Thursday, August 12, 2010

WARS Stories

When it comes to the long and winding history of the Star Wars franchise, Gary Kurtz remains an interesting figure. As George Lucas' storytelling and producing partner from 1973's American Graffitti to the original Star Wars in '77 to The Empire Strikes Back in '80, Kurtz was "present at the conception," so to speak, and -- like Bill Finger with Batman or Gene Coon with Star Trek -- made several important contributions that shaped the brand into what it is.  Those contributions remain mostly unknown to the general public, though, with Lucas' billion-dollar behemoth having long since moved on -- much to its detriment -- from the foundations Kurtz helped craft.

It's no coincidence that Empire, widely considered the strongest entry in the entire catalog, is the one that Kurtz had the most to do with and Lucas the least. I've long felt that Kurtz had been uniquely positioned to call out some of the more pronounced storytelling eccentricities of his partner, resulting in a stronger end product. This isn't to criticize George Lucas' creative instincts (well, maybe a little bit...), but rather to point out that he's at his best when teamed with a partner who will actively question those instincts. That's something he didn't get from Howard Kazanjian, who succeeded Kurtz on Return of the Jedi, and it's certainly something he didn't get from Rick McCallum, producer on the prequels.

I bring all this up because of Kurtz granting an interview to the the Los Angeles Times in anticipation of his appearance at a big Star Wars convention this weekend (celebrating Empire's 30th anniversary -- which I marked in my own inimitable fashion here).  While he's mostly kept his own council on the directions in which the franchise has headed in his absence (including a long-promised live action TV show that appears to be dead-in-the-water), he pulls no punches here, discussing with welcome candor not only where Star Wars started, but where it went awry. Some of the highlights after the jump:

Discussing the polarizing subject of the prequels:
“I don’t like the idea of prequels, they make the filmmakers back in to material they’ve already covered and it boxes in the story,” Kurtz said. “I think they did a pretty good job with them although I have to admit I never liked Hayden Christensen in the role of Anakin Skywalker. I just wished the stories had been stronger and that the dialogue had been stronger. It gets meek. I’m not sure the characters ever felt real like they did in Empire."
On Star Wars morphing into a "saga" ex post facto:
For Kurtz, the popular notion that Star Wars was always planned as a multi-film epic is laughable. He says that he and Lucas, both USC film school grads who met through mutual friend Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s, first sought to do a simple adaptation of Flash Gordon, the comic-strip hero who had been featured in movie serials that both filmmakers found charming.
“We tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive,” Kurtz said. “They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.”
Star Wars opened with a title sequence that announced it as “Episode IV” as a winking nod to the old serials, not a film franchise underway, Kurtz said.
The original plans for how Return of the Jedi would wrap things up:
“We had an outline and George changed everything in it," Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”
The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.
Given that I point to Return of the Jedi as the precise juncture point where the whole thing started to go off the rails, these are some fascinating insights into what could have been.  There's much more from Kurtz at the link, and I'm very curious to see what other tidbits emerge after his convention appearance this weekend.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I can't wait to read this! Thanks for the link.