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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WRANGLER 1ST CLASS


My definition of “wrangler” was of a person who took care of horses, or of a new pair of blue jeans. That was until I met Jules Sylvester, a 6’6″ animal trainer and herpetologist who works in both movies and television. Since then I have found that movies who have any animal have wranglers to train and handle them during the filming.

Some of the films that have used his expertise are Jurassic Park, Casino Royale, Something About Mary, the chimpanzees in Project X, the snakes in the pit in Indiana Jones, and Out of Africa where he trotted along in front of the lions.

jules 2

Born in Devon in 1950, Jules and his family moved to Kenya where he began catching snakes when he was l6 years old. He served in the Rhodesian Light Infantry during the Rhodesian Bush War in 1973-74. Today he owns Reptile Rentals which provides a variety of animals for films, photo shoots and commercials. “Vermin wranglers is what we are” he says in his soft British accent. “Everything nobody likes, we’ve got it.” Asked once how he trained snakes, he laughed and said “You can’t make a snake do anything they don’t want to. They’re not that smart and I’m not that clever. This is more like reptile management.”

Jules and his delightful wife, Sue, who came from Zimbabwe as a small child, are friends of my daughter and her family. They married in 1987, and I was privileged to paint their wedding portrait.

075 Mr. and Mrs. Jules Sylvester watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen

After visiting Jules’s snake collection a number of years ago, one grandson, now a wildlife biologist, and a young friend armed with a homemade snare, went snake hunting in the hills behind their home in Southern California. When our son-in-law came home for lunch, he found stretched on the fence a six foot rattlesnake skin and meat of the critter roasting away on the barbeque with plates and napkins waiting on the table. His advice to the boys “Get that mess cleaned up before your mother comes home.”

brady snake

TO BE A STAR


Shirley Temple

In my grandmother’s eyes, I was destined to be a star. Fortunately no one else’s eyes were aimed in the same direction.

Hollywood, in the decade of the 1930’s during the height of the Great Depression, made cheerful, happy musicals; such as those featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, and most important to my grandmother—Shirley Temple. It seemed almost like there was a new Shirley Temple film a month, and we saw them all. If you lived within a radius of 50 miles near Hollywood, especially in the early days, you were aware of the movies wherever you looked. They were cheap, and every kid went to the Saturday matinee for a dime.

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baby parade When I unexpectantly won the Long Beach Baby Parade in my silver lame body suit and cleverly concocted wire top hat, the three women in my family; my mother, grandmother and aunt, decided that I had unforeseen talent. And so I went to dancing class along with all the other untalented five year olds, where we practiced our step, shuffle steps and our five year old struts in our shiny new black patent leather tap shoes, under the watchful eyes of devoted mothers and grandmothers.

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My father was a Navy man, and we lived with my grandmother when he was at sea. Occasionally when he came briefly into port in San Diego my mother joined him and I stayed behind. During those periods, I was sent to stay with my Grandmother’s sister Aunt Georgia.

Aunt Georgia was a serious no-nonsense Yankee, so when I took up residence, my Shirley Temple curls were cut in a Dutch Boy style, and the patent leather shoes were replaced with practical Buster Browns. But on Sunday afternoons we went to the movies to see Shirley Temple.

first day of school kayti lou

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I had a love and a mild talent for singing, and when I was thirteen Grandma again zeroed in on the idea of stardom. I had an audition with a voice coach in Hollywood who worked with Deanna Durbin, who was then making light-hearted films such as “Three Smart Girls” and “Every Sunday” with Judy Garland. She was a Canadian lyric soprano and though I was a mezzo soprano, her coach agreed to take me. There was one small drawback; his fee was out of our price range at that time, and so we opted for a local voice teacher.

I studied for five or six years until I got married when we all had to admit that I was not going to be a star.

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Many years later my husband and I attended a high school class reunion of mine and across the room I recognized my old singing teacher. Still tall and thin, but now wearing a tip-tilted toupee, with rouged cheeks and lips, he seemed strangely pathetic. Rushing over to him I introduced myself by my maiden name. He seemed not to recognize my name, though we had worked together for several years and he had given me choice roles in a couple of operettas. He peered at me a few minutes then said as he turned away “Your voice must not have impressed me very much.”

I was embarrassed, thinking back to the hardship it must have caused my family to raise the money to pay him for my lessons. I glared at him and though both my mother and grandmother had been gone for some time, I said “My mother is not going to want to hear that!” He countered with “Well, you’ve got a sense of humor.”

Sorry grandma—I never got to be a star.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BETTE DAVIS?


Navajo Grandmother

Navajo Grandmother”, original watercolor painting, Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen

I met an young man of 17 today who made me realize how far out of the loop I really am.

He acts in his school plays wants to be a character actor, not a leading man, because they are more interesting to portray. We talked about movies, and I, an inveterate movie lover, had no idea what he was talking about! Apparently zombies are pretty big in the movies today, and his excitement in telling about these films was infectious. Out of the fullness of my ignorance I tried to enter into the conversation and tell him about movies I have liked in the past, but he had never heard of them. Incredible!

I began to realize that what the younger generation likes abut films today is more about special effects than story line. It took me a minute to appreciate his thinking. It was also more about looking at the film with actor’s eyes, and he’s right—seen in that aspect, they do deliver more punch.

When teaching at the college level, I used to feel part of the chatter, but the kids of today have jumped ahead at the same pace technology has moved.
Nothing lasts, and what a shame that is. Or maybe it is just that it make us antiques feel redundant. But if we are the “beta” generation, there is the realization that today’s kids will take their preordained place in line as well.

Where do all the yesterdays go? Tangled up in a heap in a memory folder. But tomorrows are filed under Hope.

Get back in the groove, Grandma!