Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Did everyone really think Star Wars would be a flop?

Star Wars: The At Long Last Love of science fiction?

Who knew Star Wars would be a hit?

Most written accounts suggest that Fox was bracing itself for a $10 million flop.

George Lucas was clearly under a lot of strain. He had taken personal charge of Industrial Light and Magic in an effort to get the film finished on time. The movie missed its original release date of Christmas 1976 and there was tremendous pressure to make the revised date of May 1977. At one point, Lucas went to a hospital in Marin County, California, convinced he was having a heart attack. He could hardly have been an objective judge of how the film was coming together.

At least one person seems to have still believed in the film. When Fox was asked to release $20,000 for second unit work on the Tatooine scenes to be done in Death Valley, studio boss Alan Ladd Jr was hauled before the Twentieth Century-Fox board and asked why the film had over-run. According to Dale Pollock's book Skywalking, Ladd told them: “Because it’s possibly the greatest picture ever made.” 

In January 1977, Lucas famously screened the film without music or completed special effects – for a group of friends including the screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, directors John Milius, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg and Time critic Jay Cocks. Only Spielberg and Cocks liked it. Almost everyone else seems to have thought it was a disaster. According to Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Lucas’s wife Marcia – who was one of the three editors working flat out to get the film finished – likened it to Peter Bogdanovich’s notorious flop musical of 1975, . “It’s the At Long Last Love of science fiction. It’s awful,” she said, and started to cry.

At Long Last Love: sadly not
the Star Wars of musicals
Brian De Palma, it is said, mocked the film mercilessly. In a BBC Omnibus special in 1997, Gloria Katz remembered De Palma saying “You call that a shot when you introduce Darth Vader? I mean, that’s your villain and that’s the best you can do?”

Did Spielberg and Cocks see something that eluded everyone else? Were they just better at imagining how the finished film would look? Certainly Spielberg would have been aware how of much difference a John Williams score could make to the finished product, but could no one see they had a hit on their hands?

Fox executives apparently reacted very differently when they saw a rough assembly of the film, still without music or completed effects. They were won over – and some made a lot of money by exercising share options. So maybe the idea that everyone thought Star Wars would flop is a myth, which has grown out of Lucas's understandable gloom and the failure of his screening to friends.

Certainly, the film’s sneak preview – on April 30 at the Northpoint Theatre, Los Angeles, where American Graffiti had gone down well – seems to have been a big success. Co-editor Paul Hirsch recalled in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays that “the film started, the ship came over at the top of the screen, and the audience went wild … After the screening, I said to George, ‘Anything you want to change?’ and he said, ‘I think we’ll leave it alone’."

What's your own take on this? Was the film's success really a surprise, or has that been exaggerated over the years? Do you remember how Star Wars was being talked about before its release, if it was talked about at all? Please leave a comment and discuss.


johnnyivan said...

Oh my God - the irony!
'(George) said, "I think we’ll leave it alone." '

Darren, thank for l;etting me know about your Blog - I'm really looking forward to following it all. I'll send you a proper email reply soon.

Darren Slade said...

John, somehow the full irony of that quote didn't sink in to me as I was writing it. But Lucas's career has for quite a long time been based on not knowing when to leave things alone.

John White said...

Other artists tend to move on and do great new things. That's what creative people do. They don't keep tweaking past glories.

The only other I can think of like this was Leonardo DaVinci - tweaking 'La Gioconda/Mona Lisa' for decades. Whilst that might seem like a flattering comparison: Leonardo was almost forgotten by history, achieved little in his long life - creatively - let's be honest, and many of his celebrated achievements were actually copied from the work of others. Many of his few paintings are also quite dreadful. It's a pity that he didn't stop nerding about with technical frivolities and didn't simply concentrate on his primary artistic talent. George should finally do these personal films of his. Low budget. High on ideas.

John White said...

I mean Leonardo's celebrated *scientific* achievements. I'm not suggesting that he plagiarised, but his notebooks were often just a note of what others had done.