The wonderful sci-fi geek site i09.com recently linked out to an LA Times interview with producer Gary Kurtz, and i09 believed it to be the first time that Kurtz had spoken in-depth, on the record, about the creation of Star Wars and the issues he had with George Lucas during the making of The Empire Strikes Back that led to a massive falling out between the two creative partners.
Well, not so.
I’d done a massive interview with Kurtz back in 2002, which goes into a lot more detail about the falling out, plus Kurtz’s other work on American Graffiti and with Jim Henson on The Dark Crystal.
Here is that interview…
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 11, 2002
In many projects, there are “unsung heroes”… people whose contributions are extensive, but have been overshadowed by the passage of time (or the bluster of others).
One of those “unsung heroes” is producer Gary Kurtz, whose credits include American Graffiti, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Dark Crystal, and Return to Oz.
I’m not going to try and explain Kurtz’s importance to Star Wars in this introduction – the interview will accomplish that.
Without further ado, my in-depth interview with Gary Kurtz…
KEN PLUME: I’d like to go back to the very beginning and ask about your introduction to the film industry.
GARY KURTZ: Well, I went to film school at USC in Los Angeles. Actually, to go back even further than that, I was a music major, really, in high school in the southern California area and actually went to USC on a music scholarship to begin with. At that time, I was looking to major in composition and conducting with a possibility of maybe teaching music. But, it was a bit vague and in the first year one of the requirements of music scholarships is that you have to play in every group that’s available – so I was playing in the concert band, the symphony orchestra, the opera orchestra, the wind and other small ensembles in the classical music side, as well as the jazz band and a couple of other jazz groups that were organized at the school.
PLUME: Was that just meant to give you versatility as far as that curriculum?
KURTZ: Well, that was part of it, and also they always desperately needed members to play in the various groups and so they felt that music experience and performance – a lot of composition majors didn’t know how to play anything but the piano, so one of the important things was to get orchestral experience playing an orchestra instrument other than the piano. I didn’t have that problem. I played reeds primarily and then oboe and English horn, and dabbled in most of the rest of the instruments except for the heavy brass. I never tried to play anything other than a bit of the clarinet.
In that first year at USC I did the music for three or four student films. It didn’t necessarily mean composing music, because the time deadlines were unbelievably short, so it meant mostly to assemble music from a variety of sources. Since they were student films, it didn’t really matter where they came from – there were no rights problems. In doing that, though, I became more and more interested in the films. I had had previous experience in high school at shooting 8mm and 16mm film footage, both documentary and sort of dramatic type materials, so it wasn’t a new thing to me. And I had been a keen still photographer for years, so moving to a cinema major wasn’t really that big a jump.
PLUME: … and this would have been what, the mid-’60s?
KURTZ: No, no … I went to USC first in 1959, so it was in the early ’60s. Very early ’60s.
PLUME: So you were a part of that initial group of classes in the film department.
KURTZ: No, the film department at USC had been going on since the 1920s, since the silent days … I guess it was the oldest film school in existence, because it started so early … It wasn’t really until the mid-’60s, after I’d finished and was gone, that the popularity of studying cinema became magnified 100 percent or more, because when I was there, it was very difficult to find enough students to make up film crews. As a matter of fact … in the first senior project year that I was in in that term, I was doing advanced camera, as well as sound and production management and other things, and I had to work on four of the seven projects. Normally, you’re only supposed to work on one! But everybody in the class that I was in worked on four or five projects, because there weren’t enough people.
Then the next term, when I directed, I had a really hard time getting together enough of a crew. I had to actually do a lot of my own camera work – there wasn’t a cameraperson available. Film school wasn’t particularly popular at that time. It wasn’t until George Lucas and his group, John Milius and those guys, who went to USC also – they didn’t start until ‘66 – by then it seemed to be much more popular. And certainly by the end of the ’60s, it was incredibly popular and they had to create all kinds of devices to wheedle out a lot of people by requiring a lot of portfolio work and films made in high school – all kinds of pre-requirements, just to get it down to a usable number of students that they could cope with.
PLUME: During the time you were there, was it rather open?
KURTZ: Oh, it was completely open. If you had projects – either written or film projects – they would look at early film projects or just written material, scripts and proposals for projects, for acceptance. But it wasn’t too definitive, because they were interested in having enough students to make up the program.
PLUME: And at the time you were going, how respected was the film program by the industry?
KURTZ: Oh, it was quite well respected. There were a lot of people that had graduated out of the program in the post-war period – the late ’40s, ’50s – that had become fixtures in the industry of one kind or another – studio executives or agents or television producers or a few film directors – but … it wasn’t a straight line to the creative heart, because the other big factor was the fact that the unions in the late ’50s and ’60s were very strong, and you couldn’t work in the industry unless you were a union member, as far as the crafts were concerned, and you couldn’t get into the unions because they were closed. A closed-shop kind of system. So the experience that I got while I was a film student was working on Roger Corman kind of low-budget exploitation films, and I worked on a lot of those – 40 or 50 over a three or four year period.
PLUME: Generally doing what type of work?
KURTZ: Well, everything really. I started out being a grip and an electrician and a sound boom operator, and on some of the later ones I was the director of photography and film editor or production supervisor.
PLUME: So, basically, a jack-of-all-trades.
KURTZ: Yes, yes, a little of everything. On some projects, there was so few crew that they were very much like student films. I remember one picture where I was production manager and the assistant director, as well as the editor and one of the cameramen – and the second unit director as well.
PLUME: Now …in film school at that time, what were the aspirations for afterwards? I mean, when you talk to film students now, everyone wants to be a director right out of the gate.
KURTZ: Yes, that wasn’t quite as strong then … there was a general feeling, in the very early ’60s, that people wanted to sort of break down the barriers of Hollywood and go into ALL of the various things. There were a lot of students who wanted to become editors, and there were a lot who wanted to become cameramen. There were quite a few who wanted to be directors as well, but it didn’t seem to be the only thing.
PLUME: It hadn’t quite been placed on the pedestal it got placed on later, had it?
KURTZ: No, no … the auteur theory really came out of the French new wave writings in the late ’50s/early ’60s, and we were reading all that stuff from Cahiers du Cinema and talking about it at school, I remember, and I think most of the students thought the concept intellectually was valid, but practically was rubbish because there’re so many accidents that happen on a film. The chemistry of the group that you’ve gotten together makes a huge difference, and yes, picking the right people is important. But it’s really difficult for a director – unless you’re Stanley Kubrick – to have the final say on every single little minute detail, so all the films are pretty much a group effort. It can be pretty much assumed that most of the aspiring directors felt that way – they had no illusions about the fact that they could become like French directors were.
PLUME: Sometimes having absolute final say is one of the worst things that can happen if you have wrong instincts.
KURTZ: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the whole point of having a group effort is that your crew becomes a sounding board.
PLUME: I never understood the auteur theory when so much of a film is a matter of checks and balances.
KURTZ: Well, I think that intellectually the auteur theory came out of the idea of looking at a body of work – like Hitchcock’s work or Hawks’s work or John Ford’s work – and trying to see common threads. Well, that’s perfectly acceptable as an analysis of the whole career of a filmmaker, because there are going to be tying threads there. A director’s not going to pick a project to do unless it has some meaning to them. You are going to find that it’s just the idea of the director being the only creative entity on a picture was the aspect that I think most people felt was a bit far-fetched.
PLUME: And do you think that that trend has become detrimental over time?
KURTZ: Yes, I do. Definitely. I especially think, since I’ve focused mostly on my career on producing and working with a lot of first time directors, I’ve felt that what’s happened is that the working producer’s job – basically, of being the director’s partner and being his mirror and sounding bound – has disappeared and the producer’s job has primarily turned to deal making. Most of the people whose names you see up on the screen don’t have anything to do with the making of the film, which is a shame, really, because it leaves the director kind of totally on his own – and it means also that there’s no one to say “Wait a minute, that’s terrible, don’t do that!”
PLUME: There’re no ‘no-men’ anymore.
KURTZ: There’re no ‘no-men’. Yes, exactly.
PLUME: Do you think that leads to the working producer now being more of a traveling man than they were in the past? You used to be able to see that certain directors worked hand-in-hand with producers over ten films. Now you’ll be lucky if they work past two films, if one of those is a success.
KURTZ: Yes, I think that’s a result of most of those relationships having risen out of the deals. Sometimes the producer’s relationship with the director and the writer on a project is only because either they own the property in the first place or they’re the one that pulled the money together, so that there is no actual working relationship. The legwork that the producer should be doing is shared out amongst the production staff, some of it being done by the production supervisor and others, and the rest being absorbed by the director. I mean, I’ve never felt that it’s fair to a director, in a way, to saddle him with having to deal with all that stuff. I’ve always felt that a good producer should insulate the director completely from having to deal with the studio and any outside influences, to allow him to get on with working with the actors and putting the film together.
PLUME: Do you think that film schools today – and to a large extent apocryphal evidence that filters down – have made directors nowadays believe that any and all producers should be seen as enemies to whatever the vision of the director may – or may not – be?
KURTZ: I’m sure they do, because that’s probably the case. The producer is looked upon as pretty much the same as a studio executive, who may not have any idea about the project. Whereas if you go back to the ’60s, ’70s and even before … even of the big studios days, prior to the studios losing their real power in the ’60s… the producers that were working – the Arthur Freeds of the world, and David O. Selnicks – they had the power. The directors were their hired hands. That’s not necessarily great either, but those kinds of producers from the ’30s and ’40s seemed to have a fairly grand vision of what they wanted to see on the screen. The directors that they hired went along with them – and that was part of the studio system anyway, when they all were employees of the studio. So it isn’t fair to try to compare that with what’s going on today.
PLUME: The irony is that a good deal of major directors nowadays have become those type of producers as well, bringing on other directors as hired hands.
KURTZ: Yes, exactly… Because they had the power to do that. But there’re so few good movies made today, it’s difficult for me to believe that it’s all because the directors don’t have any vision in what they want to see. I think it’s primarily due to the fact that the studios are now all owned by big conglomerates who are interested in making money to the exclusion of everything else. Now, the studios always wanted to make money – that was one of their reasons for being in existence – but the men who ran the studios, no matter how difficult they were, they had some sense of what being a showman was like.
They were willing to take chances on oddball projects, and you don’t see that as much anymore. There are smaller companies who will, but there’s so many stories about projects floating around the last ten years that couldn’t get made because the elements weren’t right. When you just look at the list of the elements that the studios wanted, you know it wouldn’t work that way. But it’s a security blanket to have it be a Tom Cruise picture, or a Jack Nicholson picture, or whoever. Whether they’re right for the project or not, the studio executive is not going to get fired if the picture fails if they have A-list talent.
PLUME: Right – and then they complain about the audience, for not accepting it.
PLUME: I’m interested… when you talk about the Golden Age of Hollywood, as opposed to now, there seemed to be a better balance between “Okay, these are our A pictures, and then these are our B pictures, the experimental ones that we’ll toss money towards, but … we’re going to bank on the A ones, if the B ones hit – fine.” Now it seems that everything has to be a blockbuster.
KURTZ: Yes, that’s exactly right. I mean, I was part of the program at Universal Studios in the early ’70s – the low-budget program that was run by Ned Tanen which produced twelve or thirteen pictures, all under a million dollars at that time. Anything under a million dollars was considered bare bones movies. The most famous film that came out of that group was, of course, American Graffiti – and it made the most money – but all the films that were made under that program were interesting, quirky films that at least made their money back. If you count video and things over the long run, they all made money … it’s not Jaws business, but American Graffiti even wasn’t Jaws business. American Graffiti was a very, very small picture that went on to do reasonably well. I think it eventually did $60 million in America, which wasn’t big box office even in the early ’70s. But, based on the cost of the picture, it was pretty phenomenal. The other pictures in that program – Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running and John Cassavetes’s Minnie and Moskowitz and Milos Forman’s Taking Off and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand and the other one that I helped produce, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop – all of those films are interesting films and they’re worth seeing today.
PLUME: They hold up very well.
KURTZ: They do hold up very well, and because they cost so little money, the studio didn’t worry about them. But no one seems to be willing to experiment with a program like that today – at all. They’re not willing to make small films, or if they do, they make them by – well, they don’t make them, actually. They have a classics division of some kind or another like Fox Searchlight or Miramax that seek out odd projects, and they get made independently and then just released by the studio. The studio doesn’t instigate the making of those projects.
PLUME: So they have no initial costs…
KURTZ: No, they do have costs. They wait for the filmmakers to come to them with a developed script.
PLUME: Or, in some cases, a completely filmed project…
KURTZ: Well, yes, that happens, too.
PLUME: It seems like the industry depends solely upon initiative, nowadays, rather than taking any risks.
KURTZ: At the time we were doing American Graffiti at Universal – which was not a picture made on the lot, although we had an office there – it was made in San Francisco, and we were very rarely at the studio. But some of the times when I was at the studio for meetings and various things, I realized in talking to some of the story department people that they had probably 100 projects in various stages of development – script development – that they were paying someone to develop. They don’t do much of that anymore at all. I suppose the idea is now that the scripts will somehow be generated. Either the independent producers or the writers themselves will spend the time and energy to develop them to the point where they can be seen. I think one of the reasons that there’re so few good movies is that that process has been truncated so much. Too many films go into production before they’re ready.
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