Having spent more than a dozen years being intimately involved with the Star Wars franchise, you might imagine that someone like me could become a bit jaded. Like most of the known world in 1977 when the original film debuted, I instantly became a Star Wars fan. I was six days shy of my 15th birthday when I want with some friends to see Star Wars (or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as it is called now) for the very first time. I remember it vividly.
We had gone to the Coronet Theater on Geary Boulvard in San Francisco, just about my favorite movie house in the entire SF Bay Area. My friends and I knew virtually nothing about the film. I had seen the now famous “Somewhere in space this may all be happening right now…” trailer for the movie about a month earlier with my father while at a different theater across town that had a much smaller screen. A laughably smaller screen. A screen that didn’t even do the trailer justice. Be that as it may, I realized immediately this was no ordinary sci-fi flick. Apart from that initial trailer (which I had only seen once) I came across a set of 11″x14″ lobby cards for Star Wars at one of my regular haunts, a funky little store in the heart of the city called The Cinema Shop which sold original movie posters, lobby cards, and 8×10 stills. I went there often to browse their selection of Japanese monster movie posters and Hammer Studios horror film memorabilia. Soon after seeing the Star Wars trailer I came across the set of lobby cards for the movie at that shop. I held them in my hands and studied each of the images carefully until I heard the shop manager ask politely, yet impatiently, “You gonna buy those or what?” Short on cash, I chose “or what” and decided not to buy them. (Oops.)
But that was the extent of my knowledge of Star Wars when my buddies and I got into that unbelievably long line in front of the Coronet Theater that June afternoon in 1977. Well, I did know one other thing about Star Wars…everybody and their mama wanted to see it! It had only been in theaters for three weeks and it was already a phenomenon and a box office sensation. That day the line we got in stretched down the street for nearly three blocks, and that was only the line to get tickets. Once we paid for our admission we had to stand in an equally long line, twisting around the other side of the theater, to wait to get inside. Despite the throngs of people there that day to view the movie I somehow managed to get what I believe was the very best seat in the cinema. I will chalk it up to divine intervention because I certainly wasn’t trying. The house lights dimmed, the 20th Century Fox fanfare played, and then ten words appeared on the screen that changed my world forever…
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
My life has never been the same since. Everything that I have been able to do professionally as a performer & artist was set in motion at that very moment. I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. All these things that I had been fascinated with since I was a small child – acting, drawing, puppetry, model building, writing, costuming, magic, animation, filmmaking, make-up, effects – all came together right then and there for me. I looked up at the screen as Star Wars washed over me and I declared inside my heart, “I want to do THAT for a living!” And so I did.
Now mind you, it was a bit of a journey trying to get to that point where I was doing “THAT” professionally, and “THAT” didn’t necessarily mean actually working on a Star Wars project. At the time I didn’t know if there was going to be any other Star Wars projects. For me “THAT” represented the cinematic creativity and inventiveness of George Lucas’ film. I wanted to take all the interests I had in life and combine them together into creative storytelling projects and Star Wars proved to me it could be done.
Like most everyone, I became a Star Wars fanatic. Bought the toys, the T-shirts, the bubblegum cards, etc. and filled my bedroom with Star Wars posters and photos. (Really wish I had bought those lobby cards.) However unlike most people, I wasn’t merely geeking out over the Star Wars saga. I was studying it, or more precisely, I was studying how it was made. This was pre-internet. I begged my father to take me to every book store, magazine stand, comic book shop, and library in the San Francisco Bay Area so that I could find any interview with the creative geniuses responsible for making Star Wars (and films like it). I devoured every bit of information I could find and I began experimenting to see if I could recreate what I had witnessed on screen. My dad and I even took a drive up Lucas Valley Road in Marin County just for fun to sleuth out the whereabouts of Skywalker Ranch. We eventually came across an impressive looking gate that we felt had to be the right place. Ten years later I was on the other side of that gate as a Lucas employee.
For some, knowing how the magic is made takes away some of the magic. For me, as someone who had been involved in theater, TV, and film since age 10, this was not the case. Working for LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic, and Lucasfilm made Star Wars even more interesting and special. Not every day, of course. Creating Star Wars games, conjuring up movie effects, and stomping around in a big black costume is hard work. But on average, Star Wars was still pretty freakin’ cool. I just had a different perspective on it than I had as a 15-year-old. I was on the inside. I could view it as both a fan and as a professional. I had aged and matured and changed. Star Wars meant more and different things to me.
Star Wars itself was changing. The prequels, which I worked on, were different than the original trilogy. I couldn’t possibly feel about them the same way I did about the originals. Back then I was on the outside looking in. For the prequels I was on the inside looking out. George was different too; older and a single father of three. It changes who you are and the kind of stories you tell. It’s impossible for me to watch the prequels from the same perspective as I watched any of the previous movies. I know exactly what went into making them. I’m hypercritical of the work that was done, especially my own work.
By the time the sequel trilogy films began with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens I was already long gone from my service to the empire…er, um…I mean to Lucasfilm. I left ILM in 2002 after completing the effects for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones when I was offered a full-time faculty position at the Academy of Art University heading up the school’s Visual Effects Department (which I did for about two and a half years). And my last gig playing Darth Vader was in 2006. So I had an interesting opportunity presented to me by The Force Awakens. Could I once again go see a Star Wars movie with no prior knowledge of its story or content and enjoy it as a fan like I had the original film back in 1977? To do so would require something very important.
In order to attempt to recreate that sense of surprise and wonder I experienced with the first film I had to swear everyone to secrecy. Everyone! I told all the people I knew at ILM and Lucasfilm to keep their mouths shut around me. I asked all my actor friends like Peter Mayhew who were working on The Force Awakens to not say a word about it. I even asked people on Facebook not to say anything. They all complied! The most amazing people were the Star Wars fans themselves who loved the idea of my experiment and vowed to stay silent on social media regarding the new film until I had seen it. (Star Wars fans are the best!) To top it all off I steered clear of the movie’s trailers and commercials. It wasn’t easy, but I did it!
And so I was able to walk into a theater with no foreknowledge of The Force Awakens and see it with nearly fresh eyes. I sort of cheated, though, because instead of going to a regular theater I attended a screening of the film at Industrial Light & Magic. Apart from that, it was as close as I could get to the experience of being a Star Wars newbie again.
You know what? It worked. I was able to watch the film as a Star Wars fan and enjoy it like I did the originals. Then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came along and showed me that not only could I view a Star Wars movie without being jaded, but I could totally geek out again like the teenage version of me.
Do I still like Star Wars? Of course. I still do. Do I love every Star Wars film or project that has come out? No, not exactly. Some are great, some are enjoyable, one or two have been disappointing (I’m looking at you, The Last Jedi), but Star Wars is still Star Wars. It still means a lot to me. I will be forever grateful for the entertainment it has supplied me, the career it has provided me, and the lives it has allowed me to connect with. In that sense, how could I ever stop liking Star Wars?