Before it was adopted and turned into an “official” holiday and merchandising extravaganza, May the 4th was a silly, pun-driven event put on by a few dedicated Star Wars fans in Toronto. That a quirky day of celebration caught on so quickly and was embraced so mightily by the franchise’s global fan base is hardly a surprise, given that George Lucas’s space saga is a nearly 40-year-old cultural institution. But that intense, multi-generational dedication to Star Wars was hardly guaranteed at first, and owes its life, in large part, to the work of Craig Miller.
As an unofficial adviser and then later Lucasfilm’s first official fan relations officer, Miller was charged with getting skeptical, defensive sci-fi fans excited about a mysterious space opera featuring laser swords and furry combatants. He was one of the comic book geeks in the room when Charlie Lippincott, the Lucasfilm marketing guru, presented materials from the film at Westercon in Los Angeles in the summer of 1976. It was one of three comic book conventions at which Lippincott gave his initial presentation — the other two were Comic-Con in San Diego and the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City — and expectations in the audience were not particularly high.
“You go into it and think well, its probably not going to be any good,” Miller tells Inverse. “And then you see everything behind it — the Ralph McQuarrie paintings, Joe Johnston art, some of the stuff that was being worked on, and you hear early parts of the story and you start getting impressed. You think, ‘Wow this will be something that could work.’ Thats what built up interest in the fan community, which was getting involved and seeing it.”
Miller teamed up with Lippincott to keep the interest piqued and build the excitement, and Star Wars: A New Hope became a surprise hit. There were so few venues initially booked that people lined up for days outside theaters just to catch a screening, which only added to the hype. Miller was then charged with sustaining the buzz in the three years before the release of The Empire Strikes Back — not such an easy thing in age when sequels were a rare commodity and there was no internet hype machine to feed.
Luckily, comic book stores and conventions were the proto-message boards and Twitter of their time, and there was just as much speculation and as many weird rumors about the future of Star Wars back in 1979 as there is today. And Miller had a very good time playing with their emotions and expectations.
“Oh, they cared [about rumors],” he said, laughing. “We wrote a fake treatment for The Empire Strikes Back, and had just enough things people knew would be there - like that there would be an ice planet - and let it leak so there would be more rumors. And Starlog Magazine helped us. We gave them the earliest photos of The Empire Strikes Back, and they wrote an article saying ‘We don’t know what’s happening on Empire Strikes Back, but here’s a list of rumors we heard.’ And it was a list that I compiled and gave them.”
Even George Lucas himself was tickled by the idea. “I showed it to George,” Miller recalled, “and he said ‘You should write more rumors!’” And that’s exactly what Miller did.
“What we did in the final article, it ran that piece with the rumors, and then it had a sidebar, which was a response from me as a rep of Lucasfilm,” Miller explained. “In it, I said some of the above was true, some wasn’t — we wouldn’t tell them which was which — and here are some more rumors that we’ve heard, that may or may not be true. At that point the only photo we released was Luke on the Tauntaun, but you only saw the Tauntauns neck and top part of its head.”
Those rumors were preserved online at Archive.org, and they’re very entertaining in retrospect; the lies include suggestions that Han Solo dies, Han becomes a Jedi, Leia chooses Luke, and the Millennium Falcon flies through a time warp back to the Clone Wars. But the Starlog column also hinted at Han’s deep freeze at the end of the film, revealed character of Lando Calrissian, and correctly described Boba Fett. So Miller wasn’t afraid to put some real spoilers in there.
That column contained one of the early public explanations of Fett, the bounty hunter, and his prominent place in the story points to what Miller says were Lucas’s original intentions for his epic saga.
“Originally Boba Fett was set up in Empire as a character, and the third movie’s plot was going to be more about Boba Fett rescuing Han Solo and all of that,” Miller revealed. “Boba was gonna be the main villain… That was set up, why he was taking Han Solo away, why there was a thing with him in the Christmas special.
“When George decided not to make a third trilogy, he completely jettisoned that story line, which is why in the first ten minutes, Boba Fett gets bumped into and falls into the mouth of a giant monster,” Miller added. “So he took what was planned for the third trilogy, which was the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, and the battle with the Emperor, and that got squished down from three movies to one movie. And that became the plot of Jedi.”
It’s a whopper of a revelation, and helps contextualize four decades of popular culture. Cinematic history was altered by Lucas’s personal fatigue, which came from a mix of dealing with the enormity of Star Wars, business issues, his own life, and the desire to make other sorts of films.
“At first there was one film, and then George originally announced that it was one of 12, and there were going to be 12, and then that changed to, oh there was never 12, there was only 9, and he was going to make 9,” Miller said. “And then during all of it, George kind of lost interest in continuing it… While we were working on The Empire Strikes Back, George decided he was going to complete the first film trilogy and that would be it.”
“And I remember sitting in a mixing room with George, working on Empire, and he told me he was just going to make the third movie, which didn’t have a title at that point, and then stop,” Miller continued. “He was going to retire from making big movies and make experimental movies. And that’s why the whole plot of the third movie, what became Return of the Jedi, completely changed.”
Lucas’s 15-year retirement from Star Wars didn’t do much to derail the enthusiasm of hardcore fans, who showed early on that they were very, very dedicated to the Galaxy far, far away. Miller remembers one of his better publicity coups, setting up an 800 number (1-800-521-1980, the film’s release date) that allowed fans to call in before Empire and hear little clues about the upcoming sequel, as recited by Luke, Leia, Han Solo, C-3PO and Darth Vader.
“There was no advertising; we talked about it at conventions, and Starlog ran a two paragraph announcement of it,” Miller recalled. “And with just that, we completely swamped the 800 system.”
AT&T forced Lucasfilm to buy more phone lines, cease their advertising (easy, since they weren’t doing any), and apologize to the public and other 800-number users. “That was great because now it was being carried all over the world that we were apologizing that Star Wars fans were so enthusiastic about seeing Empire that they swamped AT&T,” Miller said, laughing.
Not every display of fan zeal was as welcome — while Lucasfilm tried to look the other way when it came to fan fiction, it had to take a hard line against the increasing amount of sexually explicit slash fiction published in fan-zines but all told, Star Wars plans played nice and created the largest, most sprawling fan base in all of fiction.
Miller, who left Lucasfilm shortly after Empire hit theaters, has spent over 30 years as a consultant and working in animation, traveling the world and collaborating with legends like Jim Henson. But while he’s moved on, he still looks at the Star Wars fandom with a sense of accomplishment and joy.
“I’m proud of having been involved in something that’s become so iconic all over the world. I have a lot of friends who are like part of the 501st and that whole thing,” Miller said. “I grew up as a science fiction and comic book nerd, back when being one is looked down on, and now while there are still people who look down on science fiction fans as weird, I think they’re the same people who paint themselves blue for football games. Science fiction has become the accepted major genre. Every other movie, it seems, is either science fiction or fantasy or based on a comic book.”