FILMS

George Lucas launches the Jedi

Gillian MacKay May 30 1983
FILMS

George Lucas launches the Jedi

Gillian MacKay May 30 1983

George Lucas launches the Jedi

FILMS

Gillian MacKay

Cary Anne Bucar, dressed as a rebel soldier out of Star Wars complete with combat boots and light-sabre sword, and her nine-year-old daughter, Maria, outfitted as the off-spring of Princess Leia and Han Solo, were ready to make the hour-long bus trip from their home in Colwood, B.C., to downtown Victoria this week. There they planned to meet three friends, dressed up as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the bounty hunter Boba Fett, in time to see the first local showing of Return of the Jedi, the third instalment of the Star Wars trilogy. The film opens May 25 in 950 theatres across Canada and the United States, but for many the trip to another galaxy begins before that date. Last week in Toronto, 3,500 fans waited for up to 12 hours outside CKFM radio to buy $10 tickets to see Jedi. Said an astonished Jay Nelson, a CKFM disc jockey: “I had not seen lineups like that since the crowds that

turned out for Beatle tickets.”

With that kind of anticipation, there is little doubt that Return of the Jedi will be the smash hit of the summer. Even in a film season packed with surefire sequels (Superman III and the James Bond films Octopussy and Never Say Never Again) and promising newcomers (Blue Thunder, WarGames and Trading Places), Jedi stands out. Its predecessors—Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)—are the secondand third-largest-grossing films ever made, after E.T. The ExtraTerrestrial. The cliff-hanger ending of Empire also helped to ensure that viewers will return to see if Good will finally triumph over Evil. Said Thomas Lightburn, a sales manager at the Toronto offices of 20th Century-Fox Film Corp., which distributes the Star Wars films: “We have every expectation that this will be the biggest picture of all time.”

Beyond its extraordinary box office success, the Star Wars saga has become

a cultural phenomenon with an influence extending far beyond movie theatres. In the history of mass entertainment, Star Wars creator George Lucas “occupies a special galaxy along with the Beatles and Elvis Presley,” says Dale Pollock, author of Skywalking, a biographical study of Lucas to be published in Canada next month by General Publishing. Characters like Luke Skywalker and R2D2 are as much a part of popular folklore as Superman or Mickey Mouse. An astounding array of Star Wars merchandise keeps children sleeping in Star Wars sheets, eating with Star Wars utensils and shaping their dreams around Star Wars comics, books, toys and videogames. “It is the most powerful modern myth,” says Jedi director Richard Marquand. “There has been nothing as all-encompassing as this before in film.”

Return of the Jedi is possibly the grand finale to that myth. Although Lucas originally envisioned a nine-part epic (of which the completed trilogy

forms the middle segment), he has now decided to delay the project indefinitely. Weary of the monumental task and rich beyond his wildest dreams, the 39-year-old dynamo wants time to relax with his family and pursue other projects. With Jedi he wanted to create the ultimate Star Wars movie. Made for $32.5 million, the new film has more stunning special effects, grotesque creatures, exotic locations, perilous battles and mumbo jumbo about the Force than ever before. Said Tom Smith, general manager of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects division of Lucasfilm Ltd.: “We pulled out all the stops. There will never be another Star Wars film like this one.”

Although the barrage of visual stimuli can exhaust the viewer, Jedi is still effervescent enough in parts to make the leap into cinematic hyperspace. The special effects—which consumed almost one-quarter of the budget—are as much the stars of the film as the comicbook characters. Most exhilarating is a flying “speeder” bike chase through a giant redwood forest. To create the effect, a cameraman strolled through a California forest shooting at a low shutter speed. When the film was played back at a normal pace, the illusion was one of dizzying motion. A studio crew filmed the figures on the bikes against a blue screen which was optically

erased. Then the images were superimposed on the forest footage, an extremely intricate process which took more than four months to complete. For her part in the chase scene, actress Carrie Fisher, who plays Princess Leia, spent three days sitting on a bike on top of a nine-metre pole. Recalls Fisher: “The most thrilling sequence in the movie was the most boring to film.” Equally entertaining are the fantastic creatures that have emerged from George Lucas’ protean imagination. Each alien life form has its own language and voice, created by soundman Ben Burtt, who won an Academy Award for his work on Star Wars.

Drawing on works in an Inca-Indian dialect,

Burtt invented Huttese, the subtitled language spoken in the kingdom of the reptilian crime lord, Jabba the Hutt. To give Jabba’s own voice a “moist, disgusting sound,” the soundman added a track of hands being run through wet mud and suet. The shrieking laugh of Salacious Crumb, a scruffy, sharp-nosed pet, is, in

fact, that of a carpenter who was working on a building near Burtt’s San Francisco studio. The language of the primitive tribe of teddy-bearish creatures known as Ewoks is derived from those of Mongolian, Tibetan and Nepalese tribes. Says Burtt: “I strive for the kind of detail that will suggest a depth of culture and religious beliefs behind the characters.”

For all its razzle-dazzle, Jedi is the least childlike film of the Star Wars series. “The concern,” said director Marquand, “was to make it relevant to a generation who had grown up with Star Wars films, changing from children to young adults.” Luke Skywalker must finally test his manhood in a pseudoFreudian battle with his father, Darth Vader. And the once-bratty Princess Leia and the wisecracking pilot Han Solo have become positively mushy about each other. Explains Fisher: “To a large extent, the characters have grown up with us. When I first played Princess Leia I was 19 and very precocious. Over seven years those edges have softened.”

Executive producer Lucas has even allowed a hint of sexuality to creep into his moralistic fable. Decadence abounds in the throne room of the perverted Jabba. When he captures Princess Leia, she must don a skimpy harem costume which is a far cry from her old highnecked, full-length gown. During the filming of Star Wars, Lucas was so concerned with muffling Fisher’s sexuality that he ordered her breasts to be bound with electrician’s tape to prevent them from jiggling. On the set of Jedi, one props assistant was responsible for making sure she stayed safely inside the top of her harem costume. “It got to the point,” says Fisher, “where I kept yelling across the set, ‘Breasts all right?’ ”

Masterminding every detail on the production—including the color of the goo coming out of Jabba’s nose—is Lucas. He gave up directing the series after Star Wars. At that time, his obsessive need for control over the mammoth project

brought him close to nervous collapse. His first attempt at collaboration, with Irvin Kershner as director of The Empire Strikes Back, did not work according to plan. Lucas made an effort to stay away from the set and was ultimately unhappy with Kershner’s lush visual style. In the end, the $33-million film was $10 million over budget,

forcing Lucas, a notorious penny pincher, into some desperate last-minute fund-raising.

For Jedi, Lucas surprised the industry by hiring Richard Marquand, a little-known Welsh director whose only major film credit was The Eye of the Needle. But Lucas was on the set for the majority of the shoot, a situation that the director says created little friction. According to Marquand, Lucas made only minor changes, such as tidying up the appearance of the Ewoks. “I had assumed that since they were running around the forest they would get very dirty like my dog, but George thought it would be nice if they were a bit more huggable,” explains the director. Still, with the executive producer involved in every aspect of the film, from coauthoring the script (with Lawrence Kasdan) to the final edit, Jedi will inevitably be known as another Lucas film.

As well as wielding artistic control over his films, Lucas keeps a close watch over all facets of his $35-million business empire. As chairman of Lucasfilm Ltd., headquartered in affluent, laid-back Marin County,

Calif., he supervises everything from the marketing of his films and the merchandising of Star Wars products to his investments in oil and natural gas wells, real estate and bonds. Although a film such as Jedi basically sells itself, nothing about the marketing has been left to chance. The buildup to this week’s release began eight months ago when 20th CenturyFox re-released Star Wars and Empire together with a brief teaser preview about Jedi. The only small miscalculation, which in fact was also an effective attention grabber, occurred in January when Lucas changed the film’s name to Return of the Jedi from the original Revenge of the Jedi. In doing that he apparently deferred to concerned fans who wrote and protested that good Jedi knights did not take revenge.

In conjunction with the opening of Jedi, Lucas has also made sure that an avalanche of products—including nine books, a record, videogames, toys, blankets, sheets and curtains—will descend on the public. Every product must be approved by Lucas himself, who forbids any links to alcohol, tobacco or fast food. The exceptions are Hershey bars, milkshakes and Coca-Cola—all of which he loved as a child. The merchandising bonanza, which has yielded more than $1.5 billion in gross retail sales since 1977, is the largest steady source

of income at Lucasfilm; the company receives a royalty of between one and seven per cent on most items.

The paraphernalia is also an important ingredient in the transformation of a movie into an “event.” No one has succeeded at this game as well as George Lucas. Says Scott Irwin, advertising manager of Toronto-based Irwin Toy Ltd., which expects to sell $10 million worth of Star Wars toys in Canada this year: “No one has been able to duplicate the success of the Star Wars toys. Last year E.T. was a huge success, but one creature does not capture the kids’ imaginations like Star Wars mini-figures, which they use to create their own little fantasy worlds.”

Despite his phenomenal success, Lucas finds running the empire fundamentally boring. Making the Star Wars series was a labor of love, but the business side of Lucasfilm is strictly a means to an end. His financial independence has purchased the freedom to devote more time to his family, creative projects and the 3,000-acre Sky walker Ranch north of Marin County. When completed in 1987, the ranch will serve as a community for independent filmmakers, complete with guesthouses, screening rooms, editing and soundmixing facilities. If Jedi is a hit, Lucas will have realized a dream, as he told Rolling Stone magazine, to “be free of

the yoke of the studios.”

Lucas’ hatred of Hollywood has burned fiercely ever since Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures made minor cuts in his first two feature films, THX1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973), and 20th Century-Fox squeezed him financially on the budget for Star Wars. When he made Empire, Lucas astounded the industry by financing the entire project himself, as he did for Jedi. Says biographer Pollock: “He is the only person in the history of the movies who has achieved that kind of success outside the Hollywood system.” In maintaining his independence, Lucas has displayed an extraordinary sense of what will please an audience. That ability stems from the strength of his imagination, which is strongly linked to his childhood. “He is far less cynical than most film-makers,” says Pollock. “Somehow he has preserved a child’s sense of wonder and awe.” Nurtured on action comic books and television adventure serials, he went on to delve deeply into anthropology, fairy tales and myth before conceiving the Star Wars saga more than 10 years ago. Although he is sometimes accused of being crassly exploitative, Lucas, in fact, did not originally set out to make a commercial blockbuster but simply a film he himself would enjoy. Moreover, he wanted to present a morally ordered universe in which good is pitted against evil and ordinary men like Luke Skywalker succeed by taking responsibility for their actions. As passionately committed as even he is to the Star Wars movies, however, Lucas is sufficiently detached to § describe them as “kind of dumb.”

Still, it may be the simplicity of the Star Wars films that has struck a deep chord in society. Says Marquand: “Perhaps for people living in a dangerous age, the movies offer safety and comfort.” It is precisely that kind of escapism that disturbs critics such as Robin Wood, a film professor at York University in Toronto, who considers the reliance on “special effects, wish-fulfilment fantasy and infantile regression” in such films as Star Wars to be “disastrous for American cinema. It is getting harder and harder to make adult films.”

That may indeed be the case. But it is difficult to be a serious adult when the theatre lights dim and countless galaxies begin to sparkle in the heavens. Then, the magical ride back to childhood is almost irresistible.

With Nicholas Jennings in Toronto.

Nicholas Jennings