Darth Vader. Greedo. Rebel pilots and stormtroopers. The actors behind them will never be as recognizable as Carrie Fisher or Mark Hamill, but documentarian Jon Spira thinks their largely untold stories offer just as much. Spira, producer Hank Starrs, and a small team of filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter for Elstree 1976, a documentary following ten people whose lives have been shaped by their work on the North London set of a then-unknown film called Star Wars.
Spira and his team have spent 18 months following the film's subjects, all of whom meet two criteria: they were given some part, no matter how small, in the original Star Wars, and they appeared in some kind of mask or helmet that obscured their face. "I wanted the audience to be familiar with the characters visually but not to have really thought about the people playing them," Spira tells The Verge. "The working title for the film actually was Masks & Helmets." Beyond that, he says, they're very different. Some played instantly recognizable icons, others were extras, and one man had his character cut entirely. "The two things that all of the interviewees have experienced collectively were firstly, the actual shoot in 1976 and secondly, the autograph convention circuit, which they've all participated in over the last couple of decades to varying degrees."
"This is not a documentary about 'Star Wars.'"
Spira's previous film, Anyone Can Play Guitar, profiled the Oxford music scene that produced Radiohead, Supergrass, and many lesser-known bands. The two documentaries are linked by an affection for the stories of "everyday people who happened to be a part of this massive story," as Spira characterizes them. "This is not a documentary about Star Wars. It's a documentary about ten people whose lives are linked by having appeared (sometimes for less than a second) in Star Wars," he says. "Yes, there are plenty of completely new stories and insight for the Star Wars fanbase but, at its heart, we want this to be a thoughtful, engaging and entertaining independent documentary about the effect a cultural behemoth can have on the lives of those involved on even the slightest basis."
The team has finished shooting interview and profile footage, and as Spira did with his last film, he's turning to crowdfunding for post-production expenses. The £30,000 (around $50,000 US) goal covers the costs of editing, clearing the rights to old footage, DVD production, and promotion. So far, Elstree 1976 has raised around £8,600, with 55 days to go. It will be released online and on physical disks, getting around the problem of drawing film festival and other industry attention. Beyond that, Spira hopes it will help spread the stories of its subjects. In Anyone Can Play Guitar, "I had developed such strong emotions for the interviewees who had been less successful commercially that the main thing I wanted was for people to finally listen to their music," he says. "When production started on the new Star Wars film here in London recently, I've realized that if my documentary can achieve one thing outside my creative aims for it, it's that I would love for JJ Abrams to find out about it and let some of these guys be extras again."