Friday, May 4, 2018

May the Fourth Be With You (as you battle beyond the stars)

I didn’t realize until recently that May 4 is a new American holiday. Yes, it’s Star Wars Day (as in “May the fourth be with you” – it helps if you lisp). Hard to believe it’s been more than forty years since Luke Skywalker first picked up a lightsaber and Han Solo piloted the Millennium Falcon into our hearts. Since then, the Star War universe has become crowded with oddly-named characters, Disneyland has added some new attractions, and George Lucas has evolved into a very rich man.

I’ve never pretended that futuristic fantasy is my favorite genre. Still, the success of the original Star Wars (1977) inspired my former boss to shift gears in a big way. Since he launched his own production and distribution company, New World Pictures, in 1970, Roger Corman had always favored down-and-dirty genre films that could be shot quickly and cheaply, mostly on the streets of L.A. To a high degree, his movies depended on the energy that came from capturing life in the raw. But Star Wars changed all that. Suddenly Roger, always quick to capitalize on trends in the making, saw the advantage of owning a studio, the better to create special effects and launch a space opera of his own.

Roger’s minions spied out a promising piece of land, half of a city block, on Main Street in Venice, California. For years it had been the Hammond Lumber Yard. Because the site was only three blocks from the Pacific Ocean, it fell under the purview of the California Coastal Commission, then comprised of aging hippies who were deathly afraid of gentrification. After much wrangling, the group issued an ultimatum: that New World pledge not to modernize the buildings’ shabby exteriors, nor to improve their looks in any way. Almond, a savvy negotiator, looked grave, then promised to see what he could do, in exchange for major concessions on other points. Says he, “I went back to Roger and said, ‘I can close the deal but there’s one really onerous condition. We can’t modernize the outside of the buildings.’ Roger looked at me, I looked at him, and we just burst into laughter.” The joke, of course, is that Roger Corman is not a man to squander money on décor. For years the Hammond Lumber sign remained in place, and the occasional visitor would wander by in search of a two-by-four.

Roger’s attempt at Star Wars turned out to be a proving ground for several major talents. The script for Battle Beyond the Stars, a sort of outer-space variant on Akira Kurosawa’s timeless Seven Samurai, was crafted by a young writer named John Sayles, eager to move from writing magazine stories to making his way in the film industry. One day another newbie showed up, promoting a front-projection camera rig he’d designed to accommodate special-effects shots. Corman was unimpressed with his results, but James Cameron rebounded into the position of model maker, and then art director, devising sets out of little more than foamcore, hot glue, gaffer’s tape, and spraypaint. He had everyone collecting Styrofoam containers from McDonald’s hamburgers: when spraypainted silver, these looked impressive lining the walls of a spacecraft corridor. One Corman assistant describes how “if the actors should turn around quickly and slam into the wall, the whole thing would crumble.” That’s when Cormanites had to start eating more hamburgers.

Sayles and Cameron may have been bound for success, but not so the film’s director. An experienced production designer, he could not cope with actors and on-set complications. That’s when Roger himself quietly stepped in to direct the director.

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