Before George Lucas built his toy empire, he made movies with producer Gary Kurtz. His decade-long association with George Lucas resulted in Lucas’ greatest films, unfortunately Kurtz has received little credit for his contributions to the Star Wars saga. After ending his working relationship with Lucas Kurtz produced cult classic The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz. Then he disappeared into obscurity, and Lucas disappointed audiences with ewoks in Return of the Jedi and for the Star Wars films, it’s all downhill from there. However, now Kurtz is about to return to the spotlight. Kurtz has attached himself as producer to 1977, an independent film that follows the lives of a group of teenagers on the day that Star Wars opens. With the upcoming video release of Star Wars Episode 1, Chris Gore caught up with Gary Kurtz to discuss American Graffiti, Star Wars, and arguably the best film of the space saga, The Empire Strikes Back. (This article was originally posted on March 5th, 2000.)
Let’s jump right in. I have to ask, what exactly were your initial thoughts about the third Star Wars film, which was originally called “Revenge” of the Jedi?
The one story thread that got totally tossed out the window, which was really pretty important I think, was the one of Vader trying to convince Luke to join him to overthrow the Emperor. That together they had enough power that they could do that, and it wasn’t him saying I want to take over the world and be the evil leader, it was that transition. It was Vader saying, “I’m looking again at what I’ve done and where my life has gone and who I’ve served and, very much in the Samurai tradition, and saying if I can join forces with my son, who is just as strong as I am, that maybe we can make some amends.” So there was all of that going on in Jedi as well, that was supposed to go on. So the story was quite a bit more poignant and the ending was the coronation of Leia as the queen of what was left of her people, to take over the royal symbol. That meant she was then isolated from all of the rest and Luke went off then by himself. It was basically a kind of bittersweet ending. She’s not his sister that dropped in to wrap up everything neatly. His sister was someone else way over on the other side of the galaxy and she wasn’t going to show up until the next episode.
“I pulled up John Simon’s review of Empire Strikes Back and it’s incredibly vitriolic, just unbelievably acidic.”
Luke and Leia turning out to be brother and sister seemed like a simple-minded way to resolve the romantic love triangle.
Yeah. I’ve been doing some research because they’ve asked me to do some college lectures next year on the origins of Star Wars and making films in the 70s. So, I’ve been doing some research about going back and saying, well, just what was the reaction to the films and reviews and for the first two films. The reviews generally were quite favorable except for John Simon. I pulled up John Simon’s review of Empire Strikes Back and it’s incredibly vitriolic, just unbelievably acidic. I couldn’t believe it after all this time, I’d forgotten totally about it. It said all of the actors were terrible.
I thought the reviews of Star Wars and Empire were generally positive.
Oh, they were. They were.
Pauline Kael hated it though.
I expected that actually from Pauline.
“But, that wasn’t the case with the first two films, the reviews from Variety on down were generally quite favorable.”
George Lucas said that most of them had been negative as a way of concealing himself or cushioning or mitigating the reviews.
Phantom Menace, yeah. I noticed in Dallas, just yesterday when I was in doing some shopping, they’re not selling it as Phantom Menace, they’re selling it as Star Wars. Star Wars is the big name over all the book displays, all the toys, everything. Because I’m sure that’s what the manufacturers wanted. That’s the sellable name. Yes, that’s the easy way to preempt saying well, all the reviews are going to be negative because it’s an action adventure aimed at kids. Therefore, the reviewers aren’t going to like it. But, that wasn’t the case with the first two films, the reviews from Variety on down were generally quite favorable.
Gary you personally strike me as an eminently diplomatic personality, you don’t seem capable of really having much of a confrontation with anybody. But, you did.
Oh, we had lots, lots of confrontations. I think one of the problems that Lucas has now, in the LucasFilm empire, is the fact that he doesn’t have more people around him who really challenge him. We had lots of arguments and discussions; heated discussions about the way things were going. At the very end of Empire, we were fighting the deadline to get the film made in time, to get it out. Now, Empire was released only in 70mm first, in a couple of hundred cinemas. At that time with 70mm being magnetically striped for sound, we actually had to physically have people sit at the lab and run every single reel to check and make sure the soundtrack was okay. Because the magnetic coating didn’t always work and it pealed off, there were dropouts, nightmares. We rejected about 25 percent of the reels, and they had to be restriped. The picture was fine, but the sound had to be restriped and then re-recorded just to get all these prints together. So we had two or three people sitting there, day and night, running reels. At the last real we hadn’t even finished yet, because we were just getting in a couple of optical effects and miniatures from the Cloud City sequences. I remember we were sitting there at ILM, there was this one shot where the Millennium Falcon lands in Cloud City and it turns and lands and had some glitches in it. George said, “Well we’re running out of time, I guess that’s okay.” And I said, “We can’t use that! We’ve got to do that over again. Because it just doesn’t look right.” So, Richard Edlund agreed and we had this sort of heated discussion about whether there was enough time and whether we could get it done in time. We did do it over again, and it was much better. That was actually the first time I saw him not want to do the best he possibly could, because he was genuinely worried about the time. If we didn’t meet our deadline, we were going to be in real shit. Then we decided, at the very last minute, to add an extra shot which was a real nightmare because at the very, very end we go in on the after the final battle where they escape Vader. We dissolve and we’re in on this ship where the medical section is and where they’re fixing Luke’s hand and then we go through the final dialogue scene and Lando and Chewie leave. Well, oh, that was fine, it’s just that we found that some of the people who sat through that last reel said we’re not quite sure where we are at this point, because we’ve just gone through this sort of big confrontation thing and they escaped Vader, so we dissolved and that was out in space too. So we decided to add a long shot of the rebel fleet kind of steaming away with a dozen ships.
That’s the very last image of the film, right?
No, that’s not the very last image, we use it again. But, I mean this is at the beginning of that sequence. We dissolve to this long shot of the rebel fleet and then we cut to this shot where we move in on the one ship into the medical window. Then at the end, we pull out of that same window. So, we needed this shot and so ILM plans, shot the elements, composited the shot, this was before digital so it was all done optically, processed it and we had a negative for it all in about 48 hours. It was just amazing. They cut that into the print to make the 70mm prints for the last reel, just a few days before they had to be shipped so it was really tight. They did it and they did a great job, and we were really lucky too because a lot of those optical composites involved a lot of different elements. The first couple of gos, the color correction is all screwy and so we have to go back and redo it and change colors and things, so we were doing that constantly. It was like the opening shot of Star Wars had 36 elements in it and we never did get it absolutely right. But we got it pretty close, but that took like three and a half months and we were running it through the optical printer so many times that we scratched some of the early elements and we had to reshoot the elements. Now, you could do that kind of shot in a day or two. No matter how many elements you had and you could see it on the screen, you could see how they fit, what everything was and it would all be perfectly good in terms of color. So, it’s an entirely different world.
“It was like the opening shot of Star Wars had 36 elements in it and we never did get it absolutely right.”
So when did you and George Lucas start to not see things the same way? What was the beginning of it?
I think that was during the making of Empire. George got really concerned about how long we were taking, we didn’t go over budget and he banged me for the cost overruns on Empire.
And taking Irvin Kershner’s side…
And taking Irv’s side, yeah. At that time we were still talking about what was happening with Jedi and it already was apparent that he was changing his mind with what he wanted to do with Jedi and so it was kind of a mutual parting. It wasn’t acrimonious, it was just that he felt he would probably be more comfortable with someone else to handle the production chores on Jedi and I felt that I would prefer a different kind of challenge, that wasn’t kind of repeating something I had already done. Jim Henson had asked me to produce The Dark Crystal, something he had been working on for about ten years. The idea of doing a film that had no human beings, it was all mechanical you couldn’t do anything artificially, I mean digitally or any other way except optical matte painting backgrounds, was an interesting idea because it had never been done before and hasn’t been done since. It’s the only film that I know of that’s ever been made that way and not likely to be done now since he’s died and the creature shop has changed gears a lot. In fact they’ve gone to a lot of digital stuff too.
There’s a lot of people in the fan community that tend to think that George worked better when he was in collaboration with yourself and his wife Marcia, that I think clearly when you look at the failure of Return of the Jedi and then The Phantom Menace. I just wanted to point out that you added a lot more to the films than has ever been acknowledged.
Well, thank you. Thank you for that. Film is always a collaborative effort. No film that I’ve ever made, when you sit down and see the finished film could we parcel out who did what. The cameraman contributes things, the writer, director, producer all contribute things, the actors contribute a lot. I directed along the second unit on Empire because John Ferry died the first day, I had hired him as the second unit director, and he died virtually the day after we started of infectious meningitis. He got sick in the morning and by the end of that day he was dead. It was real shock to all of us, but what happens with a lot of scenes, especially if you let the actors play with it, is that you get something different from what you think that you’re going to get. Sometimes it isn’t as good and you have to say, wait a minute, no, can’t do this, come back to what I want, but a lot of times you can let it go and say, “Yeah, this is actually pretty good, this is better than what I was planning on.” That’s really what they contribute to any film. That it’s a matter of shaping it, making sure that it fits within the overall vision but letting it go in small ways so that they can kind of shape what they’re doing and contributing. I spoke at this convention in Dallas, a Star Wars convention and someone asked me about the Han Solo carbon-freezing scene. That’s a perfect example of where the director and actors work really well together. Because both Kersh and I were really worried about that scene on paper, as being incredibly sentimental and we wanted to have it work on the surface, but we also wanted to have it so that actually the audience cared, really worried about him. That’s really difficult to do with a scene like that because it’s so bizarre. I think it actually did work, I think it came off pretty well, actually.
It’s one of the classic scenes in all three of the Star Wars films. Didn’t Harrison Ford change the dialogue to the infamous “I know,” line?
Yeah. Well, we did that a lot actually. We did another scene where on a Friday night we shot the scene where Leia’s waiting in a room and Han comes in and they have this talk, he says there’s something wrong here, you know that scene. There’s a bit of romantic sparks there, you know when he says you look great and there’s some sexual tension going there. We shot that scene on a Friday night and over the weekend Kersh came out to the house. Every Sunday we played a little tennis and kind of sat around and worked on the next week’s stuff. We both agreed that the scene wasn’t working so on Monday we went back, I called up the production team, I said we’re going to have to reshoot that part of it. We were still in the same set, so it wasn’t a big deal. I said we want to reshoot that because the dramatic level of the dialogue wasn’t quite right. It’s very difficult in a science fiction film to do anything that smacks of romance anyway because it tends to either be way over the top or it’s lost totally in the props and everything else. So we redid it and it was much better and it was just working with the actors and getting something down that was realistic, that worked on kind of an adult level that they were comfortable with. That takes time.
“It’s very difficult in a science fiction film to do anything that smacks of romance anyway because it tends to either be way over the top or it’s lost totally in the props and everything else…”
You mean you didn’t think to add fart jokes in Star Wars or Empire, stepping in poop or tired scatological humor?
(Laughter) No, none of that. There was an article in the Times about the racial and ethnic stereotypes. Of course LucasFilm’s official line is, “Well it’s in another planet so it’s just a race of creatures.” But, you look at it and say, “Wait a minute, if the only context that we have is the Earth, so if you’re going to do a race of primitive, tribal type people they’re going to be equated with primitive, tribal type people, no matter what.”
I just thought that some of them were so blatant such as the Nemoidians with their broken-english accent. It’s something that wasn’t present even in the first three films.
I think that maybe that one passed them by completely. Maybe they just didn’t realize that anyone would even equate it that way at all. But, after I saw it, I was thinking, “Well if you’re talking about the clash between primitive tribal cultures and modern cultures as one kind, why not use better examples. Why not use the Native American cultures?” The Indians had developed, even though technically they were a primitive culture, they had an incredibly developed sense of who they were as human beings and their spiritual ties to the universe and everything. I’ve studied Native American culture a lot and I’m sure although I haven’t studied it personally, I’m sure that most of the African tribal cultures had done the same thing. That to pick up on the movie stereotypes of the 30s only and not put any of the other stuff in it, I think was a real mistake.
Does Lucas like to bring in co-writers and other directors in on his “vision”?
He’s done it before. He did it with both Empire and Jedi and the idea was that different directors bring a different sensibility. I don’t know what the thinking corporately is. Several people have said, and they’ve been incredibly cynical about it, that they don’t care. I don’t find that difficult to believe that the toy revenue is so great that it doesn’t make any difference whether the movie is any good or not. I just don’t think he’s (Lucas) that kind of filmmaker. I think he DOES care, certainly. It’s just a matter of how that all the pieces fit together.
Do you agree that The Phantom Menace seems to be skewed much younger?
Oh yes, it is skewed younger and maybe that’s because of the pressure about the toys, I don’t know. But it also may be, partially due to the fact that dealing with the main character is Anakin and he is young in this particular one. From a mythological point of view, I would have like to have seen him older. Because a 12 year-old is the one, that’s when you come of age. The age when you leave home, it’s the age when you’re torn away from your mother metaphorically. I think that would have worked better for people.
“…episode one was going to be about the origin of the Jedi and the killing off of the Sith Lords and much more kind of archetypal, political aspects.”
I agree. I also think that Jake Lloyd can’t be blamed for his performance, it’s adequate for someone of his age, but I think if you cast someone 14 or 12, you would have gotten a better performance. I’m curious how you felt watching Star Wars Episode 1?
Well, I find it really difficult to have any kind of objectivity about it because I know I was around when we were talking about what the first three stories would be like and what he was thinking about. Some of the treatments had references to that and episode one was going to be about the origin of the Jedi and the killing off of the Sith Lords and much more kind of archetypal, political aspects. He’s perfectly free to write and make what he wants to make, but because of all of that, I find seeing this film really difficult. I don’t feel I can really evaluate it. I can certainly look at it; it’s a nice evening’s entertainment, a lot of good stuff in it. But, there a lot of things I don’t like about the story. Things that I thought might have been better in some way or another, but I’m just another spectator like anybody else. Everybody has that opinion, they can like it or not like it, like we do with any movie. The vested interest in the saga, from the fan’s point of view, that’s pretty much whatever George wants to do. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to like it. I know what happened with Star Trek, the old Trek fans got really disenchanted and the dropped away because of what happened with The Next Generation and all the rest of it. Maybe that will happen with some of the Star Wars fans. I mean this convention in Dallas had about 7,000 people there. I find some of the fans have been scary actually. They have no life outside of talking about this and it is pretty scary. (Laughter) Some of the actors who were there, I hadn’t seen for a while, it was nice to hang out with them for a bit. Some of them do that kind of thing a lot. They go to these things every fortnight or once a month. They make money by signing autographs and things. Billy Dee Williams was there and Kenny Baker and Jeremy Bulloch who played Boba Fett and Maria, I can’t remember her surname, who played Greedo and several others.
She played Greedo, that’s just so funny. She’s in the movie for about a minute. No, she’s not even in the movie — the mask is in the movie. Who knows?
Well so is Boba Fett. They still line up to get signatures. This one guy came up to me with a poster that he wanted everybody to sign. He got, which is pretty unusual, he got George to sign it because he actually flew, he came in from Colorado somewhere, he flew to New York for the premiere of The Phantom Menace, paid the extra to go to the party afterwards and he got George to sign his poster. He’s got almost everybody. It’s one of the original Style D Star Wars posters. He’s got a lot of signatures; it’ll probably be worth a lot of money. Unfortunately, he’ll never get Peter Cushing’s or Alec Guinness’ signature but that’s life.
What do you think about Leo DiCaprio potentially being cast as the older Anakin for Star Wars Episode II?
I don’t like the idea of movie stars in Star Wars, personally. I find that it’s really difficult to associate with the characters.
“I find that really difficult in science fiction to do that, to take movie stars of any kind. It is just not possible…”
Star Wars really made Harrison Ford a star.
Indiana Jones really made him a star. He had only been in seven or eight minor movies for Universal. He was in American Graffiti for about ten minutes. Empire was made at the same time as Raiders of the Lost Ark more or less. Raiders came out the next year so, he shot Empire then he shot Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t until Raiders came out that he was really “a rising movie star.” So in both Star Wars and Empire they were just people. You can say, “Well, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness were both movie stars of a sort and they were recognizable figures,” but they were playing characters that were okay as archetypal characters, where as they weren’t the core characters the audience is identifying with. I find that really difficult in science fiction to do that, to take movie stars of any kind. It is just not possible. Certain films work perfectly with movie stars. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wouldn’t have worked without Redford. The Sting, the same thing, that those kind of films rely on the stars personæ and your knowledge of the history of their career to make those personalities work. In science fiction, you don’t have that, you don’t want that, I don’t think.
No one seems to really allowed to be strong as an actor in the Star Wars films…
Yeah, it’s very held back and Liam Neeson is a very strong screen personality and he’s supposed to be the strongest character. One of the story things that bothers me about it, is you don’t have any sense of who the Jedi are. They’re just referred to as these amazing characters. Ewan McGregor is supposed to be an apprentice so he’s not even supposed to be as good as Liam Neeson, you don’t see that either, you don’t see any training. The biggest thing that bothers me about Phantom Menace as far as I’m concerned is the destruction of the spiritual center of the force, turning it into DNA and blood.
In order to be strong in the force now you basically have to have the right blood. May the midiclorians in your blood be with you! I don’t understand why he did it and in two separate scenes it’s reiterated by Liam Neeson and it’s clumsy.
The exposition is weak.
“George has a clear idea of what he wants and whether you agree with that or not, he goes about getting that…”
Not only that there’s no central protagonist in the film. You could argue it’s the queen, you could argue it’s Liam Neeson, you could argue it’s Anakin, or Jar Jar. There’s no quest or journey that any of the characters are on. Secondly, you don’t understand the motivations behind any of the characters. That’s why I feel so strongly that George needed some kind of a rewriter to come in and fix it. To me, Episode 1 really points out the fact that the emperor has no clothes and I don’t mean the character in the film, I mean George himself. It’s a crushing disappointment for someone like myself who grew up with these films.
If you look at what’s been done in some of the novels, some of the novels that have been authorized to be done with the characters going off in different directions are pretty good. A lot of them aren’t but some of them are pretty good in terms of the story. They set up a premise, what would happen if Han and Chewie did this? What would happen if Princess Leia did this? Some of them are silly, but some of them are actually quite good. One of the websites I just pulled down yesterday was one that actually some guy went through and listed all of the written materials that’s ever been written on Star Wars, all of the novels and put them in to a kind of time ark. Where they’re placed on the stream around the movie. It’s really interesting actually. Most of them are after the first three films. Some are way back, 30,000 years before. Anyway, what I’m saying is that some of the novels are actually quite good. The idea of taking the Star Wars franchise and saying, “Okay bring in somebody who has an interesting idea, let them explore, go off in a different direction. It doesn’t have to be a linear ABC, 123-story concept.” That would be a different take on how to deal with Star Wars characters that the fans were really interested in. Not direct sequels and saying the story goes like this, but let them go off and do a Han Solo story that happened before, it doesn’t have to fit into the overall scheme. It hasn’t really been tried. Well, it has been tried because in the 30’s there were lots of series of films that were based on characters that were interesting. The Andy Hardy series, the Thin Man series, they had nothing to do with each other they were just different stories. But, the characters were interesting so you wanted to see them again.
My understanding is that Rick Mcallum does not stand up to George.
Evidently not, I mean, I don’t know Rick Mcallum. I’ve heard lots and lots of rumors, which I just prefer just not to talk about. Anyway it’s very easy to take pot shots at people around a situation like this.
I actually thought that everyone did a great job, the costumes, the actors, the digital effects people, everyone did a great job. Unfortunately the two great weaknesses of the film are the writing and directing – George Lucas’ job.
I think that a lot of what it is, is that George has a clear idea of what he wants and whether you agree with that or not, he goes about getting that. Anybody else in that same position would do the same thing. Now, whether or not that’s popular or whether or not it isn’t is totally a matter of individual opinion.
I’ve never heard of a major filmmaker ever saying, “Look it doesn’t have to be that good.” That’s the most appalling thing I’ve heard come out of the mouth…
No, but that happens all the time on films. You’re making judgments on everything you do. When we worked down the special effects on the first Star Wars we didn’t have very much money and you do this no matter how much money you have, we did this back in the Roger Corman days.
“To go back years later and to change them, I think is probably a wrong philosophy…”
What are your feelings on the Star Wars Special Editions?
To go back years later and to change them, I think is probably a wrong philosophy. In the case of Star Wars it had to be restored anyway, because the negative was so screwed up. All right that’s work, just like restoring David Lean’s version of Lawrence of Arabia that’s a good job, you do that and you do the best job you can. Even like the restoration of A Star is Born, where they actually put in scenes that they didn’t have anymore, they just had stills. That’s just trying to get it back to the way it was in the first place. Here it’s different, it’s not the way it was in the first place. The way it was in the first place was the way we released it.
Now you’re working on this independent film called “1977”, kind of a “day in the life of a group of teenagers on the opening day of Star Wars.” Sounds a little like American Graffiti?
I think it’ll be a good little film. It’s fun and the characters are really believable. It’s out to several companies. The coverage is very good. I think that the title 1977 is good, but I’m not sure we can actually call it 5/25/77 because in the rest of the world it would say 25/5/77. Because nobody else puts the month first it’s only America that does that.
Finally, were there plans for a third Star Wars trilogy and were there any ideas generated for those three films?
Yes, it was very vague. It was Luke’s journey really up to becoming sort of the premiere Jedi knight in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mold and his ultimate confrontation with the emperor. That was the outline of it and all that happens.
“It was Luke’s journey really up to becoming sort of the premiere Jedi knight in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mold and his ultimate confrontation with the emperor.”