5 Reasons It's A Miracle That 'Star Wars' Got Made At All
You are an executive at a movie studio. A young director is coming off a hugely successful movie about teens in 1960s America called American Graffiti. For his next project, he wants more than ten times his previous budget to shoot a huge special effects feature with the catchy title Adventures Of Luke Starkiller, As Taken From The Journal Of The Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. The original two-page treatment in which he outlines the concept begins: "This is the story of Mace Windy, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi, as related to us by C.J. Thorpe, padawaan learner to the famed Jedi."
Do you write this man a huge check? Or do you call security?
This, friends, is the inspirational tale of an objectively terrible idea that only got worse ... until the finished product changed the goddamned world. The next time somebody calls your idea stupid, tell them how Star Wars came about.
It Only Seems Like A Sure Thing After The Fact
When it comes to blockbuster movie franchises, Star Wars feels like cheating. A simplistic story of good and evil told against the backdrop of the greatest special effects ever filmed and featuring a smirking Harrison Ford in his prime? Shit, how can you lose? Add in the fact that everything you saw on screen could be turned into a kickass toy or action figure, and it seems like the Hollywood version of an infinite money cheat code. That's how it looks now.
But at the time, even George Lucas didn't really want to make Star Wars. He wanted to give us a 1970s reboot of the 1930s sci-fi adventure series Flash Gordon. But the rights to that series had already been purchased by Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, so Lucas had to build his own version effectively from scratch. His own expensive, totally incoherent version which still stole so many elements that it's a wonder they didn't get sued. Hell, the live-action Flash Gordon episodes would even open with that slanted crawl, stating the "chapter" and giving some backstory:
And what reason did anyone have to think that Lucas could make a world-changing fantasy blockbuster? The only thing remotely similar on his resume was 1971's THX 1138, a bleak, weird film that had been dismissed as incomprehensible by the studio and bombed at the box office. So imagine being the studio executives when this bearded guy brings in his 200-page script that's a confusing mishmash of insanity and "borrowed" ideas. Even personal friends of Lucas admitted that they couldn't understand what the script was about.
The Original Story Was A Confusing Trainwreck
So the whole thing had started with The Journal Of The Whills. It left everyone totally baffled, so Lucas wrote a new treatment, this one 13 pages long, then eventually expanded that into a full-length script called The Star Wars. This first draft is sort of like Star Wars, in the same way that getting run over by a bus is sort of like driving a car. The right elements are there (wheels, road, etc.), but they aren't doing what they're supposed to.
The story follows a fat teenager named Annikin Starkiller. Annikin's dad drags him to the planet Aquilae, where they meet General Luke Skywalker. Almost immediately, Aquilae is attacked by the New Galactic Empire for reasons that we couldn't explain without a flowchart and an advanced understanding of post-Jedi-Rebellion economic policy. Two or three more flowcharts deconstructing Aquilaean politics would be needed to explain how General Skywalker loses the war, but Annikin and the General do manage to sneak away from the planet with the last remaining members of the Aquilaean Royal Family. By "sneak away," of course, we mean "get chased and shot down over Wookiee country," which leads to General Skywalker training a squadron of Wookiee fighter pilots to shoot down the Death Star. Actual line from the script:
And just between you and us, we think there's something seriously wrong with this Annikin kid. Another quote:
Yes, you read that right. He SOCKS PRINCESS LEIA IN THE FUCKING FACE. Now, since you've probably seen movies before, you may have guessed that Leia falls madly in love with young Starkiller. This draft's version of Leia is 14 years old, by the way. Just thought we'd mention that.
Also, we already knew that Lucas likes to make up funny names, but we doubt that's much consolation for the unlucky Sith knight Prince Valorum. And it probably doesn't make the Emperor feel much better, either, seeing as he has to go through his fictional life with the unfortunate name of Cos Dashit. As a side note, we'd like to recommend that if a woman named Beru ever offers to cook for you, say no.
A lot of the characters are there in that first draft, at least by name. Han Solo is a Jedi and, quote, "a huge, green skinned monster with no nose and large gills." Meanwhile, Chewbacca "resembles a huge, grey bushbaby with fierce baboon-like fangs." This thing had the potential to be amazingly bad.
Once Production Started ... Things Only Got Worse
Sure enough Universal Studios passed on the project. But 20th Century Fox stepped in and gave Lucas $8.5 million, maybe because they were afraid of what he might do otherwise. So Lucas flew off to shoot in Great Britain and Tunisia, while in the U.S. a team of untried special effects artists gathered to start making movie magic. After a year, that team had blown half their budget and had exactly three usable special effects shots to show for it. Lucas and some Fox executives dropped in on them to find out what the hell was going on, and found the crew standing around, having a refrigerator lifted and dropped on the concrete in front of them because "everyone kinda wondered how it would sound."
Things weren't going any better in Europe, where Lucas' British crew began to openly mock and rebel against him, taking breaks without permission and refusing to work the long hours they'd need to meet the deadline. The production soared over budget. Corners were cut at every turn -- many of the film's dazzling effects were thrown together using discarded ideas, old dolls, toy model kits, and a coat of shitty paint. If you watch the original trilogy on Blu-ray, you'll see how many of the stormtroopers look like they're wearing mismatched, poorly made Comic-Con costumes. Not even the San Diego Comic-Con. Like, Cleveland's.
That's because when Lucas ordered up an army's worth of fancy space soldier duds, the costume department rightfully shit their pants. They simply weren't equipped to crank out something on that scale, so they needed someone who was. And since people who specialize in the large-scale manufacturing of space armor don't exist, they turned to the next best thing: Andrew Ainsworth, a man who made fish ponds and canoes for a living. Ainsworth went straight to work, pretty much making shit up as he went along. Ainsworth vacuum-formed stacks of stormtrooper helmets out of high-density polyethylene plastic, then blasted them with a thick coat of white automotive paint. This would've been a fine solution if it weren't for the fact that absolutely no kind of paint whatsoever will bond to HDPE.
Everyone had to make do with what they could find. To create the human figures occupying the miniature of Luke's landspeeder, 98th-level visual effects wizard Lorne Peterson looked for a quick and dirty alternative to sculpting wee versions of Luke and Obi-Wan. He found it in the form of two Steve Austin (OG Six Million Dollar Man, not the Stone Cold one) action figures, which he mildly disguised with tiny Luke and Obi-Wan robes and stuffed into the vehicle. Although it looks downright ludicrous from the front, it totally worked in the film because the prop was shot only from far away or from behind, and for only short amounts of time. Which is a good thing, because miniature Luke isn't wearing any pants.
The ships were born from a process Hollywood model makers call kitbashing, wherein they plunder store-bought model kits (typically tanks and military aircraft) for high-tech-looking plastic bits, which they'd then glue together into even more high-tech-looking plastic bits to make a good-looking model for the film. (This process would oddly come full circle when, years later, the team would buy an officially licensed X-Wing model off the shelf to use in a Return Of The Jedi effects shot.)
Oh, and the iconic Meridian Trench that wraps around the Death Star -- you know, the setting of one of the most thrilling climactic sequences in cinematic history? That's due to a totally accidental flaw in model maker and spaceship designer Colin Cantwell's model. The material Cantwell used to form the Death Star's iconic "that's no moon" shape had a tendency to shrink, which caused the two dome-shaped halves to not quite meet up in the middle, leaving an unsightly gap around its equator.
Rather than, you know, fill it in, he called up Lucas and suggested that he rewrite the final battle scene to include a thrilling sequence in the giant crack in his model which was totally part of the original design and in no way a mistake that he didn't feel like fixing. Cantwell pitched the idea of a "ditch" around the Death Star which the heroic Rebel pilots had to dive and swoop and swish their way through, breathlessly avoiding heavy armaments on their way to the final attack point. Prior to that, the now-famous exhaust port was an obvious but well-guarded hole that the Rebels would swarm around like flies at a picnic table. Lucas agreed that Cantwell's pitch sounded way better (because, Cantwell's motives aside, it was), at which point Cantwell presumably wrote "DONE!" on a sticky note, slapped it on his model, and went out to get hammered.
Meanwhile, everything that could be recycled, was. Rebel troop helmets are the same helmets the Death Star gunners wear, painted white with the face shield removed:
Extraordinarily bored Star Wars fans have even made a sort of Where's Waldo? game out of figuring out how many times the head of unintentionally hilarious robotic bounty hunter IG-88 was reused as a background prop.
Oh, and after spending who knows how much time and money on an elaborate model of the Millennium Falcon ...
... they realized it looked too similar to the Eagle, a ship from the television show Space: 1999:
But Finally, The Movie Was Done! And Everyone Still Hated It
So once the actual movie was completed, everybody realized what a work of genius it was, right? Nope. No theater chain wanted it. The science fantasy adventure was completely out of step with the sci-fi hits of the era. (They were all dark, adult films like Soylent Green and Logan's Run.) To avoid having to sit on this expensive turkey, Fox resorted to underhanded means to get it in front of audiences. They told the theaters they couldn't have a surefire upcoming hit (The Other Side Of Midnight) unless they agreed to take this Star Wars turd along with it (a practice that is totally illegal, by the way).
Thus, Star Wars was booked into a whopping 39 theaters for its grand opening, in the hopes that it would at least make a little bit of its money back. All but one of those theaters saw this weird little movie break their all-time attendance records. At the end of all that, the crazy bearded guy was right. Within a couple of years, approximately 96 percent of the world's children were dressing up as a Star Wars character for Halloween. The era of the high-concept sci-fi blockbuster was born ... and with it, the era of building films around franchises and merchandising potential.
No, It Was Not Originally Conceived As A Nine-Part Series
So the first film says it's "Episode IV" right in the opening credits. That's what makes Star Wars different from, say, Transformers, or even the Matrix trilogy -- it was a single grand epic spawned in Lucas's possibly deranged mind long before cameras started rolling on the first film.
The legend goes that when Lucas began writing the story, it got too big for one movie, so he decided to split it up. Shortly after releasing the first film, Lucas claimed he already had an idea of what all nine parts of the saga would be about. Obviously, he would only go on to make six films (Lucas now says there were always supposed to be just six). But the truth is that when they released the first film, he had no idea it was anything other than a standalone movie. Most fans now don't realize that the famous "Episode IV" isn't anywhere in the original opening crawl -- it was only added to later prints. The idea of numbering the episodes came up with the second film, which was originally announced as Star Wars II.
Let's look at Darth Vader, for example. The prequels make it clear that the overall saga is supposed to be the story of Darth Vader's corruption and final redemption ... but Lucas didn't even know who Darth Vader was until the second draft of Star Wars II (that is, The Empire Strikes Back). In interviews, Lucas has claimed that he came up with the name "Darth Vader" as a variation of "Dark Father," implying that it was always supposed to be a clue of his relationship with Luke. But in the early drafts, Lucas gave the name "Darth Vader" to a completely normal Imperial general who had nothing to do with Luke.
In all likelihood, Darth Vader's real name was supposed to be ... Darth Vader. That's why in the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan calls him "Darth" instead of "Anakin," the name he would have known him by. In fact, in Lucas' early notes, Vader and Luke's father are supposed to appear together onscreen. Though we're saying all of this to avoid the obvious: If Lucas had planned for Leia to be Luke's sister all along, this probably wouldn't have happened ...
None of this should diminish Star Wars in your mind -- it should do the opposite. All of that chaotic, slapdash bullshit came together to create a cultural phenomenon that will probably inspire generations of children long after we're dead. After the apocalypse, scavengers will dig up our Star Wars merchandise and trade it as currency. With this comes a lesson none of us should forget: The line between madness and genius is very thin indeed.
The material in this article originally appeared in 5 Classic Movies That Seemed Like Terrible Ideas At The Time, 6 Classic Series You Didn't Know Were Made Up On The Fly, 5 Dumb Accidents That Made 'Star Wars' A Classic, and 7 Terrible Early Versions of Great Movies, right here on Cracked!
Some of Lucas' best creations are a lot more adorable and significantly less murdery as plush toys.
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