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January 1977: George Lucas in Winter
Christmas 1976 rolled over into New Year’s Day and the Bicentennial year was over. A Democrat was about to take over the White House, always a happy event in Hollywood. As January began, the town went back to work, crafting 1977’s most hotly anticipated hits: A Bridge Too Far, with Sean Connery, Robert Redford, and Ryan O’Neal; a new James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me; The Deep, from the author of Jaws; and a pair of highly touted dramas celebrating the viewpoints of women, Julia and The Turning Point. Woody Allen and Burt Reynolds also had movies on the way.
Everybody was poised to get rich or richer during the upcoming summer gold rush. But 20th Century Fox started the new year with a costly hangover. They’d spent two years backing a dubious novelty, the American Graffiti guy’s quirky tribute to the forgotten world of Flash Gordon serials, rumored to be something about a gorilla who flies a spaceship and a mystical force called “The Power.” From the screening rooms, word was filtering out: Star Wars was likely to be a loser—dull, confusing and corny, despite a couple of great special effects shots. The rough version was a mess and an unbreakable release date, May 25, was breathing down their necks. Thank God, Lucas stepped up and took charge of fixing it.
Marcia Lucas, that is. Far from just being the director’s wife, she was a respected film editor much in demand. She’d already edited films for Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. Marcia Lucas worked with two other accomplished editors, Richard Chew and Paul Hirsch (Hirsch, in particular, would have a long career), and the narrative neatness of the Lucas-and-Lucas storyline shouldn’t leave them out of the picture. But at this turning point in the fate of Star Wars, they didn’t have and could never have had the no-nonsense clout with George Lucas that Marcia did.
Some words about what a movie looked like while it was being edited: Right up through most of the ‘80s, editors worked on a cheaply and quickly made copy of the 35mm film—the “rushes”—which would get cut up, scratched and dusty during the edit process. At this stage, colors and brightness varied from shot to shot, and the original sounds of, say, a sword fight on an armored space station sounded like two guys with wooden broomsticks, huffing and puffing while shuffling around on a plywood floor. Missing special effects shots (which on this picture were taking forever to finish) were temporarily titled as Sequence Missing. This made it tougher than usual even for jaded, experienced film pros to fully imagine the image-and-sound impact that this finished film would have.
For decades, studios “previewed their movies to death,” refining rough edits in response to real audiences. But crucially, by the time of Star Wars, directors with the strongest contracts were (nearly) all-powerful compared to the strict studio controls of classic-era Hollywood, or even of present-day Hollywood. Secretive directors like Kubrick or Lucas declined to have early preview audiences decide how to finish their pictures. Lucas had a wonderful contract, thanks to his legal eagle, Tom Pollock, and a patient, gentlemanly paymaster for a 20th Century Fox boss, Alan Ladd Jr.
Once all the edit decisions were made, and the music and sound effects all in perfect place and mixed together, only then were the working picture and sound elements replaced in the lab with pristine, polished ones. In the pre-digital era, that was an unavoidable, months-long lab process. It all had to take place by the end of April. That’s when finished, permanent film prints would be provided for nationwide advance shows to local film critics and theater owners. You couldn’t duck those screenings no matter how big a deal you were. That meant that even with the opening date still four months away, in January 1977 there was literally not a moment to lose.
Most of the film’s problems were felt to be in the first act, and that’s what got changed the most. It wasn’t exciting and audiences were not getting into the characters or story.
Like the movie we all know, the rough-cut version begins with the famous intro crawl, the text introduction to the story that stretches out to the vanishing point. Unfortunately, it didn’t focus audience attention. It was nearly twice as long as the finished version, written in the floridly yakkaphonic mythological style later given free rein in the prequels. Then it got back in the Star Wars groove with the iconic space chase with laser blasts that begins the action. And we cut to—
A bunch of teenagers laughing it up somewhere in the desert on the planet below. One of them, obviously a main character, notices traces and light flashes of the space battle visible in the daytime sky and raises a set of futuristic binoculars to his eyes. For most of the next 20 minutes of Star Wars, we remain on hot Tatooine with the cool kids, like rural California kids with little to do, riding around in hovering speedsters, holding races, and hanging out at teen-oriented hangouts. The hot-rodders of American Graffiti on Mars, in effect, was probably a major come-on to the studio that helped sell the picture to Fox — a somewhat different picture than the one we know. Superficially, though, it made some sense, relying on referencing Lucas’ popular triumph of 1973.
It was also classic, recommended story structure: get the lead actors in early so the audience cares about them right from the beginning. Luke’s very name is a tipoff that he’s a stand-in for Lucas himself, just as the earliest descriptions of daring, risk-taking Han Solo match those of Lucas’ slightly older friend and wildly successful mentor, Francis Coppola.
Sticking with Luke’s story took much of the momentum away from that slam-bang opening. In this early 1977 cut, even after the droids are sent to the surface, more time goes by before it begins to directly affect Luke. He’s back at the metaphorical Mel’s Diner, talking about how much he wants to ditch this soul-deadening farm planet and see the galaxy. It establishes motivation; to George it was a big scene, a key scene for Luke. We’ve now spent most of the first third of the whole movie with Luke on Tatooine.
That was slashed. It meant dropping a lot of the young adult American Graffiti stuff, which was part of Lucas’ thoughts that reflected his own long-ago divided attitudes about leaving Modesto, and tied in wider attitudes about American small towns and nostalgia in an ironically futuristic context. It’s been said that there are two types of film editing, the deftness of the scalpel and the decisiveness of the meat ax. Someone who could say no to George was going to have to use that ax on fiercely defended scenes that he spent years writing, scenes that took millions of dollars to film. Saving Star Wars required somebody talented, ruthless and unfireable. Marcia Lucas was that person, put in place by des-tin-y.
Now, in the cut we recognize, we stay with the action in space. The audience is focused on the primal battle of good and evil that starts the film. Sympathy with the rebels and a boo-hiss reaction to the forces of the Empire starts early and never lets up. The movie undeniably ran faster and more excitingly now, with better-defined conflict. It looked like the way to go, but there’d be some price tags to deal with. They had to make sure the loose ends of this fairly radical chop could be handled, storywise and every other way. It meant that when rebel pilots who were apparently Luke’s friends on Tatooine show up at the Death Star attack briefing and the attack run itself, we don’t know who they are, but the Lucases decided it was clear enough in context and got away with the continuity jump. Fortunately, there were later bits of dialog that recount discarded scenes you no longer see, like bull’s-eyeing Whomp rats and stunt piloting.
The way we’re introduced to Luke now, the way we’ve accepted for 43 years, is a woman’s voice calling a simple farm boy to dinner, accompanied by music, a lightly sweet, sentimental restating of the film’s theme, like a scene from Lassie Come Home. It’s an amazing change in perception: the same actor, same footage, same everything else as in the cut a few weeks previous, but the mid-story sudden intro to Luke subtly makes him seem more like a dutiful 16-year-old boy, not a fed up, ready to leave 18-year-old man. A character more akin to one in The Wizard of Oz than to The Last Picture Show. This change, in turn, meant that Luke’s character was no longer the unquestioned center of the movie. The modern term “Mary Sue” hadn’t been invented yet, but not actually seeing minute after elaborately produced minute of Luke doing all of these things as a skilled, cocky teenager took him down a bit in our eyes, made him seem a bit of a Mary Sue. Now, as a dynamic male lead, Luke Skywalker would be overshadowed by Han Solo.
There were other mid-picture changes in Star Wars between January and late February 1977 but the biggest remaining change from the January cut was a crucial change in the ending, sharpening it greatly. In the version we’ve always known, it’s a desperate us-vs.-them, good-vs.-evil situation, with the rebels trying to blow up the Death Star, and the Death Star only moments away from destroying the rebel base. It’s a film editing classic, illustrating one of the oldest film tricks: cross-cutting between two parallel opposing paths of action.
But it didn’t start that way. In the chill of January, the attack on the Death Star was basically Pearl Harbor in reverse; the bad guys are sitting around having coffee and the good guys suddenly appear and blow them up. There was no parallel action. That was invented in the cutting room to intensify the drama, and it succeeded brilliantly. The actors, sets, and props were long packed away, so the editors worked with what they had, shots of Peter Cushing ordering the destruction of Alderaan and Imperial technicians preparing to fire. They used a new voiceover about the Death Star soon being cleared to fire and placed it over a pensive, unrelated close up of Carrie Fisher. They filmed a no actor, no sound, low-low cost shot of a translucent screen, animated to show the occlusion of the planet in the shadow of the Death Star. It not only made the ending much, much more suspenseful; it gave it greater moral force. If the Nazis are two minutes away from using an atom bomb on us, then at all costs we need to wipe them out first; that’s the stark logic.
The result is film history that’s lived on for more than 40 years. Victory has a thousand fathers. It’s only human nature that the stunning box office victory of Star Wars led to competing stories about who deserves credit. Memories change and come into conflict, sometimes for honest reasons.
Can we say that Star Wars, one of the most successful works of outsider art of all time, was saved in the cutting room? Not from the point of view of the many fans, from May 1977 to the present-day, who would have loved it at any length. But if Marcia had indulged the inner George, would there have ever been so many of us to begin with? Of course, we’ll never know.Published in Group Writing
The film editor’s blade is mightier than the scriptwriter’s pen?
This post is part of our Group Writing Series under the January 2020 Group Writing Theme: Winter of Our Discontent. Share your tale of winter, discontent, content, or maybe tell us a tale of someone done wrong by an author or film maker. There are plenty of dates still available. Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.
Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.
Nice piece, Gary.
My wife, my son, and I were sitting in the theater, giant popcorn in hand, on the opening day of Star Wars. My seven-year-old son and I had looked forward to this day for months as speculation about the movie drifted about.
I had no idea there was so much drama, however, behind the making of the film.
Great post, Gary.
I’ve seen some of that deleted footage of Luke and the gang. Compared to the finished product it all seems wildly out of place, even if they were talking about wamp rats. They all come across as chuckleheads, instead of the Luke, touched by destiny, feel in the final cut. And just the line from the aunt to the uncle was enough to set up meeting the friend later. “Most of his friends have already gone.”
Invented in 1973, four years before, in a story by Paula Smith parodying a certain style of submissions to her Star Trek fanzine. It spread from there to science fiction criticism generally and escaped into polite society over time. It describes a character possessed of superhuman levels of ability with no development arc whatsoever and usually a proxy for the authir. Sort of a two-legged deus ex machina.
Wow. Not much of a Star Wars fan but your knowledge and insights are fantastic! Thanks!
I’ve been hearing more about Marcia Lucas and her role in making Star Wars what we love over the past few years. She played a huge part.
It shows what an art film making is. I hear critics complain that some films use too much dialog. “It’s film. Show us.” But then here George was trying to show us and it turned out a few pieces of dialog could tell more. I guess it also depends on what story you’re trying to tell. As you point out, we ended up with a different understanding of Luke.
Thank you @garymcvey – your background insights and revelations are always intriguing. I’ve long thought that some writers – and other storytellers- really only have one story they simply must tell. I don’t mean the writers of series who follow a formula- I mean the serious writers who bring the same questions and impulses and motivations into their characters in every story. It seems they just don’t know how to answer their own questions. From your disclosures, it seems that it took a third party (Marcia Lucas) to keep George from trying to tell his story – again. It certainly would have been a different movie. Thanks!
Thanks, Gary. An interesting story. A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold.
Your posts are so much fun, Gary. Thanks for continuing to pull back the curtain on what we think we know about such things. Neat stuff!
Luke also comes across as whiney in a way not at all befitting an unlikely hero.
Very interesting. Finally somebody on Ricochet mentioned a film I’ve seen: American Graffiti!
Your description of the process makes me want to see Star Wars, too! Maybe I’ll get around to it someday. It doesn’t sound much like the film that provided a thousand sermon illustrations back in the day, too many of which I heard myself while sitting in a church pew.
One of that parts of that story that got left out was the Lucas (George) didn’t want the early scenes of Luke to begin with. People who read the early script that was closest to the finished film (there were so many drafts) complained that it was too much like THX-1138. All robots and Sith Lords. No humans. So he brought Luke in earlier.
The original edit does not stick with Anchorhead for 20 minutes. It bounces back and forth between Luke on the ground and the droids and Leia in space. But no, the Anchorhead scenes are not well made.
This video is pretty fantastic and sums up the original post (and some of my comments as well).
Here’s the original trailer for Star Wars. Without Ben Burtt’s sound, the final edit, and of course, John Williams’ score it looks like something to be avoided even if you’re starving for science fiction movies in 1976.
There seems to be competing impulses to say that “Lucas was a hack who had good people around him” and “Lucas was the sole creator of the genius that was Star Wars.” There is ample evidence that Lucas’ instincts in most cases were spot on. But there is also evidence that other voices such as Marcia Lucas and Gary Kurtz were part of the recipe.
Given the acrimony of their divorce there has been a concerted effort over the years to erase Marcia from the Star Wars history.
On the divorce: It’s interesting to read the transcripts of the story session for The Empire Strikes Back and then Return of the Jedi. On Empire every one of Lucas’ ideas are fantastic and his reasons are spot on. But on Jedi his ideas are indifferent at best and terrible at the worst. He doesn’t care anymore at that point.
As for “saved in the edit” even on American Graffiti George was telling his actors “I’m shooting it now and I’ll direct it when I edit it.” Someone once said that Lucas only wrote movies so he’d have something to shoot and he only shot movies so he’d have something to edit. That was always his first passion.
Oh, and there were further changes after the film was released in a handful of theaters in May and when it went wide in June and July. (If you can hear the mono sound mix it’s a much better mix. It’s the one with “Close the blast doors!”)
I recently watched Star Wars with my wife — who didn’t think she’d ever seen it — and though this was my 847th time seeing it, this time I was really struck by the pitch-perfect pacing of it.
The only time the pacing felt off was (surprise!) with the new stuff that Lucas stuck in there for his special editions.
Marcia is a large contributor to my daughter’s nonprofit that teaches social emotional learning to under privileged children. Her and George have been very generous.
Great recounting of the creative process that made Star Wars what it is. Marcia deserved that Academy Award for Film Editing.
Luke is still pretty whiny in the finished film. “I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” “But it’s a whole ‘nother year!”
You know, that can be fixed, right? I haven’t seen the SE’s in so long I find them especially jarring now.
So much fun reading the backstory to the making of the film, Gary! Thanks! And the video that @TallCon included really brought back sweet memories.
I was going to mention this as well. My friends and I would throw out the power converters line in conversation occasionally. Anakin came off a bit whiny in the prequels and we joked that it must be a Skywalker thing.
@susanquinn when you posted about The Blizzard of 1978 I restrained myself from mentioning all of the ways it tied in with both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Back then everything was about Star Wars. These days it’s only mostly about Star Wars. :)
That’s certainly what Lucas was going for. But he never managed to make it believable in Anakin’s case.
Yeah, I’ve got the DVD release that included the non-special edition on a second disc. (Yes, I know it’s not entirely un-changed from 1977.) But we were watching the Blu-Ray.
I don’t remember Star Wars well enough to be sure, but for him to start whiny and grow out of it would make sense.
Nobody has said it yet, so …
Han shot first!
As you were.
Just a slight change.
Greedo never got a shot off. No Maclunkey!
The best single work I’ve read on the development of the script is Michael Kaminsky’s e-book The Secret History of Star Wars. In 1977-78, Hollywood’s easiest targets of ridicule were the executives at other studios who passed it up. Most of them took their medicine in silence, but Universal’s Ned Tanen offered the sheepish defense that few people had any idea how convoluted the original material was.
It does a good job. There’s actually more than one comparison video out there, and they differ in detail, I’d guess because they’re based on the moving target of a changing edit. I oversimplified to keep this already-long post closer to Ricochet length, so you’re right, the film didn’t stay entirely on the ground, but broadly speaking Anchorhead was, well, as heavy as an anchor.
Given the acrimony of their divorce there has been a concerted effort over the years to erase Marcia from the Star Wars history.
You’re right; In the early years Lucas was fairly generous about acknowledging her contributions. That changed. To be fair, as pointed out in the OP there were other suggestions from people like Lucas’s pal Steven Spielberg, and the OP short-changes George just a little. Whether or not the edit ideas were originally his, he bought into them. He wasn’t a passive bystander.
Someone once said that Lucas only wrote movies so he’d have something to shoot and he only shot movies so he’d have something to edit.
Stanley Kubrick also said that.
If you can hear the mono sound mix it’s a much better mix. It’s the one with “Close the blast doors!”
Even in the first interviews Mark Hamill mentions having to redub some lines because Lucas wanted the mono mix to be great. This was no minor esoterica, because in 1977 35mm optical stereo sound was still a novelty; the vast majority of non-70mm theaters would be playing Star Wars in mono.
When we turned two of the Ricochet Silent Radio scripts into actual recorded programs, I finally really discovered what Lucas was talking about 43 years ago; there are big differences in the way you mix stereo and mono if you need dialog to be clear.
Now imagine 20 straight minutes of that.
She really did. In recent years, Paul Hirsch wrote his memoirs of the experience, with a slightly unhealthy high dose of “Vitamin I”. Hirsch points out, correctly, that Marcia was gone for some of this time, working on Scorsese’s New York, New York, and by the very end of editing Hirsch was the last of the three main editors left. Hirsch can be credited with working with George to turn Darth Vader’s exit into a literal “spinoff”. But the big changes that are the subject of the OP happened while Marcia was around. My claim isn’t that she was the only competent editor there, but she was the one who could best sell changes to George.
I appreciate the correction, Percival! Before a few years ago, I’d never heard the term.
I had a Star Wars picture book with photos from the film that included that shot of Luke raising his binoculars, as well as one of Luke talking to Biggs (wearing a black cape!). The text of the story included both scenes as well. It must’ve been prepared and sent off to the publisher before the final cut of the film.
I used to read his website. Never dropped the dime on buying the book, but with an actual recommendation I’ll have to see about that.
J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars is quite good too. If you think his books are a soft-sell, read The Making of Return of the Jedi. It’s certainly warts and all.
It’s remarkable how doggedly Alan Ladd Jr. stood by the movie through it’s production.