The Book





Beyond George Lucas: Writers of the Star Wars Saga

Star Wars is the brainchild of a single man, no doubt. Yet the influences of a handful of other people are continuously underestimated. Even the original film--often considered one of the "purest" examples of the series for the way Lucas almost single-handedly spearheaded it into existence--can arguably have its screenplay attributed directly to many other individuals; in fact, this film may be among the most collaborative of them all. Its immediate two sequels, of course, were shaped enormously by Lawrence Kasdan, in addition to a brief writing stint by Leigh Brackett. And, let us not forget, four more individuals participated in those two films' story conferences: Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, Richard Marquand and Howard Kazanjian. Even on the prequels, we can still look to Jonathan Hales' brief role as the polisher of the much-maligned Attack of the Clones. In this piece we will be examining the lives and influences of these individuals.

Star Wars:


The Movie Brats, The USC Circle and the San Fransisco Indies


Three interrelated groups of people; the first, the so-called Movie Brats, refers to a select circle of young directors in the late 70s who grew up weaned on the films of generations past--supposedly the first generation of American filmmakers who engaged in this sort of post-modern cultural self-referencing. These filmmakers came from all corners of the country, yet like many art movements, somehow they all invariably became a circle of mutual collaborators. These include--in addition to George Lucas--Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese. Second, the USC bunch--the mid to late 60s saw an unusual amount of USC grads who would come to have enormous influence in Hollywood in the decades to come, most of them having come from the same classes and nearly all of them constituting a mutual social circle. These include John Milius, Walter Murch, Willard Huyck, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins (in addition to others such as Howard Kazanjian). The third group overlaps with the USC crowd--the San Francisco independents, many of whom were members of American Zoetrope when it was founded in 1970. These include Carole Ballard, Phillip Kaufman, and of course their ringleader, Francis Ford Coppola (who was a student at UCLA), in addition to the USC grads that were part of this group.


What do all these people have to do with Star Wars ? When Lucas first started making films, he would attempt to script them himself--when this inevitably failed due to his lack of capabilities as a screenwriter, he would turn to others to write his scripts for him. Oliver Hailey did a draft of THX when Lucas' own draft turned out unsatisfactory, and Richard Walter did a draft of American Graffiti when Lucas' own draft turned out unsatisfactory. In both cases, the screenplay that the hired writer did was purportedly worse than the version Lucas did himself, due to Lucas being unable to properly articulate how he envisioned the films. "Star Wars was a little bit different," he told Starlog in 1981, "because by that time I'd decided that it was useless to try to get someone else to write my screenplays...I finally gave up!" Having learned his lesson, Lucas found a new approach: he would have co-writers only in the indirect sense, where he would have others give input into the storytelling approach, but then write the script himself so he could act as the filter and integrate the suggestions in a manner that suited his own tastes.


In this, all of the above mentioned people had a hand in indirectly scripting Star Wars to varying degrees. Lucas would bring them his latest draft, and listen to their suggestions; they would recommend what they thought the story needed, where things were boring or confusing, which characters worked and which characters didn't work and where the screenplay needed to be improved. This was a fundamental part of the Star Wars scripting process, as shown in Secret History of Star Wars and my article Nature of the Beast , and should not be underestimated.


Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz-Huyck


Lucas was friends with Willard Huyck during film school, which also brought him into contact with Willard's then-girlfriend. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who eventually married, were a pair of writers that Lucas has often relied upon in his career, capable of crafting warm and human characters and playful dialog above all else. The two of them developed the treatment to American Graffiti with Lucas, with the Huycks poised to write the script as well--due to circumstance, Lucas had to write the script himself, but the Huycks were luckily able to re-write the final draft to give the film its snappy dialog. "The scenes are mine, the dialog is theirs," Lucas has said. While writing Star Wars, the Huycks were among the many friends Lucas relied upon for feedback, and being professional writers and old friends of his, their opinions may have been among the most precious. When Lucas traveled to Los Angeles--probably for meetings with Fox--he was sure to stop off at their place and have them read his script. "We'd say, 'George, this character doesn't work,' " Willard remembers, "and George would go 'Uh-huh' and make a note, and then fly home." But the Huycks take a special category--they did an uncredited re-write of the final script, similar to Graffiti. When Lucas had done his fourth draft in preparation for shooting, he requested that the Huycks go through and improve the dialog, make it snappier and funnier. About 15% of the dialog is estimated as belonging to them. They later also visited Lucas in England during shooting (possibly influencing the script further--Lucas was re-writing it throughout the first half of the production). Fox was already nervous about the film and Lucas didn't want them to know he was having others re-write it so he swore the Huycks to uncredited secrecy.


Where are they now? They both later wrote the script to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; Willard Huyck was lucky enough to find himself in the directors chair a few years later, for another George Lucas project--Howard the Duck! After the notorious film bombed he apparently ended his career, though he has a credit listed for a television production due in 2010.


Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi


Leigh Brackett


Of all the individuals who have written for the series, none is more debated than the contributions Leigh Brackett made. Indeed, it is very difficult to ascertain her influence on the final film, and she--yes, you wouldn't be the first to assume she is a man--remains a bit of an enigma in Star Wars history. As a bit of background, Brackett had originally been a science fiction author in the 1940s. She wrote dozens of novels and short stories, her most famous works being her "Eric John Stark" series, similar to Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter and Tarzan characters. Her earliest stories were crude by most standards, but as she became more comfortable in her craft she began to explore more ambitious tales, often noted for their strong imagination and sense of adventure. Most of her stories--often published in serialised magazines such as Planet Stories--were of the space opera genre, or else had a romantic and fantastic twist to them, but her most famous is the novel The Long Tomorrow , from 1955, about a simple, technophobic society that arises from the ashes of a devastating nuclear war (ironically being uncharacteristic of her usual style and subject matter). She has often been compared to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Brackett also wrote a number of non-sci-fi stories, showing her versatility as a writer--in fact, her hardboiled crime stories were what attracted Howard Hawks to hire her for The Big Sleep, the classic film noir based on Raymond Chandler's novel. Roger Ebert wrote, “Working from Chandler's original words and adding spins of their own, the writers (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) wrote one of the most quotable of screenplays: It's unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it's so wickedly clever."


Her stories have also been noted for their sharply drawn characters with tight dialog. This should not be surprising: in addition to being a sci-fi author, she was also a professional screenwriter from Hollywood's golden era, and co-wrote the witty character dramas of Howards Hawks Rio Bravo (Quinten Tarrantino's favourite film), El Dorado, and The Big Sleep , for which she shares credit with Nobel Prize winning novelist William Faulkner. Her signiture banter was among one of the models the Huycks used for their snappy Graffiti dialog. Brackett's role for Hawks was slightly versatile--for instance, while writing Big Sleep , Faulkner would do one scene and she would do another scene, alternating, and it has been said that Hawkes would often hand off to her scenes to do or polish, often from the set, since he enjoyed improvising, in effect making her contributions episodic in nature. Because interviews with her are so rare, I have included a few excepts from one of the last interviews she gave, right before she was hired for Star Wars II; it can be viewed here .


Brackett returned to writing sci-fi pulp, and married Edmond Hamilton, himself a noted science fiction author. By 1977, the aging Brackett was retired and living in Los Angeles, and would be dead from cancer in only a few short months; her husband had himself passed away earlier that year. According to John Baxter's Mythmaker, she was brought to Lucas' attention by a friend, who put a paperback in Lucas' hand and said "here is someone who did the Cantina scene better than you did." It is not known if Lucas was actually familiar with her sci-fi work. Lucas was on the lookout for a writer for Star Wars II, so he got in contact with Brackett. Baxter describes their telephone conversation as follows:


Lucas: Have you ever written for the movies?

Brackett: Yes, I have. Rio Bravo, El Dorado, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye...


Lucas: Are you that Leigh Brackett?

Brackett: Yes. Isn't that why you called me in?

Lucas: No, I called you in because you were a pulp science fiction writer!


Lucas was looking for more than just a pair of hands for the typewriter, however--he was looking for a genuine partner for the franchise. Lucas at that point envisioned the series as a franchise that could continue for an indefinite amount of chapters, and saw himself as only a minor player in the storyline construction, which would be steered by other writers and directors who could have fun playing in the world Lucas had created. When he hired Leigh Brackett they began by holding story conferences for a week. Lucas, in fact, had only vague ideas for Star Wars II and the future episodes, and during that week of brainstorming together, Brackett not only helped come up with the basic backbone to Empire Strikes Back but also gave input for future plot points in the series. Here we get into some controversy, as it is at present not entirely clear which ideas should be attributed to Brackett--the entire story conference sessions were, in fact, tape recorded and transcribed, but they have not been published nor excerpted (one hopes that Rinzler's upcoming Making of Empire Strikes Back includes clarification here). One of the more interesting bits is that Brackett's screenplay includes such unconventional elements as the ghost of Luke's father appearing to Luke to induct him in the Jedi ways. Brackett's draft is also the only one that includes the plot point of Luke having a twin sister who is training to be a Jedi on the other side of the galaxy--this point having been developed in the story conferences (again, it's unclear if this should be taken as a Lucas idea that Brackett integrated or an idea Brackett came up with herself during the conferences--more likely, it was a back and forth development).


Brackett wrote her draft in the new year of 1978, with the plan, according to Gary Kurtz, being that she would do two drafts and then a polish. Her only completed writing was a handwritten first draft, with "Star Wars sequel" scrawled in pencil on the first page. She was hospitalised just as this draft was being typed up for Lucas to read. When he called her to discuss the script, he found out she was in the hospital; not long after she passed away. Lucas has said that he was unhappy with her draft--it sticks faithfully to Lucas' treatment, which he wrote following the story conferences, and is pretty similar to the final film in terms of plot, but supposedly the screenplay's character and tone was different, and this is perhaps where Lucas found fault with it. It is hard to detect any influence on the final film--Lawrence Kasdan has said that nothing of it survives. Lucas basically re-wrote the script himself from scratch--basing his draft off his own treatment--and so this seems likely; Kasdan then based his own drafts off of Lucas' re-start, making Brackett's work in effect an evolutionary dead-end.


Brackett, however, remains credited for Empire's screenplay--a move that supposedly was made out of generosity so that her estate would receive royalties from the film. It has probably immortalised her name more than all her novels ever did. But even if her screenplay itself did not influence the final film, fans should be indebted to her for helping Lucas come up with the plot to Empire and also giving him ideas for future episodes in the story conferences. Brackett specialist Jerry Weis has once said: "Jedi Master Yoda is pure Brackett."


For further reading on Brackett, I might recommend Bertil Faulk's informative and swift overview of her work, available here.


Lawrence Kasdan


While Lucas gets kudos for Star Wars, the brilliance of Empire Strikes Back owes a debt of gratitude to Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote both Empire and Jedi and also gave us the magnificent screenplay to Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the smartest and most charming genre homages ever written. Kasdan had an unlikely career. Born in 1949, Kasdan graduated from the University of Michigan with an MA in education--planning on becoming a teacher. However, unable to find work, he eventually took a job as an advertising copywriter, a career he stuck with for five years, much to his dismay. On the side he pursued his hobby of screenwriting--his script, Continental Divide , had the luck of reaching the hands of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg realised what a brilliant writer the young Kasdan was, and kept his eye on him. When Spielberg joined George and Marcia Lucas in Hawaii in May of 1977, Lucas made him an offer to direct the "Indiana Smith" adventure movie that he and Phillip Kaufman had brainstormed in 1975. Spielberg agreed and immediately brought young Kasdan onboard. In early 1978, just as Brackett was off somewhere writing Empire Strikes Back, Spielberg, Lucas and Kasdan began having story conferences for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan then went off on his own for a number of months and returned with the brilliant first draft of Raiders. When he met Lucas to hand over the draft, Lucas made him an offer to take over the writing duties of Empire, since Brackett had recently died. In all honesty, this was a matter of convenience--it was mid-1978 already and Lucas didn't have any other writers available. Kasdan asked Lucas "what if you read Raiders and hate it?" to which Lucas replied he would withdraw the offer--but Raiders was more than Lucas asked for and he was hired immediately.


Kasdan, like Brackett, was not just a Lucasfilm employee hired to type out Lucas' draft--he was involved in story development. In late 1978, almost a year after the conferencing with Brackett, a second set of conferences took place, this one involving Kasdan, director Irvin Kershner and producer Gary Kurtz. Lucas explained the plot and what he wanted from the film, while the others offered suggestions to improve it, the mutual agreements being that the film should be slower and more serious. Kasdan's main contribution, according to Kershner, was in the dialog department, giving the characters his trademark wit and subtle complexity. He returned some weeks later with his first few pages, which Lucas and Kershner then tore apart and made him re-write. By early 1979, Kasdan had taken Lucas' crude draft and turned it into a compelling character drama. Kasdan was perfectly suited to the franchise--he understood myth and old-fashioned genre, and loved Kurosawa films, yet he also had a knack for witty dialog and was an expert at making characters three-dimensional beings, and he was able to jump onboard the fast pace that Star Wars films moved at. He was just what the series needed.


He would return in 1981. Kasdan was retiring from screenwriting at the time, having already directed the hit Body Heat and looked forward to moving on as a director. However, Lucas was in need of a writer again--he had done a few drafts of Revenge of the Jedi himself--and Kasdan was willing to help out the man who had basically given him his career. A story conference session was held to decide on how to improve on Lucas' drafts, and Kasdan then turned in the final two revisions. Jedi may be a much more weakly written film than Empire , made as a final chore more than anything and hence not exhuberating as much passion or personal involvement, yet Kasdan still managed to find ways of making the characters more human and ensuring that they stayed at the center of the movie. He also did his best to make the dialog ring as true as possible, a difficult task when one is writing a scene where Luke has to tell Leia she is his brother. If there is any one person with an equal status to Lucas in the two sequels, it is Lawrence Kasdan.


Kasdan went on to make The Big Chill, which earned much acclaim, as well as The Accidental Tourist, which saw him get a Best Director nomination at the Oscars. His last film was the forgettable Dreamcatcher, but for the most part he has been the most successful of the Star Wars writing alumni; he returned to writing-for-hire for the first time since Return of the Jedi with Robotech, due to be released soon.


The Directors and Producers: Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, and Gary Kurtz and Howard Kazanjian


Not to be underestimated are the script influences of the above four people. While not to be credited on the same scale as Kasdan, they nonetheless had a highly important role in shaping the two sequels--in fact, Kurtz had some influence on the original film as well (among other things, he helped orient Lucas' conception of the Force). On Empire, Kurtz and Kershner were both involved in the second round of story conferences, with their main concern in making sure the film was slower-paced and more character-oriented, giving the script a more adult feel. Kershner specifically focused on characters; Kasdan complains he is not quite as good a writer as he thinks he is, but nonetheless working together a strong harmony developed that shows through in the final film. Marquand has been written off as a puppet director for Lucas, yet he also had his own ideas for Jedi--it is due to his suggestions that Yoda is in the film, since in Lucas' early drafts he simply dies offscreen; Marquand felt that Luke's vow to return to finish his training was set up so strongly in Empire that it should be followed up on, so the classic Dagobah scene was written in by Kasdan. Kazanjian's presence, on the other hand, seems to be more of a formality, yet we cannot write him off completely, as he may have shaped the script in subtle ways as well. Had Abaddon, urban capital of the Empire, was likely cut out of the film due to budget reasons, a decision the producer may have been suggesting, for example.


Where are these men now? Kershner was a noted independent director in the 1970s and knew Lucas from teaching part time at USC; after Empire, he entered the big budget Hollywood scene and made a string of relatively unsuccessful films, such as a James Bond sequel (Never Say Never Again) and Robocop 2, before retiring. Marquand was a British director, best known for Eye of the Needle, but sadly died in 1987 and has sort of been forgotten by Star Wars fans. Kurtz and Kazanjian both came from USC--in fact, Kazanjian would go on double-dates with Lucas when he was first dating Marcia. Kurtz produced some very interesting films after Empire, such as Return to Oz and Dark Crystal, which both suffered from the same managerial problems Empire did, and ultimately flopped at the box office. He retired after--or couldn't find work, it’s not clear.


Attack of the Clones:


Jonathan Hales


Most people seem to consider Attack of the Clones the weakest of the six films, and with the worst script of the series as well--ironic, since it is the only prequel that involved any additional input in the screenplay stage. Lucas took so long writing Episode II that by the time he had finished the handwritten rough draft cameras would be rolling in only two months. He scrambled to re-write a few more drafts in the miniscule time in between, but Lucas was also the director and executive producer of the film, which had an enormous production to oversee all the way on the other side of the world in Australia--Lucas simply had too many other duties, and the writing was more or less abandoned rather than finished. This is why Jonathan Hales was brought in to polish up the script. Hales is still a rather unknown figure in the franchise; he was in his 60s at the time of working on Attack of the Clones, and was known to Lucas from his stint as one of the writers of Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in the early 1990s. Hales had begun his career in the 1970s, writing mostly British television and then a string of Agatha Christie adaptations before finding his way to Lucasfilm. Lucas held story conferences with Hales for a day or two, in which he explained to him what he wanted from the film and how to go about it. Hales then went and polished Lucas' draft; Lucas then phoned him from Australia with recommendations, and from Hales' second pass, Lucas re-wrote the script yet again as shooting commenced. The screenplay was delivered to cast and crew just days before production began--no one had seen the script before this. Since sets were already built and the shooting schedule devised and filming imminent, Hales must have had little room to maneuver. He appears to have retired from the industry, but not before he got in his last credit--sadly for the story for 2002's Scorpion King. In fact, that film had to have extensive additional scenes filmed since the rough cut clocked in at under 90 minutes.


Special Mention:


Marcia Lucas


Marcia Lucas deserves a special category of her own. She is perhaps one of the most important elements to the early cinema of George Lucas, and was fundamental in keeping his films warm and human and in keeping himself grounded in reality. An Oscar-winning editor herself, who cut both American Graffiti, Star Wars, and Return of the Jedi, as well as editing Taxi Driver, New York, New York and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, she balanced out Lucas' more technical interests by reminding him of the fundamental emotional resonance needed for a story, and was a key check during the screenwriting processs. Mark Hamill remembers, "She was really the warmth and heart of those films, a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of, who would tell him when he was wrong."


EDIT: A dedicated article on her is available here.


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