More than 30 years after the “Star Wars” franchise hit theaters, 3-year-olds are still arming themselves with plastic light sabers, television shows like “Lost” make reference to the saga, and adults who were around for the original release decades ago still revere George Lucas’ brainchild.
So the question is — on three generations of fans and $40 billion in merchandising sales later — how did Lucas manage to make a film with such cultural relevance and staying power?
“I think the starting point is that George has tapped into the kind of mythological roots that draw people into stories,” said Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing at Lucasfilm. “He’s created a very rich and detailed saga that we get involved in ... the stories of the characters themselves, and themes that resonate with people’s lives that have a lot of significance to us.”
Most would agree that on the most basic level, those “Star Wars” themes would include good versus evil and the relationship between father and son. These themes take root in the first “Star Wars” movie, released May 25, 1977, and become more textured and complex with “The Empire Strikes Back,” the film that Roffman cites as the one responsible for getting the franchise where it is today.
“If George had stopped with ‘Star Wars,’ it’s very hard to say where we’d be today,” Roffman said. “When ‘Empire’ came out — and I’m very sensitive to this because I accepted the job before ‘Empire’ came out — I was on the edge of my seat about whether it was going to work or not.”
The concern, largely, was that sequels don’t work. But in the case of “Empire,” Roffman and others learned that sometimes they do.
“It blew people away,” Roffman said. “It had this great integrity as a film and moved the story forward in a meaningful way. That was the birth of Yoda, the one where you realize Darth Vadar was Luke’s father, and (the film) looked like this simple black-and-white fantasy, and gave these layers of meaning and complexity.”
After directing “Star Wars” himself, Lucas put the budding franchise in the hands of Irvin Kershner, who nearly turned down the opportunity to direct “Empire.”
“I said I was not interested in this project,” Kershner said. “I responded that he had already done it, and I didn’t see what I could contribute. I also didn’t want to do it because none of us knew if a follow up to ‘Star Wars’ would work. It was a lot of pressure.”
Ultimately, Lucas persuaded Kershner to direct “Empire” by saying he’d put his own money into it, and would let Kershner have creative control. “George said, ‘This will be your picture, you’ll be on your own, and I won’t be looking over your shoulder,’” Kershner said. “That’s when I finally said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ And George kept his word.”
Making the ‘Empire’ unique
It’s one thing to have a budget and creative control, another thing entirely to know what to do with it. In order to turn “The Empire Strikes Back” into more than just a sequel, into an engine that would drive the rest of the series, Kershner had to create “Empire” with a tone entirely different from its predecessor. This meant moving away from any cartoonish qualities that “Star Wars” had, and turning “Empire” into a fairy tale imbued with threads of very real philosophy and religion.
“For the first film the actors had it in their minds that this was a comic book brought to life,” Kershner said. “They acted partly tongue and cheek. When I decided to do the second film, I said to myself that this is the second act of a three-act trilogy.
“When I met with the stars, I said, ‘I have been thinking about the film and I have come to a conclusion, this is a fairy tale, not science fiction. As a fairy tale, you have to play it straight, dramatic. So I read Freud and Jung about what fairy tales are and that gave me a fix for what the film should look like.”
Freud, Jung, and eastern philosophy can be found in much of Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker. “Feel the Force around you,” Yoda says to his Jedi pupil. “Here, between you and me. Between the rock ... everywhere. Yes, even the land.” This informed much of Kershner’s direction, and that was important to actor Billy Dee Williams, who starred as Lando Calrissian and credits Kershner with the film’s success.
“I was hired (for ‘Empire’) and I met with him. And we sat for a long time in my house and talked about a lot of different things, but certainly about eastern philosophy and stuff like that,” Williams said. “Production wise, script wise, there was a sense of humanity that made that thing work. All of the others worked, but ‘Empire’ really worked because of his (Kershner’s) involvement.”
What really made it work?
So “Empire” had all the elements of a successful film in place. There was Lucas, a creator who was wildly imaginative and trusted his director implicitly; there was Kershner, the director with the vision and the means — talented actors — to execute it; there was good and evil, dark and light, and in the words of Kershner, “a wonderful antagonist ... Darth Vader!”
But many films have had those basic elements. Why is the “Star Wars” franchise so magical? There’s no one answer, but many theories.
One theory credits some of Lucas’ business decisions surrounding the franchise. “We have a very unique setup here. We (Lucasfilm) own ‘Star Wars’ 100 percent,” Roffman said. “And ‘Star Wars’ was 100 percent the creation of Lucas and he has been very faithful to his creative vision. There’s a great integrity about his vision that isn’t interfered with by any outside forces, like studios, or fans for that matter.”
Having complete ownership of the brand certainly goes a long way in maintaining a vision. But, that’s not why parents take such pride in introducing the films to their kids, and it certainly isn’t the reason kids today are asking their parents to drop hard-earned dollars on toys, bed sheets, video games and countless other byproducts of the franchise.
Part of the explanation is that the story is one that becomes richer as one gets older; it’s sort of a cinematic “Giving Tree.”
“There are themes (in ‘Star Wars’) that resonate with people’s lives that have a lot of significance to us,” Roffman said. “They’re presented in a way where if you’re young, especially if you’re a kid, you don’t get all the deeper levels of meaning. But, you’re vastly entertained. When you’re older, you revisit it, you understand deeper levels of meaning there that are taking place.”
And then there’s the idea that everyone loves a fairy tale.
“The young audience doesn’t understand why it is so frightening and so real, but it is because it is fairy tale,” Kershner said. “As a fairy tale, the film reaches deep into the audience’s unconscious. As a fairy tale, it becomes a universal story that affects us, both young or old.”