PUNCHING YOUR HAND THROUGH A WALL FROM A CERTAIN POINT-OF-VIEW or Why Darth Vader Is Not Luke Skywalker’s Father
Working as a screenwriter in the business of motion picture production, I have had the opportunity to study a strange and disparate species known as The Film Director. More specifically, I have encountered, worked with and endured the myriad insecurities, eccentricities and outright childish regressions of the Film WRITER-Director in his natural element. I have studied the beast close-up. I know where he nests and breathes. And I know how fearsomely he (or, in those rare cases, SHE) protects his (or her) babies from the cold, cruel world out there. I have seen these people rage out of control. I have seen them shield themselves behind walls of arrogance and self-delusion. I have seen them manufacture alternate realities and stand up to claim the fruits of other people’s hard labors. I have also seen them regress into chasms of self-hatred and wallow in the shallows of creative burnout. I have watched helplessly as beautiful dreams and best-laid plans were shot to hell in front of horrified eyes. I’ve even stood right next to a few of these bizarre creatures as they were calling “cut” on a scene, their faces twisted into desperate grimaces, signifying that they had no idea in hell how any of this shit was gonna cut together later. In one specific case, which I will never in a million years forget, a film writer-director turned to me after a particular performance in a scene did not please him … and slammed his fist through the nearest wall, breaking three of his fingers. I’m pretty sure he hoped I would forget about that a few days later. In fact, most people in Hollywood COUNT ON you to forget stuff like that a few days later. But, see … that’s just it, people. I’m a writer and it’s my job to remember stuff. (That’s usually so I can steal it for a story later.) I don’t forget it when something weird goes down—particularly when it has to do with one of my heroes on a movie set. It’s all burned forever in my brain … along with the many formative memories from childhood that made me wanna do this shit for a living in the first place.
Like … oh, let’s see, maybe seeing STAR WARS for the first time?
Forgive me folks, but I AM part of a certain baby-boomer demographic. I was exactly the right age at exactly the right time for George Lucas’s magnum opus to have exactly the right effect on me. I saw the film as a child in 1977, was totally blown away, changed my life forever … yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m sure it would make old George happy to know that this particular man who is about to rip him a new asshole in public (there have been many others, to be sure, and will be many more; the new Indiana Jones movie is only months away as I write this) is just exactly like all the other Kevin Smiths and Peter Jacksons who grew up worshipping at the alter of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and who still heap mounds of praise on that awesome original film as they carve out their own hunks out of the historical cinema pie. My own contributions to this ongoing mythos are currently modest, and part of the reason for that may be that I often tell people what they do not want to hear. As a writer and an artist, I feel my job is to inconvenience people, to push them further. To make trouble. A lot of people hate my guts. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
What all this means is that I know a lie when I hear it, because I lie all the time. It’s my job. And I know how insecure writer-directors are. And I also happen to be a huge fan of STAR WARS. The original film. The one George Lucas made a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
The one in which Darth Vader was NOT Luke’s Father.
I write this now with more than a little smug satisfaction, because I have just finished reading a document which proves once-and-for-all that my long held “theory” is one hundred percent correct, beyond a shadow of a doubt … and though the screed that follows is not my intention to belittle the efforts of a great filmmaker or even to stand on some nerdy soapbox and scream “see, I told you so!” at the top of my geeky lungs … I am still compelled to write this. In the name of truth. Because sometimes, when a lie is told, it has great and lasting consequences for those whom you think you are fooling. You can re-write the script of your life so many times for the illustrated trade paperback editions, but the version that originally went before the cameras is still there. We don’t forget. We are the children of STAR WARS.
And a child never forgives a beating or a lie.
The lie we were told was that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father.
To understand why this is a lie, and why it is so unforgivable a lie, some of you may need a little more backstory. We have already discussed what neurotic, cowardly, arrogant weirdoes most film writer-directors are. The very process of filmmaking is metamorphic, ever-escalating, and so it is no wonder these guys turn out the way they do. There is also a certain level of Hollywood image that must be maintained as a writer-director. This is for both egocentric and very practical, monetary reasons. The media and the public and the studios who pay huge salaries must see these guys as auteurs, great artisans. (“Oh my, he wrote it AND directed it—he must be a genius and worth millions, no?”) After STAR WARS, George Lucas was a rock star with a reputation almost unprecedented in the American movie industry. I was seven years old and I knew the guy’s name. I had NEVER taken note of who was behind the camera before, and I certainly had no real idea at the time about what a writer-director actually DID … but I sure as hell knew that this guy wrote and directed STAR WARS. I knew what he looked like and talked like. His photo was everywhere. The papers reported his every move. All the adults around me chattered amongst themselves about this “27-year-old wunderkind.” (And what the hell was a “wunderkind,” anyhow? Some sort of space sausage?) When Lucas went public with his plans for not one, but TWO sequels to STAR WARS, all of us—both kids and adults—held our breath and waited. The grown-ups were all very curious, the industry was poised to see Lucas fall on his ass after two box office blockbusters in a row (lest us forget the unexpected overnight success of AMERICAN GRAFITTI, which gave birth to the nostalgia culture that spawned the hit TV series HAPPY DAYS and made Lucas so rich that he was able to begin work on STAR WARS without an official green-light from Twentieth Century Fox, paying nearly a half million out of own pocket before filming even started) … but us kids just wanted to see the big smackdown between Luke skywalker and Darth Vader. We were ravenous for it, in fact.
I, myself, was so ravenous that I actually spoiled the surprise for myself by purchasing the comic book of the film about a month before it was released. The comic was a very slick affair, printed in a glossy magazine format by my pals at Marvel, with fantastic, almost photo-real artwork by Al Williamson, one of the old-school artists of FLASH GORDON. No irony there, considering the widely-reported and very obvious pulp origins of STAR WARS. I remember seeing those awesome Imperial Walker-Thingies for the first time on paper. I remember being thrilled by the character interplay, which went in directions I hadn’t thought of. Han gets the girl? Luke can’t use the force? Who the fuck is this Yoda guy? And then … “Luke, I am your father.”
Umm … what?
That took a second to sink in.
Waitaminute … no WAY!
Darth Vader was the goshdarn bad guy! There was no indication in the first film at all that he and Luke were related. As a matter of fact, when posed with the direct question of what had actually happened to Luke’s dad, our old pal Ben Kenobi (then still played by the venerable Alec Guinness, who only bears a passing resemblance to the lead junkie from TRAINSPOTTING) told us in clear English that he was dead. Darth Vader “betrayed and murdered” him. Unless he was lying—and why the hell would a “guardian of peace and justice” do something as dastardly as LYING, unless he had a really, really good reason for it, I guess—Darth Vader had to be full of shit. HE was the one lying, because he was THE BAD GUY. I was convinced.
AND YET … there was this nagging tug at the back of my brain that said that somebody, somewhere, was actually serious about this. Search your feelings, Young Romano, you KNOW IT TO BE TRUE …
I lived in denial until the day I actually saw THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK for the first time. The film was as powerful and daring as the comic book had been. More so. You actually got to see Luke’s hand get cut off. (It was censored in the book.) It blew me away in a new way—a way of growing up and realizing your heroes are fatally flawed. It was a dark, dark film for a ten year-old to deal with. It made the obvious hero into a punching bag for the bad guys. It made the sleazy rouge into the romantic lead, then virtually killed him off. It placed all the a action up front at the beginning of the film and led us to a frightening, damn-near-breathtaking climax in which several crucial plot threads were left dangling in mid air … and, of course, the Big Dark Secret was revealed. I sat in a room filled with fanatical STAR WARS devotees on the morning of the film’s first screening in Houston—who, up until that moment, had been screaming and cheering in every scene—and you could feel the very air around us all turn cold as every set of lungs in the place stopped suddenly, not breathing … not believing.
None of us believed it.
Darth Vader had to be lying.
On a side note, I must mention how special that screening was, and how it has colored nearly every movie experience since then. This was back in the “old days,” when waiting in line for FOUR WHOLE HOURS really meant something. This was back when the audience was devoted and vocal and unafraid to let it all hang out in public. Nobody shushed you when you cheered the first appearance of Han Solo. Nobody cared at all about the follow up one-liners that were drowned out by the rapturous laughter from a moment earlier. Everyone screamed like football fans when the Walkers crashed and burned. It was a true-and-authentic HAPPENING. You felt like you were part of history—a real PART of it, and not just some shmucky spectator. This particular showing was at the Alabama theatre, a gorgeous old-school movie palace with just ONE SCREEN and a BIG BALCONY, located directly next to Cactus Records where I had purchased the STAR WARS soundtrack album a year-and-half earlier. (I also saw ALIEN here for the first time.) They had decorated the lobby gloriously for the occasion of the film’s first showing. There were hundreds of fans lined up and mobbing the door. The experience was transcendent, miraculous, something that only comes along ONCE. And then it’s gone forever. When the film started, the roar of the crowd was like something coming out of a Toho Studios monster. I would come back to the Alabama to see EMPIRE twelve more times … and ten more times in other theatres. It was a game we played as children. How many times have YOU seen it?
I would have that experience only three other times in my life. Next, it was at the premiere of RETURN OF THE JEDI—at which enraptured fans literally stood on their chairs screaming “DEATH TO DARTH VADER!” at full blast when he first appeared … and later, they shrieked “DO IT, DARTH!!” over and over when the fallen Jedi must choose to save Luke from the Emperor. Years later, the first screening of ALIENS also blew the doors out. (I was of age, and on acid, for that one.) Then, there was the official Austin premiere of PULP FICTION, when the room went more and more crazy as each scene topped the one before it, with good old Quentin himself sitting with us, amazed by the rowdy and loving response his film was getting. It was the last time I would ever feel such a connection with an audience.
Nowadays, a new breed of film geeks seems to have taken over Austin—a breed of quiet, bespectacled “appreciators” who get really upset if there is just a little noise in a theatre, even when the filmmakers in attendance fully ask for it in no uncertain terms. I hate those geek-mutants. Really, really hate them. They take all the fun out of going to a rock concert. They sit and make notes and stare in silence. They’ve “grown up,” I guess, to become “serious connoisseurs” of film. Or something. (And for those among you who actually believe in this “No Tolerance” policy, here’s the news: there’s a HUGE difference between yapping nonstop like a jackass or talking on a cell phone during a movie and yelling “yeaaah, baayybee!” out loud during a really cool scene, so fuck you.) I realized that my childhood was truly over when, at one of the first screenings of THE PHANTOM MENACE—the one also attended by the legions of STAR WARS geeks who had attempted to re-capture their youth by lining up in shifts outside for several months before the film opened—the main title hit the screen and half the room burst into cheers … while the other half sent a shockwave of hissing SHHHHHHHHHHHs through the theatre, freezing the room cold. The experience was killed nearly dead from that moment on. No cheers for Threepio or Artoo when they first appeared. No boos for Darth Maul or hoorays for Yoda. (Never mind that the movie didn’t really deserve our applause in the first place, but that’s some other fanboy’s article.) By the time Obi Wan took on Darth Maul at the end of the film in a truly adrenalialting laser sword duel—arguably the best scene in the whole sordid movie—I was fed up and led the cheering section for the ONLY audience reaction the film received that night. And we were shushed again by the geeks in the front. What the fuck happened to this world?
Sigh … anyway … I digress.
Back to 1980.
The big debate after EMPIRE, as we waited for the definitive answers in JEDI, was the obvious debate, and I was firmly on what I believed to be the right side. Luke was not Vader’s kid. It was just impossible. Lucas had pulled a plot twist out of his ass that was so gargantuanly mindfucking to his adoring legion of ten and twelve year olds that it damn-near cancelled itself out. Child psychologists were supposedly reporting to Lucas that 75% of his target audience believed it to be untrue. The rumble was on the streets and in the media. Basically, people, what this man had attempted was a bold gamble to keep his franchise hot for the two years it would take to film and complete the next movie. It was a master stroke, whether intended or not. As a twelve year old, I knew—and this was beyond clear in my mind—that it would be revealed Vader was lying in JEDI. It was the only logical assumption, based on all I knew and could sense about what the first movie was.
Well, guess what?
Georgie-boy answered our question, didn’t he?
Not only did he answer our question, but he was having his characters do verbal backflips to explain away the whole mess … and stood firm in the media that Darth Vader was always Luke’s father, from the very conception of STAR WARS, no ifs ands or buts. The “Master Plan” or whatever was that this whole damn STAR WARS thing was actually the story of someone named Annakin Skywalker, who transformed into Darth Vader in some other movie we’d probably never get to see … and Luke’s whole purpose was not to be the hero at all—but to redeem the fallen father. It fact, at the rather frightening (and somewhat disturbing) climax of JEDI, our goddamned hero from 1977—Luke Fucking Skywalker—is reduced to a whimpering, screaming, writhing invalid at the feet of the nasty, cruel Emperor Dude, as Darth makes his decision to be one of the good guys, after all. It’s a fairly powerful scene upon reflection … but it’s always a bittersweet sort of powerful for me as an adult … because it’s all just part of the lie. A terrible, manipulative lie told to eleven year olds and their parents to sell movie tickets. The greatest lie of all. And what makes it the greatest lie of all?
Because it might not have been a lie.
It COULD STILL NOT BE A LIE.
If only George Lucas would simply admit the way it really was.
Darth Vader was never Luke’s father until he was MADE Luke’s father during the writing of EMPIRE.
Lucas will deny this with his dying breath.
Again … consider the odd and eccentric nature of the species known as the writer-director. As we have already learned, they are insecure and want to be validated for their great triumphs. They don’t like it when works-in-progress are shown, unpolished, to groups of fans or critics who may pass judgment on them. In this case, George Lucas simply wants everything in these films to tie together, and he wants it all to be seen as something he had in his mind all along. That would be great if it were true, but it is not and here is why:
Firstly, even a cursory examination of the basic plot mechanics of the original STAR WARS reveal its simplistic morality-play structure. There is a young hero who is pure and descended from great heritage, who must rise to save the day in the final reel. There is a dashing rouge who must overcome his selfish nature and also save the day in the final reel. There is damsel in distress who requires the aid of our two heroes, and who must even become a point of vague rivalry among them. There is an old wizened mentor character who must pass the torch to the new generation, as he lays down his life for the cause. AND … there is a villain wearing a fancy black hat who must be defeated, yet left alive so that he can run off, shaking his first: “I’ll get you YET!!”
It’s a classic structure, borrowed from the finest tradition of pulp science fiction. It works because it is simple.
Lucas, being an insecure writer director and the moody doomsayer that he often is, never anticipated the smash-hit status his film would achieve, and boiled all the elements from his sprawling saga into one tightly constructed little movie. This has always been a matter of public record. It isn’t hard to read between the lines to see that what Darth Vader was … was, well … the bad guy. Lucas may have had plans for a future sequel that would tie Vader’s history in with the Skywalker clan in SOME way … but the brainstorm to make Luke his son could only have happened at the writing stage of EMPIRE. Because there no hint of it in STAR WARS, not even a little. And that’s just exhibit A.
(Yeah, yeah, I hear all you geeks: “What about Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru musing about how Luke ‘has too much of his father in him?'” It’s a fanboy defense mechanism that shouldn’t even be used in a serious discussion of the subject, because they are clearly referring to his JEDI FATHER and THEY ARE AFRAID HE WILL LEAVE THEM ON AN ADVENTURE. Get over it. You’ll live longer.)
We move on now to the pop culture atom bomb that detonated over the world in the wake of STAR WARS’s success. Lucas, by the letter of his contracts with Fox, owned the sequel rights and financed the new films himself, borrowing huge amounts of money from banks, through his own company. This means he, himself, had a great deal to lose. He was planning two sequels, both to carry the story to it’s conclusion over a nice stretch of real estate, and to make as much money as possible. Lucas had other films he wanted to make, and STAR WARS would provide security for of all of them … if things were handled right.
He had to have a story that would hook us in, and keep us on the edge of our seats for more. He had to fuck with the status quo. It was important to subvert expectations and trot out something that would blow us all away, yet leave lingering questions. Darth Vader was a creature of mystery, his face hidden by the mask. Who was he really under there? What secrets did his past truly hold? What was his identity before he wore the mask? We knew he was a young Jedi who betrayed Luke’s father, but how exactly did that happen? George Lucas knew, like all those child psychologists knew, that if the answer was something truly frightening and close to home … well, it would be a slam dunk. Such a device would provide him with an interesting and somewhat original way to continue the series. And keep it going for years.
Actually, my personal theory is that the idea of Darth Vader becoming Luke’s father was never George’s at all. It sounds like something his co-writer Laurence Kasdan (a far more brilliant scribe than Lucas) would have come up with … or even one of the many suggestions made by his eccentric and visionary mentor Francis Coppola, perhaps during a night of heavy drinking. Basically, there was a gap to fill, a grand revelation that needed to be made … and SOMEBODY said, “dude, I’ve GOT it!”
Press releases from Lucasfilm after EMPIRE neither confirmed nor denied that the revelation was true, though Lucas had let the “truth” slip in a few early interviews. Spin control experts at Fox and Lucas’s company scrambled to keep a lid on things as the controversy grew. This is another indication of Lucas’s intentions. If Darth Vader was truly Luke’s father—and had been all along—why the sudden press blackout? There are fans and historians that maintain George’s integrity and that the official statement was always that the twist was sincere … but, see, I was THERE in 1981, people. I know what was said and what was not said. I remember that they kept us in the fucking dark. I remembered that one of the biggest moments in JEDI was when Yoda reveals the final, shocking truth to Luke. If there was ever any question about it, why did they milk that fucking question for every nickel it owed them?
George Lucas was lying to us.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the final film itself, where Kasdan and Lucas construct a bizarre tapdance for the Ghost Of Ben Kenobi to trot out with, as he spouts some bullshit about “what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. Why not just have Ben say, “sorry, kid, I lied to you?” Because, silly, that would make Ben a LIAR, and Jedi guys are guardians of truth and justice, right? It makes the awesome scene in the first STAR WARS where Ben explains Luke’s heritage totally moot, doesn’t it? The mumbling crock of revisionist shit they hand us in this scene plays eerily like watching you father construct elaborate double-talk to explain why Santa Claus ain’t real no more.
It was around the time that JEDI was finally released in 1983 that George Lucas started flapping his jaw in public a lot about how the STAR WARS films were actually Greek mythology dressed up with laser beams. Are we all fucking stupid or what? He had never—not once since 1977 when the first film was released—compared his films to Greek mythology. The paper trail from the period clearly reflects old pulp comics, novels and serials as the inspiration for STAR WARS, and while it is fair to assume that Lucas would allow the melodrama of the series to evolve into more mythological tangents . . . the words “Greek” and “Mythology” are not mentioned even once in the early “lost interview tapes” which comprise the body of the recently released book THE MAKING OF STAR WARS by J. W. Rinzler.
What is remarkable about this new book, exhaustively researched and presented in great detail, from script conception to world premiere, is that it is an officially-sanctioned Lucasfilm publication, in fact written by one of the bigwigs in the company … and yet it reveals all. This book is, oddly, the first official making-of account written about the first film, based on original interviews taken with all the key players AT THE TIME OF THE FILM’S MAKING. It was a project that stalled once in development, as is said in the author’s preface, and has only been released now, after the “saga” is “complete” … with three of the worst movies ever made standing in for backstory on Annakin Skywalker and his supposed transformation into Darth Vader. It is clear that this book was held back not just by the death of its original author, but by Lucas himself (did Lucas have the guy killed to protect his horrible secret; beware the dark side!) … because the exhaustive paper trail that traces the development of George Lucas’s original script contains absolutely no reference whatsover to Darth Vader, or any Dark Lord, as Luke’s father. There is a father character, who is a mechanical Jedi-dude, but he is not malevolent. In fact, even the notion of the force having a dark side at all was not even developed until a draft or two down the line. All versions of Darth Vader in the original drafts of STAR WARS have him as the fancy black hat villain and nothing more. He’s the BAD GUY. GET IT?
Even more telling than the actual development of the script, which is revealed in so much detail as to be stupefying, is the excerpt from an interview conducted between Lucas and Alan Dean Foster (who ghost wrote the STAR WARS novel under George’s name—another indicator of the colossal egos and insecurities at play here) in which he clearly indicates that Luke’s father was a Jedi who left his light saber to Luke and states the following about Darth Vader:
“Han splits at the end of the second book at we learn who Darth Vader is … in the third book, I want the story to be just about the soap opera of the skywalker family, which ends with the destruction of the Empire.”
Okay. Did you all get that?
It’s not what he says … it’s what he DOESN’T SAY.
Or, rather, what is NOT PRINTED.
Remember, this is an official Lucasfilm publication.
They aren’t gonna out him directly … but they’re not exactly letting him office the hook either.
Did you notice the big ELISPE (that’s THREE DOTS, like this “…”) after “and we learn who Darth Vader is”? That’s not me being cute. That’s exactly as it appears in the book, the only real statement made on the record at the time of the film’s inception which directly addresses the “secret behind Darth Vader,” and it’s been truncated by the book’s author with an ellipse, which is really not much more than a sly wink to those who are smart enough to put it together. “The soap opera of the skywalker family” may have been percolating in some form even then in George’s mind, but it sure as hell did NOT involve Vader becoming Luke’s dad … and then, later, the whole series turning into a Greek tragedy about one man’s fall from grace. It just wasn’t there in the beginning.
It was added later.
It’s what the series EVOLVED into.
I would be fine with this, as an artist and even as a professional, if George Lucas didn’t continue to shit on his loyal legions—who are now all grown up and openly hate him for destroying their childhoods with the last three films in the series—by holding fast to his revisionist history. (Just take a look at how many fun little moustaches he’s drawn on the original films—effects shots added, digital-cool monsters popped in the background, Greedo shoots first, world without end, deliver us all.) That’s where all this business about the psychology of insecurity and self-hatred in the heart of the film writer-director comes in. You need that to understand why men in positions such as George Lucas do what they do. Nobody becomes an artist to be ignored. Nobody wants to be perceived as an idiot with no game plan. Nobody wants to be remembered as someone who didn’t have his shit together. Those among us who embrace our flaws as human beings and artists—and, in fact, make entire careers out of agonizing out loud in public about such things—understand that it is only natural to reach new levels of awareness and discovery. Our flaws make us much more entertaining people. But when you punch your hand through a wall and break three of your fingers in a blind rage one day on the set … don’t expect me to forget about it three days later, man. Because I was there and I remember. I was with you and I loved you for it. And, later, you got your shit together. You evolved.
Don’t tell me lies about it, George.
Because it breaks my heart.
And I don’t believe you anyway.
Stephen wrote the pilot episode of Masters of Horror for Showtime titled Incident on and off a Mountain Road that was directed by Don Coscarelli. His books include The Riot Act, Zombie and The Gates of Hell. Stephen is also the writer on Phantasm V (2008: in production) Bubba Nosferatu and the Curse of the She-Vampires (2009: pre-production). He also produced, scored and starred in the 1993 Comicbook Soundtrack MAXXimum Sound that facilitated Mtv’s animated series THE MAXX based on Sam Kieth’s first 3 issues of The Maxx comicbook. Check out the website for his latest book at ShockFestival.net and contact him online at MySpace.com/DoctorTheatre.