Since Disney bought LucasFilm in 2012, excitement around May
4 has been tied to new additions to the Star
Wars universe. (This is the third consecutive year that a new film in the
franchise has been released.) But there is an even more festive reason to hug
the nearest Wookie this “Star Wars Day,” aka “May the Fourth:” the fast
approaching 40th anniversary of Star
Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.
Last month, at the 2017 Star Wars Celebration, George Lucas
dropped by the commemoration to discuss Episode
IV, as well as pay tribute to the passing of our princess general, Carrie
Fisher. In his reflection on the movie, Lucas summarized his original intention
for the now-iconic film.
“The idea was simply to do the high-adventure film that I
loved when I was a kid with meaningful psychological themes,” said Lucas as
thousands of fans listened in the Orlando auditorium, with tens of thousands
more streaming it online.
He added, “I’m not supposed to say this, and I wasn’t
supposed to say it at the time, but it’s a film for 12-year-olds.”
Lucas has been talking about Star Wars for a long time. The last prequel, and the final film he
was involved with, hit theaters 12 years ago. He devoted much of the ‘90s to
maintaining the saga’s presence in pop culture, including the release of
special edition versions of the original trilogy. He also began work on the
prequels at that time, which were heavily anticipated by the fans after
realizing “IV” meant they had been dropped into the middle of a much bigger
story. Throughout this renaissance, Lucas often talked with ET’s Leonard Maltin
about the genesis of A New Hope and
how he had pulled off such an ambitious vision.
"I think, basically, I was interested in, you know, in mythology, and I was really looking for a way to sort of recreate the role mythology played and I was sort of poking around,” Lucas told ET.
How the works of Joseph Campbell shaped the saga’s story structure has been well-documented over the years. Lucas’ love of Republic serials famously influenced A New Hope and Raiders of the Lost Ark. With the shoulders of these giants to stand on, he further narrowed in on his vision by seeking out voids that had been left behind in as a new generation of filmmakers took over cinema.
"The Western was sort of the last real mythological genre. And I couldn't make a Western. Westerns were out of style at that point, and I wasn't that interested in Westerns anyway. And I said, ‘What is going to take over, because nothing has replaced it.’ Nothing replaced the Western,” Lucas said.
"And I said, ‘Maybe it'll be space. And I like space. Space is fun, so we'll create a kind of fantasy space world where I can tell some time-worn stories.’"
Science fiction wasn’t a popular or profitable genre at the time. Special effects makeup artist Rob Bottin told ET that before working on creatures for the cantina scene in A New Hope, he had worked on a movie called The Incredible Melting Man. This film would later become fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- a solid indicator of the state of the genre. Lucas was a risk from the start. The pitch for a space adventure with mythological themes was heavily rejected by the studios until Twentieth Century Fox president Alan Ladd Jr. took the project.
“Science fiction was not very well thought of when I did Star Wars. It was very hard to get a science fiction film off the ground. Special effects films were almost nonexistent,” said Lucas, whose most popular work at that point was a low-budget coming-of-age comedy, albeit a very successful one.
“Because they were considered complicated and people didn't understand them, to do a complicated science fiction film that involves special effects was unheard of at that point.”
While the genre mashups of the script were groundbreaking, A New Hope also ushered in the next advancements in special effects. The limited budget meant applying practical effects techniques, many of which had origins dating back to the silent film era. It also provided opportunities to showcase developments in technology that had been expensive in the past. This included a motion control camera system created by visual effects supervisor John Dykstra, once too expensive, now cost-efficient and practical for productions such as A New Hope.
Lucas knew that special effects didn't have the capacity to shoulder the burden of making a good movie. Like many people after first seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, he noticed the expanded role they had played in the movie’s success. He now saw their potential as simply another storytelling device, on par with compelling characters and an exciting plot.
As he finished up initial drafts of the story, one problem became obvious: It was too big. Like J.R.R.Tolkien before him, he was forced to split his tale into sections. Each act in the script was big enough to sustain its own film, not including a massive backstory (our future prequels). In the beginning, we were in the middle.
"I took the first act, and I said, ‘I'll make the movie about this, because I think I can get this done. This is sort of within the range of what I can do,’” said Lucas.
"So I made a movie out of the first act and then that was such a hit I was able to do the second two acts. And then after that was down, I said, ‘Maybe I'll go back and tell the backstory and it will be all one whole piece, so you can follow the whole story.’"
Lucas would later integrate several elements from his early drafts that were left out of A New Hope into episodes I-III. The Lucasfilm Story Group, a creative coalition that acts as overseers of canonical material, would similarly repurpose ideas, names and places from Lucas’ early writings for future Star Wars stories.
In one interview, Maltin asked Lucas if there was a particular part in the movie that stood out as his favorite. “I would say in Star Wars it's him going out and looking at the sun as my favorite moment,” replied Lucas.
This scene, where Luke watches the dual suns setting on Tatooine, is a perfect example of silent film-style visual action pushing the story forward with little to no dialogue. There are no X-wings or even a lightsaber. The telling moment required a very subtle performance from Mark Hamill while a John Williams score works its magic. The crescendo syncs perfectly with the audience feeling Luke’s wish for a call to adventure that has yet to arrive. It’s the blend of elements Lucas wanted from the beginning for what Steven Spielberg once called “the movie of the century.”
Lucas added, “It's the moment that's the most like me in terms of my view of what I do. I'm sort of always standing out there looking at the sunset, thinking about where I'm going to go from here.”