Monday 1 May 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 5) - 1st Public Screening

For any Star Wars fan, the legend that has grown up around the Northpoint theatre preview is one they wish they could have participated in.  So, for the fifth entry in the Star Wars At 40 thread, I thought I'd take a look at it.
In March 1977, after a screening to the executives of 20th Century Fox, Lucas invited several of his close friends to watch the rough-cut of Star Wars (the special effects weren’t completed, so he’d edited in black and white dogfight footage from World War II films) at his home in San Anselmo.  The group consisted of Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz (who’d co-written American Graffiti ,helped polish the script for Star Wars and would go on to write Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Howard The Duck for Lucasfilm), John Milius, Matthew Robbins & Hal Barwood (who’d steered Lucas towards Ralph McQuarrie), Jay Cocks (the film critic for Time magazine), Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma.  By all accounts, it didn’t go well - “they all thought it was a disaster,” Lucas later told Dale Pollock.
Discussing the screening, from left: Gloria Katz, Brian DePalma, Hal Barwood, Gary Kurtz, Paul Hirsch, Steven Spielberg (yellow cap) and George Lucas
No-one said anything at the end of the film - Huyck felt the opening scrawl looked like “somebody had written on a driveway with the camera on a trash barrel” and DePalma, who teased Lucas about the “almighty force”, reckoned the rough cut was one of the worst things he’d ever seen.  In a BBC Omnibus documentary, Katz remembers De Palma saying “You call that a shot when you introduce Darth Vader? I mean, that’s your villain and that’s the best you can do?”  Marcia Lucas, Lucas’ then-wife, said “It’s the At Long Last Love (a notorious flop musical from 1975) of science fiction” and began to cry.  Only Cocks and Spielberg reacted with enthusiasm as they all went out for a Chinese meal afterwards proclaiming, “George, it’s great.  It’s gonna make $100 million!”  Lucas let DePalma and Cocks re-write the opening scrawl, which he edited, but otherwise he left the film alone, saying “I figured, well, it’s just a silly movie.  It ain’t going to work.”

When the effects, soundtrack (designed by Ben Burtt and mixed by him and Lucas working 12 hours shifts) and musical score (Lucas wanted “something original that would evoke a heroic era,” said John Williams, who delivered in spades) were finally finished, Lucas screened it again.  As he had - to great success - with American Graffiti, he scheduled a Sunday morning screening at San Francisco’s Northpoint Theatre on 1st May.  In the audience was a small delegation from 20th Century Fox (including studio head and staunch supporter of Lucas and the film, Alan Ladd jr, with his wife), Lucas’ family and close friends and a cross section of movie audience.  Attendance was invite-only, with flyers handed out at other local cinemas and the film was described as “A Live Action Fantasy Adventure Filmed in England, Tunisia and Guatemala”.  To keep the uninvited away, the cinema marquee referred to the film as Alaska (Lucas’s dog was an Alaskan Malamute, who apparently inspired Chewbacca and was named Indiana, a name that came in useful a while later).  Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz had their tape recorders running, to gauge the audience reaction.
The reaction was almost immediate.  As soon as the opening scrawl ended and the Star Destroyer flew overhead, the audience “went crazy.  I was relieved more than anything else,” Lucas said.  “It was a very high moment, I knew the film worked.”

“They made the jump to hyperspace and you could see bodies flying around the room in excitement,” said Paul Hirsch, one of the editors (along with Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew).  “When they get to the shot where the Millennium Falcon appears at the last minute, not only did they cheer, they stood up in their seats and raised their arms like a home run in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series.  So we came out, I said to George “So, whaddya think?” He said, “I guess we won’t recut it after all.”  Also in the audience was Paul Huston, a model-maker at Industrial Light & Magic (who has now worked on all seven Star Wars films), who didn’t expect the audience’s reaction.  "I was as surprised as anyone when the audience loved it, and gave a standing ovation at the end," he says. "People back at ILM were quite amazed when I told them the reaction at the screening.”  Alan Ladd jr, who’d put his career on the line to support the film, reportedly cried with happiness.
Marcia & George Lucas, 1977
When Fox was asked to release a further $20,000 for some second unit work of Luke’s landspeeder to be filmed in Death Valley, Ladd was called up to the board and asked why they were still paying for a film whose budget had over-run.  He is said to told them “because it’s possibly the greatest picture ever made.”
The 25th May release date was looming and studio executives were getting very nervous, with contemporary reports suggested Fox was “bracing itself for a $10 million flop”.  Since the film had already missed its planned Christmas 1976 opening date, there was no turning back and Lucas was also under a lot of strain.  Blockbusters, as we understand them now, didn’t really exist then (aside from Jaws) and nobody really understood how this odd little sci-fi film would work.  In order to distance himself from the issue, the Lucas’ flew to Hawaii to try and enjoy a holiday as Star Wars opened quietly (on only 32 screens across America).  As it turned out, nobody needed to worry - the film made a then-record gross of $2.8m in its first week (on only 32 screens, remember) and critics were soon falling over themselves to proclaim Star Wars as a masterpiece of entertainment.

And so began a new era of movie-making - and movie-going.

Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

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