Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Star Wars: Memories of A Galaxy Far, Far Away

(Left): A picture of me with R2D2 on the set of the Bog Planet at Elstree Studios in London. I’m wearing my light green linen jacket with the pewter whale tail badge on my lapel, a white shirt, black trousers and a conspicuous new pair of Wellington boots. More of that anon. My left hand is tentatively touching R2D2. The set photographer told me at the time that I would remember this moment. So it has proved.

The time is summer 1979 and the scene is Elstree Studios. I am working on a licensed ‘news-stand special’ - ‘The Making of the Empire Strikes Back.’ - which has given me complete access to the Star Wars operation. I have already made one trip to Hollywood and am due to make another later in the year.

On this particular day I am picked up by limousine, something like a big old black Bentley and travel north of London in company with Carol Titelman, the head of Star Wars publishing.

She was most concerned about my footwear and insisted that we stop at a shoe shop in Elstree High Street. Hence the brand new Wellingtons - suitable for the Bog Planet.

Elstree Studios was a magic place where dreams are manufactured. If you think that sounds fanciful then you haven’t been to major film studio. They are awesome places when big productions are rolling, giant spaces containing strange worlds. And they don’t get much stranger than the Bog Planet.

Imagine a giant hangar disappearing into the distance. On the left-hand side is a wood – yes, what looks exactly like a real wood, with trees, undergrowth and moss on ground. I walked through it and in the middle, bizarrely, was a film technician on her break, sitting on a striped garden chair eating her sandwiches behind a tree.

In the centre of the set was a giant lake with a small beach and more trees behind it. Stretching into the distance on the right was a giant canvas painted with hazy sky effects. The whole ensemble was awesome.

The set was buzzing with scores of people busying themselves at their various tasks, preparing for the day’s shoot, which I believe was just to capture one specific scene – when Luke Skywalker is on the Bog Planet being instructed in the ways of the Force by Yoda, he tests his powers by lifting his crashed spacecraft from the lake by force of will.

The shot was the lifting of the spacecraft. A huge block and tackle device was being rigged up and for hour after hour, sweaty, burly men were hauling this thing out of the water. Time and again and again. In the final film the scene is no doubt reduced to seconds.

I stood contentedly in the background, drinking it all in. Then Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) arrived and I shook his hand and exchanged a few words.

At the time poster magazines were the big thing, selling in huge quantities. Felix Dennis had set up Bunch Books and a whole lot of us were working freelance for him on various projects. He had already made a small fortune out of Bruce Lee, publishing ‘Kung Fu Monthly’ which ran for years and years. Then came the movie tie-ins, the biggest and the best being Star Wars.

Now you have to bear in mind this was a different world then. There were no videos or DVDs. Film audiences had been falling in both the UK and the US in the mid-1970s and then suddenly this monstrous film ushered in a whole new era of special effects films that captured the imagination and brought audiences flocking back into the cinemas.

Star Wars was first released in Britain at two West End cinemas only on 27th December 1977. Mick Farren, Chris Rowley, myself and some others attended the first advance screening at the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road, one warm evening, on 2oth July. Went to another advance screening on 28th Sept. Here are the original tickets.

It was an awesome experience from the moment that first giant craft came into the screen and Darth Vader strode through the corridors. There were two old ladies behind us who were very confused by the whole thing. We were in the front row, half a dozen of us from the underground press/NME, including Mick Farren. At the end of the screening the entire audience stood up and applauded for all they were worth. Cinema moments don’t get much better than that.

We had been hired to produce ‘Star Wars Monthly’, which ran (I believe) from 1977-1979 and we began knocking out profiles of the main characters, articles on the science of Star Wars and anything else we could think of, to fill in the spaces between the pictures, which were the main reason for buying it.

Star Wars images were like gold-dust and their distribution was tightly controlled and monitored by I believe John Hillelson.. The mag itself sold well because, in a world without the internet, every piece of information about the film had to be sought out and was harder to find.

Fast forward to the end of 1978 and Felix Dennis gave me the job of doing the aforementioned 64pp newsstand special on the second film The Empire Strikes Back and sent me out to Hollywood to work on it and to collect more material for Star Wars Monthly.

We also then went on (I think) to produce four issues of an Empire Strikes Back poster magazine. I also have a copy of ‘The World of Star Wars’ – a compendium of articles from the two series.

[For collectors: There was a Japanese edition of the original Star Wars magazine. I only have Issue 1 but there may have been more or not. I am missing Issues 1, 8 and 16 of SW Monthly if anyone has copies available. (I think we produced 18 in total).

There was also published a Marvel Comics ‘Official Collectors Edition’ on Star Wars and a ‘Screen Superstar Special Expanded Ediition: Star Wars – The Full Story,’ produced in London for Paradise Press in the US. I have these in my collection.

I have a copy of ‘The Star Wars Sketchbook’ by Joe Johnston [1977] and a very battered copy of ‘The Art of Star Wars’, edited by Carol Titelman [Ballantine Books. 1979]

I also have the rarest Star Wars poster – that of a concert of the music from Star Wars by John Williams – and also the rare ‘moving card’ featuring a wonderful painting by Ralph McQuarrie (1980)], both of which were given to me when I went to Hollywood.]

I am not going to go into all the details of my two trips to Hollywood. Suffice it to say I had never been on a plane before, I was 28 and I was heading for Hollywood. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that. For both trips, I stayed with my friend Barry in his apartment in the hills (6100 Primrose Avenue) above Hollywood Boulevard, just near the round Capitol Tower. Here are his shoes.

I left the UK for the first trip on January 17th and stayed until the 25th. Following the success of the first film, Lucasfilm began building a new HQ in LA opposite the Universal Studios lot. But when I first went there in January, they were operating out of portacabins. I was working with a girl called Valerie. I remember interviewing a comic artist Russ Manning who was doing the syndicated ‘Star Wars’ comic strips but not much else at the moment.

The second trip I flew over on Laker with the cartoonist Edward Barker on October 10/11th. By this time the Star Wars HQ was completed. A kind of hybrid between a Roman villa and a corporate HQ, with a tiled atrium with plants and statues and a staff of about 20. Every day I’d travel there by taxi from the Hollywood flat and work in a small windowless office. They gave me, under high security, a copy of the script, from which I constructed a short-form version of the story of the film, for potential publication in our mag. As it turned out, this was a waste of time because we didn’t use any of it in the end as the film changed so much during the course of production.

At some point, I travelled north to San Francisco by train where I met George Lucas for the first time in a milk bar in Modesto ( I believe), a small town north of SF in which Lucas owned many properties. He was dressed as usual in check shirt, jeans and Converse-type shoes, was friendly and took me round to one of the houses – a tiny little terraced house. We went through the narrow front hall and turned the corner into the front room where I got the shock of my life. There was a giant screen, lots of equipment and several people actually editing The Empire Strikes Back. Another real gee-whiz moment. Later we wandered up to a string of cottages set amongst trees where some of the major people were staying and I met Irvin Kershner, the director, and conducted an interview with him.

I think that first day I stayed at the Corte Madera Inn before moving in with a friend of a friend who lived nearby in an amazing house on top of a hill at 51 Hillcrest Crescent, San Anselmo - the legendary and sadly now deceased cartoonist. Dave Sheridan who, amongst other things, worked with Gilbert Shelton on ‘The Furry Freak Brothers.’

A few days later, I went down to San Rafael to Industrial Light and Magic (3160 Kerner Blvd) definitely the highlight of the trip. It was located at the time in an anonymous warehouse on the edge of this small town. I remember meeting Brian Johnson, the British guy who was in charge of SFX for the film. His desk was covered in books about stunts, dynamiting things etc.

I will, try and picture the place for you. There was a small reception area, with the big cut-out magician of Lucasfilm logo and a schemata drawing for what would become Skywalker Ranch on the wall. From there I was led into this large space which was the heart of the operation. At one end was the blue screen against which many scenes were shot. In the centre was the computer-controlled camera. To the right, in the bay, was the cannibalised Vistavision equipment used for optical printing. Vistavision was by that time an outdated system that had been picked up by the original Star Wars SFX supreme John Dykstra because it has the advantage of a large frame area, allowing plenty of space to ‘matte in’ loads of separate effects on one frame – each effect being added, one pass at a time, through the optical printer. They also built two Vistavision cameras.

I remember being shown the small rectangle of velvet with little fibre optic cables coming out of that was the universe in most of the deep space shots in the film. In another area the model makers were at work on the AT-AT Walkers.

Upstairs was a very tiny computer room with one computer in it and one bearded guy in charge of it. Further down on the first floor was a giant room entirely filled with plastic models kits, that the spaceship builders would cannibalise for parts for their own creations.

Here I met Joe Johnston, in a room where the entire final attack on the Death Star was storyboarded in a series of drawings on the pinboard behind him. I had never seen anything like that.

I conducted a number of major interviews (all except Kurtz on the 22nd October, 1979) for which I have the original tapes:

Gary Kurtz: Producer on ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Empire.’ (Interview: 20th October)

Richard Edlund: Edlund was the First Cameraman on the Miniature and Optical Effects Unit on ‘Star Wars,’ the Special Visual Effects Director on ‘Empire’ and the Visual Effects director on ‘Jedi’.

Irwin Kershner: Director

Ralph McQuarrie: Was the Production Illustrator and Planet and Satellite artist on ‘Star Wars’, the Design Consultant, Conceptual Artist and Matte Artist on ‘Empire’ and Conceptual Artist on ‘Jedi.’ I had the privilege of talking to Ralph while he was actually doing a matte painting on a giant sheet of glass with a brush that only had about six hairs in it.

Joe Johnston: Johnston began on ‘Star Wars’ as effects illustrator and designer: miniature and optical effects unit and then worked as Art Director: Visual Effects on both ‘Empire’, ‘Return of the Jedi’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. He also did the Effects Illustration and Design on ‘Battlestar Galactica.’He went on to direct ‘Honey I Shrunk The Kids’, The Rocketeer’, ‘Jumanjii’, ‘Jurassic Park III’ and, most recently, ‘Hidalgo.’

Brian Johnson: He was the SFX director on both ‘Alien’ and ‘Empire’, winning an Oscar for each. http://www.space1999.net/~catacombs/main/crguide/vcs.html

Dennis Muren: Muren was the Second cameraman: miniature and optical effect unit on ‘Star Wars’, and the Visual Effects Director on ‘Jedi’. He was the Visual Effects director on the three most recent ‘Star Wars’ films.

I travelled back to Los Angeles on the 24th and finally conducted a detailed interview with George Lucas himself. (30th October) at the Los Angeles HQ. I flew home on Nov 1st.

'The Empire Strikes Back ' was released on May 21, 1980


Damien Slattery said...

Wonderful piece.

Volcano Cat said...

I had the Empire magazine! - ok that may not mean much from the top of the pyramid, but as one of the many I washed cars and delivered papers to get this and the comics. I still love Star Wars - I thought the first was the best - but Empire was quality and I've been on a mini-nostalgia trip since I saw your post.

Unknown said...

Hi John, very interested to read your memories of Star Wars . We also went to a preview screening at Dominion in October 1977.courtesy of Kenny Everett at Capitol Radio at that time .
We still have program and tickets . Would like to ask you what you remember of the pack we were given at the screening . We have the first edition of Star wars monthly,which you were part of the publishing team. We think we got that with the pack ,but not sure . Do you have a direct contact so we can send you some photos of what we have ? regards Ashley and Lana