Forceful: J.W. Rinzler talks about Return of the Jedi & Original Star Wars Trilogy

Trevor Hogg chats with author J.W. Rinzler about a space opera which established a moviemaking empire for George Lucas….

“Right after finishing the Episode III [Revenge of the Sith] book, somewhere around 2005, I knew that the 30th anniversary was coming up and that there had never been a real making of Star Wars [1977] book,” recalls Lucasfilm Executive Editor and Writer J.W. Rinzler.  “There was almost no advance publicity.  The Making of Star Wars got a couple of big reviews early on and people got excited.  For me, I was trying to bring to it the feeling I had gotten from reading The Jaws Log when I was a kid; I found it to be an inspiration because the book told the story of production and not just how they did all of the trick shots.”  Rinzler notes, “I don’t like it when writers get between the subject and the reader because they’re trying to interpret and put their stamp on everything.   I find that to be really annoying.  The people who did the work have the most interesting stories and you want to enable those stories to come to the fore in the text.” 

The Making of Star Wars became a New York Timesbestseller for J.W. Rinzler.  “Once that one was successful we followed with Empire[1980] and Jedi [1983].”  The structure of the material was influenced by the filmmaking process which is pre-production, production, post-production and the theatrical release.  “I followed the rule I established after Episode III which was to go as close to day-by-day or week-by-week as I could.   Sometimes it was month-by-month because you didn’t have enough information to do more than that.  Once you get into production there are all of the progress reports and call sheets so you can almost go day-by-day.  Of course you don’t want it to get boring.  Also, like Episode III, I wanted to keep it as close to history as possible.  I got lucky on the first Star Wars book because I found in the library all of those Charlie Lippincott interviews.”

Unlike the previous two publications, The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi relies on over 30 contemporary interviews conducted by the author.  “In some ways when you’re dealing with archival material if they didn’t ask the good questions you were doomed,” observes J.W. Rinzler.  “But even with Empire and Star Wars, I always had a long talk with George [Lucas].  Conducting the interviews made it more interesting but at the same time they took a lot more time because you had to set-up, do, and have them transcribed.  It took more work.  Personally, I got a lot out of it.  It was fun to talk to everybody and talk to a few people who might have not been interviewed back in the day but with a decade since they have had a really interesting career.”

Co-film editor Duwayne Dunham (Blue Velvet) and Nilo Rodis-Jamero (Raiders of the Lost Ark) who served as a costume designer receive the award for most memorable telephone calls.  “I would barely have to ask a question as each one would tell these hilarious and insightful stores that I might not even think to ask about; they were a treat to talk to and made the book that more interesting.”  A major concern was being able to represent properly director Richard Marquand (Eye of the Needle) who died in 1987; however, good fortune intervened as an archival interview transcript was discovered.  “That was the find of the research stage because it wasn’t on any list of what was in the boxes.  It was just shoved in a box with a bunch of production material and was a print out of a hundred plus page interview.  There was another one with Howard Kazanjian [producer].  Luckily both interviews were in-depth and complete.  I did interview Marquand’s widow Carol and son James as well to bolster things.”

Questions have been raised as to whether the departure of Gary Kurtz (The Dark Crystal) had a detrimental effect on Return of the Jedi(1983).  “People can think whatever they like,” states J.W. Rinzler.  “With Howard Kazanjian [Demolition Man] you had a strong producer replacing him.  Gary was obviously a big part of the first two films.”  A creative decision from Star Warsled to pint-size creatures appearing in the second sequel.  “The original rough draft it was the Wookiees who help the heroes attack the Empire; they were supposed to be a primitive species.  Then Chewbacca was a co-pilot meaning that he couldn’t use all of the technical stuff so George cut the Wookiees in half and labelled them as Ewoks.  George wanted to film what he originally had as the final act and stuck to his guns.”  In regards to Han Solo not having a fatal encounter, Rinzler observes, “Harrison Ford [Presumed Innocent] thought about killing off his own character.  In the story conference George stated, ‘I don’t like killing off characters.  I used to hate it when I watched movies as kid and that would happen.’  I personally happen to be from the same school.  It’s annoying for the audience when stories arbitrarily kill off characters.  The death of Ben in the first film worked so well because it was integrated into the plot.”

“George originally was going to call it Return of the Jedi and Howard Kazanjian thought it was a weak title so he changed it to Revenge,” reveals J.W. Rinzler.  “At one point Yoda and Obi-Wan came back in their spiritual form and Luke fought the Emperor and Darth Vader; it was three Jedi against two Sith so the script did have a Revenge of a Jedi [tone].  But then the revised second draft was called Return of the Jedi and by that time the spirits weren’t involved in the final battle.  It was just Luke.”  The Emperor portrayed by Ian McDiarmid (Gorky Park) was a point of concern.  “A number of people during the story conference and even up to the making of the film talked about the continuity break between the Emperor and Darth Vader as a Jedi.  If you watch Jedi closely there is that great scene where the Emperor asks if he is sure about his feelings about Luke and Darth Vader says basically, ‘Don’t worry I’m on your side.’  It all comes down to that one exchange.  I think it’s there in Jedi to be honest.  Rinzler believes, “You have to have that thing on the horizon people want to know about.  The Emperor did that to perfection in Return of the Jedi.”

“George has a real eye for talent and recognized that David Lynch [Eraserhead] had a strong voice; he would have been a good and interesting choice.  However, George and David realized that they were both strong willed individuals and it wouldn’t have worked out well.”  Richard Marquand who was the second directorial choice had an impact in changing the cinematic appearance of Princess Leia.  “There were a few reasons for why Leia’s character somewhat changed,” explains Rinzler.  “Carrie Fisher [Shampoo] wanted to play a more adult Leia.  Richard Marquand wanted her in sexier costumes; the slave outfit was his idea originally.  Also, the influence of [illustrator] Frank Frazetta and all of those scantily clad women. It all came together with Nilo Rodis-Jamero’s costume design. In the beginning George was sceptical that Carrie would be okay with it but she was.  When the movie came out it got some push back.  It wasn’t put in the front as a big selling toy in the beginning.   Then in the 1990s maybe because of that Friendsepisode it became a big deal.”
“When I do these books it is always fun to put in the Ralph McQuarrie [Cocoon] pieces but also fun for Joe Johnston [Captain America: The First Avenger] and Milo Rodis-Jamero, who don’t get as much credit but their output far exceeds Ralph’s for Jedi,” notes J.W. Rinzler.  “They had a much bigger effect on the look and production of the film.  Ralph is the finer artist; he’s the painter you can hang on the wall of a museum.  I was concerned with Ralph to make sure that I didn’t label a production painting that was actually a portfolio painting after the fact.  Luckily I found this bible that had been put together before the film came out so I used that to distinguish them.  Also Ralph had underestimated himself in regards to the number of paintings he had done.  Ralph said he only did six or eight but there was more like 14 or 16.”  An important historical event was also uncovered.  “Black Friday was the moment when George threw out a whole bunch of work in progress effects shots.  Three to four months of work went down the drain.  It was such a traumatic event they had all forgotten when I talked to them.  But archival interviews and records proved that the painful moment did happen.”
Along with the print publication of The Making of Star Wars: Return of Jedi, eBook versions have been released.  “This was the publisher’s idea of taking advantage of these readers which can play video and audio; one for Star Wars, Empire and Jedi.  In fact the Star Wars gag reel that went with The Making of Star Wars went completely viral getting over 200,000 hits from all of the websites combined.  The archivist and I discovered it.  First we found the audio and a couple of weeks later found the video.  We were so excited.  There are a number of things like that on the different eBooks.  There is great vintage ADR [Automatic” Dialogue Replacement] audio with George directing Alec Guinness [Bridge over the River Kwai].  There is a lot of good stuff.  If you get it on the iPad version you can enlarge all of the images, there are 200 extra images for each book, and the price is right.”
A key aspect involved selecting a renowned filmmaker to write the foreword. “For each one we wanted to get a director whose career and aesthetic has been greatly affected by Star Wars; Peter Jackson (Heavily Creatures) and Ridley Scott (Alien) were vocal on how it changed their professional lives and there was Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) who was a perfect choice.”  Reflecting on his comprehensive coverage and how it has altered his perspective of the original Star Wars trilogy, J.W. Rinzler remarks, “You get a huge amount of respect for all of the people who worked on it and for George’s ability to create the story, pull it together, deal with the studio that didn’t want to do it, break the bar each time, keep ILM going, and build Skywalker Ranch at the same time.  I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for George but it has grown, and also for John Williams [Jaws] and the actors such as Mark Hamill [Corvette Summer].”  Rinzler has a personal favourite among the three episodes that enabled George Lucas (American Graffiti) to build a movie empire which was recently purchased by Disney for $4 billion.  “Star Wars was the one which started it all.  Practically every single scene is iconic.  It’s the most fun.  It was the only one that had a beginning, middle and an end.  Like Mark Hamill said, ‘It was like a ride.’  People can see it again and again.  John Williams’ score is unbelievable and is a great piece of art by itself.  I also happen to love George’s direction and cutting.  George was firing on all pistons in his first big Hollywood movie.  If you can understand how Star Wars works then you’re a film director!”
Images courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Many thanks to J.W. Rinzler for taking the time for this interview and make sure to visit him at Twitter.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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