Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Making of Star Wars

Five years later, I finally got around to reading JW Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film.

These are the kinds of books I always liked to get lost in when I was in high school. I couldn't carry them around at school to read between classes because they were big coffee table books, so I'd sit and read them at home for hours, usually sitting on my bedroom floor with the book propped up, eating a peanut butter sandwich and dreaming about one day being a special effects technician or a puppeteer. Since high school was awful for me, a surprising amount of my best memories of the period were of getting lost in Jim Henson: The Works or George Lucas: The Creative Impulse or especially Thomas G. Smith's Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects, which I must have read four or five times.

The Making of Star Wars is the first book I've read about George Lucas and his film in many, many years. As I've documented here, I've had a troubled relationship with Star Wars over the years, in large part because of my difficult and frankly terrible experiences with internet fandom. It's been nice in the past few years to reconnect with the giant that dominated my childhood, bringing in memories of my attempts to make stop motion films with my Return of the Jedi action figures or playing Star Wars out in the woods with my friends--we used sticks for guns and lightsabers and pretend our bikes were Imperial Speeder Bikes, like a thousand other kids in the suburbs.

The book itself is fantastic. It really is the definitive story of the film, from conception to premiere and pop culture phenomenon, without presenting the film's eventual success as a fait accompli, or becoming self-important about fan mythology. It offers some different perspectives because the author is able to go through the Lucasfilm archives and pull out old progress reports, memos, interviews and George Lucas's notes. Like I said, I've read a lot about the making of Star Wars in my life, but here are some things that struck me while I was reading it:

:: There's been a lot of debate over the years as to whether there is any political allegory in Star Wars. It's interesting to look at Lucas's handwritten notes now and see that the Vietnam War shades were there from the very beginning; he compares the Rebellion explicitly to North Vietnam, characterizes an early character's journey as "like a Green Beret who realizes wrong of Empire," and says that "the Empire is like America ten years from now" with a corrupt, corporate-backed leadership and people on the brink of either accepting fascism or fighting an armed revolution. So... yes, there's a political allegory in Star Wars.

:: Famously, nearly every studio passed on the film and Fox was able to lock down George Lucas before American Graffiti was released and became one of the most successful films of all time up to that point. What I never thought about was that Fox had less fear about a science fiction movie because they were still making Planet of the Apes movies and making money off of them. They saw science fiction as profitable.

:: I'd heard many times about Lucas being influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim, but I didn't realize Carlos Castaneda was an influence. It makes sense, of course, but it just made me idly wonder how Castaneda is regarded now. I remember when I worked at Barnes & Noble in Oakbrook Terrace and we did a pretty brisk business in his books, but I haven't heard his name for years.

:: Very interesting to see George Lucas already talking about sequels in late 1975, including the promise that we'll learn who Darth Vader is at the end of the second movie (a movie he also says will focus on Princess Leia's feelings for the "Clark Gable-like" Han Solo). I wonder if Lucas had in mind what he eventually revealed. He also mentions that "someday I want to do the backstory of Kenobi as a young man--a story of the Jedi and how the Emperor eventually takes over," a story he describes in 1975 as "impossible to do, but fun to think about."

:: I actually did not know that Rick Baker and Ron Cobb worked on Star Wars. How did I not know that?

:: Nice to see Alec Guinness was at one point enthusiastic about the film. (Also, as an aside, I don't like how many people we see in the book who have to qualify their enjoyment of the film with lines like "Well, the dialogue is childish" and "It's not that sophisticated." These are quotes from 1977. I don't always cotton to those kinds of comments, because they scream "I'm afraid of being judged because I liked something that was on a level children could enjoy.")

:: I knew Luke Starkiller became Luke Skywalker, but I had never before heard George Lucas's explanation that he came to feel the name "Starkiller" had "Manson Family connotations." Yikes!

:: There's a lot of wonderful technical and technological information in this film which makes me excited... Man, if I'd been born 10 years earlier and could have gotten into physical special effects... It's always exciting to me, too, to hear stories about how things had to be compromised because of physical, financial, or time constraints. I think there's a lot of true creativity that asserts itself by accident. One of my favorite instances in the making of Star Wars is the switch to bluescreen. Lucas had originally wanted to do the backgrounds as front projection, which always looks hokey as hell to me. Bluescreen is so much better and creates a much better illusion.

:: It's very interesting seeing in the progress reports and interviews with his producers, lawyers, etc. what Lucas's approach to the look of the film was. Executives at Fox were very upset about Lucas spending so much money on sets and not lingering over them, but that was intentional. He wanted the film to feel like a documentary, with dirty sets, unclean costumes, and beat up equipment. The idea--and I honestly had never even thought about how much this adds to the film--was that it would look more real and less like a movie, as though you were observing real life somewhere, and obviously that's a big part of what made the film and the experience of seeing it what it is. Star Wars, more than any science fiction film (particularly of its time) looks like a real place. That's what the location shooting in Tunisia was all about--grit and realism. I just never consciously realized it before, but that's an essential component of what makes the movie work on a believable level. It impresses me all the more.

:: The fan myth (or, I guess, anti-fan myth) that Brian DePalma was "brave enough" to "tell George Lucas to his face that his movie was shit" is put in a more realistic perspective here, with Steven Spielberg describing DePalma as caustic and occasionally over-the-top, and Lucas dismissing it as brutal honesty about the film's structure and whether the audience knew what was going on instead of the confrontation it's been characterized as. I didn't know DePalma helped write the opening narrative text.

:: One of the sections at the end of the book is a series of quotes pulled from interviews George Lucas gave in 1977 about expanding the universe of the film through books and comics and other ancillaries. He was coming up with ideas and explanations for things writers might explore, and in doing so he approaches ideas that later became canon, including that C-3P0 was rebuilt by a young boy working for a junk dealer, and that Vader led the way in killing the Jedi in order to consolidate the Emperor's power. He also explains the Force as "a perception of the reality that exists around us" that, when understood, can be used as extrasensory powers. He even mentions the dreaded m-word: "It is said that certain creatures are born with a higher awareness of the Force than humans. Their brains are different; they have more midi-chlorians in their cells."

:: I hadn't realized just how badly 20th Century Fox jerked George Lucas around on preproduction time, principal photography time, money for special effects, and even Lucas's contract itself. I've read many times that George Lucas financed preproduction and the development of Industrial Light & Magic with some of his own money, I just never realized the extent of that was so extreme. Given the story of what he goes through here, I'm amazed he didn't just collapse at the end of it.

That last part is kind of sad, I think, in light of his recent announcement that he's going to retire and just focus on making the kinds of small, experimental films he made in college. And that all comes down to how appalled I am by the way internet fandom strengthens fan entitlement and turns it into one demanding voice. It made me a bit sad to see Lucas say just a couple of weeks ago: "Why would I want to make any more when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?" Reading once again about what he put himself through at every stage of production just to get this movie made and released--a movie he remained humble about and said over and over again that he was profoundly disappointed in--just makes fan entitlement seem more than ever like ingratitude. I do get tired of the people who want Star Wars to be what they demand and not what its author intends. These people haven't risked financial and professional ruin, even seen their health deteriorate, simply to tell the story they want to tell. George Lucas did, and for that he's rewarded with constant gripes about Gungans and midichlorians. (And billions of dollars, of course.) He went through hell and when he came out through the other side, he ended up changing the way films are made--and I mean technologically, not thematically. The physical process of filmmaking was altered forever.

George Lucas owes me nothing, Han shooting first or not. Would it be nice if I had a choice of which version I wanted to watch on DVD? Sure. But I'm not owed that. I, however, kind of feel like I should watch Star Wars again today. After what George put himself through, it feels like the least I can do.

:: Also, I like how Lucas spread the profits around, giving percentage points or pieces of points to a lot of the key people who worked on the movie. He says in the book that the people who worked so hard on Star Wars deserved to share in its financial success. Classy guy.

:: In the end, I really like Rinzler's assertion that Star Wars was the culmination of a trilogy about George Lucas's youth and his realization of his place in the world, starting with THX 1138 (which I've still never seen), continuing through American Graffiti, and completing its theme in Star Wars. I think that explains a lot about why Star Wars feels so much like a film unto itself and less like part of a series.

What a terrific book. It's really strengthened my appreciation for Star Wars and put certain aspects into a perspective I didn't really have before. Now I have to go to the library and get his book The Making of The Empire Strikes Back. Oh, and I see he's got a book about the Indiana Jones movies to tide me over until the book about Jedi comes out next year.


Kelly Sedinger said...

This is a wonderful book, along with its TESB follow-up. It's fascinating to me to see how many ideas were there right from the beginning; so much fan bitching is really neutered if you read this book and know something about the creative process as it took place. (Incidentally, I've been re-watching the entire Star Wars saga the last movie a week, each Sunday. Next week I finish up. Part of this is to refresh my memory so I can finally wrap up "Fixing the Prequels"....)

SamuraiFrog said...

Good news! I've been waiting patiently for more "Fixing the Prequels."