From Vanity Fair:
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi is strewn with the sounds conceived and concocted 40 years ago by sound designer Ben Burtt. Now 69 and working in Lucas Valley, California, at a company named for Luke Skywalker, Burtt spends his days holed up in his dimly lit office, surrounded by movie memorabilia, mostly souvenirs of his years behind the scenes of the Star Wars films.
But his name is nowhere to be found in the credits for The Last Jedi. Like George Lucas, the Star Wars visionary who sold his company and faded from view, Burtt is both omnipresent in the new Star Wars and conspicuously absent from it.
In an August conversation, I mentioned that I had been advised to steer clear of speaking about the new movies. “You can talk about the new movies,” he said with a smile, a shrug, and then a pause. “I haven’t seen the new movies, so . . .” […]
Burtt worked on the sound design for this year’s animated Star Wars micro-series Forces of Destiny, plus a Star Wars video game that has since been suspended. But after contributing sound design on The Force Awakens, Burtt did not work on last year’s Rogue One or The Last Jedi, the first Star Wars films to be made without Burtt’s direct involvement. “On The Force Awakens we had veterans from previous Star Wars films work with the new generation of talent and in many cases the new talent then took the baton and ran with it on The Last Jedi,” a Skywalker Sound representative said in a statement. “Ben will always be a treasure at Lucasfilm but we also want to give the new generation of talent an opportunity to shine as well.”
Early on in my conversation with Burtt, we’re interrupted by a mechanical rattle emanating from something on his desk. Nice sound, I say. “Those are my rejected sounds for BB-8,” says Burtt, referring to the painfully adorable spherical droid who rolled into the hearts of audiences in The Force Awakens. “I use them as ringtones.” […]
Burtt tends to speak about his career in past tense. At the moment, he’s developing a documentary on movie sound-design history, and a documentary on his other love, the space program. He’s also “looking for feature-film work, but nothing’s come my way.”
Cinematic tastes have evolved: today’s frenetic blockbusters, he says, have little need for his meticulously orchestrated sound design. But mostly, there’s no patience—and no allocation in production budgets—for his preferred mode of peripatetic sound-searching and experimentation.
“I don’t see that happening at all today. Not just with Star Wars, but in general,” he says. Burtt’s original Star Wars sound-collecting was so comprehensive, it turns out, that he may have contributed to his own redundancy. “They know there are big libraries”—created in part by Burtt—“that people can just click and drag things out of and make a lot of noise.”
First contacted in 2015 about a story on Burtt, Disney ultimately declined to assist in arrangements for this interview. I asked Burtt himself if there’s bad blood between them since his work on The Force Awakens.
“I don’t know if there’s bad blood,” he answered. “Nobody . . . I was just never consulted or hired to do any of them. No one’s ever told me why. No, I was told—on the new regime, I was just told, ‘Just stay in your room and make sounds and just send stuff to us. We’ll decide what to do.’” It was a change in philosophy that, Burtt thought, would “doom the whole process.”
It was a considerable demotion as well. Burtt was deeply involved in Lucas’s prequel trilogy, working as an editor and second-unit director in addition to his usual role in the sound department. “I had a lot of influence on all that,” he said. “It wasn’t always easy working with George, but at least it was one voice. And you could get his attention and have your say and present something and get a yes or a no. But it was just one person you had to get past. Not banks of different people who want to have a say.”
Burtt has a model plane, a Nieuport fighter aircraft, dangling from the ceiling; there’s a miniature cutout of Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams standing in it, waving anachronistically from the cockpit. “Matt [Wood] put that there to torment me. I came in one day and he’s flying my plane.” Burtt laughed. “Anyways. That’s reality.” He also explained his decision not to use any Star Wars footage in a sound-design class he taught earlier in the year: “Then I’d have to deal with Disney.” […]
With the extra time on his hands, Burtt is now at work trying to persuade the decision-makers at Skywalker Sound to turn his accumulation of physical artifacts and curiosities into a museum.
“You know that line in Indiana Jones, ‘It belongs in a museum’?” he says. “That’s me. I’m a museum piece.””