Friday, 26 December 2014

The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler / review by Jacob Edwards

A mile-long star ship, an alien cantina and a dogfight in space. Everything else is detail.

Anybody who by 1977 had been associated with SF being made for either the small or the big screen would attest that Star Wars (later subtitled: A New Hope) changed everything. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate the enormity of Star Wars’ impact in retrospect of all the flashy SF and CGI-driven fluff that has come after – one would have to judge the movie only in the context of filmmaking to that point in time; which, like requiring a jury to disregard evidence, is asking the impossible – but even those who were born too late to experience Star Wars upon its original cinematic release perhaps will have found themselves drawn into watching it on DVD (often several times) or habitually whensoever it is shown on television, commercials and all. The franchise nowadays is taken for granted, as are the visual effects for which Star Wars was the forerunner, yet in its day the movie was an unprecedented phenomenon – as suddenly huge as it was unexpected – and weighing in at 362 large, glossy pages (28cm x 26cm), the majority of which are resplendent with production photographs, artwork and designs, J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars (Aurum Press, 362pp; 2013; first published: Ebury Press, 2007) both establishes the cinematic milieu in which George Lucas’s film was made and goes a long way towards fostering an appreciation of its significance. Drawing for the most part on rediscovered interviews that Lucasfilm vice-president Charles Lippincott had conducted between 1975 and 1978 for a “making of…” book that went unwritten, Rinzler promises his readers a host of contemporaneous recollections and thence the definitive account of Star Wars both as it unfolded and as it was perceived shortly after completion, before the effects of its trailblazing became fully evident: in other words, the inside story of a history that was still very much in the making.

For all that the finished product proved to be of lasting consequence, Star Wars had a troubled genesis both creatively and in terms of George Lucas’s strained working relationship with Hollywood and the studio system. Lucas had enormous difficulty developing and explicating his grand concept, and much though 20th Century Fox might come across as short-sighted and unreasonable in its dealings, this is the one instance in which Rinzler has allowed his exposé to carry a selective bias, the pro-Star Wars effusiveness of his source material resulting in a favouring of the film’s historical success over what may well have been quite valid concerns on Fox’s part. Lucas himself is treated in more balanced a fashion, and emerges as a quintessentially independent filmmaker attempting through sheer force of will to exert control over every aspect of a gargantuan undertaking, not so much because he was obsessive/possessive (although clearly he was) but because the intricacies of the movie, in combination with its epic and ambitious scale, necessitated that each component have its requirements and problems attended to in minutiae by people who worked in artistic isolation, glimpsing only a sliver of Lucas’s overarching visualisation until such time as Star Wars was fully realised and came to be shown on the big screen. George Lucas knew exactly what he wanted – his orchestrating of talents calls to mind Brian Wilson, who would compose Beach Boys songs in his head and assign parts to each member of the group, the tunes then emerging fully formed – but while Lucas shaped every nuance and every frame of Star Wars, other people nevertheless made seminal contributions, and the constraints of time and budget also played their part in determining what was achievable. Furthermore, Lucas’s absolute purity and exactitude of vision would come to the fore only after several (at times nebulous) globules of creativity had coalesced to the point of registering on his internal scanner of certitude and so becoming part of the production process. Fans who live and breathe Star Wars through a continuity filter they cannot suffer to remove should remember that much of the detail they now hold as sacrosanct, Lucas patched together over many years to accommodate nothing more de rigueur than a broad reenergising of the space opera genre and two or three set piece scenes he thought would be visually effective. Darth Vader’s iconic mask was originally part of a spacesuit, not a core element of his character. The Millennium Falcon took on its distinctive shape as a hasty revision after there appeared on Space: 1999 a ship too much like the model already built. Luke in one draft was a woman, and only at the eleventh hour was renamed Skywalker (from Starkiller, which was thought to evince A-list celebrity murders). Even something as seemingly quintessential as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s demise aboard the Death Star was a late script change, concocted during filming and (at least in its initial form) to the disgruntlement of Sir Alec Guinness.

While making Star Wars George Lucas demanded something akin to godlike autonomy within a constantly evolving framework – almost as if directing a lucid dream – and in examining each scene of the movie from conception to final edit, The Making of Star Wars shows not only how particular he was in piecing together his magnum opus, but also, oddly, how malleable the Star Wars universe proved in its formative stages and how very different each element could have been. The movie that is so greatly beloved by audiences in fact fell well short of what Lucas had hoped to achieve, and throughout pre-production, filming and then post-production he consistently expressed his disappointment: so much so that amidst the cornucopia of production photos in Rinzler’s book – an invaluable visual record and an idiosyncratic time capsule of 1970s fashion – it is difficult to look upon Lucas’s bearded, curly haired, frustrated visage and not construe a harbinger of Rowan Atkinson’s oft-thwarted Elizabethan incarnation of Blackadder. Such nefarious associations aside, the lush and unstinting pictorial content ensures that The Making of Star Wars is well worth delving into as a coffee table book, albeit one that retails at £40.00 and contains matter-of-fact prose sufficiently exhaustive to constitute heavy reading for even the most dedicated of fans. From the technical side of filmmaking it is hard to envisage a more comprehensive work, but Rinzler’s compendium is valuable beyond its dry chronicling of method and fact, offering much also by way of anecdote and in bringing out the personalities of those people (particularly Lucas) who dedicated themselves to the making of Star Wars.

All told, Rinzler’s is a book that should appeal to anyone with a fondness for Star Wars or an interest in the history and development of SF motion pictures. The question of whether or not it’s worth the cover price might fall ultimately to such intangibles as how badly you’d like to meet the walrus who voiced Chewbacca, or how curious you are as to how a bantha may be brought to life sans CGI but one elephant to the good. If nothing else, though, The Making of Star Wars constitutes an unparalleled vista of behind-the-scenes enterprise, and for most of us an eye-opener as to the vast quantities of time, money and effort poured into each labyrinthine second of screen time on a science fiction classic such as that which Lucas delivered unto the world in the cinematic dawn of 1977.

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