Star Wars: The Force Awakens has finally opened, and once the unprecedented hype and opening weekend passes, we will begin to focus on the Star Wars legacy and how closely JJ Abrams came to infusing moviegoers back to the love and wonder they felt when they saw George Lucas’s original 1977 game-changing blockbuster. How profound was that first film? I asked directors Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro, Ron Howard and Luc Besson to remember. I chose them because they are all great directors who’ve pushed the envelope themselves and span countries all over the world. Turns out that experience nearly 40 years ago was similar to seminal events like when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, where everybody remembers where they were when it happened. Every director recalls exactly the moment they saw the film and cinema changed forever.
Jackson and Howard wrote their reminiscences specifically for this piece. Scott, del Toro and Besson described their feelings in interviews done earlier this year with Deadline.
I first saw Star Wars at the Cinerama Theatre in Courtney Place, Wellington. It was summer 1977, and I was 16 years old — possibly the perfect age. The theatre was packed and bubbling with anticipation. I have a vivid memory that at the moment the Death Star blew up, the entire audience leapt to their feet cheering, including me. That type of emotive behaviour never happens with NZ audiences — it was my first (and last) experience of mass hysteria in a cinema.
Being a fanatical film fan, I would buy every monthly movie magazine I could lay my hands on back then. This was a time when Logan’s Run was the current state-of-the-art sci-fi hit, and I can’t actually remember reading anything about Star Wars while it was in production. But that all changed in May 1977 — suddenly every magazine had Star Wars covers and saturation coverage, and it went on for many months.
My only problem was that a “summer release” in New Zealand meant December. In that bygone era, most movies had a six- or seven-month delay between the U.S. release, and when we finally got to see them in NZ.
Those months from May ‘til December 1977, were probably the longest of my life. When I did finally see Star Wars, I’d been blitzed with spoilers for seven months — even without the Internet (and the word “spoiler”). I’d studied hundreds, if not thousands of Star Wars photos, read every article and interview, and listened to the soundtrack album over and over. I can claim to having seen Star Wars when it was first released in 1977 — and while there weren’t a lot of surprises, that sheer visceral excitement remains etched into my consciousness.
It was the same situation for Empire and Jedi. I saw them both on their NZ opening day in December, and for me neither of those films matched that first experience of seeing Star Wars. In fact I have to own up to not being a massive “Star Wars guy.”
As a filmmaker however, my gratitude and respect for George Lucas is without limit. In the decades following Star Wars, George has used his own resources to develop digital VFX, digital editing, digital sound and digital cinematography. He opened the door for me to make the films that I have, in a way I could have barely dreamt of doing before Star Wars. It’s only these technology advances driven by George that allow me to transfer images directly from my imagination onto the screen.
The same would be true of most filmmakers working today — but I can’t help feeling that George Lucas has never been fully appreciated by the industry for his remarkable innovations. He is the Thomas Edison of the modern film industry.
DEADLINE: Can you recall how seeing Star Wars the first time affected you?
SCOTT: I would describe it as seminal, for me. George’s first one, that he directed, just seminal. So creatively brilliant that he decided to make it the flip side of the coin to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it certainly became the flip side of Alien, which I would do two years later. Because his was a fairy story, in a funny kind of way. With the princess, the young prince, and the cynical Harrison Ford playing Han Solo. To me, it was an absolutely perfect rendition of a comic. I don’t mean comic as in ha, ha, I mean a great comic, a serial. I learned to draw from comic strips, the better ones. I always remembered the early Supermans were better drawn than the later one. The early Tarzans were spectacularly well drawn, the anatomy of the jungle was great. The later ones weren’t quite so good. There’s artistry in comic strips and George was obviously a devotee of that and what he did was brilliant.
I canceled the film I was going to do after I saw [Star Wars]. I finished The Duellists, which upon reflection is a good film and got a prize at Cannes. That helped me enormously but not in Hollywood. God bless Paramount for giving me $800,000 to make it, but they didn’t know what to do with it. If it had been 25 years later, you’d have had Harvey Weinstein or someone like that who’d know what to do with The Duellists. Somehow, it was the British entry that got the Grand Jury Prize and some bright spark saw the film and said, why don’t we give Ridley Alien? God knows what the connection was, but I had been a designer. My first job in television was as a set designer, and I was a devotee of comic strips. I enjoyed making The Duellists so much that I decided, with David Putnam, that I’d do Tristan and Isolde. Go back to Salah, that part of the countryside, and do fundamentally a version of Tristan and Isolde. I was in LA to show The Duellists and David said to me, there’s a film called Star Wars at the Chinese. I can get two tickets, do you want to go? I think you should go.
We went to an afternoon performance at 2:00, I was eight rows from the front with David Putnam. We sat in there and I never saw or felt audience participation like that, in my life. The theater was shaking. When that Death Star came in at the beginning, I thought, I can’t possibly do Tristan and Isolde. I have to find something else. By the time I finished the movie, I was so miserable because the film was so stunning. That’s the highest compliment I can give it; I was miserable for weeks. I hadn’t met George at that point, but I thought, Fuck George. Then, somebody sent me this script called Alien. I said, wow. I’ll do it. I was the fifth choice. They’d been to people like Robert Altman. How could you offer Robert that movie? He’d be like, this thing comes out of his chest, are you kidding? But I knew what to do. I read it and said, I’ll do it! I was in Hollywood in 22 hours, and they said, do you want to change anything? Nope. Do you…I love it. I love it.
DEADLINE: So we have Star Wars to thank for Alien?
SCOTT: Yes. Thanks to Star Wars, and to Stanley Kubrick for the way he influenced George and definitely influenced me with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The design on 2001…that’s the threshold for everything being real. You look at 2001 and you look at Star Wars, that design was influencing everybody. I could never shake it off and it influenced me even in Prometheus. Stanley really got it right.
The first time I saw Star Wars? While on the set of American Graffiti one night, George told me he hoped his next film would be a sci-fi movie combining Buck Rogers with 2001. About all I knew of the movie beyond that was that I’d heard the script had enormously challenging elements, and that I had not been invited to audition for the movie! Cheryl and I went to a matinee at the Chinese Theater on Saturday of the opening weekend, having read a great article and review, and that was about it.
We stood in line for close to two hours and shared with that audience the most amazing experience….watching that world and story unfold. I felt such a surge of emotion during the final scene and credits that as we walked out I looked at Cheryl and simply asked, “Wanna see it again?” She didn’t even blink. “Yes,” and without breaking stride we got into another two-hour line and though it seems impossible, were floored even more by the second viewing. Our best day at the movies ever. I had just completed filming my first feature film, Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman in early April. It was a day off from the editing with Joe Dante (who edited that movie) and it was entirely inspiring, and I had no idea in the world how he made that movie magic explode so vividly onto the screen.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO
DEADLINE: Where were you when you first saw Star Wars and how big an impression did it make on you?
DEL TORO: I was very, very young and I first saw it in the equivalent of a four-screen multiplex in Mexico. I went to the first matinee not knowing what to expect. This is pre-Internet. All I had seen was the poster. I loved the poster and I went in and I went to all the showings in two of the cinemas all day long until the people at the box office were amused and they would let me stay in. In those days, they led you out through the back of the cinema when the movie ended. All day long, I left, went around the block and I came right back in.
What George did for the first time was he took the concept of sci-fi being a highly polished, pristine universe, and he made it feel mundanely used. Things were rotting or things were oxidized and rusty. Things had oil leaks. It was a lived-in universe. I couldn’t phrase it at the time, but if you think about Ridley Scott and Alien, the idea of truckers in space, which Ridley Scott does beautifully, and the way he made certain parts of the bowels of the ship feel worn and used and dingy. That is the crossbreeding of 2001 with Star Wars. Ridley Scott is in the direct lineage of Lucas and Kubrick. His is a very different tone but he is as precise with his lensing. The areas of the ship that are pristine are very Kubrick-ian in a way, but there are parts of the ship where you can see the direct influence of Star Wars. I think George Lucas changed the way we see a genre forever. It was a genre that was on the verge of self-parody when Star Wars came out and all of a sudden, it became so huge.
Now, what the true secret of Star Wars is that it is really not sci-fi. It’s really sci-fantasy. It’s a tale of princes and princesses and evil wizards. George combines, in a majestic way, the best of Tolkien, the best of Nordic lore, the best of science fiction. All of this appetite that he has for these mythologies, all packed into one movie. I think that it’s not something that will be repeated. Honestly, he’s created something that is unique in film history. I do think the only other person that has that scope and ambition is Jim Cameron with Avatar, which comes from no other place than his imagination and the worlds that filled the minds of these guy as teenagers.
DEADLINE: You have said you were influenced by directors who pushed the envelope on films like Terminator, The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars and most recently Avatar. On that latter project, you said you had a script ready for your own groundbreaking project Valerian but tore it up after you saw Avatar and you decided you had played it too safe and had to go back to the drawing board.
BESSON: You know what’s important also for me? It’s to have ambition for the right reason, and my ambition is not for money or the power. It’s just the ambition of having fun, trying something insane, and then sharing it, after. I will never, never forget when, at 16 years old, I sat in a film called Star Wars, and then suddenly, there’s a sound, and everybody did this [he turns around and looks behind], because for the first time, the sound was coming from the back. Everybody turned, and we look at the spaceship from the roof coming on screen, and everybody was like, wow. That’s why I’m working so hard. I want to offer people a wow moment that they will remember, you know?
DEADLINE: You showed storyboards of the worlds you designed for Valerian to a small group of journalists at Comic-Con and it was actually refreshing to see a well established director be vulnerable, the way that Lucas must have felt on Star Wars and all the other directors you mentioned who followed him.
BESSON: [Valerian] is such an adventure for me, and I know it’s really a turning point. This is a huge film. It’s expensive. It’s in 3D. It’s on Imax. Usually, only the big studios are doing this kind of film, and only basically Spielberg, and Lucas, and Jim Cameron, and Peter Jackson are doing this kind of film. I’m not feeling pretentious; I’m just feeling excited to try to follow these guys because they’re my heroes. They’re my big guys. They impress me often, and I just want to play with them. So I’m overexcited, and that was what I wanted to share at Comic-Con. It’s not the kind of adventure where I say to all my friends in the press and everyone else, let me be by myself and I’ll see you in two years. This is too big. I wanted to share, and I’d rather take the risk that, down the road, some people might betray me, because that’s the human nature, and I will be sad. But I’d rather take the risk and share with a couple of thousand who follow on Instagram or on the news through you.
DEADLINE: How large are the stakes on this movie?
BESSON: It’s the first time in the history of cinema in Europe that we are going to do this kind of film. The last example was The Fifth Element. It’s like telling someone you’re going to the Olympics and you’re going to race, and there is Usain Bolt next to you. And you say, fuck yeah, I want to run.
DEADLINE: All those filmmakers are trying to top each other with technology and techniques, but France hasn’t been in that race.
BESSON: No, we haven’t. But what I really appreciate also is that the people we just named really like each other, respect each other, and work together. They’re not teachers, but they help each other, exchange, share. I want to be part of that. Jim, for example, has always been nice with me. I went to see him two years ago to ask him for some advice before I start Valerian. He’s always happy to do it. These are guys who want to see good films from everyone, they don’t just want to see their own films.