Read a preview of Insider's look back at Elstree Studios, the small but mighty studio used to film the original trilogy.
The making of the Star Wars films is a saga all its own. In this exclusive excerpt from Star Wars Insider #197, Christopher Cooper tells the story of shooting Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back at Elstree Studios.
WELCOME TO LUCASWOOD
Having already shot Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) at England’s Elstree Studios, George Lucas and Gary Kurtz brought the saga back to Borehamwood in 1979 to make the sequel. Star Wars Insider editor Christopher Cooper uncovers the rich cinematic history of the borough that became known as Britain’s Hollywood, in this exclusive extract from issue 197.
Walking along Shenley Road, past the shops and restaurants of Borehamwood, there is scant evidence of the Hertfordshire town’s illustrious cinematic past that saw it dubbed “Britain’s Hollywood” by no less a movie star than Charlie Chaplain. There is still less to suggest that it was once the location of a secret rebel base, a forest moon, or a city in the clouds. If there’s a bright center to the filmmaking universe, you’d never know that—as far as the U.K. film industry of the 20th century was concerned—this was it.
To the east of a busy junction, five minutes-walk from the local train station, a car park stretches towards a vast supermarket. Here, were you to linger in its frozen foods aisle, the chill might remind you of the icy planet Hoth. And with good reason, as the store occupies the former site of Elstree Studios’ stage 6—the 33,000 foot-square sound stage where the Millennium Falcon once nestled in the ice-hewn caverns of Echo Base. Built especially for The Empire Strikes Back, the stage was demolished long ago following financial strife that saw a sell-off of land during hard times for the studio’s then owners in the 1990s. The rest of the complex lives on, however, beyond a high fence that runs alongside the northern perimeter of Tesco’s car park. And it has never been busier. When Insider toured the site in early 2020, the fourth series of Netflix’s The Crown (2016-) was about to wrap filming, while multiple other television productions filled each of the studio’s smaller sound stages, including some of those used during the production of the original Star Wars trilogy.
“I can’t think of anywhere outside of Hollywood or Los Angeles where you’ve ever had six studios in one place,” Paul Welsh, Elstree Studios’ heritage consultant and our tour guide around the Elstree lot on a blustery January afternoon, tells us.
Since Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Pinewood has been the production home to a whole new generation of galactic adventures, but it was a different story back in 1975 when that studio turned George Lucas’ unknown quantity away.
“Gary Kurtz told me Pinewood had been unwilling to turn over all of its stages to one production, so they had been looking at filming at a studio in Italy,” says Welsh. “Then someone said, ‘Why don’t you try Elstree? It’s in dire straits at the moment and standing virtually empty. They have 9 sound stages there.’ So, Kurtz came along and spoke to the managing director at the time, Andrew Mitchell, and they agreed Star Wars could take over the whole studio.”
In spite of the well-documented financial pressures that dogged production of A New Hope, when it came time to book studio space for the sequel, there was no competition.
“I think Lucas enjoyed the compactness of Elstree compared to somewhere like Universal Studios in Hollywood. That’s 600 acres, whereas Elstree was 24 acres,” says Welsh. “He could walk from the editing room to the set, and he had control over most of the facility. And because A New Hope was such a success, I think it became something of a lucky charm for him, which is why he shot the sequels here. People started calling it ‘Lucaswood’ instead of Borehamwood. It sort of became his hometown.”
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