Feature Article: The Story of Star Wars - Part 4: "A Desert Planet"

Published June 8th, 2017 - 11:10 GMT
The heat is on. (Lucasfilm)
The heat is on. (Lucasfilm)

The Complete "Story of Star Wars":

Part 1: "Out of the Past"

Part 2: "Annikin Starkiller"

Part 3: "A Cohesive Reality"

Part 4: "A Desert Planet"

Part 5: "What a Load of Rubbish"

Part 6: "Darth Farmer"

Part 7: "Binary Sunset"


Casting took half a year.

Lucas brought in a young actor named Harrison Ford to feed applicants lines and explain to them the concepts so that they could make sense of their dialogue. Ford himself was out of the question; ignoring his friend Coppola’s advice, Lucas sought unknowns for his movie, and Ford, having been cast in American Graffiti, didn’t quality.

They were looking for someone energetic and “bright,” able to portray integrity, for Luke Starkiller. Han Solo needed to be someone more cynical and rugged. Finding actors with real presence was important, making sure that the actors shared chemistry even more so.

The casting process was taking place alongside that of a friend of Lucas’s—one Brian De Palma, working on a little feature called Carrie (1976). A lot of the actors who tried out for the parts have since become household names, including William Katt—who ended-up in De Palma’s film—Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Billy Dee Williams (later an actor in the series himself).

One actor, however, gave it something a little different. Mark Hamill was a 24 year old TV actor who had come to the audition flummoxed by the lines. One of them, in particular, would stick with him for decades:

Hey, kid,” Han Solo says. “We should turn back.”

But we can’t turn back,” says Luke. “Fear is their greatest defence. I doubt if the actual security there is any greater than it was on Aquilae or Sullust, and what there is most likely targeted towards a large scale assault.” Hamill went for broke, deciding to deliver the dialogue sincerely, lending the part a wholesome aura. Lucas took to it.

Ford, meanwhile, kept feeding actresses lines. Those hoping for the part of Princess Leia included Amy Irving, Cindy Williams, Terri Nunn (later lead singer of Berlin), and Jodie Foster. But what became apparent was that Ford—who was playing Han Solo with a sort of stylish cynicism—actually fit the role very well. It was clear he understood the part—that he got the difference between Hamill’s doe-eyed optimist and the cynical, selfish antihero Han Solo. It began dawning on Lucas that maybe Han Solo was sitting right in front of him.

And from the actresses came one Carrie Fisher. She was the daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, a Hollywood baby who played Leia—princess, and feisty soldier—with a self-assurance that won her the part…provided, of course, that she’d go to a “fat farm” and lose ten pounds.

The studio wasn’t happy with Lucas’s choices—there were too many new faces. They demanded someone more well-known to anchor the production. The sensei archetype, named Obi-Wan Kenobi, “required a certain stability and gravitas,” said producer Gary Kurtz. This seemed like a good opportunity to bring someone with stripes in.

The role would eventually go to Alec Guinness, after Lucas’s first choice, Japanese actor and The Hidden Fortress star Toshiro Mifune, declined the part. Guinness was a theatrical actor who’d appeared in Shakespearean plays in London, opposite actors like Laurence Olivier. He left the theatre to fight in World War II, was promoted to officer, and partook in large-scale assaults such as Operation Husky. He returned to the Old Vic after the war before beginning a career in film, playing roles for David Lean in films such as Oliver Twist (1948), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Great Expectations (1946), adapted from his own widely successful play (itself an adaptation of the 1861 Charles Dickens novel).

In short, Guinness was a seasoned professional. He did, however, have his stipulations. A larger cheque would be needed. He also requested that he never be asked to do any promotional work for the film.

And for the rest? The production would largely take place in England, which meant the casting of local British actors. Among these were Peter Cushing, chosen for his lean features, as the callous Grand Moff Tarkin; Anthony Daniels, a trained mime who largely joined because he was struck by concept art of the character he’d be playing, the affable droid C-3PO; Kenny Baker, half of a musical comedy act, to manoeuvre the friendly robot R2-D2, cast for his ability to make the droid seem happy; Peter Mayhew for Chewbacca, hired for his considerable height; and bodybuilder David Prowse for Darth Vader, the film’s antagonist.

Above: The finished Ralph McQuarrie painting that convinced Anthony Daniels to join the cast. (Lucasfilm)

Above: Anthony Daniels testing the suit. (Lucasfilm)

Above: Assembling C-3PO. (Lucasfilm)

Above: Kenny Baker sits next to a disassembled R2-D2 suit. (Lucasfilm)


The production arrived in Tunisia in March of 1976.

Lucas had originally envisioned the planet on which the film’s opening scenes take place—named Tatooine— to be a jungle. Practical considerations had prompted revising the concept into a desert, inspired by Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965). So here they were.

Tunisia was a coastal state in northern Africa. It had been independent from French colonialism for twenty years, but still very much operating in the language. To this messy history came a science fiction production, populated with a confused British-American cast and crew. Everyone was uncomfortable and feeling slightly lost; there was a lot to do and build, and doubts that any of it could happen on time.

Things did not go well.

Maybe the first and most obvious thing was the heat. The sun rose hot on March 22nd on Chott el Djerid, an endorreic basin of salt water near the Sahara, where principal photography began. The cast was in costume, over under layers of clothing. Temperatures quickly became unbearable.

Above: Mark Hamill helps Daniels take a sip of water. (Lucasfilm)

Above: Alec Guinness escapes the heat with a towel. Lucas gives direction.

Above: Dealing with the heat. (Lucasfilm)

Things were tense on the ground, too. Lucas, preoccupied with the complexities of production, hadn’t had time for cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, so Taylor had, two weeks prior, begun experimenting with how to film the movie, including its lightsabers, on his own. Because of the amount of process work that would follow the shoot and his desire to “ground” the fantastic in a palatable style, he would settle for widescreen compositions and clean lighting, thinking crisp footage would facilitate post-production.

This hadn’t harmonized with Lucas’s vision for the film; Taylor and Lucas, in fact, didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything, and the decisions Taylor had made created tension on set.

Worse was protocol. Lucas, unused to the traditional filmmaking system, would often adjust lighting and shots on his own. Taylor thought Lucas was overstepping his boundaries—if Lucas wanted something fixed, he said, all he had to do was say so. Shot not clear? Don't tell me how to fix it; just explain what’s wrong with it. He had a “crotchety” attitude towards his American director, who he saw as upstart and impolite. And yet time and again Lucas would reach for the lights, an independent filmmaker’s mindset taking over.

A grim omen appeared on the second day, when the Sahara was swept with a sudden rainstorm—the first in fifty years—delaying production. Lucas thought he'd seize opportunity: he'd shoot the film in a “diffused” style, adding colour and heavy filtration. Taylor resisted, saying the film had to look clean. They argued. Things got so heated the studio intervened, backing Taylor.

Desert winds were blowing down the sets. Robot R2-D2 models weren’t working properly due to bad radio signals—the droid would travel in a three-legged position, but be unable to turn its head. Principal photography proceeded in one area while sets were constructed in another, never with the confidence that schedules would match up. More and more props failed. Getting a shot right became a victory.

Above: An R2-D2 droid in action. (Lucasfilm)

Filming continued in Tonzeur, Matmata, and in desert areas around Nafta—all with malfunctioning equipment and an ever-increasing failure to adhere to schedule. The production began to fall behind a week into the shoot, and crew began getting desperate, impatiently awaiting an end to the Tunisian shoot.

Suddenly, it was over—two and a half weeks in, the Tatooine scenes wrapped. Relief flooded the crew, which looked forward to a more controlled production environment at Elstree Studios.

For his part, Anthony Daniels had sensed trouble early. He had just put on the C-3PO suit for the first time when it malfunctioned, the left leg piece falling against the protective plastic and stabbing him in the foot. To add insult to wobbling injury, the costume covered his eyes, preventing him from seeing anything. Remnants of worry persevered. “I began,” he said, “to panic about the days to come.”

Above: Helping C-3PO move. (Lucasfilm)

Above: Tunisian Stormtroopers. (Lucasfilm)

Above: A rare moment of relief: celebrating Alec Guinness's birthday, April 2nd, 1977. (Lucasfilm)

NEXT: "What a Load of Rubbish"

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