Star Wars: the world’s most com­mer­cial film fran­chise en­ters new ter­ri­tory

The cre­ative tra­jec­tory of many young Aus­tralians was force­fully in­flu­enced by the rev­e­la­tory power of the first Star Wars tril­ogy, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens opens on Thurs­day.

Ju­lian Cress, co-cre­ator of Nine’s hit re­al­ity se­ries The Block, and ar­chi­tect Ju­lian Brench­ley have re­mained friends since they grew up in the same McMa­hons Point street in Sydney in the 1970s. They bonded par­tic­u­larly over Star Wars, which Cress saw at the Ge­orge Street Hoyts cin­ema as a nine-year-old in 1977.

“I can’t ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber any­thing that hap­pened to me in my life be­fore that day, but there’s noth­ing about that day I can’t re­mem­ber,” he says. “I think it fun­da­men­tally al­tered my DNA.”

That in­flu­ence was re­flected re­cently when the friends at­tempted their own homage to the in­ter­ga­lac­tic epic in the most re­cent se­ries of

The Block. Brench­ley’s ini­tial plans for the ren­o­va­tion of the prom­i­nent Ho­tel Sav­ille in South Yarra, Mel­bourne, in­cluded an oddly shaped pent­house struc­ture.

“We didn’t give it a name but some­one at Ston­ning­ton Coun­cil twigged,” Cress says with a laugh. “They said, ‘ No, you’re not putting a Mil­len­nium Fal­con on the top of that build­ing.’ ” So Cress and Brench­ley de­cided to make do with a more mod­est trib­ute. The top floor was de­signed in the shape of an Im­pe­rial TIE Fighter, the aero­nau­ti­cal ve­hi­cle that fea­tures in

Star Wars, Re­turn of the Jedi and The Em­pire Strikes Back.

The Force Awak­ens, the sev­enth in­stal­ment in the world’s most fa­mous film fran­chise, opens in­ter­na­tion­ally next week. Di­rected by JJ Abrams, the story is set three decades af­ter 1983’s Re­turn of the Jedi and fea­tures some new faces as well as some very fa­mous older ones.

In a coun­try far, far away from Hol­ly­wood in 1977, a gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralians was touched by Ge­orge Lu­cas’s film star­ring a young Mark Hamill, Car­rie Fisher and a lit­tle-known for­mer car­pen­ter by the name of Har­ri­son Ford. The ef­fects of the sem­i­nal sci-fi film, which had be­come a phe­nom­e­non in the US be­fore its late 1977 Aus­tralian release (it re­mains the high­est­gross­ing film of 1978 in this coun­try), live on in pos­i­tive, and oc­ca­sion­ally odd, ways.

It dom­i­nated pop cul­ture — even though it emerged in the same pe­riod as Jaws and Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind, and when tele­vi­sion was hit­ting its stride — and it set many young Aus­tralians on their cre­ative paths into film, TV, ad­ver­tis­ing and com­edy.

“Like so many peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion, I saw it prob­a­bly 15 times back in the days when films ran for a year,” re­calls ac­tor Matt Day, who is film­ing the next se­ries of Rake in Sydney.

“I was pretty much ob­sessed by it, but it wasn’t un­til The Em­pire Strikes Back that it blew my head off and I started to think about want­ing to make films.”

Cress was sim­i­larly mo­ti­vated, not­ing it “trig­gered my in­ter­est in sto­ry­telling and telling an epic story”. He be­came a jour­nal­ist be­fore mov­ing to 60 Min­utes as a pro­ducer. Now, as the co­pro­ducer of one of Aus­tralian TV’s most pop­u­lar and per­va­sive shows, he con­tends: “All of this mythol­ogy about dark and light, good and bad, surely any­body who’s watched The Block would see we tap into all of that stuff. It’s cer­tainly made me who I am as a sto­ry­teller.”

Day wanted to be­come a di­rec­tor but found him­self act­ing in­stead. Kriv Sten­ders, the di­rec­tor of Red Dog and SBS’s The Prin­ci­pal, didn’t de­vi­ate from his cho­sen path. He de­scribes his first view­ing of Star Wars as “a pretty seis­mic event in my life”. As a 13-year-old, he had heard about the film be­fore its release: he re­calls a Time mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle and a Rolling Stone pic­to­rial fea­ture. Yet watch­ing it at Brisbane’s Paris cin­ema over­whelmed his expectations.

“It was the first time any of us in our gen­er­a­tion had seen — apart from 2001: A Space Odyssey — a com­pletely built world, a world that felt end­less and lived and breathed and ex­isted out­side of the film,” Sten­ders says.

“And just the en­ergy of it. I re­mem­ber com­ing out shiv­er­ing with ex­cite­ment af­ter the dog­fight, it felt so phys­i­cal.”

Co­me­dian Lawrence Le­ung ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar phys­i­cal re­ac­tion af­ter see­ing Re­turn of the Jedi. “I was so small, but once the film had fin­ished I had trou­ble walk­ing down the steps of the cin­ema be­cause I was so dis­ori­en­tated,” he says. “I was woozy.”

The first Star Wars tril­ogy, about a teen from Ta­tooine and his seem­ingly silly quest to save a princess and de­feat an em­pire, was a shock to the cul­tural sys­tem.

Wayne Lewis, the co-founder of dig­i­tal ef­fects house Ris­ing Sun Pic­tures, saw the film at the Whyalla Cin­ema in ru­ral South Aus­tralia and re­calls that the film’s open­ing shot of a mon­strous space­ship “was pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary and pretty cool for a nine-year-old kid”.

“In ret­ro­spect I al­ways come back to Luke Sky­walker be­ing stuck out in the mid­dle of nowhere and the land­scape not be­ing the same but very sim­i­lar to re­gional South Aus­tralia,” he says. “It ob­vi­ously struck a chord.”

At­tract­ing au­di­ences rang­ing from adults in cities to kids in re­gional Aus­tralia (in­clud­ing this writer from Gee­long), the film was a hit. Jane Allen, the lead writer of ABC drama se­ries Janet King and Crown­ies, is among those who have a clear mem­ory of her first view­ing, down to the clothes she wore to Bendigo’s Golden Twin cin­ema: her favourite or­ange-and-brown

check Miller shirt with the gold threads. “Sit­ting up the back of the cin­ema as it started with the gold type­face, all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck I was think­ing ‘ Wow!’ ” Allen re­mem­bers. “And then see­ing Luke on Ta­tooine and more than one moon in the sky … I had been a film fan be­fore that, but it just filled me with pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

Star Wars showed that teen there was a dif­fer­ent kind of story to tell and “we don’t have to be bound by earth”. Allen says it was a sem­i­nal mo­ment in terms of broad­en­ing her writ­ing hori­zon; she can re­call only two or three oth­ers in her life, in­clud­ing her first view­ing of Be­ing

John Malkovich.

Allen keeps a Darth Vader on her com­puter and has main­tained her fo­cus on genre film and TV, most re­cently co-writ­ing Clev­er­man, the forth­com­ing in­dige­nous sci-fi drama se­ries for the ABC and the Amer­i­can AMC net­work. It was cre­ated by Ryan Grif­fen, an­other Star Wars (or, more pre­cisely, The Em­pire Strikes Back) nut. He re­calls re-en­act­ing scenes from his favourite film in the back­yard and bush sur­round­ing his NSW Blue Moun­tains home where “you get to really run around and live that life”.

“And back in those days it was all about making your own things, us­ing broom­sticks, and not buy­ing all the things you can get to­day,” he says.

Star Wars’ sense of pos­si­bil­ity and des­tiny also touched Sav­age Gar­den’s Dar­ren Hayes, ac­cord­ing to co­me­dian Steele Saunders, who has dis­cussed his fan­dom with other celebri­ties on his pop­u­lar Steele Wars pod­cast (which will air live at 2.30am on Thurs­day, af­ter the first Aus­tralian mid­night screen­ing of Star Wars:

The Force Awak­ens, rolling out the ear­li­est glo- bal dis­cus­sion of the new film). “Dar­ren’s story is the most quin­tes­sen­tial,” Saunders says. “He definitely fol­lowed Luke’s path. It’s a tough thing to be an artis­tic, gay, poor kid of a sin­gle par­ent liv­ing in Brisbane in the 1980s.”

Hayes found global pop suc­cess and even adopted the Luke Sky­walker per­sona on one arena tour, wear­ing a cos­tume repli­cat­ing Luke’s black robes from the end of Re­turn of the

Jedi and sport­ing a Jedi-belt mi­cro­phone pack. The Star Wars tril­ogy was in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing the cul­tural view of many gen­er­a­tion Xers when they were im­pres­sion­able young kids. It was also among the first film se­ries that could be taped and re­watched ad in­fini­tum — or at least un­til the VHS or Beta tape wore out — on your TV screen.

“Just record­ing them off the telly was big, and we didn’t have Pixar films, so I just watched those three movies over and over,” says Sam Pang, co­me­dian and star pan­el­list on Net­work Ten’s Have You Been Pay­ing At­ten­tion?

Pang says with a straight face that he’s more com­fort­able talk­ing about Star Wars than bluff­ing his way through host­ing Euro­vi­sion for SBS or foot­ball for Fox Sports, be­cause the films were a cul­tural be­he­moth be­fore he was a teen.

“Also,” he adds, “there was no in­ter­net, no mo­bile phones — it was just a sim­pler time where one thing could dom­i­nate. You go to school, and it’s not like you’re [the odd] one out: ev­ery­one loved them.”

The sim­plic­ity of Star Wars’ sto­ry­telling — which Lu­cas seemed to forget in the sec­ond “pre­quel” tril­ogy of 1999-2005 — was cap­ti­vat­ing for chil­dren and would be in­flu­en­tial for the art form.

Co­me­dian and screen­writer Tim Fer­gu­son notes: “Star Wars had ev­ery­thing the grow­ing boy needs, even the lit­tle canal scene at the end [when Luke fires a pro­ton tor­pedo into the heart of the Death Star] with the lit­tle sperm that could. It’s a sex scene, I don’t know why no­body talks about the fi­nal scene be­ing sex. And lit­tle vir­gin me sit­ting there, not re­al­is­ing why I really did like it.” Fer­gu­son was so bowled over by The

Em­pire Strikes Back, he wanted to change his name to Luke and re­mem­bers try­ing to lev­i­tate fur­ni­ture, like a Jedi.

But, he says, it was also a “a pretty vivid world and so per­fectly laid out — and [it] had that thing of so much great art that it felt like it was carved out of stone and com­plete”.

“It wasn’t un­til years later, when I saw Ja­panese sa­mu­rai films, that I re­alised where it all came from,” Fer­gu­son adds.

Not ev­ery­one was so ap­pre­cia­tive. Jeremy Sims, di­rec­tor of this year’s hit film Last Cab to

Dar­win, wasn’t a fan. He was 11 and thought it was a kids’ movie that sep­a­rated the nerds from the rest. “It was an ob­ses­sive cul­ture that got into what I con­sid­ered a child­ish fairy­tale, the Arthurian leg­end put in space,” he says.

Yet the tales up­ended child­ish expectations. Con­clud­ing The Em­pire Strikes Back with Han Solo in car­bonite was too much for a young Pang to bear. It was the first movie he had seen that did not have a happy end­ing. “I couldn’t be­lieve a movie ended like this and Dad said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s an­other one com­ing.’ It was mind-blow­ing as a child.”

The tale cut a swath through Amer­i­can cin­ema, which dur­ing the early 1970s had be­come con­sid­er­ably more “so­phis­ti­cated and nu­anced” than be­fore, Sims says.

“To this day I still think Star Wars set back sto­ry­telling 200 years be­cause af­ter­wards ev­ery­one just used the hero myth for films. I kind of see them as the evil em­pire came in and quashed a nascent flow­er­ing artis­tic move­ment that was at its peak then.”

Yet that was its dis­tinc­tion. It was a cul­tural

I RE­MEM­BER COM­ING OUT SHIV­ER­ING WITH EX­CITE­MENT AF­TER THE DOG­FIGHT, IT FELT SO PHYS­I­CAL

KRIV STEN­DERS, BE­LOW

marker, set­ting the course for Amer­i­can cin­ema ar­tis­ti­cally — the quest for more spec­ta­cle and rudi­men­tary, Joseph Camp­bell-type hero’s jour­ney nar­ra­tives — and com­mer­cially, in its ex­ploita­tion of mer­chan­dis­ing, com­mer­cial tieins and the cre­ation of a unique, open-ended nar­ra­tive world that has since been ex­ploited in comic books, an­i­mated se­ries, Lego, and now a new se­ries of films.

Le­ung says: “It’s really hard to think what it was about that par­tic­u­lar se­ries that I would al­ways re­mem­ber fondly as be­ing in my DNA, but it’s prob­a­bly be­cause be­fore it there was noth­ing like it and af­ter it, ev­ery­thing has had a lit­tle bit of Star Wars in it, from Harry Pot­ter and The

Ma­trix to Guardians of the Galaxy.” Martin Brown, pro­ducer of Moulin Rouge! and now di­rec­tor of de­gree pro­grams at the Aus­tralian Film, Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio School, says the film is still ref­er­enced in aca­demic dis­cus­sions in a num­ber of ways be­cause “it is ob­vi­ously a cul­tural ref­er­ence point and also rep­re­sents a wa­ter­shed, to some ex­tent, in the birth of non-nat­u­ral­ism and block­buster cin­ema. For a whole lot or rea­sons on artis­tic and com­mer­cial sides, it changed the game.”

The orig­i­nal Star Wars tril­ogy, in terms of sto­ry­telling, over­came the chal­lenge of pre­sent­ing un­fa­mil­iar, un­re­al­is­tic worlds while de­vel­op­ing char­ac­ters with emo­tional in­tegrity to whom au­di­ences could re­late.

It in­au­gu­rated the no­tion of the “story world”, open­ing up the pos­si­bil­ity of cre­at­ing a par­al­lel world far, far away that could con­tinue to ex­ist be­yond that film, with many it­er­a­tions. “That’s a con­cept that’s very much on our agenda th­ese days,” Brown says.

Star Wars also marked a mo­ment po­lit­i­cally, ar­gues Fer­gu­son, a for­mer mem­ber of Doug An­thony All Stars whose first film, the ro­man­tic com­edy Spin Out, will be re­leased by Sony Pic­tures next year.

He notes that Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky had knocked out cin­ema­go­ers, but its hero, Rocky Bal­boa, didn’t win, and Amer­i­can films hadn’t let any­body win since the Viet­nam War.

“Star Wars was the first time since Viet­nam when some­one just won, and they won big time, blow­ing up the Death Star with, con­ser­va­tively, 100,000 peo­ple on it,” Fer­gu­son says.

“It was a cathar­tic mo­ment and, even grow­ing up in a highly po­lit­i­cal fam­ily, it felt so good, part of the ap­peal [be­ing] the sense that Amer­ica was back, the peo­ple who run the world are back, and they’ve for­given them­selves.”

Many films of the time were dark, brood­ing pieces; in­deed Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox ini­tially threat­ened to with­hold the Sid­ney Shel­don thriller The Other Side of Mid­night from US cine­mas that turned down Star Wars.

“And then there was just this boost of joy, and it came at the per­fect time,” Saunders says.

Yet the orig­i­nal tril­ogy was an el­e­men­tary story, de­spite its vivid, broad world.

Fer­gu­son says that sim­plic­ity of the screen­writ­ing (de­spite its pil­lo­ried di­a­logue) may be the rea­son so many Aus­tralian co­me­di­ans are ob­sessed by the film. “For co­me­di­ans, we love it be­cause of its clar­ity; it’s clear and it’s over the top,” he ex­plains. “Co­me­di­ans are al­ways go­ing to love some­thing that’s so dis­tilled and easy to take the piss out of.”

Saunders adds his peers are mostly young at heart, too. He has turned his pas­sion for the films into a side­line that has threat­ened to swamp his com­edy. His pod­cast has grown to a point where this, he ad­mits, is the “most hec­tic two weeks of my life”, with in­ter­views, gigs for var­i­ous me­dia out­lets, and the pre­miere.

“And on Satur­day I’m [get­ting mar­ried],” he says with a laugh. The tim­ing was right for other rea­sons, and the only Star Wars de­tail at the wed­ding will be Han Solo and Princess Leia fig­urines on the wed­ding cake. “That’s where the nut­bag­gery ends,” he says.

Saunders’s ob­ses­sion has taken him around the world, on to the set and into Star Wars realms that a young boy who em­pathised with Luke — “who started out as a whiny kid, which I was” — could never have imag­ined.

“There’s ar­ti­cles in the pa­per about ‘those crazy fans’ but I find liv­ing vi­car­i­ously through the char­ac­ters no dif­fer­ent to fol­low­ing 18 dudes kick­ing a ball around a field,” he says. “And there’s no fights in Star Wars de­bates.” Such fan­dom takes odd forms at times. Some in­ter­vie­wees ad­mit to hold­ing on to (and cher­ish­ing) var­i­ous ob­scure pieces of mer­chan­dise. Le­ung was so ob­sessed, he bad­gered Mel­bourne comic book artist Tom Tay­lor, who was writ­ing the Star Wars In­va­sion comic book se­ries, beg­ging him to put his name, or even a de­riv­a­tive of it, in the Star Wars uni­verse.

“I asked for any­thing, even a swamp planet, a lit­tle droid or the name of a weapon, but he did bet­ter than that: he made me a Jedi Knight named Lar Le’Ung,” Le­ung says. The char­ac­ter is killed in the comic.

“Then I went to a party and Tom was there and this other guy came up to me and said, ‘I’m Tsa­lok’,” Le­ung says. “Tom made his friend a char­ac­ter who kills me! So I met my Star Wars neme­sis at a New Year’s Eve party!”

Saunders notes it’s pos­si­ble to be cyn­i­cal about the se­ries’ mer­chan­dis­ing and as­so­ci­ated palaver, but the num­ber of fans making cos­tumes or songs, web­sites or fan films is amaz­ing.

“Star Wars sparked, both at a pro­fes­sional level and at a hobby level, so much cre­ative ac­tiv­ity,” he says. Grif­fen agrees, not­ing the writ­ers on Clever

man re­ferred to the story beats on Em­pire and Yoda’s im­mor­tal line to Luke: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

“We would talk about the pro­gres­sion of the hero and for me Em­pire was very much like that, and it is very much the jour­ney of our hero in

Clev­er­man,” he says. The Star Wars films still res­onate and will likely con­tinue to set le­gions of peo­ple on their cre­ative paths. Sten­ders says Jaws, Star Wars and Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind, which were all re­leased in quick suc­ces­sion, “ba­si­cally changed my life and I re­alised [film­mak­ing] was what I wanted to do.”

Cress agrees. He ob­vi­ously hadn’t read Carl Jung or Camp­bell at the time, and Star Wars worked on him.

“I sup­pose my par­ents read books to me as a kid but I didn’t have a sense of sto­ry­telling on an epic scale un­til then — and all I’ve wanted to do since then is tell sto­ries,” he says. “And not go into space and kill aliens.”

The Block co-cre­ator Ju­lian Cress, above left, with ar­chi­tect

Ju­lian Brench­ley, whose ini­tial plans for the ren­o­va­tion of Mel­bourne’s Ho­tel Sav­ille in­cluded a pent­house shaped like the Mil­len­nium

Fal­con, right

Scenes from Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awak­ens, main pic­ture, and, from above left, the orig­i­nal 1977 film, The Em­pire Strikes Back and Re­turn of the Jedi

Be­fore it, there was noth­ing like it and af­ter it, ev­ery­thing has had a lit­tle bit of Star Wars in it

LAWRENCE LE­UNG

It’s a sex scene … And lit­tle vir­gin me sit­ting there not re­al­is­ing why I really did like it

TIM FER­GU­SON

Back in those days it was all about making your own things, us­ing broom­sticks and not buy­ing all the things

RYAN GRIF­FEN

Af­ter­wards ev­ery­one just used the hero myth for films. I kind of see them as the evil em­pire

JEREMY SIMS

Clock­wise from above, Steele Saunders with some of his star Wars mer­chan­dise; Peter May­hew and Har­ri­son Ford in Star Wars:

The Force Awak­ens; John Boyega with Daisy Ri­d­ley and Ford with Car­rie Fisher in scenes from the new film

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