Culture

The fascinating stories of the X-Wing extras who were never stars, but were in 'Star Wars'

A long time ago, in a film studio far, far away, a ragtag alliance of unknown extras donned alien masks to shoot a low-budget sci-fi movie. New documentary "Elstree 1976" tells their stories -- CNET chats with director Jon Spira.

In 1976, a group of actors and extras gathered in north London and unexpectedly entered cinematic history. Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

"How many actors can say they've got their own action figures?" For the bit-part players, extras and walk-on actors who arrived at North London's Elstree studios in the hot summer of 1976 to film an unheralded sci-fi movie, they never knew they would end up immortalised in plastic and still talking about it 40 years later.

"Elstree 1976", which arrives in selected US theatres and on-demand this week, is a new documentary that explores the fascinating and poignant journeys of the anonymous aliens and ex-X-Wing pilots who were never quite stars -- but were in "Star Wars." We saw the film and caught up with director Jon Spira to talk about his love for crowdfunding, the dark side of conventions, and how the real-life Darth Vader went from Dark Lord to black sheep.

"They're an interesting bunch," says director Spira of the actors who in "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope", released in 1977, brought to life George Lucas' aliens and creatures. The sandtrooper tricked into thinking those weren't the droids he was looking for. Biggs Darklighter, his big scene left on the cutting room floor. The ill-fated Greedo. The rebel who appears in the same scene twice, in two different uniforms. Darth Vader, with a distinct regional accent. And the stormtrooper who got the job because he fitted into someone else's costume, only to become infamous for hitting his head.

"Elstree 1976" tells the story of how this eclectic group of actors worked, studied or brazenly chanced their way into show business. But whether it's turning to bodybuilding to recover from tuberculosis, hanging out at one of John Lennon's bed-ins, or dancing while pregnant on legendary British rock'n'roll show "Ready Steady Go", this group of actors all have interesting stories to tell even before they get to a little movie they filmed in the fateful summer of '76 -- and afterwards too, even if those aren't always happy stories.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

There are plenty of lovely details about the making of "A New Hope" that only this group of people could share, like the smell of the perspex sets melting in that summer's heatwave, the Stormtroopers dodging work because the costumes were too hot, or the extra who didn't recognise George Lucas and dispatched the soon-to-be-legendary American director to fetch him a coffee. But this is a story about people rather than a making-of documentary.

"We're in an age of documentaries that are so intensely factual," says Spira, "and I never see documentary like that. I don't really believe in the idea of truth. The notion of a documentary telling the truth is ridiculous because it's all about perspective."

(L-R) Horror legend Peter Cushing, director George Lucas and star Carrie Fisher on the set of "A New Hope" with David Prowse, the British bodybuilder who went from dark lord of the Sith to "black sheep of the Star Wars community". Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

So how did the project start out? "My original plan was to just interview X-Wing pilots," says Spira. "If you research that bunch of extras and actors they're all incredible and they all have amazing stories. One of them runs his own think tank, one of them [former actor Drewe Henley] had mental illness problems and married Felicity Kendall. Crazy stories. But they wouldn't do it. So I said, 'OK, in that case it's got to be the Star Wars experience in general,' and we decided to cast the net wide. I've got this theory that anyone is interesting -- if you interview anyone they've got a story."

For Spira, Star Wars is only the starting point for the portraits of the people involved. "[In] the first cut of the film I had this idea that I didn't want to have any reference to Star Wars at all. My idea was that I just wanted to build up portraits of these people so you cared about the characters, but it didn't work. To make a film in which people going in have an expectation about its content and to put nothing in there at all, it made it slow and it made you wonder why you should care about those people. So I put just enough Star Wars in that it feels familiar."

The film does feature clips from the Star Wars films, but presented in a way you may not have seen them before. "I wanted to take the clips and do something different with them, to reframe it," says Spira, "because I think we're all so used to seeing Star Wars. We know those shots so well. It's seared into the retina of our generation. So we thought how can we take these images which are so familiar and make you see something completely different in something which you know so well? That was the central idea of the film, so it was really good to be able to do that aesthetically as well."

I ain't in this for your revolution, and I'm not in it for you, princess

The film looks at how actors and extras of that era approached acting as a job like any other. "What's interesting is if you talk to them a lot of people feel that is something that has disappeared," says Spira. "That generation of actors came up through repertory theatre [local theatre companies], which meant that back then, if you wanted to be an actor [in the UK], you could get full-time employment really easily. In the 50s, 60s and 70s if you wanted to act it was not difficult. We had a huge theatre circuit in this country. Rep theatre paid you a fairly decent wage, and we had loads of TV back then, and you could go from job to job quite easily. But all that stuff is gone now."

Several of the actors talk about how happy they are working but staying out of the spotlight. "I fully believe them when they say they don't want to be famous," says Spira. "They're just not those kind of people. They're character actors. And you don't get so many of those these days, even in cinema. It's become very good-looking, and very straightforward...Being famous was not the same as the craft of being an actor. When you talk to them the feeling is that the new generation of people who want to act just want to be famous."

Although he's not actually in "A New Hope", one of the actors featured is Jeremy Bulloch, who played taciturn bounty hunter Boba Fett in sequels "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi". Bulloch's life story illustrates the diverse and sometimes unlikely backgrounds of actors from that era. "He was the son of mushroom farmers," says Spira, "and because he did so badly academically they sent him to stage school. He was a child star in the 50s, he was in [BBC TV show] 'Billy Bunter', he was one of the kids on the bus with Cliff Richard in [the 1963 film] 'Summer Holiday', he was Billy Fury's drummer in his rock 'n' roll films. He was in this amazing film called 'Spare the Rod'; the only other time I've ever heard it mentioned is Morrissey talks about it in his autobiography.

"I don't know if I should even say it, but Jeremy was the lead in a sex comedy in the 70s as well, called, 'Can You Keep It Up for a Week?' Jeremy's never stopped working."

It's not just Star Wars that Spira reframes to focus on the guy in the background, to show that that blurry face has a whole life you probably never thought about. One actor, Derek Lyons, went on to appear briefly in a host of films you've probably seen a million times, from "Quadrophrenia" and "Flash Gordon" to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", via several James Bond and Superman films. "He's kind of the Forrest Gump of the story," laughs Spira.

Conventions and the warring stars of Star Wars

After Star Wars, the performers' paths were just as diverse and interesting as the paths that brought them together. They faced addiction, depression, a failed restaurant and acting jobs from "Superman" movies to road safety adverts. One of the group dated Christopher Reeve and another invented a martial arts system.

Paul Blake, who played Greedo, appeared in the long-running but famously cheap British soap opera "Crossroads". Spira set out to find a clip -- with no help from Blake, who couldn't remember exactly when he was in it. "I ended up tracking down the whole of 1984's 'Crossroads'," shudders Spira, "and then watching every single episode. [Blake] found it hilarious! He's coming to the premiere, so I'm going to ceremonially give him all of those DVDs, because I never want to see them again!"

British actor Paul Blake appearing at the Scandinavian Sci-Fi Game and Film Convention in Gothenburg to sign autographs and talk to fans about his appearance in "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope". Julia Reinhart/Demotix/Corbis

Nearly 40 years on from "A New Hope", the actors aren't as young as they once were. Some of the interviewees are candid about what it's like to still be working as an older actor "and the indignity that's put upon you," says Spira. Jeremy Bulloch describes how as an older actor, your potential roles change. "He said he did [an advert] for a nursing home and that was quite sparky. Boba Fett is advertising nursing homes, and he's fine with it!"

One avenue to have opened up for the performers is the world of science fiction and fantasy conventions -- much to their surprise. "Generally it came as a complete shock to them -- and kind of still does," says Spira. "Some of the stuff that I enjoyed most in the interviews, and I don't know if all of it made it into the film, is you got the feeling they'd had to learn certain things. Laurie [Goode] in particular had no interest in Star Wars. Laurie was a model and an extra, he did Star Wars and he thought it was a kids' film and he was kind of aware it got big, but he didn't care. He was off doing other stuff, and it was only when he got dragged into doing conventions that he thought, 'Oh God, I've got to watch these films.' There's a brilliant bit in the interview which didn't make it into the film where he's talking about 'The Empire Strikes Back' -- and he can't remember the name of the film!"

But even the most minor character still resonates with fans. "Fans are really obsessive. I mean they really, really are and it's really actually nice," says Spira, who understands why fans connect to even the most minor players from the films. "The truth is they were on that set, they were at that moment in history, and there's no denying that Star Wars is culturally significant and important. So any perspective is interesting. Star Wars is such well-covered territory in terms of the making of, the mythology of the film, I think for a lot of fans to get into the DNA of it is really interesting."

Fans are often enthusiastic to meet their heroes, but that doesn't mean times are always good for those performers who had smaller parts. "The first time they do one of those things, because they're a first-time signer they get an awful lot of attention and they make a bit of money as well, because there are so many people who want their autograph. But then after a couple of times business can be slower, and there's nothing more vulnerable than putting yourself out there and saying, 'I will sell you my autograph,' and the response being, 'Who are you?' It's such an incredibly vulnerable position to put yourself in. You're asking for humiliation."

"It took a long time to capture the conventions in the way that we wanted to because they're quite difficult places to film in, and I really wanted to get across the isolation that they can feel sometimes. They put [the actors] in quite large spaces and if they put all the less popular people together it does create this weird vacuum. You see them just sat by themselves, with their iPads, or they read the paper, and there are whole times when no-one goes near them.

"It's one of the most interesting things to sit with those guys because there's a whole range of emotions, it's like four seasons in a day," says Spira. "If someone comes and talks with them and wants an autograph they're so good with [the fans] and they come alive, they spend a long time talking and telling their stories, and then 10 minutes later people are just ignoring them or just walking past and staring. You can see it in their faces: 'Why am I here?'"

But while fans are eager to meet anyone with a connection to their favourite films and TV shows, there can be some tension behind the scenes. "That element of it took me by surprise," says Spira. One interviewee in the documentary seems bitter about the presence of extras at conventions, complaining that those who had a bucket on their head are more popular than those who actually had their face in the movies.

"One of my worries about the film is that Angus [MacInnes] appears to be the only one speaking out about it, and it seems like to a degree he starts to seem like the bad guy," Spira says. "But the truth is that he was one of the only people willing to go on the record about it, and it's definitely there. It definitely exists. The time I spent with that community, going to conventions, spending time with them, you see it. You see it in the interactions between people. You see the hierarchy. Even in seating."

Having witnessed it from the other side, Spira is ambivalent about the convention experience. "I love that there's so much passion there, I love that people enjoy them, but I think there's a darker side to it, and you see a strange form of validation, a strange form of rejection, which can be quite harmful."

One of the more controversial figures featured in the documentary is David Prowse, the former bodybuilder who lent his imposing frame to baddie of all baddies Darth Vader. Now 78, Prowse recounts tales of standing up to Stanley Kubrick on the set of "A Clockwork Orange" and practising his famous duel with "A New Hope" co-star Sir Alec Guinness, "like kids fighting in the back garden." But his memories of Star Wars are not all so rosy. "Towards the end of his interview," recalls Spira, "he was getting really quite dark in the things he was talking about and it was slightly uncomfortable."

Actor David Prowse, who portrayed Darth Vader, signs autographs. Mario Anzuoni/Corbis

Prowse offers his view of the infamous redubbing of his marked regional West Country accent by American actor James Earl Jones. And he also claims to be banned from official Star Wars conventions organised by the film's producers. "He's a very strong character," says Spira diplomatically. "I think he feels poorly treated by Lucasfilm. He has a very strong bond with the character, and I think he's quite proprietorial, and I think that that might be where the problems come in. I was aware of a lot of controversy surrounding him before we interviewed him, and yeah, he's certainly the black sheep of the Star Wars community."

Spira doesn't want to talk about what Lucasfilm or new owner Disney think of "Elstree 1976" -- other than to note that the documentary is "100 per cent legal."

Crowdfunding: The new rebel alliance

"Elstree 1976" was paid for by a successful campaign on Kickstarter, the potential audience contributing a total of £42,000 ($64,000 or AU$88,000) in exchange for rewards from the filmmakers.

Spira is a fan of the direct approach: "I've become obsessed with crowdfunding. I crowdfunded my last film so I already knew that it worked for me and how I make films. It's the clever way of doing stuff. I feel like crowdfunding hasn't fully taken off yet, a lot of people haven't culturally embraced it, but every project like this one that's tied into a bigger community helps do that."

Going direct to the audience avoids compromise. "What's changed in the last 20 or 30 years in the commissioning of documentaries is that filmmakers used to be trusted," says Spira. "You used to be able to go to commissioners and say, 'I've got this idea, I've got this subject, I know there's something there and I want to go and make a film about it.' They would say, 'Here's some money, go and make the film.' Now, before you even start filming you have to pitch so precisely. You have to tell them what they're going to get. I think that makes for a very homogenised type of film. When I want to make a documentary, all I have is a bunch of questions that interest me, things I'd like to find out. But I could never pitch something succinctly until it's edited because I don't really know what the film's going to be. I really don't.

"Crowdfunding is like what commissioning used to be. Whenever I've tried to engage with broadcasters and financiers I'm always told that I'm a niche filmmaker, so if I go direct to that niche I can make the film I want to make and they're excited to see it, so they give you money. They trust you."

Spira believes crowdfunding gives a creator freedom. "You're not liable to anybody. You own the film and you have final cut. Not only that, instead of having a broadcaster or commissioner breathing down your neck you actually have 500, 800 people who are so excited to hear what you're doing. They don't try to pervert it, they just tell you how excited they are. Our backers have been amazing. Post-production has been difficult for us -- it's been a very hard film to finish. That's a side of filmmaking that doesn't get talked about, how difficult it is to finish a film.

With a new movie coming this Christmas, there's a new explosion in Star Wars merchandise. Larry W Smith/EPA

Spira's top tip for people thinking of seeking crowdfunded backing? "You have to put yourself in the mind of the people that are going to back you. You have to give them something that's good value, you have to give them something that's exclusive, and you have to give them a feeling of ownership of the project.

"You see projects go up that don't sound like the worst project in the world [but] they raise no funding because they haven't thought it through properly. So many people don't finish crowdfunding projects, or they don't stay in touch with the people that backed them. It's about respect."

"Elstree 1976", with its examination of the mundane life of a jobbing actor, follows Spira's previous crowdfunded film, "Anyone Can Play Guitar", which looked at musicians who never quite hit the high notes of stardom. "I'm making a weird little trilogy at the moment, a thematic trilogy," he says. "What I'm most interested in with the documentaries I make is the people who exist on the periphery of pop culture, the outer edge of culture, the people who've dedicated their lives to it but are on the sidelines of this massive thing."

And the final part of this weird little trilogy? "Comedy. We've already filmed half of the next film. It's called 'Funny Bone' and it's about what happened in the 1980s when all those supposedly racist and sexist and misogynistic comedians got blown away by alternative comedy. It's looking at political correctness, because now, even on the BBC, they'll show stuff which is sexist and racist but with this thin layer of irony. So the question is about political correctness and all those older guys who've been demonised, and if they were racist and sexist and how they were racist and sexist. We spent a whole chunk of time with [infamously foul-mouthed comic] Roy 'Chubby' Brown and all those old guys, including [double acts] Cannon and Ball, Little and Large. It's been really interesting."

The force will be with you...always?

Spira now says he has a "complicated relationship" with Star Wars. "When I was about 4 or 5, Star Wars was at its height and it was the first thing I attached myself to. It stayed with me and has a really special place in my heart. But I started thinking about how our generation hasn't put it aside. So when I came to do this project I had to put my love for Star Wars aside and for the first time in my life I watched it critically, instead of only watching it maybe when I was ill as sort of comfort viewing. I had to treat it as just a film."

That experience proved unexpectedly liberating. "One of the things it felt good to distance myself from, especially with the new film coming out, is the way it's become this corporate thing," Spira says. "Yet we're all bound to it in this weird way. What we're bound to is our childhood memories, because it's such a touchstone of our childhood. But it feels like that's being exploited -- if you stick a Star Wars logo on something it somehow becomes soft and fluffy instead of a major corporate marketing exercise."

But does the film hold up to this critical gaze? "I still thought it was a great film," Spira says. "It's a really well-made kids film."

Does Spira ever want to see Star Wars again? "I don't know! I haven't thought about it. I think I will. Probably not for a long while. But eventually I'll come back to it...maybe when I'm feeling ill."

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