Sunday, March 08, 2009

A good, original idea

Merely 12 years late, I’ve read Garry Jenkins’ book on the making of the first three Star Wars films. (A lifetime ago at a Doctor Who convention in Manchester the weekend that Tony Blair became Prime Minister, eager fans were getting the pristine book signed by Maurice Bronson.)

I love Star Wars. I love the prequels. I can see flaws and problems in all the movies, but that doesn’t change how much I love them. Love isn’t blind: it sees the flaws and loves anyway.

For the most part, this book tells a familiar story of triumph against adversity, of a small band of believers proving wrong all the Men who said “no”. That story’s been re-told in the DVD documentaries and in the puffery for the three prequels. So time has dulled some of Jenkins’ exclusives.

His real coup is getting detail – and photographs – from Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two movies. Kurtz seems to have taken the fall for the troubled production of The Empire Strikes Back. But the thing I found most interesting was the affect of the first film’s success – the toll it took on cast and crew’s lives, and the trouble it caused in making the next two movies.
“‘The problem with being a hit was that no one was going to work for the minimum, they all wanted top dollar,’ said Kurtz. Eventually Kurtz was given the $18 million he needed [to produce Empire]. Lucas would not allow him to forget whose money it was, however.”

Garry Jenkins, Empire building – the remarkable real life story of Star Wars, p. 213.

Stars were having problems with their new-found stardom, with drugs and whether their directors liked them. Crew struggled to meet the perfectionist demands of the rebel in charge. At one point, late on, Lucas changed his mind on a second alien race on Endor, and all the work on the yuzzums was for nothing. Jenkins’ skill is in showing the cost of the films’ success.

He is good at explaining the content of the times and the studio system, and how odd Lucas’ feel-good, expensive nonsense would have looked on paper. He’s also good at explaining Lucas’ canny – indeed revolutionary – attitude to merchandising, from the nascent idea of “Star Wars Stores” flogging product like Disney to the $2 billion deal with Pepsi in 1996 to “carry Star Wars characters on its products for the next five years” (p. 287).

There are plenty of fun details. Director Richard Marquand, for example, was the one responsible for revisiting – not just referring to – Yoda in Jedi. There’s the mischief caused by Carrie Fisher’s bosoms – bouncing around bra-less in A New Hope disrupting any scenes where she had to run, and escaping he metal bikini six years later in Jedi. And there’s Lucas’ great embarrassment at being asked how “Chewbacca and his family reproduced” (p. 240).

While there’s some acknowledgement of mistakes made, this is a success story. There’s no mention of the Star Wars Holiday Special or of the two Ewok movies. But the strangest thing about this story of Lucas fighting the man is him building his own empire in response. Valerie Hoffman, who embarrassed Lucas by asking about the sex lives of Wookies,
“had been hired as a secretary in the aftermath of Star Wars, and began her working days in a caravan. ‘The minute we moved into the new building [in 1979] there was a dress code.’”

Ibid., p. 240.

And there are plenty of loyal believers who fought alongside Lucas who are then left out in the cold. It’s a success story with an oddly bitter taste. Jenkins himself links the affect of Lucas’ divorce to the quality of Jedi. Marcia Lucas helped edit all three films.
“Yet, perhaps significantly, the emotional credibility she had always given her husband’s films – ‘the dying and crying’ as he called it – was absent [from Jedi].”

Ibid., p. 274.

The effects and monsters might all have come out as he wanted in this last one, but the heart had maybe been lost...

Jenkins finishes the book with word of the forthcoming three prequels – to be released, he says, in 1999, 2001 and 2003.
“Casting director Robin Gurland had been focussing on young actors for the parts of the young Anakin Skywaker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and a young Queen, presumably Luke and Leia’s mother. Ironically it was the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi that became the only one connected with an established name. A persistent, not to say intriguing, rumour that Kenneth Branagh had signed up for the role failed to disappear even after an official denial from Lucasfilm.”

Ibid., p. 288.

He says Lucas will need “a flash of magic beyond even his marketing and merchandising millions” for the prequels to succeed. But I felt he’d already identified those unmade movies’ major flaw...

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

Wow, cool. I remember I first saw Episode III in Chambery's only movie theatre dubbed in French.