This weekend, Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back producer/second unit director Gary Kurtz (he was the one who came up with the “Empire Strikes Back” title) will be a special guest at a Star Wars convention in Orlando honoring the 30th anniversary of Empire Strikes Back. Kurtz, who split with Lucas over a creative dispute while planning Return of the Jedi, recently spoke with the LA Times, opening up about the split, and how the Star Wars franchise might’ve been different if George Lucas hadn’t turned it into a machine for generating new toys, which he would use to lure neighborhood cats back to his racecar bed where he could eat them. Or something like that. Some of the highlights:
“I could see where things were headed,” Kurtz said. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.”
For Kurtz, the popular notion that “Star Wars” was always planned as a multi-film epic is laughable. He says that he and Lucas, both USC film school grads who met through mutual friend Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s, first sought to do a simple adaptation of “Flash Gordon,” the comic-strip hero who had been featured in movie serials that both filmmakers found charming.
“We tried to buy the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive,” Kurtz said. “They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.”
“Star Wars” opened with a title sequence that announced it as “Episode IV” as a winking nod to the old serials, not a film franchise underway, Kurtz said.
On Return of the Jedi:
“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”
The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.
Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy bear luau.
He was especially disdainful of the Lucas idea of a second Death Star, which he felt would be too derivative of the 1977 film. “So we agreed that I should probably leave.”
After seeing what he did with the Star Wars prequels and the last Indiana Jones, I’m shocked to hear someone describe George Lucas as obsessed with toys and overly self-referential. Shocked, I tell you. That teddy bear luau was retarded. It would’ve been way better if it ended with a teddy bear dance party at McDonald’s, a lá Mac & Me: