Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Reel 40: STAR WARS - Part 1: First Steps

This month marks the 40th anniversary of George Lucas’ STAR WARS. Reel Speak will celebrate this landmark film, often regarded as one of the greatest of all time, with a three-part blog. This first part will explore the First Steps…

STAR WARS. Two simple words, one syllable each, both with elemental meaning…when put together and said or read today, sparks memories and feelings of thrilling adventures, iconic characters, and epic battles ranging from dogfighting to swordfighting…both of which recreated on playgrounds and backyards by children and parents everywhere. In 1977 it literally changed the world and altered the course of the film industry forever, and like any good story, it was a journey that began with first steps.

The roots of STAR WARS reach back as far as 1971, when USC graduate George Lucas had just completed his first feature film, THX-1138. A bleak science-fiction film, the experience of dealing with what Lucas perceived to be an oppressive studio system motivated him to found his own production company, which he would name Lucasfilm. It was the first step in his life-long journey to construct his career so he wouldn’t have to answer to anyone, and the first result was his nostalgia-fueled AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973.

Lucas then set his sights on producing and directing an adaptation of one of his favorite serials, FLASH GORDON. However, he was unable to acquire the rights, and once again, decided to answer to no one by creating his own space fantasy. At this time he was a self-motivated student and reader of philosophy and history, and was heavily inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell, who wrote extensively about myths and their constants through time and all cultures. Lucas latched onto the great themes in those many cultures; struggles between good and evil, heroes and villains, magical beings and monsters, and the passing down of things from fathers and sons. Through modern mythology, he created his own.

The writing process took nearly two years, and Lucas at first tried to cram into one screenplay the events that would become the first STAR WARS trilogy. He wound up with vast story lines for not one but three films and more general outlines for not one trilogy but three, and decided to make his first film, then titled THE STAR WARS, as the beginning of the middle chapter. Where THX-1138 had been bleak, his new grand space-fantasy would be hopeful.  His goal was to create a modern mythology to teach values; as seen through a hero’s journey.

His film would be driven by characters plucked right from modern myth; there was a farmboy, a wizard, a princess, a pirate, and a fallen knight, and the casting process would focus on those strong personalities. Harrison Ford, who had worked with Lucas on AMERICAN GRAFFITI, was cast, and he was joined by relative unknowns Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, and well-established actors Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. The role of the evil lord Darth Vader was filled by bodybuilder Dave Prowse on-set, while the voice would be provided in post-production by James Earl Jones. The seven-foot-plus tall Peter Mayhew would play the mighty Chewbacca, and Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker would fill the roles of the two important robots (or droids), C-3P0 and R2-D2. His production team would be rounded out by a talented group which included John Barry (production design), Ralph McQuarrie (illustrator), and Ben Burtt (sound design and editing). New production techniques and camera rigs were created and invented…which would send the film industry in a brand new direction.

Filming would take place over a period of a scheduled 13 weeks and an additional three weeks in the deserts of Tunisia and California, along with the now famed Elstree Studios in London. Originally slated for a Christmas 1976 release, the many production delays shifted the film, now titled STAR WARS, to May of 1977. The film underwent several cuts, and the production rushed to finish the many special effects shots of space battles. Lucas’ good friend Steven Spielberg recommended composer John Williams to create the score. Williams would record the score over a period of 12 days.

The production just made its deadline, and legend tells of film prints being delivered to movie theatres still “wet”, with their processing chemicals not yet dried. But the film did open on time on May 25th, 1977…and George Lucas’ vision of a space fantasy had taken its first steps into a larger world.


Read Part 2 – An Empire Awakens (HERE)

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