Phil Hawkins, the writer and director of Star Was: Origins, talks to us about the making of his Indiana Jones and Star Wars mash up, the effort and belief required to pull together a fan film of such unprecedented scale and ambition, and how the British film industry should do more to support homegrown action/fantasy blockbusters.
George Lucas has a lot to answer for.
Not only has his 1970's space opera so profoundly permeated culture and society here on Earth that it has created a multi-generational fan-base and (almost) spawned its own religion, it has inspired countless filmmakers working in film today, with more looking to make their mark on the industry tomorrow.
Phil Hawkins is one such filmmaker. Alongside experienced producer Gary Cowan of Velvet Film, they’ve spent years working together to create a unique fan film. While the internet has long been awash with fan-made films that explore the Star Wars universe in their own way, Hawkins has created something quite different. So enamoured with Lucasfilm's galaxy far, far away, he's merged it with their other much-loved world set right here on Earth - albeit one set towards the middle of the last century.
Star Wars: Origins is the Star Wars and Indiana Jones mash up we didn't know we needed. It's a fan film striving for the same production value of the films it pays honour to, and it's released online today. If the response to the trailer that dropped a few weeks ago is anything to go by, the release of the film should make quite a splash.
"The success of the trailer blew me away. You hope when you stick something on YouTube that it finds its own audience instead of you just pushing it on Twitter all the time, because it gets to a point where my seven friends and my mum have watched it five times and then that's it. This just seemed to take a life of its own and some mainstream media film journalists wrote articles about the trailer. We even had Kevin Smith's studio Legion M push it for us as well.
I think it definitely captured something in people. I was kind of nervous to release it when we did because we released it a few days after The Rise of Skywalker trailer came out and I hoped that we wouldn't get lost but really it seemed to help fuel the buzz. Now we're releasing the film a week before the next and final Star Wars film in the saga, and hopefully, it gives fans a little bit of excitement to whet their appetite before that comes out."
While Episode IX will close the curtain on cinema's greatest saga, Origins offers something new to viewers which is more than just the usual fan service the medium expects. As a filmmaker with feature and commercial credits, the project had to speak to him as a professional as well as a fan.
For producer Cowan too, it was an opportunity to break out of the mould of the 30 second commercial spot that he’s spent a lifetime making to create something that reflects a changing modern audience. It’s clear that these were important aspects for Hawkins and Cowan, who hope the film afford them a platform to showcase skills as filmmakers telling blockbuster stories in a medium often associated with more amateur productions.
"It's definitely the first, and possibly even the only, fan film of this scale and ambition out there and I don't say that to boast, I say it because I'm a professional filmmaker. Before the trailer came out, I think there was maybe a little bit of sniggering going on amongst some of my contemporaries thinking, "This guy has done features and commercials, why's he doing a fan film?" I think in their head it's people dressing up as characters we know and fighting in the forest.
I've tried to make something slightly different, something that exists in its own right. These are characters and a story that don't rely on very obvious Star Wars characters or story-lines, nor can you say this film takes place between Episodes III and IV and we know who the characters are. I wanted it to really exist in its own right and that's why it was important to do an origin story because if you ask me, where does this exist in the timeline, I would say this film invents the timeline."
While fans will always give any new Star Wars content the benefit of the doubt, and it's Phil's hope that his twist in the tale will be met well by audiences. It's usually the case that short films are made to be seen by festival audiences, and the success of getting into said festivals then becomes part of the marketing for the film. Instead, Hawkins and his producer Gary Cowan will be hoping Origins gets plenty of eyes on it from the moment it's released online - including those at Lucasfilm.
"In terms of distribution, it was always going to just be YouTube. In terms of strategy, it was basically let's try and entice people from the trailer, get people talking about it, and then hopefully when we launch, there's a nice buzz about the film. I know Lucasfilm are aware of it, from a few different sources.
Lucasfilm has a history of being absolutely wonderful for filmmakers like myself, compared to owners of other properties where projects have been shut down or tried to be shut down. They're always open as long as you don't make money from it and you don't defame the spirit of Star Wars.
Lucasfilm has held a fan film festival themselves, encouraging filmmakers to make short films, for which there's a rule-book and guidelines based on that film fest. We've looked at that and followed those but it comes down to don't try and make any money because you don't own this and appreciate the gift that Lucasfilm has given filmmakers to allow them to play in our favourite world."
Playing in that world, and doing it the justice any filmmaker worth their salt would like to accomplish, does mean significant funding. However, accessing a ready-made and potentially rabid fan-base via crowdfunding was not something Hawkins ever considered.
"While a lot of fan films have been funded by Kickstarter and the like, Lucasfilm explicitly said as part of their rules to not use crowdfunding websites, so we didn't. In any case, the amount of money we would have needed to raise was never going to happen. I think crowdfunding websites are fantastic for filmmakers and I know there's been some very popular ones with huge amounts of money raised by some very successful campaigns, but it just felt like a lot of work in itself to campaign with a risk of not getting anything at the end of it.
I was very lucky that I direct commercials and was able to basically work my butt off and raise a portion of this money myself. Obviously, I know that's not an option for a lot of people but it was a viable one for me albeit the budget always expands [laughs] especially on a personal project, so the amount of money needed ended up being a lot more than we hoped."
As already mentioned, Hawkins is a professional filmmaker with both commercials and feature films under his belt, including The Four Warriors and The Last Showing. How did making Origins, a short film of huge scale, compare to making his feature films?
"It's the hardest thing I've made. Emotionally, obviously financially [laughs]. It's very different spending your own money making a film. When making features, I always try to spend money as if it's my own. I feel like I'm being entrusted with this budget by investors and producers to deliver the film to the agreed amount, but it's very different when it's actually your own cash. I'm spending my own money but I'm also spending that of Gary Cowan, a dear friend and a long-time collaborator of mine. I was very, very, very lucky that early on, he wanted to get involved because obviously, he's a Star Wars fan and also a producer of commercials wanting to do something different. There was a personal pressure in that regard.
In terms of the demand of the sequences, the locations and just the challenges of shooting in the actual Sahara Desert and we were shooting some of the Jeep chase sequences in literally 50-degree heat. It was a very gruelling shoot, I lost pretty much 90% of my crew to sickness throughout. There were days when I didn't have the actor I needed, I couldn't fly the drone because that person was ill, but the spirit was there."
I'm reminded of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana is faced down by a sword-swinging henchman. Due to illness at the time, Harrison Ford was unable to actually fight in the scene so instead the dazzling display of swordsmanship was met with a tired gunshot. Hawkins takes heart that he faced some of the same challenges met by his predecessors. It's heart that was needed to pursue with the film despite budget and logistical challenges, as well personal considerations to navigate.
"When I wrote the film, it was just me and my wife Jessica. Then we fell pregnant with twins, so we pushed the shooting back and obviously, the fans, the pressure of having babies, so it's been over three years of stress. Obviously there's been loads of times where I've thought, "Is it worth it? Should I be doing this? Should I be spending all this money and basically everything I have [laughs] to make this film" because it's a complete gamble, an absolute gamble.
You hear about these people putting their houses on films and you think, "God, why are you doing that?" I've not gone that far, but you can see where that temptation comes from, especially for a personal project that you have to believe 100% in or it'll never happen. All those nights and days and hours, thousands, thousands, thousands of hours I've spent in my office, working out this film and all the stress that came along with it.
Now, there's just a sense of relief that I'm so happy with the film and that's unusual for a filmmaker because you always want to fiddle, you always want to tweak. The film has been shot with compromises, but we didn't miss anything. I didn't have to change any sequences. It's exactly what I wanted in my head and you don't get to say that very often. That's a very rewarding thing to finally put out there."
The release of the film means Phil can finally show of his cast that includes Jamie Costa, Maria Everett, Philip Walker and Hadrian Howard. You might recognise Costa as the impressionist who has gone viral with his uncanny impersonations of Robin Williams and Harrison Ford. In fact, his likeness to the original Han Solo has seen him play a young version of the smuggler in another Star Wars fan film - but that's not what drew Hawkins to him for Origins.
"Obviously, because he has a following, especially within fan films, he gets a lot of requests but I think the reason why he was attracted to this project was because I didn't want him to do an impersonation. I saw a lot of his work and saw his skill and said, "Right, I now want to see Jamie Costa". Yes, we're riffing on Indiana Jones but we're not making Indiana Jones. I think that's why he really enjoyed coming on board.
Marie Everett is one of the longest collaborators on this. I auditioned her three years before the film was actually made. I wanted to find her first and she wonderfully stuck by the project even though I had to keep emailing and saying, "Look, I am so sorry. I am having to push the shoot back by this much" or "I'm having to push it because I've got twins". [laughs] She was getting married as well but she stuck by it. Her performance is wonderful. She's really taken to it, and Jamie has too.
Hadrian Howard, who I worked with on a film before, is our villain. It's very hard to play the bad guy, and do it in a way that is a nod to the theatricality of Indiana Jones and the Star Wars villains, but because he does it so well, I don't think he's going to get enough credit for how critical that is. He does it brilliantly and was obviously enjoying every second of it."
Hawkins very much sees this project as a calling card to the blockbuster gatekeepers in the industry to show them what he can do. He also feels very strongly that the British film industry in particular should be doing more to support action and fantasy blockbuster films created and funded here, rather than simply servicing American-backed productions.
"I've been very open about the fact that I want to make commercial movies. I want to make big, tent pole studio movies because those are the movies I grew up on. I grew up wanting to be a filmmaker and watching Star Wars, watching Jurassic Park, watching Back to Future, watching all these amazing, big-budget, blockbusters. People don't like to talk about commercial filmmaking in this country. I feel like there's a lot of support for art house and smaller dramas, but you try and make a film like Origins [chuckles]. There is a lot of snobbery in the British film industry. Why do you think we lose a bunch of our talents to the States?
We as a film industry always pull the wool over our eyes and go "Well, we are making film. We are making studio films. We made the Bond films, we made the Star Wars film, we made the Harry Potters". Yes, but we don't have any ownership of those films. They're American movies. Just because they're shot in here doesn't make that an industry. It makes us a service industry.
We've got amazing technicians, amazing crews, amazing facilities but it's not helping us fund our own industry. It's not helping us go toe to toe and make a John Wick for example [chuckles]. You try taking the script of John Wick to BFI, you'd be laughed out of the building, and that's a shame because we can make those films. I don't think the British film industry should be mutually exclusive to servicing American film and also only making smaller release films. Where is the ambition?
Without Origins, I don't think I'd ever get the chance to make a big Hollywood studio film. I've had to make my own opportunity and hopefully, that pays off."
Now that the film is completed and ready to take the world by storm, after such a long and stressful process, what advice would Phil go back and give himself at the start of this journey? I have to interject and add he's not allowed to say 'don't do it'.
"Don't do it [laughter]. It's a very interesting question, I've not thought about this.
I think one bit of advice would have been not to try and do everything myself so early on because I felt like I had some something to prove, almost to myself, but then to others to try and bring them on board this crazy project. There was a bunch of times especially when I was writing it and working on it, that I was always stressing myself out thinking, "How am I going to do this? How am I going to make this? How is this going to work as a producer but also as a director?"
It was early in the grand scheme of things. It was early in the process when I spoke to Gary about coming on board and bringing his team on. When they did, the sense of relief I had was wonderful. It felt like I'd been obsessively working away myself and driving myself crazy. Then to be able to bring on an experienced team of other producers and a filmmaker like Gary, who's been making films for longer than I've been alive, and that wealth of knowledge just lifted the project entirely and allowed me to focus on being the director, and not being a producer because producing a film is a mammoth task.
Also, maybe to tell myself to kind of roll with the punches a bit more in terms of every time I delayed the film, I felt like I was failing it. I was always delaying for very good reasons, which made the film better, but every time it felt like by delaying it, I was losing momentum. They always say stick your first shoot day in the diary and don't move it, that everything will happen towards it. With a film like this, that was impossible with all the variables involved.
We had to become a licensed weapons importer for Morocco by another country. We had to negotiate with the Moroccan army for their vehicles and tanks, of which they are absolutely wonderful but that takes time. If right now we we're doing it and I didn't have my gun, I didn't have my armour, and I didn't have my tanks I would have hurt the film. Sometimes I think having a little bit of patience and not such crazy deadlines is a wonderful thing".
One deadline day that has arrived is the worldwide release of the film on YouTube - how will Hawkins be spending the occasion?
"I'll be there for the live premiere where you'll be able to join in and engage and watch for the first time with hopefully a bunch of other people Then, probably trying not to obsessively keep refreshing comments the rest of my day! When the trailer came out, my phone did not stop buzzing for days. People were sending me lovely messages. It's so fun to make something as a filmmaker and have an immediate response. I've been very lucky to have made feature films and have them released and seen out there but that's not an instant feedback loop. You won't be able to refresh a BluRay and see how many people watched it or comment in real-time. It's like a drug. I find that instant feedback fascinating.
I'd like to say I'll relax and let the film do its thing then maybe wake up the next morning and see how it's doing but I think I'll probably be opening a nice bottle of wine and sitting with my laptop to see how everyone responds!
Watch the Star Wars: Origins premiere on YouTube.
You can follow Phil on Twitter: @Philmblog