May 3rd, 2012 (Part 2)
This conversation was recorded at Congee, around 1pm following our initial Skype conversation. Ed loved Chinese food and culture, and would become my guide to strange nooks and crannies around Chinatown.
ES: Well, it's that... I was talking about that before, that the difference between — I'm making a big generalization — east and west coast, one of the best Chinese departments in the country was at Columbia University. There was — I can't remember his Chinese name — but he was called The Silent Traveller. He was a very famous Chinese calligrapher and poet. But not only was Columbia very expensive for credit, but they didn't teach you how to speak. I had friends that went there, and they could read really well but they didn't speak.
So I rooted around and I discovered that the University of Hawaii had a great Chinese language Department because they had what was called the East-West Center — this actually comes back to movies, come the think of it — and whereas Columbia at that time was about 80 dollars a credit, the University of Hawaii was 8 dollars of credit, so including airfare and expenses it was cheaper for me to go spend a summer in Honolulu than to stay in New York City and go to Columbia.
When I was there, my — this is just me but I like to immerse myself in the topic, I told you that I see way too many movies — so when I was studying Chinese I would listen to Chinese music and I would find Chinese comic books and I started go to Chinese movies, but this was — we had nine hours a day of classes — this was total immersion and I think the reason that I got interested in Chinese was that I thought that the written language was a true visual language. That each Chinese character not only represented something real, but looked like it. Well, that's true for, I don't know, a couple dozen Chinese characters, and the rest of them it's not true at all. But I had this very high flown idea that if I learned Chinese it would help with the syntax of visual storytelling. It's not true.
But there I was and I was very interested in learning how to read and write, but they insisted that we speak. And I was failing the course in the first couple of weeks. Chinese is a tonal language and my brain and experience were not wrapping themselves around that very well.
At that time there was a wonderful Chinese movie theater in Honolulu Chinatown and I went one night and there was a movie called Come Drink With Me. Never heard it, and it just blew me off the chair. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. It was an adventure picture, it was a mystery picture, it as a musical, it had sword fighting. And in those days, this was the Shaw Brothers movie, you've heard of a Run Run Shaw? Well, this was a seminal movie, Come Drink With Me. It starred... Oh dear, what is her name... Chio Ping-ping, is that it? She plays the villainous woman in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I think I'm getting her name wrong, I'm embarrassed to say.
MH: That's okay, I wouldn't be able to tell you if you did.
ES: But she played a character called The Golden Swallow that comes back. This was a film directed by King Hu, who was one of the most important film directors in history, and and indeed it turns out years later I was talking to Gary Kurtz. And he certainly used to go see these films in L.A. Chinatown and I'll bet George did too. And I wrote an article about this once, in Empire Strikes Back — I'm sure you remember better than I...
Well, I took this Chinese course for three months, nine hours a day. And I started going to see Chinese movies. And when I came home to New York, at that time there were six movie theaters in New York, Chinatown.
ES: Now there are zero.
ES: And there was actually one very close to where this restaurant is and I can't quite remember where it was. But I couldn't wait to go see Chinese movies, and in New York Chinatown they were mostly Cantonese movies, or there were more Cantonese movies; there are these black and white Cantonese movies. In Hawaii they showed almost all Shaw Brothers films, or at least the theater that I went to were all Shaw Brothers films, which are all Mandarin.
And the Shaw Brothers were very influential in World Cinema, but in particular they had hired this guy King Hu, who had a big fight with and them left and went to Taiwan and all these different places. He ultimately made his most famous films are Come Drink With Me and... A Touch of Zen [which] is his masterpiece. A Touch of Zen has the famous fight in the bamboo forest that was lifted for Crouching Tiger.
ES: And the other one is called Dragon Gate Inn. Dragon Gate Inn is just wonderful. It's been remade for the third time; just came out, the third remake of Dragon Gate Inn, with Jet Li.
MH: It's funny, I never saw a lot of Chinese films, but maybe I should pick that up...
MH: So I was just going to say, it's kind of like how spaghetti westerns were a long time for me, to where you know that there's a spaghetti western genre, but you don't know how to get into it. So it's not until I sort of find the entry point that I can start pulling this thread and unravelling the sweater so to speak. For me it was finding A Fistful of Dollars for that and then going from there. But it would be good for me to start somewhere.
ES: Well, there's there's a difference. Spaghetti Westerns are not authentic. They're an invented genre. There were no cowboys in Italy.
MH: Well they were filmed in Spain, some of them.
ES: No, I understand, but it's a synthetic genre. I'm not putting it down, because Once Upon a Time in the West is amazing. I just love it.
ES: Sergio Leone was this a demented genius. I mean he was nuts. But what are so-called wuxia films, are authentic Chinese films. They're all 16th and 17th century stories, there are conventions to them, they inevitably used to involved two martial arts schools that were in competition with each other, or there was the scholar whose family had no money and his parents and his sister had to sacrifice themselves and fight for him, so he could become educated.
There's a lot more to it than that. The thing about this Come Drink With Me movie, is it broke all the conventions, and especially Dragon Gate Inn did. Before that time Chinese films were very theatrical and formal. There were almost all very close to Chinese opera, so they would sing or the dialogue was very mannered and the sword fighting and the action didn't— it looked like stage play.
What they call Peking Opera is amazing. It's just astounding acrobatics and things, but it has its conventions and it looks like a circus performance, just to differentiate it from what we think of as being modern Chinese martial arts films. They famously hired one of the best martial arts choreographers in Hong Kong to do The Matrix.
MH: Wu Ping?
ES: Yeah, Yuen Wu Ping and he had to come train all those guys, because they had no idea what to do. Three of my friends worked with Jackie Chan, so I got lots and lots of stories about how they worked, how Jackie works. I got to know Michelle Yo pretty well. She's in this new film about the woman from Burma who was imprisoned, can't think of her name.
At any rate there are sort of two kinds of movies. One kind — I'm way oversimplifying this — but one kind is fairly naturalistic, or it resembles traditional Chinese opera. Love stories, or romances of some sort. And the other kind are the wuxia, which are the adventure, kung-fu kind of films, and the most extravagant of them have what they call feijan, which is the flying power, and people do these incredible leaps and jumps. I love that stuff, I just think it's just great. But not everybody does. People like the more natural forms of fighting and they think the other stuff silly. I like them both.
It was clear to me when I saw Empire Strikes Back that somebody, maybe it was Lawrence Kasdan, maybe it was Gary, maybe it was George, maybe it was all of them, had been to see these movies, because there's a scene where Luke has been knocked out by the snow yeti or whatever he is — I don't know what his name is — and carried back to the cave, and he wakes up hanging upside down. He goes... and the lightsaber rises up into his hand. Right out of Chinese movies. Just absolutely right out of that stuff and Gary confirmed that it was influenced by that, because the other influences are very naturalistic. So much of the film comes from The Hidden Fortress, and Kurosawa, there's a whole drafting script that actually George has always refused to let me read, where the princess is the heroine, the same way that she is in The Hidden Fortress. And they dropped that, they didn't like it.
MH: Some of the earliest drafts are online. I can't remember. There's some of it that isn't online, but there's a lot of it there is, and I read one of the early ones and it's pretty much Hidden Fortress transposed into space.
ES: I have an original script, a first draft of Star Wars. And it's in an envelope from Universal, their office there and George gave it to me to read. You didn't ask me this question, but you know, he gave it to me and said what do you think? I said "if you can make this movie," I literally said this "if you can make this movie, it will be one of the top grossing films of all time". This is, oh I don't know three years before it was finished. That's a longer story.
MH: I'd love to hear it.
ES: But see it's funny. I this Malcolm Gladwell book. This Malcolm Gladwell book, The Outliers is really amazing. He just... got it, and now that I'm getting old and my opportunities diminish — not that there aren't things I would love to do, but it's different when you're twenty-something — I look back and I try to figure, well why did this happen, why did that happen. Gladwell absolutely rejects — and I agree with him — that idea of the self-made man. It's not true.
How did George Lucas come to make Star Wars? I think you got at it pretty well with that Chewbacca thing. There is no one source for Chewbacca. I remember George telling me that story about "we just ran over a wookie". Oh yeah, he told me that story, so I believe that happened.
I know he loved Indiana. I never met that dog. He passed away before I ever went up to San Francisco, but he just loved that dog. I know, I could tell just how he talked about Indy and I'm sure his name was Indiana long before Indiana Jones.
ES: Okay. But I visited Ralph McQuarrie at his house a couple times and long before the scripts were finished or anything was done. And I remember drawings of Chewy very early on when he had a whole different kind of a, that's sort of cat-like face. I suspect that that came a lot from Ralph. You know that was just some idea he had, based on things they talked about. Some of those other references you found are very interesting, and they're possible.
I remember how Yoda evolved, I mean, that's a good story, ask me that sometime. Yoda was completely different, but then what happened was they hired Stuart Freeborn to design Chewy, and he interpreted it. He had his own idea, and then of course he was working with solid materials. And he had made all the masks for 2001, the gorilla masks, and I wouldn't be at all surprised that he started with that kind of a substructure. And then just kept the adding on all the hair to it.
I don't know if it's in the scripts, and I don't think it's in your article. But it's just an example of what I'm trying to say, that influences are extremely diverse, often unconscious, and they're the work of so many people. I absolutely, totally reject the idea that movie directors make movies. I don't believe it. And I've directed movies. That movie directors... It's just the guy that everybody stares at. And they contribute also, they absolutely do contribute, but they're not in control.
MH: There's a.. and I don't know if it grows out of French New Wave called the auteur theory, but there's the idea that the director is the creator in control, but it...
ES: Garbage. Well, this could be a long topic with me, but Truffeau — I thought he said it the best — he tells the story about a kid who dreamt of being the captain of an ocean liner. He thought, "wow, I get to stand up on the bridge in my uniform with my fancy cap and I make this big ship go," so he worked real hard and ascended up through the ranks and became the captain the Queen Mary, I'm making this up but some big ocean liner. And he realized that the ocean liner, is so big and so helpless that it requires lots of towboats to pull it away from the dock and basically the tub boats get it out away from the shore and point it in the right direction, and then you turn on the engine and aim at New York City across the ocean, and hope that between leaving London and when you get to New York that a tidal wave doesn't go over you, you don't sink, you're not hit by lightning, and then when you get to the other end, the little boats have to come back and stop you or you smash into the dock. He realized that you have no control over this thing at all. It's too big, and too heavy, and too unwieldy, and basically his job as a captain was saying start the engine, speed it up, slow it down, stop it. And that was all he did.
And that's what directing a movie is like. This thing gets set in motion and for you, you just hope you get it finished and that people don't run each other down.
And George... Well he's... It's funny, he's sort of a not exactly a calm center, because he's very... he knows what he wants. I've met few people in my life who have such a vivid, particular vision after a while, of what it is he wants. I am more namby-pamby than that as a person. I have never been jealous of him, because if you'd sat me down alone in a room and said "okay think of a movie". I would not have thought of Star Wars. I did however... I wrote a science fiction film about flying saucers and Close Encounters was just like it. It was just uncanny.
It's not so relevant to Star Wars, but another time ask me and I'll tell you the story. But it happens, there are things that are in the air and some people can sniff it. Now surely one of the reasons that George and I became really good friends was we just loved Flash Gordon. I still love Flash Gordon, the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon movies. I'm trying to find a way to show them at my film festival. I showed Buck Rogers. Yeah, we did a Ray Bradbury tribute, and we showed It Came From Outer Space in 3D, and we <illegible, something about a film called 'They Grey'?> that's really lovely. It's on YouTube. You can find it and we showed a sing-along cartoon, have you ever seen one of those with the bouncing ball?
MH: Yeah, I think I've seen them like in passing, but never...
ES: Well they showed them in movie theaters all the time, you know the audience sit there and sing along with... that's what you did, and I got chapter 2, I got a 35mm print of Buck Rogers. And people loved it. When it was over they're going "oh, what happens!?"
MH: I would love to see that.
ES: And it took, oh it took me 10 minutes to set it up, because it wasn't the first chapter. And I had explained to a whole audience of people, who have no idea who Buck Rogers is. Not a clue. Because it's it's not in our culture anymore. It's gone
MH: It seems like Flash Gordon kind of has the same... The name hangs around, so people might recognize the name as being, you know, a kind of fanciful <illegible> and people might remember the name of Flash Gordon and what it stands for.
ES: Well Flash Gordon's still alive. Sci Fy channel, just did Flash Gordon.
MH: That's right, but it was very...
ES: Awful. It was Dreadful. It was an affront.
MH: Yeah, exactly they kind of... I needs to be over the top and kind of outrageous and funny and surprising.
ES: No it needs to be loving. <takes out book mentioned in Skype conversation>
Now, this book was written sometime between 1908 and 1910 which is a couple years before Princess of Mars. It seems to me. It's a it's a rip off of From the Earth to the Moon because they take a projectile. They shoot themselves out of something.
Couples and Leon was a mass-market publisher in the day. This originally had some kind of incredible garish dust jacket on it. But they basically reprinted things, so it's likely that this book was written or even published several years before this edition.
MH: Yeah because part writing about Flash Gordon, as I told you I was going back through the various sources that influenced it and I'm kind of putting together a chronology, also just for my own sake, of all the Mars, you know, books as they kind of grow into popularity.
ES: All the Flash Gordon stuff that's in the early Program books for Star Wars whih is all in my collection. Yeah I still have that stuff. Oh I love that stuff. It's wonderful. It's iconic. I think that if the. technology of special effects had been only a tiny bit better at that time— it was state-of-the-art in 1937, 38, 39, what they did. It was just terrific, but it's definitely crude by modern standards, so young kids who've grown up on whatever. They don't see it the way that people experienced it seventy years ago.
MH: No, and it's funny. It's seems a bit like, and maybe he's right, that Lucas is afraid that the same thing is going to happen to Star Wars, because he updates the effects for Star Wars to keep it fresh. Maybe there's something about that. It certainly takes a little bit of a leap of the imagination to sit down watch Flash Gordon and see if it the way it was back then.
ES: I tell people, before Buck Rogers, I said "look, what you're about to see with state-of-the-art," I said "you'll look at the spaceships and part of you will giggle and go 'oh that's so stupid', but they were really... this was head and shoulders above anything else that anybody was doing, so you want to think about that and just focus on the story".
In The Flash Gordon, excuse me, in the Buck Rogers serial, the design of the spaceships is very much based on the design of the comic books from about 15 years before. It's very, very close. The costumes are actually spruced up a little bit from the original design because they found a Buck Rogers film that was made for a World's Fair. And the costumes and props in that are identical to the comic strip. You can find that on YouTube. It's very neat. I remember having it a friend of mine used to design ray guns, but he would design retro ray guns that looked very much like the rayguns in Flash Gordon. And I remember showing them to George, and he said well, those are really nice, but we're going a different directions for the weapons. And they had thought it through, the weapons looked very flintlock era if you think about it. Those long rifles really echo primitive weapons, rather than high-tech weapons. The important thing to remember about Star Wars is the opening line is "a long time ago". A long time ago. It's not about the future, it's about the past. Do you know about the story book part?
MH: The story book as in the audio? I'm not sure. I might.
ES: All the Disney movies, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. They all open with a beautiful storybook. Sleeping Beauty is the most striking. It's a big beautiful story book, and the cover opens and they start to tell the story and the pages turn. Once upon a time, right? I don't think it's in any of the scripts, but Gary told me that originally they wanted to have a movie start with a story book. And that it opened on the Wookie planet in the bedroom, and Chewbacca was reading these stories to his kids. Then it was like you said "well, once upon a time we did so and so and so and so".
And he was telling the stories and at some point they dropped that, but it's still there. It's still...
MH: The idea is there.
ES: It has that feeling.