Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Wars-weary: The production of Star Wars and how George Lucas's stress made for a great movie

How not to dress for a heatwave:
Chewbacca's fur is combed on
the set of Star Wars

Here in the UK, we've been experiencing a heatwave. Or at least, what passes for one in Britain. So what better time to reflect on the summer of 1976, when Britain was sweltering in the most famous heatwave of modern times – and a young film director was struggling to make a science fiction movie.

In that blisteringly hot summer of 1976, some parts of the UK didn't see rain for 45 days. There were terrifying forest fires. Many people were getting their water from standpipes in the street. The heatwave of 2013 doesn't come close.

It was not the sort of weather in which you would want to do anything as crazy as striding about in black leather and a helmet, or a suit made out of mohair. And yet that's exactly the sort of thing people were doing at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, where the director of American Graffiti was making his new science fiction film.

Some magazines had announced it would be called The Adventures of Luke Starkiller. On set, it was known as The Star Wars.

The production was not a happy time for George Lucas. Quite apart from the heat, there was clearly a serious clash of cultures between the director and his British crew. And the $8.5million budget he had been given by Twentieth Century-Fox seems to have been not quite enough to do what he was trying to do.

Filming had started on March 22 1976 in Tozeur, Tunisia. On day two, production was halted by the first rain to fall during a Tunisian winter in half a century. Dysentery spread among the crew, while Stuart Freeborn, creator of the creature make-up, caught pneumonia and was flown back to London for a spell in hospital.
Anxious: George Lucas during
the filming of Star Wars 

Soon after shooting moved to Elstree on April 7, the strain between Lucas and his crew worsened. A shy but wilful young director and his trio of untried leading actors were dealing with a very British, very traditional workforce. Mark Hamill told Empire magazine in 1997: “None of the background artists knew who we were. I remember Harrison and I walking down to get our medals and these guys saying ‘wanker’ under their breath and it really upset me.”

Relations between Lucas and his crew seem never to have recovered from the technicians’ decision, after two days of shooting, not to work past 5.30pm. There was also a serious difference of approach between Lucas and his director of photography, Gilbert Taylor.

Although he had shot ground-breaking movies such as A Hard Day’s Night, Repulsion and Dr Strangelove, Taylor struck some as very much set in his ways. Producer Gary Kurtz says in the DVD documentary Empire of Dreams that Taylor was “a very old school cameraman, very crotchety. George, coming out of low-budget film-making, was used to doing a lot of things himself, so George would say things like ‘Well, put a light there’ and Gil took offence at that kind of thing. He says, ‘That’s not your job, son. You tell me what you want to see and I’ll do it the way I think is best to create what you want to see.’”

Kurtz and Lucas reportedly considered firing Taylor but feared a revolt among the crew. In his own defence, Taylor told Empire in 1997: “I’ve had good relationships with most of the directors I’ve worked with. I attempted it with George but he doesn’t make friends easily. Every day we would go to see rushes, and never did George say he liked anything. I don’t think he paid anyone a compliment.” 

Not that the British crew were the only people who could find Lucas difficult to work for. Carrie Fisher says in Empire of Dreams: “George never talked. It was sort of felt he wanted [us] to hit our marks and magically accommodate our dialogue.” Harrison Ford said: “I think George likes people, I think George is a warm-hearted person, but he’s a little impatient with the process of acting, with finding something. And he thinks ‘It’s there, it’s right there, I wrote it down. Do that.’” In Dale Pollock's biography Skywalking, Mark Hamill recalled Lucas saying, after one take of a difficult scene on the Millennium Falcon: “Let’s do it again, only this time ... do it better.”

By June, principal photography was five weeks behind schedule, and there was still two more weeks’ worth of footage to shoot, including much of the opening battle. Eventually, despite loyal support for the film from Fox executive Alan Ladd Jnr, the studio told Lucas it was giving him one more week before it pulled the plug. Principal photography had to end on July 16.

Lucas hired two more camera crews so three units could work simultaneously on the same sets – a more expensive way of finishing it than just letting it run further over schedule. Production supervisor Robert Watts recalled: “Gary [Kurtz] directed the second unit and I had the distinction of directing the third unit of Star Wars. My shots were things like close-ups of Artoo-Detoo’s third foot going down.” Lucas may have had a significant budget behind him, but he was now operating at the pace of a low-budget film-maker, working flat out to get footage in the can. The opening battle was shot with several cameras, and the editors eventually made it fill more screen time by showing the same action repeatedly from different angles.

I can't help wondering whether all this trouble actually helped give film’s opening scenes their frenetic pace. And while I'm the last person to wish suffering on anyone, I wonder whether all the disagreements, the tension, the battles – agonizing as they must have been for Lucas himself – may have actually improved the film. On American Graffiti and Star Wars, George Lucas had a miserable time and made great movies. When he returned to directing, twenty-two years later, he would have it much easier – and the results would be ... well, let's say, mixed. Maybe it's just that in 1976 Lucas was a young artist, still full of great ideas. But maybe he needed all that stress and anxiety to achieve his best.

Well, it's a theory worth considering. And at the very least, all that trouble didn't do the finished film any harm.

1 comment:

John White said...

Interesting piece Darren. The quote:
"he doesn’t make friends easily. [...] and never did George say he liked anything. I don’t think he paid anyone a compliment.”
This chimes with what Michael Kaminsky has written - particularly in relation to Marcia.

What you say about the peculiar stresses and problems possibly making the movie even better is something I've wondered about. It's certainly true that some great, creative editing arose from the lack of footage - and the uneven quality of it.