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Star Wars Memories

October 12, 2010 — 2 Comments

A Candid Shot on the set.



“This Star Wars title isn’t testing,” said Fox President, Dennis Stanfill.

I was shaking in his coliseum size office, standing before his imperial mahogany desk at the 20th Century Fox corporate headquarters on Pico Blvd. “ The research stinks! People think it about two screen actors fighting!”

I had no right to be in the President’s office.  But somehow, Mr. Dennis Stanfill had found my temporary extension and buzzed me to come  into his stately lair. I had just graduated from California Institute of the Arts and had been hired for a short-term job at Fox to judge screenplays submitted by academic institutions across the country.

It was my second day on the job.

It was 1976. It was the Wild West in Hollywood and for some reason; I was standing in the office of one of the most powerful men in the business. Easy Rider, a movie no one understood, had been a huge hit a few years earlier.  Suddenly, it was not the age of Sound Of Music  that had saved 20th Century Fox from financial ruin years earlier. It was the age of “raging bulls and easy riders”.  It was the age of Scorsese and Lucas and Spielberg. Youth had a premium tag on it.

“How old are you?” The President asked me.

“Almost 25.” I said as he looked me over in my wire rim glasses, my white shirt from JC Penny’s, my clip on tie, and my chino pants.

Before Mr. Stanfill could respond, a Promethean instinct came over my shaking body and I asked, “Have you tested it with the space ships?”

“Huh?” Mr. Stanfill asked.

“Have you tested the title against the key art?”

As it happened, a year or so earlier George Lucas had opened up a non-union warehouse in the San Fernando Valley below Cal Arts where my college buddies, Dave Berry, Robbie Blaylock and Adam Beckett were working on a secret project entitled  at the time, The Star Wars. They were cranking oxberry and rotoscope animation to help pay for supplies and tuition at our school. I was very aware of those star ships because I had supplied turrets to them.

We were all rowdy young lads in 1975, filled with  and equal share of confidence and unknowingness. On Friday nights, we would cruise down Van Nuys Blvd, looking for drugstores that had plastic models of naval battleships, jalopies, and airplanes. We would go back to the warehouse and pull the models apart. We would separate the guns, and turrets and general artillery.  And here is the unexpected part: they were used to create the world of Star Wars.

If I had to say it, those ships looked pretty cool. As a matter of fact, David Berry released a video of the old days on Vimeo to huge response. He said to me in a recent Facebook correspondence  “When I posted the ILM stuff, I had no idea the response would be so huge! I found a lot of old friends!” But everyone seems interested in Star Wars. It was truly the first modern transmedia experience of the modern epoch and it has brought together generations of fans for decades.

“Those star ships are cool.” I said to the President of Fox. “If you tested the title with that art, I do not think there will be any issue as to the viability.”

Mr. Stanfill looked at me with a grimace of seeming constipation. With brushfire velocity, he pressed buzzers on his phone. Within moments, an army of executives in white shirts and pressed pants that didn’t come from Penney’s had assembled in the liar. It was the Fox marketing department.

“Ask them what you asked me.” Mr. Stanfill encouraged of me.

As it turned out, no one had tested anything except the title. Mr. Stanfill then ordered his fleet of marketing gurus to depart and “for God’s sake, test this title with the star ships! “ We know what happened. I am sure that the executives at Fox would have found the right way to handle this in the end. It didn’t take a 24 year old to set them right. But this incident does point to an issue that so few understand. Behind the curtain at Fox, and Mr. Stanfill’s own nervousness, belies the environment in which the storyteller must thrive: “second-guessing by The Man”.

No one had wanted to make Star Wars. “No one was supportive,” George Lucas would later write. They did not understand the concept; George wanted to reinvent science fiction.  He wanted to reconceive the  scrappy , badly made sci -fi pictures of the  30s, 40s, and 50s and morph them into something extraordinary. According to Film historian Peter Biskind,  “He plundered Flash Gordon serials and other pulp sci-fi of the 30s for decor and costume. He wrote, revised, and revised some more. He puzzled over how to get the right “wholesome” tone, avoiding sex and violence, yet including “hip new stuff”.

Lucas worked on the Star Wars script for two and one half years, writing at the back of his house in San Anselmo in a room that he shared with a gaudy Wurlitzer jukebox. A photograph of Sergei Eisenstein peered down at him from the wall behind his desk. The Emperor, corrupted by power, was based on Richard Nixon, although some of Lucas’  friends suggested that it was only later, after the picture became a hit, that Lucas claimed this.

According to Biskind, “Lucas was afflicted by headaches, pains in the stomach and chest. He became compulsive about his writing materials, insisting on No. 2 pencils and blue and green lined paper. He took to slicing off bits of his hair with scissors, depositing them, along with crumpled sheets of paper, in the wastebasket. He could never remember how he had spelled the names of his characters, rendering Chewbacca differently every time he wrote it. ‘

“They said, ‘George, you should be making more of an artistic statement,'” Lucas recalled. “People said I should have made Apocalypse Now after Graffiti, and not Star Wars. They said I should be doing movies like Taxi Driver.” He was depressed, convinced he was a failure. His wife at the time, Marcia asked  Brian De Palma to talk to him. “George thinks he has no talent,” she said. “He respects you. Tell him he does.”
In the midst of his depression and artistic confusion, George found the words of Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence and author of  The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
In the long run, the most influential book of the 20th Century may turn out to be Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It’s certainly true that the book is having a major impact on writing and story telling, but above all on movie making. Aware or not, filmmakers like John Boorman, George Miller, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Coppola owe their successes to the ageless pattern that Joseph Campbell identifies in the book.

What Joe Campbell discovered in his study of world myths is that  the story of a hero is retold endlessly in infinite variation. Campbell discovered that all story-telling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories, from the crudest jokes to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in terms of the “Hero Myth”; the “Monomyth” whose principles he lays out in the book.

Stories built on the model of  The Hero With A Thousand Faces have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect universal concerns. They deal with universal questions like “Why was I born?” “What happens when I die?” “How can I overcome my life problems and be happy?”

In so many ways the western in outer space that George Lucas created has enduring power because of the template of the Hero. Anyone who is interested in Transmedia should definitely have a read of The Hero With A Thousand Faces. One  can see the power of that monomyth in The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter.

I can remember going to opening night of Star Wars on  May 25, 1977, before many of you had  even been born.  It was the Friday night midnight show at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in  Hollywood. The whole town seemed lit.

Although, I had brushed against Star Wars with my pals at the warehouse in the San Fernando Valley and with the President of Fox over the title, I was still very much part of the audience for this picture.

I remember running into Randall Kleiser at Grauman’s. Randal was George Lucas’ roommate at USC. Randall would go on to direct the highly successful Grease a few years later. He was pumped to see the movie too. It was awesome. And it wasn’t because it was the stuff of laser swords. It was the stuff of dreams – it was the stuff of the Monomyth that ignites us all.