Friday, 2 November 2018

Some unsung heroes of the 1977 Star Wars

The Star Wars effects team receive their Oscars from Joan Fontaine

When you read original, 1970s coverage of Star Wars, you come across a few names which are rarely mentioned today.

On the other hand, there are a few people who were not named much at the time, but who we later discovered to have been a key part of the film's success.

In offering my list of some unsung Star Wars heroes, I should make one thing clear. I'm not speculating about the reasons some people were less celebrated than others, or whether other people involved in the movie had agendas which edged them out of the picture. As I wrote in this post, there has been a recent trend to try and deny George Lucas the credit he is due as the man who conceived the whole thing, which is misguided.  However, some people involved in the film do seem to have been appreciated less than they might be.

I considered including the film's producer, the late Gary Kurtz, but while he parted company with Lucasfilm, he was often interviewed about the movie and his contribution, so I think most fans were well aware of his importance. Here are a few names that a wider audience might not be made aware of.

Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, screenwriters

Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz with George Lucas

George Lucas did not quite write the script of Star Wars alone. He did suffer through the writing of four complete drafts of the film, and the story is very much his. But at the last minute, he asked his friends Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to give his dialogue a polish. The husband-and-wife team had revised Lucas's script for American Graffiti, and they had written the poorly-received 1975 comedy drama Lucky Lady (1975), whose production designer John Barry would move on to do Star Wars.

The book Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays puts asterisks next to the lines that Huyck and Katz revised, and their contribution looks significant. If a line struck you as snappy and funny, it's quite likely that they had a hand in it. They clearly contributed to the overall sense of fun.

Huyck and Katz would work with Lucas three more times: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Howard the Duck and Radioland Murders.

Jim Nelson, ILM runner/associate producer

Jim Nelson (photo: Dave Berry/Star Wars Aficionado)

Like Huyck and Katz, Jim Nelson is missing from the credits of Star Wars. In his case, the reason is that he reportedly asked to go uncredited, following a falling-out with George Lucas.

Usually billed as James Nelson, he had a background in sound, in films ranging from Rock Around the Clock to The Exorcist. His job on Star Wars was to establish the visual effects unit Industrial Light and Magic, building it up from a warehouse at Van Nuys, California. It was Nelson who recruited the film's supervisor of miniature and optical effects, John Dykstra. So while it's always hard to guess from the outside who did what on a movie, we can gather that he made a significant contribution.

Garry Jenkins' 1997 book Empire Building says Nelson had been expecting credit as associate producer of Star Wars:
"Lucas told him he did not agree and suggested he was credited further down the titles with the techncians. he did not feel Nelson had contributed anything 'artistic' to the film. After a blazing row in which he told Lucas he had 'no idea' of the role he had played in the production, Nelson took his name off the creidts completely. Despite Lucas's pleas that he reconsider, Star Wars was released without any mention of his contribution at all."
Nelson was later associate producer on The China Syndrome before going into the effects business with Star Wars colleague Richard Edlund, consulting on the likes of Ghostbusters, 2010 and Big Trouble in Little China. He died in 2014, aged 81.

John Stears, special production and mechanical effects supervisor

John Stears with the landspeeder he created

We rightly hear a lot about the brilliance of the miniature and optical effects created by Industrial Light and Magic for Star Wars. But much less is written of the practical effects created by a UK team under the direction of Bond films veteran John Stears – from the droids and landspeeders to explosions and the advancing walls of the garbage crusher.

I wrote about Stears and his contribution to Star Wars here.

Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew, editors

Star Wars' film editors: Richard Chew,
Marcia Lucas, Paul Hirsch

There were three editors on Star Wars: Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew. So why am I just mentioning two of them here?

Paul Hirsch went on to edit a lot of successful films, including The Empire Strikes Back, most of Brian De Palma's movies, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Falling Down, so it's clear he remained one of the leaders in his field.

Richard Chew is less often mentioned. He went on to cut some successful films, including Risky Business, That Thing You Do! and Waiting to Exhale, but I can't help thinking his name doesn't get mentioned enough.

Marcia Lucas had been one of the leading film editors of the 1970s, cutting Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here AnymoreTaxi Driver and New York, New York. She and George split in 1983 and she got a large part of his fortune in the divorce settlement before marrying a craftsman she met at Skywalker Ranch. She never worked as an editor again after Return of the Jedi

Marcia was clearly more involved than the average editor throughout the creation of Star Wars, and we know that she contributed ideas such as the decision to kill off Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than have him alive but doing nothing for the last part of the film. But her contribution does seem to have been downplayed in some of the official histories.

Recently, I think some people online have gone too far the other way, talking up Marcia's contribution as a way of trying to deny George the credit for his own movie. From the outside, we can never know exactly how to divide credit for a film, but I think her absence from official documentaries and books certainly qualifies her as an unsung hero of Star Wars.

Charles Lippincott, advertising/publicity supervisor

Charles Lippincott in 1976

His job title in the creidts probably doesn't accurately reflect the part Charles Lippincott played in the success of Star WarsHe was more than a publicity supervisor.

In line with Lucas's shrewd belief in the power of merchandising, Lippincott helped get Del Rey to publish Star Wars books, Marvel to produce a comics adaptation and Kenner to commit to Star Wars toys. And he went to conventions with slides, artwork and props to drum up interest among genre fans before the film was released. If he had been less successful, Star Wars might not have permeated every aspect of 1977 culture the way it did.

Alan Ladd Jr, studio boss

Alan Ladd Jr 

Finally, we turn to the man who really got Star Wars made.

Alan Ladd Jr was head of production at 20th Century-Fox when it picked up the project that most other studios had passed on (including Universal and United Artists, both of which had the right to pick up George Lucas projects before other studios). In August 1976, when the film was in post-production, he was promoted to president,

He overcame the reservations of the Fox board to green-light the film with a budget of $8million. He stuck with the movie through a troubled production, as it fell behind schedule and over-budget. 

When Fox was asked for an extra $20,000 to film some extra shots in Death Valley that had not been done in Tunisia, Ladd was called before the 14 members of the Fox board to explain why the film had over-run. He said: "Because it’s possibly the greatest picture ever made.”

Ladd would also green-light Alien, but he is said to have been blamed by the Fox board for the less attractive deal that was struck with Lucas for The Empire Strikes Back, and he left the company.  Since he believed in the concept from the beginning, but is probably unknown to most non-fans, it's surely appropriate to make Alan Ladd Jr the ultimate unsung Star Wars hero. 

Do you agree with this choice of Star Wars' unsung heroes? Who might you add to the list? I'd be interested in your comments.  

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