339 DAYS TO GO!
There are very few geeky things that get me excited – the thought of my wife in a Catwoman outfit (something as yet sadly unfulfilled), watching Heath Ledger’s Joker performance (gets me every time: perfect, perfect, perfect performance) and maybe spotting something new in yet another multiple viewing of Lost – but this year the one thing that’s getting me all hot and bothered is the anticipation of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, resuscitated by Disney and geek rainmaker JJ Abrams…something we all thought would never be realised: George Lucas himself dug the grave and delivered the eulogy to the main SW film canon sometime back, and we all thought we would be left with 6 films of varying degrees of quality and a whole bunch of fan- and Lucas-certified lesser fiction, animation and other art.
The most important 88 seconds in film history…hyperspace-hyperbole!
Not the case, as the release date of December 18 2015 fast approaches – not fast enough though – with many tantalising teasers and trailers to flower girl its arrival. The first of which – 88 seconds of bombast editing of nonsensical snippets that had the internet analysing frame by glorious frame to the point of complete anal-retentiveness. In preparation for it all, I plan on writings and exhibiting a few thoughts of my own during the coming months as a way to prepare myself and to have a look at what this whole Star Wars thing means to me…
Admittedly, it is hard to come to terms with Star Wars fandom – firstly, I am not one of those gung-ho, dress-up fans who live and die by the lightsaber, I am not even close the highest echelons of being a fan worthy of being considered an expert on all things Lucas-universe, which brings me to my first thoughts here: Chris Taylor’s book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise – Taylor, a much lauded and talented writer for the Mashable pop culture and tech website is one of those experts, a fan dedicated to finding the stories behind the story, delivering with great flair and great writing some things we all might not know or had forgotten about the genesis of Star Wars and its impact on the world, movies, pop culture and each and every one of us.
Taylor presents the story with remarkable fluidity and great care for the subject matter, but still with a subtle critical eye. He presents everyday real world characters for whom the SW universe has actively and significantly changed their lives – not just the fanboys (to whom Taylor is neither condescending nor flippant), but those who took a part of SW and used it to constructively enhance their lives and livelihood, like the 501st battalion, a group that started off as just a bunch of guys building Stormtrooper suits and evolved into the vast global network of performance artists who choose to deliver the SW message to where it mattered, to the people, appearing at conventions, public events and charity events in suit and in character en masse to keep SW in the public eye.
So passionate were the 501st, that Lucas recognised their contributions to the pop culture of the films and the universe that he fully endorsed and encouraged the group to continue their good work. Lesser examples of the same kind of passion for the legacy of SW also include the man who fought hard to bring the Star Wars films to the native American Navajo community in their own language, and the amateur R2D2 builders club, who like modellers and other fringe hobbyists, live and breathe their passion to the point of exhaustion. Good people all, with passion and a sense of fun, the kind of people I myself love to read about and identify with, and also a lot like Taylor who, one can gather from the narrative of the book, enjoyed the assignment a lot.
These stories of ordinary people embracing the world of SW leads directly to the story of Lucas himself, first as a young proto-geek in 1950s middle America (Northern California, actually) with a passion for cars and Flash Gordon serials, and then later for art, animation and filmmaking.
Young George is likable enough, though overly tenacious and slightly boring, but by the time he’s decided on a career in the arts, these traits would serve him well in negotiating the wobbly counterculture of the 70s independently-minded filmmaking boom that saw so many of his contemporaries and close friends almost fall off the edge of excess (prime example being Francis Ford Coppola’s megalomaniacal ambition and excess) its no surprise that the two most successful filmmakers of the era, Lucas and Spielberg, were also the most strait-laced, teetotalled and utterly focussed of this new generation of film artists.
Taylor goes on to detail Lucas’ early filmmaking: surprisingly ambitious and avant garde efforts in film school and on the fringes of Hollywood, particularly his THX 1138 minimalistic dystopian sci-fi fable that first got him noticed by mainstream Hollywood.
The film itself is a million light years and galaxy far away from Star Wars, but the film, starring Robert Duvall and a lot of overexposed white mise-en-scene, indicated Lucas’ talent for creating something different out of the fresh tropes of science fiction film. If that was not enough to keep the suits guessing, his first major feature American Graffiti, a coming of age multi-story set in his hometown, based on his experiences growing up in idealistic but uncertain 1960s America, went on to be his first box office hit (blockbusters were still a few years away as a concept) – with amiable characters, classic cars and a great nostalgic soundtrack,
Graffiti was a game changer for Lucas and Hollywood – making Lucas a millionaire and giving him free reign to do whatever kind of film he wanted.
That film was the first Star Wars, a long gestating idea of presenting not a science fiction film but a space fantasy, a operatic fairy tale that would not be held to earthly concepts of science and nature, but a fully formed world within many galaxies where anything could happen and anyone could partake.
The film was a difficult birth, as detailed by Taylor in his book, highlighting the troubles of being a young filmmaker with a great idea in his head and not being able to communicate it effectively within the limitations of the medium he chose to use – something that would dog Lucas and his creativity ever since.
As a filmmaker Lucas was no Coppola or Spielberg: having neither the talent for words on a page or images on a screen – what Lucas was good at was finding the right people to communicate the vision in his head…from scriptwriters (all 6 movies started out in pencil on yellow legal paper by Lucas, and then through extensive drafts, rewrites and edits with many collaborators, finally finding the voice that exists on screen for posterity) – …to pioneering special effects creators, sound designer Ben Burtt who gave the movies its unique sound, effects cinematographer John Dykstra who created the camera system that enabled the movies’ distinct and realistic space battle scenes.
Also in his corner, Lucas had producers, marketers and money men (Alan Ladd Jr at Fox Studios) who believed in the Lucas vision and thought up new methods and broke new ground in getting the movie made and to the people.
When the first film was released in 1977, no one thought it would be the life changing pop iconoclast that it eventually became.
“Somewhere in space this all might be happening right now…”
In Taylor’s book every inch of the process is analysed to find the secret of its phenomenal success, everything from the opening ten minutes of the first movie – dismantling how the use of music, sound and vision, the font of the logo to the timing of John Williams iconic theme worked to make the Star Wars like nothing the world had seen before.
To how Lucas considered things like casting, location and those all-important special effects. Taylor goes on to analyse the making and reaction to the next two films and the later prequel trilogy, to a lesser extent than the original film, which is a little disappointing, but you can imagine that an in-depth look at each of the films would take up an entire book each on its own.
This book though does get pretty up to date, bar of course the last couple of months of the first phase of the Force Awakens and the next series of films. He highlights the ins and outs of Lucas’ decision to retire from the Star Wars world completely (seemingly hesitantly, but eventually much willingness, once he appointed the right people to drive the franchise in the right direction – highly successful former Spielberg collaborator Kathleen Kennedy as head of the company and JJ Abrams as director of the first film), as well as the intimate details of how the sale of the entire Lucas company to Disney was executed – one of the more important corporate deals in modern Hollywood history, with as much intrigue and hard-fought negotiation one might find in some of the Star Wars films’ more overtly political plot points.
But once Lucas knew that Disney would allow the company that bore his name and its products the same freedom to develop as it had allowed its other important cinematic assets like Marvel and Pixar, he was finally happy to let it go.
The atmosphere of Taylor’s telling of this vast, intricate history of the most profitable and most culturally important Hollywood touchstone is positive and congenial. There are a lot of barbed words and vicious indictments of Lucas and his creations throughout the years, some justified, some just plain nasty – but playing to a global audience of passionate fanboys and movie lovers in general can invite overanalyses and some tough criticism – for the most part, Taylor plays devil’s advocate for the world of Star Wars, and his book is both a refreshingly honest and well thought out long form journalistic piece.
It is a perfect read to reminisce on the memories of one’s own Star Wars memories and favourite moments, and fill in some of the blanks of the story behind the films and its universe, all the while working as a perfect primer for the next stage, the next great adventure into the world of Star Wars.
Bring on December 18 already…
*More from author Chris Taylor: