George Lucas and the Origin Story Behind ‘Star Wars’
A long time ago in a galaxy not far away…before the empire struck back and Jedis returned—there was a young Padawan director named George Lucas who had a crazy idea for a space opera that almost never made it to the screen.
From Mel’s Drive-in to the Mos Eisley Cantina
George Lucas in front of Mel’s Diner, an iconic location from his 1973 blockbuster ‘American Graffiti.’
In 1973, George Lucas was living in a one-bedroom home in Mill Valley when he directed a low-budget film called American Graffiti, based loosely on his youth in Modesto, California, and his love for hot-rod culture. Although it cost less than $1 million to produce, it became a blockbuster teen-culture classic, earning $50 million and five Oscar nods, including Best Director.
Emboldened by his early success with Graffiti, Lucas was determined to follow through on an idea for a “space opera” he and his partner, Gary Kurtz, had been noodling around since 1971. The story was based on outer-space adventures like those of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers—stories Lucas adored as a young boy growing up on his family’s walnut farm.
There was no shortage of sci-fi in Hollywood at the time. But most were dark, dystopian tales like Rollerball, Logan’s Run, or THX 1138 (Lucas’s 1971 feature-film debut). Lucas was determined to make a different kind of sci-fi movie—something fun that was aimed at 14- and 15-year-olds.
The original Star Wars movie poster. The sci-fi classic was released on May 25, 1977.
“The reason I’m making Star Wars is that I want to give young people some sort of faraway exotic environment for their imaginations to run around in,” he said in an interview. “I have a strong feeling about interesting kids in space exploration. I want them to want it. I want them to get beyond the basic stupidities of the moment and think about colonizing Venus and Mars. And the only way it’s going to happen is to have some dumb kid fantasize about it—to get his ray gun, jump in his ship and run off with this wookie into outer space. It’s our only hope in a way.”
The Long Road to ‘A New Hope’
Lucas and Kurtz shopped around a 12-page treatment of Star Wars to various Hollywood studios. United Artists turned them down. So did Universal. However, 20th Century Fox, encouraged by the early buzz from Graffiti, decided to give the duo some money to flesh out the script.
But going from a rough outline to a final script would take years. In fact, early drafts of Star Wars would be unrecognizable to even die hard fans: Luke Skywalker is a grizzled old general, Han Solo is a frog-like alien, there’s a main character named Kane Starkiller and the dark side of the force is called “the Bogan.”
In the first draft of Star Wars, Han Solo was cast as a green alien, as depicted in a Dark Horse Comic adaptation of the script. (And in case you were wondering: Yes, frog Han shoots first.)
Lucas struggled to rein in his space epic. The story was too dense, tonally imbalanced and its elaborate scenes would be prohibitively expensive to shoot. His friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, expressed misgivings about early drafts. Even Lucas’ partner Kurtz described the second draft as “gobbledygook.”
But with each round, the story improved. In the second draft, published in 1975, Luke Skywalker is a farm boy, not an older general, and Darth Vader is the menacing man in black we’re familiar with today. The third draft introduced Obi-Wan Kenobi and played up the tension between Leia and Han Solo. Acknowledging that he had trouble writing dialogue, Lucas brought in help from writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (although the director rewrote most of their changes). For Lucas, Star Wars was finally coming into focus. On January 1, 1976, he finished the fourth draft of the script, the one eventually used when production began in Tunisia on March 25, 1976.
Lucas and Kurtz originally budgeted $18 million for the film. Fox offered them $7.5 million. Eager to begin shooting, they took the offer and the rest was history.
While wrapping up production on ‘Star Wars,’ Lucas once said presciently: “I think of this as a movie Disney would have made when Walt Disney was alive.”
Released in 1977, Star Wars ushered in a new era of movie-making with its special effects, fantastical world-building and engrossing blend of myth and fairy tale. Although the final budget was $11 million, the film grossed more than $513 million worldwide during its original release, setting the stage for a franchise that would span decades and create generations of fans across the world—all connected by a common love for a galaxy far, far away.