Star Maker

As producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Gary Kurtz played a pivotal role in launching the top-grossing film franchise.
By David Bassom

selected from Starburst #249

Ever since the film's first trailer hit cinemas last November, the world has held its breath for Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace.

Gary Kurtz and some old friendsConsidering the continued success of all things Star Wars, it seems incredible to think that the original film almost didn't make it to the big screen at all. But back in the mid-1970s, when writer-director George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz chose the swashbuckling Space adventure as their follow-up to American Graffiti, they faced an uphill struggle to find backing for the project. And it was only after the movie had been rejected by both Universal and United Artists that Star Wars was courageously commissioned by Fox's Alan Ladd, Jr.

"If American Graffiti hadn't been a success, we probably couldn't have gotten Star Wars made," Kurtz tells Starburst. "There wouldn't have been any studio interested. Even as it was, most of the companies turned it down because Science Fiction wasn't popular and the script was very difficult to read, as it depended on visuals.

A former USC film student, Kurtz began his career on Roger Corman movies like Blood Bath, Beach Ball and The Terror before joining forces with George Lucas in the early 1970s. Kurtz and Lucas originally decided to make a SF film in 1972, while American Graffiti was still in post-production. After an abortive attempt to buy the rights to Flash Gordon, Lucas started writing Star Wars, which he would subsequently direct with Kurtz as his producer.

"Star Wars just seemed like an interesting idea to do," recalls Kurtz. "It was a rousing Science Fiction adventure tale, the type of which was in SF literature all the time. Edgar Rice Burroughs and a lot of other writers had been dealing with that kind of adventure for a hundred years, really. But it hadn't been done much on film… We also wanted to make a film that would capture some of the Flash Gordon flavour of action, adventure and Space opera."

Towards the end of 1975, Kurtz assisted Lucas's search for Star Wars' principal actors, by means of an open casting session. "We looked at everyone the casting agents could come up with," he explains. "It's a very intangible thing, and if you get it wrong it can be awful. But open casting can work well, and I think [in the case of Star Wars] it worked out fine."

As the cast of Star Wars primarily consisted of unknowns, Kurtz and Lucas were absolutely delighted when film legend Alec Guinness accepted their invitation to play the revered Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi. "Alec Guinness felt the script for Star Wars was quite strange and he wasn't interested in doing Science Fiction at all," says Kurtz. "We were very lucky he decided to consider it..."

All Star Wars images © Lucasfilm
Read the full interview with Gary Kurtz by getting Starburst 249.
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