When thinking of Star Wars, we invariably think of a single name: George Lucas. And while Lucas is a natural-born world builder, many will tell you the influence that gave the franchise its pace and tone of romantic, swashbuckling fun was co-editor, and Lucas’ then-wife, Marcia Lucas. She did so along with editors Richard Chew and Paul Hirsch, and with the release of Hirsch’s autobiography A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away, we’re finally getting another perspective on Star Wars’ production.
The terrible time Lucas had during Star Wars’ principal photography in England is well known. “He was unhappy with his UK editor [John Jympson], a solid and experienced pro,” Hirsch said. “He never got the spirit of the piece and apparently made his scorn for the project known. George was very unhappy with the first cut and decided to replace him at the end of principal photography.”
Lucas knew and liked Hirsch’s work for friend Brian De Palma (Phantom of the Paradise), so when he got back to the U.S. to work on post-production with his nascent effects house Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), he asked Hirsch to join Marcia Lucas and Chew when he was done working on De Palma’s current project, an adaptation of Stephen King’s smash debut novel Carrie.
Talking to io9 about his autobiography, Hirsch says he didn’t have any clue while in the trenches what kind of impact Star Wars would have.
“It was very early in my career,” he said. “I’d been cutting 16mm documentaries and all of a sudden I was working on a 70mm movie with six track stereophonic sound. There wasn’t a lot of musing about what was going to happen to the picture when it opened, it was more like how we could fix all the things we needed to before we ran out of time just trying to get it done.”
In fact, as one of the most interesting snippets in the book shows, Lucas didn’t have any more of an idea what a monster he was creating. During regular Saturday downtime between cutting and effects work, the writer-director sat around shooting the breeze with Hirsch, wondering aloud whether to cast a hot actress for the princess to appeal to Playboy readers or someone more “princessly” to appeal to kids.
“This is basically a Disney movie,” Lucas told Hirsch about his decision during those discussions (while being scarily prophetic in the process), “and those movies always make $16 million. You can look it up. This picture is going to cost about $10 million, so it probably won’t turn a profit, but we should be able to make some money if we sell some toys based on the characters.” Prophetic indeed...
Something else Lucas was adamant about even back then, Hirsch now remembers, was the genre. “When I first got the script and it was about rocket ships and aliens I thought ‘Oh, it’s science fiction’, and he’d say to me ‘No it’s not, it’s space fantasy.’ I’d never heard that term before. He didn’t want anyone coming up to him saying ‘You can’t hear anything in space, it’s a vacuum.’ He wrote his own rules.”
Like everyone else, Hirsch might have assumed he was inextricably linked to the world of Jedi knights and Sith lords from that point on, and he duly traveled to England a few years later for The Empire Strikes Back–under what must have been very different expectations. Instead, he says he felt excitement, but no pressure.
“The shooting went so slowly the film came in gradually. The 16 weeks they were supposed to shoot became 29. The setups were very complicated with a lot of steam effects and bullet impacts on the walls—after a take you’d have to set the charge again and paint over them.”
“So there was a lot of downtime between takes,” he continued. “If they did two or three setups in the morning that was a lot, so it was very easy to keep up with that pace of shooting.”
But despite the saga’s continued conquering of the box office, politics intervened when it came time to do Return of the Jedi. “I got a call from Gary Kurtz telling me that George had hired a British director, Richard Marquand, out of anger at the Directors Guild of America. When the guild screened Empire, they claimed that the credits on the film were a violation of DGA rules and fined George $50,000,” he writes, referring to the dust-up over the director’s name appearing only at the end of the film.
“The next day, the Writers Guild fined George too. He would neither forget nor forgive, which is how Marquand got the job on Jedi. Of the hundreds of crew members who work on films of this size, Marquand was allowed to hire only two: his cinematographer [Alan Hume] and his editor [Sean Barton].”
But Hirsch’s career, which went on to include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Blow Out, Footloose, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Falling Down, Mission: Impossible (and, er, Pluto Nash), will forever be linked with Lucas—described by him in the book as “a slight, small man with a full beard like mine but, unlike me, a full head of hair. He was wearing sneakers, a white shirt, and blue jeans, his shirttails hanging out, very unassuming looking.”
In the book, Hirsch describes Lucas working by clear, almost mathematical, principles. Among them was “always end your pictures with your best scene. You should start with your second best, and in the middle you need another, sort of tentpole scene, to prop it up and keep it from sagging.”
Other axioms he lived by included “one minute of bad film can ruin 10 minutes of good film,” “better a bad cut than bad film,” and his comparison of moviemaking to an ocean voyage, where “you know when you’ve set sail and you hope you know where you’re going, but there are times when you’re out there in the middle of the ocean and there’s no land in sight anywhere.”
Hirsch also says Lucas’ first love was editing. The director once related a conversation with Francis Ford Coppola, who told him he’d never get anywhere in the film business without being able to write. “George...only directed in order to have something to cut, and he only wrote in order to have something to direct,” he writes.
“His strength lies elsewhere,” he says now about Lucas as a director of drama and actors. “[The cast] would tease him about his direction, but I think he felt in himself it wasn’t one of his strengths, which is I think why he hired [Irvin] Kershner to do the second film. I think by the time he got back to directing he’d developed more confidence in himself.”
Bet you didn’t know this...
Never-before-revealed tidbits of Star Wars trivia revealed in Hirsch’s book.
- Lucas originally planned to make Luke’s lightsaber red and Vader’s blue, but Hirsch suggested switching them because of his knowledge of Christian iconography from the Renaissance era he’d studied in art history at Columbia University in the mid-‘60s.
- Lucas was talking about somehow replacing Jabba the Hutt in the famous Tatooine hangar deleted scene before A New Hope even came out
- The studio, 20th Century Fox, wanted to cut the Death Star trench battle, feeling like the movie was done after Ben’s death.
- Cutting briefly to Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) before the Death Star explodes was Hirsch’s idea (perhaps unwittingly giving rise to the ongoing meme about how many contractors and innocents died).
- Brian De Palma was one of the co-writers on the final version of Star Wars’ opening crawl along with Jay Cocks and frequent Lucas collaborators Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck.
- Finding himself confused about which ship was Vader’s during the Death Star trench run, Hirsch suggested giving his TIE fighter’s solar array wings their characteristic top and bottom folds.
- The title card “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” wasn’t in the script—Lucas added it to stop the film being labelled science fiction.
- When it came time to do an Empire Strikes Back trailer, all Hirsch had were some close-ups and a starfield, so he wrote a script and convinced Harrison Ford to do it in an upbeat, newsreel-era voice for a gag. They sent it to Lucas who not only loved it, he didn’t realize it was Ford’s voice.
- Lucas asked Marcia do to an edit on the Empire Strikes Back scene of Han and Leia’s first kiss because he thought a woman’s touch would help. Director Irvin Kershner (a big kid, according to Hirsch), was delighted at a metal bar sliding repeatedly in and out of a hole in the nearby equipment.
- The scene of the Imperial trooper questioning Ben and Luke about the droids makes it look like he hesitates when Ben plays the Jedi mind trick on him. In fact it was a mistake: The ADR laid in eight frames out of sync.
A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away is out now.
After growing up knowing he wanted to change the world, Drew Turney realized it was easier to write about other people changing it instead. He has experience writing about everything from pop culture to technology and everything in between, and has been published in media both on and offline all over the world.
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