Did you know that Star Wars almost didn’t happen because Universal Studios turned it down? Or that Harrison Ford was an unknown actor working as a carpenter when George Lucas chose him to play Han Solo? Or that Luke Skywalker’s original name was Luke Starkiller? Here are some fascinating facts about Star Wars, one of the highest grossing sci-fi film series in history:
“There’s a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy tales. And kids need fairy tales- it’s an important thing for society to have for kids.” – George Lucas
In July 1973, George Lucas was an unknown director working on a low-budget 1950s nostalgia film called American Graffiti. He approached Universal Studios to see if they were interested in a film idea he called Star Wars. Universal turned him down. It was the biggest mistake the studio ever made. Six months later, Lucas was the hottest director in Hollywood. American Graffiti, which cost $750,000 to make, was a smash. It went on to earn more than $117 million, making it the most profitable film in Hollywood history – even today. While Universal was stonewalling Lucas, an executive at 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd, Jr., watched a smuggled print of American Graffiti before it premiered and loved it. He was so determined to work with Lucas that he agreed to finance the director’s new science fiction film. Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977, and by the end of August it had grossed $100 million – faster than any other film in history. By 1983 the film had made over $524 million in ticket sales worldwide – making it one of the top 25 highest grossing films in history.
MAKING THE FILM
- It took Lucas over two years to write the script. He spent 40 hours week writing and devoted much of his free time to reading comic books and watching old “Buck Rogers” episodes and other serials looking for film ideas.
- Lucas insisted on casting unknown actors and actresses in all the important parts of the film – which made the studio uneasy. Mark Hamill had more than 100 TV appearances, and Carrie Fisher had studied acting, but neither had had much experience in films. Harrison Ford’s biggest role had been as the drag racer in American Graffiti, and when he read for the part of Han Solo he was working as a carpenter.
Luke Skywalker. At first Lucas planned to portray him as an elderly general, but decided that making him a teenager gave him more potential for character development. Lucas originally named the character Luke Starkiller, but on the first day of shooting he changed it to the less violent Skywalker.
Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lucas got his idea for Obi-Wan Kenobi and “the Force” after reading Carlos Castaneda’sTales of Power, an account of Don Juan, a Mexican-Indian sorcerer and his experiences with what he called “the life force.”
Darth Vader. David Prowse, a six-foot, seven-inch Welsh weightlifter, played the part of Darth Vader. But Lucas didn’t want his villain to have a Welsh accent, so he dubbed James Earl Jones’s voice over Prowse’s. Still, Prowse loved the part. “He took the whole thing very seriously,” Lucas remembers. “He began to believe he really was Darth Vader.”
Han Solo. In the early stages of development, Han Solo was a green-skinned, gilled monster with a girlfriend named Boma who was a cross between a guinea pig and a brown bear. Solo was supposed to make only a few appearances in the film, but Lucas later made him into a swashbuckling, reckless human (allegedly modeled after the film director Francis Ford Coppola).
Chewbacca. Lucas got the idea for Chewbacca one morning in the early 1970s while watching his wife Marcia drive off in her car. She had their Alaskan malamute, Indiana (the namesake for Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Lucas liked the way the large, shaggy dog looked in the passenger seat. So he decided to create a character in the film that was a cross between Indiana, a bear, and a monkey.
Princess Leia. Carrie Fisher was a beautiful 19-year-old actress when she was cast to play Princess Leia, but Lucas did everything he could to tone down her femininity. At one point, he even ordered that her breasts be strapped to her chest with electrical tape. “There’s no jiggling in the Empire,” Fisher later joked.
R2-D2. Lucas got the name R2-D2 while filming American Graffiti. During a sound-mixing session for the film, editor Walter Murch asked him for R2, D2 (Reel 2, Dialogue 2) of the film. Lucas liked the name so much that he made a note of it, and eventually found the right character for it.
C-3PO. Inspired by a robot character in Alex Raymond’s science fiction novel, Iron Men of Mongo. Raymond’s robot was a copper-colored, polite robot that was shaped like a man who worked as a servant. Lucas intended that C-3PO and R2-D2 be a space-age Laurel and Hardy team.
- The spaceship battles were inspired by World War II films. Before filming the special effect began, Lucas watched dozens of war movies like Battle of Britain and The Bridges of Toko-Ri, taping his favorite air battle scenes as he went along. Later he edited them down to a 10-minute black-and-white film, and gave it to the special effects team – which reshot the scenes using X-wing and T.I.E. fighter models.
- None of the spaceship models ever moved an inch during the filming of the flight sequences. The motion was an optical illusion created by moving the cameras around motionless models. The models were so detailed that one of them even had Playboy pinups in the cockpit.
- The executives at 20th Century Fox hated the film the first time they saw it. Some of the company’s board of directors fell asleep during the first screening; others didn’t understand the film at all. One executive’s wife even suggested that C-3PO be given a moving mouth, because no one would understand how he could talk without moving his lips.
- The underwater monster in the trash compactor was one of Lucas’s biggest disappointments in the film. He had planned to have an elaborate “alien jellyfish” in the scene, but the monster created by the special effects department was so poorly constructed that it reminded him of “a big, wide, brown turd.” Result: The monster was filmed underwater during most of the scene – so that moviegoers wouldn’t see it.