Patrick Johnson, Star Wars and the Rise of Nerd Culture

Movies Features Star Wars
Patrick Johnson, Star Wars and the Rise of Nerd Culture

When I reach filmmaker Patrick Johnson, it’s around 11:30 at night. He has literally just finished getting his new film, 5-25-77 ready to to be turned into a DCP, as it’s called in the industry, or a Digital Cinema Package, which will then be distributed to theaters across the country in preparation for the premiere on May 25. If the name of the film sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the date the original Star Wars was released into theaters 40 years ago.

Johnson, who’s known for his films DragonHeart, Baby’s Day Out, Spaced Invaders and Angus, is also known for something else—as the first person to see Star Wars outside of those who worked on the film. Among what is now one of the most famous franchises in pop culture history, with a fandom that spans millions of people around the world, he’s known as Fan One. His new film is all about that experience, but it’s also about more than that. As Johnson and I chat, his nostalgic passion for the movies he grew up with in the late 1960s and ’70s (films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes) and how they captured his imagination and inspired him to pursue his love of film—both in the field of practical effects and later as a writer and director—is evident.

Paste: Yup. So, I want to start off by asking you, what was it like the very first time you saw Star Wars? Because it was an unfinished print, is that right?
Patrick Johnson: That’s exactly right. It was incredibly unfinished. There were very few blue screens composited; there was only production sound. There was none of Ben Burtt’s work. It was just, when R2-D2 fell over it was just, “Clunk.” There was World War II gun camera footage, and pieces of 633 Squadron and Dam Busters thrown in to kind of show the visual effects guys how to finish up the attacks on the Death Star. There were shots of the inside of the Millennium Falcon or the X-wing cockpit where you could see the grips outside still shaking the cockpit. It looked like amateur hour. It looked like a movie someone made in their garage or their back yard, which was what inspired me, because that’s how I made movies.

Paste: What was your reaction to it?
Johnson: My reaction was that there’s something here that’s kind of amazing, but God, will they be able to get it finished, and looking right, and working by the time it comes out? Because nobody knew anything about Star Wars—there was no publicity. Nobody had any clue it was coming. And in fact, Herb Lightman, who took me on the tour of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), was like, “I don’t know, these kids, they’re a bunch of college kids. They don’t know what they’re doing. They think they can make a big space epic and it looks like they don’t know what they’re …” He didn’t believe. Most people didn’t. All I knew was the energy of the people making the film, and this ethos of, “We made this out of things you can find laying around your garage,” made me go, “Oh my God, I can make movies. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I can be one of these guys.” My reaction was very personal and very introspective, and very much about, “Wait a minute, these guys are making an epic movie out of things they can find laying around their garage; it’s just a bigger garage than mine.”

Paste: Did you have any inclination or predictions for how the public would receive the film, like how they would react to it?
Johnson: That’s a really interesting question. All I could base it on was my reaction, which was, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to see the final thing.” I went back to my little town of Wadsworth, Ill., population 750, thinking, “Gosh, if I can just convince everybody in town how great this movie that’s coming out is going to be, I won’t even have to leave town. I won’t have to go to California. I can just stay here, because this movie’s going to change my town enough that I won’t have to leave it.”

I came back feeling like, maybe idealistically, maybe unrealistically, that people that didn’t even care about science fiction or creatures or monsters or space ships, would be entranced by this film. And I started pitching it. At parties and get-togethers I would kind of act it out, and do all the sound effects, and run around like a chicken with my head cut off. In those days, nobody cared about spoiler alerts, so I would pitch the whole movie, and people would be like, “That’s kind of cool, but I don’t believe you.” Or, “What drugs are you on, man? You’re crazy.”

Paste: When it came out in theaters, did you go immediately back and see it?
Johnson: Oh yes. That’s part of the movie, you’ll see. I don’t want to give away exactly how that all works out, but yes, I did go back. I was utterly blown away. Not because it was amazingly better than the movie I’d seen before. It wasn’t. Star Wars has this lovely patina of love that we gave it, but it was heavily flawed, as George and Gary Kurtz and everybody else would say. It was released with barely finished effects, and it had all kinds of little idiosyncrasies and problems with it that probably drove George nuts. But for me, I didn’t care. All I care about is that I love this story, and I love these characters, and I love this milieu. I felt vindicated for having been running around for a few months acting like a lunatic, making sound effects and trying to describe tie-fighters, and the people looking at me like, “You’re crazy.” I felt vindicated. I felt like I was … I don’t know, peripherally part of something.

Paste: Something bigger than yourself?
Johnson: Something bigger than me, something bigger than movies, something bigger than Hollywood—just part of a phenomenon that I had been privileged enough to get a glimpse at before anyone else that didn’t work on it.

Paste: Let me go back to when you were touring … How did you get a tour at ILM?
Johnson: How did 17-year-old Pat Johnson from Wadsworth, Ill., population 750, get a tour of Industrial Light and Magic in the spring of 1977 is your question. The answer is in the movie. The answer is remarkable, and all true, and insane, and unpredictable, and almost unbelievable. But absolutely true. I mustn’t tell you more.

Paste: Okay. When did you know that you wanted to make a film about this experience, and why?
Johnson: That’s a great question. After I did this little film Spaced Invaders that Stephen Spielberg got Jeffrey Katzenberg to buy and put in theaters, Universal Pictures signed me to a three-picture deal. I had amazing offices, and development staff, and all this stuff, and during that time I was taking a lot of meetings with a lot of really cool writers and directors, producers, and everything else.

A guy named Ed Elbert, a producer, said, “You’ve got to meet Gary Kurtz.” I said, “Are you kidding me? Of course I would … Yes, how do I meet Gary Kurtz, the producer of Star Wars, who changed my world?” He said, “I’ll just bring him by. “Let’s go have lunch or whatever; we’ll hang out.” Gary and I hit it off immediately, and in very short order we started developing some products together under my Universal Pictures development deal. He even took up office space in my bungalow at Universal.

Gary and I became fast friends and collaborators, and one day I decided to pitch him a film that I had been sort of noodling with called Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a sort of American Graffiti for the ’70s based on my experiences in high school, just a simple remembrance of that era. It was just a bunch of vignettes of funny ideas and funny happenstances that occurred when I was in high school, set to music. At some point Gary said to me, “This is a really fun milieu.” Obviously, he understood music-driven, summer-night, coming-of-age stories better than most people, since he produced American Graffiti, but he said, “Where’s your narrative thrust? What’s your through-line? What is the spin on which you’re laying all these events?” Then I didn’t have an answer.

I related to him how I had first seen Star Wars, and he asked me the dates of these events. When I told him he said, “Wait a minute, if you saw Star Wars on such and such date, you’re the first person that didn’t work on Star Wars to see it. You’re Fan One. That’s your story. All your events from the ’70s—cruising in cars and going to this and drinking here and doing that—all of those things are just frosting on the cake of the idea that you were the first guy that ever saw Star Wars.

Paste: Walk me through the process, or the actual making of the film. Because you hit some snags.
Johnson: Oh god, yes. First we shot 75 percent of the film in 2004, thinking we were going to shoot 100 percent of it, but one of our investors basically screwed us out of a significant amount of our finishing funds. So, we ended up only being able to shoot the first 75 percent of the movie. Now suddenly I’m sitting here with an independent film with no distributors, with nothing other than 75 percent of the movie cut together.

I spend the next year and a half, two years, trying to find money to finish the film. Pat Yacono, who was an audio engineer on the film and passed away during production, introduced me to a guy named Jim McClain. McClain had a conglomerate of people working with him and for him who were willing to invest, and they put up another $750,000 to help finish the film.

We shot the rest of the movie and we got picked up not too terribly long after by the William Morris Agency and Cassian Elwes, who loved the film. And they said, “Look, we believe in this. We’re going to give you half a million dollars to finish it up and get it in theaters everywhere.”

The whole time, as Cassian is diligently trying to sell the movie to foreign investors for money money that we could bring in to, again, help finish the film and get distributed domestically, the foreign investors and other places are saying, “Gosh, Star Wars is kind of over.” Because the prequels had come out, and they had made money, but they had not done well critically, distributors were saying, “I think Star Wars is pretty much done.”

At the same time I was privy, through various contacts and people I knew, to developments at Lucasfilm that led me to believe that there were going to be a number of sequels coming, but I couldn’t announce that, I couldn’t use that to save my film, because it was proprietary information, it would’ve gotten me excommunicated from my relationship with Lucasfilm. I had to sit on my film for a number of years. Of course, the instant that Episode VII came out and did what it did, distributors from all over the place were calling up saying, “Hey, what ever happened to that little film you did about Star Wars?”

Paste: Nice. At least from what I’ve watched in the trailer, it’s more than just about Star Wars.
Johnson: Oh, far more. You could remove Star Wars from this movie, and it would still work. This movie is about the eternal struggle when you’re a young person deciding what to do with your future, the struggle between hope and despair, the struggle between, “Should I go for it and possibly fail, or should I not go for it and regret for the rest of my life that I didn’t try?”

Paste: What do you think is it about Star Wars that resonates so much with all of us?
Johnson: On a purely universal level, it is about the lowest guy on the totem pole, the underdog, who’s adrift in the sea of things he doesn’t believe he can change, but wants to desperately. On top of that, there’s a really interesting theory that was proposed by a person that was working with me on the film, one of my model maker guys, who said, “Star Wars became incredibly popular at the time it became incredibly popular because of divorce.” He said, “Divorce became something that was not only acceptable, but almost fashionable in the mid-’70s. By 1977, we had millions of broken homes with divorced families, and a whole generation of young boys and girls, but especially the young boys, who were without fathers. Or with fathers who were portrayed as evil, and who had betrayed the Force of the life that they were all living. They had grown up in a generation that believed in World War II, and their grandfathers, and the people who had fought for the Old Republic, if you get my drift. But they didn’t believe in the current administration, Nixon and everything else, and the current hegemony of the government, and the loss in Vietnam and everything. They believed that they were living in a bit of an Empire.

So these kids in the ’70s, many, many, many of them were believing that they needed heroes, and the heroes would’ve been their grandfathers, Obi Wan Kenobi, who fought the wars and won, not failed, or had tried anyway, and who feared, or despised, or loathed their fathers. That makes sense. On top of it, there was always that guy down the street that didn’t go to Vietnam that was a car mechanic or whatever, who was the cool neighborhood guy that you’d hang out with, and that was your Han Solo.

Paste: I like that. So, nostalgia plays a big role in this movie.
Johnson: Yes.

Paste: Do you feel like nostalgia is a bigger deal now than it was decades ago? Were other generations as obsessed with their childhoods than current generations seem to be?
Johnson: I think nostalgia is a constant in all generations. What’s happening now is we have a vector, we have a conduit for reporting our nostalgia, and for literally broadcasting our nostalgia everywhere. Which we didn’t have when I was a young guy, and your parents didn’t, and their parents didn’t. There was no way, other than getting together at a party and having some drinks and being nostalgic, there was no way to broadcast nostalgia. Now nostalgia lives as one of our major points of interest on Facebook and Twitter and everything else. I really don’t believe that we’re more nostalgic now than we’ve ever been. I just think we have a bigger reportage of it.

Paste: Let’s talk about the rise of geek and nerd culture. Where do you feel like you fit in?
Johnson: Yeah. I’m not trying to claim Star Wars is mine. It’s not. I don’t care, and I don’t have a collection of action figures or t-shirts or posters or anything. I love Star Wars for reasons that have nothing to do with the collectible basement full of toys ethos.

There was no such thing as nerd culture in 1977. There was nothing, no preference in life, if you get my drift, more hidden than nerd culture in 1977, or just before Star Wars. Being a sci-fi nerd was pretty much almost a death sentence in high school. There were secret whisperings, and you might see someone across the room and wink-wink, nudge-nudge them as someone was talking about a science fiction subject. But it was a non-thing. But now … nerds and geeks have become the dominant force in the cultural zeitgeist of now. In the movie world, in the cultural product world, the geeks rule everything.

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