Johnson — who would later go on to direct a handful of major studio movies including Spaced Invaders (1990) and Angus (1995) — has fashioned this most unlikely, albeit completely true story into his latest feature film, 5-25-77. Named after the original release date of Star Wars, the autobiographical movie tells the story about how his fateful, weeklong trip to LA forever changed his life.
Together, Johnson and Lightman visit Spielberg and Trumbull on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The editor interviewed the filmmakers while Johnson got the chance to operate the movie’s spaceship. Lightman then attempted to persuade Johnson to strike out on his own for a tour of Universal Studios while he visited the set of another movie the following day.
Johnson: He said, ‘You don’t want to go with me. It’s just a bunch of college kids in a warehouse in the valley and they’re doing it all wrong. It’s a space movie and — get this — it’s called Star Wars.’ We busted up laughing because the title was ridonkulous….
And I said, ‘You know, I came out here to see everything I could possibly see, so let me tag along.’
The duo visited the original offices of Industrial Light and Magic, where they were greeted by special-effects master and frequent George Lucas collaborator John Dykstra. Johnson recalls Dykstra as being a crazy man who talked a mile a minute. He was unable to share any still photographs from the movie, but offered the next best thing — a chance to watch an incomplete, work-in-progress version of the film.
Johnson: And he starts showing literally a rough cut of the movie, with no composites done. The star destroyer is up against a blue screen, and there’s no music. There’s no sound effects. You can hear Kenny Baker inside R2-D2 talking. You can see the grips outside the Millennium Falcon just shaking it. It’s just ridiculous, but it’s also amazing. It’s staggering.
Bennett says on his first proper viewing he was blown away by the movie’s finished sound effects.
Bennett: I think we ran it the night before it came out. We had a full crowd. The opening of it is one of the most impressive openings of a movie ever. It still is. You got to remember that Dolby stereo was new. In the very beginning, it comes out with the 20th Century Fox drumroll, and that’s in stereo.
And then it got quiet and it ran through the opening crawl, ‘In a galaxy far far away.’ Then it gets real quiet and at first it’s just stars, then it pans down onto a planet and all of the sudden that big star cruiser comes in from behind you and it would start on the rear speakers behind, and it just went, ‘Whoosh!’ And it went all the way up to the front speakers and you could tell. It was impressive.
Despite Bennett and Johnson’s glowing initial reactions, the film did not earn entirely positive reviews.
In his advanced review of the film, which ran in the Greensboro Record on June 21, 1977, columnist Charles Newman opined, “Star Wars is a three-scoop sundae with gobs of whipped cream and extra maraschino cherries. It’s sheer extravagance, utterly without higher significance, but delightful.”
Months later, when it was clear that Star Wars was a runaway cultural phenomenon, Russ Edmonston, staff writer for the Greensboro Daily News, assailed the film in a think piece titled “Why is this plotless flick such a successful force?”
The old guard had simply missed the point. Winston-Salem comic book artist Ben Towle says the plot of Star Wars is deceptively simple.
Towle: I love the fact that you are just sort of dropped into this crazy environment and they don’t kind of explain everything. There’s just this understanding that you are a smart person and you will figure it out. Even if you’re just a smart kid. And I think that comes from Lucas watching a lot of [Japanese filmmaker Akira] Kurosawa movies.
You can watch one of those things, and you don’t need to know about feudal Japan to know what’s going on.
Aside from the fact that great cinematic art does not require a plot in order to exist, Star Wars excelled at being a mash-up of genre and character archetypes. Propelled by impeccable design aesthetics, a gloriously symphonic score by John Williams and, of course, innovative visual effects. With Star Wars, writer/director George Lucas had created a cinematic stir-fry, combining elements of space operas, family drama, Westerns and samurai movies, all on the extended platter of a vintage movie serial.
And yes, the movie made a lot of money — both around the world as well as here in the Triad.
Bennett: I remember people walking in [to the Janus Theatre] and yelling, ‘42!’ talking about how many times they had seen it.
In comparison, Johnson had only managed to watch Star Wars in the theater a paltry 28 times. But he and his filmmaking friends made it their mission to ensure that everyone in their hometown had a chance to see the movie.
Johnson: I remember driving down the streets of Waukegan, Ill. on Scoop the Loop night, and asking people, ‘Have you seen Star Wars?’ And if they would say no we would take them and rush them over to the theater and pay their way and we would drag them in there and make them watch Star Wars. I was an acolyte. I was a monk.