As Star Wars celebrates its 40th anniversary, we revisit how the most iconic franchise in film history almost never was.
A long time ago, we were just stargazing kids, worshipping our letterbox collection of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Years later, the Force is strong with us once again as we do the Imperial March towards J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated sequel, The Force Awakens. To celebrate, we’re spending the next week talking about Nothing But Star Wars! with a rogue squadron of features, essays, and stories. Today, writer David Konow reflects on how the original 1977 classic almost didn’t happen at all.
There are no guarantees of anything in life, especially in Hollywood, but in terms of making a ton of money, Star Wars is as close to a sure bet as you can make. Whether The Force Awakens is the greatest thing since sliced bread or a steaming pile of shit, it’s going to make a pile of cash no matter what, and it’s remarkable to think it was a miracle the first Star Wars got made at all.
Even with George Lucas having previous success with American Graffiti, he had a hard time getting Star Wars off the ground, and many involved in the film thought it was going to be the laughingstock of Hollywood. Science fiction was considered a dead genre, kid’s stuff, Saturday matinee fodder, and nobody could have predicted that Star Wars would not only reinvent the genre but also become one of the biggest movies in history, launching a franchise that continues to make billions of dollars worldwide.
Star Wars was a milestone film when it was released in 35 theaters in 1977. It became part of our cultural fabric, and its massive success would change Hollywood forever. Now, Consequence of Sound takes a look at how Lucas struggled and ultimately succeeded against all odds in bringing his epic vision to life.
Creating a universe isn’t easy. Let’s see you try it. And just try to imagine what kind of daunting path George Lucas would have to face in creating Star Wars when special effects were still in the stone age. Not to mention Lucas had previously worked on very low budgets with THX-1138 and American Graffiti, and Star Wars was going to need a bigger filmmaking army than anyone could imagine.
It’s doubtful Lucas had any idea how difficult a path he had ahead of him when he first came up with the idea of Star Wars, otherwise he probably would have run screaming in the other direction. The director grew up loving Flash Gordon on TV, and he wanted to make a big-screen version of the famous sci-fi character, but he couldn’t afford the rights. Then Lucas figured why not create his own characters that could be in a similar sci-fi vein?
Screenwriter Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York), who knew Lucas well, says, “Star Wars was a true reflection of who George was at the time, what he believed, and what he liked. George would have two books on his desk: A collection of Flash Gordon comic strips and The Golden Bough. That’s where Star Wars came from, those sources.”
“Star Wars is sort of a compilation of this stuff, but it’s never been put in one story before, never put down on film,” Lucas has said. “There is a lot taken from Westerns … samurai movies. It’s not like one kind of ice cream but rather a very big sundae.”
Before Star Wars, Lucas had made a previous sci-fi film, THX-1138, and it was his favorite experience making a movie. The problem was THX was a crashing bore, a cold, uninvolving vision of the future that never found an audience. Almost as a dare, Lucas went back to his teenage obsessions, cars and rock and roll, and made American Graffiti to prove that he could make a warmer story that could win over an audience.
Universal was famously unhappy with Graffiti, and the studio threatened to put it on television, but thankfully, Alan Ladd Jr., the president of 20th Century Fox, was shown the film two months before it was slated to be released. Ladd liked what he saw, met with Lucas that day, and told him he wanted to make his next film with him. Word even got back to Universal that Ladd was interested in taking Graffiti off their hands if they didn’t want to release it, which finally galvanized the studio to get it out into theaters.
Despite Universal’s misgivings, American Graffiti was a major hit, and before The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, it was the most successful film in history in terms of what it cost to make and how much money it made back. As the Lucas biography Skywalking reported, Graffiti cost $1.2 million, and it made back $55.1 million, meaning that for every dollar Universal spent on the movie, they made $50 back. (According to Box Office Mojo, the average movie ticket price in 1973 was $1.77.)
Graffiti crossed over to a wide variety of people, just like Star Wars would several years later. As Lucas said in an interview, “Graffiti was designed for kids, for teenagers, that’s who was meant to see it. But everybody went … and everyone seems to be able to relate to it in one way or another.”
Universal had an option of Star Wars, but they passed on it, a decision they’d deeply regret. One of the biggest problems was it was pure gobbledy-gook on paper, and as Lucas recalled in the book Blockbuster, “The only reason [Star Wars] got off the ground was that Alan [Ladd] liked American Graffiti and said, ‘I don’t understand this movie, I don’t get it at all, but I think you’re a talented guy and I want you to make it.’ Star Wars wouldn’t get made today. It barely got made then.”
With Ladd, Lucas had a powerful ally in his corner. As the budget for Star Wars went up and the studio grew increasingly nervous, Ladd stood behind Lucas, and the movie, 100%. As he tells Consequence of Sound, “Star Wars is a classic good against evil story. Those have always proven to be winners, and if George could pull off half of what he talked about … He described it in terms of Robin Hood and Buck Rogers, which I was very familiar with. I knew he was striking new territory, and I just believed that if anybody could ever pull it off, it would be him.”
Another problem working against Star Wars was the fact that science fiction movies didn’t have big audiences. In fact, the ‘70s were littered with sci-fi movies that didn’t cut it at the box office, like The Andromeda Strain, Logan’s Run, and Damnation Alley just to name a few.
As Charles Lippincott, who was a publicist on Star Wars, says, “When 2001 came along, we assumed it did well, but 2001, which cost about the same as Star Wars, never broke even until November 1975. It luckily broke even in November, because the board of directors at Fox met that December, and I put together some presentations to get their interest in the film. Because 2001 had broken even, they begrudgingly went along with making Star Wars.”
“The marketing people had no idea how they were going to sell it,” said the late Gareth Wigan, who was an executive at Fox during the Star Wars era. “I believe it was said at the time that no science fiction picture grossed more than $10 million dollars, and no picture with War in the title ever grossed more than six or seven million. So the idea of a sci-fi film with War in the title was a pretty deadly combination.”
From the get-go, Star Wars didn’t have many allies who believed in the film, so Lippincott started organizing a geek army who would help spread the word. Star Wars would be the first film that made a major presence at the sci-fi and comic conventions. “With Star Wars, we broke a certain amount of barriers, which are now common,” Lippincott says. “It gave us a lot of cachet, and it gave us a secret audience the studio wasn’t counting on.”
Once Fox finally gave Star Wars the go ahead, Lucas agreed to a budget he knew wouldn’t be adequate, $3.5 million, but he was afraid the studio wouldn’t go forward with the movie if he asked for more. When Warner Brothers was making The Exorcist, no one dared call it a horror film, and science fiction was such box office poison at the time, Lucas insisted that no one call Star Wars sci-fi either.
No one can build a universe alone, and Lucas was incredibly lucky with the talent he was able to pool to bring Star Wars to life. He loved the work of illustrator Ralph McQuarrie, and it was McQuarrie’s pre-production sketches that gave Fox a visual idea of what Star Wars would look like. (Several people involved in Star Wars felt that McQuarrie’s drawings sold the movie to the Fox execs.)
FX artist Richard Edlund (Ghostbusters), who was part of the Industrial Light and Magic team, says, “Ralph was an artist who worked for Lockheed or Boeing, one of those companies, he used to do technological paintings of airplanes in the sky. He did about 10 or 12 paintings that essentially art directed the entire series. He came up with the look that the production designers, John Barry and Norman Reynolds, followed.”
Lucas also got incredibly lucky in that he tapped into an up-and-coming group of techies who would form ILM. “We were the only ones that could have pulled it off at the time,” Edlund continues. “There was no infrastructure in visual effects anymore. The visual effects people that did movies in the ’50s weren’t there anymore, so we were able to build the studio and pull off the effects.”
Still, trying to create the technology that could make Star Wars come to life was a very long, hard, and expensive period of trial and error, and as costs increased, Fox grew increasingly nervous.
As Wigan explained, “You have to remember that at this time virtually all of the studios were freestanding public companies. None of them were part of a giant corporation, so the success or failure of expensive films had a huge, direct impact on the stock and value of the company, and there was substantial nervousness. Alan Ladd Jr. was completely resolute and entirely confident that something remarkable was happening with the making of Star Wars, but the confidence of the studio, the corporate brass, diminished almost in direct ratio to the increase in the movie’s cost.”
Still, Fox was in good shape because of two hits they released back to back, The Omen, and the Mel Brooks comedy Silent Movie, and Ladd says, “Initially Star Wars wasn’t a huge gamble. It became a bigger gamble as time went on because the budget went up to $10 million. But we had a number of very, very profitable movies at that time, and I think the company certainly would have survived if Star Wars wasn’t a hit. It just wouldn’t have been as big a studio as it became.”
One of the biggest problems Lucas always struggled with was communication. He was a very quiet, introverted person by nature who had a difficult time expressing himself and sharing his emotions, and this caused many problems on the Star Wars shoot.
On all of his movies, Lucas had a tough time directing his actors, and on Star Wars they struggled with his clunky dialogue. Harrison Ford was famous for telling Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.” In addition, George was notorious for giving his actors little direction except for “Same thing, only better,” and “faster, more intense.” In Newsweek, Carrie Fisher joked that when George lost his voice during the shoot, she wanted to put two horns on a board, one for “faster,” another for “more intense,” so he could continue to direct the movie by honking the appropriate horn.
Part of the reason Star Wars was shot largely in England was because of the cheaper crew rates. The British crew worked normal hours, and because they weren’t that excited about the movie they were working on, they would usually vote against doing overtime, so Lucas often had to scramble at the last minute to get the shots he needed.
Lucas especially clashed with the film’s cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove, The Omen), who thought the movie was a joke, and George wanted him fired, but Lucas’ longtime producer, Gary Kurtz, didn’t want to let him go because he was afraid the entire camera crew would leave with him.
Even with an army of great FX artists working on Star Wars, like John Dykstra (Battlestar Galactica) and Dennis Muren (E.T., Terminator 2), Lucas still couldn’t get what he saw in his head and told people he was only getting 40% of his vision. (Lucas had wanted Douglas Trumbull, the FX wizard behind 2001 and Silent Running, to do Star Wars, but he turned it down.)
Then try to imagine showing Star Wars to the Fox executives with less than half the FX finished. Jay Cocks, who was at the screening, recalled the rough cut had temporary footage from World War II movies, and Lucas tried to explain, “Okay, these are World War II fighters, but you’re supposed to think they’re spaceships!”
“This was not a successful screening,” Cocks recalled. “It was a real challenge to the viewer. Two people liked it: Me and Steven Spielberg. Brian DePalma kept giving George terrible grief about the tractor beam!” Yet the next day DePalma and Cocks helped Lucas rewrite the prolog at the beginning of the film. Cocks told him, “George, you gotta make people understand that this is a fairy tale.” (A source close to Lucas would also claim that Cocks came up with the legendary tagline, “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but Cocks doesn’t recall this.)
Lucas felt Spielberg’s sci-fi epic, Close Encounters, which was shooting at the same time as Star Wars, would be a much bigger hit, and he felt terribly dejected that so little on Star Wars was going his way. In fact, the whole Star Wars experience was so demoralizing for Lucas, he swore he’d never direct again, and he didn’t for 20 years.
But as Spielberg recalled in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he assured Lucas that Star Wars would be the “crossover” sci-fi flick that would appeal to everyone, and he boldly predicted it would make $35 million at the box office, which was a pretty big number for the time.
Then when Lucas was editing Star Wars, he was terrified the studio would take the movie away from him and recut it. (It had happened twice before with THX and American Graffiti.) Paul Hirsch, who edited Star Wars, along with George’s ex-wife Marcia and Richard Chew, recalls that Lucas “was very methodical and analytic. When I came on the picture, I suggested looking at the whole cut and seeing if there were areas we knew we were going to eliminate, to save time. George insisted on fine-cutting each scene before making judgments about whether it should stay or be out of the movie. I never saw the next reel until I had finished the one I was working on.”
Sound would be one of the most important components of Star Wars, and the movie had a big ace in the hole with Dolby Stereo. In order to play Star Wars, theaters had to have a Dolby system set up, or they wouldn’t be allowed to book it. Not that there was any great demand for the movie before its release, because Fox could only get the film in 35 theaters on opening day, May 25th.
To add insult to injury, they practically had to blackmail those theaters to play it through a practice called “block booking,” which is now illegal. The theater owners thought another Fox film, The Other Side of Midnight, would be the big summer hit, and Fox decreed that if the theater chains wanted Midnight, they had to book this little sci-fi movie as well.
As recalled in the book Blockbuster, Memorial Day is now a sacred tent-pole date that studios fight for years in advance, but in 1977, it was the deadest day of the year to open a movie, which shows what little excitement there was for the film before it came out.
Once Star Wars was finally all together and ready to show to audiences, Lucas braced himself for more post-production work, but editor Paul Hirsch couldn’t imagine what else they could do to improve the film. “We had been over it with a fine-tooth comb.” Then Lucas and Hirsch went to an early screening where the audience went nuts for the movie, and afterwards the director finally conceded, “I guess we’ll leave it alone.”
As Wigan recalled, when Star Wars was previewed on Lucas’ home turf of San Francisco, “The audience applauded eight times during the course of the movie, and nobody left. They were so dazed and dazzled by the experience. The lobby was full, nobody wanted to leave, and the manager came out and said, ‘You’ve got to get out. I’ve got another movie I have to screen.’”
When Star Wars was screened at the Academy Theater in West Hollywood, an executive from Dolby, Stephen Katz, worked the soundboard, cranking the fader when the Millennium Falcon went into hyperspace. “I think the normal setting was like seven, and like in Spinal Tap, I took it up to 12. Click, click, click, click. The thing hit, and the theater just went kaboom.”
Another Dolby executive, Mike Minkler, recalled, “It got a 10-minute standing ovation, it was nuts. We all said, ‘Oh my God, this is really something,’ and nobody really had the vision but George. I don’t think anybody saw the big picture but him.” (One of the biggest stumbling blocks with Star Wars was that nobody could see its potential from the disparate pieces as it was being put together.)
The sci-fi fans that Lippincott cultivated were indeed there for Star Wars opening day, and word spread like wildfire that this was an extraordinary movie that everybody, not just the geeks, had to see.
As Robert Vancel, a fan who was lucky enough to catch Star Wars on opening day, recalls, “When Star Wars was coming, it was like, ‘Okay, this is gonna be cool. They’ve written this for me and all these other people.” Another fan who caught Star Wars opening day, August Ragone, says, “You didn’t talk out loud about science fiction in school, or you’d be shunned. Then with Star Wars, it became an open thing where you could come out of the nerd closet.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Star Wars became the biggest box office winner of its time, spawned a franchise that’s generated billions of dollars, and changed the movie business forever. Love it or hate it, we’re going to have Star Wars in our lives for many years to come, and it’s all the more remarkable that against all odds the movie got made at all.
“I feel a great sense of pride that I was involved in Star Wars,” Ladd says. “When it became a success, I felt very vindicated because I took a lot of crap from the company when it started going over budget. Star Wars helped establish me in the business, and it gave me a stronger reputation because I had the courage to say yes to it. In my time, I was very lucky that I had creative control and I could make decisions like that. Now you’ve got 50 accountants all sitting around a table trying to make a decision. That’s why you get so much crap these days, because nobody’s taking chances. When you play it safe, you’re not going to get anything interesting at all.”
No matter how much the odds were stacked against him, Lucas was always determined to make his own way as a filmmaker, and despite all the naysayers, and despite all the beatings he had to take to bring his vision to life, his determination paid off in spades with Star Wars. As he once told Starlog, “Nobody’s ever going to let anybody make a movie. You have to go out and do it! Those who can figure out how to do it – do it. And nothing can stop them.”