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A Force To Be Reckoned With

23 December 2015

Words: Richard Luck / Images: Everett Collection

A screening room, Hollywood, California, and George Lucas, the writer-director of the cult sci-fi drama THX 1138 and the massively successful Happy Days forerunner American Graffiti, is desperate to show his latest movie to his closest friends. Since these men include Brian De Palma, John Milius and Steven Spielberg, it’s natural that he should be a little on the nervous side.

His concerns are more understandable still when you consider that the movie he’s showing them is one few people have any faith in whatsoever.

Intended as a swashbuckling celebration of the science-fiction movie serials of the 1940s and ’50s, Lucas’ Star Wars has Fox, the studio that financed it, completely baffled. And judging from his friends’ guffaws, the hottest film directors of the day don’t care too much for it either. The problem is, in part, Lucas’ own.

With the special effects sequences still to be completed, he has used dogfight footage from old war movies to fill in the gaps. But even random shots from 633 Squadron aren’t the real problem. No, it’s the talk about Jedi Knights and ‘The Force’ that has De Palma in particular howling with laughter.

Now as the movie reaches its climax, and Luke Skywalker and Han Solo receive their medals, Lucas prepares himself for something far less welcome. De Palma, whose Stephen King adaptation Carrie is already doing great box-office, just smiles and shakes his head while screenwriting whiz Milius upbraids his friend for wasting his talent on such a folly when the two of them could have gone to Vietnam and shot something that we’ll later come to know as Apocalypse Now.

The sole positive response comes from Spielberg. “I think it’s great,” says the man who – just a year earlier – introduced the world to the summer blockbuster, courtesy of Jaws. “I think it’ll make a whole bunch of money.”

Although touched by his friend’s enthusiasm, Lucas remains less than convinced. It wasn’t until the summer of 1977 with moviegoers queuing around the block to see some kid from Tatooine stick it to the Galactic Empire that George Lucas would acknowledge that he’d created something pretty special with Star Wars.

Although a downbeat chap at the best of times – this is the man who skipped the THX wrap party to attend a therapy session – Lucas’ fears were the furthest thing from self-indulgent melodrama. On the contrary, the man from the fittingly named Modesto had been second-guessing himself long before De Palma and Milius raised their concerns.

And the proof of this? Well, for that we’ll have to revisit the set of the film itself. Now regarded as one of the world’s top film and entertainment writers, Garth Pearce was a 23-year-old freelancer looking for a break when he was asked whether he fancied a day at Elstree film studios watching some movie that a young, quiet American director was making.

“The good news,” as Pearce wrote at the time, “is that I’ve been invited onto my first ever film set. The bad news is that Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, the true stars of this ‘space adventure fantasy’ [then] called The Star Wars, are not prepared to be interviewed. Instead, I’m sold a tragic line-up by the desperate PR on the end of the phone. Let’s see, we’ve got Mark Hamill, “the hero and a nice guy”, Dave Prowse, “the villain and a huge guy”, and Carrie Fisher: “You can have lunch with her but she’s kind of odd.”

“It doesn’t sound at all promising,” wrote Pearce at the end of this first paragraph. The next day at Elstree, his fears came to fruition. “It’s already horribly apparent,” he continued, “that this movie is going nowhere. It’s hard to explain, but nothing looks quite right. Everyone’s looking distinctly uncomfortable. The set seems messy and not even remotely high-tech. This could be an episode of Dr Who. What am I doing here?

“And just when I’m thinking things can’t get any worse, I hear Dave Prowse speak. He’s dressed from head to foot in black to play ‘Darth Vader’ and, at 6ft 6in, looks like a giant. But he’s speaking in this light, rolling Somerset accent which makes him sound more like the proprietor of an isolated West Country village shop!”

If the “villain with a Wurzels accent” was the nadir of the visit, there were still other disappointments Pearce had to endure. He met Mark Hammil – “he looks about 12” – he lunched with Carrie Fisher who had to keep going to the bathroom – “perhaps she has a summer cold coming on…” – and he spent a fruitless few minutes trying to get anything more welcoming than a scowl out of Harrison Ford.

“A softly-spoken yokel, a choirboy, a spoilt little rich girl and a nobody actor, all toiling in the heat at a washed-up studio. Who’s kidding who? Sir Alec must have lost his marbles.”

Painting a picture so depressing it makes Munch’s The Scream look like C M Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker, and Pearce must have thought that his candid study of a sinking ship would have been sure to sell.

As it was, it wouldn’t appear in print until 1997 when Neon magazine sought to celebrate the release of the Star Wars Special Editions. And that says a whole bunch about the state of Lucas’s picture – it wasn’t just that shooting was going badly but no one, not even the British tabloid press, gave two hoots.

“George doesn’t really like directing,” says Rick McCallum, a producer who enjoyed working relationships with the likes of Nicolas Roeg and Dennis Potter before becoming Lucas’ full-time collaborator in the early 1990s.

“He hates writing – just gets no satisfaction from it at all – but he doesn’t like directing either. George is a lovely guy but he’s quite shy and reserved. He’s not someone to rally the troops when all hope seems lost. When I hear those stories about the original Star Wars shoot going down the toilet, I find it hard to believe that my friend had it within him to get the movie in the can. That’s the other thing about George – he might not want to say boo to a goose but he’s very strong, albeit in an almost completely silent way.”

After initially working together on the Young Indiana Jones series of – frankly underwhelming – TV movies, McCallum’s first business with Lucas on the Star Wars front was with regard to the aforementioned Special Editions.

Created to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of A New Hope’s US release, the pictures gave the writer-director a chance to restore footage, clean-up special effects, add CGI elements and right things that been wrong for the better part of two decades.

If you think George was happy about having the chance to rid himself of such bugbears, you’d only be half right. As McCallum recalls, “George was far less excited than I think people assumed he would be. The fact of the matter was, each time he set about touching something up, it would remind him of something terrible that happened during the shoot. So every new FX shot represented the reopening of a deep wound that had taken a very long while to heal.

“And not only that, but you’d had these people who’d been on at him since the ’70s about restoring the Jabba The Hutt scene, and then George goes and does it the best he can with the limited technology we had at the time, and then everyone goes and abuses it! In short, the Special Edition of A New Hope was like a time machine that transported George back to a time that he never, ever wanted to revisit.”

Though the chance to restore balance to the Force might have granted George Lucas very limited satisfaction, the Special Editions both relit his creative fire and refreshed the audience’s desire for Star Wars-flavoured action.

Something that started out resembling a vanity project instead provided the inspiration for a new trio of prequels, not to mention a bucket-load of cash with which to make said films. But then again, making money is something George Lucas had always known a bit about.

Rick McCallum shakes his head and smiles. “You know, it’s funny to talk about George at Elstree in 1976 because, on the one hand, he was the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. He was second-guessing himself right up to the wire – ‘Luke Skywalker’ was still called ‘Luke Starkiller’ the first day on set. But while you have him making snap, potentially rash, choices like that, you also have him making perhaps the shrewdest decision in the history of film.”

The decision McCallum is referring to wasn’t seen as that sharp at the time Lucas made it. As his producer continues, “George was a hot director at the time he made Star Wars. American Graffiti had been a huge hit – it went over $100 million at the US box office back when that didn’t happen so often – so he could have demanded a big fee.

“But because George knew that this was just the first part of a three-part story he wanted to tell, he knew he had to find a way to finance two further movies. So, to the consternation of pretty much everybody, he goes to the board at Fox and asks for a very modest salary. All he wanted in return were the merchandising rights.”

Film merchandising didn’t begin with Star Wars – the Planet Of The Apes movies ‘inspired’ plenty of kid-friendly toys – but it was Lucas who realised the phenomenon’s potential.

“The smart move George made was to allow children to fully immerse themselves in the Star Wars universe,” explains McCallum.

“It wasn’t just a case of making Luke, Han and Leia toys – you could buy figures of even the most minor characters like the aliens in the cantina bar who are only in the film for a few minutes at most. And you couldn’t just buy the Millennium Falcon, you could buy all the ships depicted – even the Death Star.

“I think now when someone creates a range like that you’d accuse them of being mercenary. With George, though, I think he was motivated by two things – a desire to allow kids to create their own Star Wars universe combined with a willingness to repay their investment by creating The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. I like to see it as more a victory for imagination and art than for cold, hard commerce, but then, hey, I am his friend.”

Whether the decision was cunning or heart-felt, its success isn’t open to question. For when Star Wars blew up big at the international box office, the cash tills started ringing in toy shops the world over. And as parents were left to ask whether their six-year old really needed a third Stormtrooper, George Lucas started dreaming of an ice planet called Hoth.

Extraordinary revenue streams and smash-hit sequels weren’t the only rewards George Lucas received for his perseverance. Sure, the critics might not have quite known what to make of Star Wars, but the Motion Picture Academy showered the film with six Oscars from 11 nominations.

And with one series of films based on old-school serials now a going concern, Lucas also had the impetus to get something similar up and running with his old friend Steven Spielberg – something about a gun-totin’, whip’crackin’ archaeologist called Indiana.

Steven Spielberg – the man who had been right all the time. For yes, Star Wars was a great film and it did make a whole bunch of money. But now, as a property of Walt Disney Studios, the saga will be raking in cash for someone other than George Lucas.

And for all the highs he experienced on the road to Endor, you can’t help thinking that the man with the quiet manner and the immaculate beard is actually quite happy to leave behind the movie that transformed motion pictures.

Actors that came within a whisker of appearing in A New Hope

William Katt *isn’t* Luke Skywalker
Lucas and Brian De Palma held joint auditions for Star Wars and Carrie. With his blonde mop and innocent face, Katt had a lot in common with Mark Hammil, just not enough to land him the role. Compensation came in the key role of Sissy Spacek’s prom date in De Palma’s excellent Stephen King adaptation.

Sissy Spacek *isn’t* Princess Leia
The Carrie/Star Wars cast reading also meant that the woman who wound up playing the girl with the awesome telepathic powers was in the running to play Alderan’s most famous daughter. As for rumours that Carrie Fisher turned down said part because of the nude scenes: untrue.

Jodie Foster *isn’t* Princess Leia, either
A huge star on the back of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for which she’d receive an Academy Award nomination, it’s only natural that Lucas would have considered casting the former Disney starlet. It says much for the modest scale of Star Wars, that our man simply didn’t have the money to afford her.

Kurt Russel *isn’t* Han Solo
Keen to cast actors he’d never worked with before, George Lucas was reluctant to give the role of Solo to Ford who’d starred in American Graffiti. Russell was one of many performers George had read for the role before realising that there was really only one man capable of piloting the Millennium Falcon.

Toshiro Mifune *isn’t* Obi-Wan Kenobi
With the original Star Wars being – rather loosely – based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai drama The Hidden Fortress, Lucas briefly toyed with casting the Japanese legend’s actor-of-choice as the last of the Jedi Knights. In the end, the name value and reputation of Oscar-winner Sir Alec Guinness won the day.

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