Director George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Alec Guinness, Frank Oz, Elaine Baker, Clive Revill, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
A Long Time Ago In A Film Industry Far, Far, Away…
In the late 1970’s the film industry went through a major shift in focus. For a very long time the focus of cinema was on characterisation and cast performance, while the world’s they inhabited were nothing more than afterthoughts and special effects were created on the very cheap. At some indiscriminate point there was a change; script’s were no longer reliant on dialogue and character interaction to pace their stories, and the use of modern technology became a huge part of the industry. Where there were famous faces standing in rooms with not but dialogue were lesser-known actor’s whose action’s spoke louder than words. Where there were home-made props on strings and incredibly bad green-screen were now professionally sculptured designs of all shapes and sizes, inventive and imaginary artwork, and amazing, computer-based visuals. Special effects had fallen behind due to disinterest in their value, but fortunately the industry had progressed to the point that what was once en vogue was now antiquated. Young film-makers and artists such as George Lucas had discovered a brand new way to wow audiences; cinema had caught on to this new trend.
And the beginning of this evolution was Star Wars.
Star Wars came at a time when science-fiction had been made fun of for far too long and was no longer considered a viable option. Before that most were either campy and b-grade at best, or artistic and interpretive, even plain weird. By the late 1970’s the value of sci-fi was at an all time low, and this lack of regard reflected on Lucas’ struggle to have his film financed. But things were changing.
The film industry was unprepared for such an ambitious production. Unable to rely on the visual effects companies, and with the struggling 20th Century Fox having closed it’s effects department, Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic, specifically to create the effects he needed. Even so, Lucas wouldn’t be truly satisfied with the results of his hard labour for another twenty years, but without his efforts those twenty years would never have yielded the results he envisioned. They couldn’t give him what he needed, so he created it himself.
A New Hope, For Cinema
In 1971 young film-maker George Lucas directed THX 1138, which earned him a two-film deal with United Artists. The first would become American Graffiti while for the second Lucas wished to create an adaptation of Flash Gordon. He was unable to obtain the rights, instead opted out in favour of writing a thirteen-page treatment for his new “space opera” (ironically Flash Gordon would eventually come to the big screen in 1980, three years after Star Wars had made it all possible). The continually re-named and re-written Star Wars would be passed on by United Artists, Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Productions before Alan Ladd Jnr. of 20th Century Fox closed a deal with Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz on a paltry eight million dollar budget, with Lucas negotiating licensing and merchandise rights, considered an afterthought at the time. All the while Fox thought the project would be a disaster.
Such is the story of ground-breaking cinema; production was rough. Lucas struggled with relations with his cast, who felt he offered too little in direction, and the crew, particularly cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Filming fell behind within the first week, and at one point halted to work on a refined production plan, during which Ladd told Lucas to complete production in a week or be shut down. Returning a plan with a budget of almost ten million afforded them the time they needed. The first cut of the film by John Jympson was considered a disaster, and the two replacements, Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew, had to work on separate film reels in order to meet the deadline.
All the while Industrial Light & Magic, headed by John Dykstra, were working on unprecedented material, resurrecting VistaVision and using motion control photography (known as the Dykstraflex) to create a perspective of size. But they lacked discipline in the same way as the crew, none of them taking the film seriously, and had to complete a years worth of work in only six months with regular interventions from Lucas.
An early, unfinished cut was filmed for Fox executives in February 1977. In the audience was Steven Spielberg, whom Lucas believed to be the only person who liked the film, while Ladd believed everybody had thoroughly enjoyed the rough cut. Delays in production saw the budget blow out to eleven million, and those delays saw the release date of Christmas 1976 pushed back to the following summer. No one knew how significant this change would be.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope opened Wednesday, May 25th, 1977 in less then thirty cinemas, and instantly broke box office records, making $1.5 million on its opening weekend on its way to becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Fox instantly broadened their distribution of the film, doubling the company’s stock within three weeks. Predicting absolute failure Lucas avoided opening day and only learnt of his success after seeing a line of people waiting to see the film and an evening news report. Sixty cinemas screened the film for a year, while it would see re-releases every year until 1982. It has since gone on to be on the most influential and revolutionary films in cinema history, and it’s gargantuan success, along with 1975’s Jaws, created what is now known as the blockbuster, with the summer season now reserved for such films.
The Lucas Empire Strikes Back
Now established, Lucas sought to finance his own sequel, affording himself thirty-three million in budget, along with the earnings of the previous film. A very risky venture, but he was now in charge of his own enterprise and no longer had to worry about pressure from production company executives and uninspired crew. He relinquished directing duties to Irvin Kershner and hired Leigh Brackett, and later Lawrence Kasden, to write a screenplay based on his treatment. When Brackett passed away Lucas was forced to write a new draft himself. Before its success Star Wars was a standalone film but with plans for the tentatively-titled Episode II in full flight it was here Lucas came up with the rich history of the universe, with a back-story that he wouldn’t visit for almost twenty years. Two subsequent drafts would be named Episode V.
Just like before production was a whirlwind adventure, only now the cast and crew were familiar and things were smoother. Filming began in Norway, where they encountered a snow storm so bad it resigned them to their hotel. There was only one shot completed, involving Mark Hamill going through the front doors of the hotel; they were covered in so much snow no one could tell what they really were. Filming then moved to London, using more than double the amount of sets used on the previous film. Of course a fire broke out, increasing the budget from eighteen million to twenty-five, the blow-out nearly costing Lucas his bank loan and forcing him to turn to 20th Century Fox. When the film became a success the lack of monetary gain for Fox from the deal became obvious and Ladd resigned his position. Without Lucas’ only tie to Fox severed, the lone man who had backed him in 1977, he would take his next film to Paramount Pictures and make them incredibly wealthy.
Meanwhile, Industrial Light & Magic had grown into an established, independent company, thanks in part to Lucas’ financial backing, but mainly due to the insanely difficult work those people put in three years prior. It was because of their efforts that, The Empire Strikes Back was able to re-imagine the many facets available to film-making at the time. New terrain and scenery, such as an ice planet and a cloud city, blue-screen, landscape painting, stop motion, and puppetry, all featured.
But one particular aspect of production that exemplified Lucas’ own drumbeat were the credits. In order to preserve the pacing of the opening sequence Lucas wanted the credits to be featured at the end of the film, an uncommon practice in 1980. Both the directors and writers guild’s took issue with Lucas having his name credited at the beginning, as LucasFilm, while all other credits didn’t feature until the end roll-call. They fined him and targeted Kershner; in order to protect his director Lucas paid all the fines. Subsequently Lucas left both guilds and the Motion Picture Association, going completely into business for himself.
The Empire Strikes Back opened May 17, 1980, grossing over ten million on opening weekend, leaving its predecessor for dust in terms of box office numbers. Within three months Lucas had earned enough money to recoup his thirty-three million plus hand out five-million in bonuses to the production staff. Although it received mixed reviews upon release Empire has gone on to be considered not only the best of the original trilogy but one of the best films ever made, being one of few sequels to surpass the glory of its prequel.
Lucas now had the Star Wars world in the palm of his hands with his empire now more popular than ever and in full swing. With two films in three years he had made sci-fi a bankable genre and set new standards for production with Industrial Light & Magic and their advanced special effects, which, by the 1980’s, had raised industry standards to a new level. The series had become a huge success for Lucas, and turned a bunch of unknown actors into household names, but it wasn’t just from box office receipts that Lucas and co. made their fortune. Having taken control of licensing and merchandising rights back in 1977 Lucas identified the fan-base that had grown over time and followed his films religiously, and was able to wisely market his brand in ways never seen before, turning his space opera and characters into pop culture icons. It was this one little aspect of his original contract, which at the time didn’t seem important enough to warrant any real form of negotiation, that forever changed the way film-makers, production companies, and distributors negotiated marketing their product.
Revenge Return Of The Director (Sort Of, Not Really)
Lucas quickly got to work on the final film in the trilogy with Empire writer Lawrence Kasden, using the title Revenge Of The Jedi, which Lucas would later amend. The screenplay wouldn’t be finished until late into pre-production with early teaser’s for the film, poster’s, and some merchandise, carrying the Revenge title. Though no major incidents took place during production, Lucas and co. still had a few welcome headaches to deal with. Early on it was unknown if Harrison Ford, at this point now a huge star, would return for the final film, a total turnaround to the desperate actor who jumped at opportunity without question six years earlier. Discussions took place that involved killing off his character, but Lucas was steadfast and Ford did eventually sign on.
As LucasFilm remained a non-union company this made sourcing shooting locations difficult and expensive; with a large amount of hype surrounding the film it carried a working title of Blue Harvest to avoid price-gouging. Filming started in London, occupying every stage for seventy-eight days, and eventually moving to locations such as the Yuma Desert, Arizona; Redwood National Forest, California; and Death Valley in the Mojave Desert, California. Though Lucas did head up a second unit he never considered himself director, giving those duties to Richard Marquand. Lucas would not be officially involved in the direction of a film for another sixteen years.
Always pushing the contemporary boundaries Lucas continued to utilise all the special effects he had helped innovate while aiming as high as possible, this time employing Garrett Brown’s Steadicam, still in relative infancy, to film chase scenes in the Redwood National Forest. Industrial Light & Magic were again stretched beyond their means, with the crew adamant of out-doing their previous work and setting a new standard with the final film, another turnaround from the crew who thought it ridiculous in 1977. The company worked six days a week, twenty hours a day, in order to achieve the shots they needed. Overall the company developed over nine-hundred special effects shots.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi opened May 25th, 1983, to coincide with the anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars. The subject of huge worldwide marketing campaign, Return Of The Jedi was a hit with critics and fans, grossing over $475 million. Over time the consensus is that Jedi is the weakest of the original trilogy, but still remains a good film for all to see. In six years Lucas had gone from a fledging film-maker to an innovator and marketing genius, whose efforts would stand the test of time. He had written and brought to life one of the greatest stories ever told, and concluded his space opera on a strong, high note.
It was all over, or so we thought…
Star Wars can be credited for so many firsts. It was the first franchise, created and defined the blockbuster, and kick-started the modern era of special effects, advancing and influencing cinema production more than any film that’s come before or after. It’s narrative revolutionised story-telling in cinema; before Star Wars there were no trilogies, just sequels with individual stories. Star Wars took a single plot and told it over several films, though not necessarily in chronological order. In years gone by it was dialogue, spoke by average people, that was used to determine pace in cinema, and settings were merely backdrops. It all changed in 1977. Suddenly we had creatures of all shapes and sizes, robots, and human beings, all in the vast vacuum of an uncharted world, whose actions made all the difference.
It would successfully take advantage of the extended screen-time of its cast, marketing them in ways never seen before through merchandising and turning their characters into fictional celebrities more popular than the actors portraying them. Only a die-hard fan might know Peter Mayhew, but everybody knows Chewbacca, and it turned Harrison Ford into a huge star. The other cast member’s who didn’t share his good fortune (all of them), in particular Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, could have easily never worked again. Its fan-base made sure of that, raising Star Wars to an untouchable level so high that every little thing, from quotes to spaceships to outfits, even the sound of a light-sabre or a breath, brought to life by sound designer Ben Burtt, are instantly recognisable today. Though in regards to sound nothing will ever touch the iconic music that is that amazing score by John Williams.
More than thirty-years after it’s final instalment its popularity and legacy are still immense. Its own prequel series is considered second-rate in comparison, and even then the loyal fans still bought a ticket and made them box office successes; and they’ll do it again come 2015. But the best part is not that they were simply popular films, or influential, but they were really good. Even now, with all the advances in technology it’s still a benchmark that others compare, in every way possible. It isn’t a part of an elite group of great films that popularised or changed cinema – it is the greatest.