To many who have studied the behind-the-scenes creative process of the original Star Wars trilogy, one name looms above all of creator George Lucas’s collaborators – producer Gary Kurtz. Kurtz, who had already teamed up with Lucas for American Graffiti, was seen as someone who helped mold Lucas’ creative visions and tempering them into something that more balanced both the business and artistic needs of film. He finally split from Lucas towards the end of the production of The Empire Strikes Back when it was starting to become clear that the factors driving the next installment of the franchise would be more beholden to such concerns as merchandising than it would be to storytelling. And some fans will tell you that things have been downhill ever since.
In doing the research for his upcoming book How Star Wars Conquered The Universe which goes on sale tomorrow), writer Chris Taylor had long conversations with Kurtz and his role in shaping what would be come one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of all time. Along the way, Kurtz managed to shed new light and dispel some of the long-persisting rumors about the franchise’s earliest days. Taylor shared a few of these stories at Mashable over the weekend and upon reading them you may just find yourself questioning what you think you know about the creation of the iconic film franchise.
First off Kurtz addresses the long-held belief that Star Wars only came about because George Lucas wanted to make a film adapting the classic science-fiction comic strip hero Flash Gordon –
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…
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 also states that the idea of Lucas being inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell is a bit overblown. (Emphasis in the first paragraph mine.)
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.
The long held belief that Lucas merely took his overly long first draft of The Star Wars, cut it into thirds and lifted the middle section out for what would become the first film also comes under fire from Kurtz.
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.
Kurtz also explains how factors outside of storytelling concerns were already starting to shape the course of the film franchise and how that lead to him moving onto other projects.
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.
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.