‘Star Wars’ Producer Blasts ‘Star Wars’ Myths
Pop quiz: If Star Wars had won the 1977 Best Picture Oscar for which it was nominated, who would have bounded onto the stage to accept the award? Not director George Lucas, but a man four years his senior: independent film producer Gary Kurtz.
Kurtz was also the producer of the next movie in the series, the even more highly-regarded Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kershner. But Kurtz and Lucas parted ways late into the production of Empire, under circumstances that have been shrouded in mystery — and Kurtz’s role in the foundation of the Star Wars franchise has been debated by fans ever since.
For my book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, I caught up with Kurtz, 74, who now lives in the UK. Over the course of several hours, I asked him about some persistent myths that have surrounded the original movie — from the origins of the Force to whether it was really supposed to be “Episode IV” of a larger story from the beginning.
Here are some highlights from that interview, along with a selection of rarely-seen Star Wars photos from Kurtz’s personal archive.
On the real origin of Star Wars: the 1930s and 1940s Flash Gordon serials.
Gary Kurtz: I’m sure you know the stories. We tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features [in 1971]. They weren’t adverse to discussing it, but their restrictions were so draconian that we realized right away that it wasn’t really a great prospect at the time.
So they started talking about “The Star Wars,” which was to be …
Some kind of Flash-Gordon-like science fiction story, which hadn’t been done for a long, long time. The last proper space opera type of science fiction was probably Forbidden Planet in 1955. Since then, all the science fiction seemed to go downhill towards either Creature from the Black Lagoon type-horror, or alien invasion from space, or just this dystopian kind of depressing stories about post-apocalyptic society. And none of that was fun.
It was just the idea of capturing the energy of the Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers style of space opera, which hadn’t been done for so long. It was really during American Graffiti that we discussed it a lot, because it was on the paperwork when we made [an earlier, soon-abandoned] deal with United Artists for two pictures. One was a 1950s rock and roll movie, and one was an unnamed science fiction film.
That was about the extent of the description at the time. There was no idea of what that science fiction movie would be like. We did discuss Flash-Gordon-type stories at great lengths.
Kurtz and Kenobi: the producer shares a joke with Sir Alec Guinness.
Image: Kurtz/Joiner Archive
As for nerds who insist Star Wars was drawn from one of George Lucas’ favorite Akira Kurasawa movies, The Hidden Fortress …
Not really. There are definite comparisons, there’s no question, if you want to look hard enough: the two peasants, and the idea of transporting a princess across hostile territory. It’s a fairly straightforward action adventure. But I mean, they’re very generic.
If you read all the versions [of Star Wars] you know that the story is progressive. The characters change a lot.
Or that it was based on Joseph Campbell’s famous book on mythology, The Hero With a Thousand Faces …
The whole idea of Star Wars as a mythological thing, I think came about because of [later Lucas] interviews that tied it to The Hero with a Thousand Faces [which Lucas didn’t read until he’d almost finished Star Wars].
Actually, if you look carefully at it, all coming of age stories fit [Campbell’s model]. Hollywood has done those kind of stories since the beginning, since the 1920s. So there are many, many examples of stories that fit the model of that hero.
I think it did kind of cloud it a bit, that Star Wars got so closely tied to that. It was even more so when George did a long interview about the book and about the connections. There are definite connections there, but I think that’s a bit too analytical.
But was Star Wars actually more influenced by the Star Trek TV series, which was undergoing a hugely popular revival in syndication in the early 1970s?
Yes. [George] did talk about that [show] quite a bit. I mean Star Trek, the early series, was pretty much all human drama. There was a touch of humor in it, but most of it was down to relationship stories. There wasn’t much in the way of intergalactic battles. They didn’t have any money.
But it was set in this kind of futuristic kind of environment that was inspiring. It freed up the mind to think about what would it be like to travel to distant galaxies and encounter other species. I think that that definitely was one of the influences — because that’s what Flash Gordon was like too.
Star Wars wasn’t science fiction, Kurtz and Lucas kept telling 20th Century Fox — it was space fantasy.
2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, and it took seven years to make its money back. So we didn’t want to use it as a role model for Star Wars, because it was much too esoteric and serious a film. We were not looking to make a film like 2001 in any way — except for the fact that the hardcore science fiction fans that did go to see 2001 would probably go see Star Wars.
So, we presented it on the basis that if only the hardcore science fiction audience went to see this film, it would still make enough money to make its [$8 million] budget back, and then maybe a small profit. So it didn’t have to have any other audience, and the risk would be low enough that it should be worthwhile.
Kurtz shares a word with Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford.
Harrison Ford had a reputation for drinking on the set of American Graffiti — but cleaned up his act in time for Star Wars.
I remember one night [on Graffiti] when we were doing the drag race [scene] down the main street in San Rafael. The first night we were shooting that, when Harrison had been drinking a little bit, and I had a bit of a set-to with him, saying, “We can’t have anybody drinking when we’re doing a driving scene at all. Don’t show up like this again,” and he didn’t. That was the end of that.
Off the set there was quite a bit of drinking around the motel. That’s when Richard Dreyfuss got thrown in the swimming pool, which was unfortunate because he hit his nose.
Star Wars was actually a pretty cheap movie — and nobody at Fox cared much about it.
We went in and told Fox originally that we could do it for $7 million. That was definitely a finger-in-the-wind time. But when the Fox Visual Effects Department did an analysis of the script, they thought the visual effects alone would cost $7 million. We ended up with kind of a $9 million official budget, and then it ended up being $10.1 million [less than the average studio comedy at the time].
And we were scrambling at the end of shooting. I had to call Laddie [Alan Ladd Jr., Fox production chief and Star Wars champion] and ask for $50,000 more so that we could build one more set, so that we could shoot that scene of people running up and down the blockade runner hallways before Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers break in.
That was the last thing we shot. All the main actors had gone home and we were scrambling to finish by a fixed date in July because the Fox board had insisted that we finish.
I had long discussions on the phone with Laddie and the production department, saying “to do this, we’re going to have to put on a second unit,” which we did, and I directed that unit just so that we could finish by that date. I said “this is costing us more than just extending the schedule for a week, as is using the main unit rather than hiring a second unit and shooting at the same time.”
But they didn’t care. They wanted it done by that fixed date. At that point, I don’t think many people at Fox had any feeling for what was going to happen and what it was going to be like. They just wanted to get it done and wrapped up, and it was just a kind of minor annoyance to them.
The original Star Wars wasn’t really supposed to be called “Episode IV” back in 1977.
We were toying with the idea of calling it Episode III, IV, or V — something in the middle. Fox hated that idea. They said it’ll really confuse the audience — and actually they were right. If you go to see a film, and it’s been touted as this new science fiction film, and it says Episode III up there, you’d say, “What the hell?”
We were a bit clouded by the fact that we wanted it to be as much like Flash Gordon as possible. Because if you went to Saturday morning pictures and came in and saw episode eight of Flash Gordon, you’d have the scroll at the beginning, the rollup, which we imitated. So we thought that would be really clever. But it was stupid at the time, because it’d be impossible to explain to anybody what it meant.
The cast that used to call itself “trick-talking meat” on the set of Star Wars: Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.
Image: Kurtz/Joiner Archive
Even Kurtz describes early Star Wars drafts as “gobbledygook.”
People who read it felt that way. Fox, when they read it, even Laddie said “it’s really difficult.” Anybody reading those drafts now has the film in their mind. But at the time, what you saw on paper was only enhanced by 12 drawings from Ralph McQuarrie, and that was it. There was no other way to visualize exactly what we were talking about. So, it did sound like gobbledygook in a lot of ways.
To a lot of people who read some of those early drafts, it was amazing how well the films came out. Some of that is down to editing. The film is edited quite differently to the way the script went. You know of course that [screenwriters and student friends of Lucas’] Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz came in at the last minute, and gave it what essentially was a comedy polish. That helped immensely, because that last draft before their influence was a little too serious.
On how The Force evolved through different drafts of the script — with the benefit of Kurtz’s student textbooks on Comparative Religion.
At one time, the energy [of the Force] was all tied up in crystals, in the “Kaibur Crystal.” That was the source of the Force. But we had no time to deal with exposition about esoteric religion. What we were looking for was a simple handle on something that could be explained really quickly.
You know, when you’re out in the real world, religion is identified by handles. You’re either a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or Hindu. As soon as you say one of those words, you know what’s behind that, even if you haven’t studied any of those religions. You know kind of what that person might be like.
We wanted something like that with a religion that nobody’s ever heard of. So the idea of the Force is this energy thing. The fact that Ben Kenobi could say in one sentence pretty much what it was all about, and then we move on.
That’s how it got boiled down to practically nothing — and it worked much better that way, much better.
We did have long discussions about various religious philosophies, and how people related to them, and how we could simplify it. “May the Force be with you” came out of medieval Christianity, where “may God go with you” was a symbol that you would be safe. We wanted something as simple as that, an everyday expression that linked to the power of the Force that wasn’t overbearing.
Filming the throne room scene.
On George Lucas’ frequent claim that he made Star Wars by taking the first draft, chopping it into thirds — which then became the original trilogy:
That’s not true. There were a lot of little bits and pieces that were reasonably good ideas and that ended up being in the final draft. But once the final draft was actually locked and the Huycks did their polish on it, there wasn’t enough material to do other movies.
There were some odd ideas that got thrown out, like the Wookiee planet; that was a cost factor. There were some other ideas that might have been included if there was more budget. Some of those ended up in later films. But [George’s story on how it is written] is perpetuated by the fact that he and I did interviews at the time of the opening of Star Wars, saying we took a section out of the middle because there was too much material and we want to do more films.
After the film opened, Fox said, “Can you do another one?” And we said it’s possible, but for cost purposes it would be better if we committed to two more because we can amortize the cost of sets and everything that way. So that’s really what happened. But the story material was not fully formed.
20th Century Fox was kind of a mess at the time.
The chairman of the board, Dennis Stanfill, was not happy with some of what Fox was doing and it wasn’t anything to do with Star Wars. In the year that Star Wars was made, two prestige pictures were being shot that were costing two-and-a-half times as much as Star Wars. There was Turning Point, with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, about ballet dancing. And Julia with Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda.
Both of those were not expected to make a lot of money, but they were elegant projects. That was at a time when these studios all did that. They made potboilers and they made action pictures and they made small art house pictures, they made prestige pictures that they expected to win awards. Getting that balance right was never easy.
Fox had another film out that summer called The Other Side of Midnight, which was a kind of potboiler novel. It was a terrible film, but it was a soap opera, and there is an audience for that. So it did reasonably well. But in a lot of cases, the only way they got The Other Side of Midnight playing in the cinema was to say we’ll tie it to Star Wars. They worked it both ways. Those cinemas that were interested in The Other Side of Midnight but didn’t care about Star Wars, they had to take Star Wars anyway.
Eventually the Fox board decided they wanted to see a rough cut of the movie — at the worst possible time.
The board [including Princess Grace of Monaco] came to the mix one night. We could only work at night because the mixing theater was busy during the day. We were supposed to mix at Warner Brothers and their big stage, and we got preempted by Clint Eastwood and his film [The Gauntlet]; he was a much bigger name at Warner Brothers than we were. Goldwyn didn’t have any time either, but the head of Goldwyn said, “Well, I could let you work at night, and we’ll pull in another crew.” So, we worked from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day.
The board came in when we were just finishing up the [very unusual at the time] Dolby stereo mix. They came at the beginning of our session, at 8 p.m. I don’t think we had any titles then. No end titles or anything.
The board sat there and watched the film, and at the end they got up and left, not a word. No applause, not even a smile. They just got up and left. We were really depressed. Stanfill came up to me right at the very end, he was the last one to leave. He said, “Don’t worry about them. They don’t know anything about movies.”
Star Wars was not an immediate hit at its first test screening with an audience, either — contrary to Lucasfilm legend.
The audience was generally favorably inclined to the picture. It wasn’t a revolutionary response. It was polite, and positive and most of the [audience survey] cards were quite positive. But I have one still, framed, where this guy — I think he’s 22 years old — he said “This is the worst film I’ve ever seen since Godzilla versus the Smog Monster.”
August 1977: thousands line up at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles for “the worst film since Godzilla versus the Smog Monster.”
Image: Kurtz/Joiner Archive
The infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, often described as the worst TV show of all time, wasn’t always that awful.
It did start out to be a lot better [with a different script]. We had half a dozen meetings with the TV company that was making it. In the end, because of work on promoting Star Wars and working on the next film, we realized we had no time. So we just left it to them and just had the occasional meetings with them, provided them with access to props and the actors, and that was it.
We were kind of appalled as it got towards air time as to what was happening with it. Everybody kind of walked away. It was a bad mistake. In the long run, it wouldn’t have been necessary even to do anything. It happened because Fox was worried that three years was too long to wait for the second film, and that something needed to be out there in the meantime. It really didn’t.
On how he left the production of Empire Strikes Back, which got delayed and went way over budget:
Howard [Kazanjian, who took over production on Empire and Return of the Jedi] was around. He was doing American Graffiti 2. I was talking to Jim Henson about The Dark Crystal, because he wanted to go ahead with it and I said I can’t do it because I’m tied up with the Star Wars thing.
I think George had it in his mind that he could direct the film remotely by telling [Irvin] Kershner what to do, and Kersh was not that kind of director. George only came over [to London] a few times during the shooting; Kersh said, “Look, you hired me to make this movie, I’m going to make it.” And he did. He was a bit slow sometimes, and we did have to use a second unit a couple of times. I directed the second unit after John Barry died suddenly in the first week. So that threw us.
Mark Hamill sprained his wrist and arm and couldn’t do anything for a little while. So it did run long. We had weather problems in Norway — the worst blizzard in Northern Europe in the last 40 years. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a movie location anywhere where a local hasn’t come up at one point saying, “You should have been here last year, the weather was a lot better.”
Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz and Yoda welcome some visitors to the set — including Miss Piggy, Frank Oz, Kermit and Jim Henson.
Image: Kurtz/Joiner Archive
[Kershner] was very good with the actors and he was a bit slow. The visual effects team made fun of him sometimes because he would stage a scene and they would say, “Okay, Boba Fett’s going to shoot at Luke here so you want bullet hits here and here,” and they’d mark in pencil so they’re going to drill holes and put these squibs in. Inevitably, they’d say, “Are you sure now? Are you sure this is where you want them?” So they’d drill the holes and they’d put the squibs in and then cover them up.
And then he’d do a rehearsal and then he’d change his mind, and they’d have to put new ones in somewhere else.
I tried to rein him in a bit and by taking over the second unit. I was able to get some of the stuff done, like Luke in the ice caves with the Wampa, for instance. I shot all that. Peter Suschitzky, who was the cameraman, was very, very helpful in terms of making sure that the lighting in the second unit matched the first unit and everybody worked really hard.
I think Kersh did an outstanding job. The difference between Star Wars and Empire from a performance point of view is, I think, striking. It’s not only better written, but its performances are much less comic book-like, and darker and more realistic.
Return of the Jedi became “less serious” — because of Indiana Jones.
In the meantime, George had worked with Stephen [Spielberg] on Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was convinced by the end of Empire that it needed less serious stories and more rollercoaster ride. He changed the story outline for Jedi and we had a kind of mutual parting of the ways, because I just didn’t want to do another attack on the Death Star.
The original story outline that we had for the third film I thought would have been great. It was darker and it ended up with Luke riding off into the sunset, metaphorically, on his own. And that would have been a bittersweet ending but I think it would have been dramatically stronger.
But the official Lucasfilm account of the making of Return of the Jedi says there was no early draft without Death Stars?
It wasn’t ever that way and it never was shot that way. That was just a discussion. This all came up at the time that Empire was being written, because the idea was that they had to tie together.
I had some written materials somewhere. It was about how are we going to resolve the story of these three people; one of the discussions was about Han Solo’s character being killed in one of the raids in the middle of the story. Harrison wanted it to be that way. He wanted his character to end that way. So there was that and there was the princess having to take control of what’s left of her people, and be crowned queen.
But I think what happened was that there were discussions with the marketing people and the toy company. They said, “Oh, no, you can’t do that. You can’t kill off one of your main characters. It’s too salable.” In a way that still happens today with superhero movies. There’s no poignancy anywhere. It’s just a lot of action. But there’s no threat to any main characters. I guess that’s inevitable in this kind of situation where nobody wants to lose anything like that that’s important.
Anyway, I’m not sure that that ever got down to a complete story outline. It was dismissed very early on as being possibly too melancholic and not upbeat enough for big endings.
Chris Taylor is the author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, the first complete history of the Star Wars franchise and its fandom.
To hear audio clips from the Gary Kurtz interview, check out the Full of Sith podcast below.
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