Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Secret Histories

My toast was terrible this morning. All the more so because I’m the one responsible for making it.

I’ve raved before about England’s toast; as far as I’m concerned the people of Great Britain seem to have perfected the art of toasting bread. I found most of England’s cuisine to be scrumptious actually…some people might think that odd but I’m from Seattle where we seem to have a passion for breakfast food, pub food, and beer, three things England does better than most. Every culture has its specialties after all.

On the other hand, the consistently worst country for breakfast (in my opinion) was Italy. I’m not sure Italians actually eat “breakfast;” it may just be something they whip together for the tourists. I will never forget staying at an (otherwise) very nice “bed & breakfast” in Venice and being served “toast” that was packaged in a stamped cellophane pouch, similar to freeze-dried astronaut food. I kid thee not.

My toast this morning was very much like that Venician toast…in both consistency and flavor. And mine, I know, started out as bread. That is a verifiable fact. Truly terrible.

But fortunately (and this is the reason I bring it up), I was serving said toast ONLY to myself. Terrible as it was, I was the only person experiencing it…I wasn’t serving it up to anyone or forcing it down someone’s throat. It was MY bad breakfast, and I chose to eat it (‘cause I was pressed for time and it was what I had and I’m really trying not to waste food these days) and that was my “little piece o suffering.” But I wasn’t buttering it up for the masses and trying to call it gourmet or something.

Yesterday, I did something I almost never ever do: I paid money for a book at Barnes & Noble that wasn’t actually in stock; a book that will actually have to be mailed to me because it’s print-on-demand. And I did that because after being off work since last Wednesday, I spent the first half of my work day reading the book’s first hundred pages on-line (for free) instead of getting to my backlog…and if I’d had the entire book available, I probably wouldn’t have gotten ANYthing done yesterday. The book in question?

Just fascinating, fascinating reading. It’s something I’ve been interested in reading since I heard about it a year or two ago (it was on last year’s Christmas list but I didn’t get it), and I finally had a chance to read some excerpts from Kaminski’s web site. Love it…I’m into histories/biographies, especially those of struggling artists/writers (as Lucas once was), I love “behind-the-scenes” insights and info (“the dirt”) on subjects that already have known or accepted histories. I enjoy seeing the human side of larger-than-life icons. And, of course, I am a pretty big Star Wars fanatic.

I was reading back through my Star Wars posts on this blog, and I was surprised to find ‘em some of my better posts. Now I may well be biased, but I did think they were a bit different and surprisingly insightful (or at least “interesting”)…at least, compared to what my memory remembered them being. But what I really liked was the (mostly) consistent thread running through them: an appreciation for the films as entertainment, for Lucas as a filmmaker, and for the EU (“expanded universe”) as a creative effort…and a dissatisfaction with pandering and pastiche, even in Lucas’s own work.  My feelings on these things haven’t changed, and may have even been emphasized by what I’ve read so far in Kaminski’s book. But, man…I’m kind of fed up with “ret-conned” history. I’m kind of bugged by disingenuousness (wow, spell-check is saying that’s a word!).

Now I get it…really, I get it. The whole thing is complicated. The push-and-pull of fame and fortune and legacy and insecurity and people telling you you’re a genius and finding you ARE a genius and allowing a little creative embellishment here and there get out of hand, plus giving your fans what they want, plus being a filmmaker and needing to ply the filmmaker’s trade (including edits of one’s baby) and then trying to find a cohesive filmmaker’s way of putting those cutting room scraps back into theaters in a different fashion…I GET IT. Really. The fact is: the truth is (often) complicated. Or rather, the truth isn’t complicated but the WHOLE truth, understanding it all, is a lot more complicated than the meat, or rather the KERNEL of the truth.

Which is part of why I find Kaminski’s book such a must-read…I personally am fascinated with the “complication” AND I want to know what the kernel of the “truth” is. For those not interested in reading it themselves, I’ll provide the Cliff Notes version:

The Truth: George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie the same way, say, that I want to write a Star Wars RPG. It’s not what he dreamed about doing as a child (when he wanted, perhaps, to be a race car driver), but a bunch of stuff combined to lead him to setting that goal.

The Complicated Truth (Cliff Notes): While one can argue the success or failure of his goal (i.e. “The Truth”), his work (or should I say his Work) morphed into something that transcended anything even Lucas could have imagined, and he has both “rolled with it,” profited by it, and attempted to manage and direct it (with varying degrees of success) ever since. And I’m not just talking about the “post-first-trilogy” or even “post-first-film” expansion of the Star Wars universe/franchise/mythology/legacy. I’m talking about even before PRE-production of the first film, the thing (his original goal) started morphing…and has snowballed (my, has it snowballed!) ever since.


Anyway, the really interesting thing (well, actually, I find it all “really interesting” but the really, REALLY interesting thing) for me is the earliest drafts of his space film treatments, which I find at least as compelling as the story he eventually told, if not more compelling. Oh, I’m not talking about the “space version” of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, I’m talking about “The Journal of the Whills” (actually sounds like a pretty good book) and the second and/or third treatments of “The Star Wars.”

I should probably explain (at this point, finally) my whole reason for once again having Star Wars on the brain. My son, my 20-month-old toddler has discovered Star Wars…and loves it. Now, it would be truly disingenuous of me to declare I’m a “terrible” father; I know I’m pretty loving and attentive, with a fair amount of sternness that leads my child to be both A) happy most of the time, and B) well behaved (in public and private) most of the time. And by most of the time, I mean around 98%...he really is a jewel of a kid. But recently, it seems like more than half of his vocabulary seems to consist of “Seahawks,” “touchdown,” and “boom” or else Star Wars references…with the SW words definitely having the upper hand the last couple weeks. And this leads me to think I may be doing bad, bad things to my boy’s childhood development process.

The fact that he can perfectly mimic Darth Vader’s breathing on command, despite lacking the ability to pronounce the character’s name (he calls him “DuVo”) is both entertaining and somewhat disturbing.

So there’s been a lot of Star Wars in my house lately. A lot of books and comics, a lot of scene watching, a lot of jawa requests. And being inundated with even more Star Wars than usual (which really is saying something), is making me revisit my earlier introspections on the subject, not to mention confront (once again) the shortfalls and mental hurdles of my own “little space thing” (to use Lucas’s phrase)…i.e. my space opera RPG.

Last Thursday I was really excited to get out to my Thursday night game session and try another play-test session with my space opera RPG. Unfortunately, I got sick Thursday morning and was worse by the evening and wasn’t able to get out. THIS week, the dilemma’s a little different: I’m in perfect health, but the Seattle Seahawks are playing the San Francisco 49ers for control of the division and 5:20pm (PST). I mean…what the hell am I supposed to do with THAT? Despite being an underdog, Seattle has a real opportunity to punch the 49ers in the mouth the same as the Giants did on Sunday…and I’d hate to miss that.

[for whatever reason, I’ve really grown to loathe Frisco over the last few years. They seem to now occupy that special bile duct that used to be reserved for the Denver Broncos and John Elway back when the Seahawks were in the AFC West. It’s not just that I want to see the ‘Hawks at the top of the heap every year; I want to see them stomp the Niners on the way there. Last season’s double-loss to San Fran really hurt the ol’ pride]

ANYway, let me get back to those “rough drafts” of the Star Wars script. From Kaminski’s book (excerpt available for free for perusal):

…an entire year after he finished his first treatment, Lucas emerged with a rough draft screenplay. It was called “The Star Wars” and was dated May 1974…Jan Helander summarized the rough draft:

Kane Starkiller, a Jedi-Bendu master, is in hiding on the Fourth Moon of Utapau with his two sons Annikin and Deak, when a Sith warrior finds them and Deak is killed. The surviving Starkillers head to the Aquilae system, where they are met by Kane’s old Jedi friend, General Luke Skywalker. Kane, whose war-battered body is a concoction of artificial limbs, knows that he is dying, and persuades Luke to become Annikin’s Jedi teacher. He then travels to the city of Gordon, leaving his son with Skywalker and the King of Aquilae. Clieg Whitsun, a rebel spy on the emperor’s planet of Alderaan, has learned that an Imperial fleet, led by General Darth Vader and Governor Crispin Hoedaack, is about to conquer Aquilae with a “death star” space fortress. Rebel fighters are sent out to stop the attack, but the Aquilaen king is killed, and instead of Princess Leia (the rightful heir), a corrupt senator takes over, surrendering the planet to the Empire.

Annikin, Luke, and Whitsum, joined by Artwo Detwo and See Threepio (two bickering robots who have escaped from the space fortress), bring Leia and her two younger brothers to the spaceport at Gordon, from where they can reach safety. After a fight at a cantina, where Skywalker uses his “lasersword” to kill his antagonists, the group meet up with Kane and his alien friend Han Solo who have arranged transport to a friendly planet. They need a power unit for suspended animation in order to get past Imperial scanners, and Kane heroically rips one from his body, causing his death. After avoiding a trap set by Vader and Prince Valorum (the black Knight of the Sith), the rebels are pursued into space, where the arguing Leia and Annikin realize that they love each other. Their craft is damaged in an asteroid field and Whitsum dies as it explodes, but the others abandon ship in time and land on the jungle planet of Yavin, where Leia is captured by alien trappers. Annikin tries to rescue her, but only succeeds in freeing five “Wookees” (huge, grey and furry beasts), and Leia eventually ends up in the hands of the Empire.

After a tip from two anthropologists, the rebels and the Wookee tribe (including Prince Chewbacca) attack an Imperial outpost, and a forest chase ensues. When he learns that Leia is held captive aboard the space fortress, General Skywalker starts traiing Wookees to fly fighter ships in order to conquer the death star. Annikin is skeptical of the plan and gets onto the fortress (together with Artwo) on a mission of his own, dressed as an Imperial “skyraider,” but he is soon captured and tortured by General Vader. Valorum sees this and realizes that the Imperials are completely without honor and codes, and that he has more in common with the young Jedi than with the emperor. Turning his back on the Empire, he frees both Annikin and Leia, and they escape down a garbage chute. After almost being crushed in the garbage receptacle, Valorum, Leia, Annikin, and Artwo manage to abandon the station just before the Wookee destroy it, killing both Vader and Governor Hoedaack. Back in her throne room, Queen Leia honours the heroes (including Valorum), and Annikin is appointed new Lord Protector of Aquilae.

Now as Kaminski points out A) this is the script Lucas refers to in his later interviews as being too big for a single movie requiring a paring down until he could later afford to make sequels containing “the whole story,” yet B) the story included in this draft is little more than a larger, “extended version” of the original (first) Star Wars movie. Certain characters are combined, names are changed around, and certain scenes/sequences are recycled into later movies (like the “asteroid belt/love scene” in Empire or the “forest world capture/buddying up with native creatures” in RotJ). Lucas’s later declaration that his ability to make the “rest of the movie” meant an ability to continue a saga that included all that “stuff” he left on the cutting room floor in his need to create a FILM…"films" being stories told with pictures that have to follow certain parameters due to the restrictions imposed by the medium.

What Lucas had PRIOR to his (most consider) masterful final draft is a rambling, rollicking Sci-Fi adventure film, almost like a conglomeration of a serial matinee (c.f. Flash Gordon). Film gave Lucas the big budget to do the kind of F/X epic he wanted, but not the SCOPE he wanted. And while the clamor for “more” gave him the latitude to glom onto the scope (through a serial, sequel format…see The Lord of the Rings films), the medium STILL constrained him to a degree. There is SOME “cliffhanger” to the end of The Empire Strikes Back, but there is some denouement as well. It still has a beginning, middle, an end, it still has most of its plot points wrapped-up, it is still “self-contained.”

HOWEVER, I am not a film maker. I am (marginally) a “game designer” interested in long-term game play that includes character development over time and game play, and for me the “rambling serial format” is what I want. I don’t want or need “self-contained stories” because I’m not working in a film medium and (in my experience) that’s not how RPG sessions generally unfold…at least, not without very specific ("Story Now") rules sets, or a lot of heavy-handed GM force. Neither of which I like to use (because self-contained stories aren’t all that important to me when role-playing).

Consequently, I find these kinds of rambling, “schlock-inspired” treatments to be incredibly inspiring for my purposes. The quote above leaves out a lot of other “intriguing differences” in Lucas’s original story from the final film (said differences being described in Kaminski's book) including the competing Jedi and Sith groups (basically, two orders of rival warriors, more honor-driven a la samurai than driven by the mystic morality of Light and Dark side). Which is why, of course, I ordered the book…I want MORE of this stuff. To me, the mind of George Lucas is a fertile gold mine of Sci-Fi fantasy; if he falls down at all, it’s in trying to put it into some sort of rational, thoughtful format instead of just going with the gonzo wa-hoo.

Well, and also in trying to ret-con his own history, a victim of his own success. That’s just trying to serve us “toast” in a vacuum-sealed bag. That’s not toast, man.


  1. In case it's of any interest, I came up with a half-wheat rasin bread recipe recently that's hearty, not too sweet or crumbly, and makes an excellent toast especially with butter. Could pass it along if you have the equipment to make it.

    Also the making thereof is a fun activity for 2-4 year olds I find.

  2. @ Peter:

    Sounds tasty! Please feel free to email it to me!

    Diego and I do a lot of activities together, though I'm not sure he's quite ready for cooking (we DO do a lot of eating). However, bread and raisins are high on his list of fun.
    ; )

  3. I find it fascinating how rivalries develop and change. I remember the Battle in Seattle, but always disliked the Raiders far more than anyone else in the AFC West. Today, I have to say I enjoy watching the Broncos beat San Diego more than anyone...I was really happy to see Seattle do so well against the NYGs, btw, because I knew it was going to make this blogger who likes his Blood Bowl orcs really happy...

  4. @ Fr.Dave:

    Ha! Yeah, the Raiders were always a big nemesis for us in the 80s, and perhaps even moreso than the Broncos, but John Elway was just such an easy target, and he COULD be rattled back in the old Kingdome. Plus, while Oakland fans have always been Halloween-weird (even more than other fans, and kind of cool because of it...they always travel well) I often found Denver fans A bit obnoxious...especially transplants (sure, they'll move here for the jobs and the skiing, but will they get on board with the local team? Nope).

    I'll keep my thoughts on the NYG to myself for now, but regarding the Pats: Tom Brady is truly one of the great athletes if all time (up there with Jordan) and a truly classy individual, even in defeat. Still plays on a Dark Elf team, thoughoozed too cold up there in Foxboro).
    ; )

  5. Gah! As someone who is not a fan of football, but who lived in Seattle for a lot of years (I'm currently on the other side of the Sound), references to the "Battle in Seattle" only remind me of tear gas and wooden bullets whistling by my ears. I lived on Capitol Hill during the Battle, and for whatever reason events came wandering up out of the protest zone into our neighborhood.


    I'm not particularly fond of what Star Wars has become, but I love the origins of it. I need to get a copy of The Secret History…, and I'm sure that I will sometime in the next year or two. Those early treatments, which I first learned the details of in that book that was an annotated collection of the scripts of the original three films, have always fascinated me. Like you, in some ways I prefer them to the final products. The rambling serial has always seemed to me to be a better form of literature (or film, or whatever) than self-contained stories because they more accurately resemble the way life works.

  6. @ Faol:

    Ha! (again) I was at the WTO riots myself that day...not in the riots, but unable to get out of downtown that night because of them. Steve-O and I spent the evening on the Cloud Room veranda, getting heavily sauced and smelling the roiling clouds of tear gas wafting up from below. Good times.

    I know I'm not the only one interested in "secret histories," but for me the intriguing part is its application to RPGs of a space opera theme.

    1. I think it would have been nice to have been up in the Cloud Room (may it be remembered fondly) those days. Still, it wasn't so bad up on the Hill, despite being in the zone of fighting occasionally.

      How do you think it should be applied to space operatic RPGs? Simply taking the elements (Jedi/Sith as opposing clans and such)? Or are there deeper themes of picaresque that can be applied more broadly?

  7. Funny, I had the exact opposite impression when I read the secret histories about 10 years ago (when it was a web page). I've de-Star Warsified my life. My kids (oldest is 6) have never seen it and couldn't name a single character besides Darth Vader.

    They have seen most of the old harryhausen adventure flicks from the 60s/70s. So when we pretend sword fight, I'm always the skeleton (from sinbad's 7th voyage).

  8. i also was a STAR WARS nut growing up, but the prequels cooled me off considerably. i loved that book, though - what i found fascinating was how he basically erased his wife from the history of the original movies. that alone shed some light on the quality of the prequels. that, and how he goes into detail on the amount of rewrites the OT went through as opposed to the PT. stunning.

    i also liked how he pointed out that the appearance of JEDI in the new movies is a blunder that slipped through everyone...including lucas.

    as for the giants...why would you hate on them? as a giants fan i feel like the seahawks have had their number pretty much every time they've played recently (except for that 41-7 beatdown the giants put on them a few years ago). the game last year was a travesty (for us giants fans) and i'll never forget that game in '05 with the 12 false starts and jay feely spraying the ball everywhere but between the uprights. i'd hate to play seattle this year, though - that D is for real.