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TFN Interview: The Making Of Return Of The Jedi Author J.W. Rinzler

Posted by Eric on October 1, 2013 at 03:49 PM CST

J.W. Rinzler's book series chronicling the making of the Original Trilogy wraps up today with The Making of Return of the Jedi. This massive book tells the story of Episode VI from beginning to end, and it's crammed with amusing anecdotes, fascinating trivia, and tense moments that reveal a lot about the filmmakers and the creative process. I wrote about ten interesting things I learned from this book for The Official Star Wars Blog. In preparation for the book's release, I also spoke to Mr. Rinzler, an editor at Lucasfilm and a veteran of their publishing division, to get a sense of how he put this book together and what he learned while doing so.


When did you first see a Star Wars film?

I was lucky enough to go to a sneak preview of Star Wars at the Coronet [Theatre in San Francisco]. My stepfather was a manager of a radio station and he got a sneak preview. I actually did not want to go, because he told me it was a science-fiction movie, and I’d recently been dragged to Solaris, the Russian version, and 2001, both of which I was too young for, and I thought, “Oh my god, this is going to be so awful. I really don’t want to go.” But they dragged me to it. My brother says that George Lucas was there; I don’t know. But it was at the Coronet. And [we had] our minds blown with everybody else. It was just an amazing experience.

When did you start working at Lucasfilm?

That was in 2001. I started in October, so I’ve been here for 10+ years. I’d always wanted to work here, and I just responded to an online classified for an editor. I didn’t even know that they had a book department here! [laughs] I had tried to get into ILM earlier and failed dismally, so I was really happy to be hired. I started working at Skywalker Ranch in the beginning. That was unbelievable.

What were your first thoughts on Jedi? Do you feel the same way now?

I still feel the same way. By the time it came out, I was in college, and to me, I have a hard time with the Ewoks, I loved the speeder bike chase, I loved all the Hoth stuff, but when the Ewoks came on the screen, I was like, “You gotta be kidding me,” to be perfectly honest.

But over the years, people have embraced the Ewoks. The people who saw that movie when they were seven loved the Ewoks. There’s even some sort of online graphic that shows the age you are and whether you like Ewoks or not. Where I stand on the three originals is [that] Star Wars is my favorite. It’s the one that stands on its own. John Barry was the production designer; I love his stuff. Roger Christian was the set decorator. You have an amazing team in England. That’s the movie that does it for me, although I liked them all.

How much of the material from Philip Peecher’s 1983 book The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi did you use, and how did you use it to launch your own work?

It’s a little bit like the Empire one, although in fact, I probably used more of the Empire one because Alan Arnold was there a lot. I don’t think Peecher was around. He wasn’t interviewing people. And he didn’t really interview people that much. Maybe he was around for some of it. I didn’t end up using very much, very little in fact. The two things that he did which were great, which I didn’t know about when I started and which are not really in his book, are the extended interviews he did with Richard Marquand and Howard Kazanjian, which I found in a box. He used, maybe, five percent of those interviews in his book, and I used the other 95% in my book, simply because (a) I had more space than he did and (b) they’re very open in their interviews. Thirty years ago, they didn’t want to print a lot of that stuff.

How did you approach the process of piecing together a timeline of the story and incorporating different materials into that outline?

Well, it’s been an ongoing process, and I kind of get better at it with each book. For Jedi, it was the most seamless, because I’d already done it twice. What I do is I start going through the production archives, and there’s lots of memos and charts and Telexes, and sooner or later you find the progress reports and the call sheets, which help you with production. And then there’s ILM stuff. Basically, I build what I call a chronological skeleton first from all of that stuff. Then, I start looking at all the interviews. Once you have the chronological skeleton, it’s easier to slot in where the interviews go. You take apart each interview and put the comments where they need to go in terms of the timeline. Then you just slowly flesh it out.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while working on this book?

Let me think. I’ve got to go back to who I was a couple years ago. [laughs] What did I learn? I learned much more about what was happening on set, in terms of Richard Marquand … what it was like for people to work with him. It wasn’t surprising, but it was interesting to get much more in-depth about. Because that’s the real story; in a way, it’s Richard Marquand’s story, to some extent, behind the scenes. He was the new guy, he was the director, and that was a through-line throughout [the film’s production] that was very interesting to explore. Obviously, he’s passed away, but [I had] his interview [with Peecher] and I spoke with his widow and one of his sons.

It’s like writing about a family. I started on Star Wars and I finished on Jedi. I finished a big chapter in everybody’s life. Being able to get into the meaty area there was interesting.

The one thing I didn’t know about was Black Friday at ILM. I didn’t know that, at one point, George threw out so many visual effects shots and redesigned it and practically caused people at ILM to have nervous breakdowns.

While you were working on this book, I remember you were often tweeting about interviewing people who were involved in the movie. Who were some of your favorite interviewees?

Well, if you bothered to read every word of the book [laughs], somewhere in there, in the Thanks section, I think, I give Duwayne Dunham and Nilo Rodis-Jamero the award for best phone interviews. They were so funny. It was as if it happened yesterday, and they just had funny story after funny story after funny story. I mean, the two of them together must account for 25% of all the laughter in the book. They were great.

Talking with George is always a highlight. Let’s be serious. I spend a year and a half doing the research, and occasionally I’ll say, “Oh, I just don’t know the answer to that one. That’s a George question.” I keep a running list of questions for George. Then I finally get to talk to him after he’s read the rough draft, to sit down with him for, usually, almost a couple of hours. That’s a lot of fun, because so much stuff builds up [to discuss]. And then he’s also quite funny in the stories and also has a great memory and tells a good story. So that’s always a highlight of writing these books.

And then there’s other people, like Rose Duignan was great to talk to. She told a great story about how she got the job on Star Wars, which I hadn’t been able to put in the Star Wars book, so I stuck it in Jedi just because it was such a great story.

There were a lot of interesting people to talk to. It was actually pretty rare that there was somebody who just had nothing to say.

As I was reading the June 12, 1981 rough draft, one thing I was struck by was the open antagonism between Vader and the Emperor. Throughout the book, you describe the ways in which the earlier drafts differed from the final version in terms of character continuity. What did you think about the way Lucas originally had Vader and the Emperor interacting in this movie?

Well, the early drafts are rougher and what I like about the Vader/Emperor [dynamic] in the movie is that it’s distilled down to two exchanges. Kasdan revised that. I think I say [in the book] how wonderful it is that you just have the Emperor saying, “Funny how I didn’t notice” whatever it was in the movie. “Are you sure you’re quite clear on this?” And [Vader] goes, “Yes I am.” It’s such spare dialogue and the audience understands everything that’s not said. It’s almost as if their entire antagonism is boiled down to that one moment. It worked really well.

I do think Leia and Han kind of got short-shrifted in the final film. I say that in the book and I stand by that. It would have been nice if they’d had more to do. But I can understand why they wanted to unite everybody… They were all choices that had to be made. They wanted to get everybody back in Jabba’s palace. It would have been interesting if she’d been leading the fight on Endor [as was originally scripted], but it ultimately didn’t make any sense, so they had to change it.

I did ask George. What I was having a hard time understanding was, What are Vader and the Emperor doing? Why does Vader stop Luke’s blow from killing the Emperor? And I did a blog about it. And I got a lot of really good responses. I asked George about it, and George’s response is in the book, and it makes a lot of sense. So now I understand more! [laughs]

What was the hardest thing to cut from the book?

A lot of interviewers ask me that question. The great thing about these books is that they are so big. Text-wise, I got everything I wanted in here. There’s not one sentence on the cutting-room floor. I even gave it to the editor at Random House and said, “Please, if any part of this is boring, just tell me and I’ll cut it out.” And I don’t mean to boast or anything, but [he said], “No, this is all good, keep it all in.” George didn’t cut anything out when he read it. So it’s all there text-wise.

Image-wise, yeah, it’s hard to make the choices. Particularly for this book, I wanted to show images larger –– just have one to a page or two to a page –– and not do as much … I think in [the book on] Empire, sometimes I had seven or eight images on a page. I did less of that this time, so there were some tough choices image-wise. I would’ve liked to have gotten more of this great black-and-white photography in there.

But, that said, there is the enhanced eBook version of this book. Pretty much everything that I wanted to get into the hard copy is in the eBook version of this book.

Tell me about the bonus content that will be in the eBook version. What can fans expect from that?

They’re doing all three making-of [eBooks]. At Comic Con, I showed the Star Wars gag reel, which brought the house down. That’ll be on that eBook. For Empire, I showed some animatics from the Battle of Hoth, which was cool. For Jedi, I showed behind-the-scenes of them in Crescent City trying to film the Battle of Endor, which is kind of funny because it’s so chaotic –– Marquand and George and everybody trying to organize things, and it’s not going all that well.

For Jedi, we also have a very early cut they put together of [the] Luke-building-his-lightsaber scene. Not the finished version, but a really rough, montage thing they did from different parts, which was kind of interesting. I know fans are really interested in that. There’s great stuff on the briefing room scene, of just Luke talking with Kenny Baker, Howard Kazanjian talking with Marquand, and then all the principles blocking out a scene and then filming it. It really shows you how they worked.

There’s a couple scenes where Marquand’s doing the voice of Vader, instead of Prowse. They’re dailies. Basically, you have Mark [Hamill] doing a scene on Endor [with] Vader, but Marquand is doing Vader’s voice. You have the Jabba the Hutt test, where they’re testing out the giant Jabba puppet.

Eventually we’ll put up online exactly what’s going in there.

While writing your three Original Trilogy making-of books, you read numerous documents from George Lucas' story meetings. What have you learned about his vision and his goals from reading those notes?

The thing that I come away with is [that] George’s process is very iterative. He starts with an idea, then he expands, then he contracts, then he works with many brilliant collaborators. The great thing about George is [that] it all goes through his filter. He doesn’t get pulled too much this way or that way. The ideas come to him for the concept artists, the writer, the production designer, and he’s extremely focused. It either fits in or it doesn’t; it either helps or it doesn’t. There are very few people making movies that are as good at doing that as he is. On the one hand, I really learned about his process.

On the other hand, I also really appreciate all the things that his collaborators did bring to the project: Ralph [McQuarrie] and Joe Johnston, John Williams and Normand Reynolds, John Barry and Roger Christian. All these people played very key roles and there’s parts of those people in these movies too. And of course the actors. And of course Mark Hamill, who really, really deserves a lot of credit for the success of the films.

What was your favorite stage of production to write about?

Well, I tend to really like writing about pre-production, because that’s the most intensely creative part of it. All these things are happening simultaneously –– plus the deal-making, which I find interesting, all the hardcore business negotiations that are going on. But then I love writing about the actors during production, and I love writing about ILM. I think particularly for Jedi, ILM really elevated the film. Those guys were at the top of their game. You have Ken Ralston, Dennis Muren, and Richard Edlund still on the same team –– three world-class visual effects supervisors who have all gone on to head up their own departments –– working on the same film. And then of course Ben Burtt. Lorne Peterson said it was like being in Renaissance Florence at that time. You had so many talented people in the same place.

Speaking of ILM, one of the things I found fascinating was the extent to which ILM was working on other, “non-George” films during this time, in order to be financially solvent. That seemed to shape a lot of the decisions that happened on Jedi at Lucasfilm.

Yeah. And I should add to [my] list, you had Phil Tippett and Joe Johnston. One guy’s gone on to be an A-list director and the other has run a studio for twenty-five years.

But yeah, that is something that I learned. I didn’t realize to what extent those [ILM] guys were kind of burned out before they even started on Jedi. I think Dennis mentions that. And yet, they just pulled up their bootstraps and got to work –– even after Black Sunday.

You have some interesting memos in there from [then-ILM general manager] Tom Smith … everybody’s trying to figure out, “Well, how much should we charge? What does an effects shot cost?” That was fun to write about. I figured [that] for all the special-effects historians, there’s some stuff in there you won’t find anywhere else.

It seemed like a lot of the negotiation between Fox and Lucasfilm had to do with how successful the film would be, and whether Fox could be convinced to make an effort to promote it.

Their conflict was not about whether it was going to be successful. There were several things going on at once. George was paying for Jedi, so then Fox [was] getting less from the box office receipts, so they had less incentive to market the film. So Lucasfilm’s challenge was getting Fox to buy in enough so they would market the film effectively. It still does need marketing and distribution. It was a delicate balance. Plus, [there was] the rights of Star Wars and all that stuff. Plus, there was no longer [George Lucas supporter] Alan Ladd over at Fox. All of that became very contentious.

By Jedi, they knew they had a blockbuster on their hands. The proof of that is that, when it comes out, there’s not a movie that anybody spent any money on within three or four weeks of the film.

In writing these making-of books, you've had to look back at decades-old meetings and ideas and developments. Will you be doing any kind of real-time chronicling for the sequel trilogy?

[He passes to Lucasfilm publicist Chris Argyropoulos, who says, “Too early to tell.”]

Do you have any plans to write making-of books for Episode I and II?

At this point, there are no plans. It’s unlikely. It’s one of those that just happens organically but turned out to work out well: We had this lull between theatrical releases that nobody really planned, so I was able to fill up that lull with these three books. It happened to be the film’s thirtieth anniversary. But now that we have films coming out every year, I think it’s unlikely that anybody’s going to want to do a giant Making of Episode II, or I, at this point. You never know, but it’s unlikely.

I want to thank J.W. Rinzler very much for talking with me about The Making of Return of the Jedi. The book is on sale now. Buy it. You won't regret it.

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