Sunday, March 10, 2024

Star Wars Memories, by Craig Miller

Cover of Star Wars Memories - My Time in the (Death Star) Trenches, by Craig Miller. Cover shows Craig on the set of The Empire Strikes Back in front of the Millennium Falcon
I've met Craig Miller briefly a couple of times at the GallifreyOne convention in Los Angeles but this is the first year I got to speak to him at any length. Craig worked in fan relations at Lucasfilm promoting Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and then had roles promoting a whole load more of my favourite films, including Excalibur and The Dark Crystal, before writing on various animated TV shows. Last month, he told me about happy days working with Jim Henson and we compared notes about Craig's former colleague Alan Arnold, whose book Once Upon a Galaxy: The Making of The Empire Strikes Back I found so extraordinary.

When I spoke to him, Craig had sold out of his memoir, Star Wars Memories, so I bought a copy when I got home. It's a loosely chronological series of anecdotes about his time working to promote those two movies, from slide-show presentations at sci-fi conventions months before the first movie came out to people queuing round the block days in advance to see the first screenings of Empire.

There's loads of great stuff here, including a very revealing, lengthy interview with the often reclusive Harrison Ford  conducted on 2 October 1979 (pp. 254-264), in which Ford talks openly about what makes the part of Han Solo so good for him as an actor, and why it appeals to an audience. There are also lengthy interviews with Anthony Daniels, the actor who played C3P0 (pp 340-357) and writer/director/producer George Lucas (pp. 369-75). Each is good in conveying a sense of the person interviewed - Ford agitated by the "Hollywood publicity machine" churning out "a total crock of shit", Daniels self-effacing about the disconnect between being feted in Hollywood one day and being back in the UK scrubbing his kitchen floor the next, and Lucas guarded about future plans.

As well as covering the making of the films and the personalities involved, there's a lot on publicity and the merchandise deals which Craig was directly involved in. As a fan who works in spin-off stuff myself, a lot of this really resonated. I was especially fascinated by the deal done over Star Wars figures, which were so much a part of my childhood.
"Another thing about the Kenner deal was that it included in the agreement that as long as Kenner paid a minimum royalty of $100,000 a year, they would be able to keep the licence for Star Wars toys for as long as they wanted. [But in the late 80s/early 90s] there hadn't been any Star Wars movies for a while and it didn't look like there would ever be. So [some executive] stopped paying the royalty. And the licence reverted to Lucasfilm." (p. 54)
A few years later, Lucas announced the Star Wars prequels and the same toy company - now owned by Hasbro - didn't want anyone else doing the toys.
"The new deal for the master toy licence for Star Wars ended up costing Hasbro close to a billion dollars in cash and stock." (p. 55)

It's interesting, too, to see the efforts made to ensure Star Wars characters remained in character even when appearing on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, such as vetoing the request to have R2D2 sing a version of the ABC because the droid doesn't speak English. 

There's lots on fan culture, conventions and activities of the period, and the differences between the US and UK. Craig has to explain to his US readers what he means by Blu Tack (p. 292), while staff in UK hotels in 1979 were repeatedly foxed by requests for ice coffee (p. 299), providing hot coffee served with either ice or ice cream. Towards the end, Craig lists contemporary reviews and criticisms of The Empire Strikes Back - that stuff isn't explained, that it's too jokey, or otherwise not true enough to what's gone before - that have continued to be made of new Star Wars films ever since. 

On p. 392 he points out an amazing detail in The Empire Strikes Back which, despite having seen the film a thousand times, I'd never noticed before. But he also raises a question which I think I might be able to answer. On pp. 401-403, he puzzles over the appeal of characters such as Boba Fett, Darth Maul and Captain Phasma when we learn so little about them in the films. As he says, they look pretty cool but I think it's also important that they're blank slates. As well as how little we learn about their stories, two of them are masked and one is heavily made up, which adds to their mystery. They are characters on whom we as viewers can project. That absence of explanation invites us to imagine their stories, their lives - so they offer us a way in to this universe.

In fact, that kind of participation is what this book covers so well. I've read lots of other things about the making of Star Wars, focused on cast and crew. Craig's book is about how the production team actively engaged with and encouraged fans to take Star Wars to their hearts and into their lives. There's lots to learn from here. And lots to be grateful for.

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