Sunday 2 June 2013

30 years of Return Of The Jedi

In 1983 I was fourteen years old and an avid movie buff, topping up my knowledge with Starburst and Photoplay and numerous articles in Look-In and other comics I got with my pocket money.  That year, there were two films that I was keen to see - one was Octopussy, featuring Roger Moore as James Bond and filmed, in part, near to me at the Nene Valley railway and the other was Return Of The Jedi (and in a weird coincidence, both films were shot by Alan Hume BSC), the second sequel to what remains my favourite film of all time.

In these days of Internet access, when very few films arrive cloaked successfully in secrecy, it’s difficult to explain how much of an event blockbuster films were back then.  Certainly we had the opportunity to read the novelisations (and I did), the making-of books and poster magazines (I did) and we watched chat shows and programmes that featured clips, but we didn’t have a complete sense of what it was.  I knew, for instance, that the Stormtroopers had different helmets and outfits (they were actually Scout Troopers) and rode bikes but I had absolutely no idea - no concept whatsoever - just how startling that speeder bike chase would be.

So it was that on June 2nd 1983, a new Star Wars film came out in the UK and none of us really knew what we were in for.  Since I was, according to my diary, embroiled in exams at that time, I didn’t see the film until July 20th (in the company of my friend Claire Gibson, with whom I went to see Star Wars one foggy day in early 1978) and I loved it.

Visually, the film is a real treat from the monster mash of Jabba’s Palace (Lucas apparently wanted it to be everything the Cantina from Star Wars should have been), the Sail Barge and Sarlacc pit to the Speeder bikes and the space battle and it worked perfectly for the teenaged me.  Coming to it as an adult and following on from the dark and adult The Empire Strikes Back, it does seem a little like a backward step, as if Lucas was afraid to leave the trilogy with anything other than an upbeat ending.  You can’t blame the man - it’s his story, after all - but the grown-up me would have preferred something a little darker (an opinion shared by both Harrison Ford and Lawrence Kasdan who apparently lobbied to have Han killed off halfway through).

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was produced by Howard Kazanjian for Lucasfilm Ltd with George Lucas acting as executive producer - Lucasfilm funded the production, as they had with The Empire Strikes Back.  Lucas originally approached David Lynch (then riding high with his Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man) to direct but Lynch declined in order to make Dune.  David Cronenberg was then considered (and let’s just stop a moment and imagine the film made by either of those directors) but he declined to make Videodrome and The Dead Zone instead.  Richard Marquand, who had relatively few films to his credit (and none of those featured extensive special effects), was finally chosen to direct (he made several more films, including the excellent Jagged Edge, but died in 1987 aged 49).

The screenplay was written by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, from Lucas’ story and with uncredited work from David Peoples and Richard Marquand.  It was originally called Revenge Of The Jedi and that title stayed for long enough through the production process that it features in the original teaser trailer and on teaser posters (which now sell for a considerable sum).  In the end, since revenge wasn’t a Jedi trait, it was changed to “Return” (which Kasdan felt was weak) though Lucas alluded to the original in the 2005 prequel Revenge Of The Sith.

The scripting process was still on-going when pre-production started, so the budget and schedule was set by Kazanjian relying on Lucas’ original story, early rough drafts and Ralph McQuarrie’s production paintings.  His schedule started shooting as early as possible in order to give Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) as much time as possible to work on the then-record number of special effects shots the movie demanded (some 900, when the original Star Wars only had 360).

Shooting on a $32.5m budget, filming took place in England (Elstree studios), California (the Redwood National Park near Crescent City, which doubled for Endor) and Yuma, Arizona (where the desert at Buttercup valley doubled Tatooine for the Sarlacc pit sequence) from January 11th through to May 20th 1982.  Lucas himself handled the second unit work (a role he also performed on other films he produced, such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back and More American Graffiti).  There was also the issue that Marquand was inexperienced with special effects work, though Lucas praised him as a “very nice person who worked well with actors.”  For his part, Marquand is quoted as saying it was “like trying to direct King Lear with Shakespeare in the next room.”

Heavy secrecy surrounded the production and the fake title Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination was used to disguise what was really being filmed from the press and fans and also to prevent price gouging from service companies.

The film occupied all nine stages at Elstree Studios and shot there for 78 days, before moving to Yuma in April for two weeks of Tatooine exteriors (mostly on the enormous Sail-barge set).  Location filming finished at Crescent City for two weeks and there was a final fortnight at the ILM studio in San Rafael, California, for blue-screen shots.  Whilst at Crescent City, Steadicam operator (and inventor) Garrett Brown shot the background plates for the speeder bike chase.  A route was marked out by Dennis Muren (who supervised the ‘ground’ special effects) and Brown walked it shooting at less than one frame a second.  As film cameras and projectors operate at 24 frames a second, once speeded up, Brown’s walking pace of 5mph appeared to be moving at around 120mph.

At ILM, the sheer magnitude of the Jabba Palace sequence meant that a creature shop was set up, which was headed by Phil Tippett (who also played the Rancor monster in its initial incarnation, when Lucas wanted it to be more like Godzilla) whilst Ken Ralston handled the space effects and Dennis Muren & Richard Edlund took care of the rest.  The company ended up running 20 hour days, on six-day weeks, to meet their 900 shot target by April 1st 1983 (some shots were subcontracted to outside effects houses).

The creature shop crew (left) - Phil Tippett (centre left) and Stuart Freeborn stand in front of their creations at Jabba's Palace (right)

* It took 3 men to operate Jabba The Hutt - two inside the body and one in the tail - in addition to various remote control functions
* The sail barge and skiff set at Yuma took 5 months to construct and used over 14,000lbs of nails
* The miniature set for the exploding sail barge used sand taken from the actual Yuma location
* 45 matte paintings were created for the film

Phil Tippett paints the Rancor puppet

Part of the ILM crew (including Paul Huston, without a shirt, who still works at the company) set up the 'toppling AT-ST' shot

George Lucas examines the partial Death Star model

Return Of The Jedi was released in the US on May 25th, 1983 (six years to the day after Star Wars) and in England on June 2nd.  At the time of writing (and according to Wikipedia), the film has grossed over $475m.

At the 56th Academy Awards in 1984, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, and Phil Tippett received a “Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects” whilst Norman Reynolds, Fred Hole, James L. Schoppe, and Michael Ford were nominated for “Best Art Direction/Set Decoration”, Ben Burtt for “Best Sound Effects Editing”, John Williams for “Best Music, Original Score” and Burtt, Gary Summer, Randy Thom and Tony Dawe were nominated for “Best Sound”.  At the 1984 BAFTA Awards, Edlund, Muren, Ralston, and Kit West won for “Best Special Visual Effects” whilst Phil Tippett and Stuart Freeborn were nominated for “Best Makeup”, Reynolds for “Best Production Design/Art Direction” and Burtt, Summer, Thom and Dawe were nominated for “Best Sound”.  The film also won “Best Dramatic Presentation” at the 1984 Hugo Awards and the Saturn Award for “Best Science Fiction Film”.

Ah, slave Leia...

Whilst generally well regarded, the film is seen as the third choice of the original trilogy (a position it holds with me too, still putting it streets ahead of the prequels) but it has to be said that it’s a lot of fun.  The space battles are exciting, the Endor stuff (minus the Ewoks) is great and there’s a real pace to the film and a sense of scale.  However, with the benefit of hindsight and time, it is clear to see that some of the choices were made for marketing (Ewoks!), rather than story, reasons.  For example, Princess Leia in her slave bikini is a strong image (that really appealed to the 14 year old me) and yet, on Star Wars, Lucas ordered Carrie Fisher’s breasts be taped down.  There was also a comment made by Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two films, that the original ending would show Luke walking off into the sunset, battered and tired but it was felt such a downbeat ending would affect sales.  I have no idea how true that is (Kurtz didn’t produce Jedi).

For me, this is a great film and I can’t believe it’s 30 years old, though to help mark the occasion I'm currently re-reading the novelisation by James Kahn.

So happy birthday, Return of The Jedi and long may you reign!

May The Force Be With You!

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