Originally created 01/30/97

`Star Wars' tinkering was justified, says `Special Edition' producer



What you have to understand is back then, in '77, Rick McCallum was down in L.A. with the other young film geeks, talking long into the night about how they'd change the industry when they got their turn.

But then one night, somebody did it for them.

"We were all, like, 21, and suddenly, here's a guy who's only 10 years older than us making his own movie that just goes through the roof," says McCallum, producer of the "Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition" movies. "Suddenly, all these hopes we had about making a movie before we were 50 seemed real."

That was the initial movie-weasel reaction to "Star Wars," but along with that, even in Hollywood, came the visceral thing the rest of us felt. It was the notion of watching something nobody had seen before, of being so totally blown away by a movie that we knew, almost instantly, that this would be the touchstone for every other film we'd see.

And it was, especially for the special-effects flicks that pulled us away from the VCR and back into theaters.

"Star Wars" was also the film we told small children about the little kids who missed it on the big screen and experienced battle with the Death Star only on a dinky TV tube. We told them they had no idea of what it was like to have your imagination pleasantly hijacked for a couple of hours.

"In the most crude, commercial sense, that is one of the reasons why we wanted to bring it back, so people who saw it when they were younger could come back and share that experience with their own kids," says McCallum. "I think the last film that did it was 'E.T.' There was just something special about this movie. It was one of those you wanted to experience with other people, one of the few where you don't mind standing in line to see, because that's part of the fun."

Which is all well and good for mere mortals. But maybe not for those in the Hollywood pantheon who can actually lay hands on the negative of "Star Wars" and make surgical cuts.

Is it really such a great idea to carry sharp objects while in the neighborhood of Hollywood's Shroud of Turin?

"In every medium but film, the artist is able to tinker with his work," says McCallum. "A writer can spend 10 years cutting his novel; Degas painted over the same canvas maybe 30 or 40 times, and each time replaced a finished painting. A sculptor can chip away at the same stone for years. But, up until now, a filmmaker has never had that opportunity."

Sure, there have been re-releases of "director's cuts," where scenes cut by studio honchos were replaced. But with the re-release of "Star Wars," it's the first time new material has been created for an existing film.

"Doing this was never really something that had been planned (although rumor has it `Star Wars' creator George Lucas has never let his young son see the film on television), it's something that just happened. And George would have been foolish to let the opportunity pass. He was so unhappy with the film," says McCallum. "There were just so many things he wanted to do back in 1977 that he couldn't do for a variety of reasons, from technical to financial. George wasn't just pushing, he was licking the envelope back then, and there was so much more he wanted to do."

Most of the new material comes in the Mos Eisley scenes (where Luke and Obi-Wan meet Han in the cantina). In the new version, the spaceport town is a bustling, busy place with legions of computer-generated critters, and even a meeting between Han and Jabba the Hutt, which had been dropped from the original. Other improvements include some detailing here and there and enhanced sound.

Still, though, it's a matter of tinkering with a classic.

"It's difficult to see until you talk to George," says McCallum. "What you need to understand is here is the guy who wrote it, directed it, created it, the single voice behind the entire project. Then, when you hear the horror stories about how many compromises he had to make, the time pressures he was put under by the studio and the other pressures that come from something this big, you understand why this is so important to him."

And, so far, the effort appears to have worked well.

"There is that little bit of trepidation at first; you just don't know if it's going to be the same. But then it is, and you just settle down to enjoy it," says McCallum. "I was at one preview in Los Angeles where you couldn't hear the dialogue for the first 10 minutes because people were cheering so loudly."

As it turns out, sound may well prove to be the most memorable part of the reissue.

"One of the demands we made was that the film be shown only in theaters with digital sound, so that's the way you'll hear it in each of the 2,000 theaters where it opens," says McCallum. "One of the great tragedies of the original was millions were spent to get the sound right, but about the only place you could hear it was in the mixing theater. In a lot of places it was shown under very shoddy conditions. But not this time."