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Sunday, 6 May 2012

AFICIONADO REVIEW: 'THE ELSTREE EMPIRE DAY' - 5TH MAY 2012

Ralph McQuarrie's stunning "Vader in Flames" logo is once more adapted, this time for the cover of the KURTZ/JOINER ARCHIVE's unique one day convention: THE ELSTREE EMPIRE DAY.

A warm and nostalgic feeling resonated in my heart as I walked onto the relatively small but impressive sound stage number 7 of the iconic Elstree Studios, London yesterday-my first ever visit to a film studio- for the highly enjoyable Jason Joiner/Gary Kurtz organised, and first of its kind, THE ELSTREE EMPIRE DAY one-day convention, held at the legendary factory of dreams which brought George Lucas's original and ever stunning Classic Trilogy to cinematic life from 1976 to 1982. It's impressive spectres of the iconic past linger in the mind, and I could well imaging a kitchen bound Aunt Beru pouring some blue milk there, or Sir Alec Guinness and Dave Prowse locked in lightsaber duel preparations back in the day when filming began on the unknown quantity that was the original STAR WARS, and long before it became EPISODE IV.

The legendary ELSTREE STUDIOS exterior as it looks today. Event images: Scott Weller.
Welcome to STAR WARS Elstree Studios Stage 7.
Inide Stage 7 for EMPIRE DAY.
A few choice autograph sellers and, in the middle, the signee era which got a little cramped at times!
The joint banner leading into the archive area. Photo taking on pane of death!

EMPIRE DAY was a fine celebration of the past and enduring glories of the saga and the studio-with a great selection of guests -many first time behind the scenes British signers- that delighted the die-hard STAR WARS fans that had flocked worldwide to the event, an excellent gallery of rare props, costumes and monster masks (including a Rebel Blockade runner solider, Greedo mask, baby Ewok from ROTJ, a part from one of Luke's Landspeeder's and one of his lightsabers, a Snaggletooth head, one of Han Solo's flight chairs from the Falcon (literally built around an old fighter plane ejector seat!), memorabilia and art from the KURTZ/JOINER archive, so much of which I'd never seen before from STAR WARS and EMPIRE, and a lot that certainly not been included in the recent Rinzler Making of books (including an impressive early sketch of Darth Vader's prototype TIE fighter, actors contracts (Carrie Fisher booked for four STAR WARS films) and correspondence from Kurtz/Lucas to key players like Alec Guinness, Fisher, Harrison Ford, Jack Purvis, and Peter Cushing (whose genuine affection and enjoyment for STAR WARS clearly showed in his beautifully written correspondence to Kurtz/Lucas, along with his legendary Imperial carpet slippers finally being displayed!) and London FOX boss Peter Beale from 1975/76 (where location filming in Rwanda and Central Africa were discussed as potential jungle planet settings, as well as Greece, Turkey and Iran as possibles for Tatooine. Beale also recommends Wally Veevers and legendary BOND talent Derek Meddings to Kurtz as potential names for UK special effects technicians, whilst later giving advice for location filming in Tunisia), early hand written story notes (including a hand written final script page from EMPIRE given as a gift to Kurtz on his birthday by Lucas), Dagobah wrap party invites (including an hilarious end of filming party invitation from Carrie Fisher, then staying in a rented house in London, which basically tells people not to come to her home, and that, if they did, one invite was eligible for 600 people!), and storyboards from EMPIRE (some from the famed Ivor Beddoes), though the KURTZ/JOINER website's aforementioned Ralph McQuarrie tribute was sadly quite small, and consisted of some behind the scenes correspondence only. Accompanying all this great material-which we sadly weren't allowed to take pictures of- were some lovely unused poster concepts for the first STAR WARS (the Tom Jung Imagine campaign), rare images from the Guatemala filming for Yavin and some nice B/W photos shot by Kurtz of our beloved actors on set from 1976 and 1979.

Gary Kurtz gives fine Q and A!

Respected producer Gary Kurtz later gave a fine Q and A session with the audience about the making of the first two STAR WARS films, how the famous Italian CINECITTA studios almost became the first filming home to STAR WARS in 1975/76 but was abandoned because the facility didn't have adequate enough soundproofing (with Peter Beale at London's FOX office recommending that Kurtz re-evaluate the then closed ELSTREE STUDIOS as a potential filming venue instead), the REVENGE OF THE JEDI that never happened (and "the other" Skywalker sister that wasn't Leia), the race to get the original films effects by ILM finished (with planned shots being graded on a scale of A to D, the A's being priority shots whilst the D's would be abandoned), remembering the talents of the recently lost to us Irvin Kershner and Ralph McQuarrie, as well as the vital contributions made to the first movie by UK production designer John Barry (who, originally, was one of three possible candidates for the position in 1975, but soon impressed Lucas and Kurtz with his skills and enthusiasm), hilariously revealed how perfectionist film legend Stanley Kubrick accused him of ruining THE SHINING when he wasn't able to complete one scene to his satisfaction (the infamous overhead look down by Jack (Jack Nicholson) into the Maze moment) after weeks of shooting (having been finally pulled off a stage so that EMPIRE could continue shooting!), showed a 50/50 reaction to the recent Blu-ray releases of the Classic Trilogy that he has so far sampled (revealing that some of the grainy aspects to them is because of new interpositives having to be done for the previous 1997 SPECIAL EDITIONS when the restored sequences couldn't be resurrected from damaged negatives, and that he was unhappy with some of the colour balancing), remains unimpressed with CGI being added to the Classic Trilogy (Kurtz reminded us that Mos Eisley was supposed to be a backwater location (why the Djerba location in Tunisia was originally chosen) and not a city) though he doesn't mind its being subtly used in films, citing MASTER AND COMMANDER as a successful example, plus welcome fan re-confirmation that Han Solo always shot first in the original script and that was the way it was shot-a preemptive strike against the Rodian. Interestingly, the producer is looking forward to seeing what the new STAR WARS: UNDERWORLD TV series will be like if it ever gets made, and hopes that the scripting will be of a worthy standard, mentioning the huge resources of the Expanded Universe that could be mined for it.

An overhead banner for the event.
Autographs in motion. Fans meets the UK film industry's finest!

Beyond Kurtz, other talks that I saw included one with selected members of STAR WARS and EMPIRE's camera team (camera operator Ronnie Taylor, clapper loader Jamie Harcort, 2nd Unit Camera Operator Geoff Glover and focus puller Peter Taylor (son of famed Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor). All new to the STAR WARS memorabilia/signing world, they enthusiastically talked about their work on the first fils (which, to them, was just another job that was occasionally bizarre but good fun) and beyond STAR WARS (Ronnie Taylor being immensely proud of his work on Richard Attenborough's GANDHI). None of them at the time realised it would be so successful- Jamie Harcourt humorously recalled reading about its US success in a small clipping on a 1977 front cover of the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper whilst on location filming in Afghanistan for a Peter Brooke movie), whilst Peter Taylor revealed working with his father on the first film, and re-iterated that the off-screen spat between his movie experienced dad and the then young film director Lucas has apparently been taken way out of proportion in the media over the years. Ending the day Kenny Baker, Artoo Detoo forever,  and resident Jawa Rusty Goffe brought proceedings to a close with a warm and celebratory fan cheery note.

Father and son team Gilbert and Peter Taylor with the STAR WARS camera team on location in Tunisia in 1976. Image: KURTZ/JOINER ARCHIVE.
Jamie Harcourt prepares the clapper for the Detention Block scene of STAR WARS. Image: KURTZ/JOINER ARCHIVE.
Toby Lofthouse far right with his team on the Threepio costumes. Image: KURTZ/JOINER ARCHIVE.
At work by the Millennium Falcon in 1976: 2nd Unit Camera Operator Geoff Glover.
Patrick Ginter as an Imperial Officer, poses with Dave Prowse as Darth Vader, for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Image: LUCASFILM.
Colin Skeaping in Luke fatigues with Bob Anderson as Vader during the climactic lightsaber duel filming of EMPIRE. Image: KURTZ/JOINER ARCHIVE.
A hairy moment for Colin Skeaping filming in Norway for EMPIRE. Imaage: STAR WARS ARCHIVES (FACEBOOK)
The famous scene from EMPIRE as devised and performed by Skeaping at Elstree.

Other guests at the events included the usual favourites like the one and only physical embodiment of Darth Vader, Dave Prowse, who, like Baker, looked sprightly and in good spirits, as well as a rarely signing appearance by stuntman Colin Skeaping (who showed pride in his devised and filmed stunt work where he goes through the window as Luke in the finale duel of EMPIRE, and recalled the risky moment when he could have been seriously injured/killed on location as Luke in Norway, when, in fighter pilot gear, he had to drop down from a helicopter onto an area that wasn't originally planned for-luckily timing his jump to land on a patch of snow rather than a rocky area), Ronnie Taylor recalled the challenges and complexities of getting used to large scale blue screens work on the original STAR WARS, whilst Peter Taylor and Jamie Harcourt enjoyed the new experience of meeting the fans. Classic Trilogy prop supervisor and Anthony Daniels C-3PO wardrobe supervisor Toby Lofthouse proved a delight, enthusiastically sharing his immense memories of the Classic Trilogy and bringing along a rare book of images (polaroids and photos) from his prized behind the scenes career working on classic film and TV shows like THE SAINT, THE AVENGERS and the original STAR WARS TRILOGY - some of his polaroids taken during filming on REVENGE OF THE JEDI in Yuma, Arizona and the Californian Redwoods show a fine off-set camaraderie, with Harrison Ford (who Lofthouse liked enormously, whom he went fishing with in some JEDI location filming downtime) and co. that was wonderful to see. Continuing the STAR WARS tradition, Lofthouse and Daniels reunited two years ago in the UK for the CURRY's TV advert featuring the droids at play in one of their electrical stores.

Filming for STAR WARS on Stage 7 in April 1976 included... (images from KURTZ/JOINER ARCHIVE)
The deleted scene of Beru Lars in the kitchen...
Luke and Ben discussing the future...
The first appearance of the lightsaber...
And the infamous Anchorhead interior, though the day's filming call sheet only lists the actor playing Windy as "1 Man" crowd extra, but also lists Jack Purvis as a background droid, too (presumably outside the window). 
Lucas and Peter Diamond watch Sir Alec Guinness and Dave Prowse fight/choreograph with mock lightsabers on Stage 7 in 1976. With thanks to Chris Baker.

Other contributing guest included the amiable John Morton (who played Dak and Boba Fett (for one Bespin scene) in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), specialist painter Ron Punter (who wowed lining-up fans by discussing his work on the original Darth Vader mask and costume), convention first timer Michael Ford (who also brought his OSCARS to look at!), the legendary set decorator who worked on RAIDERS with Production Designer Norman Reynolds (who sadly had to pull out of EMPIRE DAY at the last minute), Yavin medal ceremony bearer/ extra Nick Joseph, Rebel fighter pilot Victor Galluci (in the famous Massassi Temple Rebel War Room pilots face on scene), and Patrick Ginter (Vader's right hand man in the "Bring my shuttle" moment of EMPIRE), who revealed how generous Irvin Kershner was in helping him, a then relatively inexperienced performer, have posture/perform in the sequence. Showing an all-round passion for the UK movie industry he was involved in for years, Ginter would also play numerous Stormtroopers in EMPIRE in the Bespin scenes, be a double for second unit work, was an Imperial Star Destroyer officer and a hand double for Luke Skywalker in a scene requiring the character putting on fighter pilot gloves. For two weeks prior to his EMPIRE shooting, Ginter was also a costume test model for various wardrobe being created, adapted and cut by the legendary BERMANS costumers in London, which would be supervised throughout by George Lucas, a rare treat for the actor/extra, and which lead to him being given the role of the Imperial officer with Vader in the film (according to the EMPIRE DAY website notes, Ginter worked across both STAR WARS and EMPIRE, so some of his behind the scenes memories may have blurred into one over the passage of time). In other first film anecdotes, old favourite Rusty Goffe revealed that he was one of the early testees inside the 1975/1976 in-development first prototype shells (wooden and metal) for Artoo Deeto, alongside Kenny Baker and Jack Purvis.

A Stormtrooper guards the event.
The classic behind the scenes EMPIRE image located within one of the main entrance halls at Elstree.

Despite a torturous few hours getting autographs within the middle of the relatively confined studio area, in an overall system which at first confused myself and many of the attending fans I spoke to (and clashing with previously given info, presumably poorly worded, on the SHOWMASTERS and EMPIRE DAY forums/FACEBOOK pages), THE ELSTREE EMPIRE DAY, with its final rare items auction, the chance to indulge in some STAR WARS KINECT game playing, and meeting fans old and new (as well as catching up with AFICIONADO friends/ regular contributors Chris Baker and Ian Trussler), was, overall, a distinguished triumph from start to finish for the KURTZ/JOINER team, of which a second event is apparently planned for 2013.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

A very fine assessment of the day. I agree there was some confusion with the signings (Showmasters have refined this over the years, this was a step backwards) but an amazing opportunity to be in the studios. Thanks Jason & Gary.
Liam Ball
Www.4loms.com

mogaarwok said...

Oh Gary, Mos Eisley was never meant to be a city; it's a SPACEPORT. One would expect a spaceport to be busy and crowded.

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