On March 25th 1977, Star Wars was released. It immediately became a financial success, grossing over $750 million worldwide in the box office, and becoming a social and cultural phenomenon. But how did this come about?.
While shooting only his second feature film, American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas, a film student from USC ( University of Southern California) from Modesto, California, begin to toy with the idea of shooting a Sci-fi movie that would closely resemble the Saturday morning Flash Gordon serials he’d watched as a child. His original idea had been to secure the rights to adapt Flash Gordon to the big screen, in the first place, but when that failed, he started working on his own Sci-fi story, with the title Star Wars. Along his friend and producer, Gary Kurtz, he started going around the Studios to try and sell his idea, but none of the mayor studios wanted to have anything to do with it, which was kind of a relief for George, as he wanted to have as much control over his work as he could, with as little Studio interference as possible. This was the result of a very bad experience Lucas had had with Warner Bros, which had decided to re-cut his first feature film, THX1138, before it was released, without his consent. He finally managed to pitch the idea to then, Head Producer at Twentieth Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr, who recognized Lucas’s talent after seeing his previous movie, American Graffiti, which had been a box office success; even though he didn’t understand the idea behind the concept Lucas was trying to sell. Ladd took the idea to the Board of Executives, and they approved a budget of $8 million for the movie. A fee of roughly $200 was agreed to be paid to Lucas for writing, producing and directing the movie. Ladd thought this was too low a fee, and convinced the board to re-negotiate the terms of the contract. When they sat down with Lucas to discuss it, he said he didn’t want more money or premium options. He just wanted the revenue derived from merchandise sales, and a chunk of the profits from marketing. He also wanted creative and final cut control over any possible sequels. The Studio was only too happy to agree to those terms, as they thought that the movie would make back its production cost at best, or be a flop, at worst. This re-negotiation turned out to be a wise move on Lucas’s part, and it would be the way in which he would gain his financial freedom to break out of the Studio system, and have total control over his movies.
When Lucas started casting for the three main roles in the movie, he wanted unknown actors to play the parts. With the help of his friend and fellow director, Brian de Palma, who was also conducting casting sessions for his upcoming movie Carrie, they tried out lots and lots of new faces, among them Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. Ford had already worked with Lucas in American Graffiti, and though he was reluctant to cast him for that very reason, he asked him to stay on, and help the other actors with the reading of their lines, and to explain to them the script and their respective characters. He became so familiar with the material, and proved to be so good with it, that he wound up winning Lucas over, who finally ended up casting him as rogue Space smuggler Han Solo. Carrie Fisher, who came from Hollywood royalty, the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds, was also an easy pick for Lucas. She had all the qualities that Lucas required; she had the right age, and had the charisma and presence to hold her own against strong actors. Hamill also proved to have a good handle of the heavily space-jargon-filled script, and got the part. For the parts of the bickering duo of androids, Lucas cast British actor Anthony Daniels as protocol droid C3-PO and the 1.12 m British comedy actor Kenny Baker as R2-D2. Daniels was chosen on account of his slender size, which was perfect for him to fit into the C3-PO costume, and his expertise on miming techniques, that would help him with the robot mannerisms. Baker’s manager told him that a guy called George Lucas, and his American filmmaking crew where in London auditioning short people for the part of the Astrodroid. As soon as the crew saw him, he was picked; as he was the only person who was small enough to fit inside the R2-D2 robot. They were looking for someone not only small, but also strong enough to be able to move the prop around. Peter Mayhew was chosen to play the part of Chewbacca, co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon. Lucas cast him right away when he walked through the door of the room where Mayhew was waiting for him to be auditioned, and Mayhew got up to greet him. For the parts of the villains, Lucas went for two British actors; Hammer horror, and Stage actor Peter Cushing, got the part of Governor Moff Tarkin, the Commanding Officer in charge of the Death Star, and former Bodybuilder, and also Hammer actor, David Prowse. Prowse had the phisyche to portray the character, but due to his thick Northern English accent, Lucas was forced to look elsewhere for someone who could dubb him, and bring a menacing tone to his voice. The honour fell on Afroamerican actor James Earl Jones, who would provide one of the most instantly recognisable voices in Cinema History. The Studio was concerned that without any known actors in the movie, it wouldn’t do any good. That’s why Lucas offered the part of Master Jedi Obi-wan Kenobi to famous British stage and film actor Alec Guiness, who at first was reluctant to accept the role, as he’d never done any Science Fiction before, and found the dialogue in the script to be weird. The deciding factor, though, was George Lucas. He’d heard of him, and his success with American Graffiti, and wanted to give it a try. He made a deal with the Studio to receive a percentage of the box office profits on top of his salary, which would make him a very wealthy man. With the cast locked, it was time to begin shooting.
Shooting in Tunisia
Shooting started on March 25th, 1976. Pretty much from the beginning, the crew started to have problems; mal-funtioning props, high temperatures, and a rainstorm, that all, but destroyed the sets, were the norm. Conditions didn’t improve once they moved to Elstree Studios, in England, either. The strict British Union regulations dictated that the English crew stopped shooting at 17:30, unless Lucas was in the middle of a shot. Lucas would always try and negotiate for a few extras minutes, but the crew would always vote him down. Lucas got increasingly nervous because of the budget restrictions, and the small amount of time he had to shoot the movie. Pressure from the Studio to get things done in time, and not go over budget, didn’t help things either. His relationship with the cast was also difficult. Extremely shy, and not comfortable around large groups of people, the actors often complained about Lucas being unable to give them proper direction. ”Faster” or ”More Intense”, were words that were well known to the actors. The intense pressure to get the movie done in time, also meant that Lucas was almost always in a somber and sad mood. The actors would try to unsuccesfully cheer him up . Despite all of this difficulties, and going over budget, Lucas managed to finish the shoot in time. But another whole new set of problems was waiting for him at home.
Before he left to shoot in Tunisia and England, Lucas had set up his own company of Special Effects; Industrial Light & Magic, in an old warehouse in California. Special Effect houses were a thing of the past at the time, due to the fact that Hollywood was going for more gritty, realistic and down to earth movies, that didn’t require a great deal of visual trickery. As most of the old guard in the business was either retired, or on their way out, Lucas recruited most of his staff from USC, where he had studied, and most of these technicians would later become some of the most recognisable names in the industry when it came to Special and Visual Effects, Stop Motion and Sound Design. Names like Dennis Muren, John Dykstra, Phil Tippett, Rick Baker and Ben Burtt, to name just a few, would become the foremost experts in their respective fields.
With the setting and the stuff in place, and with the help of Concept Designer’s Ralph McQuarrie paintings, they started building models for the Special Effects sequences, and matte paintings that would later be added onto the already shot live footage. Unfortunately, by the time Lucas arrived there, hardly any usable special effects shots had been done. The whole company was in disarray. With no one to oversee their work, they pretty much did what they wanted, and their work ethic was very relaxed. Already nervous for the production delays, Lucas had a nervous breakdown, and had to check into hospital. He was told by his doctor that he had to reduce his stress levels and take it easier. He went back to the company, and started to personally manage the stuff to get things back on track. That wasn’t the least of his worries, though. He already had a rough cut of the movie ready, that he decided he would show to his closest friends, to get an opinion. He was already displeased with the previous cut, and had to let his editor go, and edit the movie himself, whenever he had time. This rough cut had none of the special effects added, and almost none of the assistants to the screening liked it. Devastated by this news, and almost out of money to finish the money, as the special effects crew had spent half the budget in unusable effects shots, he was pleasantly surprised when one of the executives from Fox came up to him, and told that it had been the best screening experience he’d ever had; enough to agree to give him another $3 million to finish the movie. He had to have the movie ready for release for the Summer of 1977, though. It had previously been scheduled to have come out on Christmas of 76. Unfortunately, the numerous delays in production had made that impossible. With more money and a new release date, it was up to Lucas and Co, to get back on track. With the help of editors Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch and his wife, Marcia Lucas, who was editing Martin Scorsese’s film New York, New York at the same time, the editing process started moving along at a brisk pace. To help his technicians and editors get a feel for the Space Battle sequences, Lucas edited together old footage from WWII aerial dog fights. Only one thing was missing.
For the soundtrack of his Space Opera, Lucas wanted to have an orchestral score. Orchestral scores were not very much in vogue in those days, but he, nonetheless, managed to hire John Williams, fresh off winning an Oscar for his soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Williams would come up with an array of action packed, melodious and uplifting tracks, which would forever leave their mark in the memories of all those who saw the movie.
The big day comes.
Finally release day came and, against all the odds, the movie was a massive success. The main stars of the movie became instantly famous worldwide, and this one movie would give a great push to Harrison Ford’s career, that would be further solidified when he played the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg (1981). The rest, as they say, is History.
This movie is, without a shadow of a doubt, a huge cinematic accomplishment. Not only did it pave the way for what Science Fiction movies would look like from then on; it also cemented the career of George Lucas, and all those who helped him bring his Vision to life. Everything about it is spot on. The Story, the Cinematography, the Special and Visual Effects, the Characters, the Production Design, the Editing. It moves along at a very swift pace, the characters are charismatic and engaging and it’s got a terrifyingly evil villain in Darth Vader. He’s the iconic character of the whole saga, and a character with whom fans will associate and compare every other Star Wars villain that came after. What is there not to like?. It is a movie that grabs you from the first frame, and doesn’t let go of you until the very end. This movie doesn’t have as many action set pieces as the sequels would have, but, if I had to choose one scene, it would have to be the very first shot of the movie. That magnificent shot of the Republic Blockade Runner being chased by a massive Imperial Star Destroyer over the planet Tatooine, is the one thing that makes this movie so special, and informs the audience, right away, of what they’re in for. Another stand-out moment would be the scene when we see the Millenium Falcon in all its scruffy and worn out glory, and the escape from Tatooine. There are so many great moments to choose from, that it’s really hard to. The Mos Eisly Cantina Scene with its menagerie of strange alien creatures, the scene where the Millenium is trapped in a tractor beam and we see the massive bulk of the Death Star ( to think that this shot was achieved with blue screen and models), and let’s not forget, the last Space Battle; a bunch of X-Wing Fighters against the immense Death Star, and a lethal squadron of Tie Fighters led by Lord Vader. All of this rounded up with the amazing soundtrack by John Williams. What else can you ask for?. Honestly, if you’ve never seen this movie, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.
Regrettably, I’ve never had the chance to see this movie in Theaters. Two years before the first of the Star Wars prequels came out, and while he was working on the pre-production of these movies, Lucas decided to go back to the Original Trilogy, do some restoration work, and re-release them in Theaters. He not only cleaned up the image and sound on all the movies, he also did some digital tweaking, and added some extra scenes. Star Wars was be the movie that would suffer the most changes, some of them, in my opinion, unnecessary. This has been a massive point of contention with fans for years, as they want Lucas to preserve the movie as it was released back in the day, with none of the extra CGI additions. I can sympathize with that, as that was the way I grew up watching them. But, then again, we’re talking about a crusty VHS Pan& Scan copy of the movie, most likely taped from a TV airing of the movie. The first time I really had a chance to sample the movie in Widescreen, was when I got my Special Edition copy of the Trilogy set. Even by VHS standards, that was very much well received. I later on got into DVD, a few years after the craze had started, and finally, in 2004, I got my first digital version of Star Wars. That was a very nice upgrade, indeed; but I’ve always regretted not being able to watch the movies in Theaters, even with all the silly changes. So, what’s so special about the Special Edition?. Well, you’ve got the Dewback scene in Tatooine ( now there’s more than one, standing still on the far side of the frame, and they move), Mos Eisly is expanded upon, and we’ve got more creatures in the foreground and background, the brand new scene where Han Solo talks to Jabba the Hutt ( this scene was shot back in 1976 with an actor and not a puppet, as the character would become later on in Return of the Jedi) ; unfortunately the CGI Jabba the Hutt that was added to the scene for the 1997 Special Edition re-release, wasn’t very good, and it would be improved upon for the 2004 DVD release, another brand new scene of the Millennium Falcon taking off from the Mos Eisly Spaceship Dock, now we can also see the X-Wing Fighters taking off, and flying by the camera in Yavin IV, and we also have a plethora of new and improved shots, from all angles, of the X-Wing Fighters Squadron attacking the Death Star. The Explosions of both Alderaan and the Death Star are more spectacular. When the movie finally came out on Bluray in 2011, it had even more tweaks, but the improvement in both picture and sound, is a step above the DVDs. So, what is my favourite version of Star Wars in home media?. Here is the thing; a few months ago I started looking on eBay for a copy of the unaltered trilogy on Laserdisc. I’ve had a Laserdisc player, even before I had a DVD player, but, for some bizarre reason, I never got a copy of the trilogy on Laserdisc. Weird, right?. So, I finally got my hands on one ( these things go for quite a bit of money, by the way), and, I must say, I really enjoyed it. Seeing that green Lucasfilm logo at the beginning was a treat. I didn’t even remember that existed. It’s an analogical format, so there’s always going to be drawbacks when it comes to image quality, but it was quite nice, for my money. Even as used to pristine HD images as I am now. As for the sound mix, I imagine that it’s quite akin to what you would have gotten back in 1977, in those first Dolby Stereo equipped Theaters. Quite robust and front heavy. Something I see myself going for when I’m feeling retro. But I must give my nod to the Bluray. It blows all the other versions out of the water, in both Image and Sound quality. Ok, so it’s not technically accurate, but I’m not a sound purist, and I believe that everything can be improved upon. I’m one of the very few who actually likes the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix that was done for the 2001 Special Edition of Superman: The Movie, on DVD and later on, Bluray. The DTS HD MA 6.1 audio mix done for the Original Trilogy is a winner for me, and the movie has been lovingly scanned in HD. So, no complaints there. Now, I only have to get my hands on a copy of the 1997 Special Edition trilogy in Laserdisc and I’ll be set.
Whichever way you choose to watch it, it’s always gonna be a treat.
Thanks for reading.