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THE DIVORCE AWAKENS: WHY STAR WARS HAS ALWAYS THRIVED ON ADVERSITY

It’s becoming a staple of the movie calendar now to hear that an upcoming Star Wars film has a hit a blockade during its production. This week we learned that the maverick director partnership of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) have been fired from next year’s still unnamed Star Wars anthology movie focusing on the origins of everyone’s favorite space pirate, Han Solo.

The reason given for the directors’ dismissal was “creative differences”. It’s a classic piece of Hollywood diplomacy but it’s most likely accurate this time as the directing duo has made their name by playing fast and loose with properties in the past and Disney probably weren’t prepared to tolerate any gremlins in their fine-tuned franchise machine. Lord & Miller were likely hired by Disney under the misconception that they would turn themselves back into Mogwais to land one of the most desirable helming gigs around and that they’ve hired Ron Howard -a director whose hands are so safe they excrete superglue- as a replacement suggests things were already starting to go awry.

Of course, the headlines have run out the usual hyperbolic spiel of a crisis, but do troubled productions always result in troubled films? After all, Gone with the Wind suffered a similar setback deep into production and The Wizard of Oz changed directors no less than three times before both films went on to become legendary classics. But perhaps, the ignorance of such sensationalist reporting is that Star Wars itself has often been mired in production shitstorms and has always emerged smelling of roses and more importantly, as far as Hollywood is concerned, money.

A NEW NOPE

It is preposterous in retrospect, but George Lucas had copious problems in getting his modern take on “Flash Gordon” to the screen. The first stumbling block that the young Lucas encountered was being refused the rights to Flash Gordon, so the wunderkind became disruptor (before it was fashionable) and created his own sci-fi adventure instead.

Coming off the back of the immensely profitable American Graffiti he had made for Universal Pictures, he wrongly assumed the same studio would be willing to take a shot on his newly forged space opera. Instead, 20th Century Fox took interest in his pitch but even then he had to promise a low-budget “Roger Corman” style production that led to an initial agreement of $8m to get his sci-fi movie greenlit (said budget would eventually balloon by nearly 40%). But that was just the start of George’s problems…

The production of Star Wars was plagued with issues. Firstly, sets and props were destroyed during a freak storm on location in Tunisia all while his effects team back in LA struggled to come to terms with the director’s demands and begged for more cash and time to come up with the necessary technology to make his vision a reality. Likewise, on set things were not going much smoother as the cast of newcomers and acting stalwarts had little faith in an uncommunicative Lucas (apparently his direction mainly consisted of instructing his performers to do scenes again only “faster and more intense”) and struggled with his lumpen dialogue as the famous Harrison Ford quote “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it” is indicative of.

So with a disillusioned cast and a major studio -the likes of which never want to hear a director say “I need more time and money”- on Lucas’ back, he finally cobbled together a rough edit to show to his peers. When amongst your peers are the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, showing an unfinished film with a difficult production is a daunting prospect at best but it likely was the making of the Star Wars we know and love today. They hated it.

Apart from Spielberg (ever the arch-commercialist) correctly predicting the film would make over $100m, the rest of that first audience mocked Lucas for what they saw as an inept piece of filmmaking. Lucas, in what is one of the most pivotal decisions ever in cinema, reluctantly sent the film off to be re-edited by Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew (overseen by Lucas’s wife, Marcia) and they promptly rejected around 60% of the original cut to produce a gleaming version of the film that would eventually land them an Oscar for their troubles.

Of course, the rest is history as Star Wars went on to become a box-office sensation the likes of which had never been seen before. Thanks to the colossal amount of cash Lucas had earned from Star Wars after he cannily retained the merchandising rights to his project and a fresh, burning hatred of Hollywood’s studio system, George decided to go it alone for what has to be the most sure-fire sequel ever. Surely?

A DARK TIME FOR THE REBELLION

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So yeah, The Empire Strikes Back is officially an independent movie as it was entirely financed by Lucas himself after he decided that studios were more trouble than they were worth. However, George was suffering from extreme exhaustion after his efforts to get the newly monikered A New Hope into theaters. In his absence as director, he hired his old tutor, Irvine Kerschner, to take over helming duties for what was at the time one of most expensive movies ever produced. But yet again, fortune refused to shine on the Star Wars Universe.

Mark Hamill was involved in a near-fatal car crash that left him needing reconstructive surgery (hence why we don’t get to see Luke’s face until it’s taken a pounding from a Whompa) and then a fire -started on the set of The Shining, no less- swept through several of Empire‘s sets on the Pinewood sound stages. Yet another ballooning budget and tardiness with the production schedule led the bank to lose trust in Lucas -who was now seen as a Hollywood renegade out of his depth- and pulled their loan, forcing Lucas to go cap in hand to 20th Century Fox for a new loan in exchange for the studio’s exclusive distribution rights.

While The Empire Strikes Back was a predictably prosperous box-office hit, Lucas found more trouble from the Director’s Guild who took issue with the lack of credits in the film’s opening titles, which led to him quitting the Guild and he was forbidden to direct inside the studio system again.

ADVERSE UNIVERSE

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Despite these nearly insurmountable setbacks, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are still held to this day as not only the finest of the Star Wars franchise as a whole but also as some of the most beloved films to ever come out of America. But, conversely, when such hardships have been absent, the results have perversely suffered instead.

I need not go into the abhorrent prequels that Lucas produced and directed without nary a hitch but the resulting aftermath certainly didn’t make life any easier for Disney when the studio acquired Lucasfilm for some $4 billion in 2012. Fortunately, the chosen director, JJ Abrams, for the continuation of the Star Wars franchise only had to deal with turning the tide of negative sentiment spawned by the prequels when he was assigned to 2015’s joyous The Force Awakens but it didn’t take long for the Curse of Star Wars Universe to strike again as Disney sought to expand on their shiny new IP.

It was just over a year ago that we started hearing reports that Disney was unhappy with director Gareth Edwards efforts on the first major expansion of the Star Wars Universe, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Knives were quickly drawn to slay the House of Mouse’s apparent over-confidence in their new franchise as word on the street was that the New Hope prequel was a mess that would deflate the Star Wars Universe as fast as The Force Awakens had re-inflated it.

Next, the freshly-galvanized “alt-right” took issue with Rogue One‘s script writers public rejection of the politics of a certain Donald Trump and attempted to rally a fatuous boycott of the upcoming spin-off. Yet again, though, the end result swept aside its troubles to produce what was generally felt to be the best Star Wars movie since Empire and Rogue One became the highest grossing film in the US for 2016.

 

Ultimately, history has shown that, more often than not, when someone says “I have a bad feeling about this” during a Star Wars production that the ends will justify the means and it should be no different for this latest disturbance in Force.

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