Our panel of experts weigh in on the future of the legendary space opera franchise – now under new management.
Moderated by Mark A. Altman
It was 1977: The year Damnation Alley changed cinema.
Not quite. But that was the big-budget sci-fi film — starring Jan-Michael Vincent, an awesome RV and radioactive cockroaches — pegged by 20th Century Fox executives to be their big summer blockbuster that year. Really. Instead, it was the modestly budgeted space opera Star Wars, which filmmaker George Lucas almost didn’t get made, that rocketed to the top of the box-office charts and became the highest-grossing film of all time (until E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982).
Ironically, Lucas had gone from the commercial failure of his experimental THX 1138 for Warner Bros. to minting money for Universal Pictures with his massive smash American Graffiti, only to see that studio ignominiously pass on bankrolling his next project, then titled Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars.
So Lucas went to Fox and prevailed on studio head Alan Ladd, Jr. to greenlight his intergalactic fairy tale, but with little support from the studio head’s lieutenants. And they weren’t the only ones dubious of the film’s prospects. Even Lucas’ own cadre of close friends and former USC filmmaking cronies — including Brian De Palma (who was auditioning actors for Carrie at the same time Lucas was reading talent for Star Wars), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood (Dragonslayer) — all dismissed the movie after screening an early cut. Only friend Steven Spielberg and future film critic (and occasional screenwriter) Jay Cocks would suspect there was more to that rough version than met the eye.
And thus on May 25, 1977, a Rebel blockade runner thundered over Tatooine, pursued by an even more massive Imperial Star Destroyer, and, in the process, changed cinema forever — spawning numerous sequels, spin-off TV ventures (Caravan of Courage, baby!), an appallingly bad Holiday Special featuring a stoned Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford and, of course, countless other branded merchandise — from action figures to condoms. OK, maybe not condoms, but virtually everything else you could polybag, sticker or sell.
And now, almost 35 years later, Star Wars again dominates the pop culture conversation with the recent announcement that multi-hyphenate writer-director-producer-mensch J.J. Abrams will direct the first of a new trilogy of Star Wars films under the aegis of The Walt Disney Company, which purchased Lucasfilm, including the intergalactic mega-franchise, in late 2012.
Clearly, this great disturbance in the Force required Geek to weigh in on these astounding developments in a galaxy far, far away, so we called to order our own Jedi Council of Star Wars experts to share their thoughts on this new hope for the saga. Moderated by Geek founding publisher Mark A. Altman, our summitees included screenwriter Steve Melching (Star Wars: The Clone Wars), director Kyle Newman (Fanboys), actress Ashley Eckstein (Her Universe, The Clone Wars) and artist Chris Gossett (“Tales of the Jedi,” “The Red Star”).
Mark A. Altman: Let’s talk about your first time, your earliest Star Wars memory, because for anyone who loves Star Wars, it’s such a seminal moment.
Kyle Newman: No one believes it, but I was born in 1976, so I was really young and don’t remember the movie when it first came out. We went to see it at a drive-in theater in New Jersey, and I just remember this crazy, electric energy. After that, I started pronouncing Star Wars names before human names. And people were like, “Who is this weird kid?”
Ashley Eckstein: I don’t have as exciting of a story. I was born in 1981, so, obviously, I missed A New Hope, but what I do remember specifically — and I was so young — was the scene with R2-D2 and C-3PO in the desert on Tatooine. I loved R2-D2 so much, I wanted to be R2-D2. [Laughter]. My earliest memories are of watching Star Wars on VHS at home, and obviously we had all the movies, so it was something that was always just there. It was a part of our childhood.
Steve Melching: I was 9 years old when Star Wars came out and had already developed an appreciation for science fiction by watching Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man and Land of the Lost. And I remember that summer my dad showed me pictures of C-3PO and R2-D2 in the newspaper, and he said, “There’s this new movie coming out called Star Wars. Would you like to see it?” And I looked at the pictures and thought, “Star Wars? That’s kind of a cheesy-sounding title. I don’t know.” But it became this big phenomenon. So my parents took me to the one movie theater in town where it was playing — because back before the days of wide release, it was in this one theater — and the movie started, and my jaw dropped and it stayed dropped for two hours. My mind was literally blown while watching it. My whole life felt transformed after watching that movie. You can’t underestimate the sort of seismic shock Star Wars had when it opened. There had never been anything like it. The impact it had on everything — films, television, merchandise. It was just everywhere, and played in theaters for a solid year or more.
Altman: And, because there was no home video back then, how many of us went back to see it again and again? And when it was re-released? I even went back to see it in a theater when the title crawl was changed from Star Wars to Episode IV: A New Hope. I look back now and say, “What an idiot I was,” but it was so exciting.
Chris Gossett: I stayed home from school so I could see it with my dad. We went to the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and it was a madhouse, so we saw it at the Fox Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard instead, and it was amazing. I remember that night falling asleep, and it was the first — and only — film that when I laid my head on my pillow, I could hear Ben Burtt’s cues in my mind. I could hear the lasers and zooms from the TIE fighters.
Altman: That’s interesting because I think when a lot of us saw The Making of Star Wars on TV that summer, we were fascinated by seeing Ben Burtt tapping the phone lines to create the blaster sound effects. It was the first time they really peeled the curtain back on how a film was made. I think that was another reason we all thought we could make movies. It wasn’t like Cecil B. DeMille coming out of a Rolls Royce on the Paramount lot, wearing ties and yelling through a megaphone. It was all these young, hip people with long hair having fun.
Gossett: It was a huge milestone in the origin of geekdom.
Newman: I remember the “Mad” and “Cracked” Star Wars covers, and wanting the action figures of the aliens they had on the “Cracked” cover in the cantina and thinking, “Kenner’s going to make that. They have to make that.” I was obsessed with the aliens. That’s how I learned to draw. It was just looking at these magazines and the images, and I just started drawing, and Star Wars inspired that.
Altman: Are the toys the reason why the passion we feel for Star Wars is so much stronger than the love we might have for other films?
Newman: From the beginning of my life, Star Wars was everything. I could take it home, and I could play with it, and it wasn’t like I wanted it because it was a toy. It was because I wanted to still be in Star Wars, and that was the closest I could get to it.
Altman: And without the Marvel Comics, we wouldn’t have known about the Hoojibs between Empire and Return of the Jedi [Laughter].
Newman: And the Brian Daley radio dramas were something that was massive for me as well, because there were these story gaps in the movie but the radio shows filled them in. They’re well performed, and what they do is they showed you extra little corners of the galaxy after the scene ended in the movie. What? I can hear more about how Princess Leia got the plans to the Death Star? And there are all these backstories about Luke’s friends? That’s what made you realize Star Wars was more than a series of movies. It was a story, a legacy. We even did a Han Solo radio drama this summer down at Star Wars Celebration. That was, to me, so magical — hearing it and realizing that your mind just filled in all the gaps.
Altman: Was it like that for you working on the comic books, Chris?
Gossett: When I had a chance to create stories in the Star Wars galaxy, I was an absolute zealot about it. I absolutely attacked it as if it was the most important thing that ever could be. It wasn’t a job at all. It was a religion — like I was a member of the clergy. I had seen The Power of Myth at that point, read Joseph Campbell and studied Kurosawa. I’d seen all the films. I’d heard about the connection and that George had really delved into that stuff and hit these primal notes.
Altman: Everyone makes jokes about Harrison Ford’s ’70s sideburns, but for the most part Star Wars is a film, both the visual effects and the production design, that holds up remarkably well, and far better than other sci-fi films of the era, like Logan’s Run. Why do you think the Star Wars films have endured, not just because of that nostalgic passion that we have, but more as movies themselves?
Gossett: Creative limitation. Ask the guys who were there and they’ll say, “You know, the Death Star was one set. We reused things.” The pillars that Luke hangs his grappling hook on were in the Blockade Runner and turned sideways. When you’ve got to work like that, there’s a certain sense that comes to the artist and you get really interesting things. That’s just one thing, but also classic film is classic film. You can watch the great films and they don’t date like that. You look at Casablanca, and, sure, it’s a ’40s film, but you could watch it today and it’s still amazing. Star Wars has that.
Melching: Lucas set out very consciously to study ancient mythology and storytelling techniques that go back hundreds and thousands of years and crafted the story that touched on these universal themes that connect with people in a very deep, mythic way that really speaks to something deep within us so they’re vibrant and relevant to any audience.
Newman: Star Wars was that one movie where sound and picture meshed and were equals. It pushed boundaries. On a technical level, the Star Wars films were always ahead of their time. In terms of story, like you said, it’s mythology. There’s something really deep and intrinsic, and Lucas is tapping into it almost like he’s a shaman or an orator telling these stories, like [Homer reciting] “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” Star Wars mixed Westerns and samurai films and serials and pulp and screwball. You can look at The Empire Strikes Back and say it’s the darkest movie, but it’s a screwball comedy in a lot of ways. Look at Han. “You could use a good kiss.” There’s all this banter. It’s like It Happened One Night. It’s incredible.
Altman: You’re seeing the influence of screenwriter Leigh Brackett there who wrote films like The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye, which all have brilliant dialogue.
Newman: Exactly. And all these things, when they coalesce and come together, become their own genre. You can’t even say Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy. And even if you don’t like the prequels, you still have to look at them for the mythology of what those stories are, or else you could do a great disservice to the whole saga, because if you don’t accept the mythological foundations that George put in there, then you kind of undo the potency of what happens at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Altman: There’s a terrific kid’s song by the band Board of Education, called “Why is Dad So Mad About Star Wars” which pretty much sums up the disconnect about the prequels in which a kid can’t understand why his dad gets so incensed about the special editions and the prequel trilogy. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about these divisive films.
Gossett: In the first five minutes of the first Star Wars film in over 20 years, the Jedi are sitting down having coffee. But, honestly, I can’t think of a single plot line in any of those films that wasn’t poorly set up or ridiculously paid off.
Newman: I liked them a lot. I could probably write a book about why I liked them. To me, all the episodes work together and enhance each other. If you sit down and revisit them, you’ll find that there are these rhythmic story patterns in the structure, and it’s really deep and smart, so they’re better films than people give them credit for.
Gossett: My problem with the prequels are the fundamental cinematic flaws that have been pointed out ad nauseum and don’t need repeating. I’m not one of the vitriolic haters of the prequels, but saying it’s my fault that I don’t like them? Nah.
Newman: A lot of things that were hokey about the original movies we just gloss over, and if they had come out when we were older and we were at a different, a more cynical place, in terms of how we viewed cinema, we would’ve been critiquing the original trilogy in a lot of the same way. The prequels came out right after The Matrix, and, all of a sudden, Matrix was pushing all these technological boundaries. And everyone that summer was like, “Oh, I wanted Star Wars to be cooler.” Shut up. You’re being selfish. Look at it as a kid.
Gossett: People defending the prequels always have to attack those of us who don’t like them. We must be cynics, they say. We’re just too old. We don’t see it through their eyes. Here’s my problem with that: First of all, don’t defend your film by attacking my taste. As for the cynicism defense, I got full on weepy when Wreck-it Ralph sacrificed himself to save Sugar Rush from Turbo.
Melching: The Matrix, on the surface, seemed very flashy and groundbreaking, but I think Phantom Menace was actually more groundbreaking in terms of its filmmaking. It was just more seamless and invisible, whereas The Matrix used a lot of techniques that we’re all familiar with and using the bullet-time stuff, which I had been seeing in Gap TV commercials.
Newman: What was going to be better, The Phantom Menace or the movie you directed in your head for 16 years? I always look at people like, “If you like three Star Wars out of six, then guess what? You give Star Wars an F — that’s a failing grade. You’re not even a Star Wars fan. Get out of here.”
Altman: What if you only like two of the six?
Newman: Here’s the danger. There are people who want to dismiss their existence. Anakin’s a virgin birth, and you have to talk about midi-chlorians, and I know you might not like midi-chlorians, but if you have 10,000 years of Jedi, they’d have to have a biological understanding of themselves and a way to quantify it. It doesn’t take the mythology out of it. It doesn’t take the mysticism out of it. It’s just a necessity.
Gossett: Anakin never fell from grace. He wasn’t seduced by the Dark Side. He was a lost cause from adolescence on. By the time he puts the mask on, it’s a complete anti-climax. We should have been absolutely heartbroken when Anakin Skywalker fell. And don’t give me the “but everybody knew he was going to become Vader, so why play that?” You know what? Everybody knew the Titanic was going to sink, but James Cameron gave us two and a half hours to fall in love with it and its passengers. This is the job of a filmmaker. The man took one movie and a boat, and it was a singular cinematic experience. The prequels had three films and the Star Wars galaxy and all they did was undermine the mythology that gave them birth.
Eckstein: No matter what anyone wants to say, the prequels are so special to a generation of fans, and that’s why everyone gets so passionate. The same experience that you’re all talking about here that you had back in 1977, there were kids that had the same experience with Episode I, II and III. And now kids who haven’t even seen the movies have the same experience with Clone Wars.
Altman: Here’s why I disagree. Star Wars is a film for kids — 8 to 80. This is the argument I hear a lot about the prequels. “You know, it’s a whole new generation of kids who are getting into it — it’s more for kids.” But the great thing about Star Wars is that your grandparents can go see and enjoy it. You as a kid can see it and enjoy it. This is why the whole nostalgia thing doesn’t hold water for me.
Melching: Well, there’s the reverse. I’ve talked to kids who find the original movies boring. They don’t like the original trilogy. They’re the target audience and embrace the prequels. They love Anakin Skywalker and love Jar Jar.
Gossett: My favorite part about the prequels is that Lucas did come out and say it’s all about, “I hate Cheney.” [Laughter] I was like, “Yeah. Indictment of the Bush years.” That was, I thought, really heroic on his part that he came out and said, “Yeah, the Emperor is Bush.” I thought that was cool.
Altman: It was interesting because he had some very sophisticated people mock the politics. I actually thought the politics were interesting. But then you’re trying to balance that with some of the kiddie stuff.
Gossett: And here’s some more love for George. He really wanted to make Apocalypse Now. He really wanted to indict America for Vietnam, and he was able to do that in the prequels. And he said it himself, straight from the horse’s mouth. And I really admire him for that.
Newman: What’s interesting about the politics of Star Wars is the Emperor, even as a character, is how patient he is. He almost never uses the Force in the prequels. And the interesting thing about the Sith in the prequels is they always tell the truth, whereas the Jedi in the original trilogy are always lying.
Altman: I think it’s safe to say that the Disney acquisition and the announcement of a new trilogy came as a shock to everyone. Even Lucas said on the Blu-ray release, “It’s done. I told the story I wanted to tell.” So what are your thoughts about the return of Star Wars, which was once a nine-part saga and then it was a three-part saga and then six parts and now nine parts again?
Melching: When I was a student at USC film school, they’d do these discussions every Thursday and tape record all of them. And I looked in the archives to see what they had, and they had an interview with George Lucas from late 1977 where he says it’s a 12-part story.
Newman: And he told Mark Hamill, “You’re going to come back, and you’re going be like this old Jedi.”
Altman: A lot of you will feel I’m crazy, but apparently I’m the only one on the planet who is not excited about the idea of bringing back Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. I feel that the Star Wars universe is so rich that I want to explore new parts of it rather than revisiting old hallowed ground. I always hated the Death Star 2 in Return of the Jedi. It seemed very derivative.
Newman: I think the way Lucas ended Return of the Jedi was kind of a haphazard, “I’m not going to make more movies. Let’s just wrap everything up.” The Chosen One was never supposed to be Princess Leia. They were never supposed to be siblings. So there’s all those things that were kind of neatly tied up in Jedi and that’s probably where you have your grievances. So I think Lucas deviated from his original plan, but now it sounds like they’re going back to that original plan, so I am excited. If the movie has a Roman numeral after the title, it’s got to be a Skywalker story. I think it’s an opportunity for them to kind of wrap up the Skywalker story the way George really envisioned it back in 1974 or ’75 when he was first writing it.
Altman: I am thrilled about the choice to hire J.J. Abrams, but there seems to be resistance to that decision from some fans. What are your thoughts?
Newman: It’s funny, because if they’d announced Irvin Kershner today or an Irvin Kershner-type director now with the Internet, the response would be, “Who the hell is Irvin Kershner?” and it would be terrible. But George put faith in a guy like Kershner because he was the best person to tell the story. I think with J.J. he found the best person to tell the story and could channel it through him. My big thing is the challenge not to disregard the prequels. I don’t know how J.J. personally feels about them, but the real challenge is to embrace them for the story elements they offer and by making the movies so great that you make the prequels even better.
Altman: That’s quite a steep challenge, Kyle. [Laughter]
Newman: Maybe Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda — they’re all a spirit council. If you do it right, you can actually make the third chapter of Anakin’s life. You don’t want to see the prophecy of The Chosen One undermined just because you want to have a good chance to bring the Emperor back.
Altman: J.J.’s already had a test run doing a Star Wars movie. He did Star Trek, and his love of Star Wars is in every frame of that movie.
Melching: He had been on the record prior to that saying that he was more a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek fan. But I agree with this notion Kyle brought up: That if it has a Roman numeral, it’s a Star Wars episode and part of the Skywalker story. It remains to be seen how involved those original characters are going to be in the new film. I tend to agree that they’re probably going to be supporting characters, and we will have a new generation of new characters who will be the primary focus of the stories. So we’ll get that new generation of characters and the spin-off stories, these one-offs they’re talking about doing, whether it’s a Boba Fett story or a Yoda story or…
Newman: Or Grando. Lando’s father played by Gregory Hines, which was a big prequel rumor back in 1997 or 1998. [Laughter]
Altman: For me, I just hope, and I have very high hopes for J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk — who are very smart producers — that they remember the important lesson of Star Wars, which is if you’re going to do Tatooine, you go to Tunisia. You don’t do CGI. I just hope they don’t lean too heavily on the fact that computers can do anything because part of the great success of the original Star Wars trilogy was the locations that gave it a reality, whereas the prequels failed in part because they were so artificial with too many CG environments and the reality of what’s on screen starts to become lost.
Gossett: You can’t greenscreen the power of having Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in the film. One of my favorite parts, if not the favorite part, of J.J.’s Trek was Nimoy, having him there and the presence he brought to the film. He was poetry. And that’s why I’m excited about having the originals there. I think J.J. will know exactly what notes to hit with those characters.
Altman: I bet Harrison Ford is real happy now they didn’t kill him off in Jedi like he wanted.
Newman: This is something J.J. has grown up with and loves. I think he’s going to go above and beyond, and the fact that he had some reservations before he even took the job is actually good.
Altman: It’s got to be intimidating. You don’t want to be the guy who screwed up Star Wars. You don’t want to be the guy who buried the franchise.
Melching: That’s why so many people turned down George’s offer to direct the prequels. They felt that they wouldn’t get any of the credit if they succeeded but they would get all the blame if they failed.
Altman: There’s such a high bar to doing this and to do what Disney wants with it because you have to feed the beast. It’s not just making great movies, but creating a hunger for new merchandise, new theme park attractions and all the rest.
Newman: That won’t be too hard. I’ve been a Disney fan my whole life, so I’m excited about the prospect of a theme park. If there’s one franchise that needs its own park or land, it’s not Cars. It’s Star Wars. I can’t wait to go eat in the cantina.
Melching: There’s a certain wistfulness or sadness for me in that Star Wars always was this personal vision that George had. All those decisions were made up at this mythical place of Skywalker Ranch. And when I was invited on board to work on The Clone Wars it was such a magical experience to be invited into that place to help make this new iteration of Star Wars. My concern is that I don’t want it to become just another studio franchise, and it never felt that way when it was something that George was wholly responsible for.
Melching: I don’t want it to become just a sausage factory, like, “Oh, we gotta have a new Star Wars movie every year or two,” and just keep cranking them out. And I don’t think that will happen because Kathleen Kennedy is involved, and she’s been working with George since Raiders.
Eckstein: I’m excited. There’s still so many key people involved in making Star Wars, like [Clone Wars director] Dave Filoni, and I think they will continue to protect his legacy. I make no bones about the fact that I’m a huge Disney fan and a huge Star Wars fan. Anybody who gets a chance to work on Star Wars, I think, realizes that it’s a privilege, not a job. You want to go that extra 110 percent because it’s Star Wars. I’m hopeful for the future, I really am.
Gossett: There is no other interest on earth that could protect Star Wars the way Disney will. And Star Wars was always a Disney movie. George Lucas is a little baby boomer. He grew up watching Disney films. Lucas reminded Disney what Disney was. When Star Wars came out [in 1977], Disney was floundering and about to be sold off for parts, before [Michael] Eisner and [Frank] Wells come in to save the studio. So I’m very excited about it. I think Star Wars transcends individual filmmakers. I have hope for J.J. — I think it’s going be great. But I think in the long term you’re talking about something that’s going to outlive all of us.
Images: Lucasfilm Ltd