Sunday, 25 October 2015

Journal of Whills: Part 18 - Troubled Production

Casting was complete, the script was finished and the money was secure. Now George Lucas had everything he needed to begin the epic space opera he envisioned. With his strange cavalcade of British and American employees he set off to shoot it. The only thing that was to go wrong was everything.
First stop was the wasteland of Tatooine, or the Sahara Desert. On the second day of shooting the desert was hit with its first major rainfall in fifty years. Not only did this put filming on hold, it damaged pre-built sets and equipment, causing further delays. Of the fifty years on dry-as-a-bone conditions, the ‘Star Wars’ team happened to arrive on the day those fifty years ended. When the rain finally halted, temperatures soared back up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit that left the actors and stunt coordinators physically drained in their heavy costumes. The droids were disintegrating and singlehandedly killing their two actors, threatening choke Kenny Baker and stab Anthony Daniels.
But at least they only had to film a small portion of the movie outdoors. Once they had finished in Tunisia the crew could move to Elstree Studios in London, a much more controlled and calm environment. Having finished the impressive sets, costumes, and props as well as uniting its large and talented cast, Lucas was undoubtedly hoping for a much smoother period of filming.
But the production was still hampered by strict union laws for the crew that forced shooting to end at 5:30 PM exactly, regardless of the overall schedule. Lucas regularly asked for his contractual extension of 15 minutes but this was always declined by the crew. It didn’t help that most of the crew in question believed ‘Star Wars’ to be a doomed property that would fail regardless of their own effort behind camera. Though even the actors felt the same way, only Alec Guinness stood as a role model of professionalism but without him many actors felt that the project was not worth taking seriously.
Their playful and slightly anarchic attitude (though would you really have faith in a project that contained unknown words like Chewbacca and Jedi) conflicted with Lucas’ meticulous and sometimes pedantic vision. Few considered how much of his livelihood rested on this film and how it had been in the works essentially for his entire life. He was far from lenient, and used to doing things himself in his own style. He therefore felt that he needed to instruct the camera crew and lighting managers exactly where to set up their equipment, but they felt that such instruction were belittling to their professionalism.
Although most of the costumes were ready, some were not nearly as well-crafted or designed as Lucas had hoped, particularly the Mos Eisley Cantina scene where he had to rely on the lighting and camera angles to create his vision. Without any of the cutting edge special effects or added sound design (imagine watching ‘Star Wars’ without John Williams’ score or the special effects or hearing a Scottish accent from Darth Vader as James Earl Jones’ voice was dubbed over it) no one was able to take it seriously, they felt that the operation was an inflated children’s film. It was not helped by the fact that Lucas would often call out ‘faster, more intense’ to an actor following their scene.
The actors had to fill in a lot of blank spaces. Lucas was eager to tell them what was going on around them but not necessarily as good at telling the actors what they should be doing. He often became frustrated with the fact that they did not convey the exact emotions he wanted. Half the time they performed their own stunts, with a faulty harness being one tear away from dropping Mark Hamill down a ten foot chasm.
Meanwhile. 20th Century Fox were of little help as the shoot’s costs rose and fell behind schedule, they were still sending memos asking if Chewbacca could be wearing pants. The board of directors then panicked and told Alan Ladd Jr to shut down the production of ‘Star Wars’. Ladd Jr was able to buy Lucas one more week and a mad rush to finish production began. Sometimes three scenes were being shot as once with Lucas anxiously travelling from one stage to another to oversee them. The original release date of Christmas 1976 was now put on hold in favour of summer 1977. The editing team practically disregarded Lucas’ instructions on how to cut them film, forcing the director to re-cut it himself, eventually starting the final cut from scratch along with Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and wife Marsha Lucas (who had was simultaneously working with Martin Scorsese).
Things could only get worse with Industrial Light and Magic, who had spent half of their budget just on building the necessary models and equipment. 20th Century Fox were now ready to terminate ‘Star Wars’ but the only thing stopping them was Ladd Jr, so he was also removed from the board of directors. The stress reached such levels that Lucas had to be checked into hospital, before re-entering the fray. With ILM they completed a years’ worth of work in six months, using aerial dogfights from old war films as inspiration.
Production was finally complete (the score and sound effects were also finished, but I’ll cover those in details later). The release date was set, and rather begrudgingly the studio put their name on it, worried that it would destroy their reputation and industry insiders were already predicting financial doom. How wrong they were.   

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