A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….
Star Wars is a film that virtually everybody in western civilization recognizes, and just about everybody has seen. From the vantage point of 2012, the film’s 35th anniversary, it almost beggars belief to think that there was a time when this film was expected to be a failure. And yet, when it was in production and nearing release, almost nobody thought that it would amount to anything. Only one man had any faith in the project; only one man thought that it would not only be a success, but a massive one.
That man was famed Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who had nothing to do with the film. George Lucas himself thought he had a disaster on his hands.
“We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.”
Lucas didn’t start off expecting failure, of course. Star Wars had been a pet project of his since he was working on THX-1138. Inspired by the serial science-fiction stories of the 1940s, he attempted to get the rights to Flash Gordon but was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead, he opted to start writing his own space fantasy, a script he called The Star Wars. He created the film American Graffiti, and continued working on his sci-fi script, making multiple alterations over the years. At one point, when told the story was too confusing, he started over, and drew elements from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress to form a more straightforward narrative. Even then, Lucas’s intent was to show one adventure out of an entire universe of stories; though he did not know if the film would ever get made, let alone receive sequels, he still envisioned it as being akin to the sci-fi serials of his youth, where another adventure was always around the corner. While only limited events could make it into his final script, he threw in references to other events and worlds that could not be shown in a single film.
“You fought in the Clone Wars?”
“Yes. I was once a Jedi knight, the same as your father.”
The script would continue to undergo changes as Lucas shopped it around to different studios. Universal Studios and United Artists both passed on the film, fearing the high risk involved, as they anticipated it requiring a large budget. Eventually the film landed at 20th Century Fox, still largely unwritten; Alan Ladd, Jr. signed Lucas to a deal to write and direct the film. Lucas would later say that Ladd was investing in him, not in the movie, as it was more of a token of faith in Lucas’s talent. Lucas completed a draft of the script, and then re-wrote it yet again. He brought in conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie to design certain elements of the script, and included those paintings when selling Fox on the new screenplay. A few more drafts later, and the final form of the script was approved as The Adventures of Luke Starkiller: As Taken from the Journal of the Whills: Saga I: The Star Wars. It would, of course, be shortened by the time it made it to film.
“Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
It is possible that no character went through as many changes during the script rewrites as Luke Starkiller himself. In the original version of the story, Starkiller was a 60-year-old general, an experienced Jedi knight. Later, Lucas decided to shift the general to a supporting role, and made the lead an adolescent. He toyed with the idea of making Luke and his family dwarfs, but discarded the idea. He also toyed with the idea of removing the “rescue the Princess” angle from the story, and making the heroic lead female instead. But in the end he went with a young human man, just setting out on his first adventure, from his farming home on a desert planet. The name Tatooine is never mentioned in the first film, but it is named after a town in Tunisia near where filming took place for those scenes. It was during filming there that Lucas made one final change to the character, rechristening him Luke Skywalker.
“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”
Cast in the lead role was then-unknown actor Mark Hamill. Lucas expressed a preference during casting to work with actors who had not previously been in any of his films. However, he had his friend Harrison Ford reading the lines of Han Solo when actors were screen testing for other characters, and eventually realized that Ford was perfect for the role of the smart-aleck smuggler. The number of previous candidates for the role reads like a veritable who’s who of Hollywood stars, running the gamut from Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, to Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, to Robert De Niro and Burt Reynolds, to Billy Dee Williams, who would eventually land a role as Lando in the sequels. Han’s skin color changed a few times during prospective casting; originally, it had been green. While he was eventually made to a be human in the final script, the original version had him be a green-skinned alien with gills. This design would end up being used for Greedo, who Han preemptively shoots in the cantina scene that establishes his character as straddling the line between hero and scoundrel.
“As a matter of fact, I was just going to see your boss; tell Jabba that I’ve got his money.”
The other characters went through comparatively fewer changes. The general that was originally going to be Luke shifted into a supporting character, Obi-Wan Kenobi. In keeping with the Kurosawa roots of the film, Lucas thought of casting Seven Samurai actor Toshirô Mifune as Kenobi. In the end, the role went to Alec Guinness. Guinness, already an established actor with some major roles and award nominations, did not have a high opinion of the dialogue in the script, a sentiment shared by many of his co-stars. Ford even asked to be allowed to change some of his dialogue, which started a trend of him ad-libbing lines in later collaborations with Lucas. Ford also purposefully didn’t memorize his lines for the scene in which Han impersonates a Stormtrooper over the intercom, in order to make Han’s uncertainty sound more spontaneous.
“Boring conversation anyway.”
Despite his disdain for the dialogue, Guinness took the role because he found that when reading the script, he found the story compelling enough to read it all the way through. He had also admired Lucas’s work on American Graffiti. The same enthusiasm for the narrative was shared by Carrie Fisher, who auditioned for the role of Princess Leia due to it being the only character she was eligible for; she has said that what she really wanted was to play Han Solo.
“Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.”
Other characters continued to take form during casting as well. C-3PO was originally envisioned to have a personality and voice similar to a used car salesman; Anthony Daniels’ performance, however, convinced Lucas to make him a bit more like a nervous servant. R2-D2 originally spoke English, and was rather foul-mouthed; this was replaced with making him beep instead (with Ben Burtt providing sound effects), but C-3PO’s reactions in the film are from the version of the script with R2-D2’s swearing.
Peter Mayhew, at 7′ 2″, was offered a role as soon as he stood up during auditions. He and David Prowse, at 6′ 6″, were given the choice of which tall characters they were to play. Mayhew wanted to play a hero, and Prowse wanted to play a villain, so Mayhew dressed up in the fur suit as Chewbacca. Lucas had originally intended there to be many aliens in the film, and kept Chewbacca as a significant character in the script as a compromise when he simplified the story. Lucas also had to fend off some executive meddling as some higher-ups objected to Chewbacca not wearing clothes, and wanted him to wear shorts over his fur.
“I suggest a new strategy, R2: let the Wookiee win.”
Prowse, meanwhile, would play Darth Vader… but only physically. Vader’s dialogue was dubbed over by James Earl Jones, who declined credit on the initial film. Jones said at the time that he didn’t feel he deserved it, but later admitted to being worried about type-casting. The design of Darth Vader was by Ralph McQuarrie, who came up with the iconic helmet and suit design when wondering how Vader would breathe while transferring from his own ship to board Princess Leia’s in the beginning. The helmet was not part of the screenplay, and was only intended for the one scene, but became a constant part of the character.
“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
The other villain of the piece, Grand Moff Tarkin, would be played by Peter Cushing, who had been considered for the role of Obi-Wan. And with all the actors in place, Lucas began filming… and began running into problems and conflicts. The actors mostly hated the dialogue; Guinness in particular was vocal afterward in expressing his disdain for the script and voicing displeasure over unpleasant working conditions. He would later claim that Obi-Wan’s early death was his idea, to limit his involvement; Lucas told it differently, saying that the death was his idea and was earlier than Guinness had expected. Yet despite his displeasure with the process, Guinness was a tempering factor on his co-stars; Hamill and Ford, by their own admission, largely goofed around on set when the more veteran actor wasn’t around. Ford thought the script was weird, and most of the crew thought it was a children’s film and didn’t take it seriously.
“What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!”
The actors also reportedly found Lucas’s directing to be basic, with him simply saying “faster” or “more intense” to them during scenes. When he came down with a case of laryngitis, the crew gave him cue cards with those instructions on them. Smaller issues crept up for the actors as well. Anthony Daniels broke his costume leg when he first put it on, and had it painfully jabbing into him for several takes. Kenny Baker, who operated R2-D2, would often be abandoned in the suit while his co-stars went to lunch. Peter Cushing found his boots uncomfortable — due to being too small — and refused to wear them unless they were in the shot. For most of the film, if Tarkin’s feet aren’t on the screen, they’re in fuzzy slippers.
“Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”
The conflicts with the actors, however, may have been the least of George Lucas’s concerns. His cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, fought with him regularly, objecting to Lucas’s hands-on approach. Lucas had come from independent film-making and was used to making decisions for himself; Taylor was a veteran cinematographer and according to Gary Kurtz was “set in his ways”. Lucas would also later have clashes with the editors of the film.
Delays also plagued the production. The initial scenes on Tatooine were filmed in Tunisia. It was chosen specifically for its desert climate. The first week the crew was in place to film, the area experienced its first major rainstorm in fifty years, pushing the project behind schedule from the very beginning. As changes and arguments with crew and executives kept delaying the film and increasing the budget, Lucas at one point had to be checked into the hospital for hypertension. Filming was complicated further by injuries to Mark Hamill. Hamill had burst a blood vessel in his face when holding his breath in the trash compactor scene, and could only be shot from certain angles from then on out. Worse still, he was in a car accident after principle filming, and left with visible scarring; it would not be possible to re-shoot his scenes without re-doing the whole film, so any scene with him in it had to be usable from the established takes.
“We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.”
Post-production was as turbulent as production. George Lucas had discovered that Fox’s visual effects department had been disbanded, and founded Industrial Light & Magic in 1975. The new company began work on Star Wars immediately, using scale models for most of the ships. But the need to design many new effects for the film — such as the precise form of Rotoscoping for the lightsabers — meant that they ran behind schedule and over budget. Worse still, over half the budget was spent on shots that Lucas decided were unsatisfactory. The budget was originally planned at $8 million; at the end it was around $11 million. The film had been expected to have a Christmas 1976 release, but instead was pushed back to May of 1977. The loss of the holiday movie season meant that Fox was no longer expecting big things out of the increasingly-troubled project, and they initially planned to use the film as a tax write-off.
“I find your lack of faith… disturbing.”
Lucas himself was feeling dejected over the film as well. He initially had high hopes for the film. He had even negotiated with 20th Century Fox so that instead of getting a typical director’s fee, he would receive a reduced rate of $175,000, plus 40% of the merchandising rights. The studio readily agreed, as merchandising had previously not been a significant profit for their films. Lucas’s gamble began to look ill-advised as the delay moved the film backward. A deal had been secured with Kenner, but with the delay, it looked less likely that there would be any interest by the time the figures came out; they were expected for Christmas, and had Star Wars been on time, it could have been re-released to theatres to renew interest. But it was less likely that it would get a re-release the same year, especially if the drop-off from the holiday movie season led to it being unsuccessful. Furthering Lucas’s financial concerns, he had brought in a couple of screen-writers to rework his script, and Fox had insisted they be paid out of Lucas’s own salary.
“Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.”
Lucas screened the film for several of his director and screenwriter friends, and they all agreed that it was likely to fail. All save for Steven Spielberg. Spielberg thought that it would earn millions. Reportedly, Lucas made a bet with Spielberg, so that his failed film would earn him a little money. Spielberg was also working on a science-fiction film at the time — Close Encounters of the Third Kind — and Lucas was certain it would be a success. The bet was that whoever had the more profitable film would give the other a small cut of the profits.
Though test screenings would eventually convince the studio that the movie would not need to be a tax write-off after all, Lucas remained convinced it would be a minor success at best. He did not attend the premiere of the film, instead opting to spend time on vacation in Hawaii with Spielberg. There the two would develop the concept for Raiders of the Lost Ark; it is possible that if Lucas had more faith in Star Wars, Indiana Jones would not have come about.
“Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”
As it turns out, Lucas needn’t have made his bet. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was indeed a major success, but Star Wars was nothing short of a phenomenon. Released on May 25, 1977, it immediately broke box-office records, earning $1.5 million its opening weekend. It stayed in theatres well into the Christmas season — ensuring that kids would indeed want the toys, though ironically Kenner was unable to produce them on time and sold vouchers for the initial wave of figures. It surpassed Jaws as the highest-earning film in North America after only six months in the theatres, and eventually went on to go over $200 million in its initial theatrical run. It was reissued to further success for each of the next five years, save 1980, when its first sequel was released.
“Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”
It met with critical acclaim as well. The screenplay the actors derided so much was nominated for the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and Alec Guinness, who would later become bitter over his role overshadowing his “more serious” roles, earned himself another nomination for Best Supporting Actor. George Lucas himself was nominated for Best Director. And Star Wars itself was nominated for Best Picture. While none of those awards were won by the picture, it did win several technical awards, from costuming to film editing, and a special achievement award was given to Ben Burtt for his sound effects. And John Williams took home an Oscar for a soundtrack that is still recognizable to this day.
“You’re all clear, kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home!”
But its impact would go on far beyond just its initial year of release. The film spawned two sequels in the 1980s, each a massive success in its own right; Star Wars received a subtitle on its re-release, making it Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. This new title established it as part of a serial adventure, hinting at both further adventures to come and the eventual revelation of what came before. The film also inspired a holiday special, which is rather less fondly remembered. The toyline that Kenner struggled to get out on time wound up redefining action figures forever; the 3¾” inch design they used wound up becoming the standard, and the toys kept Kenner afloat for years after the films until they were eventually purchased by Hasbro. The line is still going. Since 1977, nearly every boy in America — and a significant portion of the girls — has enjoyed playing with Star Wars. The film also was a top seller on home video, whether it was VHS, LaserDisc, or — eventually — DVD.
In 1997, George Lucas re-released the film to theatres once again, having made alterations and visual updates. The “Special Edition” of the film trilogy was met with controversy from the fans, the more so due to the unaltered versions not being made available on DVD in a remastered edition. The long-awaited prequels came out a few years later, with fans lining up around the block to get tickets. They, too, were met with some controversy. But all the Star Wars releases continued to be massive commercial successes. And more are on the way. In October 2012, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and all its properties, including the Star Wars franchise, to Disney, for $4.1 billion, most of which was given to charity. Episodes VII-IX are currently being written, with a target release of 2015 for the first film of the sequel trilogy.
“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”
Star Wars tells a story that captured the imagination of the public and never really let go. Though Lucas has acquired quite a bit of criticism from his fans over the years for his changes and the prequels, it has to be said that most directors would give up their eyeteeth to have such dedicated fans, even if they might not agree with the sentiments expressed. And while the quality of the franchise is sometimes in flux, they are always successful; even sub-standard Star Wars is still Star Wars.
And the original film still stands a high water mark in science-fiction film making. It has inspired directors from Peter Jackson to James Cameron, who left for Hollywood to become a director after seeing it. It charts on multiple AFI lists, including both of their top 100 films lists, and takes #2 on their sci-fi list (after 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi both make it onto their list of heroes, while Darth Vader is the #3 villain. The score is #1 on their list. All in all, the film is on eight of the AFI’s lists, and is often near the top of other film polls. In 1989, it was inducted by the National Film Registry as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically important. It was one of the very first wave of inductees, included with the likes of Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz.
It’s a tremendously fun film, with charismatic characters and a great sense of adventure. It’s a pop culture phenomenon that is unparalleled in film. It’s a great science fiction film, and simply a great film for people of all ages, and it’s one of my favorite films.
“The Force will be with you, always.”