It’s a film buff’s starter for 10: which
science fiction movie was shot in the UK’s Elstree Studios in 1976? The
correct answer, especially for those fast on the buzzer, may induce
mouth-watering anticipation of a nostalgic, behind-the-scenes account of George
Lucas’s “Star Wars.” So a slight pause is in order.
Jon Spira’s documentary is not a “making
of” in any conventional sense, but a glimpse into the experience and
after-effects of involvement in the film, for a handful of extras and actors
with very small speaking roles. It isn’t really about one of the most famous
and influential movies of all time, but a bittersweet account of ordinary
people sucked for good or ill into the film’s eternal slipstream. And as such, it’s
far more interesting.
Spira opens seductively with fetishist
close-ups of “Star Wars” action figures, accompanied by the voices of the people
we’re about to meet, giving us a clue as to whether they were a stormtrooper
or a kooky alien or an X-Wing fighter.
Once we’re introduced to the generic types,
we meet the flesh and blood, warts-and-all human beings, eight Brits and a
couple of Canadians, speaking to Spira’s very attentive camera. Back in 1976,
they were a mixture of would-be actors, models, and a car salesman who literally
blagged his way into Elstree and got enlisted as an extra.
The exception is David Prowse, who became the
physical embodiment of Darth Vader, yet didn’t speak in the film as his lines were
dubbed by James Earl Jones. The former bodybuilder had been working in film and
television for a while, most notably on “A Clockwork Orange,” where he recalls questioning
the instruction to carry Patrick Magee plus wheelchair with the rebuke to the
director, “You’re not one-shot
Kubrick, are you?”
Prowse had an important role. But like Kenny
Baker (R2-D2) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), who aren’t in this film, his status
is difficult to categorize. He’s ideal for Spira’s agenda.
None of them expected much from their new
assignment, perhaps a low-budget TV film, something “interesting but not wildly
exciting.” However, once inside the Elstree soundstages, with a glimpse of the
Millennium Falcon and dozens of stormtroopers wandering around, they realized
they might be in on something special.
Their recollections take us through their
lives before, during and after the filming. On-set anecdotes include the
disappointment of finding a brief talking scene cut, a hilarious account of an
X-Wing pilot forgetting his lines and having to read them from a piece of paper
on his lap (with proof from the clip in question), a stormtrooper being caught
on camera bashing his head against the set (apparently the troopers could
hardly see behind their visors).
Of greater interest is the sense that
nothing quite as significant—professionally at least—has happened to them since
their brief journey to that galaxy far, far away. Some have had decent, jobbing
actors’ careers, others found new pursuits, some got a little lost; Prowse talks
with pride of his involvement in a road safety campaign aimed at children (he
was just as famous in the UK as the Green Cross Man). One touches on his
depression, while another mentions, in a very funny way, his accidental 15-year
addiction to Valium.
And here’s the rub: because of the extraordinary
level of fan interest in the “Star Wars” movies, none of these peripheral figures
have been able to forget about the film, even if they wanted to. The last
section of the documentary deals with their new careers on the “Star Wars”
convention circuit, the money to be made giving autographs, the pecking order
in terms of fan interest (you’re higher up the food chain if you play an
alien), the disdain of even bit-part actors for walk-on extras.
Harrison Ford, one of the biggest film
stars in history, spent years trying to distance himself from “Star Wars,” as did
Guinness; yet here are people who were on screen for seconds only, traveling
the world signing autographs. Spira doesn’t mock or criticize them, but sees
them as good people enthusiastically accepting, and perhaps to some extent being
victims of, a culture of celebrity and fandom operating at a geeky micro-level
that is positively bizarre.
Crowd-funded, “Elstree 1976”
is a brilliant idea, thoughtfully executed and, with “Star Wars: Episode VII” around
the corner, shrewdly timed. Maybe seeing it will keep everyone’s feet on the
ground. As one of the interviewees, Paul Blake, self-mockingly tells us: “I’ve
played Macbeth, I’ve played the Royal Court. But my gravestone will read, ‘Here
lies Greedo.'” May the Force be with him.