I was really bummed to learn that Gary Kurtz passed away on September 23rd, this last Sunday. Kurtz produced American Graffiti for Lucas and then continued on with the first Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. One of Kurtz coolest credits is the naming of The Empire Strikes Back itself. Kurtz has always been an interesting character in the history of Star Wars. He has both been treated as the reason the first two films were so great by fans of early Star Wars and contextualized as one of the reasons Lucas had such a hard time making the initial Star Wars releases.
I never met Gary Kurtz so my relationship to him is based on him being a historical figure to me. Sometimes people in that context seem sort of unreal. But even in the complicated history of Kurtz and Star Wars, there is a humanity to the guy that comes through. From the various things I’ve read and heard throughout the years, he sounded like a determined person that was a really talented producer and at times he had to go in blind because they were doing things with Star Wars that really had never been done before. If you don’t care how the sausage was made, you just care about the end result, Kurtz is amazing and he helped bring us A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.
In reality, Kurtz had a complicated relationship with George Lucas by the middle-end of the Original Trilogy era because Empire Strikes Back had gone over budget and Howard Kazanjian (from licensing) had taken over aspects of Empire Strikes Back’s production. Kazanjian’s proximity to Lucas at that point flowed into the production of Return of the Jedi. In J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Return of the Jedi, there’s a moment where Kurtz shows up in England and finds Kazanjian working on Jedi and Kurtz is shocked to learn he’s not making the film and has been replaced. Kazanjian quizzed Lucas about it who said he did tell Kurtz he was off the film. I always found that awkward bit of miscommunication to be one of the most painfully cringe worthy moments in the history of Star Wars and its hard not to feel for Kurtz because surely he would not show up to a job he was fired from on purpose. Following that situation, in May of 1980 a press release announced Kurtz was leaving but would serve as a production consultant because he would prepping two films he was to direct as well as producing Henson’s The Dark Crystal.
If you haven’t seen any of Kurtz’s films outside of the Lucasfilm properties, check out The Dark Crystal. It is a little slow by today’s standards, but use that time to admire the beautiful puppetry and design that went into making that Jim Henson masterpiece. The film is a really good 4K purchase.
I’ve always liked the idea that success is a culmination of all your past successes and failures. Today when Star Wars is thriving it is impossible to not see how Gary Kurtz played a monumental role in where we are today and how and why we got here with this thing we love called Star Wars. The friction that arose between the Lucas and Kurtz is so reasonable and complicated. One can see how George Lucas taking out a personal loan from Bank of America for millions of dollars to finance the film himself would make him insane about a producer letting a production run longer than it is supposed to. Think about your student loans and then think about the loan George had to take out and we’ll almost understand what he must have felt at that time. The budget of the film was estimated to be 16 million by Kurtz and it ended up being closer to 30 million. But then on the flip side we have Kurtz letting Kershner get it right, Kurtz is facilitating the artist, making sure we got the Empire Strikes Back we all love. I find their relationship fascinating and you can see how both filmmakers are right in their own way.
In The Making of Empire Strikes Back Kurtz mentions that inflation costs between the production of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back made for a lot of poor evaluations of the film’s budget. “Simple things like plastic pipe, all petroleum-based products, went up 300 to 400 percent( Loc 6863)” and the deals with the cast itself went up 500 percent.
By the time of Return of the Jedi most of the main cast was pretty burnt out on the whole affair and they were ready to move past it. The production on Empire Strikes Back had Carrie Fisher working 12 hour days and at one point she fainted on set because of an allergic reaction to spray paint being carried through the air via steam. Mark Hamill could have died in one instance where a large mirror over the “Bacta Tank” broke and two large pieces of glass went into the water but thankfully Hamill was not inside the tank when it happened. Various safety concerns during the production of Empire seemed to have the cast lose faith in Kurtz as someone that would keep them safe.
Writer and filmmaker Peter Briggs wrote this piece about the passing of Irvin Kershner. The piece mentions that Lucas and Kurtz were “quietly in attendance.” On Twitter Briggs mentioned that Kurtz made straight for Lucas when he arrived and the two got along without rancor (great choice of wording for a Star Wars fan). I was really happy to hear Briggs share that little piece of his personal experience. Gary Kurtz and George Lucas pulled off something truly impossible and in doing the impossible there was friction. It doesn’t make one person the bad guy and the other the hero and it doesn’t make one of the secret to the success over the other either. I was happy to hear that George Lucas and Gary Kurtz weren’t enemies later in life and were both together to remember Kershner who they both worked closely with.
Thankfully Kurtz lived a pretty long life and passed away at the age of 78. While losing Kurtz or any Star Wars legend is not preferable, I can’t help but think of what Luke Skywalker says in The Last Jedi that “no one’s ever really gone.” While most of us like myself didn’t know Gary Kurtz personally, we have the films he helped foster and bring to life forever. For better or worse, a producer facilitates the production and helps the director bring the work to life and Kurtz did that for several of the most influential films of all time. All of us are indebted to the work Kurtz did because of the happiness he helped bring to the world through this art.
*A lot of this article has relied on J.W. Rinzler’s Making of Star Wars series, which I highly recommend to anyone that reads MSW regularly. Rinzler is really real and really fair in his books. But I will concede that the series was still written under the approval of Lucasfilm and maybe Kurtz didn’t get as many chances to talk about how much the script kept changing and how that made budgeting a constantly changing situation. However, that is not my impression, the series seems pretty fair to Kurtz. If you’re interested in picking them up, the physical books are a bit pricey now but the Kindle Editions can be read on an app and have a lot of extra multimedia that makes it the most inexpensive and best way to own those books.