Viewing Star Wars

Just wanted to reblog this post to mark the 40th Anniversary #StarWars40

Viewing Star Wars

Star Wars opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].

Viewing Star Wars

Viewing Star Wars

With “Star Wars the Force Awakens” everywhere in the news and on the brink of its opening this Friday, I thought I’d chime in with a post about my viewing of the first seminal film. It opened to the public on May 25th 1977 – the Wednesday before Memorial weekend. But I saw it before the public did, because that was my job.

At that time I worked for the Saffle Theater Service in Seattle, WA, and had been for a year. Part of my job was to attend the screenings of upcoming films and report back whether in my judgment the film would “play” or “not play” in the venues we negotiated for. If it were an art film or a documentary more than likely it was not for us, unless the boss deemed it a candidate for our theaters in the Moscow, ID/Pullman, WA area (homes respectively for the University of Idaho and Washington State University). If it were a saturation booking like “Sky Riders” from Fox, and if it was slated to have a massive TV advertising campaign, then, of course the answer was a resounding yes. We had quite a few drive ins and tank towns that wanted to get in on that action.

When the screening for a sci-fi fantasy film from Fox was announced in May of 1977 there was no buzz, no excitement going around among the denizens of Seattle’s film row. In fact, I don’t think there was any interest at all. I, however, was very interested.

Around Christmas of 1976, Fox had put out a brochure for their upcoming titles for 1977. I perused it as I did for similar offerings from the other distributors. Here Fox was touting the likes of The Other Side of Midnight, Julia, The Turning Point, and High Anxiety. What riveted my attention was the spread on a sci-fi title called Star Wars. The graphic didn’t mean a thing (of course it didn’t, no one had seen the picture yet – it showed Luke and Leia from the shaft scene on the Death Star). But the “written and directed by” credit did. And that was why I was excited – for it cited a name that I recognized as the director of American Grafitti, George Lucas.

So, it was with great anticipation that I sat with my wife in the UA Cinema 150 to see it unspool for the first time in Seattle. And we were not disappointed. The Cinema 150 sits (or rather did sit) under a dome and has (had) a gigantic screen. That screen filled an 120 degree field of view to your front. The opening scroll and the electrifying score racheted up the anticipation. And I swear that when that Star Destroyer loomed into the scene in pursuit of the other space ship, you felt that it was directly on top of you (I think it had something to do with the sense of space imparted by that dome).

From that moment I knew that this film was going to do fantastic, light years ahead of American Grafitti, but even so I did not know just how epic the grosses were going to be.

[Aside – I did have problem trying to convince one of our clients to play it at their theater. The Olympic theater in Forks, WA., did not want to take a chance on playing it until it was available for their normal two day schedule. They were only open four days a week – with two changes, one bill on Friday and Saturday and the other on Sunday and Monday. I finally convinced him to play it all four days, resulting in a record gross for him. Not surprisingly, he held it over another weekend].

Beyond Finian

With the curtain calls in for Finian’s Rainbow, Francis Ford Coppola was hot to get on the road for his next project, The Rain People. But Howard Kazanjian was faced with a dilemma as to what he would be doing next.

Francis had asked Howard to accompany him on The Rain People as his AD. They were going to be on the road traveling light, catching those places and situations that crossed their path, much as they had when up in the Bay area for Finian. So he only wanted one AD for this film. This restriction placed a stumbling block to Howard’s participation.  Howard was a 2d AD at the time, but this arrangement would require him to be a 1st AD. To remedy this problem, Coppola called the DGA to ask for a waiver, or perhaps get Howard “promoted” to 1st AD early, since he was so close to qualifying already. The DGA turned Coppola down on both counts. Coppola turned to Howard and gave him this advice – “Quit the Guild.” Howard had to tell Coppola “No.” He just felt he could not. It would be too difficult (nigh on impossible, not to mention expensive) to try to get back in afterwards.

[Aside – As I mentioned in an earlier post George Lucas did go along with Coppola for The Rain People, not as AD, but as a general factotum, a gopher. He shot a documentary about the making of the film. On the road, somewhere in Colorado, Francis and George took in Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey.” George told Francis that he wanted to do something in that vein. It was one of the seeds for what later would become “Star Wars.” In tribute to Kubrick, they painted an inscription on one of the vans in their caravan – “HAL 9000” in three inch letters].

Instead, Howard went on to work for Sam Peckinpah and his film The Wild Bunch, (which is covered in other posts on my blog).

Later, in 1971, Coppola wanted Howard to be his AD on The Godfather. Again, the DGA rules intervened. Back then a member of the West Coast DGA (of which Howard was one) could not work within the jurisdiction of the East Coast DGA, where the film was to be shot.

Under the Spreading Cement Tree

Link to pertinent scene from Finian’s Rainbow

It really wasn’t made of cement. It just looked like it.

While Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Kazanjian were busy filming location footage up in the Bay area, the construction crews back at the studio were prepping sets both on the sound stages and in the backlot. One of the structures of note was a tree at the center of the setting for the fictional town of Rainbow Valley. It was scheduled to be used over a period of several days. Though not actually cement it was built of some other sturdy materials and plastered over. It had to be sturdy to support the weight of up to three actors (in one instance, Fred, Petula, and Barbara were all up in its branches). Also, one of the show’s song and dance numbers was scheduled for the platform built around the base of this “tree.”

Filming this number (“Look to the Rainbow”) featuring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark took place over a two day period. A bit of film history occurred under this tree, other than which was recorded on celluloid. On the day that they were working on the dance, Howard got a call from a former USC classmate and DKA Honor fraternity brother – George Lucas. Just two years prior to this, WB had set up an annual 6 month scholarship for a lucky student at USC. George was the second recipient.  (Howard – The first was Joyce Gellar. While there she wrote a script called the Cool Ones, which WB bought. I worked as 2d AD on that film. One of the actors on a day rate was unknown Glen Campbell). George reported to the studio on the day his “internship” was to begin, was assigned an office on the lot, but was given nothing to do. George called down to Howard to tell him of his plight – he was sitting there bored out of his skull.  Howard invited him down to the set.

Gratefully George joined Howard on the set, and between takes Howard introduced George to Francis.

As part of their production routine Howard would accompany Coppola back to his office at the end of a day of shooting, and there they would debrief, talking over the day and planning for the next. Sometimes these sessions led to extra work for Howard. One time Francis casually mentioned that they would be using a crane for a shot the next day – the only thing was, none had been requested on the equipment call sheet. This was the first Howard had heard of it – so he had to put in an order for it immediately. Sometimes the crisis involved people that he would have to line up last minute. If it were for instance the corps dancers, he had to track them all down by phone. It was a terrible chore, and could take hours, not to mention the costume department that needed to be alerted also. But it was also a fun time. George accompanied Howard to the meeting that day. They listened to Coppola with keen interest. Coppola had some strong opinions – he hated Hollywood, its system, and wanted to be out on his own. George was definitely a kindred spirit. Later, George showed Francis his student film THX 1138.  Coppola encouraged him to turn the script into a feature, and then got WB to buy it and he himself stepped up to produce it.

George stayed on, but just as an observer and later was given the privilege of attending the dailies. (Howard – there was one thing that George got to do for the production.  Francis needed to review a particular film clip. Howard couldn’t leave the set, so he asked George to go fetch it from the editor).

Coppola took George on the road with him for his next project, The Rain People. Howard almost went along too – but that’s a story for another day.

me and American Grafitti

me and American Grafitti

The summer of 1973 was coming to a close. I was still at the Renton Cinemas working as an usher and a doorman. Changes lay around the corner though, all of which I was happily unaware.

What I was aware of was my excitement for an upcoming release, booked for the Cinemas. The buzz out of LA and the GCC booking department was that a ground breaking film was going to light up the waning days of summer. They had screened a film by a young film student George Lucas. And they were high on it. The title was a little out of the ordinary, a puzzler actually – AMERICAN GRAFITTI.

The booking department was right. American Grafitti became a surprise sleeper hit. We simply did not have enough seats for all the people who wanted to see it. I saw it. Many times. And in many pieces. And its music filled the auditorium.

For it was a favorite to slip in on and catch a scene here and there. And indulge in the usher’s pastime – watching the audience. (A wise man once told me that there are three audiences – others; you, yourself; and the audience of One [God]). Here I was an audience to the audience. And I was enjoying their pleasure in seeing something for the first time.

The all time favorite scene to catch was the race at the end between Ron Howard and Harrison Ford (and the build up supplied by Booker T and the MGs – Green Onions). There was a built in excuse. An usher had to be on hand anyway, to open the doors and direct the customers out. Word had circulated that an in-joke had been included by the filmmakers when they made this film. The license plate for Harrison Ford’s vehicle read THX138, a reference to Lucas’ student film THX1138, which he later remade into his first feature film for Warners.

After hearing this, I went in to check it out. And the rumors were right. There it was in Technicolor. But I also couldn’t help but notice the license plate on the other car. GLD204. Did that mean anything?

Then it came at me in a rush. The GL must stand in for George Lucas; and after a puzzling moment I decided that the D must be for Director. And it all made perfect sense. Perhaps it is all only a coincidence, but…

In a town where you are only as good as your last project, film, or whatever; you are in competition with yourself, always having to surpass the one before.

Cue – All Summer Long by the Beach Boys.

IMG_2298

As I stated in last Thursday’s post I had put in a couple of weeks brainstorming the story by the time I called my producer friend Howard on June 16, 2005. First, we chatted about the possibilities of a fourth Indiana Jones, as the rumor mill was then churning that a script was in the works. It was true, Howard told me – his friend George (yes, that George) wasn’t taking calls from anyone, and instead had locked himself away to write. Towards the end of our conversation I mentioned my ideas for a National Treasure sequel. This grabbed his attention. He told me he had been approached about a possible TV spin-off. And he encouraged me to get writing.
By June 20th, I started in on the actual writing during my morning commute. The next day a sequel for National Treasure was announced in the press. I contacted Howard later that day and asked if I should toss it in light of this news. His first impulse was to advise me to pull the plug. But on second consideration he thought it might prove worthwhile to keep going, if nothing more than to enhance my writing skills.
So I kept going, originally thinking I’d just try to see how far I’d get in thirty days. And I soon fell into a rhythm of reading on the morning bus and writing on the afternoon one. And I took to using a spreadsheet to collect and organize all my ideas for the plot.
I went beyond thirty days. By September 23 I was up to 63 pages (in Final Draft), the whole swelling to 194 pages exactly one year later, and before I began the first rewrite in August of 2006. Or would “unwrite” be a better word? For I was chopping dialogue, scenes, sequences, etc., and rewriting to smooth out the story and to get the page count down.

The whole is actually two stories as I had designed it in the beginning – a contemporary one showing the hero seeking to clear his name by uncovering the parallel story of what his ancestor had done; and how that past was now impacting his present. (A little DW Griffith-ish).