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It was in the stars: George Lucas never gave up on making ‘Star Wars’ a reality

It was in the stars: George Lucas never gave up on making ‘Star Wars’ a reality

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“Secrets of the Force: Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars,” by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman.

“Secrets of the Force: Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars,” by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. (Macmillan/TNS)

“Secrets of the Force: Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars” by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman; St. Martin's Press (576 pages, $29.99)


The Force was not with him.

The studio didn’t understand his script. The crew thought he was an idiot. Even his friends thought he was making a mistake.

But George Lucas made “Star Wars” anyway. And it made him and remade Hollywood.

“Secrets of the Force,” by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, tells the tale and the story of the eight movies that followed in the franchise.

Although subtitled a “Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History,” there’s little dirt. A lot reads like old publicity interviews, promoting films. But it still emerges as the definitive origin story.

What first defined Lucas was 1973′s “American Graffiti.” His debut, the dark sci-fi “THX-1138,” hadn’t drawn crowds. “Graffiti” needed to be a hit, but the studio wasn’t convinced. They considered just selling it to TV.

Then the picture opened.

“It stayed in the theaters for an entire year,” Lucas says. “For a $700,000 investment, they made a $100 million return. Suddenly I was very hot.”

For his follow-up, Lucas decided to return to sci-fi, but with a lighter touch. He wrote a script combining “Flash Gordon” serials, samurai movies, and myths about a hero’s quest.

Studios passed. Finally, Lucas went to Alan Ladd Jr., an executive at 20th Century Fox.

“He said, ‘I don’t understand this,’” Lucas recalls. “‘Dogs flying spaceships? This is ridiculous and I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I think you’re talented.’”

Lucas secured a small budget and a modest fee. He also asked for and received merchandising and sequel rights. He had faith in the film’s future, even if the studio didn’t.

William Katt, Christopher Walken, and Cindy Williams were among the early possibilities for Luke, Han and Leia. Lucas settled on Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. They weren’t particularly impressed with the project.

“When I was auditioning,” Hamill says, “I thought, `Are we doing a Mel Brooks-ian send-up?’”

They were no more confident on the set. Ford openly ridiculed the dialogue. Fisher complained Lucas’ only acting tip was “faster and more intense.” And the crew, Hamill says, “all thought it was, to put it kindly, rubbish.”

It was during post-production that the picture started to come together. Lucas’ then-wife, Marcia, a skilled editor, cut together amazing battle sequences. John Dykstra’s dazzling special effects were inserted. John Williams’ score added swashbuckling drama.

The movie opened May 25, 1977. The lines at theaters were instantaneous.

“The immediate public reaction took us aback,” said producer Gary Kurtz. “What happened was phenomenal.”

Studios took it as a lesson on how to make a blockbuster. Critics saw it as a betrayal of the smaller, serious movies the decade had been famous for. Some even blamed Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” for ruining cinema.

“We have ruined nothing,” Lucas protested. “And another thing: The films of the ’70s weren’t that great.”

Lucas was proud of what he had created. Adding to it would consume most of his life.

Not everything worked. “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” a 1978 variety show with the original cast cutting up with Harvey Korman, looked like a shameless cash grab. Only Fisher seemed to be having any fun, and that was because, show writer Bruce Vilanch joked, she was “snorting the Sweet & Low.”

The first film sequels went better, though, with Lucas handing off directing chores. The second episode, “The Empire Strikes Back,” had to overcome some real-life problems: Ford wasn’t eager to return, and Hamill was badly scarred in a car crash. But that gave the film, directed by Irvin Kershner, a darker edge, making it a fan favorite.

The third film, “Return of the Jedi,” directed by Richard Marquand, was more problematic. “It didn’t hold together,” Kershner said. “It flew off in all directions.”

Critics were particularly annoyed by the new, fuzzy-wuzzy Ewoks, who looked like a rampaging race of teddy bears. They turned the picture into a kids’ movie, hard-core fans complained. Lucas’ reminder that “Star Wars” was a kids’ movie didn’t exactly help.

But the film was another hit.

For a while, everybody assumed that was the end of the saga. But Lucas wasn’t done. He reworked and controversially re-edited the original three films. Then he began working on a new trilogy.

The first new “Star Wars” film, “The Phantom Menace,” premiered in 1999 and set the pattern for all the installments to follow: Make a ton of money while annoying many older fans. Nothing drew more protest than Jar Jar, a clownish, heavily accented character that some read as racist.

“Jar Jar is for the kids,” protested Ahmed Best, the Black actor who played him. “Adults want to pick it apart, but if they’re doing that, they’re missing the point.”

“Jar Jar wasn’t racist,” co-star Samuel L. Jackson insisted. “That was Ahmed’s interpretation of who he was.”

The movie spawned two more films. More criticism, too, as people carped about slow-moving plots and awkward performances. Some fans wondered if it were because Lucas had gotten divorced from his wife, Marcia, who had been in the editing room for the original films.

But it didn’t matter. Most of the franchise’s original fans still turned out, while the latest films attracted new ones — and new merchandising opportunities. Soon it was time to start work on another, final trilogy.

Once again, Lucas brought in other directors to help. J.J. Abrams helmed the faithful first installment, “The Force Awakens.” A franchise fan, he honored the original stars while expanding the cast, bringing on Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and John Boyega.

The next film, “The Last Jedi,” was more of a break from tradition. Director Rian Johnson changed the pace, took the story in unexpected directions, and introduced a new character played by Kelly Marie Tran. Some fans praised the approach. Others attacked it, cruelly trolling Tran on the internet.

Abrams was brought back for the ninth and final episode. His film undid some of Johnson’s changes but faced its own problem: What to do about Carrie Fisher? The actress died unexpectedly. Should Leia be written out?

Apparently, that was the plan until the late star’s brother, Todd Fisher, became involved.

“I knew there was unused footage of her,” he said. “J.J. told me there was footage.” He demanded, publicly, that the series find a way to bring her back. Disney, which had bought Lucasfilm in 2015 for $4 billion, sent him a cease-and-desist letter.

Eventually, Disney gave in, repurposing some unused footage from “The Force Awakens.”

Once again, the film divided old and new fans. Once again, the film made hundreds of millions of dollars. But now, finally, Lucas’ epic saga had drawn to a close.

Except – not quite. The “Star Wars” universe continues to add new worlds – video games, cartoons, movie spinoffs, TV series. Forty-five years after Lucas began his story about something that happened, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” the adventure continues.

“My main reason for making it was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life – the kind my generation had,” Lucas once explained. “We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things. ‘Star Wars’ is a movie for the kid in all of us.”


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