real. Why half-ass it? So that decision was made around 2004 - 05. The methods and how it would be accomplished didn't hit me yet, it was just getting over the hump of, "Am I going to do this or not?"
And then I realized, holy crap, this has never been done, not even by Lucasfilm. So it became this quest, and seeing I not only told myself I was going to do it but a whole lot of other people, I really had to figure out how I [was] going to pull this off. I started digging into the research and got lucky enough to find the other people helping me out who have similar drive, and I think we have a good group of heads around it now.
Why build it full-scale?
We could have replicated the set and just build the Falcon the way it was built in England for "New Hope" or "Empire," but those would not have been big enough to walk up the ship's ramp and stand up in. So we're like, if we're going to build this thing we want to play in it, so we have to make it big enough to stand inside and go in the cockpit and walk down the hallway and play the chess game.
How big is your team right now?
Myself, my fiancée, my brother who is a contractor and has all the connections with the building trades. Stinson [Lenz] is the modeler and lives in Pennsylvania. I have an architect friend who is bringing in a structural engineer. We've got Greg Dietrich who is down in Birmingham who has taken Stinson's model and is building the cockpit. At some point, I'll have to get a truck and trailer to Birmingham and drive this stuff back the Nashville. There's a guy out in Colorado, Brian Thompson, who has committed to building the computer console and the chess table and a few other pieces of the main hold. And Greg is also building the quad guns. I'm working on the dish and the landing gear.
This is completely volunteer, first come first serve?
At the moment that's the idea, but I guess we have to anticipate that there might be the case where multiple people would want to take on certain parts, but it's really first come first serve, and it will come down to capabilities. Some of these parts are gigantic, some of them are quite small. So in some ways we're crowdsourcing this build. And it's all volunteer; no one is getting paid for this. There's no big benefactor or deep pocket person. So I hope this crowdsourcing idea takes off so the hard costs will only come down to a few materials, and the structure is truly provided by the fans. And we're going to encourage everyone to personalize their piece. If you built this ten foot pole around the hold that's recognizable, you're gonna want to put your name on it and you can walk up and say, "Hey, I made that piece."
Is your endgame that the Falcon will be an attraction that people can visit year-round?
The master plan is to definitely be something that can be enjoyed by everyone. We have almost 90 acres, so while this is being built we're hoping to develop some other parts of the property to be kind of an educational retreat where there will be buildings for workshops, areas for classrooms. This is near an interstate exit so there's plenty of hotel rooms, but maybe we'll build cabins.
What I would like it to be is a creative retreat where if a school wants to bring out a bus full of students or a college to bring a classroom for a week, we can have people come out and teach how to weld, how to work with sheet metal, how to make molds, maybe even how to edit film. So it's a community project that is in fact building a giant spaceship. Everyone knows what it's supposed to look like so there's no mystery there; the fun part is how we're going to get there.
Lucasfilm has always been known to be fan friendly. Have you reached out to them about this?
They're well aware of it. The 501st Legion is pretty much the PR arm when it comes to fans. They use us quite a bit. When George Lucas was at the Rose Bowl parade a few years back, there were probably 250 to 300 Storm Troopers that marched in it, and every one of them were from the 501st. If they are promoting a movie or game or toy, they'll call the 501st and say they need a Storm Trooper or Darth Vader and they pay for our expenses to do an event.
They have said in the past when we break ground and pour concrete and we have something physical out there to show, they will get on a plane and come out and have an event. But it has to be within their guidelines, so we've had a lot of conversations about this. You'll never see a Kickstarter campaign about the Falcon project, or a donate now button or me saying we need money. They want to encourage the fans, but you have to stay within their guidelines because it is their intellectual property.
With Disney now owning Lucasfilm, do you think that relationship will change?
We're hoping that it won't. We've been assured by our contacts at Lucasfilm that everything is going to be status quo. Actually, a lot of the fan organizations like the 501st got emails from the fan relations department at Lucasfilm the day after the Disney deal was announced saying everything is going to be okay. So if Disney ever needs a location with a real Falcon for one of the upcoming "Star Wars" films, they should give a call. [Laughs]
Have you given yourself a deadline to finish?
No, nothing like that. Right now I don't know if we can. We still have some blanks to fill in. Aside from the whole Lucasfilm guidelines, it has been strongly hinted by Lucasfilm that if someone came to us privately and wanted to contribute funding that is between us and the contributor, we can do whatever we want. So if Kevin Smith or the guy who just won the Powerball wants to give us money we'll take it, Lucasfilm is okay with that.
How are you currently funding it?
We sell T-shirts on the site. That really only covers the cost of the shirts, the website, hosting and some materials. Everything else is self-funded. When we get to the point of costs for pouring concrete and stuff like that, we'll probably talk about in-kind donations for stuff like that. But right now all the money for this is coming from us so it still is a hobby. Just a giant hobby.
What's coming up next?
We're looking for warehouse space and a few documentaries want to start following us.
Gotta geek out before we end this. Do you have an ideal director for "Episode VII"?
Gosh, I think Ridley Scott would be a good choice. I hope it's someone who has a reverence for the franchise or knows how to put people together on screen. ["The Empire Strikes Back" director] Irvin Kershner is my favorite director of all of them, and he wasn't a Star Wars fan but he knew about character structure.
So can you believe Lando Calrissian put the Falcon up in a card game? What was he thinking?
Well, I've been in some situations, not that dire, but when you've hit bottom you'll do a lot of desperate things. Who knows what situation he was in. Or maybe there was a potential to gain something else that he really wanted. I don't know, once this thing is done I don't think we're going to risk it for anything.