Using the Power of ‘The Force’ to sneak onto a Spielberg Movie Set.

In 1977 I was six years old. Back then there weren’t any multiplexes; each small town had a single screen cinema. A visit to ‘the pictures’ was always a profound, mystical experience, a treat higher than any other, the apex of which was, at that time, Star Wars. I’d seen Disney movies before and liked them, but they were just ‘kid’s stuff’; they weren’t Bond films, or Ray Harryhausen films or old Flash Gordon and Rocketman Republic serials. And they certainly weren’t Star Wars, the film that truly liberated my young imagination and sent it rocketing to new worlds.

I was deliriously, profoundly exhilarated to find myself speeding effortlessly alongside Luke Skywalker through the Death Star’s trenches; trenches, that in retrospect, bore more than just a passing resemblance to the unending, homogenous, labyrinthine sprawl of the northern English suburb in which I was raised. In the film, Luke states of his home, “If there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from” and I identified with that. All the excitements of the world seemed to be someplace else. If all Luke had to do was close his eyes and use the force to obliterate this oppressive, grey maze, surely I could do the same. So that’s what I did and subsequently spent most of my childhood with my eyes wide shut, lost, as the saying goes, in a galaxy far far away.

Star Wars occupied every corner of a kid’s universe in the seventies: T-shirts, lunchboxes, drink flasks, pencil cases, the action figures, napkins, pillow cases, ad infinitum. My seventh birthday party had a Star Wars theme and my mother adapted all the traditional party games to accommodate the new religion. ‘Pin the tail on the donkey’ became ‘pin the leg on R2-D2’.

Dozens of school reports from the time are testimony to my new devotion. Teachers’ remarks included: “No, Richard, there weren’t any Jawas in pre-historic times and they did not blow up dinosaurs,” and “Darth Vader was not one of the three kings who was present when baby Jesus was born, nor did he give him a lightsaber for his birthday."

School lessons were ‘dark side’, a necessary evil that merely facilitated lunch and break-time opportunities to re-enact scenes from Star Wars. Everyone wanted to be Han Solo, of course, but lesser roles were filled easily. A boy called Jason, who was confined to a wheelchair, was happy to be requisitioned as R2-D2, and Stephen, a tall, burly kid who never said anything was always Chewbacca because he, like his namesake, wanted to be in charge of “pulling people’s arms out of their sockets”. Stephen had broken his arm the previous year and perhaps felt that he was an authority. Needless to say, no one wanted to be Princess Leia, not even the girls, who also wanted to be Han Solo.

It was after the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, however, that my role in school yard games began to metamorphose, as did my many distracted schoolbook doodles. Over the summer holiday I had come by a stack of blue Topps Star Wars bubble gum cards and a magazine called the ‘Star Wars Special Collectors Edition’ published by Marvel Comics. Scattered throughout the glossy pages there were many ‘behind-the-scenes’ photographs. Entranced, I pored over them, thumbing the pages until they were almost translucent. I felt as if I’d been permitted into some inner circle, that I had been made privy to secret knowledge, that I had somehow been given powers of insight. In short, I had experienced The Force.

No longer did I sketch legion upon legion of Stormtroopers in precise, almost autistic detail; I began drawing pictures of Anthony Daniels, half-in half-out of his C3PO costume but, more often, director George Lucas standing beside Panavision Panaflex 35mm movie cameras. Yes, I could now see the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking, but the ethereal illusion of cinema wasn’t ruined for me at all, quite the opposite.

Playground Star Wars recreations began to see me directing the action, shaping it into some kind of rudimentary narrative, rather than permitting it to be an amorphous, generic space battle; I wanted to make sure that people ‘died properly’, that they emitted accurate laser sounds, that they remained in character and on their designated side of the Force. In short, I became a snotty little dictator, a playtime Napoleon.

Matters worsened when I learned that George Lucas had developed Raiders of the Lost Ark with Steven Spielberg. Very quickly I was also hooked on Indiana Jones, Close Encounters, and Jaws. While my sister’s bedroom wall was sullied with posters of the latest pop icons such as Culture Club and Spandau Ballet, mine held a single framed picture of Steven Spielberg that I had carefully excised from a Sunday magazine supplement. I’ve lost the picture but recall it well: Spielberg sits at a polished, mahogany desk. He wears a shabby leather jacket and baseball cap as he peers calmly over the rim off his round, tortoiseshell glasses; his feet, clad in a pair of bashed old pair trainers, rest nonchalantly on an expensive looking chair (such irreverence for furniture would not have been allowed in my home!). I was a ten year old kid whose friends wanted to be astronauts or marines, while my dream was to be a scruffy, scrawny, myopic, bearded Jewish guy.

At the time, you could have asked me the name of almost any crew member of a Spielberg or George Lucas picture and I would have told you right away. If just one question had come up in a school test or examination about the optical photography supervisor on Return of the Jedi, or about how Phil Tippett’s Go-motion animation worked, I may not have flunked so regularly. I was a geek, but not one of the smart ones who understood algebra or geometry. Unfortunately, the school I attended was not geared toward dreamers, nor did it nurture creativity or individualism. It was an unremarkable vocational school that catered to kids not destined for the university track. For the most part, we were expected to learn a trade, to become sheet metalworkers, shop assistants, office clerks and salesmen. My primary, seemingly useless talent was for drawing, but when the time came for my school to find me appropriate work experience as a young teenager, I was offered two weeks with either a car mechanic or a window dresser in an outmoded menswear shop. That was the best that could be done to accommodate my enthusiasms and embryonic talents.

“If there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from…”

Undaunted, I saved up for months to buy a book about Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, determined to imitate visual effects that I had seen in movies. Of course, these experiments often had disastrous outcomes; a friend whom I pestered into helping had only one skill - setting fire to everything I had made while I watched it through the eyepiece of an 8mm home-movie camera, for which I could never afford film stock. At the same time, in these early days before home video, I would spend the weekends fastidiously recording the audio of movies with a little tape recorder when they played on television so that I could listen to the recordings and study them over and over again. Clueless, I suppose I was trying to teach myself a trade; there was no formal experience for the work I wanted; Skywalker Ranch was on the other side of the known universe.

Some time in the mid-eighties that universe suddenly shrank when the free local newspaper was crammed unceremoniously through the letterbox, as it was every Friday. Not the most engrossing of reads, a typical headline might have read: “Residents furious about building of new fence,” or “Council closes bus shelter. Pensioner gets a bit wet”. However, this week’s edition was quite different. It contained my own personal Willy Wonka Golden Ticket, which came in the form of a short editorial announcing Steven Spielberg’s plan to shoot, or at least partially shoot, his next film, Empire of the Sun, in a nearby town. At first, I was stunned and sceptical. Having always been a Walter Mitty kind of child that perpetually dawdled somewhere between reality and fantasy, everything about the movies in which I had become immersed, fact or fiction, had become indistinguishable; Spielberg and Lucas were no more real to me than Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones; Hollywood was about as concrete as the land of Oz. The newspaper might as well have read “Loch Ness Monster found living with Hobbits in northern English suburb”. What could Steven Spielberg possibly find among the closed mills, factories and red-bricked suburbs of north western England that was worth pointing a camera at? I resolved to find out.

The first obstacle to overcome was immediately apparent: School. Essentially a shy, good kid, I wasn’t the sort to play hooky, despite my loathing for the place. I actually asked my teacher if I could take the day off to visit the film set. I recall desperately pitching the affair to him as some kind of work experience but, ultimately, I received a firm ‘no’ for my meagre attempts. I was also warned in no uncertain terms that I was not to phone in mysteriously sick when the time came. Back in those days, it was still acceptable for teachers in positions of authority to beat kids, often for piffling offences (and blatant truancy was not considered piffling), so it was with considerable trepidation that I decided to ignore my teacher’s threats. Being on a Hollywood film set was more important than welts or expulsion; it was crucial to my young being; nothing was going to stand in my way.

The big day arrived and I phoned in sick. I informed the school secretary that I didn’t know what was ailing me exactly, but I felt peculiar; my stomach was in knots; I feared I might throw up. And I wasn’t lying; nervous excitement had been building for days. Without interrogation, she said that she would pass the message on to my teacher. My Jedi mind-trick had worked. “This isn’t the child you’re looking for”.

I had prepared a map of the nearby town in advance so that I wouldn’t get lost and I soon found myself on a train heading for the site of the film’s location. On the way, to confirm that I wasn’t dreaming, I reread the announcement that had appeared in the local newspaper. Headline: “It’s all Chinese to us!”

“Anyone looking for Legh Road this week will have trouble for the name has switched to Amhurst Avenue while movie mogul Steven Spielberg films his latest blockbuster, Empire of the Sun, staring Nigel Havers. Legh Road, with its period housing indicative of the exotic east, has been transformed into war-torn 1940’s Shanghai. Preparing the road took six weeks at a cost of 150,000 pounds. Local pensioner, Irene Crumpe, was puzzled to find that her road’s name had changed. “It’d better be all back to normal by the weekend,” she complained, “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going!..”

Neither did I. It seemed inconceivable that I was on my way to see Steven Spielberg.

Within the hour I was heading through a leafy, well-to-do neighbourhood in the direction of Legh Road, when it dawned on me that I had no idea what I might say to Spielberg should I get the opportunity to meet him. Innumerable potential dialogues bubbled up from nowhere:

“I’m glad you could make it, Richard,” says Steven, shaking my hand, “We were trying to remember the name of the optical photography supervisor on Return of the Jedi. You don’t recall it, do you?”

“You bet I do, Steven...”

“Richard, perhaps you can help us with this shot; we don’t really know how to go about achieving it.”

“Have you considered Tippett’s Go-motion?”

“Of course! Thank god you were here, Richie…”

In addition to these unlikely scenes, I’m sure I must have allowed myself ‘running away with the circus’ fantasies.

I eventually passed two or three large, parked trucks. The backs were open and inside I could see all kinds of equipment - lights, cables and the like. Find me another kid that would have been thrilled by stacks of dolly tracks and crew members milling about, cigarettes dangling from their lips. I was in the right place; the adrenalin numbing my limbs and the throbbing in my head were testimony to that. Spielberg and Shanghai were only a hundred feet away.

Then, in the last few steps of a pilgrimage that had taken me many childhood years, my heart dropped. The road was cordoned off by police. As I arrived two cops were turning away a man with a camera. There was no way through. I strained to look down the road for a glimpse of movieland, but it was a long road and I couldn’t see anything. The film set might as well have been in Shanghai for real.

I couldn’t strike up an informal conversation with the policemen; my debilitating shyness aside, what if they asked me why I wasn’t at school? It seemed like it was all over before it had even begun. Agitated, I paced up and down the road wondering what to do. I went back to the indifferent crew members and stared at them and them at me. Was this it? Was this as close as I was going to get?

My hesitation to leave eventually paid off as two more people attempted to get by the police road block. As before, they were stopped. But this time the policemen elucidated that only crew, cast and residents were permitted. My stomach jumped. I’d never get through as a crew member, of course, but perhaps I could bluff my way in as a resident.

After pacing up and down the road some more, I finally built enough courage to attempt my daring trespass. I targeted the most affable of the policeman then made my move, all the while fixing in my head the image of Indiana Jones as he tricks his way past myriad German soldiers on his way to the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“Sorry, son, the road’s closed,” said the policeman, who suddenly took on the air of a burly Nazi, a scar across one cheek; one pupil-less eye, milky white; lightning in the background.

“I live here.”

“What number?”

I froze. Was this a trick question? Was the answer to it a password? Were the houses numbered or did they have names? If numbered, how high did the numbers go? I certainly couldn’t aim low because he’d have seen that I didn’t enter any of the driveways as I passed. I had no choice but to guess.

“Thirty-eight”. My hesitation roused a glimmer of suspicion in him.

“Why aren’t you at school?”

“I’m not well. I was sent home,” I squeaked.

“Which school do you go to?”

I made up a name. He frowned. Not only was I going to get beaten and expelled from school, I was also going to be arrested for giving fraudulent information in a police enquiry. I’d be locked in an ancient Egyptian tomb for eternity with desiccated corpses. And snakes. I had a bad feeling about this…

Instead, the policeman stood aside to let me through and I walked on, clunky with feigned nonchalance. No more than a few steps later another policeman cum Gestapo officer, called for me to stop. “Wohin gehst Du, Du Schweinehund?” Where did I think I was going?

“I live here,” I repeated, aware that my resources for lying were completely exhausted. Gestapo cop didn’t buy it for a moment.

“Turn around,” he demanded, gesturing, “go back past the barrier.”

If affable/Nazi policeman hadn’t have come to my aid and told bad cop/Gestapo officer that I was okay, just a sick kid, I would have made a run for it, probably in a hail of gunfire. I would have had to stumble on, bleeding from a leg wound, resting only to remove the bullet myself. I would have made splints from bleached, mummified human bones and then struggled on my way, focused solely on reaching the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant or the Sankara stone.

Drawn out moment’s later I turned the corner into ‘Amhurst Avenue’ and found the film set. Shanghai. My Shangri-la, my Devil’s Tower. The streets were lined with Chinese post boxes; dragons sat coiled atop ornamental gateposts; extras in period Chinese and British costume ran this way and that; vintage cars were being polished for scenes shortly to be filmed. At the epicentre of this overwhelming hubbub was the film crew. And somewhere, hidden beneath one of the many baseball caps and leather flight jackets, there had to be the film’s director, Steven Spielberg. For some time, I wasn’t bold enough to approach the crew, concerned that I might be identified as an intruder and ejected, but I gradually inched my way toward them. After what seemed like hours of shuffling ever closer, I was eventually in their midst, mere feet from the large 35mm camera. Barely breathing, so as to avoid detection, I stood like a ghost in the drizzling rain pilfering as many images and sounds as I could cram into my brain for later delectation: a real movie clapperboard lay on a film canister; the ‘continuity girl’, carrying hundreds of polaroids held together by string like Hawaiian wreathes, confirmed that costumes matched how they had appeared in previous shots; a Chinese rickshaw driver was being made up to look dirty while he ate a cheeseburger and talked in a broad Mancunian accent.

I was cold, my legs ached and I didn’t care; I was steeped in exhilaration. For the first time I was experiencing something that I could share with no other. This was just for me. These were my people.

After standing as stationary as an obelisk for a few hours I still hadn’t seen Spielberg. A crew member eventually addressed me, destroying my delusion that I had become invisible.

“You aren’t bored?” he asked in reference to the largely uneventful film set.

I shook my head.

“Then I guess you must be really interested.”

I nodded my head.

It took a few minutes more for me to ask if Spielberg was around. I learned that he wasn’t. He had been here to scout out the location a few months before, but this was the second unit, which had its own director. Naturally, I was somewhat disappointed, but I told myself that simply being present had been overpowering enough. I asked who the second unit director was and found out that it was Frank Marshall. Now, most people wouldn’t have been fazed by the name, but bear in mind that I had more than a passing interest in film crews, not that Frank Marshall was just another crew member: this was the man who, at the time, had produced Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Poltergeist, Gremlins, and Back to the Future among others. Because I had been so intent on seeing Spielberg I had not spied him, but now, pulling focus on my attention, I could see that I’d been standing only a few feet from him for half the day. I eased myself closer and was soon positioned behind the classic canvas movie chairs, the backs of which display the prominent actor or crew member’s name. I didn’t budge for another handful of fleeting hours, happy to simply observe the proceedings; I just wanted to soak it all in. In all that time I think the crew only filmed a couple of shots of a car driving in and out of a driveway. Who the hell cares, I thought; this was Frank Marshall and he was shooting a movie and I was there!

As the day’s filming came to a close and I became aware of the all consuming numbness in my feet and legs, I urged myself to say something to Frank Marshall. It took considerable internal deliberation before I had nurtured the bravery necessary to address him, but I did. Strangely, I don’t recall a single word I said to him, but I do remember that he was congenial and well-disposed towards me. He asked me if I lived in the area and if I was enjoying myself. Yes and yes. I even had the audacity to ask him for an autograph, which he gave gladly.

Soon afterwards, the crew wrapped and I made the very brief but entranced journey from China back to northern England. On the train home, I looked at the autograph. “To Richard, Best wishes, Frank Marshall”.

At school the next day, my teacher said nothing of my absence nor did he refer to it ever again. I like to think that he recognised some fire in me, callow though it may have been – a spark perhaps. Against my better judgement, I showed the autograph to gormless friends and, as expected, they grimaced. “Who the hell is Frank Marshall?” I cursed myself for requesting the autograph, as if doing so had somehow sullied my fleeting interaction with Hollywood, as if I hadn’t had enough faith to accept the treasures the day had given me and needed crude proof. “I’m no better than my little sister screaming for Boy George!” I thought. I had regarded myself as a grown up, a fellow filmmaker, but I was, of course, still just a kid. I was no more a peer to Frank Marshall or Steven Spielberg than Legh Road had been 1940’s Shanghai.

I left school a few years later with very few qualifications and, like many of my friends, contributed to the rising statistics that charted the number of unemployed school leavers in England. Every week we’d nod at each other in line at the welfare office as we collected our miniscule cheques. Many bolstered the empty days with sleep, drugs and drink - and I was no exception - but, at least for the most part, I like to think that I didn’t squander too many of those jobless hours. Still enthused by cinema, I read as many books and watched as many movies as I could lay my hands on, often waiting up, heavy-eyed, until three am for the foreign movies that played on TV (I didn’t have a VCR back then), that I’d otherwise have no chance of seeing: movies by Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Tarkovksy, Malle, Bertolucci, Truffaut. Then there was Roeg, Powell & Pressburger, Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Coppola, Scorsese, and Lynch.

Nowadays, few movies that Spielberg and Lucas have made since the mid-eighties have avoided criticism for unapologetic mass commercialism, shaky dialogue and, with more sugary endings than can be squeezed into Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates, many have claimed that their movies can’t be doing too much for our cultural teeth. And I have to admit that I too have, on occasion, pointed cynical fingers, perhaps because it was fashionable to do so at the time, or maybe because I was a little too over eager to demonstrate my hard-fought-for intellectual progress.

It’s also possible that I simply yearned for a nostalgic return to the golden days of the 1970’s and resented that the kinds of movies synonymous with my childhood were no longer being made. But maybe I was wrong, maybe they are, it’s just that I changed, as did the audiences and the industry that serves them. New cultural mythologies emerge, moral systems and understandings of the world shift; there are fresh goals and agendas and what is important changes with time.

Ultimately, some things do remain constant, however. Not only are they a part of who we are, they grow. Thirty years after I first saw Star Wars, twenty after I met Frank Marshall, I became a professional screenwriter, something that wouldn’t have happened without space pirates, relentless sharks, visiting aliens, scruffy archaeologists or the power of The Force. The fascination and awe of going to ‘the pictures’ that I had as a six year old child is still very much intact and the opening rumble of the 20th Century Fox and Paramount idents never fail to move me; they’re still like a call to prayer.


Scott C. Clements said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elodie said...

Hi from Switzrtland!

My name is Elodie, I'm 20.
I just read your great article !
Like you I am a huge fan of Steven Spielberg and Indiana Jones. And like you too I am shy, but for some thing I have the force to do and say things that I can't imagine !

Did you finally meet Steven Spielberg ?
If I must choose one person to meet during my entire life, it would be STEVEN SPIELBERG !
This director influenc my life since I am 4 !
Please contact me here


Brandee said...

You write very well.

Dana said...

I loved this! Thanks for sharing, it warmed my cold dull heart :-)