Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review:The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski

While many books are out there on the making of Star Wars, few deal with how the story itself evolved over time.  The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski fills the gap. Kaminski synthesized a wealth of secondary sources to unravel how Lucas developed the films.

Why did Lucas decide to go ahead and write Star Wars at the height of the New Hollywood era of the 70s?

From the inception of his career Lucas dreamed of crafting an epic space adventure in the spirit of the Flash Gordon serials.  Unlike his peers in the New Hollywood of the 70s, Lucas wanted to write a story for older children that would examine universal themes. But he was hardly alone, many filmmakers in the 70s had aspirations to make a Sci-Fi epic, the most famous case being Chilean director's Alejandro Jodorowsky's plans to adapt Dune to the screen.

What literary and film influences went into the original screenplay?

Quite a few influences went into the original film.  Lucas read comic books, fairy tales, and primers on world mythology.  A devotee of Akira Kurosawa's cinema, films like The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress were direct inspirations as well, he loved the idea of thrusting movie goers into an unfamiliar culture and forcing them to learn as they watched. Fantasy novels also shaped the story, especially J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert's Dune.  A blending of Western and Eastern spirituality are all over the original films as well.

Did Lucas write the initial script and then decide to slice it into six separate movies.

Not really, despite his statements in several interviews.  Lucas wrote four scripts from 1973-76 and Kaminski traces their evolution in meticulous detail.  While the ideas in those early drafts appeared in later films, there was hardly enough material for six movies. Each film to follow Star Wars: A New Hope were all written with no more than a rough outline. Typically Lucas would write a draft and then hand it over to another writer to polish, as in the case of the The Empire Strikes Back when he hired Leigh Bracket and later Lawrence Kasdan to work his outlines into a coherent script.

Did Lucas initially plan to make 9 films?

After Star Wars became a Box Office juggernaut, Lucas often spoke of plans to make nine films.  However, if you go back and watch Star Wars: A New Hope it pretty much works as a stand alone story.  The original opening crawl simply said Star Wars, the "Episode IV" appeared in later editions. Lucas briefly considered selling the sequel rights and going back to making low budget personal films, but got caught up in the mania surrounding Star Wars and decided to make the sequels.  By the time The Return of the Jedi came out in 1983 he was exhausted and went into temporary retirement, thus putting Star Wars on the shelf for over a decade. When Lucas returned to make the prequels (Episodes 1,2,3) in the 1990s he dismissed the idea of a sequel trilogy (Episodes 7,8,9), although Kaminski claims at one time Lucas probably did have nine films in mind.*

So there was no master plan, the entire saga was written on the fly?

For the most part. For example Darth Vader, who appears as a henchman for the Empire in A New Hope, gradually evolved into the central character of the saga.  When it came time to write The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas realized the film needed a stronger ending so he decided to make Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker, although this was never part of the original story.  The same goes for the controversial decision to make Luke and Leia brother and sister.

Why has Lucas made so many contradicting statements over the years?

Up until the 70s, the idea of telling a singular story through many films went against Hollywood convention.  Francis Ford Coppola's  The Godfather Part II changed the rules, proving audiences were open to the idea of one story being told through multiple movies. Kaminski gets very critical towards Lucas because of his contradicting statements over the years, but they should be taken in their proper context - in the 70s sequels were a relatively new innovation.  Unlike today when Marvel plans 10-15 years into the future to make their films, Lucas literally had to put everything on the line with each new Star Wars film since he was working in a completely different business model, basically financing the films on his own while over seeing all aspects of production.  

What can we expect in the the new trilogy?

All speculation at this point.  To paraphrase what Lucas once said: the first trilogy would deal with the rise and fall of empires, the next would focus on the journey from childhood to adulthood, and the last would focus on questions of good and evil. But with Disney taking over I suspect the new films will emphasize action and will have a "changing of the guard" type narrative.

Is the book worth reading?

For Star Wars fans it's a must read, especially on the making of the original trilogy. It's by far the most comprehensive source.  Kaminski's tone can get annoying at times, at one point attributing Lucas's success to sheer luck.  He should remember Obi-Wan's dictum "in my experience, there's no such thing as luck."  So if you can get past the nit picking, The Secret History of Star Wars provides a wealth of knowledge on the creative process itself.

*One of the crucial clues to the mystery of the "sequel" trilogy occurs in The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke, after abandoning his Jedi training with Yoda in order to rescue Han and Leia from Darth Vader, has Obi Wan sadly uttering to Yoda "That boy is our last hope," to which Yoda replies, "No, there is another."  While the next film Return of the Jedi reveals this "Other" as Princess Leia,  Kaminski suggests this "other" Yoda spoke of may have been a totally new character to be introduced in later films.

Kaminski, Michael.  The Secret History of Star Wars: The Art of Storytelling and the Making of a Modern Epic.  Toronto: Legacy Books, 2008.