STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK Producer Gary Kurtz Speaks Bluntly about George Lucas, RETURN OF THE JEDI, and More

     August 13, 2010


In a fascinating interview, Gary Kurtz, who produced Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, spoke bluntly on a variety Star Wars-related topics.  Kurtz talked about the original plot for Return of the Jedi and how selling toys twisted it into something else, his thoughts on the prequel, and what was his relationship with George Lucas was like before Star Wars changed everything.

Kurtz has so many great things to say, especially if you’re like me and love hearing about movies that never were or how they were originally set up to be.  Hit the jump for quotes that are a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Star Wars.

return_of_the_jedi_movie_poster_01What I found most interesting about the interview is what Kurtz had to say about Return of the Jedi [all quotes via Hero Complex]:

“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.

[Matt's note: that sounds totally bad-ass]

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.”

As to his thoughts on the prequels:

“I don’t like the idea of prequels, they make the filmmakers back in to material they’ve already covered and it boxes in the story,” Kurtz said. “I think they did a pretty good job with them although I have to admit I never liked Hayden Christensen in the role of Anakin Skywalker. I just wished the stories had been stronger and that the dialogue had been stronger. It gets meek. I’m not sure the characters ever felt real like they did in ‘Empire.’”

And to what life was like pre-Star Wars:

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.

“Our plan was to do ‘Star Wars’ and then make ‘Apocalypse Now’ and do a black comedy in the vein of ‘M*A*S*H*,’” Kurtz said. “Fox insisted on a sequel or maybe two [to ‘Star Wars’]. Francis [Ford Coppola] … had bought the ["Apocalypse Now"] rights so George could make it. [Coppola] eventually got tired of waiting and did it on his own, of course.”


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  • MCP

    Wow, great stuff, Han dieing and no Luau, would of been very interesting.
    Definitely would of liked Luke doing the Eastwood/Mad Max walk off.

    Oh George, how the $$ makes your mind go crazy!!

    end of line

  • kyps

    I cannot believe that George Lucas was in line to do 'Apocalypse Now'… which, to my mind, is one of Coppola's best achievements…

  • adame

    O.o interesante, ciertamente se vendio george lucas

  • Scott Nye

    Lucas' decision (even if it was a passive one) to not tackle Apocalypse Now is one of the great dividing lines in cinema history. I'm endlessly fascinated with what would have become of him as a director had he done it, and the effect it would have had on the cinematic landscape. Even disregarding the geek culture, Star Wars is an undeniably important film, and the ripple effect of it not becoming a franchise, or of Lucas becoming a more well-rounded filmmaker, would have been enormous.

    Similarly, I wonder what would have happened to Coppola. He probably wouldn't have been emboldened or driven to do One From the Heart, which in turn would have meant he could have continued doing his own stuff rather than working his way out of bankruptcy.

    Whatever the case, I'm glad things turned out the way they did, because Apocalypse Now is a frickin' masterpiece. One of those rare films for which every complaint I've heard regarding it, I actually perceive as a strength. It's not Coppola's best film by a long shot (it's no The Conversation or The Godfather, Part II), but that actually speaks more to how insanely talented Coppola is than it is a knock on the film.

  • Lilith

    Interesting to read things from an insiders POV. I will say this Hayden Christensen wasnt the problem in the sequels his character was. ( Christensen has given great performances in Life As A House/Golden Globe Nominated and Shattered Glass.. both were fairly dark roles for him.)
    No matter who played Anakin it was going to not come off well because the character of the prequels was one of the most poorly written leads in a long long time.Lucas lost his talent so long ago when he went to the “darkside” of only caring about making money. Greed after all is the root of evil. So maybe that whole ” shadow of greed “line in Revenge of the Sith applys well to Mr. Lucas.

  • Aaron Sullivan

    I agree that pinning it on Hayden isn't really fair.

    However, the simple take on George Lucas giving into money is a little too simple for my taste. George has made (discouraging) comments about giving the audience what they want. His reaction to the insane popularity of Star Wars is that people just want shallow popcorn entertainment. I think that is his biggest mistake. He missred the many levels of fascination people had with the film and the context of the time it was released in. George was apparently very frustrated with how Empire was dark and emotional and complex under Irvin Kirschner's reign and the lower Box Office results only cemented his feeling about what audiences want. He brought things much tighter under his own control for ROTJ as mentioned by Gary Kurtz.

    I don't know how I, personally, would have taken Han being killed. I mean he was so tortured in Empire. Seems cruel. I also remember that the idea of someone dying was going to be extended to Lando after he decided to keep Han. I like the idea of a darker story with consequences for the good side, but that ending would feel almost like betrayal after the intense friendship between the main 3 developed in the first two movies. Luke walking away from his sister in her time of need, after her lover died, knowing she could develop her abilities with the force and the temptation of the darkside? Seems heartless and foolhardy not “badass” as Matt suggested.

    The current endings of ROTJ never worked, though. It either made it feel like a small battle was won (the original), or in the special edition, where there seemed to be much more to tell than can be done in a minute or two.

  • Aaron Sullivan

    Just wanted to add that the real mistake was that agreement to stop arguing and just agree to have Gary Kurtz leave. The arguing is called collaboration. A mutual compromise in that particular disagreement would probably have resulted in a far better movie. I think George surrounded himself with yes-men and that eventually birthed the prequels. Just sayin'.

  • drmar120

    I remember being over the moon after seeing Star Wars at its first press screening in Minneapolis–a quantum leap for SF. Empire was as good or even better. Then in Return of the Jedi, Lucas descends into mediocrity and cliche, chasing the buck (as Kurtz here observes). Those *!#*! Ewoks! So very cutesy-ootsy-ootsy. And what do you do when you defeat an evil empire? You throw a party in a tree house with really bad music! Moreover, the jolly ghosts of old friends and masters come back to smile beneficently upon the victors. There, is that simple-minded enough for all you kiddies out there? And the prequels, OMG!

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  • Reality Check

    Anyone who believes even a tiny bit of Kurtz' bulls*%t in this article has absolutely no knowledge of film history, or have become so cynical about Star Wars that they can't think straight. I don't think that Lucas is perfect, and realize that the prequels were totally mishandled, but this stuff from Kurtz is sour grapes from a bitter old guy. The Episode 4 tag at the beginning of Star Wars was added later, to the second version of the film. Anyone who has read anything about the development of Star Wars knows that Lucas definitely envisioned it as a nine part story–which may be why the original ending of Jedi was so different (Lucas had become tired of Star Wars, and decided to kill off the Emperor in episode six, eliminating the final trilogy altogether). Kurtz was jettisoned from Jedi not only from a kind of falling out with Lucas, but also because he was struggling with some nasty health issues. Coppola didn't have to “buy” the rights to Apocalypse Now because he and Lucas CAME UP WITH THE IDEA. Yes, I know it is loosely based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but it is not an adaptation. I'm sure that Lucas had a more artistically pure career path in mind in the mid-70's, and it's too bad he didn't follow it, but this interview is basically garbage.

  • Robert Jordan

    I was seven when I saw Jedi in the cinema and i fucking loved it. Now at the age of 33 the adult in me recoils slightly upon hearing the original proposed ending, the child would have hated it.

    Killing Han Solo was always a stupid idea. Can you imagine what Solo's death would have done to the collective psyche of every 5-10 year old boy in the western world???

  • js

    gimme a break guy. were you there when they were producing the films? Were you there when these conversations were taking place? Hell no!! So stop with your dumbass assumptions. Only people who know what happened are those two producers.

  • Bobert

    Agreed. Samuel L. Jackson sucked in this as well due to the writing and directing.

  • Bobert

    Umm… it was the “New Hope” that appeared later. Episode IV was always there and confused the hell out of me in my childhood.

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  • Ivor Hardy

    Damn Kurtz and his ‘one has to die, the other has to wander alone’ bullsh**t. We had the same problem in the Dark Crystal, Kurtz wanted Kira to die at the end and Jen to wander alone like some Eastwood character. Luckily me, Jim and Bruce convinced him that wasn’t going to work.

    Man was a nightmare to work with.

  • Gav

    The Ewoks were the JarJar Binks of my childhood. Basically bloody embarrassing and painful to watch as an adult but kids seem to like them and want to buy the toys.

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