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In 1976, the original Star Wars movie was shot at Elstree Studios in suburban North London. Nobody involved had any idea how big the film would become, many couldn’t even remember the title. Yet, for the extras and actors in smaller role, their faces hidden behind masks and beneath helmets, this seemingly insignificant job would go on to colour their lives even four decades later. Filmmaker Jon Spira has tracked down a cross-section of these actors and extras, including David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), to find out what it means to have been a part of the most beloved cinematic universe of all time...
Elstree 1976 is a documentary that focuses on 10 individuals who appeared in the original Star Wars movie, but had their faces obscured - either because they were wearing a mask or heavy makeup; were only seen briefly from behind or in crowd scenes; or where sadly cut from the finished movie. It features Paul Blake, Jeremy Bulloch (who technically didn't appear until The Empire Strikes Back), Garrick Hagon, Anthony Forrest, David Prowse, Angus MacInnes, Pam Rose, Derek Lyons, Laurie Goode and John Chapman. Some had dialogue, while some were background artists.
This is not, and was never intended to be, a behind the scenes documentary on the making of Star Wars - something that some reviewers failed to grasp when the film was originally released. What writer and director Jon Spira manages to capture here is a peek behind the mask and into the lives of a handful of ordinary, normal jobbing extras (or background actors - as the term "extras" tends to offend some in the profession) who were briefly involved in something that went on to become a global phenomena like nothing seen before or since.
Elstree 1976 is more an exploration of the lives of real people who had rather bland acting job on a rather curious looking movie set. But unbeknownst to them at the time they were fleetingly involved in a historic media event that would touch the lives and hearts of millions - and still does.
Over the course of this documentary we are introduced to ten very different individuals who have just one thing in common. We share their childhood dreams, their teenage ambitions and discover whether their brush with fame led on to greater things. The film hold up a mirror to each of them as they reflect on their lives and in some way it's like another unmasking.
The movie used Kickstarter to fund its production. The original idea was that the producers were going to base it around actors who had appeared as X-Wing pilots. But it soon became clear that they were not going to be able to get enough participants and so the criteria for interviewee was changed.
The film opens with a close up shot of each of the participant's action figure before introducing them. The segments are also broken up with newly filmed "behind the scenes" segments that are designed to show extras in costumes lounging around between takes. This looks incredible and I wish there had been way more of these segments. We also have brief clips from Star Wars where each of those taking part in the interviews can be seen. This was another interesting aspect, as each of these clips are frozen and moved back and forward a frame giving it a flickering effect (a little like how old VHS recordings would stutter when you pressed pause. It's a neat effect, which has been dubbed vibro-pause) and one that took me a while to warm to. There's one in particular, where Carrie Fisher's eyes make her look a little creepy.
The audio commentary makes mention of how they realised there was enough footage to do a 10 week TV series with each interviewee being given a half hour episode to tell their story. Personally I would have loved to see this. As an interviewer myself, I get an immense amount of enjoyment out of listening to other people's stories.
I interviewed David Prowse in 2006 and found him to be one the most gracious and interesting interviewees I've had the pleasure to speak with. But as the interview progressed I found that things took a slight turn to the dark side. He appeared a little frustrated about the way he has been treated by Lucasfilm over the years. There appeared to be an unresolved bitterness that he wasn't given much respect by the powers that be. It was sad to hear, in Spira's audio commentary, that Prowse still feels the same way and that the rift was never repaired.
Extras include an interesting audio commentary with the director; Extended Interviews (43 min, 44 sec - the highlight being Pam affectionately (?) remembers being constantly bitten on the bum by the dwarfs in the cast); Elstree 2016: Return to Elstree Studios (11 min, 26 sec - which sees some of the actors return to the empty studio in Elstree in 2016); High Flight (1 min, 04 sec - when the film was originally going to revolve around interviews of X-Wing pilots, the idea was to have all the interviewees read a segment of John Magee's High Flight poem. Even though the premise of the documentary changed, the producers still recorded the actors reading the poem); Trailer (2 min, 23 sec - which, sadly makes poor Angus out to be a bit of a moaning villain); and Trailers for other Soda Pictures releases (5 min).
While Spira didn't set out to create a "fan film" it's certainly one documentary that will be taken to the heart of every Star Wars fan on the planet.