Sunday, January 15, 2017

Elstree 1976 (2015)

Immortalized and forgotten – that was my take away from the opening with its juxtaposition of toy and actor.   Toys went first with actor’s voices in the background talking about the action figures that represented them.  It was an odd mix so in my mind was always the question, who?  Who’s talking? Another set of visuals and images follow, this time actor follows the toy Star Wars character that they played.  They don’t ring a bell so I wondered who are they again?

Everyone remembers Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford in 1977 when the original Star Wars was first released but in Elstree 1976 the focus now turns on extras and bit players. 

Star Wars was born in Elstree Studios – which is how the studio website presents itself – in the year 1976.  All the people appearing in this documentary have in varying degrees been seen on camera: some out of focus, some covered in costume, and others have speaking parts – none are remembered.

Like the movie making process the documentary is formatted preproduction, production, and postproduction of Star Wars.  Postproduction is between immediately after shoot to the present day.

Preproduction is the same for most of them except for early childhood to teens.  All have been involved showbiz in one form or another: theatre, modelling, I think one of them dabbled in music.  None of them confessed to having had dreams of superstardom which at first I doubted if it was true across the board but then again none of them looked the part.

Certainly none dreamt of superstardom from Star Wars. 

Paul Blake, the actor who played Greedo, says that science fiction in the 60s was a Class B, C, or D kind of film.  Anthony Daniels had called Paul in when George Lucas was still casting. He amusedly recalled asking George Lucas for coffee on his initial arrival, mistaking him for a mere staff standing by the set of the Millennium Falcon. Lucas did bring him that coffee.

Nobody had high expectations.  It was just another acting job.

Stories start to vary during production because of differences between extras and bit parts; with speaking lines and without; and those who are bare faced and those with buckets over their heads, as Angus MacInnes describes it.

Pam Rose, an alien woman in the Cantina scene, says the shoot was just like any other except that she felt weird.  She wore a head cast and was tired of getting hairs pulled out by fifth day. Stormtroopers too have their wardrobe complaints.  As lethal as they were supposed to be in the movie, they were in real life more likely to kill themselves by just walking because they can barely see under those helmets. Laurie Goode is a testament to that when he famously bumped his head on the door.

Angus, who played an X-wing pilot, recalled panic, sitting alone on cockpit and made to deliver his lines without cues; an effect perhaps of the rising blue screen technology.  “There’s no performance,” described Angus because he read everything in the cockpit. 

On the 25th of May 1977 the product of all that hardship was out into the world and the B movie turned out better than most, in fact the brightest of them all, a star. 

Unexpectedly postproduction is a trickier subject than I expected.  It is no longer the mere statement of fact or sharing of anecdotes it became more of introspection and meaning.  And it didn’t help that the questions were never aired so my default was the toy plus actor in the starting sequence – immortal and forgotten. 

“None of it is real”, says Paul Blake. Without knowing the question I am not sure what Paul meant was unreal.  David Prowse was more direct, alluding to a toy Darth Vader, in describing it as not him but “a George Lucas figure”. 

Anyone making movies know the life, not every shot will be used and it’s nothing personal.  Garrick Hagon was hired as Biggs Darklighter who was Luke’s friend on Tatooine, a speaking part.  His scene was cut in postproduction.   He didn’t react initially until he saw the finished film and angrily thought there was a big gap.  Garrick said he was so angry he wanted to give producer Gary Kurtz a piece of his mind but thankfully he stopped himself.

Can’t help but wonder if the anger was the innate pride against being cut or because Star Wars was a big hit? What happened to David Prowse was more than pride, and curiosity for me. In fact it was what pulled me into this documentary.  David is the most famous victim in postproduction. 

David’s version was that he was promised a chance to voice over his lines during shoot but due to budget cuts it was cheaper to hire a voice actor thus James Earl Jones came in.  In Empire of Dreams the position of Lucasfilm was they never considered David’s voice.  Interestingly, David was conspicuously absent in Empire of Dreams which may give credence to allegation that he’s being buried into obscurity.

Laurie Goode’s claim to fame as the stormtrooper who hit his head had been under dispute by Michael Leader.  A trivial matter at first glance if it ever was a passionate dispute at all.

Is Star Wars just another job now 39 years hence?  What other job could get them in sci-fi conventions signing autographs for adoring fans.  They get money for the trouble.  Though it sounds like a low point paraded like oddities in a circus which some of the less popular ones feel when they do attend, I would have to concur that it can be seen as just another acting job. The public, the hard core fans want relics from Star Wars and they are there for the part.

Eventually it needs to asked, should their lives be judged in the context of what Star Wars has become?   All have stated a non Star Wars answer as to what makes their life meaning today though something keeps pulling them back in, like the one who made this documentary.

It was Anthony Forrest who explicitly expressed the the hard realities of being cut. Unlike Garrick whom he had a scene with on Tatooine as Luke’s friend he lost his bare faced acting part as Fixer but had a role of a sandtrooper talking to Obi Wan at a checkpoint.

There have been disappointments yes but Anthony quotes his last line in the scene: “move along, move along”.

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