“The Galaxy Britain Built: Droids, Darth Vader and Lightsabers” is a documentary directed by David Whiteley (BBC) that focuses on the contribution that Britain made in the production of Star Wars: A New Hope and subsequent films including Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One.
Whiteley is a BBC journalist and on-air personality and a self proclaimed lifelong Star Wars fan who was actually born on May 4th, 1977 (it’s true). His passion for Star Wars shows as he takes us back to the beginning of the making of Star Wars and the events that led the production team to eventually decide to film in the U.K. as opposed to Hollywood. Turns out there just wasn’t enough space as all the lots at 20th Century Fox were mostly occupied. It’s then the film takes us around the world to the now infamous shooting locations such as Tunisa, Pinewood Studios, Elstree Studios and Cardington Studios.
It focuses on about a half dozen of the key people involved with the production of the original Star Wars including 20th Century Fox-London Peter Beale, 20th Century Fox Producer Gary Kurtz, Production Supervisor Roger Watts, Set Decorator Roger Christian and Costume Designer John Mollo who sadly passed away before the film’s release.
While there have been many documentaries about the making of the Star Wars Saga this film manages a few surprises with anecdotal moments including the fact that due to a down time in the British Film Industry, they were able to rent the entire Pinewood Studios for only 75,000 pounds. In fact, that theme of scrounging, scavenging and working on the cheap was a focus of Whiteley’s as it showcases the resourcefulness of the British filmmakers.
For an on-air personality, one thing Whitely smartly does is not get in the way of his subjects like so many documentarians do, he keeps them front and center. Cutting between voice overs, behind the scenes footage and one on one interviews, Whitley keeps things moving at a quick pace. And at only 60 minutes long, if it suffers from anything, its’ a lack of context due to time restraints. Notably missing is perhaps a historical look at the British filmmaking scene prior to Star Wars and how that production helped turn things around in that area.
There’s a lot of pride in the words of his subjects who were all clearly very gratified and honored to have been a part of this now iconic franchise. They stop of short of flag waving but there’s a clear sense of nationalistic pride when even modern-day subjects such as Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards speak fondly of the British filmmaking community.
Not that it was all warm and familial as the American producers, particularly George Lucas and Gary Kurtz, sometimes struggled with the strict British unions. But they found ways to work together or simply to get creative with scheduling and paperwork. Peter Beale tells a story of how the British Actors Union insisted local actors get the better parts, not the American actors. So, when it came time to handing in the cast list he placed Alec Guinness, David Prowse and Peter Cushing at the top of the call sheet and Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford at the bottom. By the time anyone got wise the film was a huge success, and all was forgiven.
The real magic of this film rests in not only some great behind the scenes footage from 1976/77 but that Whiteley captured some real emotion from his interviewees. Real personal moments such as a much older Robert Watts returning to Elstree Studios for the first time in many years, a place he spent most of his career. Whiteley let’s the camera do the work here as Watts says, “I can feel it, I can actually feel it. I can feel the energy.” It's a wonderful moment and Whiteley shows he is more than up to the task and handles the subjects and the subject matter with the respect they deserve.
“The Galaxy Britain Built” is a great chronicling of a different time in filmmaking and a must-see for any fan of Star Wars or the film making industry. Until now it has only been shown on BBC One and BBC Four, but will finally air in North America next weekend on BBC North America. We were able to touch base with David and he generously answered a few questions about the film.
“Well from the very first embryonic idea, to transmission on BBC Network TV it was about two years. I had the idea on a train while coming back from a shoot in London. The whole project was exciting, enticing and yet daunting and full of problems, just like any film I guess! I made it with one of my best friends and colleague, a chap called Matt Wildash, who's also a massive Star Wars fan. I produced and presented the film, he Directed and Edited it. He kept me going when the chips were down and vice versa!”
Speaking about the subjects…
“Wouldn't it have been great to get George! But we were just so bowled over by the guys we did get. What an awesome bunch of inspiring, creative geniuses and yet, so humble. We've stayed in touch and I can't quite believe I made the film about our unsung Star Wars heroes.”
Any moments that stuck out for him…
“There were some incredibly emotional moments. The first came in early stages of principal photography when we first interviewed Nick Maley (creature effects), and the memories of the struggle to make things work came back to him and he started crying on camera. And who can forget the moment when we took Robert Watts back to Elstree, his 'favourite studio' as he still calls it. A truly special moment.”
About not including any historical context…
“When we did the interviews, they were very very comprehensive, and we could have covered all aspects of British filmmaking, but we had to hone it down to the Star Wars connection, otherwise the doc would be 3 hours long!”
So, there you have it. A good documentary about Star Wars by a lifelong Star Wars fan, typically a winning combination. Check it out.
The Galaxy Britain Built will debut next weekend on BBC North America, check local listings and service providers for channels,dates and times. Don't miss it!
Till next time…MTFBWY.
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