"Star Wars" almost didn't get made

The studio had low expectations for the epic that changed movies forever

Published October 6, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

      (AP/20th Century-Fox Film Corporation)
(AP/20th Century-Fox Film Corporation)

Excerpted from "The Big Screen"

In the 1960s, despite the social and racial turmoil in America, despite assassinations and the wound of Vietnam, it was possible for young men in love with the movies to believe an extraordinary opportunity was coming into their possession. Perhaps the movies belonged to them. This led to an experiment in Northern California that inspired film kids across the country and substantially altered the medium. For a moment, at least, these “brats” could believe they were in charge, riding into the future on new technology and economics. Then an older truth sank in: that the technology had been riding them.

George Lucas was born in 1944 in Modesto in the Central Valley of Northern California, a plain agricultural town, a node on the truck blast of Route 99, about midway between Yosemite and San Francisco, but culturally remote from those beckoning places. The son of a stationer, George was raised in Modesto and he loved fast cars, new music, and hanging out with the kids, all of which can be seen in what is still his most personal and enjoyable picture, American Graffiti (1973). He made amateur movies as a teenager and he managed the transfer from junior college to the University of Southern California in 1965, when it was the oldest film school in America, with a heavy stress on production. He made friends at USC with people such as John Milius and Walter Murch, the latter born in New York in 1943, the son of a distinguished painter, a young man drawn equally to sound, poetry, literature, and filmmaking. In addition, Lucas met Steven Spielberg, who was an apprentice director at Universal (and George’s junior by two years), and Francis Coppola, five years older, who had gone from Hofstra to the University of California at Los Angeles and who had already won a reputation as an inventive filmmaker and a natural leader working on very low budgets.

Lucas rose from being a poor student to a star, and he won a competition that offered the prize of observing the making of a proper film—it turned out to be Coppola’s production of Finian’s Rainbow (1968), with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. It’s a bad film, but those can be as educational as the good ones. Lucas was an uncredited production assistant, and he took on the equally vague “production associate” position on Coppola’s next film, The Rain People (1969), a road picture that ended up in the Bay Area with a concerted group feeling that it might be healthier for young film people to stay there rather than go back to the graveyard of Los Angeles. In the late 1960s it was tempting for artistic kids to see San Francisco as a waiting haven. The Beat generation was a living memory. The city also had the charm that the West Coast had exerted on New York filmmaking in the earliest days—out of sight, out of mind, a place where the new boys could make their own rules, and perhaps reinvent Hollywood. The city was shaking with unprecedented music.

The new empire sprang to life: in a few years, in an amazing burst of activity, Coppola had delivered the two parts of The Godfather and The Conversation (1974). Only the latter was actually shot in the Bay Area, but Coppola adhered to his own ideal, took up residence in the city, and used Walter Murch as a key craftsman who led the trend toward enriched sound—no longer just talk and music, but an inner atmosphere. (The Conversation could be called a film about sound, and most of its postproduction was carried out by Murch as Coppola turned to the second Godfather film.)

Meanwhile, Coppola was doing all he could to help make a career for his associate George Lucas, who was as reserved as Francis was gregarious. This dark or shy side of Lucas was evident in his first feature, THX 1138 (1971), a piece of paranoid science fiction that was a gloomy enlargement of a short Lucas had made at film school. This was made for Coppola’s company, American Zoetrope. Coppola was executive producer, and Walter Murch did the sound montage. But the film found no reliable audience, and Lucasfilm, the company George had set up in 1971, was foundering.

Then, in friendly competition, Coppola challenged Lucas to make a mainstream picture (like The Godfather) that might establish his career. Lucas went back in his imagination to the world of Modesto, cars, kids, and girls. Doing most of the writing himself, he came up with Another Quiet Night in Modesto, or American Graffiti. Several studios turned it down, despite the current fashion for films by and about kids. But Universal agreed to take it on at $700,000 when Coppola said he would function as producer. Lucas shot some in Modesto and mostly in San Rafael. He close-carpeted the movie with jukebox music of the 1960s and made disc jockey Wolfman Jack into a mythic guru figure. Walter Murch ran the sound, and George’s new wife, Marcia Lucas, was the chief editor. The cast was made up of kids from TV or about to become household names in the shows that spun off from Graffiti. Compared with another road film, Easy Rider (1969), or some of the strikingly radical (or alarming) films of 1973 (The Exorcist, Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye), American Graffiti was sweeter, less threatening, and closer to the ethos of network television. It had a relaxed feeling for how tense and anxious kids can be. All the actors seemed to believe they were getting their big chance, and the cast included Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford. Late in the day, Universal felt the film might work and threw in some marketing money. Nevertheless, as it opened in August 1973 (another summer picture), production and promotion had reached only $1.25 million. Then the film grossed $55 million, a figure that has passed $250 million in time with rerelease revenue and video rental income. It was a kids’ film, with prospects of sexual adventure and the shadow of Vietnam hanging over the young men (the end titles tell us that one character was killed in Vietnam while another went to Canada). But it was wholesome fun fit for the parental generation, set in 1962 and uncritical of the relative innocence of that time. American Graffiti was actually a good deal less foreboding or anguished than Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and it shows how securely Lucas was formed by an earlier age and its cinema.

Universal had given Lucas a two-picture contract, for American Graffiti and something called Star Wars. No matter the success of the first film, the bosses at Universal could not envisage what Star Wars would be, as Lucas struggled to write it and to work out the array of special effects that would be required. The project was hanging in the balance, even if it was about to reshape the art and the business. Universal faltered, but Twentieth Century–Fox said it would take on the venture. It was scared of science fiction and wary of Lucas and his taciturn demeanor, so it agreed only to a development deal, with step payments that exposed Lucas personally to his debts from THX 1138. Nevertheless, Lucasfilm had the insight to insist on retaining the merchandising rights for the film—toys, T-shirts, games, food and drink, whatever you could think of—rather than ask for more upfront money. In time, industry analysts would decide that was the worst deal a film studio had ever made (though there is intense competition). Such residual sources of income had hardly been appreciated in the golden age. The first significant awareness of toys, clothes, and souvenir memorabilia came with the television show The Adventures of Davy Crockett, which played suitably in 1954, when George was ten.

Star Wars (1977) had many sources: it was a return to Saturday morning adventure movies, serials with cliffhangers; it was in awe of the majestic imaginings in Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), yet it had been raised on the television coverage of space shots in the 1960s and ’70s. This was an era in which NASA and Apollo were fixtures on television. Later on, it would also be proposed that Lucas was inspired by the anthropological writings of Joseph Campbell. More important was his readiness to take off into a new realm of special effects.

Lucas had been dismayed in his deal with Fox to learn that the studio was closing down its special-effects department. Yet he envisaged countless scenes such as no one had ever seen before. He assigned John Dykstra (an assistant on 2001) to begin experimenting in Van Nuys, but this was only the prelude to a new culture in which photographic methods would be increasingly harnessed to the computer. In 1975, while working on the film, Lucasfilm founded a new operation, Industrial Light and Magic, which would soon move to Marin, north of San Francisco, at what would be called Skywalker Ranch, begun in 1978 at a cost of $100 million.

Another seedbed had been George Lucas’s great talent for making money, which should never be overlooked in celebrating the artistic pursuit. So Star Wars was an untidy mixture of vision, confusion, and opportunity. It overcame its own childish dialogue, the problems in making the effects look polished, and the oddity of its young cast: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. Plus R2-D2 and C-3PO. Plus Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones—the early plan was Orson Welles as the voice of Darth Vader, but it was felt that he was too identifiable.

Star Wars, the first film, was released on May 25, 1977, after it had gone considerably over budget ($13 million finally) and driven Lucas to the point of nervous collapse. The hesitation on the part of Fox can be felt in that the film’s U.S. opening was at only forty-three screens. Never mind: the eventual American gross was $460 million; the overseas added $314 million. In the future, Star Wars would build to a series of six films (with a worldwide gross of $4.2 billion, which does not count the merchandising revenue). The first two sequels came in 1980 and 1983, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi (directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, respectively). They did extraordinarily well, though not as well as the original.

But those first three Star Wars pictures set new standards in the dream of futuristic combat, the creation of characters that came from robots or animated films, and the mass of associated merchandising. If you were the right age at the right time (say ten in 1977), then these are your movies forever. They were also the basis of a new industry founded on a series of films (a franchise), a complete world of special effects, and an approach to story that began and ended in adolescence. In addition, along with Jaws, the Rocky films, Animal House, the films of John Hughes, and the Indiana Jones pictures, the industry regained confidence in entertainment

for a certain “demographic,” the age range twelve to twenty-four. Moreover, the industry was now a collection of conglomerates that saw movies not just for their own sake but as material that would serve their other electronic arms—for a time that meant video, but so much more was to come. Star Wars set the bar higher. If you were going to make a film, why not a blockbuster? It’s the fallacy of Las Vegas again, and a mood in which the production of small, challenging pictures for grown-ups would become harder and harder to maintain.

Though not perceived at first, the frantic action in these films, allied to special effects, was a harbinger of the return of animation. If a movie was “animated” (as in very lively), with fast cuts, popping sound effects, and surface-deep characters, all thrown together in furious action, wasn’t that a way of defining movie animation? And wasn’t the animated film a medium that could only stress the worked- over flatness of the screen? Once again, the illusion or hope of reality was being pushed back into the past.

Through the 1960s and ’70s, Disney had gone into decline: the old animators were passing (Walt died in 1966), and it was thought that cartoons were just for television and Saturday mornings. Disney made a lot of live- action films, and one masterpiece that mixed live action and cartoon, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (with Spielberg as a coproducer). But animation was about to be revivified.

This was stimulated by the adjacency of Lucasfilm and the electronics industry, just fifty miles down the peninsula, in the area known as Silicon Valley. Apple was founded in 1975. It was in this symbiosis that movie recognized the possibilities of the computer in saving time and money, and then in allowing a startling range of new effects. The most decisive figures in modern moving images have been not Lew Wasserman, the team that comprised DreamWorks, or the agent turned executive Mike Ovitz, who seemed central and supreme for two decades, until he was gone. It was Steve Jobs and the other innovators who have altered our scope of seeing and communicating, and with it our contact and contract with reality.

In 1979, Lucasfilm formed a small section of itself to explore animated features. It was called the Graphics Group at first, and the mood of their eventual films shares a lot with the feelings in George Lucas’s first films, though what became Pixar has a faith in warmth and moving us that would have made Frank Capra smile. The Toy Story pictures are state of the art, but their sentiments and values go back to the 1950s, when Pixar’s creative leader, John Lasseter, was born—and the audience insists on loving the stuff. Toy Story 3 (2010) grossed $1 billion worldwide— sooner or later Pixar is going to break the Academy’s resistance to animation and win a Best Picture Oscar.

With regret and abiding affection for its people, Lucas sold away Pixar to Apple and Steve Jobs for $5 million in 1986. It was a deal to put beside his original merchandising coup on Star Wars. In 2006, Pixar was sold to Disney for $7.4 billion. Under Jobs, and with his encouragement, Lasseter was freer to develop computer animation. Toy Story, in 1995, conceived and made at the Pixar headquarters in Emeryville (also in the Bay Area), was the first computer-generated animated movie.

Between 1999 and 2005, George Lucas turned to three more Star Wars movies (a trilogy of “prequels” in the saga) with a new and joyless cast and titles it’s hard to remember. The credits say Lucas directed these films, but with increasingly sophisticated effects and diminishing narrative energy. The next generation of kids and their young parents assured the world that they were happy with the “new” Star Wars pictures, and huge sums of money were made. But can the honest moviegoer detect a director? The second Star Wars series treated us like huddled and automatic consumers: they reduced movies to the level of fast food, filling stations, and those ads that are so familiar we chant along with them.

Lucas has vast premises now in Marin and San Francisco. Industrial Light and Magic thrives; that name is one of his most impressive strokes and the appropriate latest description of what we once called cinema or movies. With a net worth of over $3 billion, Lucas is a great entrepreneur, and a marker in industry—which is fine. Alas, his career and his contented lack of personality have also changed our expectation about the directing of films.

 Excerpted from "The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies" by David Thomson, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by David Thomson. All rights reserved.

By David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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