Why does Darth Vader breathe so heavily?
I had wanted to do that and tie it in with the dialogue.
It was a nice touch, because it adds to the bogyman quality of the character.
Ben had a lot of work in that too. He did about 18 different kinds of breathing, through aqualungs and through tubes, trying to find the one that had the right sort of mechanical sound, and then decide whether it would be totally rhythmical and like an iron lung. That's the idea. It was a whole part of the plot that essentially got cut out. It may be in one of the sequels.
What's the story?
It's about Ben and Luke's father and Vader when they are young Jedi knights. But Vader kills Luke's father, then Ben and Vader have a confrontation, just like they have in Star Wars, and Ben almost kills Vader. As a matter of fact, he falls into a volcanic pit and gets fried and is one destroyed being. That's why he has to wear the suit with a mask, because it's a breathing mask. It's like a walking iron lung. His face is all horrible inside. I was going to shoot a close-up of Vader where you could see the inside of his face, but then we said, no, no, it would destroy the mystique of the whole thing.
I was quite happy to see Vader spinning off into deep space at the end, but not dying. The only thing missing was a title on the screen saying, "To be continued soon at a theater near you".
Right, the idea was doing the film on a practical level and leaving room for sequels. When I did THX I realized that I put in an enormous amount of effort that I will never be able to use again. I know the world of THX. I could make movies about THX forever but it took me so much time and so much energy to develop all that stuff, and then it got touched upon in one movie. Normally in a movie it's maybe a book or a piece of history or a piece of my life. I sat down and wrote Graffiti in three weeks, it was easy. With something like Star Wars, you have to invent everything. You have to think of the cultures and what kind of coffee cups they are going to have, and where is the realm between technology and mankind and where does ESP play a part of this . . . And you go and sort of find the levels that you want to deal with. How far out do you want to go? Will the people relate to that?
It will be interesting to see how Star Wars does overseas.
Yeah. Star Wars is designed with the international market in mind. The French are very much into this genre. They understand it more than Americans do, and it is the same with the Japanese. I own a comic gallery, an art gallery in New York that sells comic art and stuff; the guy that runs the art gallery also runs a comic store and we do a lot of business in France. They understand Alex Raymond, they understand that he was a great artist, they understand Hal Foster and they understand comic art as a real art and not as a sort of interesting, goofy thing. And I am very much into comic art, and its place in society as a real art, because it is something that expresses the culture as strongly as any other art. What Uncle Scrooge McDuck says about America, about me when I was a kid, is phenomenal. It is one of the greatest explorations of capitalism in the American mystique that has ever been written or done anywhere. Uncle Scrooge swimming around in that money bin is a key to our culture. [Laughs] Hal Foster was a huge influence in comic art and, I think, art in general. Some of the Prince Valiants are as beautiful and expressive as anything you are going to find anywhere. It is a form of narrative art but because it is in comic it has never been looked at as art. I look at art, all of art, as graffiti. That's how the Italians describe the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian tombs, they were just pictures of a past culture. That is all art is, a way of expressing emotions that come out of a certain culture at a certain time. That's what cartoons are, and that's what comics are. They are expressing a certain cultural manifestation on a vaguely adolescent level but because of it, it is much more pure because it is dealing with real basic human drives that more sophisticated art sometimes obscures.
Do the inevitable comparisons between Star Wars and 2001 bother you?
No, I expected actually a lot more than it got. In fact, I am fairly pleased that they haven't compared it that much to 2001. Actually it is being compared more to westerns than 2001, which is really what it should be. On a technical level it can be compared, but personally I think that 2001 is far superior. You know it had ten times more money and time and obviously it came out better. In special effects one of the key elements is time and money. Most of those special effects in Star Wars were first-time special effects – we shot them, we composited them and they're in the movie. We had to go back and reshoot some, but in order to get special effects right, you really should shoot them two or three times before you figure out exactly how it should work, which is why it costs so much money. But most of our stuff we had to do as a one-shot deal. We did a lot of work but there is nothing that I would like to do more than go back and redo all the special effects, have a little more time.
Which takes us back to this period of the last few months before release. The editorial thing that you were mentioning earlier, pulling things together by sleight of hand. What was it like leading up to the actual opening night? I heard that you were looping and cutting up to the last minute.
The whole picture was very difficult because it was made on a very short schedule – about 70 days on the sets and locations. In England we couldn't shoot past 5:30 so we worked eight-hour days. Whereas I visited Steve [Spielberg] and Marty [Scorsese] after I finished shooting and they were filming 12-14 hours a day. So they were actually getting another day's work every day. They would have, like, a 120-day schedule, but if you counted the hours, they really had 200 days to shoot. While I had 70 real days to shoot, and it was very short for something that was that complex. It was the same in the finishing. The studio wanted to finish it for the summer, I wanted to finish it for the summer, and so we were up against the wall. When I came back from England, we were supposed to have half of the special effects done and actually they had about three shots finished and they were not up to what I felt were the standards of the film. Industrial Light and Magic had spent most of the early part of that year and a million dollars – which was about the whole budget in the whole time they had to shoot – building cameras and developing electronic computer systems and stuff. They didn't really concentrate that much on actually making shots.
Were the cameras that shot the miniatures built from scratch?
Yes, everything was built from scratch. We built optical cameras, moviolas, a whole system based on VistaVision. John Dykstra built it and he really is a very talented guy who worked as a camerman for Doug Trumbull. He is very, very knowledgeable in building sophisticated camera-motion systems. He developed systems along with several of the people who worked with him in electronic and mechanical designs. It was quite extraordinary; we built a whole operation.
But you and Dykstra were at odds a lot, weren't you?
Well, we weren't so much at odds as much as I was more interested in the shots. I didn't care how we got the shots, I just wanted the composition and the lighting to be good, and I wanted them to get it done on time. On a real production you have no time and you are doing the impossible every day, at a very hectic, accelerated place. Special-effects people have a tendency to think that if they get one shot a day, they are really quite pleased. They don't work on the same pace that the regular production unit works. I believe that you can do special effects with the same intensity and in the same schedule that you shoot a regular movie, so there was a little bit of conflict there. And at the same time, I wanted the shots to look a certain way and be designed a certain way and we had difficulty with what was actually technically possible with the time laid out to accomplish it. It was purely a working problem and being at odds with John was no greater than being at odds with everybody else. I had just as many problems with the robots and the special-effects people in England as with the special-effects people in California.
Was that one of your key administrative problems then, the wedding of the location footage with special-effects footage?
No, I was just trying to get the special effects up to a quality that I wanted. I was happy with a lot of the special effects toward the end. The operation got very good. In the beginning the cameraman was still learning how to fly the airplanes, because it was a very complex animation thing, where you're moving cameras and rolling, doing little motor things. When you watch it happen you are not working in real time; it is very difficult to plot out the way one of those planes move in non-real time, using tilting cameras and motors. It's easy to take your hand and say, I want the plane to go this way, and it is very difficult to actually translate that onto paper and then film so that you actually get the ship to do that, and it took a long time just to figure out how to fly. There are problems that have never really been coped with before. In 2001 the ships run a straight line, they just go away from you or they cross the screen, they never turn or dive.
What about the final battle sequence, the dogfight?
The dogfight sequence was extremely hard to cut and edit. We had storyboards that we had taken from old movies and we used the black and white footage of old World War II movies intercut with pilots talking and stuff, so you could edit the whole sequence in real time. My wife, Marcia, can normally cut a whole reel – all ten minutes of the film – in one week. I think it took her eight weeks to cut that battle. It was extremely complex and we had 40,000 feet of dialogue footage of pilots saying this and that. And she had to cull through all that, and put in all the fighting as well. Nobody really has ever tried to interweave an actual plot story into a dogfight, and we were trying to do that, however successful or unsuccessful we were.
How about the John Williams score? Pretty stirring stuff.
I was very, very pleased with the score. We wanted a very sort of Max Steiner-type, old-fashioned, romantic movie score.
It's very much like a serial – like, of course, Flash Gordon – you hear it throughout the film.
There are 90 minutes of music in a 110-minute film. I wanted to use some of Liszt, Dvořák, some of the Flash Gordon stuff and Johnny said no. He wanted to make some strong theme, fairly reminiscent in a few places but at the same time very original. The whole thing was really designed like Peter and the Wolf. We did it so that each character has their own theme and whenever that character is on the screen that theme is played.
A space opera.
Well, they used to do it all the time, writing music for movies was closer to writing for opera or symphony. One interesting thing about the music – which is sort of like the movie itself – is that I really expected to get devastated in terms of people saying, "Oh, my God, what a stupid, old-fashioned thing and how corny can you get?" I am amazed that people just said, "Gee, that's fine". I really expected to get trounced very badly about the whole thing. And Johnny did too, a little bit. A lot of the lines in the movie are sort of . . . I wince every time I hear them.
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