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Gary Kurtz: The Hidden Force Behind Star Wars

Without Gary Kurtz there wouldn’t have been a Star Wars film – at least not the Star Wars we know now.

At the first Soundstage event of 2017 in London, UK, Gary spoke about his involvement in the epic sci-fi franchise, how he got there, as well as what he thinks of the current style of film editing in Hollywood.

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Q: How did you start your career in Hollywood?

GK: At the time, the only way in was through low-budget exploitation movies, mainly shot on 35mm. I worked a lot with Roger Corman. These were all terrible films to begin with but we made them even worse. We ruthlessly invented scenes and stuck them in the middle of the film; as long as we made them 78 minutes long they worked for the studio. The experience I gained was incredible though! The best all-round experience I can imagine anyone having.

I remember, I had a sign in my office: “There’s no time to do it right but there’s always time to do it over.” So that’s how we did it. The most notorious film we made was Blood Bath, which was redone 5 times.

Q: How did you meet George Lucas?

Gary_kurtz_George-lucasGK: I knew Francis (Ford Coppola) and he asked me to go up to San Francisco to talk about his new war movie, Apocalypse Now. I just came out of the marines and at the time, the Vietnam war was still raging. That’s where I met George, who was still editing THX1138. George was supposed to do Apocalypse Now, but in the end we made American Graffiti.

We had 26 days of shooting during summer – when the nights are the shortest, so not ideal. Our budget was so tight we had to solve the exposure with street lights. For the ball scene we gave raffle tickets to the young extras and put 3 TV’s up as the prize. They all came, but none of them knew anything about dancing, so I had to get a Hollywood choreographer in for a one day, teach them how to dance and shoot the sequence in 4 hours.

Even though the studio was perplexed about how to sell the film, at the end it produced one of the highest cost of return ratio for Universal and got nominated for Best Picture.

Q: When did you know that you were going to work on Star Wars and what was your first task as a producer?

GK: The first and foremost task of a producer is always to secure the funding. Fox didn’t give us the money until right before shooting, so we had to put up our own during the development stages.

We worked on development for over 3 years: story-boards, costume-sketches, etc. We bluffed Fox and said we were going ahead with or without them, as we have other investors. $9m was the original budget, which was one of the lowest budgets they had on their slate at the time. After we got the green light, George and I went to Mexico to talk to John Dykstra and we set up what became ILM.

Q: Tell us about the casting process for Star Wars?

GK: I was heavily involved in the casting process. We wanted to cast the three young people first. Hundreds of people came, we barely had 5 minutes for them. About a dozen did the video casting. Harrison read against several characters – not an urban myth, he was working as a carpenter at the time. Harrison was by far the best. However, we weren’t sure about Luke and Leia. We were very much against casting people who were in American Graffiti before. I went to see Judy Foster, but she had other work obligations and she wasn’t funny enough for the role. We needed a blend of regalness with humor, so we went with Carrie who was 18 at the time.

Q: How did you end up shooting in England?

GK: We were expecting to shoot at Fox studios, as they were financing the film. They didn’t have the right stages for us and wanted to scatter the project around many different locations. Because our production budget was so low we couldn’t have done that successfully. I said I’ll go to Europe. Pinewood didn’t want to give us 8 stages, so I went to Paris, Rome, Berlin,  and Budapest.

In the end I found Bryan Forbes, the new Head of Production appointed by EMI at Elstree studios. They were about to tear it down and I convinced him to give it to us with security and power for our shoot. After Star Wars was finished, they re-thought the whole idea of demolishing it – in the end all three Star Wars and the Indiana Jones films were shot there.

StarWarsElstree

Q: What did the sets look like?

GK: We had many small sets and one big set on which we had half of the Falcon. It was the Rebel Base. There was a full-size X-Wing Fighter and a dozen cardboard ones. The Throne Room was at Shepperton studios.

Q: How did you get John Williams on board?

8ac78146e99fea62cf091762bb3a35c1GK: We looked at several composers. In the end Steven (Spielberg) recommended John to us, as the most classically trained composer. We were looking for classic opera-style, in which each character has a motif and it’s all weaved together. John liked the challenge, and went off and started working.

We had to fight over John with Steven, but we won when we convinced him that Close Encounters would come out at a later date, so John should work on Star Wars first. We recorded some stuff in the Denham studios but the majority of tracks were done at Studio 1 Abbey Road.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the shoot?

GK: The biggest challenge was VFX. We assembled a team that hadn’t worked together before. They had to do 3-4 thousand shots and we had to cut a lot of corners. The traditional method is to shoot the elements and combine them with the optical premise which for us would have taken a year to finish and we didn’t have that much time. We told them to move on after each shot, break everything down and don’t wait for the shot checks. Just for reference, that opening shot of the Star Destroyer took us 7 months.

Q: When did you know Star Wars was something special?

GK: We had a preview of an incomplete version without music or VFX. Fox insisted on a release date of May, 1977, which was weeks away. It was almost too late to do anything. We carefully constructed the audience to represent all age-groups from 4-70. The studio wanted preview cards – I’m not a fan of them, as I think it’s silly to ask for an intellectual response for an emotional experience. But I still have a card that says: ‘worst film since Godzilla’.

We had a sound recordist sitting in the front of the theatre with a mic to capture the reactions of the audience. Then we played that against the film itself on the big screen and made minor changes.

Q: How did you get people to see the film?

downloadGK: We spent a year going to sci-fi conventions, so I knew from the first day we were going to get those fans. Only after the film stayed in theaters for a month it became clear that we broke through to the mainstream.

Q: Tell us about the release strategy?

GK: We got lucky, Sorcerer was supposed to play at the Chinese cinema and was late, so we got the venue for that month. Then Sorcerer bombed so we were back again at the Chinese and thought we’d celebrate with a footprint ceremony. We ended up blocking Hollywood Boulevard when over six thousand people showed up.

Q: Gary, what do you think were your other important contributions to the Star Wars franchise?

GK: Before Star Wars, only heads of departments were credited. I have to take credit for changing this. Because it was such a low-budget production, I convinced Fox to let us credit everyone. It was something like four minutes long – nothing like today’s 15 minute-long credits.

I also came up with the title (by accident) of Empire Strikes Back. We were on a press junket in Paris with Mark and Carrie. The fans asked “what’s the title of the new film?”, I said something similar to the Flash Gordon serials like Empire Strikes Back.

ESBWindQ: Was Empire Strikes Back more of a challenge then Star Wars?

GK: It was a different kind of challenge. We had a lot more money. There was no pressure, because we knew it would be a hit and by then the VFX team produced shots much faster. But this time, we had difficulty with locations. In Norway we were under 18 feet of snow. There were accidents too, such as Mark spraining his ankle.

As a producer smaller films are more satisfying. Big films are like working with an army, hence a lot of logistical problems arise.

Q: The dreaded question, why didn’t you come back for Return of the Jedi?

GK: For one thing, George (Lucas) was unhappy that we ran over schedule but the main reason was that George and Steven (Spielberg) had just shot Raiders of the Lost Ark and George had changed the bitter-sweet ending of Return of the Jedi. I didn’t like that. At the same time, Jim Henson was pushing Dark Crystal, which I found challenging in many new ways. So it was a whole combination of circumstances.

Q: What did you think of Rogue One?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd.

GK: I’m friends with JJ (Abrams) and Gareth (Edwards) so I was on set a lot for VII and Rogue One. I have mixed feelings. I felt VII was too reverential to the originals but I understand where Disney was coming from: the audience needs refreshing. I think they had a better outline but were afraid using it on account of being too different.

The same thing happened with Gareth, I think he tried to reproduce the look of the originals. I do have to say though, I am dubious of studio execs who approve a script then decide it’s too dark and needs to be reshot.

I liked Rogue One to a certain degree but the battle was too long for me and the two big battle scenes were too similar. I also wanted to see more of Jyn, for example, when she was taken by the rebels and learn more about her criminal past.

Q: What do you think of the Special Editions?

GK: I wasn’t involved in making them and I don’t like them much. Mos Eisley was ruined by adding too many digital effects. When you have more time and money it doesn’t necessarily mean it gets better.

Q: Star Wars inspired generations of memorabilia/toys. Had you planned it like that from the beginning?

GK: Typically, creating accompanying toys and memorabilia with films is very problematic because the timing required to produce them is completely different from a film schedule.

Toy manufacturers usually present their wares in January, so the toy-cycle is a year long. That doesn’t usually work with films. But it did with Star Wars, simply because it was in the cinemas for a year.

original-star-wars-toys

Q: As a producer how involved were you in the editing of Star Wars?

GK: In my experience, let the editor assemble a version. Then watch it sequence by sequence and let the editor talk. We were lucky, we got to run the film on the big screen and tweak it along the way.

Once, Francis (Ford Coppola) invited us for dinner and ran four different cuts of Apocalypse Now. We told him they were all great, just pick one! You can get caught up in the tiny bits.

I also knew Stanley (Kubrick), so one time we went to his house. He didn’t like watching films in cinemas so he had his own cinema and he showed us clips from the Shining. The editing was frantic! We asked him, why are you cutting so much?

In my opinion you have to be really careful. Young editors think that’s the way to add energy. If the drama is good enough the audience will see it. I’ve seen films recently and just thought the editing was too frantic. Editing style overall needs more work these days.

If you enjoyed this article we’d love to hear it! Leave a comment below, we read them all.

This article was written by FEP contributing author, Zsofi Szemeredy. Zsofi studies Marketing & Distribution at the National Film and Television School in London, UK. She also produces the Indie Film Distribution Summit. She’s been an ardent Star Wars, Harry Potter, and sci-fi lover since the age of 5. 


  • Film Editing Pro

    Hey guys, share your thoughts!

  • Joshua Gohlke

    I love it when the masters reminisce about why they made this decision or that. Great interview. Honest. Thank you!