With elaborate sets, impressive make-up and special effects, and hundreds of extras, George Lucas’ Star Wars was a mammoth undertaking. But since its release, so much of the history of the film has boiled down to its star qualities: the now-famous actors, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, and director George Lucas. English filmmaker Jon Spira’s documentary Elstree 1976 is more interested in holding up the unsung aspects of the franchise — the actors and bit players, many of whom were concealed under Stormtrooper masks, alien make-up, or even Darth Vader’s suit. Speaking from the U.K., Spira told Men’s Journal about tracking down many of the former extras, the lost art of special effects, and the enduring “magic” of Star Wars.
How did the idea for Elstree 1976 come to you?
I met a guy in a pub who told me he’d been in Star Wars. As I got to know him better, I found out he attended conventions and sold his autograph to people all over the world. That was my doorway into this incredible world where people are elevated to a very high status despite having a pretty microscopic involvement in what would become a cultural juggernaut. This community and situation just really cried out to be looked at.
Were you surprised by the success of your Kickstarter campaign?
I was. We raised more than we had expected. But what really surprised me was the level of emotional support our backers have given us. They’re amazing people who believe in supporting projects that probably wouldn’t have got funded by the mainstream.
You say this is “not” a documentary about Star Wars. What is it then?
The film is about what happens to normal people when they find themselves unwittingly attached to a massive cultural phenomenon. How it changes them, frustrates them, enlightens them, and, in some ways, defines them.
Elstree 1976 gives many of the extras and stunt doubles the screen time they never got in the first place. Why?
Everybody in the world deserves recognition. I guess one of the points this film makes is that everybody — no matter how insignificant they might seem — has a story of great value. Interviewing is a passion of mine. Sitting down with a complete stranger and finding out who they are and what made them that way is a fantastic thing to do.
There has been an enormous shift to CGI in Hollywood. What do you think has been lost by this transition?
I think CGI is great but, honestly, when I was a kid, part of the magic of cinema was the literal magic, going, “I know that’s not real, but how the hell did they do that?” I really miss that sense of wonder.
What do you think of The Force Awakens, the recent Star Wars reboot?
I enjoyed the new Star Wars film. It did a good job in kind of capturing the tone of the originals but, ultimately, that first film in 1977 was a passion project. It was made by artists. From Lucas to the director of photography, to the incredible sound design and special effects, the costumes, the creatures, this was a pastiche of films that Lucas had grown up with, it was made with love and — again — passion. Star Wars is now a billion-dollar industry.
So it’s gone corporate?
I’m not denigrating that, as it makes a lot of people happy, but the difference is that the newer films — despite the love and passion that go into them from everyone involved — are built to emulate or pay homage to the vision of one young man from the 1970s. So, as close as they might come — and as fun as they will be — they’ll never have that pure vision of the original.