'Star Wars' documentary 'Elstree 1976' shines a spotlight on the unsung: The extras

The next time you sit down to watch "Star Wars" (and, with this being May the Fourth, that could well be tonight), try this little experiment.

Instead of focusing on Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and the rest of the film's marquee stars, shift your attention to the movie's peripheral players. All those extras dressed up as Jawas and Tusken Raiders and other alien creatures. All those Stormtroopers. All those nameless X-wing fighter pilots. What's their story?

With his documentary "Elstree 1976," which opens in 25 theaters nationwide on Friday, director Jon Spira set out to put a face to some of the faceless denizens of that galaxy far, far away.

From the ill-fated bounty hunter Greedo (played by Paul Blake) to the Stormtrooper (played by Anthony Forrest) who was persuaded that these weren't, in fact, the droids they were looking for, Spira turns the spotlight on the supporting players and extras of the "Star Wars" universe and explores the unexpected, and sometimes awkward, ways in which their brief involvement in George Lucas' space opera has altered their lives.

"For most of these people, this was a moment in their lives, a job they did for a couple of days," Spira said by phone from his native England. "That this thing that was seemingly insignificant to them in their younger days is the thing that everyone lauds them for and gives them endless kudos for — I think that sits uncomfortably with some of them. That internal conflict is really what interested me and why I wanted to make this film."

At the best-known end of the film's spectrum are the actors David Prowse, who physically embodied Darth Vader but whose voice was dubbed by James Earl Jones, and Jeremy Bulloch, who played the bounty hunter Boba Fett in both "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Return of the Jedi." At the other, virtually anonymous end are the extras, such as Laurie Goode, known to fans as that one Stormtrooper who bumps his head walking through a door, and Derek Lyons, who is seen for a fleeting moment standing beside Princess Leia as she hangs a medal around Han Solo's neck in the final scene of "Star Wars."

Spira was drawn into the world of "Star Wars" by happenstance a few years ago when a student in a screenwriting class he was teaching named John Chapman mentioned by chance that he had been a nameless X-wing pilot in "Star Wars." Though his role had been utterly minuscule and he had never acted in anything of note afterward, Chapman told Spira he had, nevertheless, attended numerous "Star Wars" conventions over the years, signing autographs for die-hard fans, something about which he felt a great deal of ambivalence.

"I went out to John's car, and he had all these cardboard boxes full of stacks of 8-by-10 glossy photos of him," Spira recalled. "I went home that night and stuck 'Star Wars' on, and I realized that all you could see was the back of his head, and for two frames you can kind of see the side of his face. I just thought that was fascinating."

As revealed in "Elstree 1976" (named for the production studio outside London where much of "Star Wars" was filmed), even among the less well-known figures in the films, there are subtle hierarchies at play. Extras and supporting players of varying degrees of recognizability in the universe jockey with one another for fans' attention — and cash — on the convention circuit. For an actor like Angus MacInnes, who played the X-wing fighter known as Gold Leader, finding himself spurned by autograph-seekers in favor of an actor like Bulloch, whose face was never shown on screen, can sting.

For his part, Bulloch, 71, initially felt reluctant to participate in Spira's film and be placed on the same level as extras. After all, his fearsome bounty-hunter character is a longtime fan favorite — a Boba Fett spinoff film is rumored to be in the works — and he himself has had a distinguished acting career dating to the late 1950s.

"I was against it, straightaway," he said. "Having acted for 50 years, you start getting proud about the work you've done in theater — 30 different plays. But then I thought, 'Well, these people are going to show that this amazing thing happened to them, that they were a part of "Star Wars." 'That part of it is terrific."

Spira funded the film through Kickstarter and never approached Lucasfilm at any point for its input. "This isn’t a film about 'Star Wars,'" he said. "It’s a film about these people —  and Lucasfilm doesn’t own these people."

He admits that he isn't sure how the universe of "Star Wars" fandom will receive "Elstree 1976," which approaches the beloved franchise from a far different angle than the typical adoring making-of documentary.

"'Star Wars' meant a huge amount to me growing up, but I didn’t come to this film as a fan at all," he said. "Part of what we’re struggling with at the moment is people misunderstanding it and I think some people being disappointed because they think it’s going to be a fan film and it ends up being this bizarre, melancholy, bittersweet look at people’s lives."

Indeed, the film doesn’t shy away from some less-than-rosy aspects of life as a relative small-timer in the world of “Star Wars." Actor Garrick Hagon admits his wounded feelings at seeing nearly his entire performance as Luke Skywalker’s close friend Biggs Darklighter left on the cutting room floor. And Prowse speaks of being “persona non grata” at official “Star Wars" events such as Star Wars Celebration. ("Ask Mr. Lucas,” he says. “I’ve obviously upset him at some stage or another.”) 

Blake bemusedly reflects on the fact that a single turn in a rubber alien mask nearly 40 years ago has somehow overshadowed the entire rest of his acting career: “I’m a serious actor. I’ve played Macbeth. And on my tombstone, it will say, ‘Here Lies Greedo’!”

That said, all those interviewed express their love and respect for the "Star Wars" franchise that has had such an enduring impact on their lives.

"We're all very lucky," Bulloch said. "My youngest granddaughter was watching 'Star Wars' and she said, 'Can I watch the bit with you in it?' I'm like, 'Well, I wasn't in it much ... there, that's me.' She said, 'Well, now you've gone – you went in a ship somewhere!' " He laughed. "It's lovely to get that kind of reaction from the grandchildren."

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