Here’s How the Star Wars Series Almost Never Happened
Can you imagine a world without Star Wars? The unthinkable was a lot closer to happening than you probably realize.
The battle to create a blockbuster
It’s epic, it’s iconic, and it almost didn’t happen. Not everyone saw the genius of Star Wars right away—actually, almost no one did. That’s shocking to hear about a movie that shaped entire generations, spawned one of the most profitable franchises in history, changed the course of filmmaking, and makes us feel all warm and fuzzy whenever we think about it. As Darth Vader might say, Hollywood’s lack of faith in Star Wars was disturbing. But that wasn’t the only thing that stood in the way of bringing this galaxy far, far away to a movie theater near you. From budgetary constraints and filming snafus to less-than-stellar early scripts, here’s why it’s nothing short of miraculous that Star Wars made it to the big screen. If you’re a true fan, you won’t want to miss these other mind-blowing behind-the-scenes Star Wars facts.
George Lucas had his heart set on a different space saga
Which one? Flash Gordon. In fact, Lucas had originally approached the executives at King Features in the early ’70s to try to get the rights to it. “They said no—euphemistically, ‘You’re nobody. We want Federico Fellini to make it,'” says film historian Paul Duncan, author of The Star Wars Archives: 1977–1983. “So George had to come up with his own version of Flash Gordon.” And that’s exactly what he spent the next few years doing. If he had gotten those rights, that never would have happened—and we would have never gotten these memorable Star Wars quotes every fan knows by heart.
Star Wars was unlike everything else out there
That sounds like a good thing, but for studios, it was terrifying. Would that “different” idea make money or totally flop? Star Wars was an epic “space opera” aimed at 12-year-olds that was earnest, optimistic, and nostalgic, when everything else was gritty, adult, and serious. “At the time, you’ve got great movies like The Godfather and paranoia movies like Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, and it was a very downbeat time,” Duncan explains. But with movies like Summer of ’42 and Lucas’ American Graffiti, “American movies were beginning to move from ‘things are terrible’ to ‘let’s cheer ourselves up because things are terrible,'” he adds. That opened the door just a little bit for Star Wars.
No one wanted it
From Universal to Warner Brothers, the rejections kept coming. “I’ve always been an outsider to the Hollywood types,” Lucas said shortly after Star Wars‘ successful premiere. “They think I do weirdo films.” But Lucas had a fan in Alan Ladd Jr., the head honcho at 20th Century Fox, the studio that also produced Planet of the Apes. “When American Graffiti came out, Alan Ladd Jr. saw one of the previews and thought it was brilliant,” says Duncan. “He basically said to George, ‘Whatever you want to do in the future, I’ll back you.’ He believed not necessarily in the idea [for Star Wars] but in George.”
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The budget was tight
It’s hard to imagine today, but back in the ’70s, sci-fi films didn’t make any money. They were niche cinema, and even a hit like 2001: A Space Odyssey took years to recoup its production costs. Still, you need money to make a movie, and Lucas asked for $8.2 million. (He also thought that, at best, the movie would make $16 to $25 million in return and that no one would see it except kids.) But Fox had recently lost a lot of money on other movies, says Duncan, and countered with a paltry $6.9 million.
That budget didn’t even account for the special effects needed for the film, and as a result, Lucas used his own money—his checks from American Graffiti, according to Duncan—to create a special-effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Later, because of delays and other issues, Lucas did end up requesting a few extra million from Fox, something that could have been flat-out denied or hurt the movie if he hadn’t gotten it.
The shoot wasn’t as much fun as you might think
Can you imagine working on A New Hope? You probably would have done anything just to be on set. But that’s not how many of the actual crew members felt at the time, according to Consequence of Sound. The crew in England often didn’t want to work overtime. Lucas had a tendency to micromanage his team and had a tough time conveying what he wanted. He also didn’t see eye-to-eye with his cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor. Various accounts indicate that Lucas was depressed, ill, and stressed during the shoot. Check out these Star Wars facts everyone gets wrong.
Filming on Tatooine was tough
Well, technically, they were in Tunisia. Located on the coast of northwest Africa, Tunisia and its desert posed a number of challenges as Lucas attempted to recreate Luke’s home planet. For starters, the sand damaged the equipment, a problem made worse by the recurring windstorms. Plus, according to Looper, “R2-D2’s controls didn’t work particularly well, either, as the sand interfered with the remote’s radio signals—allegedly, the crew spent an entire day getting a single shot of the droid moving a couple of feet.” And then there was a freak rainstorm (yes, in the middle of the desert) in the first week of filming, complete with flash floods that carried away equipment and parts of the set. These are 20 Star Wars filming locations you can actually visit.
The first cut was a mess
Lucas is first and foremost a film editor, says Duncan. And when he saw the first cut of Star Wars—which used the wrong takes and just looked wrong—he was devastated. It didn’t achieve the psychological effect that he had wanted. “He knew it didn’t work, and he knew they had to start from scratch,” Duncan explains. “[The new editors’] first job was to take the assembly print and literally undo every single joint, which was all done by hand, and start reassembling it in the correct way.”
Another big problem: When production wrapped, ILM hadn’t completed any of the visual effects for the film, says Jason Ward, editor-in-chief of Making Star Wars. Lucas apparently didn’t take this well. “ILM had not completed a single shot for Star Wars and Lucas began to have severe chest pains on a flight back to the United States, where he was going to have to recut the film,” he says. “Lucas feared he was having a heart attack, but it was likely an anxiety attack.”
Lucas’ health problems aside, the film was taking longer than expected. And without half of its groundbreaking special effects, especially in the dogfight scenes in space, the early screening for Fox executives and other big screenwriters didn’t go well.
Early drafts of the script are almost unrecognizable
It took years of tweaking, finessing, and outright rewriting to produce the Star Wars script that we know and love today. And it might not have gotten the green light had Lucas stuck with his original ideas. In the script’s various incarnations, notes Screen Rant, Luke was an older “grizzled and bitter” general, more like Obi-Wan, and in another, he was an 18-year-old girl. Meanwhile, Han Solo was “a huge, green-skinned monster with no nose and large gills.” Early drafts were also dense and clunky.
Still, at its heart, Star Wars is the same film, despite the character changes, says Duncan. “George studied anthropology in college, and he was fascinated with the idea of there being these universal archetypes in mythological stories,” he explains. “All the different changes he made in the script were because he was trying to find those universal archetypes. George was trying to translate that philosophy into a way that ten- and 12-year-olds could understand and appreciate and enjoy.” Hence, a princess, a warrior, and the ultimate villain.
Of course, audiences were completely transfixed and have been ever since. This is how May the Fourth became a Star Wars holiday.
A different cast could have changed everything
For starters, Darth Vader didn’t originally have James Earl Jones’ inimitable voice. Instead, he was played by British actor David Prowse, whose voice was later dubbed over. But originally, Lucas had legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune of Seven Samurai in mind for that iconic role or to play Obi-Wan. (Mifune reportedly turned down both.) As for Princess Leia, there was initial interest in Jodie Foster, who was too busy to consider it at the time.
And let’s talk about Han Solo. He was almost played by Al Pacino, a casting choice that would have changed the entire tenor of the movie. Other possible Hans included Burt Reynolds, who said no, and Kurt Russell, who took himself out of the running to work on a short-lived TV show. “When you watch [Kurt Russell’s] audition tape, he would have made a fine Han Solo, and the same can be said for many of the hopefuls at the time,” says Ward. “The big difference, I think, is the chemistry between Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill. They seemed to be having fun that’s infectious. When you look at later Star Wars casts, everyone is pretty good on their own, but the chemistry between those three is unrivaled.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Next, check out these 20 funny Star Wars jokes and puns for both sides of the Force.