“The reports have been so gratuitous that I have tended to take them with a grain of salt,” wrote Peter S. Myers, an executive at 20th Century Fox, in a 1976 memo to his bosses about the buzz on a movie in production called Star Wars. One studio head had seen a cut with no music or special effects and “just flipped, claiming it is the best movie he has ever seen.” Some other early viewers, according to Myers, raved “that the picture has a look never seen on the screen before.” His conclusion: “Opinion makers and the public will be electrified and it is quite possible Star Wars will emerge the all time box-office champion.”
This prescient document about the 1977 space opera that did end up smashing box-office records comes to mind when reading about the recent rumors surrounding Rogue One, the Star Wars film scheduled for release in December 2016. Page Six reports that an early cut of the film isn’t testing well, and Disney has ordered four weeks of reshoots in July. Headlines with the words “crisis,” “bad,” and “panic” have ensued.
Two competing and purely speculative narratives have taken root in fans’ mind over this development. Rogue One is a standalone spinoff story about Rebel spies stealing Death Star plans before the events of A New Hope; its director, Gareth Edwards, known primarily for an indie creature feature before he led 2014’s surprisingly visionary Godzilla reboot, has promised a harrowing, Force-less war film “about the fact that God’s not coming to save us.” But after the crowd-pleasing heroics of The Force Awakens dominated box offices worldwide, has Disney decided a darker, scarier, film-geek-friendly Star Wars experience is too risky a move? Or has the relatively inexperienced Edwards simply not brought the pieces of a would-be-tentpole movie together with sufficient finesse?
Another possibility is that people should relax: Mixed reviews of rough cuts, and expensive reshoots, are typical of blockbuster filmmaking—as is demonstrated amply by the Star Wars franchise itself.
The ecstatic 1976 memo mentioned above was written during a time at 20th Century Fox otherwise defined by “skepticism on the part of the board of directors and some of the executive team” towards Lucas’s efforts, according to StarWars.com. Indeed, it seems for every tale of hype for the first Star Wars, you can counter with a tale of naysaying. As recounted in an excerpt of Dale Pollock’s Skywalking —The Life and Films of George Lucas, Lucas at one point showed a version of the film to a group of his friends, including Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and the Time magazine film critic Jay Cocks. The reception was cold:
No one said anything at the movie’s completion. Lucas admitted the film needed work, but he was unprepared for the merciless assault that followed. Brian De Palma was especially sarcastic in a good-natured way, teasing Lucas about the “almighty Force” and indicating that the rough-cut version of the film was one of the worst things he had ever seen. Gloria Katz remembers, “Brian has a very wicked sense of humor and oh, he was so cruel.” It was not one of Lucas’s happier evenings.
Those who didn’t criticize Star Wars expressed sympathy. “They were all my real close friends and they felt sorry for me more than anything else. There were a lot of condolences, which is even worse than saying you didn’t like the movie,” Lucas recalls. Only Spielberg and Cocks reacted with enthusiasm—at dinner, they sat on one side of the table praising Star Wars, while De Palma faced them and made snide suggestions. “George didn’t lose his appetite, that’s the one thing I remember,” Spielberg says. “He kept eating his dinner, nodding his head, taking it all in. But I don’t believe he made any changes.” Lucas let De Palma and Cock rewrite the opening crawl, which he then modified. Other than that, he was resigned to the failure of Star Wars: “I figured, well, it’s just a silly movie. It ain’t going to work.”
Pre-release audience research also found “robots didn’t test well, nor did the science-fiction label Fox had stuck on the movie.” (Purported images of the survey that viewers might have filled out are amusing today—evidently, Annie Hall has something to do with Darth Vader).
While Fox would only give Lucas $20,000 to reshoot the cantina scene during creation of the first film, post-production became an increasingly important part of the Star Wars creative process as the franchise expanded. Reshoots on The Empire Strikes Back reportedly fed into tension between Lucas and the producer Gary Kurtz. Lucas, controversially, revised portions of the first trilogy for its ’90s rerelease. And one explanation for the woodenness of acting in the prequels was that the performers would frequently record dialogue that would be dubbed into scenes they’d filmed months earlier. Even with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has been open about rejiggering the plot of the film during the editing process. For example, a character who’d been announced in earlier marketing barely ended up on screen, and Maz Kanata’s role was greatly reduced.
Star Wars has so thoroughly come to stand for the idea that the first round of shooting is a rough draft that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has invoked the series when explaining why each Avengers-related film has a two-week window of reshooting built into its production schedule. Of course, one common criticism of his movies and of The Force Awakens is that the editing seams can be too easy to detect. But Rogue One fans, for their own anxiety’s sake, may want to take the same lesson from Star Wars history that Feige has: “You’ve heard about those famous early screenings where people were like, ‘Poor George. His career is over.’ That brings great solace to me when we screen our movies for the first time and they’re terrible and they’re a big mess. I remind myself to get calm and proceed.”
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