The documentary Star Wars: Deleted Magic shows a version of Star Wars: A New Hope that never made it to theaters, one filled with deleted scenes. And watching the entire thing made me realize one of the more miraculous things about A New Hope is that we got such a wonderful movie instead of a mediocre one.
Sadly, Garrett Gilchrist's Star Wars: Deleted Magic, which has been making the rounds over the last few days, has been removed from Vimeo. If it comes back online, we'll be sure to post it, and if you get a chance to watch it otherwise, I highly recommend it. It's a fascinating look through the alternate versions of Star Wars: A New Hope, incorporating scenes from the film's first cut (which never reached theaters), rehearsal footage, sections of the script that weren't filmed, and comparisons between different released editions of the film. It's a series of what-ifs, of comparisons between roads traveled and roads not traveled, all set within the span of the film.
Update: At least for the time being, the video is up here:
It's no secret that editing is a huge part of what made that first Star Wars movie great. There's a reason that Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, and Richard Chew won the Academy Award for editing that year. And George Lucas did plenty of rewriting and reworking along the way. But looking at all of the scenes that didn't make it, were reshot, or were tightened and reworked made me realize that comparing the (not-so-great) Star Wars that could have been to the (great) movie we got offers a lot of insights into building an excellent story:
Do You Really Need That Character?
Poor Garrick Hagon. The actor played Biggs Darklighter, the Rebel pilot that we see Luke greeting late in the movie. In the original cut of Star Wars, Biggs was a much more prominent character, a friend of Luke's who comes home on leave from the Imperial Academy and confides that he's about to defect to the Rebellion. In the deleted Biggs scenes, we see Luke hanging out at Tosche Station (you know, where they've got those power converters), where he's teased by his friends and dreams of the far-off battles in space.
Biggs does a lot to set up the world of Star Wars, giving us a quick look at the politics of the world. His position as an Imperial cadet—which is to say, someone who has left Tatooine—gives Luke something to aspire to and explains his frustration with remaining home on the farm. But Biggs also distracts from Luke's hero's journey, and from the Droids who actually jumpstart the action.
We don't really need to know for the sake of the story that some cadets are making the jump from the Empire to the Rebellion. And when Luke and Biggs meet up again as equals—both members of the Rebellion and Luke with some exciting adventures under his belt—it's not a big enough moment. Instead, when we see them meet in the theatrical cuts, we're allowed to simply understand that Luke has friends in the Rebellion and that he's finally where he belongs.
And there are other, smaller scenes that simply don't contribute to the greater story, like this Vader moment:
Work On It Until It's Right
When the footage at the Mos Eisley Cantina was first filmed, it was hardly the den of scum and villainy we've come to know and love. Instead, it was a pretty empty bar, more a bare bones idea of the establishment. But after reviewing the scene, George Lucas wasn't pleased with the full effect and shot additional footage meant to look like it was inside the same Cantina, giving us closeups of all the strange and fearsome bar patrons. His talented editors then spliced the new footage in with the original, turning it all into one cohesive scene.
Characters Moments are More Interesting Than Exposition
Some of the scenes that Gilchrist included in his documentary didn't even make it to the first cut of the film. Wisely, Lucas decided to cut some of these segments before filming. In the documentary we see how some of the dialogue written for Han, Luke, and Leia would have fit into the film: poorly. At one point, Lucas played with a conversation in which Han and Luke debrief about the Death Star, and Han and Leia have a similar conversation after Leia's rescue.
These conversations weirdly defuse the tension and drama of heroes' situation. What was left behind was dialogue that did something more interesting than remind the viewers exactly what is going on: they exposed the relationships between the characters. What remained was Han's cockiness and his view of Luke as a naive farmboy, Leia's sharp righteousness, and space for the audience to have their own reactions to the Empire's martial power, rather than being told what to think.
It's also important to keep dialogue consistent with your world. Gilchrist notes places where the dialogue originally included references to "data tapes" (when referring to the Death Star plans) or included allusions to Akira Kurosawa films. Ultimately, these didn't fit with the look and tone of Star Wars, and were dropped.
Consistent Quality Matters
Practical effects are great, but there are some places where CG really and truly did improve special effects. A plotline where R2-D2 runs away was dropped because the footage of Luke and C-3PO in the landspeeder filmed against a rear projection screen just didn't look good. The look might have worked in a different movie, but here it was dropped because it didn't fit with the quality of the films' other effects.
Maybe That Scene Should Just Stay Dead
Here's the scene that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the remastered editions of A New Hope with CG Jabba the Hutt. This scene was filmed with a human stand-in, actor Declan Mulholland, but Lucas wasn't able to include the Jabba puppet he wanted for budgetary reasons. The scene was dropped, and we were all the better for it, not meeting Han's grotesque creditor until Return of the Jedi.