It wasn’t stubbornness on the part of the droid—a trait that would endear the character to millions of Star Wars fans around the world. Rather, as the first day of filming began on Star Wars in the Tunisian desert on the morning of March 22, 1976, R2-D2 wouldn’t work. His batteries were already dead.
The little droid wasn’t the only one with a problem. Several other robots, operated via remote control by crew members standing just out of sight of the movie camera, were also malfunctioning. Some fell over, others never moved at all, while still others had their signals scrambled by Arabic radio broadcasts bouncing off the desert floor, sending them careening wildly out of control across the sand or crashing into one another. “The robots would go bananas, bumping into each other, falling down, breaking,” said Mark Hamill, the sun-washed twenty-four-year-old actor playing hero Luke Skywalker. “It took hours to get them set up again.”
The movie’s director, a brooding, bearded thirty-one-year-old Californian named George Lucas, simply waited. If a robot worked properly, even for a moment, Lucas would shoot as much footage of it as he possibly could until the droid sputtered to a stop. Other times, he’d have a malfunctioning unit pulled along by invisible wire, until the wire broke or the droid fell over. It didn’t matter anyhow; Lucas planned to fix everything in the editing room. It was where he preferred to be anyway, as opposed to squinting through a film camera in the middle of the desert.
It was the first of what would be eighty-four long, excruciating days filming Star Wars—twenty days severely over-schedule. And the shoot was a disaster almost from the beginning. “I was very depressed about the whole thing,” Lucas said.
Lucas’s misery was due partly to the fact that he felt he had already lost control of his own film. He laid the blame at the feet of parsimonious executives at 20th Century Fox, who had nickel-and-dimed him every step of the way, denying him the money he needed to ensure that everything worked. But the suits at Fox were skeptical; science fiction, they insisted, was a dead genre, and the necessary props, costumes, and special effects were expensive. As far as the studio was concerned, Lucas could get by on a shoestring budget, and simply fix his robot problems as he went along. “It was purely a case of Fox not putting up the money until it was too late,” seethed Lucas. “Every day we would lose an hour or so due to those robots, and we wouldn’t have lost that time if we’d had another six weeks to finish them and test them and have them working before we started.”
It wasn’t just the remote-control robots that were giving him trouble. Anthony Daniels, a classically trained, very British actor who’d been cast in the role of the protocol droid C-3PO, was miserable inside his ill-fitting, gleaming gold plastic costume, and unable to see or hear much of anything. With every movement he was poked or cut—“covered in scars and scratches,” he sighed—and when he fell over, as he often did, he could only wait for someone on the crew to notice and help him to his feet. Within the first week of filming, Daniels despaired that he would ever complete the movie in one piece. “It was very, very difficult getting things to work,” Lucas said later. “The truth is that the robots didn’t work at all. Threepio works very painfully.… I couldn’t get Artoo to go more than a few feet without running into something.… Everything was a prototype… like, ‘Gee, we’re going to build this—we have no money, but have to try to make this work. But nothing really worked.” Lucas vowed he’d never cede control over his films to executives at the studios again. What did they know about filmmaking? “They tell people what to do without reason,” Lucas complained. “Sooner or later, they decided they know more about making movies than directors. Studio heads. You can’t fight them because they’ve got the money.”
George Lucas: A Life (prologue) // by Brian Ray Jones
I’m only in the prologue of this book and already I’m fascinated and this is a really illuminating opening to help a person understand why George was really, really determined to keep control of his movies.
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