Friday, 19 October 2018

What Mark Hamill and Gary Kurtz told science fiction fans about Star Wars in 1976

Charles Lippincott, Gary Kurtz and Mark Hamill promoting Star Wars at MidAmeriCon 1976

In 1976, well before Star Wars was ready for release, a campaign was going on to make science fiction fans aware of it. 

Charles Lippincott, who was in charge of merchandising and publicity for the film, organised convention appearances, at which he or producer Gary Kurtz would explain what the film was about. They would take artwork and information sheets with them and slow slides (yes, slides) to give some idea of the look of the movie.

As I wrote in a blog post at Amazing Stories recently, Gary Kurtz was the face of Star Wars for many fans back then, patiently explaining what the film was about.

One of those appearances is available on video – and it reminds us of a time when pictures from Star Wars seemed weird and exotic, and no one knew quite what the movie would be like.

Star Wars at MidAmeriCon, 1976

Mark Hamill joined Gary Kurtz and Charles Lippincott in talking about Star Wars to an audience at the 34th World Science Fiction Convention, or MidAmeriCon, in Kansas City, Missouri, in September 1976.

As the video shows, the audience was not that large, some of the questions were distinctly hostile and the flow of questions eventually started to dry up. It’s a far cry from the vast convention venues full of adoring crowds which we would see today.

Kurtz did most of the talking, though Hamill got a chance to contribute and to explain what a fan he was of genre movies. What follows isn’t the whole content of the video, but it a look at some of the key questions and answers. 

Q&A with Gary Kurtz and Mark Hamill

This seems to have been among the images
shown as slides to convention-goers

The first question was an objection to Princess Leia’s costume. “Haven’t you ever seen any Amazing covers?” the questioner asked.

Kurtz: “This is a G-rated movie. And we’ve got to remember women’s liberation at this time. We aren’t sexually selling female or males in this film, sexual exploitation. After all, she’s part of the royal family.”

The second question was particularly hostile. “I don’t want to throw ground glass into this but are you people intending to lay on us some cliched plot again? Marvellous special effects but where the hell is the plot in any of these science fiction movies?” There was some dissent, with someone calling “Space opera” and another saying “This will be good”.

Kurtz: “It depends on what you mean by plot. This is an action adventure story. It’s set in outer space. it’s just like John Carter on Mars or Flash Gordon or any other action adventure. It’s not a science-oriented story.”

Hamill returned to this subject shortly afterwards: 

“One time when we were shooting some of the action sequences, trying to get the princess out of the detention cell on the Death Star, one of the British crew members came up to me and he said, ‘Don’t you think it’s just a little phoney that you have these 40,000 stormtroopers after you and you have not been hit once? I mean, can’t you just get a little flak on your arm?’

“And by that time I knew and George had really told me and Gary had really told me, it’s just not that kind of movie, it’s a fairy tale, it’s sweet and it’s a swashbuckler. Cliché, maybe that’s the adjective to use but that sort of sums it all, it’s just a romantic… the most romantic scene I have with Carrie I get a kiss on the cheek, not on the lips, for luck.”

Kurtz was asked which studio was backing the film. 

“This picture is being financed and distributed by 20th Century-Fox, but it was a bit of a trick to get them to become interested in this type of film at all.”

A questioner asked about the future of science fiction films. 

Kurtz: “I hope they’ll stay around like they should all the time. there’s no reason we cab’t have some science fiction every year just like we have some westerns, some police shows or some anything else. (Applause.) It’s just that they’re very very expensive and since Forbidden Planet there hasn’t been a really good action adventure and costs have escalated so much in the three years we prepared this picture the budget went up 20% a year just from inflation, just the cost of nails and lumbar and plastic and metal and everything else, so it is very expensive for what you get out of it, but once you have it a sequel to this picture would cost half as much because we still have a whole warehouse full of hardware in London.”

Gary Kurtz was asked about the "light swords" of Star Wars

“How do you handle those light swords?”

Kurtz: “They’re used like samurai swords are, large swords. You don’t duel with them like Three Musketeers style. “The beam is about three or four feet long and it works like a regular sword. They cut through things and when they hit each other, they spark and arc.”

“Has a decision been made about a composer for the film?”

Kurtz: “Yes, John Williams, who did Jaws. We hope that the score will be a large orchestra, romantic sore in the Max Steiner, Ernst [sic] Korngold, Alfred Newman tradition.” (Applause.) “There’s no electronic music.”

“Why did you want to do a science fiction film?”

Kurtz: “Three or four years ago when we were preparing American Graffiti, we were sitting around looking in the newspaper one night to see what to go see and there wasn’t anything and we said ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to be able to go see a John Carter or Flash Gordon kind of movie?’ That was really the basis for it.”

“Did you ever give any thought to trying to put on one of the episodes of John Carter on Mars?”

Kurtz: “Well, the problem with any established thing – Flash Gordon, John Carter, Doc Smith, anything – is that everybody has their own idea what it should be like. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done but it’s much more difficult and also the rights for a lot of that stuff are tied up.”

Asked who was doing Star Wars' special effects, Kurtz explained something about John Stears’ work and that of Industrial Light and Magic, before adding:

“There aren’t very many people left in the Hollywood system who are working in special effects are because we went through so many years when there were no effects pictures at all, they’ve either retired or they’re about to retire...

“All of our people are younger, all of our model makers and things, and they may stay in the field, they may not, because there isn’t a whole lot of work. Right now there is because, between Steven Spielberg’s picture and our picture and what Irwin Allen is doing and a couple of other people, everybody is working, but next year there may be nothing and they wont’ be able to work so they may get out and become encyclopaedia salesmen.”

Kurtz was asked whether there would be a series of films.

Kurtz: “Whether we make a series or not depends on how successful the film is and whether the distributor is interested in going further with it. there’s a sequel novel being written and maybe more novels based on the characters and the ideas but whether or not we make any more films is up in the air right now.”

“Will you be playing this straight or straight or camp and cute?”

Kurtz: “No, it’s a straight adventure. There are humorous overtones in certain of the scenes but otherwise it’s a straight action adventure.”

Hamill: “It’s not camp, it’s not tongue in cheek, but funny things do happen. Robots have most of the funny lines.”

Asked how much money the film would have to make to break even, Kurtz replied:

“Well the picture will cost a little over $7 million, direct cost, so we would have to gross back to the distributor in rentals, not box office, about $18 million or $19 million to break even. That’s one of the reason more science fiction pictures aren’t made.”

Hamill: “Yeah, everybody go see it twice.”

Was Hamill concerned about being typecast in science fiction?

“I love science fiction (applause) and I’m not saying that just to be popular. This is my fourth convention. It’s the first one I’ve been invited to. All the others I paid for and got there myself. I like the work and I love Star Wars.”

The session ends with Charles Lippincott telling people about screenings of George Lucas’s student film Electronic Labyrinth and of its feature-length incarnation THX 1138. And then he tells the audience when they can drop by to find out more about the film from the three guests, and see some props and artwork.

Can you imagine the stampede today if people were asked to go and speak to Mark Hamill and look at some Star Wars props?

We’re fortunate that this video survives, because it’s a reminder of just how hard Lippincott and Kurtz worked as ambassadors for the film – and how, even among science fiction fans, Star Wars was by no means a guaranteed success.

What did you know about Star Wars before it was released? Had you heard about it at any fan events? I'd be keen to hear your memories. Please leave a comment below.


Twin30mm said...

Great article, as usual.
Hard to remember how much aware I was of the impending phenomenon, but two events stick in my mind.
Firstly, seeing the trailer in front of (possibly) The Spy Who Loved Me or A Bridge Too Far.
Secondly, watching Michael Rodd's Screen Test, which showed a clip, which I believe was the Falcon's Mos Eisley Escape ("Chewie, get us outta here!").
As most of the UK didn't get to see SW until early '78, the UK media must have been saturated with stories of the films Stateside success, prior to its release here.
Presumbably, the influx of merchandise had also started by late '77/early '78, so that would have also piqued my interest.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Twin30mm. I really appreciate your feedback and memories.

What I wouldn't give to see that Screen Test clip. Same goes for Pebble Mill At One, which is where I think I first saw a clip of Star Wars -- or the TV ad for Star Wars Weekly. (I think I've only ever come across one other person who confirms I didn't imagine that.)

Twin30mm said...

Would give my eye teeth to track down these clips, especially the Screen Test clip and Shreddies advert. Don't remember the Pebble Mill clip, but according to IMDB most of the 70s/80s episodes are lost, which is a shame.
Unless we're experiencing the 'Mandela Effect', I'm 100% positive that there was an advert for SW Weekly. Although there's slim to no chance of ever tracking it down, this has become something of a Holy Grail for me.
I wonder if Dez Skinn has any recollection of it?

Steve said...

That's interesting that there was confirmed talk of a sequel by Kurtz before it came out. Lucas spinned the thing so much afterwards as if he had the whole silly prequel thing planned out so far before hand that you don't know what to believe. I remember starting kindergarten in the fall of 1977 and all the boys were playing with these space toys and talking about some movie that I hadn't heard of. My parents finally took the family to see it in December of 1977. My family was pretty much out of touch with mainstream life.