As weird, bad, and awkward as The Star Wars Holiday Special is to watch, apparently, it was just as terrible to film. That’s evident from an exclusive excerpt io9 has acquired from the new book A Disturbance in the Force: How and Why the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened by Steve Kozak.
Kozak is the co-director of a documentary by the same name but chose to expand on it with the written word. The 288-page result is set for release on November 15 (pre-order a copy here), but what follows is a short selection from the book detailing the absolute hell filming the infamous special was. Read all about it below the book cover.
On the second day of shooting, cameraman Larry Heider came to work quite exhausted from the long night before. He had just spent over twenty hours shooting tumblers in hot pink costumes, jugglers, and a gymnast—not to mention a cross-dressing Harvey Korman with four arms.
This was not the type of television variety Heider was used to shooting. But that morning, as he walked through the sound stage, he immediately recognized the cantina bar set from the film. He didn’t have access to a script, but he soon learned this was going to be a musical number—a specialty of the Smith-Hemion Productions team that was overseeing the Special.
“It clicked,” Heider says. “Okay, now we’re in Smith–Hemion’s world. We’re doing a musical now, and we know how to do this. So this shouldn’t take very long. This should go pretty well.”
What Heider didn’t yet know was that this scene was much more than just a song. On paper alone, the cantina bar was expected to be by far the most difficult scene to shoot. It included Bea Arthur as Ackmena the Barkeep; Harvey Korman as her eleven-fingered admirer, Krelman (his second role in two days); and about three dozen extras wearing various alien costumes with either constrictive masks or complex makeup.
The weather was far from ideal, as well. It was one heck of a scorcher in the San Fernando Valley that week that these hundred or so cast and crewmembers had packed inside this Burbank soundstage. The temperature outside had topped out at about ninety degrees that week, but inside it was over one hundred degrees and showing no signs of letting up. By the late 1970s, most southern Californians had access to air conditioning, but due to the noise that it created on the soundstage, it was not being used during tapings. Heavy klieg lights were also aimed down at extras wearing masks, either burning their heads or literally melting the inside lining of their masks to their heads for several hours at a time. The extras’ vision was also being obscured, as the sweat from the ungodly heat dripped from their foreheads into their eyes, irritating and blinding them throughout the shoot.
In addition to masks, the costumes themselves weren’t exactly built for comfort. Extra Rick Wagner describes the Walrus Man costume he was required to wear: “It wasn’t just made with one layer of burlap. It was two, three, four layers of this stuff, like leather”—along with an actual leather jacket and a mask.
The weight of the costumes was also an issue. The Cowardly Lion costume that Bert Lahr wore in The Wizard of Oz weighed ninety pounds. The outfits that these extras were wearing couldn’t have weighed much less. Most of them likely weren’t auditioned for their strength and stamina to stand in an outfit like that for several hours at a time, much less move around in it as well.
The masks were extremely heavy, too, and most of them, like Wagner’s, had only two very small openings to see through, located on the bottom of the mask. Breathing was an entirely different challenge. The masks the extras were given each had a tiny hole with netting over it, and that was their only source of oxygen.
“You could not breathe in these costumes,”Wagner recalls. “And that was all the oxygen you’re getting inside your head, which is crazy. For maybe half an hour or an hour that would be fine, but all day sitting in that thing? . . . So, you’ve got all of these people crammed into this space with these costumes on and these heads on with limited breathing, and it’s getting progressively hotter in these outfits. We’re under heavy lights, and at some point I’m going to get up and start dancing. And then they bring in a smoke effect, and it’s not dry ice. This is not the dry ice that was refreshing. It was that chemical- burning, sulfur-smelling crap. You’re sitting there suffocating, sweating. We were there for hours and hours and couldn’t breathe, and you’re breathing in this smoke stuff.”
And that’s when the extras started passing out.
Suddenly, an entirely brand new problem had manifested on Stage 2. The issue was not the show going into overtime anymore. Now it was life and death on the set of a TV variety special.
“The aliens kept fainting because it was, like, 103 degrees on the set,” writer Bruce Vilanch recalls. “You put those heads on and it’s kind of like waterboarding.” It was quite a dangerous shoot, says Mick Garris, who operated R2-D2 for the Special. “Here are a lot of inexperienced actors in suits for the first time, and they’re on the verge of heat exhaustion. There had to be breaks in the shoot constantly—far more than anybody had anticipated—just for the safety of the actors in these suits.” As Heider recalls, whenever they were starting to find their rhythm, they needed to stop to give the costumed characters a break. “We’d have to have the EMT guy come in and give them some oxygen.”
Producer Ken Welch said that director David Acomba was clueless about the level of heat that these costumed characters were withstanding. “We were shooting [hour] after [hour] with them,” Ken added, “and David had no sense of the fact of their needs as human beings.” According to Ken’s wife and co-producer Mitzie, had they not stepped in, “We would’ve killed them.”
Stage manager Mike Erwin could not believe how long and stressful the scene was to shoot. “It was just endless, and it wasn’t even that good. Like, once you saw it, you went, ‘Wow, they could have done that in an hour or two.’ It just wasn’t worth everybody’s pain and suffering to get it, and then the music that they played over and over and over and over again. Here’s all these people all jacked up on blow and stuff and being nervous and everything, and they’re playing that music all the time. It was pretty funny—I mean, in a sort of gallows way.”
For the extras themselves, the shoot was quite a disappointment. They had signed on initially to be part of what they thought was some sort of Star Wars sequel, and they wound up feeling they were literally trapped in some sort of third-world torture chamber.
Although Acomba could be blamed for putting the show tremendously behind schedule, a larger and more important reason for the misery of the day’s shoot was that Smith, Hemion, and their producers had not adequately prepared for the health and safety of these three dozen extras. They were used to staging far simpler song-and-dance numbers on a large, half-empty stage, where the need for oxygen was never an issue.
The producers were forced to implement additional breaks for costumed actors and extras. These unexpected delays would push the schedule back even further, holding Acomba’s feet to the fire to expedite this challenging cantina shoot, which all on its own seemed to be jeopardizing the entire project, each hour depleting more of the show’s limited resources, whether they be time, money, or both.
Coming from the documentary and film world, Acomba had never directed a multi-camera shoot before. He was used to shooting one camera at a time. “We all liked him a lot, but he had a very unorthodox way of working,” Vilanch recalls. “He shot this thing like it was a movie, and it freaked everybody out.”
It was a mixture of worlds—film and television—and Heider notes that Acomba’s approach was to shoot on videotape but in film style, “and be more thematic about it.” Heider did not agree with Acomba’s one-camera system, calling it “troublesome. . . . In a movie production, you would do maybe four or five pages in a very long day, whereas in television, if you had multiple cameras, you’d sacrifice a little bit of creative vision for expedience in getting a shot. . . . There are multiple cameras on television shoots for a specific reason.” He adds that the show could have gotten more done, and much more quickly, “which would ultimately make the days a little less expensive.”
Erwin can’t recall how many hours the second day of shooting went, but he says he wouldn’t be surprised if he was there for twenty-four hours straight. “It seemed like Groundhog Day,” he recalls. “It was just like an endless shoot. It never stopped. It just kept going and going and going for so many hours.”
As the second day turned to night, the several dozen union employees were going into their second straight day of overtime. Union rates and penalties were serious business; they couldn’t be overlooked, ignored, or negotiated down.
While most television shows were shot in television studios, they needed to rent a film soundstage. “We never could have built that large, two-story treehouse in a TV studio,” said associate producer Rita Scott. “We needed the height.” Thus, they were bound by the strict union rules negotiated by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which required producers to hire a minimum of film backlot employees for the show’s sound, camera, and lighting needs, as well as dozens of stagehands. These were all union workers—almost one hundred of them for this Special—all with potential overtime and meal penalties accruing while the Smith–Hemion bean-counters were seemingly asleep at the wheel.
With this specific union, the rates in 1978 went as follows: the basic day was eight hours, but once you go past that, now you’re in overtime, paying time-and-a-half. After twelve hours, you’re into double time, with the pinnacle of penalties—the ever-illustrious “golden time”—just around the corner. If you work past midnight while in double-time, now you are paying five times each union worker’s basic rate, with meal penalties being accrued as well.
Using the start and stop times for the Special, it’s pretty easy to see how these three shoot days—most of which started at 4 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m.—nearly depleted the show’s entire budget. A $40-per-hour union worker hired for eight hours, totaling $320 per day, would receive an additional $1,200 per day. Multiply that one worker’s overages for a hundred employees and that makes $120,000 in overages paid in one single day. That does not take into account their basic pay and meal penalties—or that higher-paid union workers, like directors and others, made significantly more per hour.
The amount of overtime that Smith–Hemion was now obligated to pay out was absurd. Erwin had spent enough time on television stages to know that you can’t just do long days and pay out that kind of money without causing a lot of tension with the show’s producers. “For the unions, when you hit certain numbers of hours, you go into golden time and you’re paying, like, $1,100 an hour for a guy to hold a hammer,” he explains.
However, the problem wasn’t just the budget, Heider adds. While he admits that he—like most of the crew—was excited to be getting double-time pay, he notes that working under those conditions “kind of affected people who were getting really, really tired. And it’s not easy to keep doing your best work when you’re not getting enough rest yourself.”
Erwin agrees that there was far more at stake for the cast and crew than budgetary issues. “This has a cumulative effect,” he explains. “Let’s say you go on Monday and you work twenty hours. Then Tuesday you work twenty hours. By the time you get to Thursday, even if you only work a few hours, you’re completely hallucinating. So, it’s very, very hard on the cast and crew. That leads to all sorts of complications, from exhaustion to people losing their tempers, to actors deciding to just leave and not come back.”
Newt Bellis, who provided extensive technical equipment for the Special, felt that nothing was progressing, adding that there was no way the production could keep going at that pace: “They weren’t getting anything on tape . . . [Acomba] was trying to figure out what was going on, and the time kept rolling and rolling. And, of course, [executive producer] Gary [Smith] was there, and Rita was going nuts because people were just waiting around.”
As this hot August day quickly spiraled into a hot August night, Scott went over to stage manager Peter Barth with sheer exhaustion in her eyes from what was likely to be her second twenty-plus-hour day in a row. She was dead serious when she asked Barth, “Do you think we’ll ever get out here?”
Find out on November 15 when A Disturbance in the Force: How and Why the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened by Steve Kozak is released. Snag a copy here.
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