Brandon Alinger has a movie-prop collection that would make any Gen-Xers’ head explode: He owns an authentic “Ghostbuster” ghost trap with the slide-out cartridge, a “Star Wars” rebel pilot helmet, and the lightsaber that Luke Skywalker carried in “Return of the Jedi.” Alinger’s ownership of all these holy grails of 1980s cinema makes sense when you realize that for the last 10 years, the 34-year-old has made a career of buying and selling movie props as the chief operations officer at Prop Store in Los Angeles. Alinger has also researched and written a handful of official Lucasfilm books on the “Star Wars” movies, which allowed him to peruse the studio’s costume archive and the personal files of “Return of the Jedi” producer Howard Kazanjian.
Recently, Kazanjian, who was also an executive producer of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” partnered with Comic-Con International: San Diego to create a streaming web series about collecting, available on ComicCon HQ. He called on Mark Hamill, who was a comic and sci-fi obsessive before he became a “Star Wars” hero, to host what became “Mark Hamill’s Pop Culture Quest.” In the 10-episode series that debuted in November 2016, Mark and a puppet named Pop, voiced by “Robot Chicken’s” Dan Milano, hang out in a “den” stuffed with beat-up furniture, outdated tech, and loads of pop-culture detritus before the show delves into collectors’ homes, stores, museums, and conventions. As Episode 9’s featured collector, Brandon Alinger had the privilege of joining Hamill in the man-cave-like set. There, he surprised the actor known as Luke Skywalker with the authentic lightsaber prop Hamill once wielded.
Back in the 1980s, my friends and I were content to turn sheets into Leia and Luke robes, bat each other with plastic lightsabers, and knock down Han Solo and Boba Fett figures with Jabba’s plastic tail. But Alinger craved an even deeper connection to the films. Perhaps because Alinger, born in 1983, encountered the “Star Wars” trilogy on video a decade after the first movie debuted, he was young enough to still be obsessed with “Star Wars” when the Internet became widespread around 1993. Following instructions posted on online, he started building replica props at age 12, and when he was 17, Alinger talked his parents into taking a family vacation to Tunisia—which “Star Wars” fans know as desert planet Tatooine—to scout for authentic movie props.
I guess you’re always freaking out a little bit when you’re having a conversation with someone like Mark Hamill.”
On “Pop Culture Quest,” Mark Hamill is incredulous. “You said, ‘Mom, Dad, I got good grades, I did my homework, I fed the dog, now will you take me to Tunisia?'” he asks. “It was exactly like that,” Alinger replies. As luck would have it, the Alingers visited Tunisia in 2001, between the release of the first and second prequels, so Tatooine sequences were still in the works. The family of four toured the films’ locations together and even spent a night at Hotel Sidi Driss, which is the cave-like dwelling we think of as the homestead of Luke’s uncle and aunt, Owen and Beru Lars. With the help of locals, they gathered bits of wood and fiberglass from broken “Star Wars” sets.
That life-changing experience led Alinger, who was studying filmmaking in college, to write letters to more or less every “Star Wars” crew member and to travel to other filming locations around the globe, scavenging for sets and props. Alinger made friends with his future employer Stephen Lane, who founded the Prop Store in London, and he eventually became connected with Lucasfilm itself. I talked to Alinger on the phone to find out what compelled him down this particular path of fandom.
Collectors Weekly: What is it you love about movie props?
Alinger: It stems from my passion for the movies themselves, and it’s very much nostalgia driven. I have such fond memories of watching these films when I was younger. I’m very interested in the behind-the-scenes side of it, as I didn’t have any opportunity to work on these movies. For me, to have a little piece of something that was there on the set being used by the actors is the strongest connection that I can make with the movie. There’s a sort of a magic, to be a bit cheesy about it, to these artifacts and their history. I also have a raw appreciation of the fact that they are a part of popular culture and have been seen by so many people around the world on the big screen, and a raw appreciation for the films that they appeared in. To me, they’re treasures in the same way that other cultural artifacts like paintings and historic pieces are treasures.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get into collecting?
Alinger: When I was much younger, I was drawn to things like toys, particularly vintage “Star Wars” toys, and baseball cards and autographs. I grew up in Maryland, so I was a big fan of the Baltimore Orioles. My family would go to a game two hours early, so that my brother and I could go down the sides and try to holler at players to get them to come over and sign a baseball. This gave me the collecting bug, that desire for memorabilia and artifacts.
I was born in 1983, so I didn’t see films like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or “Ghostbusters” in the theater on the first run, but I watched them a lot on video. My friends and their older brothers were into those movies, and the older brothers would have the original toys. “Batman”  is one of the first films that I can remember seeing in a theater that made a big impression on me at an early age.
Collectors Weekly: And you started making your own movie-prop replicas when you were about 12?
Alinger: I first got onto the Internet in the mid-’90s, which gave me access to different groups of collectors on sites like the America Online forums where people were trading “Star Wars” toys. That’s where I came across a post that said, “I have a set of instructions to make a replica prop for a lightsaber.” So I got a copy of these plans and made it my mission to construct one of these things for myself. The lightsaber that Luke used in the first two movies is actually made out of an antique camera part, a flashgun from a 1940s Graflex Speed Graphic.
Collectors Weekly: When you were 17, how did you convince your parents to take you to Tunisia to look for “Star Wars” props?
Alinger: Well, I guess there was some pleading involved. It sounds a bit more outside of the box than it is. In Europe, Tunisia is a very common tourist destination. The English, the French, and the Germans go there all the time, because it’s only a couple-hour flight and it’s a beautiful country on the Mediterranean Sea with nice resorts. At that time, in 2001, it was reasonably cost-effective, because the U.S. dollar went a long way there. So I think traveling to Tunisia sounds more adventurous than it really was. The adventurous part of it was going to look for the “Star Wars” locations themselves, which are in the more off-the-beaten-path locations.
Collectors Weekly: Did your whole family get into the hunt with you?
Alinger: Yes. I have a brother who is three years younger than me, and he was into it because he’s a “Star Wars” fan. My parents were moderately interested because everyone has a little bit of love for films and television. They’re not massive “Star Wars” fans, so for them, it was more about seeing the country and going someplace different for a vacation.
Collectors Weekly: How did you find the “Star Wars” locations?
Alinger: Really, finding those locations was only possible because I had been in touch with people online who had been out there already. Some fans from France went hunting for them and chatted with a bunch of locals in Tunisia, who speak French. They asked the Tunisians, “Where did the filming take place? Where can I see these sights?” After they had found all the locations, they put the information online. Without that, I think it would’ve been a much, much harder thing for us to attempt.
There’s also a well-known “Star Wars” fan and collector named Gus Lopez, who had a website at that time called The Star Wars Traveler, and it also had good information on where these sites were. A British guy named Jeremy Beckett had been out there a number of times and he had actually written a little guidebook that you could get online. We had a copy of that, and it had specific turn-by-turn directions, like “Go to kilometer marker 15, make a left, and drive for 3 kilometers.” With that level of detail, it was relatively straightforward. You just had to get to Tunisia.
We did hire local guides to take us to one or two of the sets. For example, the Mos Espa set from the prequels is way out there in the middle of the desert. It would be quite hard to find if you didn’t know specifically where you were going. But it was a huge amount of fun. I absolutely loved being there.
Collectors Weekly: Where did you get the movie stills you were showing the Tunisians?
Alinger: Some of them came from the Internet and some I printed myself after capturing them off the LaserDisc. There are a lot of resources out there, including photos and books on the Internet that can be useful in this type of search.
Collectors Weekly: And you did the same sort of hunt for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?
Alinger: The “Indiana Jones” movies are also favorites mine. “Raiders” was filmed in very close proximity to the “Star Wars” locations. There’s actually a canyon in “Raiders” that’s the same canyon where R2-D2 gets shot by the Jawas in the first “Star Wars” film. So it made a lot of sense, since we were going to be there anyway to say, “Let’s not just look for the ‘Star Wars’ locations, let’s look at the ‘Raiders’ sites as well.”
Collectors Weekly: The 1970s was the height of the ecology movement. I’m surprised that George Lucas left all that the stuff in the desert.
Alinger: My understanding from talking to some of the people who were involved with the filming is that they hired local crews to clean up a lot of the sets. What the locals actually did was outside of the control of the film company. It’s also common in Tunisia to re-purpose objects as much as possible. You might see a fence that’s made out of a piece of recycled industrial scrap, for example. So I think some of these cleanup crews, when they came across wood slats or fiberglass from the sets, they said, “Hey, let’s not throw this stuff away. We can do something with it—let’s build something out of it.”
To be honest, I’ve discovered that reuse phenomenon outside of Tunisia as well. In Northern California, where they filmed “Return of the Jedi,” some people were hired to take down the Endor bunker set. Again, rather than take the fiberglass panels from the set to the dump, one guy took some of them home and made a fence out of them.
Collectors Weekly: Looking at your pictures of your Tunisian finds, I couldn’t tell what a lot of the stuff was. How did you know these random bits were from the movie?
Alinger: The first indicator is the fact that they’re uncovered specifically at locations that you can see on camera in the movie. Then, you need to have an understanding of what types of materials get used in films. When I was out at the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” site, and I started finding pieces of fiberglass, which are sort of shaped like aircraft panels and the same color as the plane that you see in “Raiders,” it was pretty obvious what they were. At the same site, I found plaster pieces with Egyptian hieroglyphs in them. And it’s like, “Okay, this has to from the movie.” I can completely understand what you’re saying, though. A lot of it is quite nondescript. It’s not like Lucasfilm left the more detailed, valuable props known as “hero” or “principal” props out there in the desert. The stuff we found was more like material from set-decoration pieces.
Collectors Weekly: You came home high on having scored your first real movie props. What happened next?
Alinger: Basically, I went on a campaign where I was looking online, trying to find the addresses of people who’ve worked on the “Star Wars” films. I started sending them letters saying, “I’m a fan. I’m really interested in the production of these movies. I’ve done some research on my own. I’ve been out to see some of the locations, which I really enjoyed.” I asked them questions about how they made the movie and requested details about the locations and what their roles were. If I was able to strike up a dialogue with someone, I would ask, “Do you have any artifacts from the movie? Did you keep anything as a souvenir? Were you allowed to hold on to anything?” I did find a few people who had pieces, so I would go and meet with them to acquire some of those artifacts. That was what really got me started on my collecting journey.
Collectors Weekly: What sort of people responded to your letters?
Alinger: All sorts—lighting people, carpenters, designers, costumers, etc. The response ratio was low. If I sent out 200 letters, I might get half a dozen responses. In some cases, I didn’t have the right address, and I was writing for a different person with the same name. However, Howard Kazanjian, the producer of “Return of the Jedi” and an executive producer for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” responded to one of my letters.
“Historically, when filming was finished, the sets, the costumes, and the props might be liquidated or destroyed.”
One or two people I wrote just sent me things. I remember a carpenter in the U.K. sent me a 1978 Christmas card that was signed by Gary Kurtz, the producer of the first “Star Wars” movie, which was very kind. Other people sent me photos or production documents. For me, it wasn’t just about the 3-D artifacts, like props and costumes. I’m interested in anything relating to those productions, including previously unseen documents and photographs, things like that.
Warwick “Commodore” Tompkins was someone who responded to a letter I sent. He is a nautical rigging expert who was brought on the “Return of the Jedi’s” crew to design the sails for Jabba’s barge. The filmmakers were concerned that if the ship didn’t have functional sails and the winds kicked up in the desert, the wind might tear the whole set apart. So Commodore Tompkins built a working model of barge, which he showed to Norman Reynolds, the production designer. They shot a video of the model, which was shown to George Lucas and Howard Kazanjian, and they approved the model. Commodore kept the model and very kindly gave it to me many years later when I met up with him to talk to him about his work on the movie.
Collectors Weekly: Shortly after that first trip you went off to college to study filmmaking. So were your later “Star Wars” trips with friends?
Alinger: In 2005, I went to Norway with my friends Andy Golding and Stephen Lane, the founder of Prop Store, who later hired me to start an office here in L.A. I also made trips out to Death Valley in California and to the U.K., wherever they did “Star Wars” filming.
Collectors Weekly: Like the spot in Northern California, where you discovered the man using the Endor panels as a fence. How did you get him to part with them?
Alinger: Basically, we struck a deal. He said, “Well, look, if you want these things, I need a fence, so someone needs to build me a fence.” So a friend of mine, another collector, and I paid to have a new fence built, and we were able to get the panels.
Collectors Weekly: So, those panels are worth more than the cost of building a fence because they’re from “Return of the Jedi”?
Alinger: They are indeed. They were to crazy folks like us, anyway.
Collectors Weekly: Even though they don’t necessarily scream “Star Wars”?
Alinger: Yeah. They’re a little bit more obscure.
Collectors Weekly: Did you do more “Indiana Jones” trips as well?
Alinger: Just a few. I went and saw a location in Northern California where they filmed the motorcycle chase in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” There are a few other Bay Area filming locations for “Indiana Jones” that I’ve seen, but I’ve never gone out to Sri Lanka where they shot that big rope bridge for “Temple of Doom.” I’ve never gone to the lost city of Petra, Jordan, to see the castle-like Treasury building carved into the canyon wall, which served as the temple where the Knights Templar guarded the Holy Grail in “The Last Crusade.” I’d love to see it, but I’ve just never made it out. I did go and see the Hawaii filming locations from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which was fun.
Collectors Weekly: Were you approaching this stuff as a film student, as a collector, or as maybe a future career?
Alinger: I guess a little bit of each. It was my raw interest that took me there. I wanted to see these places because I loved these movies and I was fascinated by their productions. Anything I could acquire was a great addition to my collection. Because I’m so interested in research, I eventually wrote a few “Star Wars” books. I wrote a book for Lucasfilm called Star Wars Costumes, and then I co-authored a book on Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork.
Collectors Weekly: Was that something you did with the “Star Wars” organization?
Alinger: Yes. I met Jonathan Rinzler, who was an editor at Lucasfilm and had written The Making of ‘Star Wars’, which came out in 2007. It’s the definitive account of the making of the 1977 movie, and I was blown away by it. I met Jonathan when he was working on The Making of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ a couple of years later. I told him about the research that I had done, going out to Norway and meeting some of the people who had worked on the movies. I said, “I might have things that would be of interest to you for a book. I have photos that I’ve been able to scan from crew members and other items of interest.” So I started helping him out.
A few years after that, when Jonathan was writing The Making of ‘Return of the Jedi’, he asked me to work as his research assistant. For that book, I worked with Howard Kazanjian, going through his materials, scanning and transcribing things, and from there, Jonathan offered me the chance to write the costume book, and the costume book led to the McQuarrie book.
Collectors Weekly: And the costume book gave you an opportunity to dig into the Lucasfilm Archives?
Alinger: Right, that was my first time there. We had to figure out what costumes we wanted to show in the book, and then shoot it, because we wanted all new photography of the costumes. We tried to present the costumes in a way that people had never seen them before. That was a big deal for me, to get to work with that material first hand.
Collectors Weekly: In your personal collection, you have a Storm Trooper blaster from the “Star Wars” movies. How did they make that?
Alinger: They took a replica of a Sterling machine gun and then put little bits of sci-fi dressing on it to turn it into a Storm Trooper blaster prop for the movie. I believe the original weapon it’s based on is from World War II.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a sense of how many vintage or vintage-inspired objects were repurposed to look futuristic in “Star Wars”?
Alinger: A lot. The filmmakers tried to make these movies as cost-effective as possible. They came up with very clever solutions to get an interesting visual aesthetic without breaking the bank by recycling real-world objects, things that had already been designed and used in photography, aviation, or whatever it might be. The crew would take them apart and re-dress these objects to make something new out of them, like the prop guns, the lightsabers, and the sets.
Collectors Weekly: Last year, you were featured on “Pop Culture Quest.” Since you had worked with Lucasfilm in the past, had you already met Mark Hamill?
Alinger: I had only met him once. A good friend of mine managed to convince Mark Hamill to appear at his 40th birthday party, and I chatted with him then. But Mark Hamill frequently attended things like Comic-Con, so lots of friends of mine had met him there and at some of the other Star Wars Celebration shows. He’s always been good about making time for his fans.
Being on the show was a lot of fun. I got involved because of my relationship with “Jedi” producer Howard Kazanjian, who I worked with on the Making of ‘Return of the Jedi’. Obviously, he’s known Mark Hamill for many years. Because Howard is one of the producers on “Pop Culture Quest,” I believe he pulled Mark Hamill in to the show. When Howard told me he was going to be involved with this program on collecting, I was excited because I’m a diehard collector myself.
Collectors Weekly: But you didn’t freak out about hanging out with Mark on camera because you’re used to talking to big “Star Wars” names?
Alinger: Well, I guess you’re always freaking out a little bit when you’re having a conversation with someone like Mark Hamill. But if you freak out too much, you end up not having a very interesting conversation.
Collectors Weekly: What was it like to reunite Mark Hamill with his “Return of the Jedi” lightsaber?
Alinger: Oh, it was great fun. If there’s one person you want to chat with about Luke Skywalker’s “Jedi” lightsaber, it’s him. When he described how they had to wear battery belts to create the light beam, which was what they call a “practical” effect on the first movie, it was great to hear it from the horse’s mouth. It was great that he remembered it because we’re talking about 40 years ago, which is quite a long time.
Collectors Weekly: Why did Mark use Obi-Wan’s old lightsaber in the third movie instead of the original made from the Graflex flash gun?
Alinger: Luke had to use a different lightsaber because he lost the weapon when he lost his hand in “The Empire Strikes Back” fight with Vader. Howard Kazanjian had a lot of the production photos for “Jedi.” When we were researching the book, we found a contact sheet with photos from the very first day of filming “Jedi.” One image showed Mark Hamill on the sandstorm set—for a scene was cut from the movie—and he’s holding the lightsaber prop from “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” I don’t know exactly what happened. But it sure seems to me like someone brought out the old “Empire” lightsaber and then a decision was made right then and there that they needed a new prop because the “Empire” one fell into the Cloud City air shaft with Luke’s severed hand.
Collectors Weekly: At the beginning of the episode, you showed an eyeballed tentacle from the trash compactor monster. Had Mark never seen it?
Alinger: That prop was made later for an insert shot at ILM in California, long after all the main-unit photography had been done at Elstree Studios in the U.K. They had one monster part on set in London, which was just the tentacle, but Mark had never seen the head of beast.
Collectors Weekly: In the show, Mark tells you they wrapped the tentacle around his leg, shot it unwinding, and then ran the film backward to make it look like it grabbed him. Did you know that?
Alinger: No, that was a good “Star Wars” history tidbit, too.
Collectors Weekly: The Prop Store sold that eyeball piece at auction last fall. How do you decide
what goes in your personal collection versus what goes into the Prop Store?
Alinger: It’s always a tough balance. We’re all collectors ourselves, and we like to try to keep things when we can. We try to get movie memorabilia into both our personal collections and to preserve for the future in our company collection. We do a big display of Prop Store’s collection every year at San Diego Comic-Con. But, at the same time, dealing in movie props is how we make our living, so if we can keep the business moving forward and pick up a cool piece for ourselves once or twice a year, then we all feel pretty good about it.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a protocol around how props are handled at the end of filming?
Alinger: Historically, when filming was finished, the sets, the costumes, and the props might be liquidated or destroyed. Typically, movie productions have destroyed most of their props. We’ve heard so many stories over the years from people who worked on big films that a bunch of stuff got thrown into a bonfire or tossed into the landfill.
There’s been a steady shift in how movie props are regarded over the past 20-30 years. It’s not about us, although we’d certainly like to think we are a factor. Most studios didn’t have real archive departments until at least the ’90s. Around the ’90s and the early 2000s, the studios started saying, “We should be making an effort to preserve of our history for the future.” They hired archivists to go through their costume and prop rental departments. For example, in wardrobe, the Warner Bros. archivist would look at all the labels on the costumes say, “Oh, here’s a piece James Dean wore!” Prior to that, that sort of historic garment would just be kept in the costume rental department where any production could rent it out.
Over time, studios have become aware that: A) There’s a reason for them to archive key assets for themselves for the future. B) Collectors and fans are interested in buying these things. They would love to have them, and be the caretakers themselves. C) There’s a better final destination for all these things than a landfill. There’s been a rise in awareness, which may have been influenced by Planet Hollywood, which was a big restaurant chain in the ’90s and 2000s. That’s when many regular people first encountered movie props and costumes. Since then, there’s been a steady shift from props and costumes being byproducts of a movie to being seen as artifacts worthy of preservation in their own right.
Collectors Weekly: Would you encourage other young people or fans to go on the sort of archaeological journeys for films that you did?
Alinger: Sure, but I wouldn’t go strictly with the mindset of coming back with collectibles. To be honest, many places that once had collectibles no longer do because other fans have gone out and found them. But I still recommend it for the experience of seeing these locations to understand a bit about why they shot a movie at that location. I’ve always really enjoyed that experience. A lot of people do.
(Don’t miss the other episodes of “Mark Hamill’s Pop Culture Quest,” streaming on ComicCon HQ. Read more about Brandon’s experience in Tunisia on the Prop Store blog: here, here, and here. Brandon Alinger’s company Prop Store will have a movie-memorabilia display at Comic-Con International: San Diego, which takes place from July 19-23, 2017, at San Diego Convention Center. You can also pick up Alinger’s books, Star Wars Costumes, and Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie, as well as other Lucasfilm behind-the-scenes books like “The Making of ‘Star Wars’,” “The Making of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’,” and “The Making of ‘Return of the Jedi’.”)