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Friday, 28 September 2018

Gary Kurtz, 1940-2018: an obituary

Gary Kurtz with Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill
on the set of Star Wars

Gary Kurtz died on Sunday, September 23, at the age of 78.

He was, of course, the producer of Star Wars – and screen credits don’t get much bigger than that. And yet I think he has also become one of Star Wars’ unsung heroes.

Gary Kurtz: an appreciation

Gary Kurtz's producer credit on Star Wars

Just as George Lucas was nobody’s idea of the stereotypical film director, Gary Kurtz was not your classic, despotic movie producer.

Lucas’s first biographer, Dale Pollock, said of him: “Kurtz was a solemn, bearded man who made Lucas seem like an extrovert.”

I interviewed Kurtz once and my impression was the same as many people’s: He was calm, thoughtful, and very easy-going. You wondered how such an apparently ego-less man had pushed multi-million dollar movies to completion. But he had, and more successfully than almost anybody else.

Throughout most of the 1970s, Kurtz and Lucas were very much a team. And when Star Wars was released, Kurtz became almost as familiar an interviewee as Lucas himself – especially when it came to promoting the film overseas.

Kurtz was an affable, eloquent ambassador for the movie, and he had been instrumental in getting it made. He and Lucas seemed so well-suited that you could understand Mark Hamill’s reaction to the eventual break-up of their partnership. Hamill, who has called Kurtz a “lifelong friend”, said it was like “Mom and Dad getting a divorce”.

Gary Kurtz before Star Wars

Gary Kurtz on the set of Star Wars in  Tunisia

Born in Los Angeles on July 27, 1940, Kurtz went to the University of Southern California’s film school earlier than George Lucas, graduating in 1963. Afterwards, he got a job at the university, working on medical films for the US Public Health Service and running the film library. 

He subsequently found work with Roger Corman, accumulating a lot of practical experience. He was assistant director on Monte Hellman’s western Ride the Whirlwind, featuring Jack Nicholson, and served as production manager on Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, starring Basil Rathbone. He cropped up variously as assistant director, second unit director, camera operator, assistant camera operator, sound technician and editor on Beach Ball, Queen of Blood Bath, The Shooting and The Hostage. His experience in low-budget movies would be helpful when it came to making Star Wars with not quite enough money. 

In 1966, Kurtz was drafted to serve in Vietnam, but during basic training he decided he was a conscientious objector. A superior convinced him to join a film unit, and went to Vietnam unarmed, documenting the war on celluloid for three years with the US Marines.

Returning to the US, he managed to graduate to bigger movies, serving as associate producer on Chandler for MGM and Two-Lane Blacktop, again directed by Monte Hellman, for Universal. His work for Hellman would lead him to discover an arty young film director called George Lucas.

When Gary Kurtz met George Lucas

Gary Kurtz

According to George Lucas biographer Brian Jay Jones, it was Two-Lane Blacktop that led to Kurtz meeting Lucas for the first time in 1970. 

Kurtz was interested in filming in the cheap widescreen process Techniscope, and Francis Ford Coppola told him that Lucas had just finished shooting THX 1138 in the format and was currently editing it. Kurtz was sent to literally knock on Lucas’s door and introduce himself.
The pair quickly hit it off. Jones quotes Kurtz as saying: “We both came up in the school of doing everything ourselves. He was my kind of film-maker.” 

Before long, Kurtz was asked to produce Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam film Lucas had conceived with John Milius. But he had doubts about teaming with Lucas. 

Jones writes:

Unlike the polar opposites Luas and Coppola, Lucas and Kurtz were cut from the same temperamental cloth; both were quiet and low-key, and Kurtz worried that neither of them had a forceful enough personality to run a movie set. But he and Lucas got on well enough that they decided to move ahead anyway.
Lucas did not make Apocalypse Now, of course; Coppola would direct that several years later. In the meantime, Lucas and Kurtz persuaded Universal to stump up $700,000 for them to make American Graffiti. But Universal wanted a big name on it – so Kurtz was billed as “co-producer”, while the “produced by” credit went to Francis Ford Coppola.

The 28-day production of Graffiti was fraught, and Lucas barely slept. But the pair formed a successful partnership. Pollock writes: “Kurtz was Lucas’s buffer from the outside world, responsible for smoothing over egos ruffled by Lucas’s abrupt professional manner. Kurtz also didn’t instruct Lucas on how to make the movie – George didn’t like people who told him what to do or how to do it.”

Gary Kurtz and Star Wars

Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness, Gary Kurtz and George Lucas toast Guinness' 62nd birthday on the set of Star Wars

The success of Graffiti took George Lucas from broke to wealthy, almost overnight. He bought a home in Marin County, California, which his wife Marcia named Parkhouse, and Kurtz took up residence as one of the small band of Lucasfilm staff.

Kurtz supported Lucas in the agonising process of writing four drafts of Star Wars and pitching it to film studios. He helped persuade Alan Ladd Jnr at 20th Century-Fox to advance $8 million to make the movie. And he was there to set up and oversee the production in North Africa, the UK and Northern California.

Kurtz had to manage the endless practical difficulties with making Star Wars and the tense relationship between Lucas and his UK crew – not least with cinematographer Gil Taylor, whom Kurtz called “a very old school cameraman, very crotchety”.

By July 1976, the film was five weeks behind schedule, and Fox’s patience ran out. Kurtz was told that if shooting did not finish on Friday July 16, the studio was pulling the plug.

Kurtz argued that it would have bee cheaper to let the film overrun further than to meet the deadline the way he did. He hired two more camera crews, and three units worked simultaneously to shoot the opening attack on the Rebel blockade runner. Lucas directed Darth Vader, production supervisor Robert Watts shot the stormtroopers, and Kurtz directed the droids. Kurtz’s experience in low budget films must have proved useful as the company worked flat-out to have shooting more or less finished by the end of that day.

While the film was in production, Kurtz – along with marketing and merchandising supremo Charles Lippincott – toured science fiction conventions to drum up interest among genre fans. And he continued talking about the film at events and in interviews right up until its hugely successful release, and beyond.

Kurtz remained a key part of the Lucasfilm set-up as a second Star Wars was planned. Asked about the story, he would say that “the Empire strikes back”, thereby coining the title. 

Gary Kurtz’s split with George Lucas

Gary Kurtz and George Lucas on the set of Star Wars

Kurtz’s involvement with Star Wars ended before The Empire Strikes Back was released. On December 11 1979, he sent a letter of resignation as a director of Star Wars Productions Ltd.

He had been succeeded as producer of the third film by Howard Kazanjian, described as Lucasfilm’s “iron first in the velvet glove”.

In an account given years later to JW Rinzler for the book The Making of Return of the Jedi, Kazanjian recalled visiting London to meet production designer Norman Reynolds:

One day Gary Kurtz comes in and says, "What are you doing here?" I had to tell him that he was not on the picture. "Didn’t George speak with you?" When I flew back, I met with George. "Gary said that you never told him." But George said, "I did".
(A statement on Kurtz’s death by Jason Joiner of his company the Kurtz/Joiner Archive tells it differently, claiming “Gary Kurtz was asked to produce Revenge of the Jedi (Return of the Jedi) and turned it down as he felt the script was too limited and that most of what was in the script had already been seen in the first two films.”)

Despite the split with Lucasfilm, Kurtz sent Kazanjian a telex ahead of the first day of shooting on Jedi, graciously wishing “May the Force be with you”.

He collaborated with Jim Henson and Frank Oz on The Dark Crystal (1983) and produced Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985). But despite having been assigned five per cent of the gross profits of Star Wars, he filed for bankruptcy in the UK in 1986, citing debts of $3million after a costly divorce. Still he continued producing films, including the science fiction Slipstream (1989), starring Mark Hamill.

In later years, Kurtz gave quite a few interviews in which he voiced his disenchantment at the way Lucasfilm had become more of a corporation. He also shared his recollection of the plans Lucas had laid for sequels, which Lucas's own version of Star Wars history.

Gary Kurtz's legacy

Gary Kurtz

It’s sad that Lucas and Kurtz split after the huge success of their three films together. It’s impossible for anyone outside to know the dynamics of that relationship, of course, but I wonder whether Kurtz was right back in the 1970s, when he feared they were too similar. Clearly, Kurtz could run a movie set very successfully, but maybe this mild-mannered man was not suited to controlling the vast productions that came later.

Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Gary Kurtz was a vital part of the creation of Star Wars. It might not have been as good without him – and it might not have been made at all.

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