Jon Spira | ELSTREE 1976

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Jon Spira and his crew have made what may be the ultimate Star Wars documentary, without it actually being about the film. It focuses on the ‘bit part’ players, those behind the masks and make-up that have made the film the classic it is. We caught up with his as the film is finally released on DVD in the UK to find out more…

STARBURST: How did the project originally come about?

Jon Spira: I was teaching at a film workshop in Oxford and John Chapman was one of my students. One day, he revealed that he had been in Star Wars; I think I looked a bit cynical so he took me to his car and showed me that his boot was filled with boxes of 10x8 photos that he took to conventions around the country to sign. That night, I went home and stuck the DVD on to see if I could spot him and eventually identified the back of his head in one single shot. I then went along to a convention and saw this bizarre world that he was a part of. It chimed very heavily with some themes I'd been exploring in my previous documentary Anyone Can Play Guitar, about people who existed on the fringes of huge pop culture phenomenon, so it was just a world I wanted to explore.

You have a long list of names that helped finance the documentary through the Kickstarter campaign. How much did you propose getting from them in terms of funding and how long did it take to get the funding together?

We aimed for 30k, we got just over 42k. By then we had shot the first round of all interviews and thought we just needed that much to technically finish the film but ultimately legal expenses and an extended post production period meant we had to seek outside funding and ended up getting additional funding from the brilliant folks at the British Film Company and Verax films. Funding was a constant process, which really carried on right up until the day we finished the film completely.

Has Lucasfilm seen the documentary and how much resistance have you received from them in terms of securing clips etc.?

I have no idea. It's on American Netflix, so you'd hope so. It’d be nice if they dropped us a line. We had one letter from them just telling us that we shouldn't make the film and they wouldn't licence us the clips so we did the whole thing under a legal process called Fair Use. To be honest, I never planned to use many clips from Star Wars and, as you can see in the film, we played about with that footage so much I don't think they feel like film clips. We’ve completely repurposed every image we've used and made it into something very different.

Who was your favourite subject to interview and who was impossible to get for the documentary?

In some ways, they're all my favourites, every interview was completely different and a really enlightening experience in their own ways. I couldn't pick a favourite; I think they’re all so engaging when they talk. We didn’t have an agenda as to whom to interview - the only rule was that they had to be in the first SW film and had to have their face obscured by a mask or helmet. I didn't have a want list. I knew that any human being has a great story if you’re prepared to sit down and let them tell you it.

Kenny Baker actually told us to fuck off, though.

The film doesn't show too much on-set footage. Was that down to rights or was it a deliberate strategy to focus on the individuals?

I just had no interest in making a behind the scenes film about the making of Star Wars. The making of that film has been covered to excruciating detail. This is a film about what happens to a person’s life when they have a tiny connection to a pop culture juggernaut. The actual experience of making Star Wars was way less interesting to me than how they got there  and how the experience coloured the rest of their lives for  the next 40 years. So instead of using on-set footage, we shot our own. We got a bunch of costumes and found a crazy old building that hadn't been modernised since the ‘70s and set up shots that showed the tedium and monotony of being an extra on that film.

It is surprising to see David Prowse as part of the documentary, considering he plays the figure of Darth Vader physically, though not vocally. Some would think he is a main part, rather than a support or extra, a character on the same plateau as the hero legends. How co-operative was he in terms of the interviews?

I was kind of ambivalent about interviewing Dave for exactly that reason - Darth Vader is probably the most iconic character in Star Wars but the very fact that it's not his voice and, in fact, there were other people wearing the costume when he fights and does stunts, and of course when the helmet is finally removed, there's another actor in there entirely - it actually raises the question of what sets him apart from any of the other performers in masks and helmets besides more screen time. We bring Jeremy Bulloch in towards the end of the film to give his perspective on the convention scene and when you think about Boba Fett, who is probably the most popular character in Star Wars, you have to ask how much of that is performance and how much is just the costume? He pretty much just stands still or walks forwards. I think you see in Elstree 1976 that Dave, in particular, struggles with this. He feels an immense ownership of the character and in some ways has become quite bitter and delusional about his contribution. Since we filmed the interview with him, he's appeared in two quite bizarre fan documentaries which seem intent on righting his perceived wrongs; in one of them he reshoots the end of Return of the Jedi so that its him when the mask comes off and in another he re-records all of the dialogue and processes it digitally in an attempt to prove that he could have done better than James Earl Jones. It's just so fascinating to watch. Dave is a lovely man, he's warm and generous, he's great with the fans and he's  lovely company but I'd only ever seen these diametrically opposing views of him - which in Star Wars fandom he's either perceived as an egotistical monster  or a cuddly old avuncular granddad. I saw both sides of him during the very long interview I did with him and I think Elstree 1976 is the first time that a rounded view of him that shows how great he is but also how warped his view of things has become.

What was the shooting schedule on the film? Was it an on-and-off shoot?

It was an on-off schedule. We shot the first round of interviews with all ten interviewees over probably a couple of months. Some of them we did two in a day. Then we went off and edited a first cut, thought about what was missing what we wanted to focus on in greater depth, then we went and did an extra day with each of them, usually at their homes or where they worked, where we also shot footage of them interacting with their lives for b-roll. Then we did a day filming the recreation footage of the SW set, we also shot in Elstree Studios for a day - at their invitation, they’ve been incredibly supportive. Throughout the whole production period, over several years, we shot at various conventions, too.

Did you have a list of prepared questions or were some of the proposed answers improvised and unexpected?

I had a list of questions but I don't think I ever used them. I opened every interview with the question 'how do you define yourself' because it's such a stupidly big question it immediately kicks them into a slightly more reflective gear and sets the tone well. I don't really ask questions, I'm quite a quiet interviewer. I tend to just let people talk and talk because eventually they will lead themselves to a place of meaning and personal philosophy. People love to talk about themselves and analyse themselves and I'd rather facilitate that than segment  and regiment our conversation with set questions. Also, I interview for a very long time - 2 to 3 hours at least - so I like it to be organic and see where it takes us.

Did anyone change their mind about being filmed and interviewed after you filmed them who didn’t want to be part of the project?

Yes, but they all signed release forms so they didn't have a choice. It's a strange film, quite melancholic and thoughtful, and although we tried to explain to all of our interviewees  that this wasn't a fan film and wasn't about Star Wars so much as about the impact of Star Wars on them as  people, some of them were horrified when they saw the first trailer. Eventually, they all trusted us and stayed with the project and when they finally saw the finished film and saw what we'd been trying to bring to the screen, we got really positive feedback from them and many of them have been actively promoting it.

How did you plan the shoot and what did you shoot on camera-wise?

We shot on a Canon 5d Mark iii and a Canon 7d. Planning was simple. We had a tiny crew of myself, producer Hank, DP Sonny and sound recordist Sherrylee. So we'd all just pile into a car and go and shoot it. Nice and easy.

Who of the subjects has the most memorabilia and who is the most popular at conventions?

Jeremy has the most memorabilia. His collection of Boba Fetts is unbelievable. I'd say either he or Dave is the most popular at conventions. I'd imagine it's fairly equal. The crowds they get are massive. As Dave says in the film, he can sign nonstop from 9am to 6pm without taking any breaks. Their queues are constant.

Will you be planning Elstree 1980 and Elstree 1983 in conjunction with the releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the next few years, a bit like Michael Apted with the 7-UP series of films?

Haha. No. I think my time in the sci-fi world is done for now. 7-Up was a huge influence on me, though. I think you'll find a lot of stylistic commonality between that and Elstree 1976.

Finally, what was your favourite memory of shooting the documentary?

There's a moment in the film where you find out that Anthony Forrest, despite being the “These aren't the droids we're looking for” Stormtrooper, reveals that he was present for another hugely significant moment in pop culture history.

When he revealed that, it just blew my mind. But the whole shoot was fun. I make these films with my friends and we all care so much about making meaningful, interesting films that it's all very pleasurable.

Elstree 1976 is released on DVD on November 14th and is reviewed here.

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