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How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise
By Chris Taylor
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In How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, veteran journalist Chris Taylor traces the series from the difficult birth of the original film through its sequels, the franchise’s death and rebirth, the prequels, and the preparations for a new trilogy. Providing portraits of the friends, writers, artists, producers, and marketers who labored behind the scenes to turn Lucas’s idea into a legend, Taylor also jousts with modern-day Jedi, tinkers with droid builders, and gets inside Boba Fett’s helmet, all to find out how Star Wars has attracted and inspired so many fans for so long.
Since the first film’s release in 1977, Taylor shows, Star Wars has conquered our culture with a sense of lightness and exuberance, while remaining serious enough to influence politics in far-flung countries and spread a spirituality that appeals to religious groups and atheists alike. Controversial digital upgrades and poorly received prequels have actually made the franchise stronger than ever. Now, with a savvy new set of bosses holding the reins and Episode VII on the horizon, it looks like Star Wars is just getting started.
An energetic, fast-moving account of this creative and commercial phenomenon, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe explains how a young filmmaker’s fragile dream beat out a surprising number of rivals to gain a diehard, multigenerational fan base — and why it will be galvanizing our imaginations and minting money for generations to come.
About this Book
About the Author
Table of Contents
For Jess, The True Chosen One
Introduction: A Navajo Hope
Chapter 1: Mars Wars
Chapter 2: The Land of Zoom
Chapter 3: Plastic Spacemen
Chapter 4: Hyperspace Drive
Chapter 5: How to Be a Jedi
Chapter 6: Buck Rogers in the Twentieth Century
Chapter 7: Home Free
Chapter 8: My Little Space Thing
Chapter 9: Spoof Wars
Chapter 10: Star Wars Has a Posse
Chapter 11: The First Reel
Chapter 12: Release
Chapter 13: The Accidental Empire
Chapter 14: Here Come the Clones!
Chapter 15: How to Exceed in Sequels
Chapter 16: Being Boba
Chapter 17: End of the Jedi?
Chapter 18: Between the Wars
Chapter 19: The Universe Expands
Chapter 20: Return of the Writer
Chapter 21: Special Addition
Chapter 22: The Line
Chapter 23: The Prequels Conquer Star Wars
Chapter 24: Building Character
Chapter 25: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Prequels
Chapter 26: Using the Universe
Chapter 27: Hello Disney
Conclusion: Across the Universe
Epilogue: An Awakening
About this Book
About the Author
An Invitation from the Publisher
Introduction: A Navajo Hope
George James Sr. was eighty-eight years old when I met him in July 2013, but in the crimson of a setting desert sun he seemed almost timeless. He wore a white Stetson and had leathery skin, a thin build, and deep-set, coal black eyes; he stooped a little from the shrapnel that has been in his back since 1945. James is Tohtsohnnii, part of the Big Water Clan of the Navajo people, and was born where he still lives, in the mountains near Tsaile, Arizona. When he was seventeen, James was drafted and became that rarest of World War II veterans: a Code Talker. He was one of five Code Talkers who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima and transmitted more than eight hundred vital messages back and forth between the island and the offshore command post in their native language. Their code was virtually unbreakable because there were then fewer than thirty nonnative speakers of Navajo in the entire world. For an encore, the 165-pound James helped save an unconscious fellow private’s life by carrying his 200-pound frame across the black sands of Iwo and into a foxhole. His calmness under fire helped determine the course of the horrific battle, and arguably the war. “Were it not for the Navajo,” said a major in George’s division, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
James’s wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him. But there was something else about him that was almost as incredible. George James was the first person I’d met, in a year of searching, who seemed to genuinely not know the first thing about the movie we were about to watch: something called Star Wars.
“When I heard the title, I thought, ‘The stars are at war?’” James said, and shrugged. “I don’t go to the movies.”
There haven’t been any movie theaters here in Window Rock, Arizona, the sun-bleached capital of the Navajo nation, since the last one closed in 2005. Window Rock is a one-stoplight town with a McDonald’s, a dollar store, a couple of hotels, the eponymous natural stone arch, and a statue honoring the Code Talkers. There are plenty of screens here, but they’re all personal: teens thumb through smartphones in parking lots; there are iPads and TVs and Wi-Fi in Window Rock just as in any twenty-first-century western town. But there’s no large public screen where the people—they’re called Diné (pronounced “dee-nay”), Navajo, or just the People—can get together and share a projected dream.
But for one night in 2013, that changed. On July 3, the first movie ever dubbed into a Native American tongue was screened at the rodeo grounds on a giant screen bolted to the side of a ten-wheeler truck. Just outside of town, on Highway 49, sat the only poster advertising this historic event, on a wilderness billboard that for a time became the hottest roadside attraction on the Arizona–New Mexico border. “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope translated into the Navajo language,” it said, alongside a 1977 poster for the movie.
I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times, but on this highway from Gallup, out of my element and surrounded by brush-covered mesas, I could almost make myself see it through fresh eyes. The kid in white robes appears to be holding some sort of flashlight to the sky; a young woman in strange hair buns holds a gun and poses by his side. Behind them looms a giant gas-mask face with dead eyes and a Samurai helmet. What a strange dream this movie must be.
Just inside town is the Navajo Nation Museum, which spent the past three years persuading Lucasfilm to collaborate on this adaptation of Star Wars. I had to wonder why they persisted so long instead of choosing another translation project—and then I walked into the office of the museum director, Manuelito Wheeler, and saw a shelf full of Boba Fett figurines taking pride of place. Manny, as he is known, is a big bear of a guy with a stoic expression and silver flecks in his black ponytail hair. A more relaxed and unpretentious museum director you could never hope to meet. He called me “dude” from our first phone call. He told me he’d loved the original trilogy ever since he caught it on VHS in his late twenties. He can more than hold his own in the traditional geek bonding ritual of quoting Star Wars lines. (When I was running late for a subsequent meeting with him, we texted each other Death Star trench-run dialogue: “Stay on target.” “I can’t maneuver!” “Stay on target.”)
Wheeler could wax lyrical about the purpose of the screening, which the museum had conceived of as a way to nurture and preserve the Navajo language, but he also understood that in order for that campaign to be most effective, these matters needed to be approached the same way that Star Wars itself begs to be approached: with exuberance and lightness.
Not that the need to preserve the Navajo language is not dire. The people’s mother tongue, also known as Diné, is dying. Fewer than half of the three hundred thousand People of the Nation can speak it at all; fewer than one hundred thousand are fluent. Fewer than one in ten can read Diné. Back in George James’s day, kids were taught English in reservation schools and spoke Diné at home. These days, Diné is taught in schools, but kids of the twenty-first century don’t care to learn it. Why bother, when English fills their smartphones, tablets, and TVs? “We’re know-it-alls now,” Wheeler sighed. “We need to reinvent ourselves.”
What the next generation of Diné needed, he figured, was exactly what George Lucas felt the youth of the 1970s needed: adventure, thrills, good vs. bad, a fairy tale utterly divorced in space and time from the here-and-now, yet also grounded in familiar themes and myths. The story Lucas labored over for years was in many senses a product of its time and the eras that had preceded it, but the dream he captured on celluloid turned out to be utterly malleable and exportable. Star Wars might just have the power to make Diné cool again.
But isn’t this just a form of American cultural imperialism, in which Native people are surrendering to the forces of Hollywood? Wheeler has two words for that notion: “C’mon, dude.” Star Wars is not Hollywood. It is the brainchild of a staunchly independent, Hollywood-hating filmmaker in Marin County who recruited a bunch of young countercultural visual effects guys in a Van Nuys warehouse. The villain of this fairy tale, the Empire, was inspired by the US military in Vietnam; the Ewoks by the Viet Cong; the Emperor by President Nixon. The fairy tale was charmingly benign enough to mask that fact, and now every culture around the planet, whether embattled or entitled, sees itself in the Rebel Alliance. But the subversive story was there from the moment Lucas sat down to write his first draft. “Star Wars has got a very, very elaborate social, emotional, political context that it rests in,” Lucas said in 2012. “But of course, nobody was aware of that.”
And there’s another reason for the Navajo to embrace Star Wars more than most cultures. “There’s something spiritual going on here,” Wheeler says. He points out that Joseph Campbell, the giant of global mythology, steeped himself in Navajo culture. That was the subject of Campbell’s first book, Where the Two Came to Their Father (1943), published three years before The Hero with a Thousand Faces. If George Lucas was as influenced by that book as he claims, Manny says, “then Star Wars in Navajo brings it full circle.”
I asked Wheeler what the elders—seniors are highly esteemed in Diné culture—would think of the movie. He raised a finger, pulled out his iPhone, and showed me pictures from the cast and crew screening, a more intimate affair to which he had invited a hundred elders. He swiped through pictures of old women in bright azure and red dresses. “It’s a matriarchal culture,” he said, “so when Princess Leia comes on the screen and is this powerful figure, they get it.” Wheeler grinned and pointed to his grandmother. “And she really digs Obi-Wan.”
I was thrilled for Wheeler’s grandmother, but my disappointment was palpable. He wasn’t to know, but by inviting the elders to the private screening for the cast, he had all but torpedoed my last real hope of finding someone, anyone, who was a true Star Wars innocent.
The road that had taken me to Window Rock began just before the thirty-fifth birthday of Star Wars in 2012. During a meeting to plan coverage of this milestone at Mashable, the website where I work, it was discovered that one of our own—features writer Christine Erickson—had somehow never seen Star Wars. Our immediate reaction: How had she survived this long? All her life, Christine had heard incomprehensible phrases like “May the Force be with you” and “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Recalled Christine: “I used to have to just ask people what they were talking about.” Her friends’ reaction always fell on a spectrum “somewhere between scoffing and laughing.”
A familiarity with Star Wars—or at least the 1977 film, which has spawned enough sequels, prequels, TV adaptations, and other spin-offs to boggle the mind and to justify the book you now hold in your hands—is the sine qua non of our modern media-drenched global culture. Shame and scorn is the very least that anyone like Christine can expect. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘We can’t be friends anymore,’” says Natalia Kochan, a graduate student who somehow managed to miss the movie despite attending George Lucas’s alma mater, the University of Southern California.
I began to notice how Star Wars–saturated modern life is; references crop up in the oddest places. I went to a yoga class; the teacher’s short hand for the technique of ujjayi breathing was “just breathe like Darth Vader.” I went to Facebook for a press briefing on the algorithm that governs what stories we see in our news feeds; the executive explained it by showing how Yoda would see different posts from Luke Skywalker compared to the posts Darth Vader and Princess Leia would see on their feeds, because of the different familial relationships. Nobody in the room batted an eyelid. Star Wars had become the one movie series for which it is always perfectly acceptable in modern society to discuss spoilers. (Vader, by the way, is Luke Skywalker’s dad.)
Perhaps this is to be expected at Facebook HQ; its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was enough of a nerd to have had his bar mitzvah Star Wars–themed. But you need only peruse those news feeds to see how frequently Star Wars memes and references permeate social media. At the time of this writing, the original movie has been “liked” by 268 million Facebook users.
Or if you want to be more old-school about it, just turn on the TV. It almost doesn’t matter which channel. 30 Rock, Archer, Big Bang Theory, Bones, Community, The Daily Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Family Guy, Friends, The Goldbergs, House, Ink Master, Just Shoot Me, King of the Hill, Lost, MythBusters, NewsRadio, The Office, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, South Park, Scrubs, That 70s Show—all these shows and more have casually tossed around Star Wars references, written Star Wars–based plotlines, or produced special Star Wars episodes. The popular nine-year-old sitcom How I Met Your Mother spoke for whole generations in its obsession with the original Star Wars trilogy. The show’s hero learns never to date a woman who hasn’t seen it; the show’s lothario keeps a Stormtrooper costume center stage in his apartment. There was a time between the trilogies when Star Wars lived on the geeky fringes of society. No longer. Now, it seems, society is telling us that Star Wars gets you laid and mated.
Star Wars is every bit as important elsewhere in the world as it is in America. In the United Kingdom, there’s a popular TV and radio reality show on which guests are asked to perform some activity that they have to shamefully admit they’ve never done; the title is Never Seen “Star Wars.” Japan is particularly Star Wars crazy; in Tokyo I met an American who’d moved to the country to be with his boyfriend and was still met, years later, with near-constant mockery by the boyfriend’s traditional Japanese parents—not for his sexual orientation, but because the poor guy had never seen Star Wars. “They keep quoting lines of dialogue at me,” he complained.
We at Mashable couldn’t allow this state of ignorance and shame to continue for one of our own. Plans were made for a live blog. We’d show Christine the original movie. She’d tweet about it; we’d all chime in. The Twitter hashtag for the event was “#starwarsvirgin.” Mashable’s community was abuzz. What is Star Wars like through fresh eyes? Would Christine be blown away? Could we capture the elusive spirit of 1977, just for a moment?
Well, not exactly. Christine got wrapped up in the action, to be sure, but—well, so much of it seemed oddly familiar. Every big-budget special effects movie since Star Wars has employed elements from the original film—so many that they are now all recognizable tropes. (For example, the “used universe”—that style of making technology and futuristic costumes look real and dirty and lived-in—was a Star Wars innovation. Practically every science fiction movie since the early 1980s has borrowed it, from Blade Runner and Mad Max on down.) Nor have Star Wars virgins been sheltered from the world of advertising, which contains a burgeoning number of Star Wars homages. Verizon produced a Halloween ad in 2013 in which entire families dress as Star Wars characters, and the fact goes unmentioned, because doesn’t everyone? Christine’s response on seeing the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO for the first time: “Oh, so that’s where the smartphone comes from.” (Verizon and Google license the name “Droid” from Lucasfilm.) She recognized R2-D2 as a Pepsi cooler that used to live by the bleachers at high school. Darth Vader? Christine knew that costume: it was the one worn by that kid in the 2011 Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial. And yes, even she knew Vader was Luke’s dad already.
Every supposed Star Wars virgin has actually picked up an extraordinary number of spoilers in their lives—this was my hypothesis. I decided to test it in a larger experiment. For May the Fourth—Star Wars Day, an event first suggested by a British MP’s pun on “May the Force” in 1979, but really came into its own as a holiday for the first time in 2013—Mashable asked Lucasfilm and the petition website Change.org to collaborate on a screening of the original movie for #StarWarsnewbies (“virgin,” we decided, was too much of a hot-button word), held at the Change.org headquarters in San Francisco.
The first thing we discovered was how hard it is to find anyone in the Bay Area in the twenty-first century who had never seen any Star Wars movies. This was, after all, ground zero for the first culture bomb; it only took until the end of 1977 before the number of people who’d bought a ticket to see Star Wars in the city exceeded its 750,000 population. Even with the combined recruitment efforts of StarWars.com, Change.org, and Mashable, we managed to unearth just thirty newbies, alongside a much larger number of friends and relatives who simply wanted to watch them watch it for the first time.
Before the screening, the newbies were interviewed to determine just how much they knew. Again, they surprised us. “I know it’s out of order,” said Jamie Yamaguchi, thirty-two, a mother from Oakley, California, of the set of six films. “I thought that was kind of strange.” (Her parents’ strict religious code meant she’d seen few movies to begin with.) The characters she knew: Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Artoo, Luke, “the gold guy, and that annoying guy who speaks funny. Oh, and Darth Vader.”
Many answers were along the lines of this (also real) response: “Oh, I don’t really know any of the characters’ names—except for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda. That’s all I got.”
“I know the big reveal,” said Tami Fisher, a teacher at UC Hastings College of the Law and a former clerk to a California Supreme Court justice. “The father-son relationship between whatever their names are.”
“My kids asked me if Luke and Leia knew they were brother and sister,” said Yamaguchi. “I was like, ‘They are?’”
It’s increasingly hard to avoid Star Wars spoilers. They bombard us from birth whether we seek them out or not. A number of parents have come up to me during the process of writing this book and asked how come their younger kids know all the names of all the characters and planets in Star Wars and can recite the most obscure historical details behind almost every aspect of the franchise, despite the fact that those kids are too young to have seen any of the six movies yet. I’ve responded by asking either “Where did Luke Skywalker come from?” or “What are those teddy bear creatures in Return of the Jedi called?” When the parents answer “Tatooine” or “Ewoks,” I say, “There you go. That planet was never named in the original Star Wars; those creatures are never actually named in a Star Wars movie. You picked their names up someplace else.” (I found out what Tatooine was called at the age of four in 1978, years before I saw Star Wars, when I read it on the back of a cereal box; the revelation of the Ewoks came in a 1983 book of collectible stickers, months before Return of the Jedi.)
How far has this benign cultural infection spread? Is there anyone on the planet not carrying a little piece of Star Wars code in their heads? “We do not know how many individual people have seen a Star Wars movie in a theater,” a Lucasfilm spokesperson told me, “but we do know that there have been approximately 1.3 billion admissions over the six films worldwide.” That seems a conservative estimate, and it would be equally conservative to add another billion home video viewers on top of that, judging by the $6 billion the franchise has earned in VHS and DVD sales over the years. This does not even begin to count video store rentals or the vast market of pirated copies. How many billions more have watched it on TV, or seen an ad, or picked up one tiny piece of the $32 billion worth of Star Wars–licensed merchandise that’s cluttering up the planet? Or, to look at the question the other way around, how many billions, or millions, of people have managed to avoid every last one of these trappings of the Star Wars franchise? And just who are these people?
I was naïve enough to think I could just come to somewhere like Window Rock and catch wide-eyed innocents watching Star Wars for the first time. But that hope was dashed the moment the Albuquerque and Salt Lake City Garrisons of the 501st Legion, a charitably minded bad-guy Star Wars costuming organization, rolled into Window Rock after epic long drives, donned their uniforms, and marched into the rodeo grounds at sunset. They were met with rapturous applause from the packed bleachers—a welcome greater than any I’d seen the 501st get at a Comic-Con or Star Wars Celebration convention. They marched in alongside the lines of viewers that had been forming for hours in 107-degree heat—a Stormtrooper, a snowtrooper, a biker scout, an Imperial guard, a bounty hunter, and of course, one Dark Lord of the Sith himself. Darth Vader was mobbed, with babies pressed into his arms while excitable mothers took pictures on iPads.
I also noticed a bunch of enterprising kids selling lightsabers. They were wearing Stormtrooper T-shirts with the legend “These aren’t the Diné you’re looking for.” I asked Wheeler if the T-shirts were his doing, but he shrugged. He only made the sparkly “Navajo Star Wars” tops for the crew. He wandered off to have his picture taken with Boba Fett.
Help me, Elders, I thought. You’re my only hope.
And then, as the mesas turned from sunset crimson to twilight indigo and a lightning storm started to crackle in the distance, I met George James Sr., Iwo Jima veteran and Star Wars virgin. It was as if I’d just been introduced to a unicorn leaping over a double rainbow. It had to be too good to be true. I ran through a list of names: Skywalker. Solo. Lucas. Wookiee.
James shook his head at all of them, uncomprehending.
I pointed out the tall guy in the black helmet, who was now dealing with a line of guys pointing and tapping their throats: they wanted to take a picture for a popular Internet meme called Vadering, where you leap in the air and pretend to be force-choked by the Dark Lord. James was perplexed. He genuinely had no idea why the kids from his tribe were doing battle with glowing sticks. When Wheeler got up to introduce the local Navajo voice talent, I had to tell James that no, this is not the Mr. Lucas I had just been talking about.
Then, just before the floodlights dimmed and the Twentieth Century Fox logo appeared on the screen, something occurred to James. He had seen something on someone’s TV one time, he remembers, a clip from a movie set in space. “I saw wild birds,” he says.
Wild birds in space? What could that be? I think for a second. I hold my arms up and then down at 45 degrees. “Like this?”
James nods; his eyes light up in recognition.
Even eighty-eight-year old George James Sr., who lives in the mountains and sleeps under sheepskin in a home so remote that it is blockaded by snow for months at a time, was carrying inside his head a piece of Star Wars code—just like you and I and pretty much everyone else on the planet.
The Twentieth Century Fox fanfare ended, the screen went black, and an electric cheer went up from the crowd. Familiar blue letters appeared on the screen—but this time, for the first time in history, the phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” was rendered in words so alien they had once been banned by the US government, so unfamiliar to the rest of the planet that they were used in World War II cryptography:
That’s all it took. The crowd roared so loud that I could barely hear the blast of the theme’s opening chord. And Star Wars casually conquered one more Earthling culture.
This book is a biography of the franchise that turned Planet Earth into Planet Star Wars.
- "Exhaustive.... those of us more casually in tune with the Force will find more than a few tasty nuggets."—Wall Street Journal
- "Insanely microresearched and breezily written."—New York Times Book Review
- "An excellent look at the genesis of Star Wars.... [Taylor's] put together a volume that's honest and interesting--and one that's completely reignited my passion for Star Wars."—io9
- "An unconventional approach that serves to bring a spark of life that might otherwise go missing from a straightforward commercial or cinematic look at Star Wars."—Washington Post
- "Even obsessives will likely find much that's news to them ... worthy of being savored ... amusing ... reveals what a huge role serendipity played in Star Wars."—New York Post
- "Delivers a payload of information... you will find intense emotions in its observations of a battle for autonomy within corporate cinema, and to the public that swoons for Lucas' products."—San Francisco Chronicle
- "An immensely readable look at the worldwide impact of the Star Wars saga over the decades."—McClatchy
- "Taylor brings a genuine love of pop and nerd culture to this comprehensive retrospective on one of the 20th century's most popular film series.... Taylor has compiled an impressive collection of background research and insider info that any fan would be glad to own."—Publishers Weekly
- "Taylor's fan-boy enthusiasm coupled with his inviting narrative style make this a fun and informative read for sf enthusiasts, media studies and marketing students, film industry professionals, and aspiring Jedi Knights."—Library Journal
- "It's impossible to imagine a Star Wars fan who wouldn't love this book.... It really is hard to imagine a book about Star Wars being any more comprehensive than this one. It's full of information and insight and analysis, and it's so engagingly written that it's a pure joy to read.... There are plenty of books about Star Wars, but very few of them are essential reading. This one goes directly to the top of the pile."—Booklist (starred review)
- "A smart, engaging book...welcome reading for fans of Star Wars--or, for that matter, of THX 1138." —Kirkus Reviews
- "This is a wildly entertaining book, and if it's not the definitive history of the making of Star Wars, I don't know what is. But it's more than that: it tells a rollicking good story about storytelling itself, about the intersection between art and commerce, and paints surely the most complete and deeply felt portrait of George Lucas to date."—Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and A Hologram for the King
- "Smart. Eloquent. Definitive. This is the book you're looking for."—Lev Grossman, author of the New York Times bestselling Magicians trilogy
- "It's impossible to overstate the cultural, social and even political impact of Star Wars. It started as a balm for a people racked by moral confusion, a juvenile bolt hole for a nation with shattered self-esteem, but the blast wave of enthusiasm and love it inspired was to engulf the planet. Culturally speaking it is, quite simply, the Force. Chris Taylor's affectionate and hugely entertaining book tracks the phenomenon from inception to dominance and with a wry smile, asks us to 'look at the size of that thing!'"—Simon Pegg, actor and Star Wars fan
- "Every Star Wars fan should pick up a copy of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.... Taylor's extensive exploration of the history of Star Wars and the impact it has had on popular culture makes for an eye-opening and entertaining read.... This book remains a necessary item for any bookshelf."—The Wookiee Gunner
- "Whether they read the novelization of the first Star Wars before the film came out, like me, or were blown away by Revenge of the Sith, anyone touched by the most enduring space fantasy mythology of the past two generations will thrill to Taylor's passionate telling of the saga behind the saga: How a lonely tinkerer from a backwater town changed the world via interplanetary heroism. To Star Wars obsessives and those wanting to understand modern pop culture: this is absolutely the book you are looking for."—Brian Doherty, author of This is Burning Man
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2015
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Basic Books