The Wizard of 'Star Wars'

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Or The Crimson Pirate with Burt Lancaster or The Magnificent Seven.
Yeah, but there aren't any. There's nothing but cop movies, and a few films like Planet of the Apes, Ray Harryhausen films, but there isn't anything that you can really dig your teeth into. I realized a more destructive element in the culture would be a whole generation of kids growing up without that thing, because I had also done a study on, I don't know what you call it, I call it the fairy tale or the myth. It is a children's story in history and you go back to the Odyssey or the stories that are told for the kid in all of us. I can see the little kids sitting there and just being enthralled with Ulysses. Plus the myths which existed in high adventure, and an exotic far-off land which was always that place over the hill, Camelot, Robin Hood, Treasure Island. That sort of stuff that is always big adventure out there somewhere. It came all the way down through the western.

The western?
Yeah, one of the significant things that occurred to me is I saw the western die. We hardly knew what happened, one day we turned around and there weren't any westerns anymore. John Ford grew up with the West, the very toe end of the West, but he was out there where there were cowboys and shootings in the streets, and that was his American Graffiti, I realized; that's why he was so good at it. A lot of those guys were good at it. They grew up in the Tens and Twenties when the West was for all practical purposes really dying off. But, there was still some rough-and-tumble craziness going on. And the people now, the young directors like me, can't do it because there isn't anything like that anymore.

So you do a Star Wars.
I was a real fan of Flash Gordon and that kind of stuff, a very strong advocate of the exploration of outer space and I said, this is something, this is a natural. One, it will give kids a fantasy life and two, maybe it will make someone a young Einstein and people will say, "Why?" What we really need to do is to colonize the next galaxy, get away from the hard facts of 2001 and get on the romantic side of it. Nobody is going to colonize Mars because of the technology, they are going to go because they think maybe they will be able... well, it is romantic, it is the romantic aspect of it that needs to be looked at for a second, which nobody had ever looked at before. I mean, everybody had looked at the hardware end of it.

You firmly establish that at the beginning of Star Wars with the words: "A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."
Well, I had a real problem because I was afraid that science-fiction buffs and everybody would say things like, "You know there's no sound in outer space". I just wanted to forget science. That would take care of itself. Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science-fiction movie and it is going to be very hard for somebody to come along and make a better movie, as far as I'm concerned. I didn't want to make a 2001, I wanted to make a space fantasy that was more in the genre of Edgar Rice Burroughs; that whole other end of space fantasy that was there before science took it over in the Fifties. Once the atomic bomb came, everybody got into monsters and science and what would happen with this and what would happen with that. I think speculative fiction is very valid but they forgot the fairy tales and the dragons and Tolkien and all the real heroes.

So that was the mainspring of your decision to make Star Wars.
Right, and that is really the reason I did it. I had done sociological research on what makes hit films – it is part of the sociological bent in me; I can't help it.

And yet you encountered a lot of resistance on this project?
Yes, I started out saying this is a fairly viable project, I thought it would make roughly $16 million. The thing is, okay, if I spend $4.5 million, then on the advertising and the prints and everything another $4.5 million, there is a little bit of profit in there, if it makes $16 million. I said this was a good venture, and I could take it to the studios... they do marketing and stuff but they don't interpret it properly. The marketing survey is only as good as the people that are interpreting it, and when I went to one studio, United Artists, I said, this is what I'm going to do, it's Flash Gordon, it's adventure, it's exciting, sort of James Bond and all this kind of stuff, and they said, no, we don't see it. So I went to Universal and got the same thing.

I think I got $20,000 to write and direct Graffiti and they wanted me to do Star Wars for $25,000. I was asking half of what my friends were asking, and the studio thought I was asking for twice as much as I would get, and they said, no, no. It is too much money and we don't really think it is for us, so they threw it out the window. And then I finally talked Fox into doing it, partially because they sort of understood, they had done the Planet of the Apes movies, partially just because Laddie, Alan Ladd Jr., understood. He was a project officer then and I guess he saw Graffiti before he made his decision and he said, this is a great movie and, what the hell, I was asking for $10,000 just to start this little project. They said, I think it's got potential, so they went with it but nobody thought it was going to be a big hit. I kept doing more research and writing scripts. There were four scripts trying to find just the right thing because the problem in something like this is you are creating a whole genre that has never been created before.

How do you explain a Wookie to a board of directors?
You can't, and how do you explain a Wookie to an audience, and how do you get the tone of the film right, so it's not a silly child's film, so it's not playing down to people, but it is still an entertaining movie and doesn't have a lot of violence and sex and hip new stuff? So it still has a vision to it, a sort of wholesome, honest vision about the way you want the world to be. I was also working on themes that I worked with in THX and Graffiti, of accepting responsibility for your actions and that kind of stuff. So it took me a long time to get the thing done. About the time we finished the preproduction, we did a budget on it. The first budget actually came out to $16 million, so I threw out a lot of designing new equipment and said, okay, we'll cut corners and do a lot of fast filmmaking, which is where I really come from. Graffiti and THX were nothing, both under-a-million-dollar pictures. So we started applying some of our budget techniques and we got it down by $8.5 million, which was really about as cheap as that script could possibly ever be made by any human being.

When I first met you in London, you were complaining that you could make a $2 million movie for $1 million but you couldn't make a $14 million movie for $8 million.
It was terribly difficult but we made it. We set the budget for $8 million, they said, no, make it seven. When we finally got the budget down to $7 million we knew it couldn't be done, and we told Fox it couldn't be done. They said make it $7 million anyway. I was practically working for free and my only hope was that if the film paid off, and if it cost $8 million, that would mean it would break even at $20 million.

What was your actual salary for directing?
I think in the end my actual salary was $100,000, which again was still like half of what everybody else was making.

Do you have percentage points in the film?
Everybody has points, but the key is to make them pay off. I figured I was never going to see any money on my points, so what the heck. I also had a chance to give away a lot of my points, which I had done with Graffiti. Part of the success is the fault of the actors, composer and crew and they should share in the rewards as well, so I got my points carved down much less than what my contemporaries have. But I never expected Star Wars to... I expected to break even on it, I still can't understand it.

I struggled through this movie. I had a terrible time; it was very unpleasant. American Graffiti was unpleasant because of the fact that there was no money, no time and I was compromising myself to death. But I could rationalize it because of the fact that, well, it is just a $700,000 picture – it's Roger Corman – and what do you expect, you can't expect everything to be right for making a little cheesy, low-budget movie. But this was a big expensive movie and the money was getting wasted and things weren't coming out right. I was running the corporation. I wasn't making movies like I'm used to doing. American Graffiti had like 40 people on the payroll, that counts everybody but the cast. I think THX had about the same. You can control a situation like that. On Star Wars we had over 950 people working for us and I would tell a department head and he would tell another assistant department head, he'd tell some guy, and by the time it got down the line it was not there. I spent all my time yelling and screaming at people, and I have never had to do that before.

I got rid of some people here and there but it is a very frustrating and an unhappy experience doing that. I realized why directors are such horrible people – in a way – because you want things to be right, and people will just not listen to you and there is no time to be nice to people, no time to be delicate.

This was something else you said in London: "I'm tired of being a director, I want to go back to being a filmmaker".
Well, that's true, that is really what I want to do. I've done this thing now. I've directed my large corporation and I made the movie that I wanted to make. It is not as good by a long shot as it should have been. I take half the responsibility myself and the other half is some of the unfortunate decisions I made in hiring people, but I could have written a better script, I could have done a lot of things; I could have directed it better.

Back in California last summer you were again upset. You said the robots didn't look right. Artoo looked like a vacuum cleaner. You could see 57 separate flaws in See Threepio, you didn't like the lighting, everything seemed like it wasn't coming together. Was it coming together?
Well, for one thing, by the time we got back to California I wasn't happy with the lighting on the picture. I'm a cameraman, and I like a slightly more extreme, eccentric style than I got in the movie. It was all right, it was a very difficult movie, there were big sets to light, it was a very big problem. The robots never worked. We faked the whole thing and a lot of it was done editorially.

Every time the remote-control Artoo worked it turned and ran into a wall, and when Kenny Baker, the midget, was in it, the thing was so heavy he could barely move it, and he would sort of take a step and a half and be totally exhausted. I could never get him to walk across the room, so we would cut to him there and cut to a close-up, and cut back so that he would be over here. It is all really movie magic more than it was anything else.

That's why it's amazing because when I finally saw the film I was surprised. I couldn't see any seams. So I went to see it again and maybe saw a couple of seams, but that was it.
I can see nothing but seams. A film is sort of binary – it either works or it doesn't work. It has nothing to do with how good a job you do. If you bring it up to an adequate level where the audience goes with the movie, then it works, that is all. It is a fusion thing and then everything else, all of the mistakes, don't count anymore.

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