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Book Review: The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler

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How The Force Was Won

At the beginning of the 1976 novelization of the Star Wars screenplay, Princess Leia says, "They were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Naturally, they became heroes."

God knows, George Lucas was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If anybody lacked the necessary skills with actors and dialogue to be a successful director, it was him. Harrison Ford shouted to him while filming Star Wars, after umpteen takes of dialogue bursting with technobable, "You can type this s**t, George, but you sure can't say it." Or, as James Lileks recently wrote, Star Wars' dialogue "revealed its author to be unaware of the actual process of speech as practiced by most humans" — in this or any other galaxy.

While directors and writers blessed with less-than-perfect skills have survived during Hollywood's fat years, the seventies was the worst decade to be making movies in Hollywood since D.W. Griffith retired, something that Michael Medved once noted, "In 1965, the year before [Jack Valenti] left the Johnson administration to assume his plush position as chief mouthpiece for the entertainment industry, 44 million Americans went out to the movies every week. A mere four years later, that number had collapsed to 17.5 million."

And yet, somehow, Lucas managed to find — and I apologize for the hoary old showbiz cliche — the proverbial "lightning in a bottle." The end result not only made Lucas himself a millionaire many times over and seeded both his own production company and special effects house, it also transformed Hollywood in the process. And by transformed, I mean saved.

Empire Building

Of course, like any decent film, it's a miracle that Star Wars is as good as it is. It's an even bigger miracle that it got made in the first place. J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars is that story.  It's a look back to those heady days of 1977, when Star Wars seemed astonishingly fresh and new. In other words, before the sequels and prequels, before Jar-Jar, even before the Ewoks. Rinzler describes how Lucas first assembled his story out of Hollywood serials, sci-fi pulp, and mystical Japanese samurai movies, then created the original concepts of what his characters should look like, and then assembled his crew.

Flipping through Ralph McQuarrie's magnificent pre-production paintings, which are reproduced copiously in The Making of Star Wars, it's possible to say that he's the film production's biggest unsung hero. Lucas's early scripts were a pile of gobbledygook (and no one would confuse his final shooting script with Ben Hecht's). But McQuarrie's paintings so impressed the brass at 20th Century Fox that, while the film's script may be incomprehensible, if we just make it look like these paintings, we'll have a movie that easily looks as good as 2001: A Space Odyssey, or at a minimum, the first two of our own Planet Of The Apes movies. So why not give the tyro American Graffiti kid, who made a ton of money for Universal with his low-budget, hot rod flick a shot at his follow-up? Besides, his rookie THX-1138 movie looked pretty amazing, and he shot that for even less money than Graffiti.

And of course, while his role was more obvious, the other secret ingredient to Lucas's success was John Williams. 2001 had used classical music, but amongst its Strauss waltzes were big honking slabs of downer modernist 20th-century noise by Gyorgy Ligeti. In contrast, Williams' Star Wars score did much to create a feeling of grandeur amongst some very stock characters in a souped-up Republic Serial environment. If Lucas had gone with an all-electronic score, or more 20th-century classical 12-tone noise, the results would have been disastrous.

Designing The Dykstraflex

In The Making of Star Wars, Rinzler quotes an observation by John Dykstra (who would become a near-household name thanks to Star Wars) as spotting the flaw in previous science fiction movies. While shooting on real sets with actors, the cameraman can pan, and zoom, introducing tons of kinetic motion and excitement. But once the film cuts to the exterior of the spaceship, almost invariably, the camera almost invariably becomes nearly stationary, Dykstra noted. In the past, this was necessary due to the prior limits of the compositing techniques to layer the typical elements of special effects shots: a spaceship or two, a planet, and stars. But after well over a quarter century of this technique by Hollywood, moviegoers knew subliminally that whatever they were watching, it was somehow phony.

So Dykstra and the rest of the ILM crew began to assemble the first computer-controlled motion control camera. Because it could repeat its moves, the elements necessary to compose a shot could be created by the camera itself rather than by hand. The result was that for the first time, miniature shots began to have nearly the same tremendous freedom of movement that a cameraman had while shooting on a set or on location.

That innovation would pay off big time for the film's third act, the Rebel's assault on the Death Star. Previous blockbuster science fiction films had delivered some amazing pyrotechnics, such as the destruction of Altair IV and its ancient civilization in Forbidden Planet, the Star Gate in 2001, and, even, on a much lesser scale, the car chase between Man and Robot in Lucas's own THX-1138. But the Death Star sequence was the first time that the same kinetic energy achieved within the typical Hollywood car chase or aerial dogfight sequence could be accomplished with miniature spaceships.

A New Hope

But perhaps the real revolution within Star Wars is what happened after the Death Star exploded. It seemed like the first time the movie industry had presented its audience with both an escapist movie set in a heretofore unexplored world (or galaxy in Star Wars' case) and an unambiguously happy ending, since about 1968, something that James Lileks mentioned in his Strib encomium to Star Wars' 30th anniversary, "And what an ending, eh? Han Solo — Harrison Ford in his first great relaxed performance, and his last — conquers his selfishness and redeems himself. Luke uses the Force — which is sort of like magnetism, plus ethics — and blows up Peter Cushing and his Death Star, along with untold engineers, support staff, kitchen workers, etc. The movie could have ended there, but no: It concluded with an awards ceremony. At the shank end of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Carter-era malaise and ennui, Lucas filmed a movie that ended with a princess giving medals to heroes."

After a generation of movies with tortured antiheroes who couldn't order a sandwich without making A Statement, it seemed remarkably fresh.  If you read a tribute to the seventies movie brats such as Peter Biskind's Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, you'd believe that Star Wars crippled the movie industry's near permanent ability to tell dark, edgy, downer stories. (Martin Scorsese has always seemed particularly bitter about how the one-two punch of Rocky and Star Wars ruined Hollywood.) But in one sense, Lucas's film simply returned the industry, at least for a time, to what it once did effortlessly –creating big, escapist movies designed to appeal to a mass audience.

Every once in a while, the movie industry seems to collectively forget that it must appeal to a mass audience looking to be entertained if it wishes to survive. To coin a phrase, Star Wars gave the industry A New Hope for survival. The Making Of Star Wars is an engrossing look back at how George Lucas — a man at the wrong place and the wrong time–managed to, perhaps unwittingly, put all of the pieces together.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • http://www.gpb-katie.blogspot.com Katie McNeill

    This is a great article.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • http://www.getupbaby.net danup

    One of Lileks’s sentences–the A Statement one–got out of the quotes, which you should probably rectify.

  • Jer

    What a great article. I found it nearly as uplifting as the Star Wars movies. The notion that a movie about heroes could have saved moviemaking, that romanticism in art continues to entertain masses and that book reviews can be just as interesting as the subject reviewed is rather stunning today. My compliments.