Science fiction has long been the well from which Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters have sprung, but it wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1970’s, many sci-fi movies had failed to astound at the box office and those that were successful were generally darker, more serious films like Soylent Green or Planet of the Apes. So when George Lucas set out to make his original trilogy of films, it wasn’t a surprise that few studios were interested. A space adventure in the style of the old Flash Gordon serials that relied on expensive visual effects, space wizards, and a robot that only talked in clicks and beeps did not appear to be a sound prospect. So how did Lucas get these movies made?
The first step was to hire conceptual designer Ralph McQuarrie to illustrate ten scenes from Star Wars to help executives see what he had envisioned. If Lucas laid the groundwork for Star Wars, Ralph McQuarrie gave it life. His images defined the aesthetics of Star Wars, creating the strange yet familiar galaxy that he himself thought would be too odd and expensive to film. Stormtroopers, lightsabers, droids, and even the legendary Darth Vader all first appeared in McQuarrie’s work. In fact, the only reason Vader has his iconic helmet is because of McQuarrie’s interpretation of the script. It was his suggestion to make the mask a breathing apparatus simply because Vader’s first scene depicted him boarding an enemy ship through the vacuum of space. The finer points of Vader’s history were later refined to justify his design.
After Lucas had his visuals, it was time to get Star Wars made. Bolstered by the success of his previous film, American Graffiti, Lucas was encouraged by his peers to seek a more modest fee for writing and directing Star Wars. However, Lucas had other plans. In lieu of higher wages, Lucas was able to negotiate for the rights to all licensing and merchandising for Star Wars. Today, the merchandising rights are understood to be the most valuable part of almost any major film franchise (precisely because Star Wars proved them to be,) but back in 1975 Fox was all too happy to relinquish the rights to a film they barely believed in to begin with. This decision is why George Lucas is worth more than 5 billion dollars today.
With financing secured and the merchandising rights firmly in hand, Lucas could only hope the hard part was over. Unsurprisingly, the hard part was just getting started. Filming commenced in the Tunisian desert, where the movie fell behind schedule almost immediately due to harsh weather, uncooperative special effects, and actors passing out from heat exhaustion. The government of Tunisia even requested they move shooting locations further from the border as neighbouring Libya worried the Sandcrawler was part of Tunisia’s military.
Back in London, things were not much better with shooting going long and over budget. The movie was already going to miss its Christmas release and if they didn’t finish soon it was in danger of never getting released at all. The young cast was behaving unprofessionally, the studio was jumping in every day with notes (mostly regarding whether or not the Wookie would be wearing pants,) and one of the few veteran actors, Peter Cushing, refused to wear his boots forcing the crew to shoot him from the knees up to conceal his slippers. After extending the production to three units and filming at break neck speed, they finally wrapped principal photography.
Cobbling together a film in the editing room proved no easier than shooting it. Nearly everything you see on screen was the sum total of usable footage. Many of Lucas’ famous wipes to cut between scenes were only utilized to squeeze out every last usable frame of footage. George Lucas even brought in his wife, Marcia, on nights and weekends to help get a final cut of the film done by release. The work took its toll as shortly before release Lucas was admitted to hospital for hypertension and exhaustion. It was a long and rocky road, but Lucas’s patience would be rewarded. Star Wars opened big, and only got bigger, going on to become the most successful film of all time.
Join us back here next week for a behind the scenes look at the creation of the many characters of Star Wars and how a young boy named Starkiller became Luke Skywalker.