Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Making of Return of the Jedi

Rinzler does not disappoint with his third book about the making of the Star Wars films. This is probably the Star Wars movie I've read the most about the production of, mostly because when the film came out I was 6 and was paying a lot more attention to movies and how they were made. I saw the Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi special so many times as a kid; we had recorded it when it was on TV, and I used to watch it over and over, dreaming of having the jobs those guys had.

But what I've most read about in regards to this one was the creatures, particularly in Jabba's palace. And the book doesn't skimp on any of that. But here are some other things that struck me in the book:

:: This is the least popular of the Original Trilogy, and I think this book helped me to understand why a little better. (No, the answer is not "Ewoks," they're just a scapegoat--and no, if you're my age, you didn't "always" hate the Ewoks. You either got to the point where you didn't like them anymore, or someone made you feel bad about liking them when you got older.) The real answer is that so much of the character development is gone. Han, Leia and Lando are basically just sort of there but don't really have any growth. I'll talk a bit more about that. But it's harder to relate to the people in this one--with the exception of Luke, who has some of his best scenes. I'm not sure why it ended up so bloodless in terms of growth, but it is interesting that George Lucas saw this one as more or less an attempt to redo Star Wars the way he would have done it if he'd had better technology available in the late seventies. George really had to create the process of making these kinds of films from the ground up.

:: As far as the Ewoks go, 31 years of incessant whining about them has really gotten old. They're not for everyone, but let it go. Some of the people working on the film didn't like them, either, which is not surprising. It was interesting to see some of the treatment and draft summaries: the Ewoks (or "Ewaks," at first) were always there. George Lucas gets some stupid flack for having once planned to use Wookiees for the finale (way back in his earliest drafts of the first film), but instead going with the Ewoks. (Interestingly, he also had Yussems in his early drafts, who were in Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye novel, itself conceived as a possible low-budget sequel to Star Wars in case the first film underperformed; it was written with the idea of reusing props and costumes that had already been made. Yussems were sort of Wookiee-lite.)

Anyway, the flack. "They're just to sell toys!" is the usual complaint, as if Lucasfilm weren't already selling toys and as if they wouldn't have just sold Wookiee toys instead of Ewoks. (George Lucas himself, in the book, dismisses that claim, saying that a teddy bear is a stupid thing to try and cash in on, since there are so many teddy bears and basically everyone already has one, so there's nothing proprietary or creative about it.)

What I like about the Ewoks is that they already go all the way back to what George Lucas was writing in 1973, when he wanted a primitive people with no technology to ultimately be instrumental in destroying the Empire (George's Vietnam War allegory again). The reason he didn't use Wookiees was that we'd already gotten so used to seeing Chewbacca shoot guns and pilot ships and perform complex mechanical repairs that he thought non-technological Wookiees would seem unbelievable and didn't sell the point he was making.

:: That said, George Lucas didn't like the Ewok celebration song at the end of the picture. I love you, George, but you are wrong, wrong, wrong. That New Age piece at the end of the Special Edition is a poor replacement.

:: Honestly, the original drafts of the screenplay almost sound like a better story. I hate saying that and won't bother dwelling on it, because I like Jedi and don't want to spend decades pathetically whining over what the film isn't. But I do like the cross-cutting action in the earlier drafts, which also turn Leia into a much more proactive character and give Lando and Han more to do. Vader also comes across more interestingly, not having abandoned his intent to kill the Emperor and take his place, and the drafts give him Grand Moff Jerjerrod to play off of as a foil. There's also a lot with Force ghost versions of Ben Kenobi and Yoda, including their involvement in staving off the Emperor, which feels much more like the dynamic of the Prequels and of The Clone Wars series.

These drafts also bring back the idea of a city planet (here called Had Abbadon) and has turned his lava planet idea into a throne room for the Emperor made of rock and lava. He tried to get those into Empire and didn't, and didn't succeed here, either, but filed them away for the Prequels.

:: The story notes are also fascinating. Lawrence Kasdan (who also wanted to drop the Ewoks) agreed with Harrison Ford that Han Solo should have a sacrificial, heroic death--and if not him, then Lando Calrissian--, but George Lucas just wouldn't have it. He wanted his fairy tale to have a happily ever after for everyone, hated it when characters died in adventure movies, and felt it would alienate the audience.

Also, once again George Lucas files these things away for later use. He wanted to see celebrations of the Empire's fall across the galaxy, not just on Endor, which he did in the Special Edition. And also, when Ben and Yoda were still in the climactic fight with the Emperor, he talks about how, as part of the living Force, they can cloud the Emperor's mind and his ability to access the Force, which is something he touched on in the Prequels, when Mace Windu and Yoda discuss how the Jedi have been less and less able to use the Force.

Another great bit is Lucas on who the Emperor is: "...he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name." He proceeds to tell Kasdan basically the entire last act of Revenge of the Sith.

And one more bit I liked: Lucas shocks Kasdan by telling him that the Force is like yoga or karate, that everyone can use it if they take the time to train and pursue it. He also says Yoda is a teacher and that he and the Emperor, though skilled in the Force, are not actual Jedi.

:: Richard Marquand, who directed the film, doesn't necessarily come out of this looking great. The book is respectful, and most people who talk about him are pretty tactful or diplomatic, but there are hints of tension that I kind of wish the book had made clearer.

I think it didn't help that Marquand came in expecting more control and changing the entire look and feel of the series. He was vocal about not liking Empire's costumes, considering some things from that film mistakes (like Vader being able to hold a lightsaber with one hand), and criticizing the way that film was lit.

Before filming, Irvin Kershner apparently told Marquand that George Lucas would leave him alone more than any producer he'd ever work with. But this certainly wasn't the case here. Mark Hamill says that Lucas acted on the film as more of a second-unit director, but others just outright say he was basically directing from over Marquand's shoulder. Norman Reynolds and Howard Kazanjian talk around it, but Robert Watts comes right out and says "Richard couldn't grasp it and George was concerned, so he never left." Part of the appeal for Lucas seemed to be that he could leave the directing in someone else's hands so he wouldn't have to do it himself, but the consensus seems to be that Marquand was probably out of his depth and didn't quite understand what George wanted. (It's worth noting that Lucas seemed to feel Marquand's original cut of the film was disastrous and re-edited the entire film, though he certainly would have done that, anyway. It just seems like he had his own idea of Star Wars and it didn't always line up with George's ideas.)

(And yeah, George's first choice was David Lynch. I'm not sure how that would've gone. I think what George really wanted was a team of second unit directors who would get him his shots. Looking at the visuals on Dune, maybe he would've gotten it, since Dune and Jedi have similar looks. But I can't really speculate as to whether or not Lynch would've chafed under the arrangement as Marquand seems to have.)

Carrie Fisher seemed to feel that Marquand's problem was that he never became part of the group, and tried to assert himself rather than ingratiate himself, so things were uncomfortable and occasionally tense. Some felt he was assertive to save face, trying to make George's ideas sound like his own.

:: Marquand seems to have had an especially contentious time with Carrie Fisher, who seems adrift, and not just because of her admitted drug use at the time. It probably says a lot about his approach to the character that he defined Princess Leia as "this perfect little doll-like creature" in the first film and didn't like what a bitch she was in the second. He wanted to soften her up, something Fisher was initially excited about because she wanted to have an emotional response to the destruction of her home planet, something that resonated. Instead, she says she had a lot of difficulty even finding the character in the third film because there was nothing to play. She was especially confused as to why she was so silent with Jabba the Hutt when she had been so defiant with Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader.

She also had problems with the secrecy about key plot points. For example, she and Mark Hamill were given their script for the scene where Luke reveals that he and Leia are siblings immediately before shooting it. Where she would've liked to have workshopped it on the set as actors, the way they had done with Kershner on Empire, they simply had to shoot it and move on, and as a result she admits that she's not very good in that scene. (She also says that she's "not much of an actress" and that the long hours in Jabba's palace made her decide to chuck acting and become a writer.)

She also says that Marquand "kowtowed" to Harrison Ford, because he was a movie star and Marquand either respected him or was intimidated by him, "but he certainly didn't respect, as far as I could tell, too many other people." She implies, too, that Ford didn't care for the way Marquand treated the other actors (though Marquand and Mark Hamill got along splendidly).

:: The actors are pretty upfront about being more cynical with the making of this flick. Mark Hamill called the script "a letdown." He went onstage to star in Amadeus specifically to be challenged as an actor, and says that Jedi is the film that made him more interested in the craft and less interested in being so career-minded as an actor.

:: I'm glad this book confirmed there were issues with the Yoda puppet, including the misplacement of the eyes. He's always seemed so off to me. The Yoda puppet seemed even more terribly off in The Phantom Menace. It's a bit of a letdown because those scenes with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back are my favorite in all of the films. (And I've said it before, but I did not mind the puppet being replaced with CGI in the Phantom re-release.)

:: After the previous two books, I talked about how the films changed the way movies are made. With this one, Lucasfilm started changing the way films were exhibited, as THX sound was developed. I remember as a kid hearing Lucas talking about digital distribution, which is only now poised to become the norm in theaters. I remember when I first heard him talk about digital streaming as far back as 1990. The man's always been ahead of his time, and I admire the way he forges ahead and creates a culture of being able to make these kinds of movies just because he wants to see them.

:: As to the matter of the nine films we were "promised," it's amazing how quickly everyone got burnt out on this one, which was released to mixed reviews but huge box office. (We saw it 13 times.) George Lucas, going through a divorce during postproduction and rather disenchanted with the whole thing, talked about retiring or closing down for a while to recharge. He almost seemed regretful about spending a decade on the films, having to sacrifice his personal life and, at the end, his marriage. At the time, he was saying any future Star Wars films, which he knew then would be prequels about Anakin Skywalker's boyhood, would probably happen in "about five years." He was also adamant that they would be someone else's vision, and not his, unless making them was easier somehow. And enter digital effects...

And now here we are, 31 years since Jedi, and JJ Abrams is making three more Star Wars films for the internet to bitch about. When I was in high school, and people had mainly forgotten about Star Wars and it seemed like a relic of the past, I would sometimes remember the brief period of time when I was in the Official Fan Club and people were speculating about how Episode I was just a few years away. It seemed like a pipe dream after a while. So much so that, even after the Special Editions, when Lucasfilm announced it was actually making it, I couldn't quite believe it.

I hope Rinzler's not done with Lucasfilm. Honestly, I'd love to read a book about the making of the Special Editions, just because I'd love to get more of an idea of how George's relationship with the movies themselves evolved and what went into some of the decisions. I would love to read that book.


Kelly Sedinger said...

I need to blog about this book...I too was struck by the original story treatments, thinking "Damn, that would have been really cool." You can almost feel them slowly settling for a lesser movie, without ever actually deciding to do it. I think that burnout really settled in, perhaps because Lucas DID spend so long on it. Did Peter Jackson spend that much time on LOTR?

SamuraiFrog said...

I don't think he did... I want to say, before finishing it, he spent about half the amount of time, something like 1998 to 2003... But Jackson did what I think George Lucas would have preferred, which was to have a LOT of units with unit directors doing what he asked and shooting multiple scenes simultaneously.

Semaj said...

Great run through of the book. While I hate the Ewoks, I've come to hate them less. I still think the wookies would have worked better.

I have always read that Lucas pretty much stood over Marquand's shoulder the whole time too. Thanks for confirming that.

It also explains why certain scenes were deleted (such as Vader attacking The Emperor's guards and the DS commander) because Lucas felt they overdid the force hold thing in Empire.

I'm glad they went with one Death Star instead of two as in the early scripts. The only problem I had is the script should have made it much clearer that Death Star II was much bigger, powerful and could fire mult-shots unlike DS1.

Did they go into why they redesigned the AT-STs between Empire and Jedi?

SamuraiFrog said...

It seems like they mostly did it just because they could, which is sort of the approach to the models here. They needed something more dexterous for some of the go-motion shots.

Everyone involved in making them keeps calling them "chicken walkers."

Neil Sarver said...

"He wanted to soften her up, something Fisher was initially excited about because she wanted to have an emotional response to the destruction of her home planet, something that resonated. Instead, she says she had a lot of difficulty even finding the character in the third film because there was nothing to play."

I think that's somewhere he's really felt. I'd never put my finger on it, but Leia really is neutered in this one, too (as well as Han, that is), which kind of makes it unique in the Star Wars canon as not having a dominant female character, only hidden behind the fact that it has a character that had previously been so dominant. Interesting.

For the record, the fact that the Death Star II is so much bigger doesn't play at all. It's a massive failing of the movie. I don't think that could have been fixed by making that play better, they really needed to develop a new climax instead of literally repeating "minor flaw in the Death Star is exploited by small group of X-Wings with a last minute assist from rogue flying Millennium Falcon".

I say that having enjoyed it much more on my most recent viewing. It's greatly improved when watched in proximity to Revenge of the Sith and the various ways that movie mirrors and enriches it.

SamuraiFrog said...

I'd never really put my finger on that before, either, about Leia just being mostly silent in this one. Silent and ornamental--Jabba immediately puts her in a bikini, and the Ewoks immediately make her their princess or something. It's a genuine failing of the movie to take someone so strong-willed and just shut her up.

I disagree with Semaj above, in that I liked the multiple Death Stars of the original drafts, because I could see the Empire building more than one--several, if they could--to keep worlds in line. I think we're supposed to feel that the Death Star is going to settle everything and make the Empire untouchable, like nuclear weapons. Instead, it just sort of plays like "I dunno, let's do a Death Star again." I also like in the earlier drafts how they blow up the Death Star with a cannon created by the Rebel Alliance.

A lot of times when I see it now, I'm anxious to get through it. I chalk that up to seeing it more than any of the others as a kid and being so obsessed with the special effects. I've seen it more than any of the others, so I guess part of me is a little exhausted.