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Forty years ago, Star Wars revolutionized cinema when it was released on May 25, 1977.
It’s a revolution that was only possible thanks to the work of hundreds of people who toiled to make George Lucas’ groundbreaking vision a reality.
They may not have wielded lightsabers on the big screen or be household names; they are Star Wars unsung heroes. Heat Vision spoke with eight of those members of the Star Wars family, who are finally sharing stories that you likely haven’t heard before from the set of Episode IV.
Fox executives thought it was “the world’s greatest piece of shit.”
After principal photography wrapped in London, Fox execs wanted to see what they were investing millions in. A busload of them took the pilgrimage to where Lucas was working to complete the film — and the results were not encouraging.
“About two hours into the session, this sad-looking bunch of Fox executives — they looked like sad penguins — they all went down to that bus. I think they thought they had the world’s greatest piece of shit on their hands,” says David Lester, who worked as a second unit production manager and specialized in spaceship explosions.
Lester didn’t quite blame them for their reaction: “You got to remember what the dailies looked like: Mark Hamill swinging a broomstick around.”
Alec Guinness wasn’t exactly bragging about his role.
Just like those Fox execs, Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the movie.
“I asked him one day, ‘Do you tell everybody what you’re working on?’ He said ‘No, no, no. I keep it a bit quiet,’ ” Christopher Tucker, who did animatronic makeup for the film, recalls the legendary actor saying. “The script read a bit like an American comic. It just didn’t sound like a successful film, so nobody really thought it was going anywhere.”
Garrick Hagon, who played Luke’s childhood friend and later fellow Rebel pilot Biggs Darklighter, also recalled his run-in with the less-than-amiable legendary actor. “I didn’t really have a lot to do with him, I just sat beside him in awe, but I told him I’d worked with him once before as a child, and I expected that to maybe start off a conversation but he just said, ‘That’s a long time ago,’ and that was pretty much the end of that conversation, so we just sat in silence,” Hagon recalled, laughing at the memory.
Tucker admits he wishes he’d had more foresight. After working on the famous Cantina scene, he could have grabbed a few of the creations he’d made — but he opted not to.
“In those days, there was no restriction. If you made something like that, then you would keep it. Nowadays you aren’t allowed to do that,” says Tucker.
Today, his work would be worth a small fortune.
Lucas cut the Death Star battle using World War II movies.
There was no way to properly storyboard the film’s signature battle, so Lucas spliced together aerial warfare footage from World War II movies. Because these films were in black and white, he manually colored in the cells to denote whether it was a Rebel pilot or Imperial fighter.
“We knew exactly frame perfect where all these images had to go. You couldn’t do that at that time without a guy who thought that way,” said Lester. “You didn’t have to call him and ask what he wanted where. It was on film and you could look at it, even if it wasn’t his film.”
As the team at Industrial Light & Magic completed their work, the black-and-white airplanes would be replaced with X-wings and TIE fighters.
“When I was hired, there were still two airplane shots left in the reels. It was funny to be engrossed in this high-tech space battle and then suddenly cut to a German Stuka diving toward Poland during the Blitzkreig,” recalls sound effects engineer Richard L. Anderson. “I wonder if a copy of the original cut, with only duped airplanes, still exists. That should go in a museum.”
Chewbacca initially looked a little too much like an ape.
With so much to oversee, Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz didn’t always have an answer for what exactly it was they wanted — including for some of the film’s signature characters.
“They left it really up to us. When it came to things like Chewbacca — what was Chewbacca? We didn’t know what Chewbacca was, nor did they,” recalls Tucker.
Enter Stewart Freeborn, who had just done makeup on 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he developed monkey animatronics that allowed actors in monkey suits to open their mouths — and have the mouths of the monkeys open too. That was an innovation he brought to Chewie.
“Chewbacca ended up looking a bit like a monkey, originally. From that, we decided the only thing we could do was get a body suit, knotted with hair like a gigantic wig, so we had all these long-haired body suits and it fitted on a part-time hospital porter,” recalls Tucker. “His name was Peter Mayhew. He was 7-foot-10 or something [he’s actually 7-foot-2]. He was very tall, and so that was how Chewbacca got born.”
Even the Banthas had costume fittings.
Mayhew’s Chewbacca may have been the tallest protagonist on set, but he hardly had the biggest costume in A New Hope. Someone had to go measure the elephants that would go on to play the Banthas, Tatooine’s larger-than-life creatures. Lester was roped into going on a measuring expedition with art director Leon Erickson.
“At one point, I said, ‘How the hell are we going to do the measuring? I’m not comfortable holding the end of the tape,’ ” recalls Lester. “He smiled at me … and he reached into the back seat and took out three rolls of camera tape, a little more than an inch wide of white fabric,” recalls Lester. “Had to be 75 or 100 feet each that he had diligently unrolled in his home and laid out on the floor and marked off every six inches. And colored every other six inches with black. All I had to do was creep around that elephant twice and stick that tape on him. And he took pictures on every angle.”
Star Wars went to San Diego Comic-Con in 1976, and people weren’t all that excited.
To lure an audience to a panel about an unknown property, the Star Wars promotional team employed star power from Marvel Comics, bringing writer Roy Thomas and artist Howard Chaykin to talk about their Star Wars comic book adaptation. Marketing head Charles Lippincott spent time at a table chatting with people and selling posters … which unfortunately for them, few people kept.
“I think they were $1.75 and that poster now is still available on the collector’s market — and it’s one of the two most expensive posters you can buy on the collector market because people didn’t keep them,” recalls Craig Miller, who worked as a publicity assistant. “It sells for two or three thousand dollars now.”
Yes, Miller does have one in his personal collection. (Saving pays off!)
Sometimes, working on a legendary film involves lots and lots of typing.
Lucy Autrey Wilson landed what many might consider a dream job, assistant to George Lucas at the birth of Star Wars. By fall 1974, she was spending her days in a Victorian house in San Anselmo, Calif., typing the script over and over on an IBM Selectric typewriter
“Because I had read Star Wars so many times while typing the screenplay, I had become very interested in the story. But, like everyone else at the time, I didn’t think the movie would do much,” recalls Wilson, who went on to have a distinguished career with Lucasfilm.
“After Star Wars was released in 1977, it was amazing to go out to dinner, and find almost everyone in the restaurant talking about the movie I had been working on, to see that same movie on the covers of all of the magazines I subscribed to and, if I happened to be wearing something with a Star Wars logo on it, to be chased down the street by people wanting me to help them get a job at Lucasfilm,” she adds.
Days on set could be as magical as you’d guess.
“The thing I remember most vividly is being out on set on the first day of filming in Tunisia, and seeing the sun glinting off C3PO’s golden armor — it was truly magical to see the script and characters coming to life like that,” says Patricia Carr, production coordinator during the U.K. and Tunisian shoot.
Later, she once came back from the restroom to see royalty in her chair.
“I returned to my office. I found Carrie Fisher, sitting in my seat in front of my typewriter, pretending to be me, but in full Princess Leia garb,” says Carr. “She used to visit us in the office often and always made us smile.”
But other days you almost lose the roof to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s home.
Weather in the Tunisian desert can be harsh and unpredictable. As such, certain occupational hazards can often surprise even the most prepared of set designers.
Lesley Dilley, art director on the film, recalled a meteorological mystery he and his team had to solve the day before principal photography was supposed to begin.
“We had to build a huge disc to place on a low, round wall. This was a very heavy disc, part of Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s house, and it was the rooftop to an underground room,” Dilley explained. “We left the area at the end of the day and when we came back in the morning this disc, which took 10 people or more to lift, had disappeared. It was quite frightening because the crew was coming in the day afterward to start shooting. The disc was gone.”
So what happened to the unaccounted-for roof? “We finally deduced it was lifted by the wind, like a Frisbee,” said Dilley. “I mean this thing was probably close to 20, 25 feet in diameter. It got lifted up, we found out, by the wind — and we couldn’t find it.”
A search began for the missing prop, but luckily the desert had left Dilley’s crew a vital clue: “We knew where it went because there was a line in the sand in the desert where it had gone hundreds of yards. We all go out looking for it and we finally get there and takes us about 10 people to pick it up and walk back with it. People were rolling in the sand, laughing at us from far distances.”
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