Thursday, 25 May 2017

Star Wars at 40: A New Hope

Working out a reliable account of where George Lucas got his ideas for Star Wars from is a task fraught with peril. Just as Lucas has ill-advisedly revisited his earlier movies to sprinkle them with more CGI and unnecessary musical numbers, so he has revised his stories over the years about how Star Wars came about and how much of a "master plan" there was before he shot a frame of footage. Untangling this mess is not easy, but I will make the attempt.

 George Lucas and Anthony Daniels filming Star Wars in Tunisia, March 1976.

What is known is that George Lucas's first theatrical release, THX 1138, was science fiction and it was a genre he seemed fascinated by, although he was not really a hardcore fan. His early interest in speed, cars and high-tech aircraft coincided with the Space Race, which likely played a role. He also watched the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. Although their original release was before Lucas was born, in the early 1950s the serials were edited into feature films and re-released in cinemas, which is where Lucas caught them. Lucas seemed more intrigued by Flash Gordon, which takes place on the fictional planet of Mongo with relative few elements from Earth (other than the visiting human characters). He not only went on to read many of the Flash Gordon comics but also some of the inspirational material, including the Barsoom (aka John Carter of Mars) novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Lucas's decision to make a second SF movie seems to have been made in 1970 or 1971, around the time THX 1138 was being shown to distributors and then its final release. The movie was critically well-received but general audiences seemed to find it too depressing and bleak. Lucas resolved to make another SF movie which was fun and colourful. He had been planning to make Apocalypse Now for his friend Francis Ford Coppola, but had second thoughts due the ongoing Vietnam War. Although critical of the war, Lucas was hesitant about being too on-the-nose in criticising it as he didn't want to be polemical. He felt that an SF project could tackle some of those ideas in an allegorical or metaphorical way instead which was less heavy-handed. Combined with legal problems, Lucas was happy to hand back Apocalypse Now to Coppola.

Lucas decided to make a bid for the Flash Gordon rights, with Coppola potentially signing on as a producer to help entice distributors on board. Prior to the release of The Godfather in 1972, Coppola's name wasn't quite the powerful force it was to become and Lucas found his pitch rejected. Dispirited, he turned his attention to American Graffiti. During the course of making that film, he discussed his ideas with co-producer Gary Kurtz and resolved to simply create his own SF mythology to back up a story.

Work on the project began in January 1973, after post-production on American Graffiti had wrapped, with Lucas working "full-time" for four months on a treatment. The first treatment focused on CJ Thorpe, a trainee "Jedi-Bendu space commando" studying under legendary warrior Mace Windy (later Windu). This treatment, under the name Journal of the Whills, did the rounds of several studios, but they were either baffled by it or concerned about the budget. Lucas produced another treatment, called The Star Wars, and began considering the problem that his story was simply far too big to fit comfortably in one movie.

To deal with the complexity, Lucas hit on an idea established by Akira Kurosawa in The Hidden Fortress, the notion of using the two most modest, least-powerful characters in the story as a window into the events and a way of commenting on the bigger epic going on (Kurosawa himself was probably influenced by Shakespeare's use of similar characters in his plays). Lucas was also inspired to pare down the complexity of the movie into a much more straightforward battle between the good Rebels and the evil Empire, with a central maguffin in the film of a huge space station and superweapon.

After having the project rejected several times, Lucas met with Alan Ladd, Jr., the head of 20th Century Fox, in June 1973. To Lucas's surprise, Ladd seemed much more enthusiastic. Aware of the building positive buzz over American Graffiti and having studied Lucas's career, Ladd decided he wanted to invest in the young film-maker. The sponsorship of Francis Ford Coppola and the fact Lucas had a ready-made team from American Graffiti, including Gary Kurtz, ready to go also didn't hurt. Ladd wasn't entirely sure what to make of the new project but decided he wanted to be on board, especially as Lucas had budgeted the film at a fairly modest $8 million and demanded a fairly low fee in return for the ludicrous idea of retaining the merchandise and sequel rights. In a move he later regretted, Ladd bought the treatment and gave Lucas the green light in return for these modest demands.

The script proceed over the next year and a half through four very tough drafts. Lucas was now on board with the idea of focusing the story on the two droids and using them to explain much of the backstory. His first full draft introduced Han Solo (originally a tall, green-skinned alien), Chewbacca (based on Lucas's pet dog, Indiana), the Death Star, Darth Vader, the Force (originally a magical energy field generated by the khyber or kyber crystals) and developed a new protagonist, Annikin Starkiller. Starkiller was originally a 60-year-old war veteran and general reluctantly dragged out of retirement to help the Rebellion. However, Lucas realised the film might be popular with children and they might want a younger character to relate to, so he revisited his original treatment concept of the hero being a young man trained in the ways of the Force under an older mentor. Annikin Starkiller became Luke Starkiller and the mentor became his father, and later his father's friend.

The second draft moved more dramatically towards the final film, although some major differences remained. Most notably, Luke's father Annikin (eventually spelt Anakin) was still alive and Luke had several brothers. For the third draft - given the title The Star Wars: From the Journals of Luke Starkiller - Lucas decided to have Anakin already dead at the start of the film, killed by the evil Darth Vader, and combined elements of the father and mentor characters into the new character of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also by this time Lucas had started working with artist Ralph McQuarrie and begun considering the issue of visual effects.

To his surprise, Lucas discovered that the 20th Century Fox effects team had been disbanded. Rather hurriedly, he set up his own company, Industrial Light and Magic, in 1975 to begin working on the film. Thanks to McQuarrie's paintings, which established a coherent visual look for the movie early on even as the scripts changed rapidly, the effects team had some clear ideas about what Lucas wanted to do. Unfortunately, some of Lucas's demands, such as the epic space dogfights which had to feel like WW2 movies (which had often been shot simply using real fighters), seemed completely unachievable. This led to a lot of experimentation and hard work before they stumbled on the technique of motion control, keeping the models still and moving the camera around them in computer-controlled movements. Although the concept was not new - 2001: A Space Odyssey had used an earlier version for several model shots - increasing computer power allowed it to be better applied and more cheaply at scale for the first time.

Peter Cushing, George Lucas and Carrie Fisher on the set of Star Wars. Not pictured: Cushing's comfortable slippers, which he insisted on wearing on set.

Lucas delivered the fourth and final draft on New Year's Day 1976, under the somewhat overly cumbersome title: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. This draft had been worked on by Lucas's American Graffiti collaborators, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who had introduced much of the humorous dialogue and banter, particularly between Luke, Han and Leia. This draft also included the movie's opening crawl, which was huge and incomprehensible. Director Brian De Palma assisted Lucas in paring it down to the bare essentials of the plot.

Pre-production and casting was already underway, with the film resting heavily on the shoulders of an inexperienced trio of (relative) newcomers: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford (the latter rehired from American Graffiti after a stalled acting career and a side-gig as a carpenter). Veteran screen actors Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness were hired to play Grand Moff Tarkin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively. The very tall David Prowse, then best-known for appearing in road safety educational films in the UK, was hired to play the role of Darth Vader. Prowse was under the impression that the final film would use his voice and was disappointed to learn that he would be dubbed over. Lucas first considered Orson Welles for the voice of Vader, but later settled on the much less well-known but equally theatrical tones of James Earl Jones.

Filming began in March 1976, with the shooting script mercifully shortened to The Star Wars. One of the last changes made was altering Luke's surname to "Skywalker" instead of the more dramatic (and, given the changes to the story, now slightly nonsensical) "Starkiller". Filming lasted approximately four months, concluding in July. Lucas found the shoot highly stressful, facing criticism of the script and his dialogue from his young actors (Harrison Ford famously quipping, "You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it,") and criticism of his shooting decisions from the English crew. Although Lucas was annoyed by the crew giving him far less leeway than he was used to from American teams, some of their choices turned out correct, particularly how they lit the Death Star sets. Lucas's vision had been darker and more threatening, but he conceded the antiseptic and clinical look fit the Empire much better.

Both cast and crew were confused by the script, not understanding how much of the movie would be put together in the editing room, but  Alec Guinness was instrumental in maintaining a professional demeanour on set. Although not thinking much of his dialogue or characterisation, Guinness was impressed at Lucas's willingness to kill off his character when he realised there was no role for him in the movie's denouement and even agreed to a minor pay cut in return for a percentage of the film's profits (a movie Guiness's agent described as mad, but Guinness noted worked out "very well" in the long run). Despite hating the increased fame that came from the role, Guinness retained a lot of respect for Lucas's technical skills and even - surprisingly - agreed to return for two cameos in the later films.

Industrial Light and Magic technicians working on the iconic Star Destroyer model for the opening shot of the film.

After shooting wrapped, Lucas had to start post-production. Due to time pressures, Industrial Light and Magic had been instructed to work on the effects whilst live-action filming was underway. Upon returning from the UK, Lucas found that relatively little had been accomplished, the effects team having instead spent half the budget on just getting the technology to work. Lucas had been stressed and depressed from the shoot and now had added pressure from overseeing the effects work. He was also dismayed by the movie's first edit, which was terrible. Editor John Jympson had picked some of the bafflingly weaker takes for many scenes and put them together in a very traditional, limp way. Lucas fired him and replaced him with Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew. They ended up throwing out almost half of Jympson's scene choices and replacing them with more dynamic, higher-energy takes. They also introduced the old-fashioned idea of using wipes to switch from one scene to the next, which improved pacing and structure.

In the 1970s, post-production on a film typically lasted a few weeks - maybe a month or two at the outside - and then the film was ready for release. The idea of a post-production schedule lasting months was bizarre to the studio. They'd already negotiated a budget hike during shooting to complete production (from $8 million to $9.9 million) and now they were faced with a six-month delay to release. They initially deemed this unacceptable and asked Lucas to screen what he had for them. Lucas complied, also inviting a group of fellow film-makers including Di Palma, John Milius and Steven Spielberg along. An edit of the film was show with the wipes in place but only a few model effects sequences, the missing scenes instead featuring WWII dogfight material. At the end of the screening the other directors were unenthused apart from Spielberg, who (already planning his own epic SF movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) had grasped what Lucas was trying to do. Much to Lucas's surprise, the 20th Century Fox executives were extremely enthusiastic, noted uber-agent and studio executive Gareth Wigan (who later worked on Ridley Scott's Alien) going so far as to burst into tears and declare it "the greatest film I've ever seen".

Not only did the executives give Lucas the extension, they also approved budget overruns which took the movie to $11 million. The movie gave Lucas a great deal of confidence and renewed conviction which he needed to get the film finished. There were still creative problems ahead, however. Lucas had been unable to get his animatronic Jabba the Hutt concept to work and had to ditch a scene featuring the gangster. He instead used a different version of the Greedo scene which shared some of the same material (shot with this contingency in mind). Oddly, when he created the 1997 Special Edition of the movie, Lucas included both scenes despite them sharing word-for-word repetition of the same dialogue. Lucas also dumped other scenes from the start of the film featuring Luke witnessing the space battle overhead and discussing it with his friends, feeling it slowed down the movie too much.

Tragedy nearly struck the project when, on 11 January 1977, Mark Hamill flipped his car whilst trying to reach an exit on the freeway too fast (whilst listening to the 1812 Overture, of all things). He broke both cheekbones and his nose. When he woke up in the hospital he was convinced his career was over. Doctors worked a miracle in repairing the damage, but his appearance had been noticeably altered to the point that the opening of Empire Strikes Back included a sequence where Luke was mauled by an ice creature to explain Luke's corresponding change of appearance. Showing the resilience that would later define his career, Hamill bounced back to record dialogue and voiceover loops for the film before its final release.

Marketing for the film initially relied on the usual T-shirts, posters and some appearances by Lucas and Hamill at science fiction conventions. However, the film gained a huge boost from its novelisation. Alan Dean Foster wrote the novel of the film, using the final script draft, in the summer of 1976 (whilst filming was going on) and it was rushed out late in the year to meet the original film release deadline of Christmas. When the film was dropped back six months, no-one bothered to change the book's release date to match. As a result, the novel - containing the entire film's storyline, plot and ending - was on the shelves six months before the film was released. Judy-Lynn and Lester Del Rey, in the middle of launching their own SFF imprint, quickly mobilised to snatch up the paperback release rights for a couple of months later. The book was well-reviewed and its description of lengthy space battle sequences whetted appetites, as well as scepticism from those who didn't believe the film would live up to them. The book shifted a million copies within a year and did an enormous amount to build up pre-release hype.

The film was released, under the mercifully concise title Star Wars, on 25 May 1977. It changed the face of film-making and science fiction forever.

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alibaba said...

Great summary, Adam!

Garrett C. said...

"The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars"

I can only imagine if Star Wars had gotten that big with a name that long.

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

Nice Job, Adam.

Boy, what a mess. Lucas definitely needed strong collaborators.