Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Writing Star Wars: "The story of Mace Windy"

The opening of George Lucas's handwritten
"idea fragment" that became Star Wars

"This is the story of Mace Windy [sic], a reviered [sic] Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi,as related to us by CJ Thorpe, padawaan learner to the famed Jedi."

George Lucas actually wrote that sentence. 

You can see it, in his own hand, in the book The Making of Star Wars. It was part of an "idea fragment" that he produced when he was first pulling together his idea for a space fantasy film in the style of Flash Gordon. It seems he never showed it to a studio executive, which is just as well, because you could easily imagine them coughing a little and suddenly remembering an important meeting.

Lucas was not, as that sentence shows, a natural writer. And yet I think Star Wars is a great piece of writing.

I'm not arguing that it's the most perfectly formed, literate story ever committed to film. But Lucas's screenplay does an incredibly skillful job of blending characters, genres and incidents into an irresistible narrative.

It was Lucas's mentor Francis Ford Coppola – himself an Oscar-winning screenwriter before he was an A-list director – who told Lucas he had to learn to write if he wanted to be a good film-maker. Yet Lucas's biographer Dale Pollock has said that “his inability to express emotions crippled him as a writer”. Lucas himself is quoted in JW Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars as saying: “In film school I tended away from story-telling; I just didn’t like it ... Then I forced my way back into storytelling. I thought that maybe I hated it so much because I couldn’t do it."

George Lucas at his desk 

Lucas laboured alone for three years over the Star Wars screenplay, forcing himself to keep office hours as he scratched out his script in pencil on yellow legal pads. He could easily have hired a co-writer, as he had with his previous films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti, but was determined to write this one himself.

During the writing, he bought armfuls of science fiction magazines and read widely in the genre. He went back to the stories that had inspired Flash Gordon’s creator Alex Raymond, including Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series. He found the story that had in turn inspired Burroughs, Gulliver on Mars, written by Edwin Arnold in 1905. And he read more recent SF, including Asimov’s Foundation series, Frank Herbert’s Dune books and EE Doc Smith’s Lensman saga. But he was at least as interested in mythology as in science fiction. “I researched kids’ movies and how they work and how myths work,” Lucas said in Michael Pye and Linda Myles' book The Movie Brats. “I found that myth always took place over the hill, in some exotic far-off land … Now the last of that mythology died out in the mid-1950s, with the last of the men who knew the old West. The last place left ‘over the hill’ is space."
Joseph Campbell, who had dissected some of mankind’s favourite stories in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and who had recently published his collection Myths to Live By, also became an influence on the script in its later drafts.

The early drafts of Star Wars don't seem to have been at all like the film we ended up with. The first, which took a year to write, had young Anakin Starkiller helping his brother Biggs rescue their father, Kane, from the black Knights of the Sith, who were led by Prince Valarium and General Darth Vader. In this version, Han Solo was a green monster. The one thing the script had in common with all the subsequent versions was that it ended with the destruction of the Death Star.

The second script, dated January 1975, incorporated that old fantasy plot device, the search for a powerful crystal. Its hero was Luke Starkiller, and its heroine was Leia, but it was not until the third and fourth drafts that the story as we know it began to take shape.

Lucas was to remain the sole credited writer of Star Wars, but at the last possible opportunity, he did hire some collaborators. His American Graffiti co-writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were commissioned to do an uncredited polish of the dialogue, after he had locked down the story in his fourth draft. Lucas has estimated that they wrote about thirty per cent of the dialogue in the final film. (The book Star Wars:The Annotated Screenplays highlights their main contributions, confirming that they were responsible for some of the snappiest lines.) Yet, even as production gathered pace in early 1976, Lucas let on to Charles Lippincott (quoted in Rinzler's book) that “I’m still not very happy with the script. I never have been.”

During these years of labouring over the screenplay, just about every studio in Hollywood rejected Star Wars. The idea kept on being turned own even after the huge success of American Graffiti – even by United Artists and by Universal, both of whom had contractual arrangements with Lucas.

The fact that Lucas kept on labouring over that script is a heartening story of individual determination. But I suspect the years of struggle also improved the film. Somehow, in striving to produce a script that satisfied everybody concerned, Lucas did succeed in distilling the essence of countless adventure stories.

It might have been different if there were people standing by ready to lavish tens of millions of dollars on the first ideas to come from Lucas’s yellow notepad. If those first ideas had been seized upon, we might have been treated to the story of Mace Windy revered jedi-bendu of Puchi who was related to Usby CJ Thape, padawaan learner to the famed jedi.

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