Exclusive Essay: Did SQUIRM Director Jeff Lieberman Almost Make STAR WARS?

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Legendary horror director Jeff Lieberman tells a tale of his adventures in the world of STAR WARS.

In 1971 at the age of 24, I landed my first professional directing job at King Features Syndicate at 235 East 45th Street, New York City. One of their divisions, Hearst Metrotone News, created ‘school reels,’ those public service and news films shown by the AV squads in classrooms across the country. The assignment was to make an anti-drug movie that students wouldn’t dismiss with laughter and barrages of spit balls at the screen. They gave me an office and a green light off my original script called ‘The Ringer,’ with the proviso that, in order to save money, we shoot as much as possible at those corporate offices.

My 22 minute 16mm short ‘The Ringer’ released the following year, turned out to be a big hit for King Features’ school reel division, winning pretty much every festival award they entered it in and all of those award statues wound up on Jerry Berger’s desk. So from then on I was King Features fair-haired boy and Berger encouraged me to develop any and all of the properties they owned which included iconic titles like ‘Popeye,’ ‘Blondie,’ ‘Beatle Baily,’ ‘Ripley’s Believe it or not’ and ‘Flash Gordon.’

Over the next year I fooled around with each of them which helped keep me afloat financially. I even made a Popeye Safety film, with Popeye instructing little school kids on how to cross the street without turning into road kill. I even got to work with the actual voice of Popeye who literally cursed like a sailor between takes in perfect ‘Popeyeze.’

But the one project I wanted to develop the most by far was ‘Flash Gordon.’ I, like practically everyone else of my generation, had their minds blown by 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and going through the artwork for Flash Gordon, then screening the old 30’s episodic serials, I imagined what it would look like if it was updated to combine Kubrick’s vision of ‘real’ space age technology with that same larger than life comic book-like characters and action of ‘Flash Gordo’n. When I pitched it to Berger this was my one liner,

‘It looks like 2001 with the same computers and technology, only with robots shooting ray guns over the computers like cowboys in a western!’

Jerry smiled and nodded his head, then he told me that someone else was in here pitching him the same thing two years ago while I was making ‘The Ringer,’ “George Lucas, the guy who just made that AMERICAN GRAFFITI.” He had turned Lucas down because the guy had no track record at this point to support taking over such an iconic property from a major corporation. However, Berger had just

optioned out the rights to Dino Di Laurentiis who got Berger’s approval because he promised to get Fellini to direct it.

“You mean to make Flash Gordon just like the comic strip,

not modernize it?” I responded in disbelief.

That’s exactly what Dino wanted to do and what King Features agreed to which I told him flat out was a horrible idea and such a waste of a great opportunity.

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CUT TO: Three years later, 1976, SQUIRM had just been released and it made enough noise to attract a series of Hollywood studio meetings where the question was asked of me, ‘What do you want to do next?” One of these meetings was at United Artists, with Marc Canton, assistant to studio head Mike Medevoy. When the ‘what next’ question came around, my immediate answer was a modern version of ‘Flash Gordon’. I told Canton I had a relationship with the rights holder and I figured that since Dino Di Laurentiis had done nothing with those rights for three years now, they’re probably available again. My pitch to Canton was the same, ‘2001,’ computers, high tech NASA science but with Robots hiding behind the computers and shooting ray guns at each other like in a cowboy movie.

Marc grinned, reached down and produced an artist’s rendering of exactly what I’d just described! He explained it’s a movie called “Adventures of Luke the Star Killer,” or something like that. Canton explained that after Lucas failed to secure the ‘Flash Gordon’ rights, he just figured he’d call it something else and make up a new space hero with all new characters, while doing essentially what he would’ve done with ‘Flash Gordon.’

United Artists had developed the project along with AMERICAN GRAFFITI which is why they had this artist’s rendering, but had decided to pass on the project for various reasons, most of which centered along the lines of possibly prohibitive costs. Alan Ladd at Twentieth Century Fox assumed all the development costs to that point and took over the picture.

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Later in the fall of that year I was waiting for the green light to start pre-production on my second feature, BLUE SUNSHINE and had promised a very talented editor named Paul Hirsch that we’d work together on my next movie. Paul had cut all of Brian De Palma’s movies up to that point including SISTERS, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, OBSESSION and of course, CARRIE and with De Palma being my idol and BLUE SUNSHINE a hybrid thriller/horror movie, I thought Paul would be a perfect fit.

But the production financing took longer to put together than I’d hoped and Paul had cleared the decks for BLUE SUNSHINE to be his next project. I hated putting him on hold like that but it was beyond my control. One night Paul called me and said he just got a call to come out to San Francisco to join two other editors on a movie they’re deep into, are overwhelmed and need a third hand. Three editors on one movie? Sure sounded strange. “What’s the name of the movie?” I asked. He said it was just a working title but they were calling it THE STAR WARS at that point and when he started describing it, I asked if it was the George Lucas science fiction Flash Gordon like thing. He confirmed it was and the call he got was from the film’s editor Marcia Lucas who was also George’s wife.

“You’re shittin’ me! Go! Do it!” I told him I knew all about the project and it could be huge and a great thing to be a part of and officially released him from any obligation on Blue Sunshine, not that he needed that but I respected him even more for going through the professional protocol.

A few weeks later I had a chat with Paul and asked how things were going on THE STAR WARS. All he could do was gush about the genius of George Lucas, and here’s just one of the reasons why. Since this was way before CGI, every miniature spaceship, every ray beam, every miniature character, matte backgrounds, motion control photography, all required an ‘optical,’ which had to be produced separately in several layers of ‘bi-packed’ film. This was a long and arduous process and took place at the optical labs (later named ‘Industrial Light and Magic) while the main body of the picture, the ‘live action’ non-optical process scenes were being cut in order to stick to the finishing schedule. But to lay out the rough cut with any sort of sense of pacing, blank black space holders were slugged in throughout the movie with descriptions of the optical process scenes to follow.

On the live action non optical stuff, a filmmaker will shoot at a ratio of at least 10-1 on an independent small movie and maybe three times that on a big studio film or even more, meaning at the low end, ten feet of film shot for every one foot that actually winds up in the finished product. But with these highly complex opticals, that ratio would be impossible because the cost would be astronomical. So you really had to have a feel for when the optical action starts and when it stops, so you can roughly cut it to fit in with not too much waste. If the sequence winds up being a third too long once it’s cut into the movie, you’ve blown a huge amount of money left on the editing room floor cutting it down. But Paul said that George’s instincts were so acute that when they got the work prints of the finished opticals, they dropped right in perfectly and only had to be trimmed by mere frames! Not feet, frames!

As an editor, Paul’s mind was truly blown by this epic feat of innate sense of timing and pacing. When the movie came out later that year I was eager to see it and when that opening ‘Flash Gordon’ serial style crawl coming from infinite space began to roll, an ear to ear grin formed on my face and stayed plastered there for the entire movie.

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CAUTION! If anyone reading this thinks I am implying that had things gone a little different then it would’ve been me who made STAR WARS instead of George Lucas, all I can say is No. Fucking. Way! Lucas took the concept to a level I never would have. Had King Features gone with me instead of Dino De Laurentiis and then a studio backed me on a modern version of ‘Flash Gordon’, it would’ve more resembled Mel Brooks’ SPACEBALLS instead of STAR WARS.

And the irony is, in 1980, to cash in on the popularity of STAR WARS, Dino finally did do his camp retro version of the original Flash Gordon which bombed miserably…

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