A long time ago…Steven Spielberg made a bet with fellow film director George Lucas—Spielberg believed Lucas’ Star Wars would outperform his own Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the box office. The unassuming Lucas said no way and told Spielberg to put his money where his mouth was. Lucas offered 2.5% of Star Wars’ profits if Spielberg was right; Spielberg happily matched the bet with 2.5% of Close Encounters. Accounting for inflation over the decades, Spielberg’s made over $40 million off the wager, and continues to get checks to this day!
Lucas was a fanboy of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, in particular his 1958 release The Hidden Fortress. So enamored was Lucas of the movie that he originally wanted Star Wars to feature an all-Japanese cast. He settled for just borrowing heavily from the plot, including the concept of telling the story from the POV of two marginalized comical characters—C-3PO and R2-D2 (or in the case of Hidden Fortress, Tahei and Matashichi).
Acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola, a UCLA Film School grad, met fellow UCLA alum Lucas on the set of Finian’s Rainbow. The younger Lucas had been observing Coppola at work, and soon the two became fast friends. Coppola wanted Lucas to direct Apocalypse Now, but Lucas refused to be deterred from Star Wars. The two remained friends and collaborators, however, and both founded their own studios—Coppola’s American Zoetrope, and Lucas’ Lucasfilms.
From the very beginning Lucas demanded Star Wars be as authentic and realistic as possible. He wanted the technology to look well-used, ‘no more exotic than the family station wagon.’ Meanwhile the sound effects needed to come from genuine sources in order to be as familiar as possible. To that end, sound designer Ben Burtt was hired to spend a year running around with a tape recorder, collecting the sounds of everything from bears to explosions to aircraft carriers. His extensive library of recorded sounds is still utilized to this day!
Harrison Ford knew he’d be working for cheap on Star Wars, but felt it was better than carpentry. His other film with Lucas, American Graffiti, had been a relative success, but the riskier Star Wars was on a tight budget. Instead Lucas was able to offer a percentage of any future profits to Ford and a select few others. Obviously this paid off in spades, or, as Ford neatly put it, ‘We ended up earning what we were worth.’
The vision of George Lucas is hard to overstate, but perhaps one of the most vital early decisions made to in regards to the soundtrack. Lucas didn’t want to alienate the audience any more than they already would be (given the fact the whole film featured aliens in your face!). So he used classical scores as temporary placeholders until he could bring in composer John Williams. His description to Williams? ‘It’s kind of a space-y film.’ But Williams didn’t mind, and the distinct soundtrack went on to scoop an Oscar. Meanwhile, thankfully, the composer has been brought back for each successive film in the franchise.
Following the unexpected (except by Steven Spielberg) success of Star Wars, Lucas was put off by the stress of directing, and so Irvin Kershner was brought on to do The Empire Strikes Back. Fearing Lucas would micromanage every aspect of the shooting, Kershner recounts the exact opposite ended up being the case. ‘I had tremendous freedom,’ he’s said, ‘and it’s to George’s credit.’ And to our good fortune, as Empire ended up being broadly considered the best film of the series!
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