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'Star Wars' producer Gary Kurtz speaks out

The man who left the franchise after 'The Empire Strikes Back' talks about why he split with George Lucas.

August 12, 2010|By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

"Star Wars" was born a long time ago, but not all that far, far away. In 1972, filmmakers George Lucas and Gary Kurtz were toiling on "American Graffiti" in their San Rafael office when they began daydreaming about a throwback sci-fi adventure that channeled the old "Flash Gordon" serials as opposed to the bleak "message" movies that had taken over the genre.

"We had no idea what we were starting," says Kurtz, who was the producer of the first two "Star Wars" films and also a second-unit director. "That simple concept changed Hollywood in a way...."

There was a bittersweet tinge to Kurtz's voice and it's no surprise. This year is the 30th anniversary of "The Empire Strikes Back," the "Star Wars" sequel that many fans consider the pinnacle moment in a franchise that has pulled in $16 billion in box office and merchandising. But 1980 was also the year that Kurtz and Lucas realized the Jedi universe wasn't big enough for the both of them.

"I could see where things were headed," Kurtz said. "The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It's a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It's natural to make decisions that protect the toy business but that's not the best thing for making quality films."

He added: "The first film and 'Empire' were about story and character but I could see that George's priorities were changing."

This weekend, Kurtz steps back into the "Star Wars" world as a special guest at Star Wars Celebration V, a massive Orlando convention organized by Lucasfilm and expected to draw thousands of fans who will come to buy collectibles, attend panels, get cast-member autographs or even visit the event's themed tattoo parlor or wedding chapel.

Kurtz's presence speaks to his vital role in the franchise's history -- he is, for instance, the one who came up with the title for "The Empire Strikes Back" -- but the Lucasfilm leadership is already fretting about the Jedi expatriate's appearance. They may have good reason; during a recent visit to Los Angeles the filmmaker, who just turned 70, showed a willingness to speak out against the priorities of an old partner.

"The emphasis on the toys, it's like the cart driving the horse," Kurtz said. "If it wasn't for that the films would be done for their own merits. The creative team wouldn't be looking over their shoulder all the time."

No fan of conflict, Kurtz has remained relatively quiet through the years but over coffee on a sunny Southern California afternoon he spoke at length about his lightsaber days.

Like many fans, Kurtz was too invested in the "Star Wars" universe to skip the second trilogy: 1999's "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," 2002's "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" and 2005's "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith." (Lucas retitled the three original movies as "Star Wars -- Episode IV: A New Hope," "Star Wars -- Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" and "Star Wars -- Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.") But as he sat in the dark with the follow-up "Star Wars" films, he squirmed in his seat.

"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.' "

A spokesperson for George Lucas said he was unavailable to comment for this story.

The comments by Kurtz -- who characterizes his relationship with Lucas as "professional" -- speak to a churning pop-culture debate about the enduring legacy of Lucas and the trajectory of his still-unfolding "Star Wars" mythology. The first trilogy of films ended in 1983 with "Return of the Jedi" and the second trilogy brought a whole new generation into the universe but also left many original fans feeling sour or disengaged.

A seventh feature film, an animated movie called "The Clone Wars," was released in 2008, which, along with video games and toys, speaks to a young 21st century constituency that may be only vaguely aware of the 1977 film.

The same passion pulling fans to Orlando also stokes the debate about Lucas and his creation. Alexandre Philippe is the director of "The People vs. George Lucas," a documentary that just had its West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. He says that Kurtz has become a figure of integrity to the fans who believe that Lucas has followed the wrong path.

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