Given what a multibillion-dollar behemoth the Star Wars universe has become, it’s fascinating to discover that a long time ago in a studio sound stage far, far away, no one took it very seriously at all.
“It didn’t seem anything special to me,” one man says of being in the 1977 film Star Wars. “We thought it was going to be on TV,” says another.
Documentary director Jon Spira’s genial, low-key Elstree 1976 doesn’t round up the usual suspects, like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Rather, it talks to what it calls “the people behind the masks and beneath the helmets,” the extras and the actors with tiny speaking parts who gathered at the venerable Elstree studio in Britain 40 years ago to create they knew not what.
It is Spira’s conceit to show these bit players whole, to tell us a little more than we perhaps expected about their personal stories — for instance, revealing that Pam Rose, who played a waitress in the celebrated Mos Eisley Cantina scene later became close with Superman star Christopher Reeves.
The best parts of Elstree, not surprisingly, are the war stories these nine men and one woman share, their vivid memories of a shoot one calls “as primitive as it gets.”
Anthony Forrest talks about becoming distraught because what he thought would be his biggest part, playing Fixer, a young friend of Luke Skywalker, was cut from the final film.
But redemption was at hand, because, hidden under a helmet, Forrest also played the Stormtrooper who has a Jedi mind trick played on him when Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi convinces him that “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Some of the best stories involve a young, very serious George Lucas, so unassuming that an extra asked him to get coffee, and the director did. When an actor asked for guidance in playing an alien, Lucas’ reply was a classic: “Play it like they do in the movies.”
Perhaps the best known of the 10 is Dave Prowse, the 6-foot-5-inch former body builder (he left competition after being told he had ugly feet) who got inside the suit and played Darth Vader on set, speaking the lines that James Earl Jones’ voice later made famous.
No matter how tiny their time on-screen, all the Star Wars bit players have become participants in the world of fan conventions, signing memorabilia, posing for pictures and engaging in hierarchical squabbles about whether uncredited extras who spoke not a word have a right to call themselves cast members.
“They may be a little obsessed,” one of them admits about the fans, “but aren’t we all about something or other?”
Writer-director: Jon Spira.
A Filmrise release. Running time: 90 minutes. No offensive material. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.