Thursday, 20 November 2014

Elstree Studios: the home of Star Wars turns 100

The Star Wars crew shooting Darth Vader at Elstree Studios

One hundred years have gone by since a film company with the appropriately space-themed name Neptune founded what would become the home of Star Wars.

A number of events have been happening this year to mark the centenary of Elstree Studios, the home, just north of London, of countless great movies.

Much of the attendant publicity has described Elstree as the 'British Hollywood'.

In fact, the British Hollywood tag was always a bit of an exaggeration, and it probably would have seemed very far from reality in the mid-1970s, when the Star Wars crew arrived at what was then called EMI-Elstree Studios.

'Boringwood': Shooting Star Wars at Elstree

Elstree Studios (which, confusingly enough, is not in Elstree at all, but a few miles away in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire), did not impress everybody among Star Wars' American contingent.

Bunny Alsup, assistant to producer Gary Kurtz, is quoted in Dale Pollock's book Skywalking as calling the place "drab, ugly, cold, depressing”, adding: “But they couldn't have found a better location for privacy. No one walked in off the street." 

Harrison Ford, meanwhile, is said to have referred to Borehamwood as 'Boringwood'.

Even when I first visited Borehamwood in the 1990s, it was easy to see that it might not have held too many pleasures for visiting Hollywood types (although they could have done what everyone else locally does for fun, i.e. take a short train ride into London).  

Shooting the opening battle of Star Wars. Picture:

But the reason Star Wars came to Elstree was space – a plentiful supply of empty studio space for housing production designer John Barry's impressive sets. In fact, the Star Wars production team had already worked out they would need two studios, and had been choosing between various combinations of centres around London before settling on EMI-Elstree and Shepperton.

Elstree could offer Star Wars the use of its stages one to nine, with the exception of number five, which had been leased to Paul McCartney.  Shepperton would house the production's two largest sets – the Rebel hangar and throne room.

Alfred Hitchcock shooting Britain's first
talking picture, Blackmail, at Elstree
By 1976, when production was slated to begin, Elstree was providing film-makers with studios, but no personnel. Productions brought in their own crews of freelancers, making the analogy with the old Hollywood studio system less relevant than ever. Production supervisor Robert Watts is quoted in JW Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars as saying: "You can come in here and work completely indepedently of them. You just rent the studio – four walls, if you like, which is a good system." 

It was here, in this array of cavernous buildings, that George Lucas would suffer under the punishing pressure to get his film made anywhere near on time and budget.  

In a heavily unionised industry, shooting began at 8.30am and stopped dead at 5.30pm, even if the crew were in the middle of a scene. There was an hour for lunch, and assistants went off to fetch tea at fixed times twice a day.  In the evening, many of the crew could be found in the local pub, which was a benefit to Gary Kurtz's people still wrapping up at the studio and thinking about the next day's work.  “That helped us a lot because we could run down to the pub, see if anyone was there, and ask a question or get them to come back,” he says in Rinzler's book.

There were people working weekends an evenings, though, apart from Lucas himself. Set-builders came in to do overtime as Lucas and Kurtz tried desperately not to miss out on shooting time.

"We'd really be on a set for only about one day," Lucas says in the Rinzler book.

"We'd finish shooting and then we'd move on to another set; and we'd have to tear down the previous one and build another one right away, because we didn't have that many sound stages.

“At EMI, there were eight sound stages, but that's little better than a week if you're shooting a set a day ... It was really like riding a freight train at about 120 mph and having the guys trying to build the track in front of you as you go." 

The production seems to have been torture for Lucas. He quarreled with cinematographer Gil Taylor.  Production ran increasingly behind schedule and over budget, resulting in a desperate attempt to finish shooting before Twentieth Century-Fox pulled the plug.  And like anyone trying to communicate their plans to hundreds of people, Lucas found the experience frustrating, saying that it was "hard to have complete control over things".

"I would tell somebody to do something and that somebody would tell somebody else and by the time the guy who was actually nailing the fixture to the wall got the message, it was usually the wrong message," he said.

In quotes like this, you can almost hear Lucas dreaming of the day when he will be able to create sets, characters and even performances in post-production, and never be let down by imperfect flesh-and-blood people again.

The Dam Busters: An Elstree
production which certainly
influenced Star Wars
Did the fact that Star Wars was shot at Elstree make the finished film substantially different than if it had been shot in Hollywood?  It's impossible to know, but the meeting (and sometimes the clash) of old-school British pros with keen young Americans certainly makes for some good stories. Spielberg in particular has always been full of praise for the technical skills of British crews, and I like to imagine that somehow the spirit of Elstree productions like The Dam Busters and Where Eagles Dare is in Star Wars.

Elstree after Star Wars

The production of Star Wars sounds so horrendous in most accounts that you might imagine George Lucas would never want to set foot in Borehamwood again.  But he was back to make two more Star Wars films and three Indiana Joneses, as well as Willow and Labyrinth.

Despite the endorsement of Lucas and Spielberg, Elstree was to struggle throughout the 1980s. The development company Brent Walker bought the ailing complex in 1988, demolished six of the nine studios and sold the backlot to Tesco.  

If you can bear to look, this excellent article at the website Dark London shows how Star Wars Lego is now on sale in the Tesco toy aisle at the very spot where the film was made. Meanwhile, this clip from BBC News shows what stands where Docking Bay 94 once housed the Millennium Falcon.

Brent Walker closed the studios entirely in 1995, but after a lengthy legal battle, site was bought by Hertsmere Borough Council. The studios were renovated and re-opened, welcoming TV shows such as Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and Big Brother, and eventually films including Saving Private Ryan, Batman Begins and The King's Speech

Today, the studios where Hitchcock made first Britain's first talkie, Blackmail; where countless planes, tanks and trucks were blown up in Where Eagles Dare; and where Luke Skywalker first blasted off from Tatooine, are now used to bring Strictly Come Dancing to TV once a week.  We might scoff, but at least Elstree seems to be thriving again.

The Elstree Project is an oral history project recording the 100-year history of the studios. A documentary, From Borehamwood to Hollywood, based on the work of the Elstree Project, has been completed and screened and is due to appear here on December 1.

1 comment:

John I. White said...

Absolutely bloody excellent and fascinating article! When you said:
"you can almost hear Lucas dreaming of the day when he will be able to create sets, characters and even performances in post-production, and never be let down by imperfect flesh-and-blood people again."
I actually imagined the robot-like actors in THX-1138. I wonder if George found that film - which was a critique of repressed humanity and freedom - the easiest to make of all?
If so: oh, the irony...