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Sunday, 26 April 2015

A love letter to Star Wars


"Chewie, we're home".......cue a million tears
The Internet nearly broke a couple of weeks ago, it really did. It was completely the fault of the release of the new teaser trailer for a particular movie that takes up a story that took place a long, long time ago. In a particular Galaxy, far, far away. Star Wars : Episode VII. The Force awakens trailer was published online and so it seemed the entire world, including this here blogger, exploded into a mixture of frenzied excitement and tearful nostalgia. But more about that trailer shortly.

I know I'm not alone in my love for the series of films, in fact I'm certain that there are countless individuals who may be far more knowledgeable, informed and obsessed with Star Wars than I am. So I'm certainly not special in that regard. All I know is that in 1978 I was 11 years old and my life was irrevocably changed forever.

I can still remember the very first moment that the words 'Star' and 'Wars' first entered my personal conscious back in the early summer of 1977. It came while I was reading my latest acquisition of the 2000AD comic where mention was being made in the readers letters section about the increasing commotion that a new sci-fi film was making in the States. The film had only been released to limited theatres in May, just a month or so previously, but word was already beginning to get around about the interest it was creating. 

Now kids, you need to remember that this was a world before the advent of the technological wonder that is the Internet and the World Wide Web. In other words, growing up in the 1970's was crap. Don't listen to those who say because life was simpler it was also better, because it wasn't. It was often boring and insipid, particularly here in the UK when there were few radio stations of quality and even less TV channels. In fact I seem to remember that we only had 3 channels - dear god, it was living in the dark ages! There was no Youtube, Internet search engine, online social network, online streaming or even, ahem, a handsome charismatic sci-fi blogger to keep up to the latest developments with ones fingertips. No, we had to rely on snippets of news in magazines or newspapers (often well out of date) or the odd news item on TV. As I said, life then was crap.

Not my queue, but it did have the same iffy fashions
Another problem back then was the fact that films in the US were often released sometimes months before they came over here to the UK. Star Wars was no exception, having been released initially to a handful of cinemas in the States in late May and then becoming the behemoth of a movie beast over there through the subsequent summer and Fall of '77. All we could do here in Europe was twiddle our fingers as we watched on the news the pandemonium that was taking place elsewhere. I suppose though in a way it did help to provide a continuous building up of excitement through the months because by the time it came to the initial release at the end of December on this side of the pond - the anticipation was barely controllable. In January 1978, everything over here just went crazy.

For those of us that experienced the first wave of the force back in 1977/78, we were quite simply blessed to be part of the whole insane adventure. Prior to the arrival of Messrs Skywalker, Solo, Vader et al, the science fiction scene in the 1970's was dire. Star Trek was nothing but a distant memory and the genre was wallowing in memories of well meaning (and some not so well meaning) B-movies. Yes we had Doctor Who on TV (thank god), but every other attempt at producing good science fiction television was either good but short-lived (Planet of The Apes) or just plain rubbish (most everything else). The injection that George Lucas provided to sci-fi was seismic in proportions and arguably the greatest revolution in cinematic history that can still be felt in the genre today.

That stormtrooper in the middle looks a bit on the skinny side...
On a personal level, I know I'm being far from original in my opinion, but nothing for me has ever surpassed the excitement of seeing that first movie for the very first time. I remember the morning quite clearly when I was heading down to get the bus into town on a crisp February afternoon in 1978. I passed my best friend Ian on the way, he had seen it the week before. As I passed him on the street I simply said "I'm going to see it". He simply smiled knowingly back. 

The film had FINALLY been distributed outside London and it had been on at my local cinema for a week or two, but thanks to an annoying bout of illness this had been unable to make it thus far. I was thinking that most of the initial excitement would have died down by now and that I would turn up, go in and take my seat and enjoy. It was nothing nothing of the sort. The legendary queues around the block were still there (some of my friends were now seeing it for the umpteenth time that week) and the start time of it had to be put back until we all could get in. Inside the cinema the noise and excited anticipation was something that I had never encountered before in such an environment, and possibly since. What perhaps had increased our excitement was the appearance of three individuals who were inspecting our seat tickets before letting us find our place - one was Darth Vader, he was accompanied by two stormtroopers and a Tuscan raider. Genius.

Sometimes these much anticipated events turn out to be at best an anti-climax, at worst a distinct disappointment. Seeing this, and indeed the following two movies on their first release, was a truly genuine magical experience. Soon I was to fall in love (and lust) with Princess Leia and all I ever wanted to be was be as cool as Boba Fett.

To those that weren't around in those heady days it is difficult to explain just how exciting and new the Star Wars universe was. It was everywhere; in film, literature, merchandising, music. In fact there wasn't one facet of popular culture that wasn't affected during those mad early years which evolved into living through the release of three truly iconic films. 

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Harley Cokeliss
This love for the series of films led me eventually to start blogging about it and other obsessions from my favourite genre's of sci-fi, fantasy and horror - so there you go, that's who you have to blame. What I didn't realise when setting out on this blogging lark were the opportunities that were going to present themselves to me, in particular the opportunity to chat with people from within the industry itself. Last year I was very lucky to have the chance to chat with director Harley Cokeliss, who besides having a distinguished directorial career in his own right was also the 2nd Unit director on The Empire Strikes Back - yon imagine that any semblance of professionalism I may of had quickly disappeared at that point!


The link for the full interview can be found HERE, but here's a snippet of what he discussed in relation to his involvement in the movie, and in particular, perhaps the most iconic of all Star Wars scenes.



Q) I simply have to ask you about The Empire Strikes Back if that's ok. You were the 2nd unit director on that, if I'm correct. What is the role of 2nd unit director for those who don't know?

HC:" On big productions with lots of action, stunt work and special effects they often break up the workload between the main unit and the second unit. Sometimes on complicated shoots there are even third and fourth units as well. The main unit with the director shoots all the key scenes with the main actors, while the second unit takes on much of the action, stunt work and special effect work, as these shots are usually very time consuming. I was the Second Unit Director for the work done at Elstree Studios and to get through the difficult schedule there, with a large number of sets to be built and only 7 stages available, we needed to 'shoot out' a set - that is get all the necessary shots needed for all the scenes that happen on that set - as fast as possible so they could strike it and build a new set on that stage.

"Just don't look the Wookiee in the eyes"...
To speed up the process they integrated the units more. For example on the Millennium Falcon scenes Irvin Kershner would stage the scene and set the performances. He'd shoot the master shots and all the front angle close-ups on the principal actors. He did everything he wanted that didn't have a window or a special effects or stunt work. The main unit would then move on to another scene and the second unit came on with the principal actors of that scene still there. Having a window in the background was a problem in those days because windows needed a time consuming blue screen shot, with the view out of the window being done at ILM months later, so all that fell to the second unit."


Q) Which scenes from the film were you involved in?


HC: "I was on the film for over four months and, as I was saying, our unit got involved with shots for any scene that was time consuming and/or dangerous, whether it be blue screen, stunt work, or special effect. Occasionally we would do a whole scene. For example when Darth Vader and Luke have their sword fight in Cloud City the second unit was assigned to shoot that scene because almost every shot had an effect or a stunt: laser swords needed special lighting for the 3M material on the swords and the electrical discharge when a sword hit metal were explosive charges that had to be individually wired and carefully timed with the fight choreography for each take. 

He's Luke's dad, you know....
We had a stunt man in the Darth Vader costume, but Mark Hammell did most of Luke's swordplay, though sometimes we had acrobatic doubles for the jumps and falls. It boiled down to this: if it was difficult or time consuming to shoot we would do it, usually based on the extensive storyboards.


There have been a number of television programmes that have counted down to the best film and several times Empire Strike Back has been named as the best film ever made, or the best science fiction film ever made, or whatever, and each time they announce the results on TV, if it is Empire, the scene they usually show is the sword fight between Luke and Darth Vader which ends with Darth cutting Luke's sword hand off and Luke falling through space and the Cloud City ducting system before ending up hanging upside down on an antenna. The Second Unit shot that."

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Then at the end of the 1990's the next three films came along..... and not everyone was happy.

The original three movies, and the subsequent build up to the new releases had heightened the expectations of fans to the impossible extent that I firmly believe that no film would have ever been able to meet them. Now, don't get me wrong. I am in no way way saying The Phantom Menace is the best of the lot by any stretch of the imagination or that it's perfect - It certainly has numerous flaws (Yes, I'm talking about you, Jar-Jar Binks).  What I am saying is that this movie such not be treated as the much maligned Star Wars pariah that it has been since the day of it's release.


All right, I'll get this out of the way....….
Darth Cool

I LOVE THE PHANTOM MENACE
- I truly do. It and the two that came after it are in no way the disasters that many people suggest that they are. In fact, I adore Phantom and think is is quite simply is something of a sublime movie…..

So, there I said it. Now I could sit back and wait for the avalanche, the Tsunami, the absolute cacophony of outrage that will come from some in my fellow Geek fraternity at the sheer audacity of that comment. For few movies in the history of cinema have been condemned  and criticised as much as this was and in many ways, still is. For example, only yesterday I saw a "Kill Jar Jar Binks - save the series" t-shirt advertised on some online store. The strength of 'anti-Phantom Menace' feelings amongst many is frankly disturbing in its intensity. I would argue it is time for a re-appraisal but that might be just my own obsession.

When you look at it dispassionately, is actually a very good piece of cinema that takes us through the straightforward plot of a planetary trade dispute at an often steady and understated pace. Whereas the previous movies were seemingly a sequence of one cliff-hanger after another, this is a story that needs to take it's time to allow the viewer to immerse himself or herself in the experience by providing the underpinning of the story that has begun - The disintegration of the Republic and eventual emergence of the empire. Yes there are glaring weaknesses in the film, but for me, the various strengths far outweigh the few weaknesses. So open your mind and watch it again and see if you change your mind. If it doesn't change then that is ok. It's still a fine film in my eyes.

And remember, as great as the first 3 Star Wars movies were, one of them contained those bloody Ewoks.........


I must admit that when I heard that the new trailer for the latest edition to the Star wars Universe was about to air, I was naturally excited. However nothing had quite prepared me (and it seems the rest of the population of a certain age) for the subsequent wave of emotion that would engulf me by the end of the short clip. I was actually doing fine up to a point; I was enjoying the Skywalker voice-over, loving the sight of a crashed Imperial cruiser, smiling at seeing more X-Wing fighters plus the Millennium Falcon once again and also loving the clips of character action (whoever the hell they may turn out to be).......

However, I wasn't fully prepared for the moment when a much older looking Han Solo and suspiciously non-aged Chewbacca appeared, at first a huge beaming grin sprang across my face. A split second later I am not afraid to admit that I turned into an emotional wreck as Han uttered "Chewie, we're home".......oh boy. Because in that moment I was transported back to those first moments in 1978, I was 11 again - and judging by the social network meltdown, I wasn't alone.

In December of this year, when Star Wars: Episode VII comes to our local cinema, I think I may well be 11 years old once again.















4 comments:

  1. There wouldn't have been anyone dressed as Boba Fett when you saw Star Wars in 1978

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    1. You're dead right, Dermott - cheers. My typing error. I meant that Boba Fett became an obsession as the series progressed.....as did the Princess!!
      Boba fett 'appeared'in the cinema when the three were shown altogether as a special all-nighter - what an experience that was!

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    2. I'm curious why you'd become fascinated - even as a child - with Boba Fett?
      In the first movie, we *knew* Vader was sinister and dangerous, because only a few minutes into the film, he was lifting some bloke up by the neck and then crushing his windpipe. Later, we saw the Emperor with his finger-lightning, and evil plans.
      But I've never understood Fett - are we meant to be scared of him? If so, why? He doesn't actually *do* anything, other than take delivery of Han's carbonated body.... certainly nothing to make him seem feared
      I've just never *got* him....

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    3. It's a valid point that you raise there, Dermott. Purely on a personal level I always found the 'look' of Fett to be incredibly cool, the very fact that his time on screen was limited (and as you quite rightly say, as was his behavior) only seemed to add to the allure.
      You mentioned the Emperor - yep, definitely the one who put the Jeepers up me.

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