Saturday, September 25, 2010

George Lucas Stole Chewbacca, But It’s Okay

Mill Valley, 1970
We start our story with George Lucas’ silver screen directorial debut, THX 1138, a simultaneously proto– and an anti-Star Wars. It’s probably early 1970 and Walter Murch and George Lucas are taking turns day and night editing picture and sound on the film in the upper floor of Lucas’ Mill Valley home, to get it ready for what will be a disastrous screening for studio executives, all but sinking Coppola’s just formed American Zoetrope studio.

Walter Murch: “[We] got hold of some improv actors, and among these was Terry McGovern who was also a radio DJ. We would sit them around the table and give them each an identity, and in the middle of this dialogue you can hear Terry McGovern say “I think I just ran over something back there, I think I ran over a wookie”. This is the first emergence of the word Wookiee as we know it today. And the small wookiees in THX who lived in the shell of this environment became the large wookiee that we all know in Star Wars.”

There is no direct connection made on film between the off-hand wookie remark and, as they are more commonly known, shell dwellers. But following the assumption that they are the same, it’s still hazy where the concept came from. Laden with overt social and political commentary, the hairy dwarf-like creatures may have sprung into life as a reflection of fringe existences, sacrifices of the consumer society and so on. Maybe at the hand of Lucas, maybe Murch, the two having written it together.
But aside from the nickname and some unkempt hair, there is little else binding them to the latter-day wookiees of Star Wars, though both seem to have sprung from monkeys in some way.

“And later on after the recording I asked Terry ‘What’s the Wookie?’ and he said ‘Oh that’s a friend of mine who lives in Texas, Ralph Wookie, and I just threw his name in there as I always want to stick it to him and thought he’d get a kick out of hearing his name in a film’. Little did Terry know what kind of thing he was creating, this off-hand phrase has since become a character that literally billions of people probably know about.”

A few years later, in early 1973, as American Graffiti — a considerably less obtuse film, and with the possible exception of Wolfman Jack, devoid of wookiees — is taken away from Lucas by the studio and hangs in limbo, the first confused step towards Star Wars — then named The Journal of the Whills — introduces the name Chewie. Or more accurately, Chuiee, the writer of said journal.

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