5-25-77: How “Star Wars” Changed My Life

Patrick Read Johnson’s teenage visits to the visual effects stages of “Stars Wars” and “Close Encounters” launched him on a 20-year career as Hollywood effects technician and studio writer/director.

His credits include “Spaced Invaders” (writer/director, 1990), “Baby’s Day Out” (director, 1994), “Angus” (director, 1995), “Dragonheart” (writer, 1996), and “When Ghouls Go Bad” (writer/director, 2001).

Then he moved back into the house where he grew up in tiny Wadsworth, Ill. and set to work on his most personal film, “5-25-77,” an autobiographical coming-of-age tale set on the day “Star Wars” opened, starring John Francis Daly (“Freaks and Geeks”) and Christopher Lloyd.

Johnson talked with ReelChicago about his journey to Hollywood and back and the story behind “5-25-77,” which wraps production in early August.

ReelChicago: Tell me about the experiences that inspired “5-25-77”.
Patrick Read Johnson: It’s the story of a 15-year-old film geek from Wadsworth, Ill., population 750, who somehow managed to get picked up by a tornado and deposited in Los Angeles.

I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” at age six, and on the way home I declared that I was going to make movies some day. I drove everybody crazy, doing whatever I could to make epic motion pictures with nothing. It was my own little pond and I was the only fish.

When you discover girls they offer tremendous respite from the strain of running your own studio. My mother was terrified that I was going to give up and just marry the first girl I messed around with. I went home one day to find my mother had cold-called Herb Lightman, the editor of American Cinematographer. She said, “I’m putting him on a plane to Hollywood.” She didn’t know that you don’t just do that.

Herb arranged for me to see Douglas Trumbull, my visual effects superhero [visual effects supervisor on “2001” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”]. Because of this unbelievable timing I got to meet Stephen Spielberg, and visit Industrial Light and Magic, where they were at work on “Star Wars.” It turned into this adventure. Then I found myself back on a plane to Wadsworth and had to continue with the life I had before.

John Francis Daly stars in “5-25-77”

This is the story of a kid from the middle of nowhere who thinks he can’t get there from here, then finds out he can, and finds out what he’ll have to give up to go where he thinks he belongs. Anyone who knew me over the years heard me tell the story. A lot of people said I should write a book.

RC: What was Hollywood like for you when you went back out there in 1980?
PRJ: It was the turning point from the 70’s epoch where they’d transformed Hollywood into an artists’ town. Then Stephen and George [Lucas] undid what they had helped to create. They were just trying to make really good movies, but they made so much money that it became a gold rush. Everybody’s pay scales were going up to astronomical levels, and films were getting so much more expensive that studios were loathe to greenlight them once number crunchers figured out what they cost.

RC: What was your experience in the industry?
PRJ: I had a dual career doing miniatures and visual effects, and writing scripts. I lived in L.A. for 18 years. I developed lots of movies and directed a few. My first film, “Spaced Invaders,” was originally discovered and brought to the attention of Disney by Stephen Spielberg. I went through the studio experience, with big offices on the Universal lot and all the nonsense they pile on your deal when you’re the newly beknighted whiz kid.

RC: You were unsatisfied?
PRJ: I went out there to do things that were important to me personally and wake up every morning and say I love what I’m doing.

I developed a number of larger sci-fi, adventure movies. They were good, valid projects. I believed in them and I worked hard on the scripts but they were very expensive and they never got off the ground.

I kept thinking, why do I keep chasing these expensive films? How can I get back to my roots of making films in my backyard? I wanted to get a small group of people together to make a film that can make its money back without being crushed under the weight of too many visual effects and a huge advertising budget. I can make it look like $10 million for under $2 million. I just hire clever people. It doesn’t cost any more to be clever.

RC: What brought you home?
PRJ: My wife and I didn’t want to raise our kids in L.A. We bought the house I grew up in from my parents and moved back to Wadsworth. As I sunk into the environment, the memories flooded back, and the story I’d told countless times started to take on deeper flavors of what it was that first sent me yearning for escape.

“5-25-77”

RC: How did you set about getting the film made?
PRJ: First we went the studio route, but they wanted to make something that was more “American Pie” than “American Graffiti.” They said, “this is not the kind of movie we make, this is the kind of movie we buy after it’s made.”

Then we went to established independent companies in New York and L.A., and we were finding reticence to do movies set in flyover country. I thought I better start looking around Chicago. I dealt with the film finance people here, and they said, “this is a very ambitious project. We don’t make movies like that here without the studios.”

Then I thought, let me try the truly independent model and get the money from individuals. I’d never gone that route before.

RC: How did you make the transition, from working in Hollywood to working independent?
PRJ: I started searching out people who knew how to get it done in Chicago. I didn’t want to poison the production by bringing in my studio pals. I had to shed these instincts that were ingrained in me after 18 years in Hollywood. My producer Leigh Jones was vital in helping me to do that.

I used to say, you can get to Hollywood from here. Now when anybody asks I say, don’t go. Stay in Chicago or Austin or Buffalo or Bora Bora. Now with technology being what it is, the ability to shoot is no longer centralized. Now you can completely finish a feature in your living room for $10,000 worth of equipment. The distribution pipelines are opening up now too.

All the really good movies are being done by people who have smaller offices, maybe on a studio lot, or maybe in another state or another country. And they’re getting snapped up by Hollywood, which no longer has courage to make these kinds of movies.

Christopher Lloyd in “5-25-77”

RC: What’s the status of “5-25-77”?
PRC: We shot 90% t of the film last fall. We had to wait for Christopher Lloyd and John Francis Daley’s schedules to interlock. We had to wait until summer came back. We’ve been cutting the film all this time. It’s given us a chance to learn which scenes work and which don’t. By holding back 10% percent of our shooting we have a 10% margin to rewrite.

RC: What’s different in the way you present the Hollywood sequence, as opposed to the Lake County scenes?
PRJ: We shot with a 1:85 aspect ratio for Lake County, then when Pat gets to L.A. it goes to widescreen anamorphic 2:35 aspect ratio. The entire experience is glossier and smoother, with more dolly and Steadicam.

RC: What do you have left to shoot?
PRJ: The last six days of principal photography beginning July 25. Beyond that we have a week or two of inserts and a couple of days of exteriors to do in L.A. Plus we have our Super 8 unit, recreating some of the epics I did as a kid.

We have some exterior car-stunt type things, and the interiors and exteriors of the Genesee Theatre [where “Star Wars” opened in Waukegan]. Then we have to recreate Industrial Light and Magic, and Future General, Douglas Trumbull’s company where they did the effects for “Close Encounters,” as they were in 1977.

RC: You’re shooting those scenes here?
PRJ: Just the interiors ? the exteriors are in Hollywood. The real estate is a lot easier to get a hold of here. It’s very hard and very costly to get stage space in L.A. right now because of TV season.

All of the old effects guys from ILM and Future General are letting me borrow what we need. We’ll pick it up in a truck and bring it back when we’re done.

RC: You’re using actual materials from ILM and Future General?
PRJ: We’re using all kinds of fun artifacts: matte paintings, photos, storyboards, set dressing. We’re getting the cooperation of those involved. My producer Gary Kurtz produced the first two “Star Wars” movies, and I have relationships with Douglas Trumbull and the guys at ILM.

RC: How have you applied you background in special effects to a more realistic project like this one?
PRJ: There are just a few fantasy dream sequences. The rest of the effects are more about creating a time and place, extending sets and signage, getting rid of objects in the frame, bringing back a little of what’s gone missing since the ?70s.

A lot of the film has that “Close Encounters” look, wide open Midwest night skies. We couldn’t afford to light the world, so we’ve done a lot of digital day-for-night.

And we’ve used effects as a corrective. You use half of this take, half of another. It’s very helpful when you’re working with younger, sometimes less experienced actors because it’s so much easier to change the timing of things.

90 percent of the scenes you’ll never recognize the effects. It’s not a special effects movie, even though the story has to do with special effects. We’re doing what effects were originally intended to do: make the storytelling clearer or more interesting.

Digital technology is such now that a movie this size can afford to use it. It doesn’t take an ILM. Of course it helps that I started out in effects. And it doesn’t hurt that the best man at my wedding was John Knoll, who did the effects for the last three “Star Wars” movies.

RC: What are your prospects for distribution?
PRJ: We’ve got a number of distributors waiting to have a look at the finished film, names you’d recognize. They’ve been tracking us, and they’re itching to see the final cut.

Whether it starts in a small platform or a larger release, it’ll be theatrical. Not 3,000 theaters, but not just eight, either. This is not the kind of film that’s so esoteric that it has to start just in L.A. or New York. It has more of a flyover sensibility. It’s not elitist coastal intellectual fare.

See www.5-25-77.com.

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