'Star Wars: Special Edition': George Lucas Explains Changes for Trilogy's 1997 Re-Release (Flashback)

Lucas told ET that to experience 'Star Wars' with the 'impact that it was meant to have' then fans 'have to see it on a big screen.'

When George Lucas decided to re-release the original Star Wars in theaters, he didn’t just want to insert deleted scenes and add more elevators to Cloud City. Putting his space opera trilogy back in cineplexes was also a gift to the new generation of fans who were too young or perhaps not even born yet when A New Hope debuted. 

“If you do want to see it with the emotional impact that it was meant to have… you have to see it on a big screen,” Lucas explained to ET’s Leonard Maltin at Skywalker Ranch in January of 1997. Star Wars: Special Edition offered cutting room floor moments, additional CGI shots and re-mastered sound effects. With a theatrical release to showcase these updates, a new wave of fandom could also experience what Lucas called “that Rocky Horror Picture Show quality” of watching Star Wars in theaters surrounded by their fellow devotees.

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“One of the allures of bringing the movie out is that so many people have not seen it the way it was meant to be seen,” Lucas said. “And it is so much different and there's a whole generation of kids who've never experienced it that way. And I think the assumption was, [and] hopefully I'm correct, that a lot of parents who did experience it that way would want their children to share that particular experience.”

Lucas was coming off the tail-end of a significant Star Wars hiatus when he put this project into motion in the mid-’90s. Aside from overseeing the franchise’s various departments and still quite lucrative merchandising, the most prominent Star Wars output between 1983 and 1997 was the Star Tours attraction at Disney Parks. During that era, he also witnessed the rapid and ongoing advancements in filmmaking technology. While it’s now an oft-noted trait about the iconic filmmaker, the Special Edition trilogy brought to light Lucas’ criticism toward the relationship between the movie industry and artists -- especially now that he had the tools to have complete creative control over the universe he created.

“My original motivation in going back into the film and working on it is [that] films, unlike books or symphonies, are never finished. They are abandoned or yanked away from you. And at some point somebody says, ‘That's enough. We're putting it in theaters.’ And you say, ‘But it's not done!’ ‘Ah, you'll be on this for a hundred years if we let you keep going at it.’” 


“And it's the same thing with fine art,” Lucas continued. “A lot of times, if you go into an artist's studio, you're gonna find a lot of canvases sitting along the wall. They say, ‘Oh, yeah. I did that 12 years ago… And you look at it and it looks perfectly fine. ‘But there's something I don't feel right about it. I'll get it.’ Well, film is very much like that. Film is more like sculpting or painting than writing a book. And I'm sure there's a lot of novelists that would love to go back and rewrite a few things in their book if they had the chance to ponder it a little bit more. There were a lot of things in [A New Hope] I just wasn't happy with and when the film came out everyone said, ‘Oh, looks great. You love it.’ I said, ‘Well, you know it's only about 60 percent of what I wanted it to be.’ Everybody thought I was nuts.’”

He added, “This was an opportunity for me to really fix the film up and make it be what I wanted it to be. And get it to be at least 80 percent of what I'd hope it would be. And get rid of these little thorns that were stuck in there.”

One of those thorns was in the first act of A New Hope. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker’s entry into Mos Eisley is a pivotal section in the film, one that’s laid a template for proceeding sequences and atmospheres on future Star Wars planets (especially for The Book of Boba Fett this season). And for Lucas, filming the original iteration of his hero’s introduction to the world of scum and villainy was, like many of the sequences he later enhanced for the Special Edition trilogy, hindered by production constraints.

“I had like a block and 12 people to work with. And it was supposed to be this giant space port city and it looks like this little backwater town side street,” Lucas recalled. “And there were some special effects with the speeder. With little Vaseline globs running underneath. Technical things that were just completely embarrassing to me.” 


One of the most exciting elements promised by the Special Edition films was a brand new scene featuring Harrison Ford and infamous antagonist Jabba the Hutt. Following Han Solo’s forever controversial transaction with Greedo -- which the Special Edition version of Episode IV kicked off by having Greedo shoot first, instead of Han -- fans now witnessed the smuggler meeting face to face with the Tatooine gangster.

“I didn't have the time or the money to complete it,” Lucas explained. The interaction contained many relevant details that factored into the proceeding two films and years later it’s shocking to imagine this context being withheld. Ford shot the scene with a stand-in actor and the idea was to replace him in post with a stop-motion character. Alas, the scene was later abandoned. But 20 years later, some clever CGI inserted the slug-like creature we know today. 

As Lucas pointed out, removing the scene might have meant withholding some helpful information, but he was operating under the mindset at the time that A New Hope was in all likelihood going to be the first and last Star Wars entry. “I figured I didn't know whether I'm ever gonna finish the other movies, so whether Jabba the Hutt’s in there for the introduction to that character [wasn’t] important,” Lucas said. “But then after the other movies were finished, I said, ‘Gee, wouldn't it be great to put that Jabba the Hutt scene back in the way it should be? And introduce Jabba the Hutt where it's supposed to be introduced? So, when he comes in later you understand what everybody's talking about?”


With the film industry’s most acclaimed special effects houses at his disposal -- Skywalker Ranch and Industrial, Light and Magic -- Lucas saw the potential for an unprecedented facelift to Episodes IV-VI. Before long, he compiled an extensive wishlist of restoration work.

“I started playing around with some of the special effects shots at the end of the movie,” Lucas explained. "’Gee, I really wanted this to have more distance to it. I wanted the ship to start bigger, then get smaller.’ And before I finished, I had re-done about 150 shots in [A New Hope.] It was like pulling a thread on a sweater. Or painting a house. ‘Well, we'll paint this wall.’ ‘Well, we should really paint this wall over here.’ ‘Maybe we should paint the ceiling, too.’ ‘Now, this room looks so great. Maybe we should do the living room.’ It's just one thing leads to another.” 

For Lucas, it was a one-of-a-kind therapeutic process. And, concurrently, made him breathe easier about his cinematic legacy. 

“It was a very enjoyable experience,” Lucas concluded. “I feel very much better about the movie and I think what I'm leaving behind [is] much more what I had in mind.”

The milestone anniversary and his latent post-production endeavor provided Lucas an opportunity to reflect on Star Wars’ enduring cultural influence. “We're talking two weeks before it comes out [and] it's starting to sound a lot like the first film. There's this big buzz coming sort of underground like there was with the first film that kind of seems to be moving through things,” Lucas said.  “It's something that's really grown and it is pretty amazing that, in terms of the phenomenon, it's as hot today as it was 20 years ago.”   

Whether the excitement and fanfare would translate into financial success remained up in the air leading up to the opening weekend. “It's definitely something that is completely out of control as far as I'm concerned and I have no idea what's going to happen. If it comes out and does OK, I'll be happy,” Lucas figured. “Because [I’ve] finished the films and they'll be the way I want them to be, and they'll be preserved that way.”

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Sure enough, all of Lucas’ objectives were checked off soon after Star Wars: Special Edition premiered in theaters on Jan. 31, 1997. A New Hope wound up earning nearly $36 million at the box office on its opening weekend alone (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were released in February and March, respectively). 

Carrie Fisher fulfilled one of Lucas’ predictions by bringing daughter Billie Lourd to A New Hope’s premiere party so she could get the “true” Star Wars experience. “I want to see what it does to her,” Princess Leia herself told ET. 

ET later caught up with Mark Hamill in March and the actor revealed he was as surprised as anyone by the excitement -- and financial returns -- from the Special Edition trilogy. 

“First of all, that premiere surprised me,” Hamill admitted. “The wave of positive feeling coming from the grandstands after all these years was astonishing, because I looked at it as an opportunity for people to see it in the movie theaters the way it should be seen.”

As for the new special effects and added enhancements throughout the trilogy, Hamill didn’t feel excited or betrayed -- as many have and continue to voice their feelings on the latter -- by the modifications. As Hamill explained, it was a matter of memory. “I hadn't seen [A New Hope] in all those years. Maybe 18 years, because I saw it the last time in 1978,” he said, adding, “There was a lot of it I'd forgotten.”

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That was likely the case for many fans, even those who owned VHS copies of the original trilogy. But one eagle-eyed fan and longtime friend of Lucas had no trouble discerning the differences between films. Hamill relayed that Steven Spielberg was so well-versed in A New Hope, the West Side Story director sat down in the theater with a project.

“[Spielberg] said something like, 'On this viewing, I'm gonna count shots,’” Hamill said. “That's somebody that would be able to spot things that I wouldn't be able to.” 

As for Harrison Ford, his feelings completed the trifecta of central Star Wars actors who, just like “the maker,” believed that small screens are no match for a good theatrical experience. 

“I'm delighted that this film we made 20 years ago is still enjoying an audience,” Ford told ET in 1997. “[Kids] who have never seen it, except on television, now have a chance to see it on the big screen in a theater where it is so much more powerful and fun. I'm very pleased that it worked.” 

All Star Wars films are streaming on Disney+. 


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