For a whole generation of video-game-playing kids, The Last Starfighter represents a special kind of wish-fulfillment: a down-on-his-luck kid becomes a video-game champ, only to find himself recruited to fight in an interplanetary war. How did something so perfect get made? Here's the whole, fascinating story.
In The Last Starfighter, Alex is stuck in his trailer park, and his only escape is mastering an arcade game called Starfighter. In fact, the inhabitants of the Starlite Starbrite park all gather around as he decimates the enemy. But, this is no ordinary arcade game: after Alex hits the high score, a signal gets sent out, and an alien named Centauri finds Alex and whisks him off to fight real space battles, in an attempt the stave off the invasion of the galaxy.
So how did this movie come to be? Here's the complete rundown...
The story started with screenwriter Jonathan R. Buetel, who was working at an ad agency at the time, wandering into a video arcade in the early 80s and watching a kid play an arcade game. According to Buetel in an interview on the DVD extra Crossing the Frontier: The Making of The Last Starfighter, he envisioned an arcade game that was also like the Arthurian Sword in the Stone. A game that would beam out a signal, announcing the chosen one, when a high score was reached.
And according to the DVD commentary, they had to make a lot of changes to the script to differentiate TLS from all the movies Steven Spielberg or George Lucas was putting out in the 80s. Originally, Starfighter was going to be set in the suburbs, not in a trailer park, but they felt that was too similar to movies like E.T., Close Encounters and Poltergeist.
In fact, director Nick Castle spent a lot of time comparing his film to the works of Spielberg and Lucas (as he knew that comparisons to Star Wars were inevitable) and then doing his best to make his movie different, which wasn't always easy, he explained: "You basically back into George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at every corner… You see all those moments come up and you realize, boy, George really knew what he was doing."
Another reason for changing the setting to the trailer park is so that Alex would have a more insular group of friends and family.
Another fact culled from the DVD commentary is the fact that originally the two main characters, Alex and Maggie, were named Skip and Penny — and this was changed, because it sounded way too cartoon-y. Alex ended up being named after Buetel's son.
One of the main reasons that the audience connects with the movie so much is because of the onscreen chemistry between Alex (Lance Guest) and Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart). The casting people seem to have noticed this right off the bat. According to Stewart, the two clicked right away. "During the call backs we were paired together. I think we had a really good chemistry. We were up against the hot young actors in Hollywood of the day. Ally Sheedy was up for a role." (Others up for a role included Jennifer Jason Leigh and Eric Stoltz, according to the DVD commentary.)
While Stewart was working on Days of our Lives and had to audition for the role, Guest had been working on Halloween II, which had a connection to Starfighter through John Carpenter — Nick Castle, the director of Starfighter, played Michael Myers in the original Halloween movie.
As Guest tells it, he pretty much walked straight into the role, "The first movie job that I ever booked was Halloween II, and the producer of Halloween II (John Carpenter) is really good friends with the director of Last Starfighter. Nick was saying, 'Hey, I'm looking for this guy for this movie', and he was editing Halloween II with John, and Nick's like 'Wait, who's that guy?' So I kind of got Starfighter and Halloween II together. One led to the other, thanks to Nick."
When Buetel suggested casting Robert Preston as Centauri, the agreement was unanimous — Castle called it "one of the greatest castings of the 80s." In the DVD featurette, the director calls TLS a musical without any music, which is perfect for the fast-talking Preston. In fact after Buetel came up with idea of casting Robert Preston as Centauri, the script was rewritten with his Music Man character, Professor Harold Hill, in mind.
Guest had this to say about the late Robert Preston:
I was very serious, so I was constantly trying to rehearse with every actor that would rehearse with me, including 70-year-old Robert Preston, dragging him out of his trailer. The cool thing about him is that he's like a really tough guy, but he never was like 'No, leave me alone, I'm old.' He was just like 'Whenever you're ready kid, let's go.' So he was really, really cool that way.
If you check out the Crossing the Frontier documentary, it really looks like Preston had a blast making the film.
Ron Cobb, the production designer and a key figure to making the special effects work, was hired due to another John Carpenter connections. According to the DVD commentary from the 1999 Widescreen Collector's Edition, Cobb had worked with Castle's good friend Carpenter on Dark Star.
Without Cobb, the movie might have ended up as "Gumby in space" (as Castle puts it), since the images used before the fully rendered special effects were inserted were apparently pretty terrible.
This was arguably the first movie to have all of its effects done by computer (except for make-up and explosions), and definitely had the most computer effects of any movie since Tron.
Jeffery Okun, Visual Effects Coordinator, did the math at the outset. They had a certain amount of frames to create with a certain of polygons (all of which takes quite a bit of time to render) and a six-month deadline. His calculations told him that this would take 17 months. He went as far as going to Producer Gary Adelson and pleading to fire Digital Productions, and hire a modeling company that he had standing by. Adelson refused, and Digital Productions forged ahead.
In the end, some of the scenes didn't turn out exactly how they were supposed to, according to the DVD commentary. In the scene where Alex, in the Gunstar, hides in an asteroid Ron Cobb, the production designer, complains that it looks like "melted ice cream." Apparently this scene didn't render correctly, and though the technology to do it correctly existed, due to the overwhelming amount of work there was neither the time nor the money to redo it.
Since Tron had already come first, associate producer John Whitney Jr. was aware of the sort of problems that CG-heavy movies tended to incur. Said Whitney to an interviewer: "The special effects are there to serve the purpose of furthering that story,"..."They were not meant to stand alone as special effects, but to present outer space in as acceptable a way and as easy a way as location photography does."
One of the most important pieces of special effects was the Gunstar, and this was no small challenge, according to Cobb: "In the early stages we were kind of handicapped, in that I had to use geometric primitives to a certain extent." But over time the team got more and more used to the work, slowly perfecting the coding and programming. And as this advanced, so did the look of the Gunstar. In the end the Gunstar was comprised of 750,000 polygons, which took coders 3 months to put in the computer.
In the Book Understanding Computers: Computer Images by Roberta Conlan, a more detailed description of this process is described:
"When we have the images encoded," Whitney explained afterward, "the next step is to put them onstage." To begin with, a computer-generated model of the ship was displayed on a vector graphics monitor as a wire-frame outline of polygons that could be moved around the screen with great facility. This allowed Cobb to preview motion on the screen much as MAGI had been able to do with TRON. "The technology intervenes or interferes very little," Cobb said. "Instead it's extremely helpful. There's no end of subtlety; you can add to the action because you have full control over the movement of the object."
The ship could be enlarged or reduced in size at will, and - more significant -it could be easily replicated. The original Gunstar may have taken about six months to create from start to finish, but a hangar scene with 14 such ships - 10.5 million polygons altogether - required only a few minutes to bring to the screen. But there were problems, nonetheless. Because these images were transparent wire-frame outlines, it was not always possible to tell foreground from background or, in the case of a ship in the distance, even the direction it faced. "We had a few funny instances like that when we had ships passing through things or flying backwards," Cobb recalled.
But all of these details were clarified in the next phase of development, when Digital Productions brought in its heavy hitter: The Cray X-MP supercomputer. Now Cobb's team could color the surfaces of the wire-frame renditions of the Gunstar at workstations equipped with very-high-resolution raster monitors (pages 22-23). This made it possible, for example, to introduce dents and other blemishes on the spacecraft, to keep the ships from looking too much like clones of the original.
Digital's software also allowed a technical editor to choose between nearly 70 billion colors. Although the human eye cannot distinguish so many shades, without them, changes in surface tones — the subtle gradation from sunlight to shadow, for example — can result in stripes that rob the object of its realism. To further the illusion, the technical editor assigned a given surface type for each group of polygons, creating the sheen of metal or the dullness of wall paint. Finally, the same way you could light a stage with a spotlight, the Gunstar could be placed in a physical context by telling the computer where to position how many light sources and how bright each should be.
The Star Car also didn't actually turn out the way everyone expected. In the end, the practical-effects version was basically sheet metal with a VW motor inside, which couldn't manage to go very fast, and was pretty loud.
"The soundstage stuff was at MGM. Inside the ship was green screen. I had this gyroscope cage that I sat in, and instead of moving the camera, they moved me. When Centauri and I land, that was on a stage filled with fake rocks. The ending scene was all just flat with green screen, and they just filled in all the stuff later."
Stewart adds about the classic final scene: "When the spaceship lands in the trailer park, they just had this giant fan blowing dirt on us, because it was a dirty trailer park. And the director was just like 'Look up there, you see this giant space ship', because there was nothing there. That was all put in afterwards."
While people worked tirelessly on the special effects behind the scenes, filming the live-action stuff seemed to have gone remarkably well. Talking to Horror News, Stewart shares some of her favorite moments:
I suppose my favorite moments on the set involved the whole sequence of events where we were at the lake making out and Alex II gets shot and I realize he's a Beta Unit. I love action so the whole leaping into the truck, speeding off, leaping out of the truck, exploding truck, "I love you Alex Rogan…" was super fun! Also, something I'll never forget was when I got to meet Robert Preston. Remember, I didn't have any scenes with him, so it was by chance that we were at the studio shooting pick-up scenes on the same day. He was leaving as I arrived. We were introduced and he took my hand and kissed it saying, "It is a pleasure to meet you Catherine". I literally swooned! He truly seemed to glow. A real movie star! The Last Starfighter was his last movie, sadly.
Lance Guest found shooting a little bit rougher:
I got in a car wreck on the day that I was supposed to shoot the beta unit twin scene in the bedroom, and that was the audition scene for me, so that was the scene I knew the best from four months earlier. I got in a car wreck that morning on the way to work and I was like two and a half hours late because I wrapped my car around an island or something. It was really bad. I guess I was nervous or something. When you (Catherine) mentioned having a lot of pressure, I was just thinking, 'Yeah, I guess there was'.
Adding to Guest's workload (TLS actually had a pretty short shooting schedule considering the amount of special effects/green-screen work) was the fact that test audiences for The Last Starfighter responded extremely well to the kind of fish out of water comedy of the "Beta" Alex scenes. So well, that Castle decided that it would be a good idea to go back and add more scenes of "Beta" Alex interacting with original Alex's Starlite Starbrite trailer park friends and family, including "Beta" Alex fixing his ear and an awkward make-out scene.
Unfortunately, Guest had all ready been off-set and cut his hair, leading to a not-so-well-done wig that can be seen in these scenes. More bad news came when Guest got really sick during reshoots, which made him look extremely pale and led to him wearing mountains of make-up when these scenes were filmed.
While there were a few key scenes added to the film after the initial filming, the world missed out on getting some Wil Wheaton action before his Wesley Crusher days. Before the cuts to the film, Wheaton actually had a few pieces of dialogue, which were unfortunately left on the editing room floor. However, Wheaton can still be seen in the background in some of the scenes at the Starlite Starbrite.
Lance Guest pretty much sums it up in an interview with Pop Culture Addict. When asked about the prospects of a sequel, Guest responds:
There has always been talk of a sequel, but it's just if they want to plunk the money down and do it... I'm telling you; in the initial release it didn't make any money. I was talking to one of the guys from the studio and I said "So what's happening with the movie" and the guy said "It didn't make any money." It played in LA for two or three weeks. The Karate Kid outdid it. That and Purple Rain. Those were the two big [films], although we got good reviews saying that our movie was better then those other ones. But it just didn't have the initial box office. It wasn't a hot commodity.
To this day, a sequel (as well as a full-on remake) is constantly being talked about. Maybe one day the world will be ready for another installment of The Last Starfighter.