It’s hard not to think about Star Wars with all the news and potential spoilers about Episode VII dropping lately. Still, for the purist, the original will remain the greatest of the series, even if there is no high-quality version of the theatrical releases available. With so much Star Wars lately, it only seems appropriate to go back to the beginning and revisit Star Wars before it was ever known as A New Hope.
For the DVD release in 2007, a commentary track was added to the film, which has been preserved through the subsequent Blu-ray releases. Recorded separately and cobbled together for relevant points of the film, the commentary includes George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Ben Burtt, and Dennis Muren. While this particular commentary does not offer a modern perspective of the legacy of the prequels or the upcoming films and spin-offs, it does give a look back at the making of a classic.
Star Wars (1977)
Commentators: George Lucas (writer/director), Carrie Fisher (actor), Ben Burtt (sound designer) and Dennis Muren (miniature and optical effects)
1. From the script stage, Lucas wanted the movie to open with “Episode IV: A New Hope” in the crawl. His thinking was that the movie is designed like a Saturday morning serial that the viewer comes in without having to see the previous episodes. However, the studio would not allow him to put that in initially because they feared it would confuse the audience. For re-releases and home video releases, the episode number was put back in.
2. The original crawl was shot with a camera moving over large letters on the floor, and it took three hours to get it right because they had three different versions of the crawl, as well as other languages to shoot it in.
3. Lucas’s original script encompassed the entire trilogy and ended up being 200 pages long. He knew he could never make a movie that long, so he split the story up and just made the first act, which is why it is essentially introductions to all the characters. The attack on the Death Star was originally at the end of the initial script, but he moved it to the end of this film for obvious climax reasons.
4. Ben Burtt was instructed to make an “organic soundtrack” that sounded real and natural, which was different from the synthesized sounds that were primarily used in science fiction films of the 1970s (including many imitations that followed).
5. When Carrie Fisher first got the script, she read it with her friend Miguel Ferrer, and they both said they wanted to play Han Solo. “I couldn’t be Han Solo,” she says, “so the one part I could be was Princess Leia.”
6. Even though Lucas shot some of the famously deleted scenes of Luke (Mark Hammil) and his friends on Tattooine, which were originally edited into the beginning of the film, he never intended to use that footage.
7. It’s well known that Star Wars was inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa – in particular The Hidden Fortress, which tells the story from the point of view of the two least important characters. Lucas wanted to achieve the feeling he had when he first watched Kurosawa’s movie in that he didn’t understand the culture and history but followed the human element. That’s why he spends no time explaining how the universe actually works. This ultimately was the reason that so many people felt the movie was fast-paced upon release, because the audience was trying to catch up to what was happening in the background.
8. In addition to sandstorms (one of which totally destroyed the sandcrawler set and necessitated the crew to rebuilt it working round-the-clock over 48 hours), the two other major problems shooting in the desert environment of Tunisia were the cold and the rain.
9. Because the shoot in Tunisia was plagued with problems – including the fact that R2-D2 would rarely move more than five feet and never in a straight line – Lucas was able to get additional funding to shoot pick-ups in Death Valley. Some of these shots include R2-D2 getting captured by Jawas in the canyon and various shots of the Tusken Raiders and Banthas.
10. Because the script gave little direction on R2-D2’s voice (often just saying “R2 responded” or “R2 beeped”), Burtt had to come up with the sounds from scratch. After trying many different things – including using the sound of cooing babies – Lucas and Burtt were sitting together describing the sounds and making them with their own voices. This inspired Burtt to just use his own voice and mix it with the electronic sounds. Then he played the sounds in real locations and re-recorded them so it didn’t sound like R2-D2 was produced in a studio environment.
11. The shots of a three-legged R2-D2 were achieved with a remote control rig. When R2 is standing up straight, it is usually a shot with Kenny Baker inside, and he was able to give the droid more human reactions to lines of dialogue and on-set action.
12. Originally, Anthony Daniels was not meant to be the final voice of C-3PO. However, his voice was recorded on set in temp tracks, and the production team got so used to hearing it that they had him come back in the studio to re-record all of his dialogue properly.
13. Carrie Fisher spent two days shooting her hologram footage because the first day’s footage was shot without her hood on, and Lucas didn’t like that look in the hologram. She had recited her “Help me, Obi-Wan” speech so many times that at the recording of the commentary, she was able to deliver the lines from memory 30 years after the production.
14. The Banthas were elephants dressed up in costume. Lucas had to use real animals because he wanted the shot of the Tusken Raider jumping on one, and the would have been impossible using the stop-motion technology of the time.
15. The sounds of the Tusken Raider attacking Luke were from mules that were used to back-pack equipment in Tunisia.
16. To make the lightsaber sound, Burtt mixed the humming of an old 35mm projector at the university where he worked with the sound of interference from a television set. The sound of the lightsabers clashing was a mix of carbon arc noises and the pressing of metal against dry ice.
17. The sound of Vader’s Force-choke in the conference room was achieved by putting a bunch of walnut shells in a grapefruit rind and crushing it.
18. Lucas originally wanted a budget of $13m, but the studio insisted he keep it under $10m. After submitting a budget of $9,999,000.99, he ended up going over-budget and reaching $13m.
19. On set, the cast and crew would call David Prowse (the body of Darth Vader) “Darth Farmer” because he was from Dorset and had a pleasant British accent. He also often asked to re-do lines even though his voice was dubbed over later, and no one could see his mouth move.
20. When Lucas originally shot the Cantina, there were not many creatures in it, only what can be seen in the wide shot. Later, he had a second unit grab as many masks as they could and shot a bunch of shots of aliens against the wall. The Devil creature (now referred to as Kardue’sai’Malloc from a race known as Devaronians) appears because Rick Baker had a devil’s mask and they decided to throw it in there to diversify the scene.
21. The background voices in the Cantina include various animal noises, people speaking African languages, and a group of the editors gathered in a room, speaking gibberish after breathing in helium.
22. Lucas used “light speed” or “hyperspace” simply as a convention to get from point A to point B across the vastness of space. He never expected the scene of the Millennium Falcon going into hyperspace to have such entertainment value until he saw it with an audience. Later, the inside of hyperspace was achieved by moving a camera through a tunnel of aluminum foil shot with a high-contrast filter.
23. Burtt does the voices of all of the hologram chess pieces, a decision he made out of desperation because the footage arrived very late in the production.
24. Lucas explains that Han Solo says he made the Kessel Run in units of parsecs (which is distance, not time) because the Falcon’s navigation system is so sophisticated that it can get calculate and travel the shortest distance through hyperspace.
25. The Star Wars soundtrack was mixed three different times for release. The first was a two-channel Dolby mix. The second was a six-track stereo mix for the 70mm release. The third was the monaural mix, which was how it played in the majority of theaters because few theaters were equipped with stereo sound systems.
26. Originally, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) is not killed by Darth Vader because Lucas had him appearing in the later episodes. However, while shooting the film, Lucas realized that once they escape the Death Star, the character has nothing else to do. Even though Guinness wasn’t wild about getting killed off at the end of the second act, Lucas re-wrote the ending during production to make it work.
27. To show how he wanted the space battles to look, Lucas edited an animatic of these scenes using footage from old World War I and World War II movies and documentaries. This allowed him to only shoot and process the exact length of the effects shot, which saved money.
28. The only computer-generated animation seen in the original release of Star Wars was the screen during the Death Star briefing.
29. Lucas only had access to two full-sized ships for the giant hangar scene. The crew had to keep moving the ships in the background of the actors who were delivering dialogue to make the place look like it was filled. Lucas also kept the backgrounds dark so you couldn’t see too far into the hangar to reveal how empty it was.
30. All the background voices on the loudspeaker in the hangar were Burtt and a couple of his buddies speaking lines through a megaphone in an empty church.
31. The attack on the Death Star initially did not contain a countdown to the potential destruction of the moon. However, Lucas added several shots after principle photography and re-edited it to heighten the tension.
Best in Commentary
- Lucas: “At the time, it was a very bold idea, again, to have the first half hour mainly about robots.”
- Lucas: “Definitely, the film started off on a very grim foot of disaster.”
- Lucas: “The irony is now everybody’s so familiar with Star Wars that there isn’t anything in here that’s… you can’t shock people any more. The only way you can actually experience that is to watch it through the eyes of a, you know, six- or seven-year-old who’s never seen the movie before.”
Looking back on the production of Star Wars, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was a grand experiment. One of the best things that this commentary achieves is reminding the viewer of how restricted the production was. The budget was tight. The schedule was rushed. The technology was cutting edge and untested. It seems ridiculous now that no one had faith in this little space opera prior to May of 1977, but that was definitely the case.
I’m not wild about Frankenstein commentaries, though this one is edited together pretty tightly. Carrie Fisher and Dennis Muren seem to get the short shrift, time-wise. However, Lucas manages to talk intelligently about his property that some say he drove into the ground. Similarly, Burtt chimes in with tidbits about sound design, which are fascinating. The commentary only slows down now and then with Lucas droning about the structure of the story, which might only be interesting to a newbie.
The DVD and Blu-ray includes an additional commentary cobbling together archival interviews from the cast and crew, which were not covered in this piece. Either one is worth listening to for the fan of the series.