MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU


In my post AMERICAN POMPEII I wrote about how one idea can lead to an even greater idea. The human brain is remarkable in its ability to shift gears without actually stripping the original intention.

The young George Lucas had dreamed of making a new Flash Gordon movie in full living color. It had previously been filmed in black and white several times. He had lost the confidence of the movie studio after the cool reception of his first movie, and had no money. He took the advice of an Italian film maker and made a simple movie about teenagers in a small town to help raise money for his larger project. The simple movie turned out to be AMERICAN GRAFFITI, a box office smash hit. Lucas’s encapsulation of space journeys were still to come.

Lucas’s conception of Flash Gordon evolved into the magnificent seven film franchise of Star Wars. Star Wars captured the imagination of a generation of children who learned that “the force” was with them. Between the movies, the games.light swords and clothing it generated, parents could not refuse the desires of the young S;pace wanna-bes. Star Wars took over the world. There wasn’t a child or adult who couldn’t say “May the Force be with you!”

Two weeks into the filming of the original Star Wars, the production was plagued by failures, and young George Lucas was convinced that the movie would be terrible: R2-D2 refused to work. It wasn’t stubbornness on the part of the droid–a trait that would endear the character to millions of Star Wars fans around the world. Rather, as the first day of filming began on Star Wars in the Tunisian desert on the morning of March 22, 1976, R2-D2 wouldn’t work. His batteries were already dead. The little droid wasn’t the only one with a problem. Several other robots, operated via remote control by crew members standing just out of sight of the movie camera, were also malfunctioning. Some fell over, others never moved at all, while still others had their signals scrambled by Arabic radio broadcasts bouncing off the desert floor, and sending the robots careening wildly out of control across the sand or crashing into one another. As Mark Hamill, the 24 year old actor playing the hero Luke Skywalker said, “It took hours to get them set up again.”

The 29 year old George Lucas simply bided his time and waited. If a robot worked properly even for a moment, Lucas would shoot as much footage of it as he possibly could until the droid sputtered to a stop. Other times, he’d have a malfunctioning unit pulled along by invisible wire until the wire broke or the droid fell over. A difficult way to film a movie.

It was the first of what would be 84 long excruciating days of filming Star Wars–20 days over schedule. And the shoot was a disaster almost from the beginning.

It wasn’t just the remote control robots that were giving Lucas trouble. Anthony Daniels, a classically trained, very British actor who’d been cast in the role of the protocol droid C-3PO, was miserable inside his ill-fitting gleaming gold plastic costume, and unable to see or hear much of anything. With every movement he was poked or cut–covered in scars and scratches,–and when he fell over, as he often did, he could only wait for someoe on the crew to notice and help him to his feet.

It was very difficult to make things work. “We have no money, but we have to make these things work somehow.” But Lucas was determined to do it himself without the help of the studio. But you can’t fight them because they’ve got the money.

Between the lack of money, the wildly unpredictable weather in the Tunisian desert, the malfunctioning robots, ill-fitting costumes. equipment failure, and constant setbacks, Lucas was certain his Star was a mess.

excerpted from George Lucas, a Life by Brian Jay Jones

A bit of trivia: A droid (short for android) is a fictional robot with artificial intelligence. They were created by John Stears, a special effects artist, when robots were made to look like humans. Droid is now a registered trademark of Lucas Films.

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AMERICAN POMPEII


It’s wonderful how one idea can lead to another even greater idea. The human brain is remarkable in its ability to shift gears without actually stripping the original intention.

The young George Lucas, had lost the confidence of the movie studio after the cool reception of his first movie. For inspiration he looked to an Italian movie about four teenagers from a small town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do.

Tempting as this might be, the 29 year old was also dreaming about making a new Flash Gordon” movie. He thought about how great it would be to see Flash Gordon on the big screen in full living color. It had been filmed in black and white several times.

As a young child the Flash Gordon game was a favorite. Since I was the only girl in my neighborhood, I was relegated to being Dale Arden with the ice-cream cone chest, when I really wanted to be Flash Gordon.

One night Lucas and his friend producer Gary Kurtz were at a diner and talking randomly about how the science fiction movies hadn’t really been enjoyable since Forbidden Planet” in 1955. They all seemed to have gone to genre horror movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon” or alien invasions. They both decided that none of that was fun any more the way “Flash Gordon” and Buck Rogers” had been.

Lucas made a trip to New York in 1971 to visit King Features to inquire about the film right to “Flash Gordon”. The King executives were thinking about the film rights too and mentioned the Italian director Frederico Fellini who was also a known Flash Gordon fan. Lucas knew he could not compete with Fellini at this point in his career.

As in so many creative right turns, this set off a lightbulb in Lucas’s brain, and he began dwelling on the vague notion he had had for years of making something even better than Flash Gordon. If he couldn’t do Flash Gordon he would just invent his own.

American Graffiti
George Lucas on set of American Graffiti in 1973

In the meantime though, Lucas needed a way to make a more bankable movie in order to pay for a movie about space flight. If Fellini was to take Flash Gordon” maybe he could take something from Fellini—for instance, the idea behind the movie I Vitelloni, about the four teenagers in the small town who talk about leaving for Rome but never do. What if you followed a bunch of guys on the cusp of leaving a small town, and follow them through one night of cruising—a ritual that had died out in the last decade?

Lucas would set his version in the summer of 1962, the moment everything changed for him at the ago of 18, and end it with a car crash. Set in a small town much like his own boyhood Modesto, California, it had flavors of autobiography.

He came up with a semi-Italian title: American Graffiti. It sounded odd to contemporary ears. The Italian word had not yet gained common currency. New York subway trains were about a year away from spray-painted signatures. Lucas hadn’t intended that debased usage of the word in any case; he meant the word invented at Pompeii in 1851 that means nostalgic etchings. He wanted to record the legacy of a lost decade: an American Pompeii, frozen in time forever.

Lucas’s encapsulation of space journeys were still to come.