NEW ALBANY — He’d just spent his last dime to fund the expedition. He stood in the Sahara Desert with his colleague and some native Berbers, who he met by chance.
They knew what he was looking for and took him straight to it. He descended a sand dune after finding a site that looked like it hid some kind of scrap. David West Reynolds dug his hands into the sand and pulled out what looked like a large vertebrae.
He’d just gone completely Indiana Jones to find a piece of “Star Wars.”
“It felt like I was on planet Tatooine, that’s what it felt like,” Reynolds said. “It felt like I had stepped into the movie screen. These guys, these Berbers might as well have been Jawas.”
Reynolds, 49, New Albany, independently conducted a search with his friend for the original sets of “Star Wars: A New Hope” in Tunisia in the mid-1990s. At the time, he was working on his doctorate in archaeology. Some of the artifacts he found — and other “Star Wars” materials he had direct influence on — are displayed at the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library.
Stephen Wiseheart, youth services associate at the library, said it’s amazing to him that the library get to display big pieces of “Star Wars” history, but even more, that it all belongs in New Albany.
“It’s really cool,” Wiseheart said. “He’s got a piece of Mos Eisley, the Death Star, he’s also got pieces of the Indiana Jones stuff, too, which I was excited to see. It's cool to get a chance to get to see it, especially in a small town like New Albany. It’s kind of the last place you’d expect to see original props from a 'Star Wars’ film.”
Reynolds grew up here, his love of “Star Wars” cultivated while he attended what was then Scribner Junior High School. That passion for the sci-fi universe of Luke Skywalker carried over into his professional career, though it wasn’t exactly planned that way.
Since then, he’s worked for Lucasfilm and written nine “Star Wars” reference guides, one of which was a New York Times Best Seller. All of it started with a sketch he made when he was 13.
“For me, the right choice was to follow those dreams because everything I’ve tried to do has come true,” Reynolds said. “I don’t have something that didn’t work, it all worked. I’m thrilled, I’m overjoyed at what I’ve gotten to do.”
... IN A MIDDLE SCHOOL NOT SO FAR AWAY
Reynolds said he’d often finish up his classwork early at Scribner. In some of his science classes, his teachers gave him the license to draw with the time left. They also gave him input.
He had no idea one of those drawings would go into the “Star Wars” canon.
In the classes of John Smith and Danny Weber, he imagined how a lightsaber worked and translated that into a cutaway diagram, showing the inner workings of the iconic weapon.
“It was John Smith who would ask about the cutaway lightsaber and how it works,” Reynolds said. ‘If this blade can cut through anything, how can you have something that generates that?’ And I would have to think up an answer to that.”
He said that encouragement to engage his creativity made him feel good. By the eighth grade, his teachers had commissioned him to help with a computer manual for students, as well come up with a name and logo for what was Apollo’s Arcade in New Albany Plaza.
He was also enabled — in a good way — with his love of “Star Wars” by his principal, William Beyl.
Just before the second movie in the franchise, “The Empire Strikes Back” was about to premiere in 1980, Reynolds went to Beyl’s office. He said he was a good kid, but he sometimes got bored, which led him to trouble and visits to the principal’s office.
He said he respected Beyl and didn’t want to just skip class to see the movie. Instead, he asked permission.
“I asked if he could excuse me from class for the day to see the movie, I explained why I was interested and showed the drawings I’d been doing,” Reynolds said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I think that’d be a good use of your day.’”
He spent May 21, 1980, at Showcase Cinemas in Louisville.
EDUCATION AND EXPEDITION
After high school, Reynolds got a scholarship to study computer hardware design at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technolgy in Terre Haute. One semester in, an English professor took him aside, telling him he knew he wasn’t in the right place or studying the right thing for him.
He left and went to Indiana University, giving up a scholarship. He worked part time around campus while taking his former English professor’s advice and taking a bit of everything to find out what he wanted to study. He landed on ancient history, taking the opportunity to create his own degree in paleontology — the study of ancient life, including dinosaurs — and double-majoring in classical civilizations.
From there, he pursued a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Michigan. He was supposed to wait until he was called to defend his dissertation a couple of months later before he left campus.
He couldn’t stand it. He had burning questions looming in his mind, not about his research, but about “Star Wars.”
Where had the movie been filmed? Lucasfilm Limited, the company that made the movies, hadn’t kept any records about the original sets. While doing his research for his Ph. D., he’d gone to Egypt nearly every summer for about five years. He found extraordinarily old artifacts that were also extraordinarily well-preserved, such as a Roman rag doll.
He thought if the desert could preserve something like that, what about movie props from something filmed 20 years ago?
He wasn’t supposed to leave campus, though.
He left campus. He left Michigan. He left the country. He said he spent every dollar he had to go to Tunisia with Michael J. Ryan, who is now a leading world expert on dinosaurs related to triceratops.
He was about to go Indiana Jones, but first, he had to pull a Ferris Bueller.
“I left phone messages and had people send faxes for me while I was gone to make it look like I was still there,” Reynolds said. “I covered my tracks and disappeared from campus.”
With just a handful of Topps bubblegum cards featuring the movie for reference, they set out to North Africa to find where scenes of Luke Skywalker’s home planet were shot. After running into the Berbers in the Sahara and finding some of the props, Reynolds left them behind for other explorers to find. He got back just in time to defend, and earn, his doctorate.
No one ever knew he left.
LUCASFILM AND NOW
Reynolds wrote about his expedition and had his story published in “Star Wars Insider,” issue 27. Staff members at Lucasfilm read it and promptly got in touch.
Just months after finishing his doctorate, Reynolds was recruited as a location scout for “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” The prequel to the first three films would revisit Tatooine, so producers needed his knowledge of the original sites as well as suggestions on other places in Tunisia that would fit right into the “Star Wars” universe.
It was at that time he picked up some of the artifacts he has in his collection today.
He was then recruited to work in marketing at Skywalker Ranch, managing websites for the franchise and conducting research on others, such as including the Indiana Jones films.
During his two years there, he also wrote the visual dictionary books associated with the series that showed cutaway views of famous ships and devices in the movies. He also was given the authority to change something if he saw fit, especially if it didn’t make sense. He worked with the original concept artists for the films to draw inspiration.
“I talked to the sound engineers to figure out how an [AT-AT walker featured in “The Empire Strikes Back] might have been built,” Reynolds said. “We determined there had to be gears and hydraulics in the construction, but no one had talked to the original artists for these kinds of books before.”
At the end of one of the books, the publisher needed some space filled. Reynolds suggested a cutaway view of a lightsaber. He said the idea was well-received, except for one problem.
No one knew what the inside of a lightsaber looked like.
“I told them I might have an idea, so I went back to get my drawing from middle school,” Reynolds said. “I showed it to them and they loved it, but I never told them where it came from until after the book had published.”
Now, Reynolds is a popular speaker a number of subjects in science, communication, history and others. He gives illustrated presentations for hire, and he’s carried out jobs to make similar cutaway diagrams for various government agencies, including NASA.
Part of his collection sits on display at the library in New Albany. Reynolds said he’s done it once before and agreed to do it again as a gift to the library. He said it's his way of paying the library back after giving him a venue to show cartoon-styled movies he made with his “Star Wars” toys and Super 8 camcorder when he was 16.
Each piece holds significance to his career. Whether it’s one that he found in the desert or a toy or model on which his designs had a direct impact, he said he hopes it inspires young people the same way he was inspired.
Wiseheart, 29, said he remembers playing with “Star Wars” toys before he got into the movies. He said these days, there a number of other entry points into the franchise, but it’s a cultural phenomenon that spans generations, as evidenced by the massive crowds at anticipation at the newest movie this week.
As science and other books inspired Reynolds, he said maybe some of what’s on display at the library can inspire the next generation of “Star Wars” enthusiasts to do something big with their love of the movies.
“A lot of people get interested in science through science fiction, or filmmaking or storytelling through ‘Star Wars,'" Wiseheart said.
Reynolds said his entire career was based on risks and weighing which were worth taking. He said he’ll never regret the choice he made when Rick McCallum, the writer and director of “The Phantom Menace,” offered him a job at Skywalker Ranch. He said he knew he was trading security in academia as a professor for something less solid, but it was the best choice he could have made.
“The most daring thing I ever did was to accept the offer to work at the Ranch,” Reynolds said. “I had no idea what was going to come next in my life, but I was OK with that.”