The Forces Behind Jedi: Making Movie History Took Lucas & Co. to the Outer Limits
Amidst all the plot convolutions of who Princess Leia really is and who Luke's father really was, Return of the Jedi is stolen by the Ewoks, 40 little creatures in furry suits. Scaled-down versions of giant Wookiees, the plucky Ewoks reside on a jungle planet in harmony with their environment. The objects of moviegoers' affections, the Ewoks were the inspiration for jokes on the set of Jedi. How does an Ewok get across the road? It woks. What does an Ewok have in its ears? Ewax.
The 66 dwarfs and midgets who played the Ewoks generally kept to themselves during filming. Dwarfs were preferred for the roles because their limbs are not proportional and therefore look less like actors in costumes. There were in fact two separate groups of Ewoks: The English cast shot interiors at Elstree and an American cast did the outdoor sequences in Crescent City, Calif. Ranging from 2'11" to 4'8" in height, many of the little people had worked in the 1981 comedy Under the Rainbow, which starred Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, and they were known to Jedi's casting directors. When Jedi filming began, Fisher exclaimed, "Oh, no, not midgets again."
Always fascinated by anthropology, George Lucas had an active subplot about a Wookiee planet and culture in Star Wars, but prior to filming, he cut it out for the sake of pacing. He recycled that notion into Jedi's Ewok society. Lucas wanted to illustrate a lifelong belief that faith in a cause can help people overcome technologically superior opponents. He also wanted the Ewoks to be more approachable than the other aliens in his bestiary. "Keep them a little cuddly, so we want to hug them a little," he advised Jedi director Marquand. But when Lucas first saw the Ewok costumes, he thought they had a case of the "terminal cutes." The performers weren't thrilled, either. Recalls 3'4" Margarita Fernandez, 24, "When we first looked at each other as Ewoks, we thought 'Yuk.' Then they began to grow on us."
An adorable Ewok is also a marketable Ewok. Toys and other spin-offs from Star Wars films are a merchandising bonanza, and Lucasfilm has approved some 40 licenses for Jedi-related goods. The movie Ewoks were designed with an eye to having the appropriately furry 'n' fuzzy appeal to little consumers. Kenner Products plans to deliver the first shipment of stuffed Ewoks to toy stores late next month in plenty of time for the Christmas shopping season.
Although the degree of Ewok cute-ness was fine-tuned by makeup artist Stuart Freeborn and his staff, who built them from designs by visual effects director Joe Johnston, some technical problems could not be corrected. To Lucas' disappointment, the eyes and mouths of the Ewoks couldn't move independently, and, as a result, the creatures have a slightly wooden look.
Such flaws are invisible in the Ewoks' most thrilling scene: a rocket-scooter chase through a redwood forest. The effect was achieved with surprising simplicity. It was shot by a cameraman walking through the trees with the film turning at a very slow rate of speed. When the film was shown at normal speed, the motion was greatly accelerated—especially when intercut with shots of the scooters in flight.
For some Ewoks, who were paid a minimum of $298 a day for their troubles, such movie magic was hard to come by. "The costumes were like saunas," says Debbie Carrington, 23. "The wardrobe people were constantly bringing us Gatorade." For 3'10" Debbie, life as an Ewok had a happy ending. On the set she met 5'9" extra Bob Eslick, 21, who played a storm trooper. Last December, after graduating from the University of California at Davis, she moved to Los Angeles with Eslick. "He calls me his Ewok love," she says. Debbie is currently appearing as Alvin the Chipmunk in a traveling show for kids. "I'm now dancing to disco instead of creeping around on the forest floor," she observes.
The most compelling complaint about the Ewoks in Jedi is that the audience doesn't see enough of them. Margarita Fernandez, who has appeared as Birdie the Early Bird in McDonald's television commercials, can attest to their popularity. Six months ago, the license plate on her Toyota—EWOK 1—was merely a curious combination of letters. Now, she says, "when I'm driving down the freeway, it almost causes an accident."
Playing Chewbacca the Wookiee is a tall order
A 7'2" actor can't play just anyone. So Peter Mayhew was thrilled when the role of Chewbacca, Han Solo's simian sidekick, rolled his way. The oversize Englishman had only one previous acting credit, as a monster in 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, when a buddy recommended him to the Lucas team casting Star Wars. It was the start of a long and lucrative relationship. And an affectionate one—Mayhew is very fond of his Wookiee alter ego. "He's basically good and kind and looks after his group," says Mayhew, 39. "The only thing he can't do is talk."
Acting inside a latex mask and furry costume isn't the same as essaying Hamlet. But Mayhew attempts to convey Chewie's feelings through mime techniques. "The way I stand and the tilt of my head can convey tension, happiness, fear or anger," he explains. I've never had an acting lesson in my life. It's largely instinct. As soon as that Chewbacca mask goes on, my personality changes."
Mayhew's entree into show business was as unconventional as his size. Eight years ago he entered a Guinness Book of World Records contest for the biggest feet in Britain. Although a size 16 EEEE, Peter surprisingly didn't make the cut. However, a newspaper photograph of Mayhew caught the eye of the Sinbad casting director, who was looking for larger-than-life-size fellows to play ogres. Offered three months of location work in Spain and Malta, Mayhew leaped at the opportunity. Afterward, he says, "I thought, 'Great, this is what I was built for. This is what I want to do.' "
Ever since he started out as a 10-pound baby ("My weight was in the length, not in the girth"), Mayhew has found life "a bit of a problem." The only oversize member of his family, Peter grew up in Surrey, where his father was a policeman and his mother a housewife. Peter was 6' by the time he was 12 and his full height at 17. "I was growing at the rate of some two to three inches a year," he recalls. "I used to think, 'Oh God, how am I going to manage?' " Dropping out of school at 15, Peter held a variety of manual jobs. "Once I was a warehouseman, and it was one of the few jobs where my height was an advantage," he says. "When the high shelves needed stacking, they'd shout, 'We don't need a forklift. Just get Pete!' " His most rewarding pre-showbiz job was a 10-year stint as a hospital porter. "Not a lot of money," he says, "but if you do a job that you enjoy, that's half the battle."
Mayhew returned to his $90-a-week porter's post after finishing Sinbad, and then again after Star Wars, when his work as Chewbacca did not win him other roles. Because Lucas initially wanted to keep the people behind the characters a secret, "there was very little publicity for us," Peter says. When it came time for him to do The Empire Strikes Back, however, May-hew threw in his porter's towel for good. A tiny share of the enormous profits of Empire and Jedi has provided Mayhew with financial security. He owns a four-bedroom, chalet-style house just south of London, where he lives with girlfriend Gwen Davis, 35, a charity fund raiser. Although Chewbacca is beloved by children, Mayhew has none of his own. "That's an expense I can do without," he says of a family. "I love doing promotion work with children, but I do like to feel that once I shut my front door, nobody is going to come knocking."
Mayhew, who weighs 242 pounds, shed 15 pounds during the four months of filming each movie. He shot the desert scenes of Jedi in the 120° heat of Yuma while wearing a 25-pound woolly suit. "Between takes I'd turn into the wind with my arms in the air, like some shaggy windmill, to cool off." Since Chewie often gets physical, there were three identical costumes for Mayhew. "After a morning's shooting they could get a bit sweaty and smelly," he says. "They were then dry-cleaned, powdered and put back into service looking sleek and smooth."
Despite the difficulties, Mayhew has enjoyed making the trilogy. "It's like a family," he says. "It's a great atmosphere." One of his fondest memories is the shooting of the scenes with the Ewoks amid northern California's redwoods. "I'd get into the forest, look up, and the trees just went up and up and up," says Mayhew. "For once I felt very, very small."
The actor inside C-3PO yearns to break out
For the actor beneath the gold paint of C-3P0, life among the droids hasn't been all that glitters. "At the end of Star Wars, I was so unhappy that I really would have liked to smash the costume up with a sledgehammer," says Anthony Daniels, 37. "I think it would have been good for me to do it. I had an awful lot of hostility toward the costume and the character." Nor was the English actor thrilled with George Lucas' attitude. "I think George wishes that C-3PO really was a machine," snaps Daniels. "Performers are a problem for him."
During the planning stages of Star Wars, Lucas wanted to hire a different actor to deliver C-3PO's lines. "George didn't think a British accent would work," recalls sound expert Ben Burtt. The producer tried out radio ad announcer Stan Freeberg. Says Lucas, "I had wanted sort of a used-car dealer, a fast-talking guy with an American accent." Daniels managed to persuade Lucas that his English accent would be preferable. "I think only that sort of voice could do it," he says. "C-3P0 speaks with his eyebrow raised." Lucas' publicity restrictions on the actors who played monsters and robots riled Daniels. "It used to bother me that people didn't know what I did," he says. "Now my fan mail gets addressed to me. I'm thrilled, very uncool and excited if somebody recognizes me."
For Daniels, much of his frustration comes from the constricting 28-pound costume. Within C-3PO, Anthony feels like "a cross between a crippled person and a baby." For Return of the Jedi, Daniels was rewarded with a new, $300,000 costume made of lightweight plastic, fiberglass and aluminum, but even that did not solve all his problems. Daniels' big scene in Jedi comes when he recounts in pantomime the entire Star Wars saga for the worshipful Ewoks who surrounded him. A trained mime, Daniels rehearsed by himself for days, planning each gesture. But when it came time to film the scene, the actor was thwarted by the stiff, unbending costume. "The thing limits my arms, legs and head," he says. "It was an obstacle between what I wanted to say and what I could say. The scene works but it could have been a lot better."
The son of a plastics company executive, Daniels grew up in the countryside of Herefordshire. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but Daniels opted for acting, which caused a family rift that has only recently healed. Daniels has played a variety of roles on radio, television and the West End stage. With his Star Wars income, Anthony has purchased a three-bedroom house in London, where he lives alone. (He has a son, Christopher, 10, whom he declines to discuss.) Most of his friends work outside show business. "I have enough of actors during the day," he says. "I like to act, not talk about it or theorize about it. I couldn't live in Hollywood and have Daily Variety plopping through the door."
Of all the speaking characters in the Lucas trilogy, only C-3PO is slated to appear in additional installments of the saga. Having wrestled with his qualms about the role, Daniels is looking forward to the future. "It's taken seven years for me to feel proud of being in these films," he says. "Making Star Wars was agony, intellectually and physically. I feel good about Jedi."
Lucas and Marquand: a delicate balance
George Lucas considered directing Return of the Jedi himself. "I wanted to get it out of my system and finish the damn thing off, but I was stopped by the amount of work," he says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, my life is complicated enough.' " Instead he spent six weeks on the set, hovering behind Richard Marquand. (The project altogether took 92 days to film.) For Marquand, 41, directing Jedi was a bit like conducting a Beethoven symphony with the composer standing by the podium, but he insists that he didn't mind. "This is your myth," he told the 39-year-old Lucas.
In the first weeks of production, there was confusion over who really called the shots. Lucas sometimes suggested one pose to an actor, while Marquand was instructing the opposite. That caused understandable grumbles that Jedi had two directors. Lucas bristles at the criticism, but he admits he got "a little carried away" initially. "I wasn't really directing," he says. "Everybody loves going around saying that I'm directing. Occasionally, I'd put my two cents in, but not to anybody but Richard."
In the end, of course, things were usually done George's way. Notwithstanding his clout as the creator of the Jedi fable, Lucas financed the movie. "We were all very aware that this was George's money," understates coproducer Jim Bloom. Visual effects artist Joe Johnston observes that Lucas' designated "directors" on projects tend to be viewed as puppets. "It's just that George has such an influence that they have to be willing to accept his ideas and know that his is the right way to do it," Johnston explains.
When Lucas relinquished the director's chair the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, he selected Irwin (Loving) Kershner, an established director. Empire wound up $14.5 million over budget and several months behind schedule. For Jedi Lucas was looking for a lesser-known director whom he could more tightly control. With producer Howard Kazanjian, he came up with a list of 100 names and winnowed that down to 20. He then conducted preliminary interviews with those he didn't know, including Marquand, who recalls Lucas saying to him point-blank, "Hey, how would you feel about directing the next Star Wars?"
Lucas then reinterviewed a quartet of finalists. He also screened every film the contenders had directed, eager to see them at their worst as well as their best. Finally it came down to two men. Although Lucas refuses to identify the runner-up, it was reportedly Lamont Johnson, who directed another movie released this summer, the 3-D bomb, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.
Marquand at first found his assignment intimidating. But, he says, "when I met with George, I realized I had the qualities he was looking for." Lucas defends his caution in choosing a surrogate. "I didn't vow the Empire overruns wouldn't happen again. I just hoped they wouldn't."
Marquand was born in Wales, the son of a university professor. He attended King's College, Cambridge. After graduating, he tried professional acting and quickly grew disenchanted. "It really is a dog's life," he says. "I love actors, because I know how you feel in front of a bunch of people, making an idiot out of yourself." He soon found that he had a knack for making people relax in front of a camera. After directing the Emmy Award-winning In Search of the Nile, he made three feature-length films, most notably Eye of the Needle, based on Ken Follett's 1978 best-seller and starring Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Lucas praises Eye of the Needle as "a very tight, very clean, strong movie."
Directing 1983's monster movie (in two senses) certainly hasn't harmed Marquand's career. This month he began filming Until September, a Parisian love story starring Karen Allen. Lucas, on the other hand, is trying to take it easy. "I was haggard and wiped out after Jedi," he says. "I don't know why, but this film was as hard, if not harder, than the first one."
In June his 14-year marriage to Marcia Lucas, a leading film editor who worked on the trilogy, broke up. (The couple has decided upon joint custody of their adopted daughter, Amanda, 2.) Although George is based near San Francisco, Marcia wants to pursue her career in Los Angeles. The last thing Lucas wants to think about right now is the question on everyone's mind: Will there be more movies in the series? "There has to be a breakthrough technologically before I can afford to make more of these films," he says. "We're at the limits of what is feasible. Before we finished another trilogy, the films would cost $80 million apiece. There's got to be a better way."
For Jabba's master builder, making monsters is a way of life
He looks a bit like Yoda, which is no coincidence. Makeup wizard Stuart Freeborn peered in the mirror when he was designing the face of the 900-year-old sage, who returns briefly in Jedi. "I thought to myself, 'This guy's got to look highly intelligent,' so I thought about the most intelligent person in the world and decided Yoda needed Einstein's look about his eyes," says Freeborn, 68. "Then I looked at myself and decided that I was comic, with all these little knobbles. So I built myself in. Yoda is a combination of Albert Einstein and myself."
A veteran of 180 films, Freeborn considers Jedi's villainous Jabba the Hutt to be one of his greatest achievements. With five assistants (whom he is quick to credit), he spent about six months creating the 600-pound mass of latex blubber. (Jabba was designed by visual effects wiz Joe Johnston, and creature design supervisor Phil Tippett constructed the prototype.) Unlike Yoda, who was only two feet high, Jabba measures 18 feet from top to tail. The creature was too large to fit in the casting oven at Elstree studios, so a whole room was converted into an oven to bake the latex in a mold.
George Lucas calls Jabba "The Godfather in this movie," but getting him to do his dirty work was no easy task. In action, Jabba has eyes that roll like billiard balls, a tail that swats restlessly and green goo oozing from his nose and mouth. It took four puppeteers to operate the bloblike villain, from inside Jabba, David Barclay operated an arm and the jaw. Toby Philpott controlled head movements and the other arm. Michael Quinn regulated Jabba's grimaces, and Michael Edmonds, a dwarf, operated the tail. Since none of the men could see outside the monster, coordinating Jabba's movements was difficult. Two puppeteers were supplied with small TV monitors to orchestrate the monster's emoting.
Freeborn says he modeled Jabba after a creature he came upon at home. "I saw a slug in a corner of my workshop in the garden," Freeborn says. "I kept watching it. I wanted to get that sliminess." Although there were seven Yodas made for different purposes, there was—thankfully—only one Jabba.
The Star Wars trilogy is the high point of Freeborn's illustrious career. Son of a prominent London businessman, Stuart was first attracted to acting but decided he had no talent for it. He went into makeup in 1936 after illustrating his prowess by aging his own face. His creative work appeared in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, on which he toiled for more than two years. His wife, Kathleen, whom he married in 1939, is also a makeup artist (she was one of his assistants on the trilogy), and one of their three sons has entered the profession. Freeborn works out of a studio at the bottom of his garden in a London suburb. He keeps an assortment of the artificial heads he has constructed, including one of David Warner which was severed in The Omen. "Makeup work is still so fascinating," he exults. "I love every minute of it." Best of all is creating monsters, such as 200 aliens for Jedi, although only 75 were used. "Every one is a challenge, never done before," he explains. "This is where you get the satisfaction. We haven't been stymied yet."
Neither has George Lucas. And although he professes to temporary disinterest in the continuation of the series, his colleagues are more optimistic. "It would be sinful in my mind not to continue," says Lucasfilm president Robert Greber. "But it's also sinful for one man to dedicate his life to one story." And Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz observes, "Even if George goes off and does other things, the overall look and feel will be his." True believers in the Jedi legend insist that Lucas will come through with more mythmaking. The Force is with him. And so is the box office.
Written by Arthur Lubow; reported in London by Jerene Jones, Terry Smith and Raina Brook; in San Francisco by Maria Wilhelm, and in Los Angeles by Dale Pollock, author of Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas