Gilbey on Film: Disney saves Star Wars from its creator

George Lucas was always the franchise's worst enemy.

It’s been a long time since the words “Star Wars” caused me to experience anything resembling excitement. But the news this week that Disney has plonked down $4.05bn for Lucasfilm, and the rights to make further instalments in the series, prompted from me an unexpected and boyishly shrill bleat of delight. I gave up long ago on the prospect of this franchise producing anything of cinematic worth. With the exception of the excellent second episode, The Empire Strikes Back (yes, yes, chronologically it’s the fifth in the story), the series has zoomed straight from drab (Star Wars, Return of the Jedi) to disastrous (The Phantom Menace), leaving in its wake millions of disillusioned fans—such as the actor Simon Pegg, who has spoken widely of the crushing disappointment of the second trilogy, and of the mistakes made by its creator, George Lucas:

He’s so distrusting of everybody around him; he only trusts himself. That’s a damaging thing for an artist, or for someone who works in a collaborative medium like film. You need to collaborate. Even if you’re an auteur, you still work with other people. In the first three, he clearly had to collaborate. And that’s why those films are better than the last three, when he did it on his own. No one would question him in the end - everyone was frightened of disagreeing with him. When really, he needed someone to say, “Hang on. No, this is a terrible idea.” And he needed to listen to those people. And he just didn’t. So I see it as a bit of a shame; I don’t see him as a villain.

Well, that’s the wonderful news about the Disney buy-out: it removes Lucas from the director’s chair. Lucas was always the Star Wars films’ worst enemy. I realise that without him, they wouldn’t exist. But he was also the man responsible for squeezing the life out of his creation; he lost touch quickly with Star Wars as entertainment and began to prize it only as collateral. And that’s long before we even get around to contemplating his cavalier selling-off of its characters to advertise electrical appliances and mobile phone networks.

With Disney in charge of Star Wars, there is, suddenly, a new hope. Lucas will still serve as creative consultant on the subsequent movies in the series - the first of which will be released in 2015, with more to follow every two or three years. But with the presidency of Lucasfilm handed over to Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg’s producer for 30 years, the field is open for some original and adventurous talents to collaborate on the unthinkable: a watchable, even thrilling new Star Wars film. I believe Disney and Kennedy will be mindful of the widespread criticisms levelled at the last three episodes, and will seek to reinvigorate the franchise with a complete talent transplant. There’s no danger of tarnishing the brand - the brand is creatively defunct. Now is the time for the sort of boldness that led Lucas to launch Star Wars into a sceptical marketplace the first time around.

It can’t be a coincidence that The Empire Strikes Back represented one of only two occasions on which Lucas entrusted the series to another director. (In that case, it was Irvin Kershner; the less successful Return of the Jedi, which erred just the wrong side of the movie/toy commercial divide, went to Richard Marquand.) Empire also benefited undoubtedly from other, more playful hands at the typewriter: Leigh Brackett (whose credits included The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye) and Lawrence Kasdan (who also scripted Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, and made his own directing debut with Body Heat).

The resurrection in recent years of Batman and James Bond has demonstrated that the reboot approach can pay dividends, artistically and commercially. If Disney has any sense, it will set its sights on pulling off the same species of reinvention, bringing back to the fold the old fans and their children (and grandchildren). I probably don’t need to say that there’s no place in the new Star Wars for Jar-Jar Binks. But now I’ve said it anyway just to be on the safe side.

George Lucas (right) with Disney CEO Bob Iger (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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