Talking Pictures: Grand adventure

By David Templeton

“Everybody wants to know about the lightsabers,” says Dennis Muren, standing before a full house at the Century Cinema Theater in Corte Madera. Muren—a legendary special effects artist and veteran of Industrial Light & Magic, having worked on all of the original Star Wars films, and many other high-profile projects—is clearly still intensely enthused about the films he helped to create. As part of October’s Mill Valley Film Festival, Muren, the guest of honor following a screening of Return of the Jedi, is taking questions from an audience that is still humming with excitement after watching the third original Star Wars movie on the largest screen in the North Bay.

The first question is about the lightsabers used in the films. The gentleman posing the question wants to know how a lightsaber can glow with green light, even when being wielded in front of a green screen, which filmmakers use as a substitute for background sets, which are often inserted artificially afterwards. The question is a testament to how believable those lightsabers were.

“Those weren’t actually real lightsabers,” Muren admits. “The actors used sticks or rods of some kind when filming the scene, and the glowing light was added later, basically as an animated effect. I’m really thrilled you think that was real, though.”

With the highly anticipated new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, about to hit theaters this weekend, there has been renewed nostalgia for the original trilogy. The new film, directed by J.J. Abrams, based on ideas by Star Wars creator George Lucas, takes up the story 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi.

It’s been 32 years since Muren saw the release of Jedi, and today, he still clearly remembers what was obviously, for an FX innovator, the experience of a lifetime.

“When we started working on Return of the Jedi, we’d been living and working in Marin for about five years,” acknowledges Muren. “The first Star Wars movie, The New Hope, was filmed in L.A., but Empire Strikes Back was done in Marin. Then we did Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., and Poltergeist, and Dragonslayer. So we had lots of experience, we’d assembled a lot of equipment, and we’d assembled a really great crew by the time we started making Return of the Jedi.”

In other words, they were more than ready to make the movie.

“What we weren’t ready for,” he recalls, “was George throwing three times as many FX shots into the movie. That’s two or three times as many FX shots as in Empire Strikes Back, which had two or three times as many shots as the original Star Wars. Each time, George is adding more shots, and the time we have to create them is growing shorter. So, if you pay attention, with the original three films, with each new movie, the credits grow longer and longer, as we added more and more people to the team.”

Muren says that by the time the third movie was being made, the stakes were infinitely higher than on either of the previous two films.

“Everyone was so excited to be doing a third film,” Muren says, admitting that when they made the second film—in spite of it ending on one of the most famous cliff-hangers of all time, with Han Solo encased in carbonite and flown away by Boba Fett—there was no clear guarantee that there would ever be a third Star Wars film. “It was very clear, of course, that there was this huge cultural wave happening around Star Wars. It seemed to be building and building all over the world, so we knew that whatever we did in the third film, it would have to be terrific. It couldn’t be less exciting, or have special effects a notch or two down from the last one. It’s hard to do. New ideas don’t always come, and when they do, it takes a lot of work, and a lot of creative people, to bring them to life.”

There is still a healthy debate as to which of the original films was the best—I far prefer The Empire Strikes Back, with its moody, lyrical storytelling and muted, visually stunning visuals—but there are plenty of fans who prefer Jedi, mainly because of the quality of its special effects.

Muren doesn’t disagree.

“I think the work is amazing,” he says. “I saw the movie a year ago, on film. It was an original print, all scratched up and kind of purple, but it was an amazing thing to look at, and to know that thousands of people had looked at that exact same print. It was like going to the museum and seeing some artifact that’s slowly decaying but still exists.”

One woman asks if there were any shots planned for any of the films that never made it, and if Muren regretted that.

“Well, one thing we were going to do in Empire Strikes Back, which never made it, were these giant flying manta ray creatures. People would ride them, and they were going to be very cool. I’ve swum alongside giant rays in the ocean, and they’re amazing. But George cut them before we shot anything.”

The final question from the audience, it turns out, is mine.

“The popularity of these films is unprecedented,” I begin. “Generation after generation has embraced them, and the only other series I can think of that has achieved that, at this level, are maybe the James Bond films. What is it, do you think, that has made these stories so captivating and enduring for so long?”

“I wish I could say,” Muren replies. “Like the Bond films, there is action, and adventure, and exotic locations. But what the Star Wars films have that makes them special, I think—and I only figured this out right now—is that there is a group of friends who would die for each other.

“They love each other, though they have some rough moments, but they are always there for each other,” he continues. “That’s not in the Bond films, or in most films, these days, with some exceptions, like the Star Trek films, maybe. I think that’s maybe it.

“Everybody wants to be a part of a strong group of friends, and in Star Wars, these friends get to go on one of the greatest adventures ever put on film.”