Did ‘Star Wars’ become a toy story? Producer Gary Kurtz looks back
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Here is a longer version of my story on Gary Kurtz that appears in Thursday’s Calendar section.
“Star Wars” was born a long time ago, but not all that far, far away. In 1972, filmmakers George Lucas and Gary Kurtz were toiling on “American Graffiti” in their San Rafael office when they began daydreaming about a throwback sci-fi adventure that channeled the old “Flash Gordon” serials as opposed to the bleak “message” movies that had taken over the genre.
“We had no idea what we were starting,” said Kurtz, who was the producer of the first two “Star Wars” films and also a second-unit director. “That simple concept changed Hollywood in a way....”
There was a bittersweet tinge to Kurtz’s voice, and it’s no surprise. This year is the 30th anniversary of “The Empire Strikes Back,” the “Star Wars” sequel that many fans consider the pinnacle moment in a franchise that has pulled in $16 billion in box office and merchandising. But 1980 was also the year that Kurtz and Lucas realized the Jedi universe wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
“I could see where things were headed,” Kurtz said. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.”
He added: “The first film and ‘Empire’ were about story and character, but I could see that George’s priorities were changing.”
This weekend, Kurtz steps back into the “Star Wars” galaxy as a special guest at Star Wars Celebration V, a massive convention in Orlando, Fla., organized by Lucasfilm and expected to draw thousands of fans who will come to buy collectibles, attend panels, get cast-member autographs or even visit the event’s themed tattoo parlor or wedding chapel.
Kurtz’s presence speaks to his vital role in the franchise’s history — he is, for instance, the one who came up with the title for “The Empire Strikes Back” — but the Lucasfilm leadership is already fretting about the Jedi galaxy expatriate’s appearance. They may have good reason; during a recent visit to Los Angeles, the filmmaker, who just turned 70, showed a willingness to speak out against the priorities of an old partner.
“The emphasis on the toys, it’s like the cart driving the horse,” Kurtz said. “If it wasn’t for that the films would be done for their own merits. The creative team wouldn’t be looking over their shoulder all the time.”
No fan of conflict, Kurtz has remained relatively quiet through the years but over coffee on a sunny Southern California afternoon he spoke at length about his lightsaber days.
Like many fans, Kurtz — who characterizes his relationship with Lucas as “professional” — was too invested in the “Star Wars” universe to skip the second trilogy: 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” 2002’s “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” and 2005’s “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.” (Lucas retitled the three original movies as “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back” and “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi.”) But as he sat in the dark with the follow-up “Star Wars” films, he squirmed in his seat.
“I don’t like the idea of prequels, they make the filmmakers back in to material they’ve already covered and it boxes in the story,” Kurtz said. “I think they did a pretty good job with them although I have to admit I never liked Hayden Christensen in the role of Anakin Skywalker. I just wished the stories had been stronger and that the dialogue had been stronger. It gets meek. I’m not sure the characters ever felt real like they did in ‘Empire.’'
A spokeswoman for George Lucas said he was unavailable for comment.
Kurtz’s sentiments speak to a churning pop-culture debate about the enduring legacy of Lucas and the trajectory of his still-unfolding “Star Wars” mythology. The first trilogy of films ended in 1983 with “Return of the Jedi” and the second trilogy brought a whole new generation into the universe but also left many fans of the original feeling sour or disengaged. A seventh feature film, an animated movie called “The Clone Wars,” was released in 2008, which, along with video games and toys, speaks to a young 21st century constituency that may be only vaguely aware of the 1977 film.
The same passion pulling fans to Orlando also stokes the debate about Lucas and his creation. Alexandre Philippe is the director of “The People vs. George Lucas,” a documentary that just had its West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. He says that Kurtz has become a figure of integrity to the fans who believe that Lucas has followed the wrong path.
Philippe said the departure of Kurtz was a major moment in “Star Wars” history and deeply unsettling to all involved. “The cast and crew were crushed when George and Gary went their separate ways,” said Philippe, who added that Mark Hamill, who portrayed Luke Skywalker, later explained it in broken-family terminology. “He said it was like mom and dad getting a divorce. They were both equally loved and respected on the set.”
For Kurtz, the popular notion that “Star Wars” was always planned as a multi-film epic is laughable. He says that he and Lucas, both USC film school grads who met through mutual friend Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s, first sought to do a simple adaptation of “Flash Gordon,” the comic-strip hero who had been featured in movie serials that both filmmakers found charming.
“We tried to buy the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive,” Kurtz said. “They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.”
Lucas came up with a sprawling treatment that pulled from “Flash Gordon,” Arthurian legend, “The Hidden Fortress” and other influences. The document would have required a five-hour film but there was a middle portion that could be carved out as a stand-alone movie. Kurtz championed the project in pitch meetings with studios and worked intensely on casting, scouting locations and finding a way to create a believable alien universe on a tight budget.
“Our plan was to do ‘Star Wars’ and then make ‘Apocalypse Now’ and do a black comedy in the vein of ‘M*A*S*H*,’’ Kurtz said. “Fox insisted on a sequel or maybe two [to ‘Star Wars’]. Francis [Ford Coppola] … had bought the [‘Apocalypse Now’] rights so George could make it. He eventually got tired of waiting and did it on his own, of course.”
The team of Lucas and Kurtz would not hold together during their own journey through the jungles of collaborative filmmaking. Kurtz chooses his words carefully on the topic of their split.
After the release of “Empire” (which was shaped by material left over from that first Lucas treatment), talk turned to a third film and after a decade and a half the partners could no longer find a middle ground.
“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,’ Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”
The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.
Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy bear luau.
He was especially disdainful of the Lucas idea of a second Death Star, which he felt would be too derivative of the 1977 film. “So we agreed that I should probably leave.”
Kurtz went straight over to “The Dark Crystal,” a three-year project with old friend Jim Henson, whom Kurtz had brought in on the creation of Yoda for “Empire.”
After that he shifted into a lower gear as far as his career and, relocating to England, turned to British television productions. He’s now working on a ramping feature-film project called “Panzer 88” that he says will begin filming later this year and will feature visual effects by Weta, the same New Zealand outfit that populated Middle-earth in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
The producer said that huge films hold little allure for him now and that he is more interested in smaller, more nimble productions that put an emphasis on “human stories.” That might speak to his alienation from the ‘Star Wars’ universe, but when he talks about Lucas and their shared history the stories are still tinted by nostalgia, admiration and affection.
On casting the 1977 film: “We had a lot of people, hundreds, that we saw. It was quick and dirty. You talk to each person, jot down a note or two. Are they a score of five or higher? Do they deserve a callback? On those lists were a lot of interesting people — John Travolta, Sly Stallone — who were great but just not right. I went to New York to do an interview with Jodie Foster, for instance, but she was just too young for Leia. A lot of it comes down to luck and timing.”
On Harrison Ford, who became a Hollywood icon after “Star Wars” but keeps the fervent fandom at arm’s length: “He’s always been somewhat cynical, since the beginning of his career, about everything. In a way he tried not to take notoriety or the fans too seriously. Movies are movies and real life is his ranch.”
On the moment he knew that “Star Wars” was becoming a pop-culture sensation: “On opening day I was on the East Coast and I did the morning-show circuit — ‘Good Morning America’ and ‘Today’ … in the afternoon I did a radio call-in show in Washington and this guy, this caller, was really enthusiastic and talking about the movie in really deep detail. I said, ‘You know a lot abut the film.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen it four times already.’ And that was opening day. I knew something was happening.”
Kurtz isn’t sure what to expect in Orlando but he says that “Empire” may be the shining moment of his career, the confluence of commercial and artistic success. His work as a second-unit director and his hands-on efforts with the visual effects make him especially proud.
“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down,” Kurtz said. “ ‘Empire’ was the tree on fire. The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but ‘Empire’ felt darker and more compelling. It’s the one, for me, where everything went right. And it was my goodbye to a big part of my life.”
-- Geoff Boucher
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Photos, from top: Gary Kurtz , Credit: Courtesy of Gary Kurtz. ‘Stars Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back’ poster and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker in ‘Revenge of the Sith.’ Credit: Lucasfilm. Gary Kurtz with Mark Hamill (and Yoda), Credit: Courtesy of Gary Kurtz. George Lucas, Credit: Getty Images.'The Dark Crystal’ poster. Credit: Jim Henson/Universal Pictures. Kurtz with ‘Empire’ director Irvin Kershner. Credit: Courtesy of Gary Kurtz.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post implied that ‘Star Wars’ was labeled at ‘Episode IV’ upon its release in 1977. That was added during a re-release of the film a few years later.
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