Star Wars pro­ducer clashed with Lu­cas

The Southland Times - - Obituaries -

The sur­vey cards filled out by the test au­di­ence were not uni­formly pos­i­tive. ‘‘I have one still framed,’’ Gary Kurtz re­called. ‘‘This guy – I think he’s 22 years old – he said, ‘This is the worst film I’ve seen since Godzilla ver­sus the Smog Mon­ster.’ ’’

The movie was Star Wars and Kurtz was its pro­ducer and the cre­ative part­ner of Ge­orge Lu­cas, the di­rec­tor. While confident that the film would woo enough sci­encefic­tion fans to re­coup its $11 mil­lion bud­get, Kurtz fret­ted that it would not have main­stream ap­peal.

When film­go­ers were still lin­ing up out­side cinemas two weeks af­ter its re­lease in 1977, ‘‘we re­alised that we had the po­ten­tial of do­ing bet­ter than we thought’’, he re­called in his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally low-key man­ner.

Star Wars took $775m at the global box of­fice, cre­at­ing a multi­bil­lion-dollar fran­chise and a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. Kurtz re­ceived a cool $25m in resid­u­als within two years of the re­lease of the film.

Far from a stereo­typ­i­cal brash and os­ten­ta­tious Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer, Kurtz stud­ied re­li­gion, had an Amish-style beard, was pen­sive and gently spo­ken; one friend com­pared him to the wise Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

He made no­table con­tri­bu­tions to the vi­su­als, sto­ries, di­a­logue and lore of Star Wars, in­clud­ing the core con­cept of ‘‘the Force’’. He did not al­ways see eye-to-eye with Lu­cas, how­ever, and they split af­ter the se­quel, The Em­pire Strikes Back


Kurtz met Lu­cas, a fel­low Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia film school grad­u­ate, in the early 1970s through a mu­tual friend, the di­rec­tor Francis Ford Cop­pola, who pro­duced Lu­cas’ di­rec­to­rial de­but fea­ture, THX 1138 (1971), an Or­wellian vi­sion of the fu­ture.

Kurtz and Lu­cas first col­lab­o­rated on Amer­i­can Graf­fiti

(1973), a nos­tal­gic com­ing-of-age com­edy set in the early 1960s with a bud­get of $750,000. It be­came ex­cep­tion­ally prof­itable and took $140m at the box of­fice.

With lim­ited re­sources, the Star Wars shoot had to be fast and or­gan­ised, al­though some of the ac­tors were un­ruly. Kurtz said he re­buked a pre-star­dom Har­ri­son Ford when the ac­tor, who would later por­tray Han Solo, showed up to shoot a driv­ing scene while ex­ces­sively re­freshed. ‘‘Don’t show up like this again,’’ Kurtz warned.

Lu­cas and Kurtz had failed to buy the rights to the Flash Gor­don comic strip in 1971, but they were still ea­ger to make a sci­ence-fic­tion ‘‘space opera’’. Af­ter a re­jec­tion from Univer­sal Pic­tures they suc­cess­fully pitched Star Wars to 20th Cen­tury Fox, al­though the stu­dio took some per­suad­ing over the cost of the spe­cial ef­fects. The screen­play drafts, Kurtz later con­ceded, were ‘‘gob­bledy­gook’’.

Tap­ping into his aca­demic in­ter­est in re­li­gion, Kurtz de­vel­oped an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of the Star Wars uni­verse, the con­cept of ‘‘the Force’’, with Lu­cas.

The two men spun a me­dieval Chris­tian bless­ing, ‘‘May God go with you’’, into one of the film’s most cel­e­brated lines, ‘‘May the Force be with you.’’

The film won seven Academy Awards, but lost out to Woody Allen’s An­nie Hall in the best pic­ture cat­e­gory.

Kurtz di­rected the sec­ond unit on the crit­i­cally lauded The Em­pire Strikes Back, tak­ing over from John Barry, who col­lapsed and died from menin­gi­tis dur­ing film­ing. His death was one of sev­eral set­backs for the pro­duc­tion and Lu­cas blamed Kurtz for go­ing over bud­get as the shoot dragged on. Their clashes in­cluded a dis­agree­ment over a glitch-rid­den shot of the Mil­len­nium Fal­con land­ing, with Lu­cas con­cerned that there was not enough time to per­fect the spe­cial ef­fects, but Kurtz suc­cess­fully in­sist­ing it be done again.

Cre­ative dif­fer­ences emerged be­fore the third film, Re­turn of the Jedi (1983), and Kurtz wanted a fresh chal­lenge. ‘‘[Lu­cas] changed the story out­line for Jedi and we had a kind of mu­tual part­ing of the ways, be­cause I just didn’t want to do an­other at­tack on the Death Star,’’ he told the au­thor Chris Tay­lor in 2014.

Mark Hamill, who played Luke Sky­walker, is said to have re­marked it was ‘‘like mom and dad get­ting a di­vorce’’.

Kurtz claimed that Lu­cas grew ob­sessed with thrills af­ter the suc­cess of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the 1981 Steven Spiel­berg ad­ven­ture film with Ford as In­di­ana Jones, a char­ac­ter cre­ated by Lu­cas. ‘‘He be­came con­vinced that all the au­di­ence was in­ter­ested in was the roller­coaster ride, and so the story and the script didn’t mat­ter any more,’’ Kurtz said in an in­ter­view with IGN.

Un­der­whelmed by the pre­quel tril­ogy (1999-2005), The Phan­tom Men­ace, At­tack of the Clones and

Re­venge of the Sith, Kurtz ac­cused the stu­dio, Lu­cas­film, of be­ing more in­ter­ested in mer­chan­dis­ing rev­enue than in the qual­ity of its films. ‘‘They make three times as much on toys as they do on films,’’ he told the Los An­ge­les Times in 2010.

‘‘It’s nat­u­ral to make de­ci­sions that pro­tect the toy busi­ness, but that’s not the best thing for mak­ing qual­ity films. The first film and

Em­pire were about story and char­ac­ter, but I could see that Ge­orge’s pri­or­i­ties were chang­ing.’’

Lu­cas to­day has an es­ti­mated net worth in ex­cess of $5 bil­lion.

Kurtz joked that he would like to work with Lu­cas again, but only on a story about two peo­ple on a pic­nic in the coun­try ‘‘with no ro­bots or wind ma­chines’’.

Gary Dou­glas Kurtz was born and brought up in Los An­ge­les, the son of Eldo Kurtz, an en­gi­neer from Iowa, and his wife, Sara (nee Briar), an in­te­rior de­signer. He mar­ried Mered­ith Al­sup in 1963. She planned the wrap party for The Em­pire Strikes Back; they di­vorced in 1983. A sec­ond mar­riage the fol­low­ing year, to Roberta Jimenez, a tele­vi­sion pro­ducer, ended in di­vorce in 1992.

He was mar­ried again, in 2003, to Clare Gabriel, who sur­vives him with two chil­dren from his first mar­riage – Melissa, a pro­duc­tion man­ager and pro­ducer, and Tif­fany, a film ed­i­tor – and a son, Dy­lan, from his sec­ond mar­riage. The young Tif­fany and Melissa had small roles in Star Wars as diminu­tive hooded fig­ures known as Jawas.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from film school in 1963, Kurtz worked in a va­ri­ety of roles for Roger Cor­man, a di­rec­tor dubbed the ‘‘B-movie king’’. In the mid-60s he was an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor on Ride in the Whirl­wind, a western star­ring an up-and-com­ing ac­tor named Jack Ni­chol­son, and he worked on two sci­ence fic­tion films fea­tur­ing Basil Rath­bone, Queen of Blood and Voy­age to the Pre­his­toric Planet.

In 1966 he put his Hol­ly­wood am­bi­tions on hold when he was drafted into the US Marine Corps – film­ing, rather than fight­ing. A con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, the pis­tol in his hol­ster had no bul­lets dur­ing his time in Vietnam.

Af­ter The Em­pire Strikes Back

he sated his de­sire for a new chal­lenge by col­lab­o­rat­ing with Jim Hen­son, the cre­ator of The Mup­pets, as pro­ducer and sec­ond unit di­rec­tor of The Dark Crys­tal

(1982), a tech­ni­cally com­plex fan­tasy with an­i­ma­tronic char­ac­ters that gained a cult fol­low­ing. In 1989 he re­united with Hamill for a poorly re­ceived postapoc­a­lyp­tic yarn, Slip­stream.

Kurtz knew Bri­tain well: Star Wars and The Em­pire Strikes Back

were mainly shot at El­stree Stu­dios in Hert­ford­shire. He moved to Eng­land and spent half a mil­lion pounds buy­ing and ren­o­vat­ing a home in Buck­ing­hamshire, but en­dured an ac­ri­mo­nious and costly di­vorce from his first wife.

It was re­ported in 1986 that four homes he owned in Cal­i­for­nia and an­other in Bri­tish Columbia had been seized by an Amer­i­can bank.

That year a bank­ruptcy court in Lon­don heard that his roy­al­ties from Star Wars and The Em­pire Strikes Back amounted to mil­lions of pounds, but that he owed £3.3m af­ter in­vest­ing in flops such as Re­turn to Oz (1985), as well as a failed pub­lish­ing busi­ness.

Kurtz, then liv­ing near Primrose Hill in north Lon­don, told the court that he had only £100 in as­sets.

In later life, Kurtz pro­duced sev­eral low-bud­get, in­de­pen­dent films. In May this year he re­vealed his in­volve­ment in a forth­com­ing film about the El­iz­a­bethan play­wright and poet, Christo­pher Mar­lowe.

He was among the pro­duc­ers of 5-25-77, a com­ing-of-age story. The ti­tle refers to May 25, 1977: the day Star Wars was re­leased in Amer­ica. – The Times

‘‘I just didn’t want to do an­other at­tack on the Death Star.’’ Gary Kurtz, above, on why he parted com­pany with Star Wars di­rec­tor Ge­orge Lu­cas


Co-pro­ducer Gary Kurtz, left, and di­rec­tor Ge­orge Lu­cas on the set of the film Amer­i­can Graf­fiti in 1973. It was the pair’s first col­lab­o­ra­tion.

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