George Lucas‘ billion-dollar brainchild is now such a vast and beloved franchise that you could eat a piece of bread into the shape of a lightsaber, and make bank peddling it on e-Bay (be right back, doing that right now). And now that Disney has got hold of it, you can be sure we’ll be seeing every Expanded Universe scenario we ever wanted on our big screen, plus all the ones we don’t even want. And after that, when it’s keeled over in its final, well-deserved demise, Disney will sacrifice a couple of Disney Channel stars to the dark arts or something and continue draining away its shambling form.
There was a time, however, when no one cared at all about Star Wars. In fact, Hollywood nearly ennded this little fledgling independent film before it even got started. And they weren’t totally out of line; no one had ever really seen an idea like this before, and in the 70s, technological advances had not yet caught up to the imaginations of storytellers, meaning all these grand special effects this weird, bearded hippie was trying to push seemed impossible. Everyone pretty much went, “Okay, honey,” and then made shocked faces at one another behind his back. Throw in some catastrophic weather and it might seem like even God himself considered us unworthy of Princess Leia’s metal bikini. (We did make Justin Bieber, so that’s fair.)
15. George Lucas Actually Wanted To Film Flash Gordon
Star Wars was never some long-nurtured dream simmering in Lucas’ head until the time was right. In fact, after the 1971 science fiction film THX 1138 was deemed by critics a bit cold and indifferent (kind of like George’s treatment of prequel audiences when he inflicted Jar Jar Binks on them), he wanted to show he could make something with a little more humanity and warmth in it. That film was supposed to be a big screen adaptation of Flash Gordon, which Lucas grew up with. Acquiring the rights to it, however, proved way too expensive and arduous, and he was forced to scrap that idea. Instead, he decided to come up with his own characters, and plop them into a universe inspired by Flash Gordon. Gangs of New York screenwriter Jay Cocks said of Lucas’ influences for the franchise, “George would have two books on his desk: a collection of Flash Gordon comic strips and The Golden Bough. That’s where Star Wars came from, those sources.”
14. The Rough Cut Was Terrible
The first cut of A New Hope that was shown to already skeptical Fox executives basically looked like a three-year-old was turned loose in the editing room after a wild rampage through a candy store. Paper arrows took the place of laser beams, and all the space battles were actually footage from WWII dogfights, with Lucas telling execs they just needed to imagine the planes as spaceships. Hopefully with helpful “pew pew” noises included. It was so bad that somewhere between 30 to 40% of the footage didn’t even make it to the final film, and Lucas actually ended up switching to another editing team that included his first wife, Marcia Lou Griffin, a film editor who won an Academy Award for actually putting out that dumpster fire and cobbling together something great from its sad state.
13. Its Own Stars Didn’t Take It Seriously
Aside from George Lucas (and obviously he must have had his doubts too, after all the issues he encountered during filming), no one really believed A New Hope was going to amount to anything. Even the stars who were about to be made absolutely bonkers famous by the film thought it would make little money and just slide quietly away into obscurity. It had so many things working against it – time, money, the skepticism of Hollywood in its entirety– that it’s practically a miracle we are now two movies into a sequel trilogy and God knows how many more contributions away from Disney finally allowing the horse to sink with a grateful whinny into its long-awaited grave. Coming soon to a theatre near you: the breathtaking backstory of that one droid Luke’s uncle almost bought.
12. George Lucas Was So Upset He Actually Became Ill
Like a crazy-eyed Anakin facing down some terrified younglings, A New Hope tried its best to boot George Lucas off this mortal coil. Clashes with his crew, weather, and England, which he apparently hated, combined in a sort of stress-induced Super Plague that nearly brought him down with depression, a cough, and a foot infection; toward the end of filming, he actually lost his voice. As if that weren’t enough, after discovering how far behind his special effects team was, Lucas’ body went, “Ah, forget this, I’m leaving” and he started experiencing chest pains so severe he thought he was having a heart attack. Doctors diagnosed him with hypertension and exhaustion and warned him to take it easy… advice which he blatantly ignored. He’s now a well-fed billionaire 73-year-old, so no one should pearl-clutch too much.
11. The Cast Was Constantly Partying
Filming The Empire Strikes Back was apparently a blast – the kind you have when your parents are out of town and you’re friends with a bunch of famous rock stars. While partying with the Rolling Stones, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had a drink called the “Tunisian Death Special” that was apparently used to make extras who worked on a Monty Python film in Tunisia “more compliant,” which isn’t at all terrifying and definitely doesn’t sound like the Brits levelled up their imperialism by performing Sith mind tricks on the unsuspecting locals. The drink kept both Fisher and Ford up all night, and they were still out of it the next morning when they shot on the Bespin Mining Station set. If you’ve ever played babysitter to some partying people, just imagine trying to corral a wild Han Solo while weepingly promising your first born to Fox executives.
10. The Empire Strikes Back Was Filmed During One Of The Worst Winters In History
But all was eventually well, A New Hope was released to rave reviews and made, in scientific terms, a metric crap-ton of money and thus, a sequel was born. And then that sequel promptly got to work trying to screw everyone over. The scenes on the ice planet Hoth were shot while Northern Europe was in the clutch of one of its most brutal winters in all of history. It was so cold that while filming in Norway, the camera equipment couldn’t be used outside. Cast and crew were trapped in their lodges by numerous avalanches, and, on top of that, when Harrison Ford came down from London to begin filming, he had to take a snow plow out to the actual filming location, which right there should have been the whole movie. If Disney really wants to contribute to the franchise, I demand the Han Solo road trip documentary that Lucas gravely erred in not giving us. “Never tell me the odds,” he shrieks as he directs the terrified driver straight into a blizzard of historical proportions.
9. Science Fiction Wasn’t A Popular Genre
While many of the sci-fi films from this era are now cult classics and have gone on to spawn franchises of their own, in the 70s most people felt pretty indifferent about science fiction in general. United Artist and Universal both passed on Star Wars when it was presented to them, with Universal outright rejecting it as too strange and expensive in a time when sci-fi films weren’t doing very well. The “Give it up, weirdo” attitude was only dropped by Fox because they liked Lucas’ work on American Graffiti and decided maybe he wouldn’t embarrass them too badly with this bizarre space opera full of laser swords no one was even sure how to animate. So keep that in mind the next time your buddy has some kind of extravagant idiot plan. He’s probably still crazy, but in future he might be a billionaire lunatic. And I think you can risk just climbing into the cannon for that kind of money.
8. The Budget Was Too Small
Star Wars originally started off with a budget of just $7 million, small even by 70s standards. When Lucas realised this wasn’t going to be sufficient, Fox shut down pre-production for two weeks so the budget could be recalculated. This was a poor start to a production that would later be plagued by equipment malfunctions and time management issues. It might seem insane now that companies weren’t making it rain all over one of the most famous movies of all time, but everything about Star Wars was revolutionary at the time, and consequently everyone side-eyed the hell out of it and kept one hand on their wallets at all times. On average at the time, no sci-fi film grossed more than $10 million, and anything with “war” in its title usually pulled in about six or seven million, making a convoluted movie about desert hicks fighting in space a huge risk.
7. Tatooine Was A Nightmare To Shoot
Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine was shot in the deserts of Tunisia where sand damaged expensive equipment and windstorms constantly beat the hell out of sets imported from England. Originally these scenes were supposed to take place in a jungle, but while location scouting in the Philippines, Lucas had so many issues with skin irritation that he decided to scrap that idea and make Luke’s whining a little more believable by placing him on a backwoods dry wasteland. This would not be the first of on-site challenges, either; terrible weather conditions plagued the beloved sequel The Empire Strikes Back as well, because God had already sunk the Titanic and decided we still hadn’t learned our lesson about hubris.
6. Fox Could Only Get 35 Theaters To Show The Film
Distribution was another major problem, once the film was actually made. Aside from a small nerd army that had to be recruited in order to build some hype for the film, no one was invested in it; in fact, Fox could only persuade 35 theaters to show it on opening day, and even to secure that they basically had to blackmail everyone by block booking seats, a practice which today is illegal. Even the opening date is a testament to everyone’s insane nonchalance toward one of the biggest franchises of all time. While Memorial Day is now a date studios will gladly bump off their own grandmas to procure, at the time it was the lowest-performing day of the year on which to open a movie. Basically, if this movie had been on fire, humanity wouldn’t have even deigned to spit on it.
5. Empire Went Way Over Budget
$15 million for the plot twist that blew everyone’s minds quickly proved to be completely insufficient. After Norway gave its all in trying to strike down George Lucas with an actual heart attack, the crew returned to London with only half the necessary footage. Having to rework several scenes on set meant that the budget waved a small, mournful good-bye to that $15 million and proceeded to blow right through the roof. It climbed to $22 million, prompting financial backers at Bank of America to give a resounding “Hell, no.” Lucas eventually secured the necessary loan for the skyrocketing budget, but not without crawling back to Fox on his hands and knees to secure them as guarantors. When all was said and done and safely through that asteroid field, The Empire Strikes Back actually cost $33 million.
4. Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO Costume Kept Breaking
Thanks to the tight budget, some of the costumes on the first Star Wars movie weren’t exactly top notch. In fact, Anthony Daniels‘ C-3PO costume was constantly breaking down; one of the legs actually shattered and cut up his foot. There were so many problems with it that the reason you only see the upper half of the droid in many of Tatooine’s scenes is that Daniels wasn’t actually wearing the bottom part of the costume. Like Chewbacca, he spent a good portion of the movie au naturel (something which studio execs sought to remedy by designing some pants for the giant bipedal animal, because God forbid a 7’2″ dog with enough fur to outfit a dreadnought-sized St. Bernard cavort about with no underwear. That would just be obscene).
3. On The First Day Of Filming Tunisia Had Its First Major Rainstorm In 50 Years
Because one entry wasn’t enough to describe how badly Africa didn’t want the Star Wars movies made (maybe it had a premonition about the whole Jar Jar Binks thing), let me introduce you to that time Tatooine decided to have its first major rainstorm in 50 years – and it just so happened to coincide with the precise moment A New Hope was supposed to begin filming. The torrential downpours pretty well ensured that no work was done for an entire day, putting the film behind schedule from the very beginning, and giving itself time to cook up even more ways to try and sabotage George Lucas out of his future royalties. When the desert tries to drown itself for the first time in half a century just to keep you from making your piddling little galactic soap opera, it may be time to throw up your hands. Luckily, Lucas didn’t, and we now have that iconic scene from Revenge of the Sith in which my childhood hero and role model Darth Vader shakes his giant ham fist at the heavens and gives a drawn-out “Nooo” to compete with the most overwrought of telenovelas. I’m not bitter, though.
2. R2-D2 Constantly Malfunctioned
The iconic droid is now a character in his own right, despite the fact that he only speaks in beeps. You can even buy an Xbox 360 that sounds just like him, in case you don’t have enough junk already taking up too much space. He was also kind of an enormously large pain in the butt on set. While there was a tiny man inside the robot helping to control him, those controls were constantly malfunctioning – so badly, in fact, that once an entire day was wasted just on filming R2-D2 moving only a few feet. If that seems like a colossal waste of time, so did everything else about this movie according to anyone in the business, so you might as well spend all of your working hours sitting in the sand crying while one of your main characters circles you in sad, disjointed little jerks. Nobody believes in you, anyway.
1. Lucasfilm Was Almost Bankrupted By The Empire Strikes Back
George Lucas used some of the proceeds from the first movie to fund its sequel, but despite the surprisingly large return on A New Hope, Empire still nearly pulled the company under. While he had at first contemplated just selling the whole thing to Fox, Star Wars was still his baby and you don’t sell off your baby (until you can get $4 billion for it). The initial budget for the sequel was $15 million, which he scraped together, along with a distribution deal with Fox that would mean astronomical financial returns if the movie succeeded – and if it didn’t, bankruptcy. I guess it’s not a huge surprise that the man who threw some sentient teddy bears into a movie about evil space overlords and magical mind control knights is a “Go big or go home” kind of guy.