by Richard Woloski
Today we mourn the loss of Joe Viskocil, a man whose job it was to blow up Imperial and Rebel ships on a daily basis as a miniature pyrotechnician on STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I was lucky enough to work alongside him and hear stories I have never heard anywhere else.
I officially graduated from Emerson College in December of ‘92, and was then ready to take the film business by storm! And by storm I mean work lots of jobs where payment was deferred (that’s industry speak for, “you ain’t getting paid, kid’), or the pay was so little that there is no tax bracket for what you earn. It wasn’t long though before I started making a king’s ransom of $80 a day working at a company called Full Moon Entertainment. You may have heard of them, they made such fine films as Demonic Dolls, Prehysteria and the Puppet Master series.
I started working there on Puppet Master 4 & 5 as a 2nd 2nd assistant director. Some days when we were working on a complex shot that involved lots of puppets I was asked to step in as a puppeteer. I loved doing this. When I knew they would need me the next day as a puppeteer, I would not only study Yoda’s movements but I also clocked in a few hours watching ALF.
One morning as I was checking in crew members, I noticed a man sitting by himself looking over the script for Puppet Master 4. I hadn’t seen him before so I went over and asked him what department he was in and his name. “I’m doing the pyrotechnics today. My name is Joe Viskocil,” he answered. I checked him off on the daily call sheet and as I looked at his name I realized that it looked familiar but it didn’t sound familiar. When he said “Visk-O-cil” it just didn’t register in my head. “Where have I seen this name before?” I kept asking myself.
The name looked familiar, it just didn’t sound familiar. Then it came to me. He put an accent over the ‘o’, which threw me off. This is Joe Viskocil, the guy that blew TIE Fighters, Snowspeeders and X-Wings in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back!
“Oh my God, I’m working on a movie with someone that worked on the Star Wars movies!” He noticed I was staring at him and looked at me expecting me to say something. I choked and sped off pretending to do some extensive note taking. “Get it together, you idiot, ” I berated myself. I got my head together a few minutes later and walked by non-chalantly and asked, “are you the Joe Viskocil (I hoped I was saying it right) that worked on Star Wars?” “Yes,” he answered as if it were a run-of-the mill question. I tried to hold back my inner-fan boy since I was supposed to be a member of a professional film crew. Unfortunately it did not go down that way.
“I’m a really big fan! I’ve seen you in may behind-the-scenes Star Wars specials!” “Thank you,” he said. My mind raced. What do I say next? After a few too many awkward moments he smiled and went back to reading the script. I thought about just leaving it at that. Then this came out, “I’m so honored to be working with you!” “What was it like blowing up TIE Fighters?” “How was it working with George Lucas?” “What are you blowing up today?” “How many stories do you have time to tell me???” The questions just went on and on. I didn’t mean to let the fanboy out of me as it did but I just couldn’t help it. Even though I wanted him to look at me like a film crew colleague and not an over-excited fan, that just was never going to happen at this point. This was the first time I got to speak one-on-one with someone who had actually had a hand in creating Star Wars!
Luckily, this was one of those days on the set where the crew was setting up for a lot of effects shots, so we had time to kill and Joe was very nice and forthcoming with information. He told me how cartoony the effects looked before he was hired. It was he who had the idea of angling the camera straight up so when a model suspended overhead was blown up all the flame and debris would fall down faster and look more powerful. He could tell by my wrapped attention that I was more interested in hearing these stories than making sure everyone got their script notes.
He then told me that he had a cameo in Star Wars. It was his arm that plugged R2-D2 in at the Massassi base on Yavin. Apparently they forgot to get an actor to do this so he suited up and was made part of the Rebel Alliance.
Since this was still the dark times for Star Wars, new information was few and very far between. Not only was this new info, it was new info coming from someone who was actually there! Always the opportunist, I told him about a ghost story script that I was writing at the time. He told me he liked the concept and said if I ever got it off the ground he would work on it. I must’ve blacked out at this point since I don’t remember anything else that day, or month. I somehow managed to get his address in case my screenplay ever got the green-light (it never did). Just to keep me in his mental rolodex, I sent him a Christmas card for the next five or six years. I’ve always chosen to believe that he remembered me when he opened those cards.
I wish I had gotten my ghost movie made so I would’ve had the opportunity to work with Mr. Viskocil again. If he is listening from the netherworld I would like to say thanks for sharing all your stories that day (and many more that I want to keep to myself) and for being so nice to this fanboy. You are now one with The Force…