The Art of Immersion: The Star Wars Generation
Adam Horowitz blames the whole thing on Star Wars. Horowitz—who with his writing partner, Eddy Kitsis, was an executive producer on LOST and a screenwriter for Tron: Legacy—remembers seeing Star Wars in Times Square with his mom when he was five. As soon as it was over, he wanted to go right back in.
“But there’s no bigger Star Wars geek than Damon Lindelof,” he admits. Lindelof, the co-creator of LOST with J.J. Abrams, was only four when he saw the picture. Years later, when ABC’s Lloyd Braun paired him with Abrams as the show was in development, Lindelof showed up for their first meeting wearing an original Star Wars T-shirt he’d gotten when he and his dad joined the Star Wars Fan Club. Abrams was wowed.
Lindelof, Abrams, Joss Whedon of Angel and Fireﬂy fame—for a whole generation of Hollywood writers in their thirties and forties, Horowitz quips, “Star Wars was a gateway drug.”
It was also a precursor to what we’re coming to expect in movies and TV. Shows in the past, Lindelof points out, went to great lengths to avoid unanswered questions. LOST was deliberately ambiguous.
“The show became an excuse to develop a community” online, says Carlton Cuse, who headed the production with Lindelof. “And the basis of it was that people were able to debate open-ended questions—questions that we insisted be open-ended, and that would get fans engaged in the show.”
But years before the Web, with its boundless connectivity and its endless cascade of hyperlinks, turned entertainment into a spelunking expedition, Star Wars was a saga you could immerse yourself in at will.
But it wasn’t actually meant to be that. In the mid-’70s, when the original picture was released, it didn’t occur to anyone to create a deep-media universe for fans to dive into. Star Wars was accompanied by a cascade of merchandise, but much of it had only a tenuous connection with the movie.
The novel from Del Rey, purportedly written by Lucas himself, was in fact ghosted by a science fiction writer whose only guide was an early draft of the script. The Marvel comics series began veering off in weird directions as early as episode 8, when Han Solo and his Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca encounter Jaxxon, a giant rabbit the writers dreamed up as an homage to Bugs Bunny. And neither the fans nor George Lucas himself seemed to think this was odd. It was just the way things worked at the time.
“The difference between then and now,” says Howard Roffman, the Lucasﬁlm executive in charge of what is now known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe, “is that we didn’t know what we had.”
Roffman was put in charge of licensing in 1986, three years after the last of the original trilogy came out. At that point, as he puts it, “you couldn’t give the toys away”—or the comics or anything else. Friends said he should start looking for another job. Instead, he took it as an opportunity to introduce the concept of canonicity.
The saga by this time had become a confused jumble. If it wasn’t Marvel conjuring up a giant bunny, it was Luke Skywalker in the 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye getting affectionate with Princess Leia—who five years later, in Return of the Jedi, would turn out to be his twin sister.
So Roffman set a new ground rule: from now on, any new installment in the Star Wars saga would have to respect what had come before. (Another new ground rule was set by Lucas himself: it said that Lucas didn’t have to obey any rules.)
“It just seemed the logical thing,” Roffman says now. “If you’re going to tell stories beyond what you see in the films, the minute they contradict each other your house falls apart. If you kill off a character and then try to revive him, it’s going to be bogus.”
Of course, no one would have cared without a quality inherent in Star Wars from the beginning. “George created a very well-defined universe,” Roffman says—a universe of fractal-like complexity. “But the movies tell a narrow slice of the story. You can engage on a simplistic level—but if you want to drill down, it’s infinitely deep.”
This complexity would be key. Lucas called it “immaculate reality”—digitally conceived, spun out of charged electrons, and yet with such a level of detail as to feel instantly familiar. Every single utensil in the kitchen of Owen and Beru Lars, the humble moisture farmers who sheltered young Luke Skywalker on the arid planet Tatooine after his father became Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. The fully realized interior of the Death Star, the moon-sized Imperial battle station armed with a superlaser capable of destroying an entire planet.
“You could zoom in on any section of any frame and have a hundred stories to tell,” Roffman says. “But it wasn’t because George ever imagined anybody would zoom in like that—he just wanted to make it feel real.”
With Roffman’s decree, Lucasfilm not only found the instrument that would help reinvigorate the Star Wars franchise; it also created the prototype for the kind of deep, multilayered storytelling that’s increasingly becoming the norm today.
Star Wars references proliferated on LOST. But more significant are the similarities in the way stories like LOST and Star Wars are structured: To provide overwhelming amounts of information, but in a time-release fashion that creates maximum anticipation. Eddy Kitsis calls this the Boba Fett effect, after the bounty hunter who has a passionate following among Star Wars fanatics, even though he had only a minor role in the movies.
“You’d see these glimpses,” he says. Boba Fett didn’t even appear in the original movie, but not long after his initial TV appearance he was made available as a toy. “You had to send in four proofs of purchase. Then, in The Empire Strikes Back, he had four lines. But he made you think about bounty hunters. LOST owes a lot to that.”
This is the kind of thing that made Star Wars so influential. “Star Wars wasn’t just science ﬁction,” says Kitsis. “What was cool about it was, it was a whole world. And it was about a kid in a small town”—Luke Skywalker, on the podunk planet Tatooine—“who longs for adventure.”
“It tells you anybody can do anything,” Horowitz adds. “It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. That’s a very powerful message for a kid. Luke lives on a desert planet in the far reaches of the galaxy, and he becomes a hero of the universe. It’s like in Hollywood—if you believe in yourself, you can do it.”