How Did a Movie Like 'Star Wars' Even Happen?
Star Wars is the most influential piece of original filmmaking to ever grace the planet Earth. So how did George Lucas come up with the idea and why was a studio crazy enough to make it? We dig deep.
The entire world knows about Star Wars.
From the smallest village in India to the crowded streets of New York City, the tales of Skywalker, the Rebel Alliance, and Imperial Starships are told with wide-eyed anticipation and glee.
As The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters this weekend, we're treated yet again to the end of a journey in the Star Wars universe, a theatrical event that Disney hopes launches a thousand spinoffs and toy sales for the new year (and beyond).
I mean, we're already all fawning over Baby Yoda. I cannot imagine what they have in store for us next.
As the battle between fans rages on social media and critics work to find their best "force" puns, it's time for us to remember a guy many have pushed aside the last few years.
Yes, I want to talk about the man, the monomyth, the legend, George Lucas.
You see, there was a time, not so long ago, in this Galaxy, where Star Wars did not exist.
So today, board my X-wing and get comfortable, you nerf-herders. I want to cross time and space in a few parsecs to learn about how a movie like Star Wars even got made.
And how that movie changed history.
Strap in, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
How Did a Movie Like Star Wars Even Happen?
We're in an era where everything feels like a spinoff or it was birthed from previously conceived intellectual property. But in the 1970s, films were built on original ideas. A rat-pack of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese were taking the world by storm.
Movies confronted Vietnam, sexual identity, violence, love, and what it was like growing up in America.
These firebrands were trying to make their mark on the world.
But as Lucas looked around at his friends, he felt like he was kind of far behind.
He had made THX 1138 which got good enough reviews to land him the money to make another movie called American Graffiti, but that movie has kind of screwed him. The studio behind American Graffiti, United Artists, hated the movie. They thought it belonged on TV and he was having a terrible time releasing it.
How American Graffiti begat Star Wars...
While pitching Graffiti to United Artists, Lucas had told them about a little movie he was working on about Jedis in a galaxy far, far away. They had wanted the idea then, but it was just a germ and nothing fully fleshed out.
Sure, Lucas, who was obsessed with Saturday Morning serials and Flash Gordon did have hundreds of pages of documents and characters, but they were almost incomprehensible to other people.
Oh, and when he asked to do a Flash Gordon picture, every studio turned him down. Fellini was attached to do one and no one wanted to work with Lucas over Fellini.
They talked about a vast history and had characters like "Mace Windu" and "Anakin Starkiller."
It took a long time and a lot of drafts to get to the movie we know. Lucas expanded on this in an American Cinematographer interview, saying:
"What finally emerged through the many drafts of the script has obviously been influenced by science-fiction and action-adventure I've read and seen. And I've seen a lot of it. I'm trying to make a classic sort of genre picture, a classic space fantasy in which all the influences are working together. There are certain traditional aspects of the genre I wanted to keep and help perpetuate in Star Wars."
And besides this disorganization, Lucas had bigger problems.
He was going broke.
Pay your way...
United Artists hated American Graffiti so much that they told him to take his space movie elsewhere. But Lucas was so broke he couldn't concentrate on that. He eventually convinced Universal to release the movie, but only after his producer, Francis Ford Coppola, stepped in to negotiate.
Coppola was coming off a humungous Academy Awards sweep for The Godfather, so his clout went a long way.
But that didn't get Lucas paid. So, he pitched Universal his newly titled "Luke Starkiller" project...they passed.
Lucas now faced a terrifying situation. A movie studio was reluctantly releasing his coming of age tale and the only thing he had ready to go was a space movie everyone he talked to hated right from the get-go.
Lucas told American Cinematographer,
"I wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, with all the trimmings, but I couldn't obtain the rights to the characters. So I began researching and went right back and found where Alex Raymond (who had done the original Flash Gordon comic strips in newspapers) had got his idea from. I discovered that he'd got his inspiration from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of Tarzan) and especially from his John Carter of Mars series books. I read through that series, then found that what had sparked Burroughs off was a science-fantasy called Gulliver on Mars, written by Edwin Arnold and published in 1905. That was the first story in this genre that I have been able to trace. Jules Verne had got pretty close, I suppose, but he never had a hero battling against space creatures or having adventures on another planet. A whole new genre developed from that idea"
But as the old adage goes, you don't need everyone in Hollywood to want an idea. You just need one person.
For Lucas, that person was Alan Ladd Jr.
Jedi Knight Alan Ladd Jr.
Ladd was an executive at Fox and a fan of Lucas. He had seen an early cut of Graffiti and loved it. He thought the other studies were tired and boring, and he saw a ton of potential in Lucas.
So he made a deal.
Ladd would give Lucas $20,000 for his "Star War" movie. Lucas would spend his time after Graffiti's release writing the script, which he was set to direct for only a little more money after that.
A handshake and a check set Lucas off writing...just as Universal released American Graffiti.
American Graffiti became a massive hit, becoming one of the most profitable films of all time and crushing the weekend box office. It made Lucas a ton of money and also set him at the hottest director in Hollywood.
Also, because he worked for low pay and back end...Lucas became a multi-millionaire overnight. Like...legitimately the movie was so popular he has millions of dollars the day after it was released.
Everyone wanted to work with him.
Alan Ladd had a problem...now that Lucas could command a lot more money and a lot more power...would he still want to do his space movie?
George Lucas bets on himself...
While Alan Ladd was freaking out, so was George Lucas.
You see, his script, now titled Star Wars, was around 600 pages long. He was so screwed, but Lucas had a plan. Betting on himself had worked out with Graffiti, why not with Star Wars?
Lucas told Fox and Ladd that he was still interested in his movie, but rather than making demands in salary and percentages, Lucas wanted control of the music, sequel, and merchandising rights to his creations.
He told them he wanted to make a trilogy of films if the first one succeeded. He basically had most of the scripts written.
Fox and Ladd...definitely thought this was ludicrous. Sequels never made money and who wanted merchandise of a movie they never heard of?
So, Fox gave Lucas a generous deal, 60% of merchandising, with 20% yearly increases after that.
In 1975, Lucas turned in the final draft of the script to Fox, cast Alec Guinness, and got to work.
Making a Star Wars movie...
Filming began in Tozeur, Tunisia on March 22, 1976. Lucas wanted the movie to be fun and entertaining but also to have depth. Before shooting, he made his cast and crew watch four films: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1969), Douglas Trumbull’s 1975 Silent Running, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In the West (1969) and Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).
The first scenes shot were Luke and Uncle Owen buying the droids.
Right from the get-go, Lucas found himself having to explain pronunciations of words on set as actors figured out how to say weird phrases and toss exposition around that they didn't understand at all.
Despite set difficulties, principal photography completed on July 16, 1976. Re-shoots and pick up shots for the Tatooine sequences were undertaken in Yuma, Arizona in early 1977.
But what did he have?
Screening Star Wars...
Lucas started the editing process and was excited by what he saw. So, he invited Coppola, De Palma, and Spielberg to see the movie.
Coppola and De Palma were not into it. In fact, some accounts say that De Palma called it "rubbish." But Spielberg swore he had something. He took Lucas aside after the screening and told him that he thought his movie would make over $100 million.
Lucas laughed in his face.
According to an interview with Spielberg for Turner Classic Movies, Spielberg doubled down when Lucas confronted him.
Star Wars made $775 million at the global box office compared with $304 million for Close Encounters. Adjusted for inflation, Spielberg’s take came out to as much as $40 million.
But they didn't know that yet.
Marcia Lucas's heart
A lot of work is attributed to George and his cohorts. But it was Marcia Lucas who came into the edit and helped give the movie its heart. Marcia was an incredible editor who won an Academy Award for her work on Taxi Driver.
She had seen George struggle with this story from the idea's inception. She offered important notes like killing off Obi-Wan Kenobi and Leia kissing Luke for luck. But her real work came in the editing bays.
Marcia got into the trenches and created huge moments like the trench run and small moments like when Chewbacca growls and chases a droid away. Her work helped bring the characters to life and take the visions of George and make them tangible for the rest of us.
Releasing Star Wars...
In May of 1977, Fox pushed Star Wars into theaters. They were terrified.
Aside from the bet with Spielberg, De Palma helped Lucas rewrite the opening scroll. and Coppola offered suggestions for the edit.
Lucas thought the movie would still flop, so he left Hollywood and flew to Hawaii with Steven Spielberg, unable to face the music.
On May 25, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope opened on 32 screens. It had a small premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Alan Ladd Jr was sure his job was through. Lucas thought his career was over.
And Fox had no plans to go wide with the film.
They'd let it play on the 32 screens and just eat the cost.
Something magical happened.
Star Wars made $2.8 million in its opening week, an unprecedented amount for such a small release.
Lucas came back to Los Angeles with the most famous movie in the world. Fox scrambled to get it into more theaters, but it took two months. The movie went wide in early July and the rest is history.
Star Wars became so lucrative that it changed Fox's fate. Stock shares in Fox climbed from under $10.00 to $11.50 each; over the next three months, the value rose to $24.62.
Alan Ladd Jr became the guy who saved Fox.
Fox quickly became a studio powerhouse that knew it had two Star Wars movies coming.
The movie grossed $100 million by the end of the summer and showed no signs of slowing down. Star Wars entered international release towards the end of the year, and in 1978 added the worldwide record to its domestic one, earning $410 million in total ($1.699 billion in 2018 dollars).
And Lucas became a name known around the world.
It would be years before Lucas would fully understand the impact of Star Wars.
Later, he'd be worth almost $7 billion and own a company that allowed him to expand his idea and universe for every generation of children and adults across the planet.
In 2018, the total value of the Star Wars franchise was estimated at $65 billion, and it is currently the fifth-highest-grossing media franchise of all time.
The impact and legacy of Lucas' scrawlings can not be undervalued or understated. There are days where it feels like he actually altered the rotation of the world. While that might be insane, we can say he did change history.
Who is George Lucas today?
It's hard to write about Lucas without talking about who he is today.
Now that Star Wars has moved on without him, he's kind of just the godfather of the franchises. He gives new ideas but it seems like no one listens. He's happy with the legacy, but still tweaking the movies we grew to love. Even adding a "Maclunkey!" to this iteration.
Lucas is a genius and an enigma.
He gathered so many fans yet has truly moved completely out of the spotlight.
Star Wars gave him the opportunity to do anything he wanted but it also limited the way we look at him.
He hasn't directed a non-Star Wars movie since American Graffiti, and part of me wonders what else he has in his brain.
What are the stories George wanted to tell in our universe that Star Wars never let him?
No matter what, Lucas will always be one of my heroes. He bet on himself time and time again and won. Lucas looked at Hollywood with fearless eyes but was vulnerable with his friends. He sought help when he needed it and walked away when he wasn't sure what other stories he had to tell.
There's almost no chance George Lucas reads this, but if he does, I guess this is my roundabout way of saying thank you...not only for giving us a world to explore but for the courage he instilled in all of us to dream.
There's a whole galaxy to explore.
I can't wait to see what the next inspired generation creates.
What's next? Meditate on Steven Spielberg!
Steven Spielberg is a master of cinema, and for his birthday, we meditate on what that means to the next generations.
Click for more.