George Lucas and the Curse of the Fan Film
No corner of fandom is as well populated or vocal as that dedicated to George Lucas, whose devotees have spent the past few decades rewatching and even re-creating his films. For many, their childhood was synonymous with his Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, and when the latest installments went astray, fans did not hold their tongues. This CultureMap explores the tumultuous relationship between Lucas and the fan filmmakers who can’t help but love him.
George Lucas’s first film was the dystopian sci-fi drama THX 1138 (1971), a box-office dud despite some critical praise. His second was the nostalgic American Graffiti (1973), a smash with critics and audiences alike. But nothing could have prepared Lucas for the cultural tsunami following his third movie, 1977’s Star Wars, and its 1980 and 1983 sequels. An entire generation was swept up in the struggle between the ragtag Rebel Alliance and the evil Galactic Empire. In the movies’ wake came a flood of merchandise and spin-offs: comic books, T-shirts, TV specials, Halloween costumes, novels and, starting in 1999, three much-maligned prequels—all controlled by an empire in itself, the production company Lucasfilm.
Lucas’s space opera has also inspired thousands of fans to re-create and sometimes entirely reimagine the Star Wars movies. One acclaimed fan film is Casey Pugh’s 2009 crowdsourced Star Wars Uncut, an unauthorized remake of the first Star Wars film. Pugh divided the original into 473 scenes and invited fans to redo each 15-second clip. The response was overwhelming, the result a captivating mishmash of live-action, animation, Claymation, stop-motion and creative use of a Twitter feed. The film won a 2010 Emmy for interactive media.
George Lucas once seemed destined to become the most beloved filmmaker of all time. The force behind two of the most successful trilogies ever, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Lucas captured the imagination—and discretionary income—of a whole generation that spent its childhood brandishing toy lightsabers and bullwhips. For more than two decades, Lucas’s only misstep was the universally derided comedy Howard the Duck (1986).
Then, in 1997, came the “special edition” release of the Star Wars trilogy, in which Lucas reedited not just the films but the entire Star Wars cosmos. The People vs. George Lucas presents the “evidence” against the director: Among fans’ most hated alterations are Darth Vader’s pathetic final “Noooo!” in Return of the Jedi and the retaliatory gunfire in Star Wars that begat the “Han shot first!” controversy. Also condemned are the prequels, starting with 1999’s Phantom Menace. Lucas’s fans—at least the oldest, now adults—were shocked by the slapstick comedy of Jar Jar Binks and appalled that Lucas would reduce the mystical Force to a by-product of symbiotic microorganisms called midi-chlorians. As this documentary demonstrates, some fans feel Lucas has stolen away the very childhood fantasies he once gave them.
The People vs. George Lucas presents a large ensemble of fans who think Lucas—like Anakin Skywalker, hero of the Star Wars prequels and villain of the later episodes—has lost his way. How else to explain the awful storytelling in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones?
Some fans would happily forgive all if Lucas would rerelease the first three films in their “flawless” original theatrical versions. Instead, Lucasfilm claimed the negatives were destroyed during production of the 1997 reissues. The company seemed to backtrack in 2008, with a box set that included the originals—but in a poor-quality form few found satisfying.
For others, the only adequate response to Lucas’s waning star is to fix the films by themselves. One fan, “Adywan,” made some 250 edits to the 2004 Star Wars DVD reissue, including improvements to the soundtrack, color and CGI. Another fan recut The Phantom Menace (as The Phantom Edit) and received widespread media coverage for his deft removal of Jar Jar Binks, some of the film’s worst exposition and all mention of the hated midi-chlorians. More recently actor Topher Grace (That ’70s Show, Spider-Man 3) condensed all thee prequels into a slim 85-minute nail-biter.
George Lucas grew up with a yen for fast cars and photography. After a short stint at a community college in his hometown of Modesto, California, he enrolled in the University of Southern California film school, where he developed a passion for experimental film and became friends with people who would become some of his most important collaborators, including renowned film editor Walter Murch. Lucas’s first film, THX 1138 (1971), began as a student film cowritten with Murch.
In “George Lucas in Love,” director Joe Nussbaum parodies this formative period of Lucas’s life. A riff on 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, the comedic short depicts a young Lucas suffering through an epic case of writer’s block as he tries to finish a script about space farmers. When he falls for a young woman with Princess Leia’s iconic dual-cinnamon-bun hair, she tells him to “write what you know.” Suddenly the budding filmmaker sees what the audience has known all along—that the USC campus is rife with the real-life models for many Star Wars characters. “George Lucas in Love” won several awards and at least briefly outsold The Phantom Menace on Amazon.com, even though the short was available online for free.
In 1977 George Lucas sat on a Hawaiian beach with his filmmaker friend Steven Spielberg, basking in the news that Star Wars had sold out theaters nationwide. Lucas pitched Spielberg a new project, and four years later they released Raiders of the Lost Ark. Set in 1936, the movie follows a brash archaeologist (played by Star Wars antihero Harrison Ford) hunting for the lost Ark of the Covenant, with a group of Nazis hot on his trail. Raiders broke box-office records and was followed by two popular sequels—and, in 2008, a much-derided one.
Raiders also caught the attention of preteens Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, who in 1982 began remaking the entire film shot-for-shot. The Mississippi moviemakers, soon joined by friend Jayson Lamb, had few resources but nonetheless spent eight summers painstakingly producing what Wired magazine has unironically called “the greatest fan film ever made.” It premiered in 1989 at a local auditorium and was soon forgotten; years later, however, a copy ended up in the hands of actor-director Eli Roth, who in 2002 showed it at an Austin film festival. Soon the fanboys (now men) were fielding their own fan letters—one from Spielberg himself.
Fan films come in many forms: spoofs, spin-offs, reedits. Then there’s Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a shot-for-shot remake of the 1981 blockbuster. Three Mississippi teens spent eight summers on the homespun project, and its production details are humorous and touching. The hero flees from a fiberglass boulder made by a local shipbuilder, a dog stands in for love interest Marion’s monkey sidekick, and, in playing Marion, a local girl experienced her first kiss (and the star’s), on-screen or otherwise. When the young filmmakers attempted to shoot a bar fight scene but nearly set a basement on fire, their parents briefly shut down production. Today the movie is a classic of the fan-film genre.
Jamie Benning makes yet another kind of fan film: the “filmumentary.” He wanted to create more captivating DVD commentary, so with no money and relying heavily on fan-contributed material, he spent a year compiling Building Empire, a riveting encyclopedia of everything Empire Strikes Back. The flick was an immediate hit, and Benning later made filmumentaries of Return of the Jedi (Returning to Jedi), A New Hope (Star Wars Begins) and most recently Raiders of the Lost Ark (Raiding the Lost Ark).
One typically thinks of a fan film as an amateur production. Isn’t a professionally produced fan film just another remake? Yet on TV’s animated series Family Guy, what are the Star Wars spoofs if not expensive homages made by one of Lucas’s biggest fanboys, Seth McFarlane?
Family Guy aired its first Star Wars parody, “Blue Harvest,” in 2007. In the episode, patriarch Peter Griffin entertains his family during a power outage by retelling, in his own uniquely irreverent way, the story of the then 30-year-old classic Star Wars. In Peter’s fantasy version, his wife, Lois, stands in as Princess Leia; the family dog, Brian, is Chewbacca; sons Stewie and Chris are Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, respectively; and Peter plays handsome Han Solo. The send-up was followed by an Empire Strikes Back spoof in 2010 (“Something, Something, Something, Dark Side”) and a retelling of Return of the Jedi in 2011 (“It’s a Trap!”). All three episodes are collected on the Family Guy DVD set Laugh It Up, Fuzzball, named for an iconic line Solo speaks to his furry sidekick, Chewbacca, in the 1977 Star Wars.
There are Star Wars fan films and then there are films made by Star Wars fans, few of whom are as passionate as director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma). Smith references the trilogy in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), but in his first feature, Clerks (1994), disaffected protagonists Dante and Randal debate which movie is better, The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. Though brash Randal considers it “blasphemy,” whiny Dante prefers Empire, explaining,“It ends on such a down note. And that’s what life is, a series of down endings.”
The conversation turns to the two Death Stars in the series. Randal is okay with the destruction of the first, as it would have been occupied by stormtroopers and other villains, but he’s less enthusiastic about the destruction of the second, which was still under construction and, by his estimation, was full of “plumbers, aluminum siders [and] roofers.”
“All those innocent contractors,” Randal laments, “were killed—casualties of a war they had nothing to do with.” Perhaps this is the sign of a true fan, someone so engrossed by a movie’s imaginative cosmos that he can’t help but consider the soundness of its moral universe.