To celebrate 40 years of Star Wars, Dan Grant recalls what inspired George Lucas to make his masterpiece, the enduring legacy of the epic space adventure, and what the original film means to him.
Perhaps no film, in the long history of Hollywood, did more to change movies than George Lucas’ Star Wars did. Director Francis Ford Coppola, when interviewed in 1999, recalled Lucas originally wanted to buy the rights to Flash Gordon. Lucas tried unsuccessfully for months but still they would not sell him the rights. And that was when Lucas told Coppola, “Well, I’ll just invent my own.” Lucas spent the next five years writing Star Wars.
It went through five drafts before finally settling on the script that we know now. Luke Skywalker was originally called Luke Starkiller. There were many other changes as well. Lucas pitched it to every studio and even though Lucas was coming off a huge hit with American Graffiti, United Artists passed on it and so did Disney and Universal. But Lucas had a friend in Alan Ladd Jr. from 20th Century Fox. He loved Lucas’ American Graffiti and although he didn’t understand all of the script (in fact he flat out didn’t get the lingo or the technical jargon) he believed in Lucas and eventually helped secure a budget of $8 million. During filming, the budget kept increasing and Lucas was inventing special effects as he was going along. His nascent company ILM were working on special effects even in post production as they raced to get the film finished on time. The final budget for the film ended up being just under $11 million and 20th Century Fox was so nervous that the film was going to be an albatross they threatened to shut down production. The only person who stood in the way of this happening was Ladd, who fought for Lucas every step of the way.
In February 1977, Lucas screened an early cut of the film for Fox executives and several director friends. The cut had a different crawl from the finished version and used David Prowse’s voice for Darth Vader. It also lacked most special effects. Blaster beams hadn’t been invented by ILM yet, so hand drawn arrows were substituted. When the Millennium Falcon was battling TIE fighters, Lucas had to insert old footage of WWII dog fights. The reactions of the directors present, such as Brian De Palma, John Milius, and Steven Spielberg, disappointed Lucas. Spielberg, who claimed to have been the only person in the audience to have enjoyed the film, believed that the lack of enthusiasm was due to the absence of finished special effects. Lucas later said that the group was honest and seemed bemused by the film. In contrast, Ladd and the other studio executives loved the film; Gareth Wigan told Lucas: “This is the greatest film I’ve ever seen” and cried during the screening. Lucas found the experience shocking and rewarding, having never gained any approval from studio executives before.
Star Wars debuted on Wednesday, May 25, 1977, in 32 theatres. Now keep in mind, there was no internet, no Box Office Mojo and no instant tracking. George Lucas was so unsure about the success of Star Wars, that upon visiting Steven Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he bet that Close Encounters would be a bigger hit than Star Wars. Spielberg disagreed and they bet profit points of 2.5%. Today, Spielberg still makes 2.5% of the profits from Star Wars. I personally don’t know how that would work now that Disney owns Star Wars but I would imagine Spielberg still gets his royalties.
Lucas decided he would be in Hawaii with his wife when Star Wars came out. He was watching the evening news when Walter Cronkite discussed the gigantic lines for Star Wars. This is when Lucas realized he just became a very wealthy man. But before all of this happened, 20th Century Fox was still sure the film would tank. They were so sure of this that they heavily promoted The Other Side of Midnight as their big summer film and they had Star Wars as their secondary film for theater owners.
Star Wars blew up instantly and it quickly set box office records and made household names of the cast. Harrison Ford even had his shirt ripped off when buying an album at a record store. Once word spread about Star Wars, more and more people came out. Unlike today’s film climate where the opening weekend makes or breaks your film, 40 years ago everything was word of mouth. On it’s 6th weekend, it set the record for highest grossing film for a weekend with 7.4 million. This passed Jaws for the highest opening weekend of all time.
Before Star Wars, 20th Century Fox’s highest annual profits topped out at $37 million. 1977 saws that double to $79 million. Lucas’ effort turned that company around. Before the science-fiction classic from a galaxy far, far away (and this might be one of the reasons the studio was so nervous about the escalating budget) 20th Century Fox was in a bit of trouble. They hadn’t had a really good year for a while. Star Wars changed all of that.
Lucas’ space opera has a legacy like no other film in the history of cinema. It’s not just the box office, it’s what Star Wars represents and how studios scrambled to get their own version of Star Wars out. It’s how ILM became a big boy….it’s how Lucas brokered a deal for himself and the merchandising rights.
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his book The Great Movies, “Like The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, Star Wars was a technical watershed that influenced many of the movies that came after.” It began a new generation of special effects and high-energy motion pictures. The film was one of the first to link genres together to invent a new, high-concept genre for filmmakers to build upon. And, along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, it shifted the film industry’s focus away from personal filmmaking of the 1970s and towards fast-paced, big-budget blockbusters for younger audiences.
Filmmakers who have said to have been influenced by Star Wars include James Cameron, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Dean Devlin, Gareth Edwards, Roland Emmerich, John Lasseter, David Fincher, Peter Jackson, Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, John Singleton, Michael Bay and Kevin Smith. James Cameron has been quoted as saying that Star Wars was the film he wish he had made and it directly influenced him to get started. Jackson borrowed ideas for Lord of the Rings and Christopher Nolan cited Star Wars as an influence when making the 2010 blockbuster film Inception.
Star Wars was released 40 years ago as of May 25. Its legacy is cemented and its influence immeasurable. Rogue One, a prequel to the original film, just made a billion dollars at the box office and now with Disney at the helm, Star Wars seems to be in good hands with great filmmakers being lured to keep the legacy going. With the 9th film about to come out, appetite for Star Wars is just as great now as it was in 1977, 1980 and 1983. Other films have usurped it in terms of box office and worldwide gross, but beyond the box office Lucas’ epic has left us something indelible, something you can’t count using dollars. It’s given generation after generation something to see together, something to talk about and something to love together. Jaws is still my favourite film of all time, but Star Wars and all of its sequels are very close behind. It’s also a film that shows and proves that if you have an imagination, if you believe and if you never give up, good things can happen. George Lucas gave us something that will live on forever; a legacy that will live on long after I’m gone from this Earth. Star Wars (arguably) has done more to shape and influence film and filmmakers than any other film in history.
May the Force Be With You.