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Opie-Wan Kenobi Ventures Into Lucas' Fantasy World

November 30, 1987|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writer

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Opie-Wan Kenobi guides us.

--A "Willow" cast member

George Lucas said not to tell.

But Ron Howard is much too nice to clam up completely about "Willow," the fantasy epic he is directing for the secretive producer.

"It has lots of sword fights, chases, action, all that stuff," Howard ventures, clearly apprehensive even though Lucas is far away from the set.

No warning thunderclap intervenes. So the director, a boyish 33, pushes on:

The movie does take place in "pre-history," Howard explains. "But not in any strictly historical sense."

Remarkably, it has a gaggle of 9-inch-high "brownies," not to mention a 3-foot, 4-inch hero named Willow. But it is decidedly not "full of puppets, like 'Labyrinth,' " he warns, tugging nervously at the brim of his cap.

The story, moreover, is "human," "moral" and "funny." As if, says Howard, "John Ford had directed 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

"Willow" may also be the biggest risk to date in Howard's hitherto charmed career as a film maker.

Lucasfilm Ltd., which is producing the movie, and MGM/UA Communications Co., which will distribute it in May, declined to disclose the film's budget. But "Willow," laden with special effects, clearly promises to be big, expensive and wholly unlike "Cocoon," "Splash" or any of the five largely comedic--and largely successful--films that Howard, a former child television star, has directed so far.

Under the best of circumstances, Hollywood tends to consider fantasy films a tough gamble. That is partly because they require outsized shooting budgets and partly because they seldom rely on the drawing power of big-name actors. The most prominent star in "Willow," for instance, is Val Kilmer, who played Iceman in Paramount's "Top Gun."

"Labyrinth," a notorious recent failure that was co-produced by Lucas and Muppet-master Jim Henson, cost a reported $30 million but took in only about $12 million at the box office when Tri-Star Pictures released it last year. Lucasfilm's "Howard the Duck," which blended the fantastic with hip reality, cost $35 million to produce but grossed under $15 million in theaters for Universal in 1986.

According to Howard, Lucas now has some of his own fortune at risk on "Willow"--a movie that the producer hopes will find a "core audience" similar to those he tapped with "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in the 1970s and early '80s.

Apparently, Lucas believes that Howard's warmth and light touch are crucial to reaching such viewers en masse once again.

"George brought me in because he wanted a lot of the things that I naturally seem to go for," Howard says during an interview just days before shooting ended at Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic facility in Northern California.

"I mean, we even have a few jokes. And there's heart and strength of character . . . and I'm kind of pleased by that."

While declining to discuss "Willow" in detail, Howard does say that Lucas was physically present on the movie's set "60% of the time" and has been more closely involved than with any other project since "Raiders," which Lucasfilm produced, with Steven Spielberg directing, in 1981.

The script, by comedy writer Bob Dolman ("WKRP in Cincinnati"), is based on a story Lucas originally conceived of more than a decade ago.

Howard participated closely in developing the script. Moreover, he took the director's job only after a detailed negotiation during which he and Lucas outlined their respective creative prerogatives.

Neither Howard nor Lucas, for instance, ever met with Dolman without the other present. Nor did Lucas, although himself a skilled director, ever take charge on the set. "He's not out there at 7 in the morning. And he's not talking what color the arrowheads should be," says Howard.

Under an unusual arrangement, Imagine Films Entertainment Inc.--a publicly traded company of which Howard is co-chief executive officer with producer Brian Grazer--will receive the director's $2.15 million fee for working on "Willow." Howard in turn receives a $450,000 annual salary plus bonuses from Imagine, of which he and Grazer own 63%.

Howard says that he and Grazer feel badly about the sharp drop in Imagine's stock, which fell from a high of $15.50 within the last year to about $3.75 recently, as the falling market battered most small film makers. (The director also claims to have lost a bundle when his MCA and Disney stock holdings tumbled at the same time.)

Imagine, he adds, will now have to "watch our overhead, and pull in a little tight," because it may be a hard for small companies to raise new financing in the near future.

Interviewed separately in Los Angeles, Grazer said the market collapse "reinforced" Imagine's pre-existing plan to close its New York office--a move that will result in a cutback of "five or six" of Imagine's approximately 20 employees. Neil Braun, the company's chief operating officer, left Imagine in connection with the move and was recently appointed a senior vice president of Viacom International.

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