Five People Who Saved Star Wars Not Named George Lucas
Star Wars is a goofy little morality play set in space that started a phenomenon that changed the world. From how films were made to how they were marketed, Star Wars set the stage for a world of blockbusters. Yet, more than 40 years after the first film hit theaters, the franchise is still going strong. (Despite what outrage grifters on toxic fandom YouTube might say.) So, how did this franchise become a new mythology for our time? Yes, the story was born from the mind of George Lucas, but there were many, many other people who were responsible for the first film’s success. Many of these same people stuck with Lucas, working on the subsequent films. So, we present the stories of five people who saved Star Wars from being a forgettable sci-fi oddity in the career of an auteur filmmaker.
Of course, most Star Wars fans know the role John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, and the other inaugural members of ILM played. Yet, as Yoda might say, there were others. By this point, thousands of people worked on Star Wars stories from the films, to TV, to books, to comics, and video games. Yet, all of them wouldn’t have gotten the chance if not for these five people who saved Star Wars before the first frame ever hit a movie screen.
How Marcia Lucas Saved Star Wars With Her Skill as an Editor
The story of Marcia Lucas (née Griffin) is something of a tragedy. Arguably, she is the most important person in the genesis of Star Wars than George himself. Only by the time Return of the Jedi finished production, their marriage was over. Lucas is on-the-record saying that the divorce leveled him. The unfortunate side-effect of this is that Marcia Lucas’ contributions have been all-but erased from Star Wars’ making-of lore. An accomplished editor in her own right, she joined a team of others working with George to help him finish the first film. Her advice, however, helped save Star Wars from being a forgettable genre flop by injecting heart and soul into the story.
In a way, she was George’s harshest critic during the making of the film. Her advice reigned in his tunnel vision when it came to the film. Remember, Star Wars was a huge movie at first. Even before filming, George had to cut two-thirds of his proposed story. After shooting completed, George was focused on ILM, leaving Marcia to help save Star Wars in the edit. She and her team completely reorganized the order of scenes, helping with pacing and adding emotional stakes to the story. She also discouraged his more outlandish ideas. “I’m real hard,” she said of her critiques to George, “but I only tell him what he already knows.”
Despite their troubles, Marcia Lucas contributed to all three of the original Star Wars films.
Ben Burtt Created the Unique Sound Landscape of a Galaxy Far, Far Away
From Chewbacca’s unique vocalizations to the soul-satisfying hum of a lightsaber, the sounds of Star Wars helped make that world feel real. At the time of the first film, USC graduate student Ben Burtt won the task of creating the soundscape for the galaxy far, far away. Instead of trying to create sounds on a machine, Burtt found the noises he needed in the wild. A meticulous student of sound, Burtt recorded all sorts of crazy things to bring life to the Star Wars characters and their space toys. He recorded bears and other animals to give Chewie his voice. Darth Vader’s distinctive breath sounds came from a scuba tank. The blasters in Star Wars are the result of him striking radio tower guy-wires and recording the result. Of course, he created some sounds as well. R2-D2’s voice is Burtt’s, just run through an ARP 2600 synthesizer.
Burtt has a legacy that goes beyond Star Wars as well. He is often credited as the sound designer who made the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ a popular in-joke with filmmakers. Taken from the western The Charge at Feather River this scream appears in all the Star Wars films and many others. However, through his incredible sound design, Ben Burtt saved Star Wars from feeling hokey or silly in its most outlandish moments.
Ralph McQuarrie Saved Star Wars by ‘Seeing’ It First
Ralph McQuarrie and his Star Wars concept art is as synonymous with the franchise as lightsabers or Sith Lords. Creatures he designed are still being used in Star Wars, like the spider-monsters from The Mandalorian Chapter 10: The Passenger. He also worked on many of the matte paintings used in the original trilogy, many of which even survived George Lucas’ retooling of the films in the 1990s using modern special effects. However, even for all the credit he gets, his contributions aren’t truly as appreciated as they should be. Ralph McQuarrie saved Star Wars because, without his images, George Lucas might never have gotten the film made.
George Lucas said very specific images danced across his mind while writing the Star Wars stories. Yet, it was up to McQuarrie to take his descriptions and transplant them onto paper. His iconic images of the Millennium Falcon in Mos Eisley or entering the Death Star appear on-screen almost unchanged. Others, like his image of a duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker weren’t realized but live on in our imaginations forever.
The actor who played C3PO in essentially every appearance of the character, Anthony Daniels, credits McQuarrie for his desire to play the character. While waiting to speak with Lucas about a role in the film, he saw McQuarrie’s drawing of Threepio and a proto-R2-D2. Daniels said the expression on the robot’s face, which looked eerily similar to his own, made him fall in love with the precocious droid. Daniels said it was almost as if the character were pleading for the right actor to be the caretaker of his story.
Stuart Freeborn Made Us Believe In Aliens and Creatures
A funny little man called Stuart saved Star Wars because he never feared attempting to making the impossible happen on-screen. Freeborn is essentially the founder of modern movie makeup techniques used to make people look completely different from what they are. He helped Peter Sellers play multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove and shaped the early humans in 2001: A Space Odyssey dancing before the monolith. Yet, his greatest cinematic accomplishments are his work on Star Wars. He was given the most impossible tasks, and he is instrumental in creating some of the most beloved characters in the franchise.
During the first film, Lucas had to cut costs any way he could. (And he still ended up over-budget.) So, when tasked with something like the infamous Cantina scene, Freeborn just went to the well. There are props used in many British sci-fi productions repurposed for Tattooine. Yet, when given the resources he could work magic. He designed the costume and mask for Chewbacca in the first film. Once the sequels were a sure-thing, he delivered a workable Yoda puppet after master puppet makers failed to. (He also based Yoda on his own face.)
His greatest accomplishment of all time, in my opinion, is the Jabba the Hutt puppet from Return of the Jedi. A massive undertaking of mechanics and puppet artistry, it took no fewer than three people to make the puppet work. Instead of just slapping some foam rubber or latex on a person’s face, Stuart Freeborn created vital characters who simply feel real on the screen.
There Is No Star Wars to Save Without John Williams
No matter what kind of a Star Wars fan someone is or what era is their favorite, all of us agree on one thing. There is no Star Wars without John Williams. This man scored the childhoods of so many. He’s created more iconic scores than any single artist has a right to. Yet, Star Wars is his magnum opus. Over 40 years he created a collection of themes and music cues that all work together, sometimes more seamlessly than the movies themselves.
The choice to make the score for the first Star Wars film one that hearkened back to the days of old cinema was deliberate. Lucas hoped to borrow some nostalgia and gravitas from those eras. Yet, Williams gave him so much more. He drew inspiration from composers like Wagner or Holst or even Hollywood icons like Max Steiner. This made his music feel both fresh and immediately familiar. You hear his themes for the first time, but they already feel like music you’ve known your entire life. Just a few notes of any his motifs or themes can transport the listener back to childhood. It’s like Williams doesn’t write music, he writes emotion.
It’s more than just musical accompaniment. Compositions like the theme for Princess Leia or the Duel of the Fates seem to understand the story and characters even better than the storytellers. Despite what inconsistencies you may find in the storytelling, the music just works. For example, Rey’s and Kylo Ren’s Themes are a kind of musical dyad, both tied into the Emperor’s theme. And those compositions were written long before the script for The Rise of Skywalker. There are countless examples of details like this throughout Williams’ Star Wars work.
What do you think? Is there anyone you think who saved Star Wars that we didn’t mention? Share their stories in the comments below.
Featured image via Lucasfilm
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.