risky business

Old interviews redefine 'Star Wars' mythology

"Star Wars" is so firmly ensconced in the pop culture firmament that its success — in a movie universe a long time ago — would seem to have been preordained. But that was hardly the case.

As the movie celebrates its 30th anniversary, George Lucas will be joined by many of his collaborators at a special screening Monday at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Simultaneously, Ballantine Books is publishing J.W. Rinzler's "The Making of Star Wars," which bills itself as "The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film."

More than just a promotional making-of book, Rinzler's account seeks to strip away a lot of the mythology about the movie's creation that has grown up over the years. Rinzler, an executive editor at Lucasfilm, was aided in that quest when he discovered a treasure chest of interviews that Charles Lippincott, Lucasfilm's vp marketing and merchandising in the mid-'70s, conducted with the film's principals between 1975 and 1978. They provided him with a contemporaneous view into the movie's origins, uncolored by its eventual success.

"Everyone's memories are somewhat faulty, and opinions have changed over the years," Rinzler says. But the discovery of the old interviews allowed him "to do as close to an aural history as I could."

Among the forgotten aspects of the movie's production that he unearthed was a failed attempt to use front-projection, forcing the production to shift to bluescreen. Rinzler quotes Lucas as saying: "The biggest change during filming was from front-projection to bluescreen. We had shot the approach to the Death Star, but once we got the results, we realized it wasn't going to work."

In fact, the production was constantly fighting battles on two fronts. A skeptical 20th Century Fox whittled away the budget — just four months before shooting was to begin in 1976, the studio shaved the production budget from $7.5 million to $6.9 million. At the same time, Lucas was constantly challenging his crew to come up with innovative solutions like John Dykstra's motion-control camera that defined the state-of-the-art.

But as Lucas was forced to fund most of the movie's preproduction, one of the suits, Alan Ladd Jr., then the studio's production chief, emerged as a hero. In October 1975, smarting from the failure of the big-budget "Lucky Lady" with Gene Hackman, Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli, Fox imposed a moratorium on further spending on "Star Wars" until its board met on Dec. 13. It was Ladd, personally vouching for his belief in the project, who persuaded the board to issue a green light.

But even on May 25, 1977, when the movie opened to lines that snaked around Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, no one involved was quite convinced that they were witnessing a pop culture phenomenon. "Star Wars" bowed in just 32 theaters nationwide, and the only reason it was booked into the prestigious Chinese was that the release of William Friedkin's "Sorcerer," which had been set to play that house, had been postponed.

Lucas himself was holed up at the Goldwyn Studios, mixing down the film's eight-track stereo mix to monaural for its wider release. Ladd called him with the first boxoffice results. "Wait, calm down," Lucas told the studio boss. "Remember, science fiction films do really great the first week, then they drop off to nothing. It's a good sign, but it doesn't mean anything. Let's wait a couple of weeks."

Turning to the others in the room, Lucas added. "The movie's only been released for five hours. I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch."