As a thirty-something male, of course I have a unbridled love for Star Wars. The original trilogy redefined the blockbuster and earned its place in the hearts of geeks and mainstream fans everywhere. As a Brit, I’m particularly aware of how my homeland helped shape the film, not just in lending our accents, but the behind the scenes efforts in the UK at Elstree Studios, a place where classics such as The Shining, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were filmed. Production of Star Wars in the UK drew from a lot of local talent; some of it is very prominent on screen, while other aspects, including the contributions of extras, are not. Elstree 1976 seeks to redress that.
From the man behind film’s most iconic villain, to the actor whose character was completely cut from the final film, the documentary delves into the eccentric community these individuals have formed and how the Star Wars franchise – which spans five decades from A New Hope to The Force Awakens – continues to impact their lives decades later.
Many of the minor characters were merely part of the set design, but eventually gained recognition as the Star Wars universe expanded into books, comics, etc. Fans learned the history of masked characters like Boba Fett and Greedo, but the sci-fi blockbuster also had a lasting impact on the people inside the costumes.
Not all of the interviewees had minor roles in the series however. For example, David Prowse, whose six-foot-eight bulk filled out Darth Vader’s suit and provided the menacing movements of film’s most iconic villain, wouldn’t be recognized on the street by all but the most ardent Star Wars fans. In the final cut of the movie, his face and voice were replaced by Sebastian Shaw and James Earl Jones, respectively. Others got to work on what would become the biggest movie of all time, but saw their characters cut entirely from the finished film.
The subjects of the documentary are extras, supporting actors, Shakespearean trained folk or people who just ended up randomly in the casting room. Their characters range from an alien in the cantina scene background to an X-Wing pilot and the most well known of all, David Prowse, whose 6’7″ frame filled out the suit of Darth Vader. As they play with the action figure of their own character (a hilarious novelty in itself), they start to recount their lives, their upbringing, their first exposure to acting, and how their career or some serendipitous act took them to casting for Star Wars and subsequently being swept up in cinematic history.
If it sounds personal, it is. These British, Americans, and Canadians interviewed for the film share childhood memories to start with, then the casting process with George Lucas himself, experiences on set, and eventually how their roles changed their lives. It’s a very unique insight into the film as they discuss the feel of the production, where they thought it was going (TV apparently), and experiences with the more prominent cast members including Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. But it always comes back to the lives of these folk, a central core to the documentary that is helped by how genuinely likable they all are.
While the film isn’t exactly a treasure trove of unknown Star Wars filming details, there are gems of information to be gleaned. It’s fascinating to hear how many of the cast did double duty, being pulled from a cast role to don a mask or helmet to fill another when needed. Paul Blake, who played Greedo, tells a tale of dispatching George Lucas to bring him a coffee, unaware of who he was upon arrival on set. The aforementioned David Prowse, ostracized in recent years by George Lucas for numerous reasons, probably gives some of the best insights. Highlights include how he became an actor essentially because of his ugly feet; he used the phrase “you’re not one-take Kubrick” in front of the director on the set of A Clockwork Orange; and, most sweetly, how he spent time bonding with Alec Guinness. The hardcore fans will geek out, but Elstree 1976 primarily works as a insight into how a film so big can affect even those on the periphery of its production.
Elstree 1976 also works curiously well as a critique of fandom. In an age of people elevating any idiot who can put a video on YouTube, the documentary shows a rather sweeter reminder of the fandom that was spawned from an older age. People connected with the film and cherished all aspects of it. Despite the more harmless feel, the subjects of the documentary are largely baffled by their ability to “go on the circuit,” just because they popped up in a scene all those years ago. This portion is perhaps the most interesting, notably as it hints at the conflict and hierarchy that exists on the con circuit. Table placements and names on posters are judged on who had the more prominent part, who had lines, and then those such as Jeremy Bullock, who despite being shielded by a mask the the whole time is among the most popular of all. It’s a shame the film doesn’t exploit this more; the subjects are usually interviewed individually, at most in pairs. The whole group being together would have made for fascinating viewing. This portion of the film also touches on some more melancholic notes. The life of an extra/supporting actor is an uncertain one, and even those among the group who went on to more success did not achieve much. Depression and regret linger for some, as well as the sadder side of conventions – being ignored or stared at. But in general there is an acceptance and gratitude for playing such a part, no matter how minor, that has come to be appreciated and cherished by so many.
THE PACKAGEThis DVD release offers a solid picture quality; it’s not Blu-ray, but no issues are noticeable. Some of the interviews seem to have been deliberately processed to match the grain of the old footage. It’s confusingly inconsistent in it’s application at times, but overall lends the film a nice effect.
The DVD contains no special features, which is a shame. The film was funded by Kickstarter and it would have been interesting to have some extras concerning how this was handled and affected how the film was approached, including what ideas/ambitions director Jon Spira would have had with more plentiful resources.
THE BOTTOM LINEFor those looking for the inside scoop on making Star Wars, you’ll leave a little disappointed. Instead, Elstree 1976 is largely focused on how ten actors took on various small roles and found their lives forever changed. Nuggets of insider information can be found, but overall it’s a very different look at a very well known film. A personal trip through nostalgia.
Elstree 1976 is released on DVD on June 28th via MVD Entertainment Group