Tuesday, September 21, 2004
New York When it comes to "Star Wars," maybe there's too much gravity in space.
Fans invariably take "Star Wars" too seriously, but the people behind the sci-fi series recall the experience as a surreal comic opera.
Training a monkey to play Yoda? Studio complaints that Chewbacca was pantsless? The only thing that worked on R2-D2 was the dwarf inside?
As the original trilogy heads to DVD for the first time today, the madcap tales told by those who lovingly toiled on "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" demystify three of the most revered sci-fi films of all time.
Not that kind of movie
Some films can be endlessly dissected and debated. But Luke Skywalker himself says "Star Wars" was just meant to be fun.
Twenty-seven years after the first movie debuted, actor Mark Hamill said he is amused by all the fact-checking fans do. One recent Web site shocked him.
"I think it was speculating on the administrative cost of the janitorial staff of the Death Star, taking this hard-edged reality to something that's fantasy," Hamill joked. "But I was that way myself. I remember saying things like, 'Well, wait a minute. I just got out of the trash compactor. How come my hair's all perfect?' And Harrison (Ford) would go, 'Hey kid ... it ain't that kind of movie."'
"Every day there were terrible problems that had to be solved," said 81-year-old Irvin Kershner, who is a real-life version of Obi-Wan Kenobi - the wise Jedi sage played by the late Alec Guinness.
Kershner, a film professor at the University of Southern California who was a mentor to "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, is the man Lucas asked to direct the sequel "The Empire Strikes Back," which is widely regarded as the best of the series.
"Before I went off to do the film, I had a talk with George," Kershner recalled. "He said, 'I want you to know something. They're going to prepare all these special devices for you but nothing is going to work ...' I thought he was kidding. From the third shot on, it was true. We had to improvise constantly."
For instance, Kernsher said he had eight R2-D2 robots, each of which could do a different task.
"But you know, they never did what you needed them to do. So we ended up pulling them with nylon cords instead of using the electronics because it would get stuck and go in little circles instead of going straight.
"The only thing that worked was when we would put a little dwarf inside one and he'd shake him to show that R2-D2 was nervous. That worked, the human factor!"
The Chewbacca character was a goodhearted but fearsome Wookie, a species that was a combination of human, ape and canine. Peter Mayhew, a 7-foot-3 British actor, played the roaring "Chewy" in a thick furry suit that covered every inch from head to toe.
But studio executives in the 1970s worried that the character itself was indecent because all he wore was a strap of ammunition across his chest.
"I remember the memos from 20th Century Fox," Hamill said. "'Can you put a pair of lederhosen on the Wookie?' All they could think of was, 'This character has no pants on!' This went back and forth. They did sketches of him in culottes and baggy shorts."
In the midst of budget wrangling and the studios' efforts to get him to drop the word "Wars" from the title, Lucas also successfully fought to keep the Wookie au naturel.
Monkeying with Yoda
"In the beginning, we didn't know what Yoda should look like," Kershner said. "One of the thoughts was that he'd be 9-feet tall with a huge mosaic beard and would look like Michelangelo's Moses, imposing. After all, he's 800 years old and he knows everything and he has great powers. ... It seemed like a cliche."
Instead they decided to make Yoda very tiny and modest in nature. But how to do it?
A puppet seemed ridiculous. No one had ever tried to pass one off as an actual living creature before, so Kershner looked for other solutions first.
"We thought, 'Maybe if we trained a monkey, in an outfit, and then animated the lips ...?"' Kershner reaalled. Ultimately, the puppet proved to be the wiser choice.
"But there's never an expression change on Yoda," Kershner said. "You know that, right? You think there is, but it's body language. It's the eyes drooping, it's the ears going down. But it's the same face. Did you ever see Yoda smile? No."
So it's OK to love "Star Wars," but the people who created the films have this advice for the die-hard galactic geeks: lighten up, have some fun.
Maybe Yoda isn't really a genius, maybe R2-D2 was kind of clunky ...
Hamill says maybe there shouldn't be too much nitpicking or overblown reverence.
As the Skywalker actor put it: "How can you be so serious on a film where you are dodging explosions and running away with Sir Alec Guinness on this side and an eight-foot monkey on this side, and the eight-foot monkey is the one flying the spaceship?"