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Three months beforeopened in 1977, Patrick Read Johnson, then a teenager from Illinois, got to see a working print at the Lucasfilm effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Gary Kurtz, who produced the first Star Wars film, would later dub Johnson the world's first Star Wars fan.
Johnson's autobiographical film 5-25-77 is a coming-of-age story that doubles as an homage to '70s sci-fi films. When Johnson was a kid, he made short sequels to films like Jaws and 2001: A Space Odyssey using his dad's old windup camera. He used whatever he could find around the house to make models and special effects.
In 5-25-77, teen filmmaker Pat Johnson is played by a 19-year-old John Francis Daley of Freaks and Geeks and later Bones. During an interview with Johnson for CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast on Friday, I came to realize that it's hard to separate Johnson's life from his film. The story of his nearly two decades spent making 5-25-77 is as much an adventure as what's on screen.
A Hollywood director makes his passion project
In the '80s and '90s, Johnson achieved some success in Hollywood. He directed Spaced Invaders, Baby's Day Out and Angus, among other films. He also co-wrote the story for DragonHeart. In the late '90s he took a break from Hollywood and moved his family back to Wadsworth, Illinois.
It was there he got the idea to make an American Graffiti-style movie about '70s films. He pitched producer Gary Kurtz, the man behind Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Crystal. Kurtz pushed Johnson to use his "first Star Wars fan" status as the hook for the movie -- later named 5-25-77, the date that first Star Wars movie opened in theaters.
In the summer of 2004, cameras started rolling. Johnson got then-teenage actor Daley to play the lead. After filming 75% of the film, production was halted because the film's financier ran out of money. Shortly after, another series of problems emerged: the Star Wars prequels.
The prequels strike back
Even though 5-25-77 is intertwined with Star Wars, it's not really about Star Wars. It's more like Dazed and Confused for '70s kids who wanted to make films. But for better or worse, 5-25-77 is linked to Star Wars. And kids who grew up on the original trilogy remember when the prequels were released and things got bad.
"By the time we were finished with our initial production, Star Wars had become, believe it or not, our worst selling point," Johnson said.
The bad reputation of the prequels made 5-25-77 a liability to film sellers and distributors. They didn't want anything to do with it.
"There was never a time I wanted to give up," Johnson added. There were times, though, that he thought he should let it go.
A Pinto, a projector and lots of miles later
Over the years, Johnson screened rough cuts of the movie at festivals in a bid to convince his collaborators that the film was worth finishing. In 2007, 5-25-77 screened at Star Wars Celebration IV.
Then, in 2012, Johnson made a cross-country trip in the Ford Pinto featured in the film. He held impromptu screenings of 5-25-77 along the way and made changes to the edit. The screenings generated buzz in the indie film community, and in 2013 Johnson screened the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
All these showings kept the film alive and reinforced Johnson's belief that he could finish the film's visual effects, reshoots and music if given the chance and the money. But it was really the money Johnson needed to secure rights and royalties to the film's pop-music soundtrack.
Then in 2015,recaptured the mojo of the original trilogy and introduced Star Wars to a new generation of fans. Spinoff films like continued the excitement of the reboot. And years later, showed how Star Wars could be successfully adapted into a live-action series for the streaming service Disney Plus.
And in 2019, Johnson secured the money he needed to finish the film.
The screening that changed everything
So how did Johnson get to be the original Star Wars film's very first fan? As a kid, he remade films he liked. For his homemade sequel Jaws 2 he used a gallon of concentrated dye in a swimming pool to create the "bloodiest shark attack ever filmed."
His mother, a champion of Johnson's childhood cinematic feats, eventually contacted Herb Lightman, then the executive editor of American Cinematographer magazine. Lightman, who is played by Austin Pendleton in 5-25-77, got Johnson a meeting with then up-and-coming filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
During Johnson's Los Angeles visit, Lightman and John Dykstra, ILM's visual effects supervisor, brought him to ILM, which was
Sitting on a popcorn-covered secondhand couch, Johnson watched a working print of the unreleased film.
"The film only had production sound and tons of un-composited blue screen shots," Johnson said. "Shots from the films The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron were cut in to guide the visual effects team through shooting the attack on the Death Star."
Seeing Star Wars helped Johnson believe in his own potential as a filmmaker.
"5-25-77 is at its emotional core about the struggle between hope and despair," said Johnson. "It's about believing and believing and believing without fail that you can get there from here, so long as you never, never, never quit."
The same can be said about Johnson's passion and resilience.
You can listen to my entire conversation with Johnson in the podcast player above. 5-25-77 can be seen in limited theaters starting Sept. 8. Over the coming weeks, the film will expand out to more theaters and festivals. 5-25-77 is also available to buy as a DVD or BluRay.
Subscribe to I'm So Obsessed on your favorite podcast app. In each episode, Connie Guglielmo or I catch up with an artist, actor or creator to learn about their work, career and current obsessions.