Editor’s Note: If you’ve not yet seen John D’Amico’s Premake of Star Wars, do so now. One, because it’s phenomenal, and arguably the best Star Wars fan film ever, and two, because the following interview discusses it:
Brad Avery: So, you said on the Smug Film podcast that doing this took about three months of work. But in reality, this was the original idea behind Shot Context five years ago that you abandoned. You went on to run Shot Context for several years—what about the idea of drawing these connections between films spoke to you originally, and why did you decide now to revisit it?
I don’t know why I’m drawn to that because intellectually it seems pretty arbitrary, doesn’t it? Part of the reason Shot Context ended is there’s a limited amount of light you can throw by compare and contrast, and I felt like I was nearing the limit. But I’ve found that the whole exercise pays off in unexpected ways. It becomes a really good tool for contextualization (hence the name), and with Star Wars, the biggest challenge is a context one—we’re so numbed now to the movie as it actually is, this scrappy low-budget fantasy, and the idea of stripping it all to its ingredients is a pretty good shock to the system to see it that way again. I came out of the edit liking Star Wars more, both as a piece of crackling storytelling and as a piece of craftsmanship.
And Star Wars, to me, seems like the perfect case study to get at this idea. George Lucas is from the film school generation, and in film circles so much is made of how Star Wars was inspired by Kurosawa and company. But it’s also in this place where it’s become such a cultural phenomenon that it almost supersedes its status as a ‘film’ and becomes a myth in and of itself. Would you say the Premake project kind of brings it back down to its origins? And what is the value of that?
That ‘Star Wars is Kurosawa’ thing floating around the film school world is accurate but unexamined. It actually began life as a Flash Gordon remake, but because few people now have seen Flash Gordon, but everyone loves Kurosawa, they remember the one and not the other. Like most films made by people like Lucas or Scorsese, who were raised by the movies, Star Wars is a waking dream of every movie he’s seen. There’s so much spaghetti western (which, remember, was as new in ’77 as the Lord of the Rings movies are now) in Mos Eisley, and so much Errol Flynn everywhere. I wanted to bring it back to its origins, but not just the usual suspects. It’s tricky with film—I think we get entrenched and remember the scope of legacy films like this narrower than they should be.
The other thing is when you pull it to Flash Gordon and The Hidden Fortress and The Wizard of Oz and so on, you begin to see anew what Star Wars added to our cinematic, I guess, expectations. The combination of naturalistic acting, and dense production design obsessed with small tactile elements, are still the hallmarks of great period filmmaking. Star Wars shows space like Barry Lyndon and The Duellists show The Enlightenment. I think that’s one of the major innovations of that era of filmmaking, one it’s easy to take for granted.
Yeah, I think what gets lost in looking at a project like this is that it doesn’t only highlight what inspired Star Wars, it really underlines what was new. You can’t just go line-for-line and find something that predates it exactly. Some of it is more about a feeling or a more abstract idea that made its way in.
Lucas was also very inspired by Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth. When you look at film, or art in general, do you see stories all feeding in and informing each other? Some people are down on this idea as if it means nothing is ‘original’, and they see that as a negative.
I’m not super into the idea of a Monomyth, but I can get in on Monomyths.
The well of stories we tell is pretty shallow, and always the most important thing is how it’s told. This is slightly off-topic, but we also should focus on when story types come in and out of fashion. Take the classics—Greek theater about the Trojan War were almost all written to make some sense of the horrible Peloponnesian War. Similarly, Star Wars was, in part, a way to reconcile ourselves with the simmering shame of Vietnam and the Watergate debacle. It let us be the underdogs in the jungle. Why do you think the bad guys are Nazis? That was our finest hour morally. Kind of puts our sudden thirst for more Star Wars today in a new light.
Star Wars is also very clear on its good-versus-evil, light-versus-dark narrative.
It’s also kind of like how one of the earliest Shot Context posts was showing Spike Lee visually quoting Gone with the Wind in Do the Right Thing. Whether it was a coincidence or purposeful, it shows how you can re-contextualize old ideas through a modern lens.
Exactly. Same reason Rocky was a hit. Not a slight on either film, both of which were brilliant beyond compare, but notice that they’re the ones we got sequels to this year?
The hardest thing to do with movies is see them as movies—as parts of a constantly chattering network of ideas and ideals, not as discreet alternate universes.
Movies are unique because there are movies and there’s this idea of the movies—something bigger and different—and that’s because they’re in communication with each other, and us, always.
Episode VII is interesting to talk about in this context (heh) because everyone is talking about how it’s a retread of A New Hope. But what’s overlooked is that it also has this weight of modern blockbusters that it’s carrying as well. It not only has to carry the Star Wars legacy, it also has to fit into our modern idea of what a mainstream action film is.
Sure, and it has to deal with built-up resentment about a lot of missteps and slights. It’s very civic-minded in that way.
Here’s a question—is it possible to create art that is not reflective of its times?
Probably not, because then you’re getting into nostalgia-tripping, which is itself a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the times. Maybe you can create something totally without contemporary value but, honestly, what’s the point?
So, to loop back, how do you think the premake reflects on Star Wars as a film from 1977? What was it about these particular images that were rattling in Lucas’ brain that caused them to come out when he was making his movie?
I can’t speak for that any more than I can say why anybody likes their favorite food. But I can say it’s clear that Lucas was smitten with the relationship between people and machines, just like most aware individuals of that day. He found some interesting ways to express it, and that fascination with mechanical minutia is deep into the bedrock of the film, probably more than he even realized.
And 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is 100% about addressing that question (or fear) shows up a whole lot in the premake.
2001 threw a gauntlet down for everyone. Like how movies like Moon and Gravity changed the look up to compete with the flood of stunning high-res space images on the Internet, 2001 was the first movie to rise to the challenge of competing with Gemini and Apollo.
You know Tarkovsky hated it? Pure jealousy.
That’s amazing, I never knew that. Solaris was in ’72 right? That pops up once or twice in the premake as well.
Yeah, he did. Solaris was first out the gate with that 2001-but-dirty look that Dark Star and Alien are famous for. Fantastic movie.
You also made sure to not only include film in there. There’s art, some of it ancient, as well. Can you talk more about the non-film sources you found?
It’s a tricky middle ground with that, because this is a visual experience, so I didn’t want to slow the pace up. I wanted to fit that glowing blue sword from Lord of the Rings in, plus a few other literary things, but there was no graceful way.
Not sure what ancient art was in there aside from the Mayan temples which, along with Leia’s Hopi-inspired buns, are a great shortcut for crafting a compellingly real alien culture, since that’s essentially what they are for us.
Not to use a buzzword, but it’s interesting to see what is appropriated from real cultures in order to craft this fantasy world.
It’s all interesting.
Another question about art being of its time: I remember when you were making this you were struggling to find contemporary films that Lucas drew from. In the final product, you’ve got a number of movies from the ‘70s in there. After making this, how do you think Star Wars relates to the film climate of its day?
It’s reactionary. It really, really doesn’t want to look like its contemporaries. Compare it to Alien, which is nearly 100% handheld. He took what he wanted, the grime and the grit and a few of the slouchy performances, and jettisoned the rest.
You see it in the structure. He uses those wipes and other ‘goofy’ editing techniques which were way out of vogue then. Abrams brought them back for Episode VII and they’re incredibly jarring.
I’m sure they felt just as jarring in the era of Taxi Driver!
So, you were putting together the premake as a side project while you finish work on your own feature film, Green Brothers, which you’ve written, directed and edited.
How do you as a filmmaker approach this idea of art begetting art, or art being an ongoing, cross-generational conversation. Not like what references do you drop, but how do you tackle this when telling your own stories?
Best to not think about it, I think. I bet you could do some kind of premake with Green Brothers, like you could with every movie, but I have no earthly idea what would go into it.
Do you know that Tarantino story about how he analyzed the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs to make sure he had depth, then once he knew he never thought about it again?
Oh, well. That’s it. The end.
Tarantino’s interesting in this regard, because he frequently directs with references and callbacks in mind. Like, he’ll tell actors, ‘This shot is like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly‘. So, in a sense, he’s creating a form of pop art. And this mindset seems to be more prevalent these days. You see a lot of films that are designed to be ‘love letters’ to the 80s or whatnot, and they’ll be full of deliberate references to their childhood favorites. And I’d like to say those films are traps. But you can’t necessarily say that because you look back at Star Wars which began as an attempt to make a modern Flash Gordon. Indiana Jones was an attempt to make a modern adventure serial.
Indy is even more overt than Star Wars.
They’re rare exceptions, and a testament to the talent of the creators and the technological moment where you really could outdo something with another shot at it, which is less and less true. In general, I think we need fewer movies about movies, just like we need fewer autobiographical movies. But that’s just me.
Actually, the other key difference is that Star Wars, Indy, and The Good the Bad and the Ugly are all attempts to one-up their influences, to make them more alive. Now, it’s like we embalm things by just repeating them over and over, without any real escalation or switch in perspective. I’m being very vague about all this, but the 80s and 90s nostalgia wave puts me right to sleep.
But, for example, the narrative hook of both Jurassic Park sequels that Spielberg didn’t touch was ‘T-Rex but bigger’. And Terminator just keeps doing John Connor defending his life again and again. If we’re gonna have a million Terminators, why not go wild, ya know? Where’s my old west Terminator, where they try to kill Ezekiel Connor with a six shooter?
Instead of passion projects, we get passion plays, where everything just repeats with highest possible fidelity until, I guess, doomsday.
How does looking for and breaking down his influences change your knowledge of George Lucas as an artist?
I appreciate his eye for entrances and exits. Flash Gordon fizzles a lot. The Dam Busters burns slow before it starts. Lucas begins and ends well. I think it’s true even of his bad movies.
He hits you with spectacle right from the get go. I think one of the most interesting things when you start watching the Premake, after the opening scrawl montage, is that the spaceship crossing overhead is timed almost exactly the same as the shot from 2001. Both ships fill the screen so you feel overwhelmed by the immensity. And I think one of the more impressive things the Premake does is, at least when you know the source material, it makes you reassess how those shots or elements work in their original form. It acts as a study not only of Star Wars but of everything included.
Did doing this change your relationship with any of those films? Hell, did it change your relationship with Star Wars itself all that much?
I’m more impressed with it now. It really is amazingly precise, considering the run-and-gun approach. But fundamentally my perspective is the same.
2001, though, I definitely am more impressed with. It threw a long shadow. It’s also interesting to see how much Star Trek was swallowed by it, considering how often Trek and Wars are put in opposition with one another. Trek had such strong writing and evocative ideas, though it must’ve been impossible to avoid its influence.
There’s another scene in the opening that is beat-for-beat—when Leia gets shot down and you use that clip from ‘Spock’s Brain’. It’s uncanny.
Trek was always more philosophical, but usually more campy. Are there any major ways—beside the obvious space adventure element—that Trek rubbed off on Star Wars?
The Vulcan mind mend is pretty close to what they do with The Force, before they get really into The Force in the later ones. They sort of come from the same forebearers, but at different angles—Trek is very Forbidden Planet-esque in its concept of a space military, and very much based on the navy professionalism and concept of space travel (they’re always worrying about vectors and units like they’re calculating dive times).
Star Wars is like visiting the Army Air Force, with their little souped-up engines and radio chatter. It’s like you’re in different branches of the service, and they both essay the definitive version of both. It’s why when Deep Space Nine gets into fighters, it’s cool, but it feels kind of disingenuous somehow. I guess Aliens is our definitive space infantry?
And Star Wars is very much a World War II-type Air Force. Aliens is about Vietnam marines left to die in the jungle. Kind of going back to what you were saying about Star Wars being in part a response to Vietnam while also rejecting ‘70s film trends, Star Wars follows the noble military of WWII instead of the brutal, publicly-despised war that just ended.
It’s interesting too that you have 2001, which is an incredibly anxious film that looks to the future as a potential next step for man, but also a potentially devastating force. Then you have Alien two years after Star Wars, which is immensely hostile and full of fear. And in between it all you have Star Wars itself, which is about the excitement of adventure.
Exactly. Aliens began life as Cameron’s Rambo: First Blood Part II pitch, so it actually was literally Vietnam at first.
I saw someone post the other day about how Episode VII sucks because it doesn’t have Star Wars’ rebellious streak, but that movie was very reactionary. No coincidence it was right before the Reagan era. Everyone was sick of feeling bad.
Yeah, and you can only speculate on these things, but maybe that’s part of why it was such a huge success. It certainly set the tone for the ‘80s in Hollywood filmmaking. And in the premake, the Death Star finale—with a few exceptions for gadgetry—is entirely composed of World War II air force movies.
It’s conceptually exactly The Dam Busters. Exactly.
That’s another angle of this project—by digging back into the influences, we can understand the politics of it better. Did you find that a lot during Shot Context, that these connections revealed new layers to what the film was trying to say?
Yeah, it goes back to what I was saying about pushing back to the time it came out.
Alright, well take for example westerns. You’ve written a lot of words over the years about that genre and what it has to say about America. So, when Star Wars pulls so heavily from John Ford and George Stevens, Lucas is sort of asking us to think about his movie in the way we would old stories of cowboys—at least for part of the film. Why do you think he does that?
See I think it’s the other way around—it’s not so much him asking us to think about it as him thinking about it himself.
A movie, when it works, isn’t an essay—it’s an invitation into someone else’s brain. When I finally write my book on the westerns, I’m gonna go into this more, but ’76, the year Star Wars was shot, was a big year for films saying goodbye to the myth of the western—The Shootist, Keoma, Josey Wales. Westerns were all about ‘What does America mean?’, and by the bicentennial, it was clear that the answer was not saloons and shootouts. Star Wars is one of a breed of movies taking those ideas and moving them into a new setting so we could still enjoy them without the cultural baggage.
Sci-Fi is removed of its anxiety and fears, war movies are stripped of their anti-war agenda, and westerns have their sometimes ugly history washed away.
I don’t think this is intentional, I think it’s instinctual. Frankly, the concept of the ugly history of the genre is overstated, but it’s a real concern at least.
I think something that’s very interesting to me is that with Episode VII creating a demand for Star Wars news, a lot of publications are digging up their original reviews from ’77. And most reviewers of the time were completely aware of all these influences, and make explicit references to a lot of stuff that pops up in your premake. But now, they’ve been obscured and forgotten by Star Wars own cultural legacy. It’s really interesting to me that this is stuff adult audiences of the time would have consciously recognized, but today we seem to completely forget about.
Kind of a big part of why I started Shot Context. And they didn’t deserve to be forgotten, for the most part. Flash Gordon holds up really well!
There’s this moment in the Premake that doesn’t exactly line up with the scene, but I fudged it because I love it, where Flash is asking how the ship works, and Zarkov says it’ll be fine, “I made models”. It’s such a fun little beat, and those serials, especially the third, are full of that stuff.
So what was the process like? I know you’re working on a follow-up with an as-of-yet-unannounced different film—how do you go about doing this? Do you take a patch of Star Wars and dig around movies until you find corresponding themes? Lot of notebooks?
Smaller paper trail than you’d think—just one text document with notes like “Planet Outlaws – 1:07, attack rebel base tomorrow” and “Vader breathing – Phantom of the Paradise, 2001 spacesuit stuff”. I don’t know that I ever developed a process exactly, because my original intention was to just do sort of a 20-minute digest with a ton of cuts to Star Wars too.
I laid a lot of clips down and then moved Star Wars to fit. When I decided I wanted to go big and do it all, I had to redo all that work and then just sort of stared at pieces of the film until I came up with something that would fit. Some sections were pretty easy—Mos Eisley and the end were gimmes, so I could knock big chunks out in a night. The parts I couldn’t wing were sort of a weird forensic puzzle of scrubbing through footage and racking my brain to match at first hundreds, then dozens, then individual stumbling blocks along the way.
What were the hardest sections?
There are a few individual lines that I know are from other things but was never able to land—that whole “nothing beats a good blaster” bit for one.
I was determined to match that scene where Aunt Beru yells about the droids in that weird sunken atrium outside Luke’s house—not sure I quite stuck the landing on that one. Regrettably, the hard parts still look like hard parts. I’ll probably revise a few times in the future.
The biggest challenge was rhythmic. Like I said, but maybe not aggressively enough, this isn’t intended as primarily a learning tool—it’s a cinematic experience in and of itself. I want it to flow and sparkle like a film. That’s why there’s no narration or anything like that, which I had a few people suggest I do.
So, if you’re not approaching it as an educational tool, what kinds of things do you hope viewers take away from this?
Some laughs (I think it’s very funny at times) some exhilaration, wonder, beauty, and the lovely sensation of seeing different worlds align like planets.
It’s very strange to see it all come together, and then to look down in the corner and look at it as a finished film.
In a way it’s the pre-blueprint. And you can look down at any moment and see it polished and finished. It’s often, by nature, disjointed as it jumps from film to film, genre to genre, but then you can see how it all came together thematically and aesthetically to be turned into this completely new work.
I wanted it to feel like channel surfing. Remember Muppet Babies, when they’d flip through the channels into the movies? That’s my model.
Alright, so talking tech, how did you go about putting it together? What was that process like?
It was a lot of ripping and digitizing. You might not know this, but if you buy a movie off Amazon or iTunes, they’re so copy-protected you can’t edit from it, which is ridiculous. So it was a lot of old fashioned DVD ripping. The upside is I managed to digitize a lot of my DVD library, though they must think I’m crazy at the library for all the ridiculous things I was requesting nonstop.
It was all cut in Adobe Premiere, with a bit of color work and sound work to bring some of them up to standard. For example, the Saturn V rocket video was a bit of minor restoration work. I had to pair a really nice foreign language copy with a version that had the proper American narration, but bad picture.
And for Star Wars itself? You used the Despecialized Edition, right?
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only edition. I’ll say it a million times, it’s the greatest film preservation work in decades.
It’s actually the only way the project would work at all—what can you do with that Jabba scene, ya know? It’s doubly out of place in this context. Do I push the date to 1997 for a scene?
You’d then be doing your own edits to the movie, which goes against what you’re trying to accomplish.
Exactly. It’s the rhythm thing again. If it were purely an essay, that would be a great point for a digression, but it destroys the whole magic of the moment.
How did you settle on the name “The Premake”? I remember you sending me an early sample of the opening with the file name as “SW”, which could have been a nice minimalist name. How’d you land on this one?
The trouble with SW is it doesn’t mean anything. Premake has a nice ring to it, though I learned afterwards that someone else is using the term for YouTube videos imagining movies if they were done earlier—like Ghostbusters in 1954. They’re pretty great.
‘Premake’ also somewhat invokes the prequels, which is a term with a lot of weight for most fans.
I guess, but they can deal with it until someone comes up with a better name. Describing it, in general, has been tough. I think J. P. LeBreton has come closest to nailing it.
I like the T.S. Eliot quote you included with it. “The most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
Tradition and the Individual Talent is a wonderful essay, one anyone interested in art and especially film owes it to themselves to read.
I read it for a Literary Criticism class I took in college and I agree. People can become defensive when you point out that something is ‘derivative’, But it doesn’t have to be a bad word. It can actually be a beautiful, freeing thing.
Film is just a very immersive, sophisticated, communications network. It is always in response to and in anticipation of something else. None of it exists in isolation and the only people who think an idea springs fully-formed from a person’s head have never tried to make anything.