TV and Movies

How the first Star Wars fan got his own adventure on film

Patrick Johnson saw the original Star Wars before anyone else. But creating a film based on that experience proved harder than escaping a sarlacc.

Three months before "Star Wars: A New Hope" opened in 1977, Patrick Read Johnson, then a teenager from Illinois, got to see a working print at Lucasfilm effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Technically, he's the world's first Star Wars fan.

Johnson's semi-autobiographical film "5-25-77," a loving homage to Star Wars and other '70s sci-fi films, opens for a limited US release on May 25, 2017, the 40th anniversary of Star Wars. The movie, about teen filmmaker Pat Johnson, played by John Francis Daley of "Freaks and Geeks," delighted audiences at early screenings. But it's the story behind its 13-year making that might be even more epic.

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Episode IV: A new pitch

Johnson, a lifelong film fan who put together homemade remakes as a kid, went on to direct "Spaced Invaders," "Baby's Day Out" and "Angus," and co-write the story for "DragonHeart."

Though he achieved some success in Hollywood, he took a break from the industry in the late '90s and moved his family back to Wadsworth, Illinois.

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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 the movie opened in theaters.

In the summer of 2004, cameras started rolling. Johnson got then-teenage actor Daley (Sam from "Freaks and Geeks" and later Lance from "Bones") to play the lead. After filming 75 percent 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.

Episode V: The prequels strike back

"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. Though there were times he thought he should let it go.

Episode VI: Return of the Pinto

Over the years, Johnson screened rough cuts of the movie at festivals in a bid to convince his collaborators the film was worth finishing. In 2007, "5-25-77" screened at Star Wars Celebration IV.

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John Francis Daley plays Pat Johnson in the semi-autobiographical film "5-25-77".

Roger Larsson

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.

The screening generated buzz in the indie film community. Then 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.

In the years since Johnson started filming "5-25-77," Star Wars went from being beloved to being belittled because of the prequels and then to being a big business again.

In 2015, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" recaptured the mojo of the original trilogy and introduced Star Wars to a new generation of fans. This past winter, "Rogue One" continued the excitement of the reboot. In December, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" will land.

Episode VII: The Lightman awakens

So how did Johnson get to be the original "Star Wars" film's very first fan?

As a kid, he started remaking films he liked. For his homemade version of "Jaws," he used a gallon of concentrated dye in a swimming pool to create the "bloodiest shark attack ever filmed."

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Some of the cast of "5-25-77" take a break in their costumes.

Roger Larsson

His mother, a champion of her son's childhood cinematic feats, eventually contacted Herb Lightman, then executive editor of American Cinematographer magazine. Lightman, played in "5-25-77" by Austin Pendleton, got Johnson a meeting with then upcoming filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

During his Los Angeles visit, Lightman and John Dykstra, ILM's visual effects supervisor, brought Johnson to ILM, which was finishing up visual effects for "Star Wars."

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Patrick Read Johnson (center) gives notes between scenes to a group of Stormtroopers.

Roger Larsson

Sitting on a popcorn-covered second-hand 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 made him believe in his own potential as a filmmaker.

"'5-25-77' is at its emotional core," Johnson said, "about the struggle between hope and despair. 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.

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