Producer Hank Starrs on the making of Star Wars documentary ELSTREE 1976
We all love Star Wars. Well, I’m fairly sure we all do anyway (most of us, at least). It’s been with us for 40 years and so much has been shared about the making of the film so what else is there to know? Well, if you take off the proverbial masks, there’s plenty of unique and untouched tales to be told, whether these are entirely related to Star Wars or not is up for debate, and that’s what makes Elstree 1976 an original, thought-provoking work of art.
Elstree 1976 tells the story of the community of British character actors who donned the costumes and uniforms in the original Star Wars trilogy. These people came from a wide variety of backgrounds and went on to have incredibly different lives.
Carl from Exit 6 spoke to Elstree 1976 Producer Hank Starrs.
The initial idea for the film came about when Elstree 1976 Director Jon Spira (Anyone Can Play Guitar) was teaching a screenwriting course in Oxford. It turned out that one of his students was John Chapman who played Red 12 Drifter in Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope.
“Chapman mentioned to Spira one day that he was in Star Wars and Spira’s response was a very clear, “Well, I didn’t see you in it”.
He took John out to his car and in his car boot were a bunch of photos – one of them was a picture taken Chapman himself sitting in the original briefing room in amongst all the big Star Wars stars.
It had piqued Spira’s interest that the people who were involved in the making of Star Wars often had these peculiar moments throughout their lives where they reference their portfolio in conversation, and are met with shrugged shoulders and the response “I didn’t see you in it”.
Starrs notes, “If you talk to anyone over the age of 30 they’ve got interesting things to tell you about their lives. You would, and I would, and any one would. If you take them seriously and talk to them about everything that they’ve done since they can remember, they will have something interesting to tell you. Most people will. Elstree 1976 was about those people and their lives, rather than the fact that they had been in Star Wars. Which is something more interesting than the making of the film itself.”
One of the big challenges with any non-fiction film is deciding what will make it into the final edit.
“It took us around a year to edit the film, and that was the problem. We had a lot of footage, the interviews were long. Most of them were two but in some case three hours long. At times, we considered dropping certain people, or changing the emphasis, and Jeremy (Bulloch) doesn’t come until later because of not being in the first movie, but he was Boba Fett. We had lots of arguments about the edit, it just takes a long time to get a film like that right.”
Many of the shots of the actors 'behind the scenes' shots were re-enacted for Elstree 1976.
"It was really good fun actually. I'd worked at a place in Swindon called the Wyvern Theatre which was built in the late 60s. We just chose that as a location and there happened to be a guy in Swindon who had a costume shop with a bunch of Star Wars costumes. I just chatted with him and we borrowed a load of them. Then we just got some of our mates to dress up. We just put up posters asking if anyone wanted to dress up as a character from Star Wars and come and be in our film. About 40 sheepish 40 year-old men turned up and said, 'Yes, we'll do that.'
If you are of a certain age (like me) you may have met David Prowse (the physical embodiment of Darth Vader) as the Green Cross code man – a brand created by the National Road Safety Committee to promote pedestrian road safety to children through public service broadcasts on TV.
“A lot of people did [meet him] and I think that he’s really proud of that. It was the first thing Spira said to him when they met to discuss the film, “I met you when you were Green Cross code man.” Prowse responded with, "Yes everyone says that!”
Tiny details are what make this story unique, like finding out David Prowse’s body building career ended because judges didn't like his feet.
“I think Dave Prowse’s story is really interesting because of where he came from, and his feet. He wasn't an actor either, but he was very successful with his gyms and that kind of stuff. He’s a self-made man. There’s a certain sort of Britishness about him that I really liked."
Elstree 1976 was funded, in part, by a successful Kickstarter campaign ran by Spira and Starrs back in 2014 but only released in the UK in late 2016 due to difficulties with distribution.
The reaction for the film has been a mixed bag.
"[The Star Wars fans] have certainly been the most critical. I mean some of them have loved it, because it just opens a new door to a world they hadn't thought about and they just think it's new angle. There's these new stories, stuff that hasn't been heard before. Some of them absolutely hate it because there's not enough Star Wars in it. We've had plenty of social media comments saying the middle 20 minutes of this film is great. The rest is boring. We've had people complaining that we didn't caption the voices and the toys right at the start, so they knew who was who.There are some people who just want to buy Star Wars toys and watch Star Wars cartoons, and they don't get it, but anyone who's interested in seeing something more than just pictures of stormtroopers has really liked it.
The amount raised via Kickstarter was £40,000, but the final total budget was around £140,000, which meant we still had to raise another £100,000 to finish the film. Hank's biggest lessons learned on Elstree 1976 came after the making of the film. Taking your film to market and getting distribution is something filmmakers need to have a plan for, in the same way a shooting schedule is established in pre-production.
“Basically the problem was that no UK distributor was making the right offer. The money raised via Kickstarter was not enough! We needed more to deliver it to the international market, the insurance and all the physical deliverables, the paperwork and registering the copyright.”
"You need to know about the legal deliverables – so that’s the bits for the Digital Cinema Package and all the different sound mixes. There's a thing called a title search, which checks the originality of your chosen title. Then you receive a 30-page document saying, ‘No one else has used that title,’ and entitles you the use of that title. You need to know in advance how much that will cost. I think the cost of delivering to a distributor or a sales agent is just a lot more complicated and expensive than independent filmmakers realise. You need to budget for that and be prepared for it, if you want to be able to sell it around the world.”
This however hasn't put Hank off from doing it all again with more projects in the running and pending announcement.
“We've got two [films] that we should know whether we've got good deals for in the next month or so, and then we've got a few really odd, crazy, sort of indie type films we've just started making ourselves because we don't like to wait. Things like raising money take ages and we don't like to wait, we just want to make stuff.”
Watch the Elstree 1976 trailer and find out more about the film at elstree1976.com.
Keep up to date with Starrs and his future projects by following him on Twitter @HANKSTARRS