We had just finished the work at ILM on “The Empire Strikes Back,” when I asked George if he would read my first screenplay (which I had been working on for about five years) and to tell me what he thought. Now, I can’t even recall the title or even the subject matter of the script; however I must have thought it was pretty good – but, as I was to find out - it wasn’t.

After about a week George graciously called me up to his office in San Anselmo to talk about my script. It was large beautifully decorated space and two things struck me immediately -- one was the original Frank Frazetta oil painting over the fireplace, and the other was the lack of Star Wars props or models. Maybe there was an X-wing model there, but nothing else as I vaguely recall.

My dreams and hopes of having George as the executive producer for my visionary (?) film were quickly dashed when George (kindly) said that he didn’t think much of my script. I probably knew in my heart that it wasn’t very good. It reminded me of writing a college term paper at the last minute with the unrealistic hope that the professor will be fooled. You convince yourself that in spite of not reading the material and not spending time on multiple drafts that somehow the gods of academia will smile and grant you a “B+”. But reality hits home when you get a “D” with a note that says, “See me after class."

Well, my “after class” session with George was very informative. He spent about 40 minutes discussing with me what makes a good script and a good movie. I wish I had a recorder but I remember some of the major points even to this day:

L-R, George Lucas (back to camera); legendary filmmaker, Michael Powell ('The Red Shoes') and Harrison Ellenshaw at ILM in 1980.
TEN STORY POINTS PER PAGE. George said that when he starts to write the final version of a script he spends a day per page. He indicated that he would devote a full day right up to 7:30 PM when he would turn on the CBS Evening News. If he put ten story points into each page, he felt fortunate if three of these important points register with the audience. And three story points per minute or so is much better than most films ever communicate.
MAKE THE FILM INFORMATIVE. It seems obvious, but too many people make films that take place in uninteresting environments. Movies need to be about something. George cited the example of the film “The Molly Maguires” (1970), a film about unions and coal miners. It was about human conflict but it also very well documented the harsh conditions and social conventions of coal mining in northeastern Pennsylvania in the late 19th Century. The cliché, “Write what you know,” is so often cited because most would-be writers do not want to do the hard work to extensively research a subject.
GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT. Successful films have a satisfying resolution. Good must triumph over evil. It is in our nature as human beings that this simple fact gives us hope. It is the way we want it to be. George felt that the unresolved ending of “The Empire Strikes Back” would leave audiences disappointed. But he also knew that this was the price he would have to pay for breaking up the traditional three act movie into three separate films. It was at this point in the discussion that I said, “Well then George, from what you have told me, I can figure out that in the next film, Luke will win in the end.” He just looked at me and said, “You just might be right.”

Since that day, I have gone on to write a number of screenplays and treatments; some optioned and some not. But all of them are far better than that first pathetic effort and I have George to thank for so much, including a wonderful personal seminar on how to be a better filmmaker.

Harrison Ellenshaw
May 14, 2010

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