The Making of Star Wars Documentary

The phrase “The Making of Star Wars” could refer to three things. First, and most obviously, there’s the actual process of making George Lucas’ 1977 film. Second, the comprehensive and excellent nonfiction tome by J.W. Rinzler, published in 2007. But to me, the most significant is The Making of Star Wars, a 1977 made-for-TV documentary special that, if anything, says more in hindsight than it did upon its original airing.

It’s also the first Star Wars thing I ever saw, and as such kickstarted my personal Star Wars fandom in a most peculiar fashion.

First aired on ABC in September 1977, then released on home video two years later, The Making of Star Wars is a light, frothy hourlong making-of produced to capitalise on what was then a brand-new national craze. Star Wars had released just a few months earlier, and its massive success is both a boasting point for the special and its raison d’etre. Director Robert Guenette, writer (and famed film historian/critic) Richard Schickel, and narrator William Conrad put together a strange little documentary film for 20th Century Fox: one that can teach us a little about the making of Star Wars and a lot about what Star Wars meant in 1977.

The Making of Star Wars opens in August 1977, at what the doc declares the crowning achievement of the movie: R2-D2, C-3PO, and Darth Vader setting their footprints in concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. From there, it jumps back to the film’s origins – and those of a hyper-lionised “Mr. Lucas” – before moving through the film’s production and release. Lucas’ inspirations are positioned prominently, with clips from Westerns, Flash Gordon serials, pirate movies, World War II dogfights, and even THX-1138 and American Graffiti (especially Harrison Ford’s drag race) all getting airtime.

Everything’s pretty surface-level here, with a few exceptions. The behind-the-scenes footage is surprisingly intimate, including some clips – like the actors giving the sound recordist a hard time over a flubbed take – that would never make it into a special feature today. The interviews, however – all conducted post-release, with the exception of Sir Alec Guinness – consist of the most gently lobbed softballs imaginable. Guenette may as well have asked Lucas why Star Wars is, like, the best movie ever.

You Know, For Kids

Taken solely on content, The Making of Star Wars is pretty standard self-congratulatory stuff. But this was a 1970s TV special, and as such, it’s hyper-targeted towards children. It’s all hosted by R2-D2 and C-3PO on a vaguely sci-fi set, and given their celebrity at the time, much screentime is devoted to repartee between the two. Breaking with character, Artoo is presented as a comedic wuss, while Threepio is the strong one – almost like a master/pet relationship. The mere sight of the Jawas and Tusken Raiders frightens Artoo, and a hologram of Darth Vader sends him scurrying out of the room entirely. Comedy!

Even the actors were clearly directed to present their interviews as if to children. Carrie Fisher especially – interviewed in a video arcade – brings a childlike attitude to discussing, for example, how much fun “the swing-across” was to shoot. It’s also a bit bizarre to watch Harrison Ford actually smile while recounting specifics of Han’s relationship with Chewbacca. The whole thing feels sanitised from concept outwards. Which, of course, it was.

A Fan is Born

Somehow, I saw The Making of Star Wars probably a full year before I saw Star Wars itself. I really ran our VHS tape through its paces, watching and rewatching to the point where the special and the movie became interchangeable. As one might expect, that altered how I would eventually view the movie, and movies in general.

For one thing, the special presents R2-D2 and C-3PO as far more significant characters than they really are. In the movie, they’re omnipresent audience surrogates in the Hidden Fortress mould, but as the special tells it, the droids are the main characters. Luke is merely a beloved companion, while Han, Leia, and Obi-Wan serve as minor supporting roles. Elsewhere, elements that made good behind-the-scenes clips, like the holographic chess game, Luke’s landspeeder, and the Tusken Raiders (essentially, anything from the Tunisian location shoot, because location shoots are sexy), are all amped up in significance.

The small child version of me thought half of Star Wars was just Luke driving the droids around in a landspeeder, and I was fully content in that belief. Without much of a context for what the Empire or the Death Star was, there was no reason to believe otherwise. I thought stormtrooper armour was just what people in Star Wars wore when they went into space. After all, there was footage of Luke and Han wearing it, and they were on a spaceship at the time. Made sense to me.

Movie Magic, Better Than Actual Magic

Though seeing behind the curtain before joining the audience probably took away some of Star Wars’ unique magic, it taught me about a different sort of magic. Thanks to this special, movies for me would forever be inseparable from their making. I’d never be completely swept away by fantastical stories; I’d be obsessed with the real story, of how they were created. That’s partially due to the special’s structure: thanks to its robot hosts, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred, which has a profound influence on a young, impressionable kid.

But it’s also due to the sheer miracles Lucasfilm pulled off making that first Star Wars film. What George Lucas and his team achieved on that movie seemed comparable to the achievements of its characters; Conrad narrates both with equal weight of awe. Bluescreens and matte paintings seemed like magic tricks to me. The computer-controlled cameras used to shoot spaceship miniatures were more impressive than the ships themselves. “Comedic” footage of robots breaking down in the Tunisian sun made me want to crack them open and see how they worked. Even a section focusing on the tedium of film production seemed more exciting than anything else in the world.

Many filmmakers knew they wanted to make movies when they first saw that Star Destroyer fly overhead. Me? I knew that was what I wanted to do when I saw the motion-control rig that shot it.

A New Franchise

For all its mythologising of the events leading up to Star Wars – George Lucas’ early career, the making of the film, its explosive release – The Making of Star Wars actually understates the cultural importance Lucas’ creations would have in the decades that followed. Lucas’ Malamute dog Indiana gets a shoutout as the inspiration for Chewbacca, long before that same dog inspired another Harrison Ford hero (and later, that hero’s dog). And though the film’s merchandising merits a brief mention, a handful of bedspreads, toys, and Darth Vadar [sic] Lives pins are nothing on the total media blackout the franchise enjoys today.

Towards the end of the doc, there’s brief discussion of sequels – before any script existed for The Empire Strikes Back, when the future seemed open and limitless. Producer Gary Kurtz states that the one or more follow-ups would be “different adventures, rather than direct sequels.” Carrie Fisher says she’s heard something about an ice planet and a tropical planet. The big question mark, though, centres around the Luke-Han-Leia love triangle, with Mark Hamill stating “she’s really a chump if she goes for Han Solo.” Ah, hindsight.

A Long Time Ago…

Decades later, The Making of Star Wars plays like a quaint relic from a simpler time. It’s adorably cheap, intended as a fleeting piece of cultural ephemera – which is precisely what makes it so fascinating. It doesn’t go into great depth, but what it chooses to examine is noteworthy from a distance. In this TV special, the universe where Star Wars was made is as magical as the Star Wars universe itself, with Lucas and the crew recontextualised as fantastical heroes in their own right. Princess Leia might be “royalty of a very liberated kind,” as one dated line of narration puts it, but everyone on the production might as well be royalty, for how they’re presented.

Why does The Making of Star Wars feel so light and naive? Perhaps audiences today are more attuned to the filmmaking process, thanks to greater media scrutiny and the increased ease of making movies at home. Perhaps exponentially increased budgets have led studios to present their films as bigger, more serious endeavours. At the time it aired, the notion of a blockbuster was still a novelty, and the documentary treats it as such. Nowadays, effects-laden genre epics gross a billion dollars with machine-like regularity, many bearing the name Star Wars. Looking back, those footprints at the Chinese were less a crowning achievement than the start of something bigger than anyone could imagine.

The special’s final line of dialogue sums it up with eerie accidental foresight. “Where will it all end?,” Threepio asks. “Perhaps, Artoo, it will never end.”

No, Threepio. It won’t.

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