45 Years Ago: Shooting Starts on ‘Star Wars’
George Lucas could be forgiven if he felt triumphant on March 22, 1976. That was the day cameras started rolling on Star Wars, his epic movie project that had already been underway for two years.
Despite the success of his previous film, the coming-of-age story American Graffiti, the director struggled to secure studio support for his new movie, and he even considered quitting the business before studio Fox decided to back him. “I really wanted to hold on to my own integrity,” he told Rolling Stone later. “So, I was going to try to write a very interesting project. Right after Graffiti, I was getting this fan mail from kids that said the film changed their life, and something inside me said do a children’s film. And everybody said, ‘Do a children’s film? What are you talking about? You’re crazy.’”
We now know that Lucas was the right kind of crazy. Picking up some of the ideas he explored in his 1971 directorial debut THX 1138, he went through several significant rewrites before landing on the Star Wars story we know and love today. So much energy was devoted to making it right that the script was going through changes even in the days running up to the start of shooting – for example, Luke Skywalker’s name was still Starkiller up until a week before the production unit traveled from England to Tunisia to roll cameras.
On arrival at the chosen location, the director and his team discovered the hotel they had block-booked was closed for refurbishment, and the production team behind the TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth had taken all the second-best accommodations. Producer Gary Kurtz later recalled: “That was okay for two weeks. We could survive that. But if it had been two or three months, we would have had a riot on our hands.”
Day one began in the Tunisian desert at 6:30AM, and the schedule included shooting the scene where Luke and his uncle Owen buy the droids C-3P0 and R2-D2 from the Jawas in their giant sandcrawler. The work began with the discovery that Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO costume took two hours to assemble and the actor found it too tight and painful once inside. Additionally, R2-D2’s front leg refused to deploy, and the radio remote controls used to operate it and several other droids worked only intermittently. “Every time the remote-control R2 worked, it turned and ran into a wall,” Lucas recalled. “And when Kenny Baker, [the actor who] was in it, the thing was so heavy, he could barely move it. … He would sort of take a step and a half and be totally exhausted.”
The director had to think quickly again when it emerged that the explosives set in the head module of the R5-D4 droid (whose meltdown prompts Luke to buy R2-D2) were wired too close to its movement-management systems, so it was useless when fired. Another issue arose when the batteries used to power the droids emptied too quickly and were difficult to replace.
Watch the Droid-Purchase Scene From 'Star Wars'
With the weather working against them, Lucas called an end to the day after nearly 13 hours. The droid-purchase scene was in the can, along with the moment where Luke and C-3P0 run out into the night searching for the runaway R2-D2. But the scene where Luke watches the twin sunset on Tatooine couldn’t be shot because of the weather. Perhaps Lucas hoped the challenges would prove to be something like teething troubles, but because Tunisia had endured its heaviest storm in 50 years, Star Wars would gradually fall further and further behind schedule. A week before the movie was due in theaters, the director was still rushing trying to finish it.
At least one member of the production remained bright and enthusiastic through it all: Actor Mark Hamill enjoyed his first day on set. In 2017, he tweeted a picture of himself in costume from that first day, noting, “Crew was kind but thought [Star Wars] was ‘rubbish’ – I kept telling them, ‘We’re on a winner!'”
For Lucas, though, the experience of leading a staff of 950 – more than six times the number of people he was used to – was “very frustrating” and “unhappy." The experience convinced him to hire someone else to direct the Star Wars sequels.
He said the original movie – which later became known as A New Hope – was about “25 percent” of what he’d hoped it would be, but that was enough to keep him focused on the story’s future.
“I’m hoping that if the film accomplishes anything, it takes some 10-year-old kid and turns him on so much to outer space and the possibilities of romance and adventure,” he reflected. “Just infusing them into serious exploration of outer space and convincing them that it’s important. Not for any rational reason but a totally irrational and romantic reason.”
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