Hearts of Dorkness: Patrick Read Johnson on the Star Wars Tribute Film that Consumed His Life

5-25-77

May 25, 1977 is forever known as the day "Star Wars" came out, but for Patrick Read Johnson it was a day that still hasn't ended.

Months prior the teenage Johnson had been the first nerd on Earth outside of George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic to see a cut of the generation-defining space opera, which sealed the deal for his setting out to become a filmmaker. After auspicious success with 1990 debut "Spaced Invaders" and outrageous failure with sophomore effort "Baby's Day Out," Johnson left Hollywood disillusioned, but a few years into his exile the director suddenly felt compelled to tell the story of what drew him to follow that dream in the first place. Being "Fan #1" has certain responsibilities.

Last summer a 50-year-old Johnson and his then-girlfriend Morgan Flores started the process of test screening a rough cut of his autobiographical "5-25-77," and for a movie that had been in production for nearly a decade it was appropriately grassroots: They drove across country (in the 1975 Ford Pinto from the film) for what was supposed to be a 30-day jaunt that turned into a 143-day, 14 state, 7000 mile-long ordeal, one that ultimately ended their relationship.

The result of that journey was a documentary called "Hearts of Dorkness" that Flores will no doubt have finished before Johnson ever completes "5-25-77," which began shooting in 2004. It's ironic, given that the 1977-era Pat Johnson of the movie (played by John Francis Daley) is obsessed with starting –yet somehow never finishing- a whole slate of amateur film projects, including a sequel to "Jaws" shot in his backyard swimming pool.

"In this case it wasn't by choice," says Johnson, knowing full well how this sweet little movie has turned into his own personal "Fitzcarraldo." "In those days it was more of an ADD issue, where the initial excitement and instinct for doing a 'Planet of the Apes' sequel or a 'Jaws' sequel gave way to the next interesting thing. There were no expectations, no studio, no pressure. 'I think I'll make apes this weekend… It's time to build a shark… spaceships.' In my mind I was building a library of films. I was a studio!"

Later in the film a pal of Pat's named Donny (scene stealing Mark Buenning) puts on his best Freud face to psychoanalyze Pat's compulsive creativity. Buenning's character appears near silently throughout the film until this pivotal moment, when he epiphanies that, well… "Finishing a film meant letting go of the experience and letting go of the people he was hanging out with," Johnson summarizes. "His family. He was creating a family out of these disparate people he would make these goofy movies with."

When we talked Johnson was particularly upbeat about "5-25-77" finally coming of age, moving out of his laptop and going out into the world, and with good reason. The night before his film had finished the second of two sold out screenings at Montreal's genre-heavy Fantasia Fest, which he decided was his last stop on the neverending magical misery tour.

"I decided that I felt validated enough," he said after French-Canadian audiences praised the film. "Other than the Hamptons International Festival which we were put into by Cassian Elwes and William Morris, we'd never entered a festival. We've been asked. We've been hiding out trying to finish the movie during the slings and arrows of certain fanboys going, 'It's a myth! It's never gonna get done. He's being all Stanley Kubrick, he doesn't want to finish, he can't finish!' I can finish. Believe me I can finish. I really have other things to do and would like to get it in front of eyeholes everywhere. Last night's screening was so tremendously connected. Yes, it's a fan crowd, but I talked to many of them afterwards who aren't real sci-fi fans, there's some who've never seen 'Star Wars'. These people seemed to like it as much or more than the fans."

That glowing reception is doubly remarkable given just how rough this cut he presented at Fantasia was, with most of the effects shots noticeably glaring, footage often fuzzy/not color corrected, and awkward montages that look like they were cut by a Parkinson's-afflicted Edward Scissorhands on amphetamines. Even Johnson admits this unfinished version is "all bandaids and bailing wire and gum held together with string."

So how about the elephant in the room, or in this case the Bantha in the room: What's been the holdup?

"It went through some administrative changes," he understates. "For a while it was creatively owned by the William Morris Agency and they changed the title to '77'. They thought that was simpler and cooler and I disagreed. They took out the hospital scene. 'Don't need that, it's just another catharsis.' 'JUST? It's THE catharsis!' There were great creative differences and I've been recovering from them ever since with no resources. It's just me and my Macbook, recutting this film."

Luckily he's in a rare position of having a project small enough –made for $120,000 dollars in cash plus a $1-million in deferments- that he can continue his obsessive tinkering without fear of legal harassment.

"My investors sat back and said, 'Look, someday you're gonna finish this and it's gonna be great.' They believe in it. 'We would far rather see you take whatever time you need to get the money issues sorted out so when it comes out its not troubled, it isn't compromised…'"

The force may be with him this time, as he claims to be working with a distributer on a "final final final final cut" in hopes of exploiting a "Star Wars" resurgence come 2015 when J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars Episode VII" hits. While seeking finishing funds Johnson faced numerous executives who argued that interest in "Star Wars" was over, even though the determined director knew three years ago (from sources he will not reveal) that there was a definitive plan to do more movies in a galaxy far far away. He kept his mouth shut, though, no doubt saving friendships with the likes of ILM head honcho/longtime pal John Knoll (who also donated effects shots to Johnson's movie). After Disney announced their acquisition of Lucasfilm, three of the distributers who passed on "5-25-77" renewed their interest, with the current one reviewing every piece of footage shot since 2004

"It's gonna take between $500,000 and $1-million dollars to finish it," Johnson stated. "Most of that is music. If Universal picks it up that budget will go way down because they own half the music, or if Steven Spielberg finally sees it and decides he wants to do for this what he did for 'Spaced Invaders' the right people will call and those budgets will go down. On a pure post-production level we're probably looking at $350,000 of that money for doing the final upgraded edit with everything in HD. We're also going to do a two or three week mad monster model party where we get all my old model maker buddies from the visual effects days and do tabletop miniatures of the town, little Pinto models on strings. Replace all the AfterEffects-y stuff with what he really could have done, limit it to that using just the equipment and the lights and the model kits and the firecrackers at hand."

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Despite its evergreen period setting, "5-25-77" is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately. Since Johnson's movie was shot, other projects like "Son of Rambow," "Be Kind Rewind" and Abrams' own "Super 8" have provided auteurist explorations of amateur filmmaking as surrogate family. Then there's Cameron Crowe's celebrated teenage rock journalism memoir "Almost Famous," which Johnson sites as a personal favorite, although that film's Led Zeppelin/Eagles stand-ins getting blown up and down Sunset Blvd by hot groupies is pretty sexy subject matter. By comparison, "5-25-77" posits special effects men like Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra as figures of worship. Crowe seems like a jock in comparison.

The movie's geek trump card: A bravura sequence where a long-haired (and possibly cocaine-enhanced) Dykstra leads young Pat on a tour of ILM's nascent Van Nuys headquarters during the tumultuous post-production of "Star Wars." J. W. Rinzler's "The Making of 'Star Wars'" is brimming with details of this period, but a wild-eyed Dykstra flippantly smashing an X-Wing model out of frustration says more about what a pressure cooker it was than that entire 300-page tome. It's masterful, the single best scene Johnson's ever put on film.

"The whole walkthrough is one shot," Johnson explains. "I tried to basically take a couple hours experience and collapse it into one shot that when it's over you wonder how that kid could even process it. Instead of showing lots of clips from 'Star Wars' I'm showing these guys gluing model parts on. They're driving a pickup truck down the Death Star trench to get the shot. They're just guys like him in his backyard making this goofy little movie!"

The guy who directed that particular goofy movie, Mr. George Lucas, has already given "5-25-77" his official stamp of approval, even inviting Johnson to show a nearly 3-hour version at 2007's Star Wars Celebration IV. That was aided, no doubt, by the fact that it was produced by Gary Kurtz, who also produced "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "American Graffiti" with Lucas. Another prodigious young filmmaker Pat encounters in the movie is Steven Spielberg, played by dead ringer Kevin J. Stephens (whom the director discovered working in a Caribou Coffee). That dweeby "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" helmer seen directing spaceship effects at Douglas Trumbull's Future General Corporation later insisted Disney release "Spaced Invaders," serving as a Hollywood mentor to PRJ, although sage advice not to make his second feature on a mega budget was ignored and "Baby's Day Out" was born.

What's interesting is how much Johnson's movie is not a Star Warsploitation flick like Kevin Smith would make, or 2009's much-maligned "Fanboys." "Star Wars" is an ideal… a state-of-mind… a Macguffin, whatever you want to call it. It's definitely not the point of "5-25-77," and the words "Star Wars" don't even appear until well into its second half.

"Even though I'm quote-unquote 'Fan #1' I don't have any 'Star Wars' action figures," said Johnson. "I used to have some model kits. I'm not that kind of a fan. For me that movie has much more of an emotional hold over me than it does a science fiction merchandising hold."

Speaking of emotional holds, not since "More American Graffiti" (and to an extent "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World") has there been a film that changed aspect ratios so constantly, and to stunning dramatic effect. It's a huge story point, representing how Pat's world opens up to widescreen upon arrival in California.

"Even Gary Kurtz said, 'They're never gonna go for this,'" says Johnson of the uncommercial decision to have a majority of the movie take up only a small portion of the movie screen. "I said, 'They're gonna have to 'cause I'm doin' it. You'll be surprised how it will work.' The movie actually starts full-screen 16:9 of him mindblown, then it collapses down to 1:85 and it's his reduced world! You feel crowded, 'Expand! Expand!' You're fighting that psychologically while you're watching the movie and it's a specific irritant done for a reason. When it expands out to 2:35 it's like BAM! Then suddenly he's back in his little town of Wadsworth, Illinois."

"There's nothing about this movie that's meant to follow anyone's demands or rules, obviously," he continues. "Editorially it's all over the map, some of it works better than I expected and some of it's a complete trainwreck. Then there's stuff I'm on the fence about, because half the audience loves it and the other half is like, 'Stop!' That's what it has to be for this film, it just does. That's the energy of this character. I've done visually quieter cuts, and they work, but then the people who like the frenetic stuff are like, 'It's sweet but where's the energy?' It's a balancing act."

One can't help but think of Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, indefatigably painting the Sistine Chapel through years of controversy and blindness in "The Agony and the Ecstasy," but deep down Johnson knows there lies redemption with whoever is tending the light at the end of this tunnel.

"Audience screenings have been verifying what I've said all along, that we have a movie that audiences not only like but REALLY like," he declares. "They cheer. When he says, 'Never f**k with a Kubrick fan,' when his mom calls Hollywood… we've got two or three moments of huge applause. Yeah it's still got its rough edges that I've still got to sand off and everything, but that's the ecstasy. The agony is those who haven't seen it who've been hearing about it for eight years who are going, 'It's obviously garbage. If it was any good it would be out by now! Someone would have snapped it up!' To them I say, 'Try it.' Try doing it without completely compromising what you're trying to do."

Any sane person would worry about losing perspective at this point, and Johnson is at least partially sane.

"One of the things I'm really excited about in the final post process is I'm actually gonna step away and make a first pass with fresh editors who've never touched it, who like it. I've had offers from pretty powerful editors who've seen the film and gone, 'Wow. I wouldn't have cut it the way you cut it but I love it.' That's good, I want to see how they'll cut it. I've got the footage. I have enough footage for three movies. I'm actually looking forward to taking a step back."

An unexpected event that occurred in tandem with the film's lengthy post-production is its star, John Francis Daley, going from being "that kid from 'Freaks and Geeks'" to the million-dollar screenwriter of "Horrible Bosses" and director of New Line's upcoming "Vacation" reboot. Granted, it would have been better for "5-25-77" if Daley had gone the Seth Rogen route as opposed to the Judd Apatow one...

"What does help is John is a supporter and a fan," says Johnson. "He's a good man and he's really been helpful. I suspect that when the time comes he'll really be there for us. I know how it would be REALLY helpful, 'John if you could just give us a couple million dollars! That's your lunch money now!'"

The director laughs, but at the beginning of shooting he faced a similar ultimatum from his first choice for the lead: 17-year-old Academy Award-nominee Haley Joel Osment, not-so-fresh off of "The Sixth Sense."

"Three days before shooting we get a call from his rep, 'Oh by the way, one tiny caveat: we want 50% of the profits.' Are you putting in 50% of the money? No, well then goodbye. It was impossible, we had to cut him loose. I was really sad 'cause I think it would have been good for the movie and for him. So I had three days and if I don't shoot on day one I lose all the money. Why panic? Meanwhile the entire time we were in pre-production my extras casting director's been going, 'I wish you'd cast John Francis Daley!' So we sent him the script, he loved it, flew back, I met him the night before we started shooting during his wardrobe fitting."

Another fun piece of stunt casting that never panned out was Princess Leia herself Carrie Fisher, originally lined up to play Pat's mom Janet, a role that ultimately went to "Clue" actress Colleen Camp. Mark Hamill was also given a cameo as a helpful cop, but that idea was abandoned despite a game Luke Skywalker.

"Mark said this was really fun and he would do it for Gary Kurtz and he liked the idea of the film, but he did question, 'Don't you worry that it'll take people out of the movie if I'm in there? I'd love to do it but I think it doesn't help you.' I think that's right," Johnson ultimately admits.

"5-25-77" deliberately avoids any "American Graffiti"-style postscript about Johnson's fate in Hollywood, since it's meant to inspire people to make that leap and not simply be "The Patrick Read Johnson Story." A straight biopic would find a young man who made his way through the ranks working in special effects for the likes of Trumbull and make-up man Steve Johnson, before becoming "flavor of the month" after "Spaced Invaders" made $15-million on a shoestring budget. He was then booted off several dream projects taken over by other directors, including "Dennis the Menace," a cyberpunk version of "Speed Racer" and "Dragonheart," the latter of which he originated.

"I would actually like to remake 'Dragonheart,'" he claims. "I think Liam Neeson would come back. He was gonna do it with me and he LOVED it. He's actually of the right age now to pull it off better, with the deeply confident Sean Connery as this dragon and the idea of a taciturn Liam Neeson as the beat up old knight. To me that combination is magical."

In a world where "Judge Dredd" just got rebooted another stab at "Dragonheart" seems pretty feasible. The rejuvenated Johnson has several other ambitious projects percolating, including the high concept sci-fi TV series "Reunion Station" about a Chicago metro train which goes further back in time the further away it gets from Union Station. The most enticing possibility is his long in development script "Starsailor," essentially a futuristic re-telling of "Captains Courageous" on solar sailing vessels using miniatures and CGI. In yet another ironic turn, it will be directed by his childhood hero Douglas Trumbull, and is apparently the super secret sci-fi project the legend announced he was making last year.

"It's a feature," Johnson confirms. "I think Douglas considers it his magnum opus. It's his opportunity to do his '2001'. He's in tests, and I've been up to the Berkshires to see what he's doing and it's insane. 120-frames-per-second 3D per eye. 500 foot lamberts of light on the screen, a toroidal screen -the cross-section of a donut, basically- every seat is equidistant so there's no light falloff, there's no focal falloff, it's staggering. I've never seen 3D like it in my life. Instead of the old, 'Oh look, there's a jellyfish and its kinda close,' he would zoom in on the Moon or Jupiter and bring it out, then change the interocular so it looked like a toy ball or it was filling the room. Because it had 500-foot lamberts of light it was like this solid hologram and people thought there was a giant globe hanging in the room, like it's physically there!"

Right after Fantasia Fest Johnson made the big move to become a teacher at North Carolina School of the Arts' prestigious film school. Their program encourages faculty to continue developing projects and will allow him to eventually take a year off to make another film. That is, assuming it only takes him a year and doesn't turn into "Icarus and Sisyphus's Excellent Adventure."

What's most inspiring is right now, even after all he's been through, Patrick Read Johnson has the same thing he had that fateful day in 1977: a new hope.