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 Wookiee to a board of directors?
You can’t, and how do you explain a Wookiee 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.