Star Wars: Jungle Fever And Garbage Pail Kids

star wars guatemala

During a lull in Star Wars production at ILM in March 1977, Richard Edlund, visual effects supervisor, decided this was the perfect time to lead a team to get a key shot in Guatemala – the rebel sentry recording the arrival of the Millenium Falcon over the Yavin base.

Edlund flew down with master machinist Richard Alexander, a bunch of Joe Johnston storyboards as conceptual guides, and a human guide in the form of Pepe Lenzi, a fellow who had been a “fixer” at 20th Century Fox for sixteen years or so. “He’d be the guy who would go to Macao with John Wayne and make sure he shows up on set the next day,” Edlund recalled. “He knew exactly how much to tip – if you tip too much you are a fool, and too little, they don’t like you. He had the magic touch. he got us through customs like butter. He knew how to grease everybody.”

They arrived in Guatemala City with 33 cases of equipment and props, including a massive Technorama camera, powered by a 12 volt car battery, which was built in 1931 for Disney. They eventually boarded an ancient DC3 twin prop plane for their flight to the ancient Mayan temples of Tik’al.

“We were sitting on this plane, which had about six seats covered with Levis. There were big boxes and chickens, and there weren’t enough seat belts.” (Sounds like Indiana Jones’s fateful Lao Che flight.) The seat of the pants journey (only a few hundred feet above the jungle canopy) was one of the best Edlund ever had, however – a real adventure. “This beast was dripping oil – there was a yard-wide puddle under each engine. When they started it up, it popped and blew the biggest smoke ring we ever saw in our life, a 50 ft smoke ring floating down the runway.” 

During the flight, they passed over a swath of clearing – caused by the airline’s other DC3 that had crashed. The “runway” at Ti’kal was merely a mud strip that existed because planes constantly flattened it landing and taking off.

Once they’d landed, a Volkswagen bus took them to their hotel – actually a series of thatched – roof dwellings with electricity, but no water – they brought their own bottled supply. Next day eight guides led them to the temples, where Edlund decided on climbing the tallest for the plate shot. “The jungle takes over, the vines and growth crawl up to get closer to the sun, completely enshrouding this enormous pyramid, and only the very top of that ruin had been cleared.”

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The equipment was lugged to the first cleared ledge of the tallest pyramid, only about six feet wide, and set up for the morning shot, leaving an armed guard in charge overnight, returning in the pre-dawn for the perfect shot – “When the fog was low over the jungle it was really magical looking.” 

The rebel’s sentry post was two $28 trash cans joined together and stuck on the end of an aluminium pole. It had already been tested at Sepulveda Dam in the San Fernando Valley. The crew found chinks in the Mayan stones to jam the pole into. “We got it up there – but then nobody wanted to climb into it,” Alexander recalled. “So first a local did, and then I did…I figured that if I fell, I’d probably get stuck in a tree halfway down.”

Lorne Peterson from ILM’s model shop flew down to join them on his own money, ending up donning the uniform and climbing into the trashcan for the iconic shot. He tracks the Falcon’s approach with what is actually a Minolta spot meter with batteries taped on to it. Watch him recall the trip with an amusing story about “Hollywood big-shots” hogging all the cake, here:

Edlund shot from a sacrificial chamber where Mayan priests would strech sacrifices over dome-shaped rock and crack their chest cavities open with a huge blade, reach in and remove the still beating heart. Another grisly scene actually awaited them when they got in there – a snake ingesting a bat.

“Its jaws had expanded and separated, and half of the bat wasn’t in yet. One of the peons picked up the snake with the tip of his machete and heaved it out over the edge, back into the jungle.”

All in all, a busman’s holiday of eight days resulted in a shot that’s on screen for about five seconds, but the Guatamalan verisimilitude paid dividends in creating the reality of a “Galaxy far, far away“.

Quotes via J.W Rinzler’s The Making Of Star Wars, and The Art Of Film – The VFX Masters

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