Gary Kurtz produced the veteran filmmaker’s two most iconic films — Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
You’re heading the jury for India Gold, Mumbai Film Festival’s new segment for young directors. What are you expecting from it?
the idea is to help generate international recognition for them. in the last 20 years, the popularity of indian films in the west has been almost exclusively about bollywood musicals. all the strong, serious films that the west recognises are all from very long ago — satyajit ray’s work and films like mother india (1957).
Have you watched any of these “Bollywood musicals”?
I like some, though most are too long. I liked Bride And Prejudice (2004). I liked the original Jane Austen story and they captured the flavour of the characters quite well, in a funny sort of way; though humour is one thing that doesn’t travel as well in films. Drama is much easier.
You were a producer on, possibly, two of the most iconic sci-fi films — Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)…
The idea was to make a film that paid homage to the sci-fi short films that were in the cinemas in the 1930s. Flash Gordon was one I watched as a kid. These films would play before the main program started. Star Wars was going to be a space opera that paid homage to this kind of fiction.
What were the challenges you faced, while making ithem?
Sci-fi in the ’70s was not popular. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had come out in 1968. It was critically acclaimed, but it didn’t have a big following. On top of that, most other sci-fi movies back then were very post-apocalyptic, downbeat kind of films. So selling the idea was difficult. The only way we got it made was because American Graffiti (1973) was a success. We made it for Universal for $800,000. That’s when they felt it would be a minimal risk to try Star Wars since it was so cheap. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was a $10 million picture in a year when the price for an ordinary comedy was $15 million or more.
Then 15 years later three more films were made. Star Wars was never going to be more than one film. It was only after it came out that the studio said we’d like a sequel. I remember telling them, ‘If we are going to do a sequel and build a space ship and sets, we need to think about making two films so we could make the most of the costs’, and they said, ‘Okay’. There was material from the first film that we couldn’t use. We pulled the other two films out of that.
Was the idea to make the prequels in mind when you were working on the second film?
No, that came much later, 15 years later, when George (director-producer George Lucas) wrote new material. Personally, I didn’t like the prequels much. I don’t think the characters were very well developed. George and I talked about the idea of prequels conceptually — about a nine-film cycle, but that was about it. It was never going to be real.
Did you not want to be associated with the prequels?
I was working on other things then. But I felt an interest in the characters and how they were portrayed, and that’s what I thought was the weakest thing. But they all made money. One of the reasons why they were made was also because of the toy market. The six films made roughly $4 billion; merchandising alone has done over $16 billion worldwide.
What was working with George Lucas like?
We worked for 10 years. He was never easy to work with and he was very shy. He didn’t like directing too much and didn’t like working with actors. Some directors are actors’ directors and others are editing directors, who don’t associate with the actors and expect them to just do their job. George fits the second type. Lot of times, (actors) Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher would say, ‘He’s not saying anything. I want to make sure I’m doing a good job’ and I’d explain to them saying, ‘It’s okay’.