Trevor Hogg delves into The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler to explore the creation of George Lucas' epic space opera, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope...
After discovering over 50 interviews conducted by Charles Lippincott between 1975 and 1978 with the likes of George Lucas, John Barry, Gary Kurtz, and John Dykstra, author J.W. Rinzler saw a unique opportunity to definitively chronicle the behind-the-scenes sage involved in producing the original Star Wars (1977). “Reading the Lost Interviews was the giant first step in the rediscovery of a fascinating story and many half-forgotten stories,” writes Rinzler in the introduction for The Making of Star Wars which was published in 2007 to mark the 30th anniversary of the landmark movie. “Together, Lucas and his collaborators overcame health-shattering obstacles – storms, crises, an implacable studio, technical limitations, high stress, and bitter disappointment.”
“I tried to buy the film rights to Flash Gordon,” revealed filmmaker George Lucas who gave up on the idea when King Features wanted Federico Fellini to direct it and 80% of the gross. “I decided at that point to do something more original.” Lucas had a particular idea in mind. “I wanted to take ancient mythological motifs and update them.” The project was influenced by an aborted attempt to bring a dark satire in the vein of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1965) to the big screen. “A lot of my interest in Apocalypse Now  was carried over into Star Wars. I figured I couldn’t make that film because it was about the Vietnam War, so I would essentially deal with some of the same interesting concepts that I was going to use and convert them into space fantasy. You have essentially a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.”
Less enthused about the “space opera” were the Hollywood studios. “UA was very cool,” stated George Lucas. “They thought of it as a big, expensive movie and didn’t understand it. Universal was the same way. Disney would have accepted the movie if Walt Disney were still alive. Walt Disney not only had vision, but he was also an extremely adventurous person.” Alan Ladd Jr., who at the time was the vice president for creative affairs for 20th Century-Fox, was impressed by the previous effort by the upstart moviemaker, American Graffiti (1973); he signed a deal with Lucas which would give him $15,000 for development, $50,000 to write the script and $100,000 to direct, and a $3 million production budget. Lucasfilm would be entitled to 40% of the net profits with the remaining 60% belonging to 20th Century-Fox. “I actually needed the money in May because I was so far in debt. That’s why I made the deal. In September, by the time they sent me the cheque, Graffiti was already a big hit and I was okay financially. It’s ironic. If I’d just waited until Graffiti came out, I could have mad the deal much better.”
The native of California was inspired by the works of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. “Originally, the film was a good concept in search of a story. Then I thought of Hidden Fortress … and so the first plots were very much like it.” George Lucas explained, “The princess and the general were going to a neutral planet which made it more of an escape movie, with them trapped in enemy territory and trying to get to safety. But I decided that didn’t work and that it would be much better to have it be a rescue movie.” Over the course of the second and third drafts the main protagonist continued to evolve. “I came up with the idea that Luke and the princess were twins. I simply divided the character in two,” stated Lucas. “The princess is everything Luke wants to be. She is socially conscious, whereas he is thrown into things; intellectually, she is a strong leader and he’s just a kid.” The research for the script, which was originally titled The Star Wars, altered the story. “I spent about a year reading lots of fairy tales and that’s when it started to move away from Kurosawa and toward Joe Campbell. About the time I was doing the third draft I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces and I started to realize I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, ‘I’ll make it fit more into that classic mold.’”
“Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri , I would watch it – and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it,” revealed George Lucas. “Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d edit it according to my story in Star Wars. It was really a way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.” The 25 hours worth of footage was condensed to about eight minutes which was presented to John Dykstra who had previously worked with Douglas Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Silent Running (1972). “George outlined concept of the film primarily with regard to what the special effects would be – what he wanted to do and what he wanted to have happen,” remarked Dykstra who was hired to be the special photographic effects supervisor. “More than anything else, he wanted to get the fluidity of the motion, the ability to move the camera around so that you could create the illusion of actually photographing spaceships from a camera platform in space.” A motion-control system was developed to allow for multiple camera passes. “I learned everything I could about special effects in school,” said Lucas. “I got the books and read everybody. But I hadn’t worked very extensively with special effects and optical problems.” To compensate for his lack of expertise in the area, the filmmaker established Industrial Light & Magic in 1975. “Once we added up the cost,” stated Gary Kurtz who was the producer for the picture, “it was just cheaper and easier to control the elements by doing it ourselves.”
With Walter Murch being unavailable to create the sound design because of his commitments to Julia (1977) and The Black Stallion (1979), George Lucas recruited a member of the University of South California Sound Department. “Ben [Burtt] started collecting sounds before we even started shooting the film….We had several categories that I wanted him to do. One was animals; another was all kinds of dialects and dialogues. One was to collect any kind of sound that could be used for a laser gun – weir zaps and cracks.” Another first choice eluded the director. “If I’d gotten [Toshiro] Mifune, I would’ve also used a Japanese princess, and then I would probably have cast a black Han Solo.” The mentor role was reluctantly accepted by Alec Guinness who saw his role radically changed. “I was struggling with the problem that I had this climatic scene that had no climax about two-thirds through the film,” recalled Lucas. “I had another problem in the fact that there was no real threat in the Death Star. The villains were like tenpins; they just got knocked over. As I originally wrote it, Ben Kenobi and Vader have a swordfight, Ben hits a switch, the door slams closed, they all run away, and Vader is left standing there with egg on his face.” The filmmaker chose a dramatic solution to rectify the situation. “I took Alec aside and told him I was going to kill him off hallway through the picture.” The Academy Award-winner was upset with the idea of being turned into a ghost; a compromise was reached when the actor suggested that it would be more effective if he sacrificed himself. “Good actors really bring you something and that was especially true with Alec Guinness, who I thought was a good actor like everyone else. But after working with him I was staggered that he was such a creative and disciplined person.”
“I thought Star Wars was going to make anywhere form $16 million to $25 million which would have been successful,” confessed George Lucas. “But when the price got way up there, I became very pessimistic. I could rely on a low-end box office of $16 million, but if it cost $8.2 million, after you put the advertising and all the costs on it, we’d barely break even.” The scope of the picture had to be scaled back. “If we had a scene that involved a lot of extras that was tied in to another scene we would either eliminate the scene with all the extras or plan on shooting them at one time.” Conducting the principle photography in Tunisia was a wise financial decision. “Its locations change very quickly in a very short distance,” remembered John Barry who served as the production designer. “The sand dunes, the big ravine, and the salt flat location – they were all within 30 minutes of one another, which is amazing. And the sand dunes were accessible by truck.” Because of the similarity with the main ship featured in the television series Space: 1999, Lucas threw out the finished model of the Millennium Falcon at cost of $25,000; Joe Johnston was given the task of redesigning the pirate vessel. “George wanted it to look like it’d been hot-rodded, so we put bigger engines on it and stripped things off of it,” said Johnston was hired to be an effects illustrator and designer. “He also liked the idea of having a double inverted saucer shape. I did a series of saucer shapes, freighters, spaceships – and one of them was very similar to how the ship ended up.”
“When I went younger with Mark [Hamill],” mentioned George Lucas while discussing his casting choices, “I decided I would also go younger with Han. The fact that I had Harrison [Ford] in mind when I did the tests was helpful; he really worked well with Carrie [Fisher] and Mark.” Lucas added, “You think of it not only in terms of very good personalities who are going to work well on the screen…but also in terms of how all the actors interrelate as a group.” Once the filmmaker saw the costume designs he realized that a change was required, in particular with the character of General Tarkin. “I felt I really needed a human villain because you can’t see Darth Vader’s face. I got a little nervous about it, so I wanted somebody, a really good villain and Peter Cushing was my first choice for that.” The selection of Cushing made things difficult for Carrie Fisher. “I liked Peter Cushing so much that, in my mind, I had to substitute somebody else in order to get the hatred for him,” chuckled Fisher. “I had to say, ‘I recognized your foul stench…’ But the man smelled like linen and lavender.” The British actor found his role to be rather perplexing; he confessed, “There was a great deal of the script I didn’t understand.”
“We’d really be on a set for only about one day,” stated George Lucas who shot the film rapidly and with multiple cameras at Shepperton Studios in London, England. “We’d finished shooting and then we’d move on to another set; we’d have to tear down the previous one and build another one right away, because we didn’t have that many sound stages.” Not everything went smoothly. “We got the guy into the X-fighter and the hydraulics brought down the canopy,” remembered John Barry. “That was great. It closed. But then we couldn’t get it open again. We were all struggling with it – but we had to drill a hole, finally, in order to get him a screwdriver so that he could let himself out. That’s moviemaking of course.” The director altered his approach in an effort to stay on schedule and in doing so added an additional $100,000 to the growing production budget. “The biggest change during the filming was from front projection to bluescreen,” revealed Lucas. “We had shot the approach to the Death Star, but once we got the results, we realized it wasn’t going to work.” The principle photography lasted 84 days and was 20 days over schedule.
“Making a movie is very much like constructing a house,” observed George Lucas. “No matter how you plan it, there are adjustments that have to be made along the way way, because nobody can envision the finished structure.” He added, “I feel a movie is very binary. It either works or it doesn’t work. And it did work. The audience did relate to it. They all laughed at the right places and believed it.” Star Wars, which cost $11 million to make, earned $775 million worldwide and won Oscars for Best Original Score, Best Editing, Best Art & Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound and a Special Achievement Award for Special Effects; it also competed for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Alex Guinness). At the BAFTAs, the movie won the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music and Best Sound while receiving nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Film, Best Editing, and Best Production Design & Art Direction; the Golden Globes honoured it with Best Original Score and nominations for Best Picture – Drama and Best Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness). George Lucas contended for a Directors Guild of America Award as well as for Best Original Screenplay - Comedy at the Writers Guild of America Awards. The editing team of Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, and Marcia Lucas were nominated by the American Cinema Editors for an Eddie Award. The space opera was among the first 25 films to be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989. Reflecting on the project which spawn five more films and has made billions of dollars in merchandising sales, Lucas remarked, “I think science fiction still has a tendency to make itself so pious and serious, which was what I tried to knock out in making Star Wars.”
For more on the creation of Star Wars, check out J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.