A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 73 – Ewoks: The Battle for Endor

Ewoks: The Battle for Endor – May 12th, 2010

Boy do I love having background dirt on a movie, and oh, we have dirt on this one. How? Well, Andy’s uncles wrote and directed it, which is awesome. So we emailed them and asked if they’d mind giving us some comments. They both emailed us back and gave us some great information. Like how the original script came in and was totally unworkable, so they scrapped it and rewrote it with a week to go before casting. And then there was the basketball game between the actors playing the marauders and the actors playing the Ewoks (pretty sure the Ewoks won). But despite stuff like the script problem and some editing worries and only having the minor actors and actresses (including three of the four leads) for half the day and Michael Jackson visiting the set it seems they had a great deal of fun making the movie. Andy’s posted their emails in separate entries and I highly recommend going and reading them here (Ken Wheat) and here (Jim Wheat).

Now, one departure this movie has from the first one is that while the parents are gone, they’re not just missing. They’re dead. As is big brother Mace. See, no one making the movie (Lucas included, apparently) really had any specific attachment to the majority of the family (not surprising, given their almost complete absence from the first movie and Mace’s unfortunate jerk tendencies), so they decided to kill them all off! It’s a pretty common trope in children’s fiction – get rid of the parents – but killing them is a pretty solid way to get right of them. So, keep Wicket and Cindel (who’s practically an Ewok anyway with all that hair) and give them their own adventure.

Given what I’ve already said, it’s probably pretty obvious how the basic story goes: Parents get killed, kid goes off to try and find a way to survive, she meets a grumpy old man who learns how to smile again thanks to her adorable antics. Add in a sorceress and her orc-like horde, who were responsible for Cindel’s family all dying in the first 15 minutes, and a quest to save Wicket’s family and retrieve a part the sorceress and her minions stole from Cindel’s family’s ship, and you’ve got this movie. Sure, it’s a simple plot, but I think the complicated morass of the three Star Wars prequels is more than enough to prove that a complicated plot does not a good movie make. Sure, you know there’s no way Cindel or Wicket are going to die, and sure, you know the baddies will probably bite it by the end, and the crotchety old man will either sacrifice himself for Cindel’s safety or take her in as her now-kindly foster grandpa, but come on. It’s a kids movie and as kids movies go, it’s fairly well plotted and well written and it’s got Wilford Brimley as the crotchety old man, Noa. I wasn’t even annoyed with Cindel, though Andy pointed out yesterday that I do work with kids, and so perhaps my tolerance for Cindel has grown over the years.

I’m going to take a moment here and share the praise one of Andy’s uncles had for the actress playing Teek. See, Teek is a little not-Ewok who lives with the crotchety old man as sort of a pet/servant/companion and it was originally supposed to be a puppet. But the puppet didn’t work out, so they had a costume made for one of the Ewok actresses and then an animatronic mask that would be controlled remotely. I spent much of the movie paying attention to the body movements and actions from Teek and I’ve got to agree. The actress in the costume didn’t get to show any of her own facial expressions (though neither did the actors playing the Ewoks, since their faces are barely articulated at all) and looking at the costume, I’m sure it was a pain to do the exaggerated physical movements that convey so much of the only semi-verbal character’s reactions. And Teek really is a fun part of the movie, especially interacting with Noa as he’s being grumpy and crotchety and Teek is so obviously used to having to prod him along.

Granted, I’m partial to it. My brother rented this I don’t know how many times when we were kids. There’s one line in particular, Wicket saying “Starcruiser woosh! Starcruiser crash!” that stuck with me enough that it entered my regular obscure reference parlance. I said it once to Andy when we were dating and he was dumbfounded. “How do you know that?” he asked. “It’s from this movie about Ewoks,” I informed him. Yeah, he knew that. It was one of the many things that we bonded over when we were dating. But even if I wasn’t partial to it for that reason, I actually really do like it. I hadn’t seen it in years and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it tonight. Heck, I liked last night’s and tonight’s was definitely a lot better.

And there ends the official Star Wars Week+. We did the prequels, we did the originals, we did the Ewoks, and we enjoyed 5/8! But unofficially, there’s one more movie. What sort of Star Wars Week+ would it be without Spaceballs?

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May 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

The Battle for Endor – Guest Commentary from Ken Wheat

Well, one of the strangest things about us doing this was the way we found out we were up for the job. During the winter of 1984-85, we were working our asses off to get a deal for our film Lies, which had been selling pretty well overseas, but didn’t have a domestic theatrical deal. So we cut a trailer, and went down to Birmingham Alabama to do a test market release of it. Which was a disaster. It was mid February, and they had the worst ice storm they’d had there in years. We’d brought our star Ann Dusenberry down with us, and while the three of us were interviewed on Good Morning Birmingham, we could see the monitors behind the hosts, which had warnings running along the bottom of the screen saying “Do Not Drive This Weekend.” So the screenings were a total bust.

We got home and there was a message on the answering machine at our editing room. A guy named Tom Smith had called from Lucasfilm, and asked us to get back to him as soon as possible. All we could think of was, “how could we owe money to George Lucas?” Lies had been finished with considerable debt attached, and the conclusion was more than reasonable. Then we figured the call must have been relating to a crew member of ours who needed a reference. That made more sense. So we called, and Tom said he was producing this second Ewok TV movie, and wondered if we were interested in directing it.

It turned out we had sent a tape of Lies over to Amblin because we’d heard they were looking for new directors for Amazing Stories, and when George had asked Spielberg (or Tom had asked an Amblin exec, perhaps) if they’d come across any non-DGA directors who might be good for the Ewok thing, our tape was among those that was passed along.

We flew up to see George about a day later, and on the plane we talked about what to do with the film. We hadn’t been wild about the first Ewok film, especially about the Burl Ives narration, and the slightly sappy tone. So we talked about films we loved as kids, and when we saw George a few hours later, we told him we loved Swiss Family Robinson, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and several other adventure things along those lines.

He thought pirates sounded great, but figured they should be really big to contrast the small size of the Ewoks. And he had just watched Hiedi with his then 5 year old daughter, and he liked the idea of the grumpy old man and the orphan girl. None of us were wild about the rest of the family, so he said fine, we’ll just kill them all off in the opening scene.

And the rest of the story is history.

The writing of the script is something else. We were just hired to direct, but since no writer was yet attached, the story was roughly worked out between us and George in a four hour session, with a second four hour session the next day filling in the details. That second story session brought in Production Designer/second Unit director Joe Johnston for input, and Producer Tom Smith whipped it all into a 25 page treatment.

The writer who was hired was British, and there was a real push to get the script done quickly. We spent about 4 days a week commuting from LA to Marin to work on design ideas and scout locations, and on April 1st we moved up there to start full time preproduction. That day the script arrived from England. And it SUCKED in a huge way. Everybody was freaking out, because it was so bad that there was fear that the plug would be pulled on the whole thing. At which point everyone started looking at us. “You guys could write it, couldn’t you?”

This was one week before casting and set construction was set to begin. So we spent one week splitting our time between writing in a motel room, while scouting locations at and around the Ranch, and working with our storyboard artist at the same time. (Paul Chadwick of Concrete and Matrix fame, who had done the storyboards and designs for Lies.) For that matter, Paul was a co-writer in a way, because in many case toward the end of that week, we were just writing action scenes based on thumbnail doodles he was doing.

So the Force was with us and we got the script done, and a few weeks after that we shot the thing.

May 12, 2010 Posted by | guest commentary | , , , | 1 Comment

The Battle for Endor – Guest Commentary from Jim Wheat

Here’s a treat for our tens of readers: We have commentary from the writers and directors of The Battle for Endor. First from my uncle Jim-

Making this movie was certainly the highlight of our career. George turned over the keys to his kingdom and pretty much let us do what we wanted. We also got to work with some of the most talented people around.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. We were working with minors in three of the four main parts, so scheduling was a nightmare. We pretty much lost the kids about an hour after lunch, so filling the day took some doing. We worked with a camera double for Cindel, so much of the time over-the-shoulder shots and long shots are not Aubree, but a look-a-like.

The other teenager on the set was Nikki Botelho, who played Teek. The plan was to create a mechanical creature to be operated by a team of puppeteers. After the first day of shooting with the puppet, it became clear that it just wasn’t going to work. But there was Nikki, who was playing an ewok, and who wasn’t very much bigger than the mechanical Teek. So while we quickly rearranged the schedule, the creature team spent a long weekend and created a costume for Nikki with just a smiling mask. A few days later they had an articulated head that could be controlled by puppeteers made the ears move, the eyebrows rise, and the smile broaden. Nikki was a great performer and really brought the costume to life.

Most of the guys who played the marauders were basketball players, who were challenged to a game by the ewoks… but with little people rules (the ball has to bounce off the ground before you can rebound). I’m pretty sure the ewoks won.

All of the actors put up with a lot. The costumes were hot and awkward, and after a long day of shooting were dripping with sweat. One day Michael Jackson came to visit the set and he LOVED the ewoks. The only problem was that he insisted that the ewoks kept their heads on between takes so as not to break the illusion of cute little furry creatures playing in the forest. It was pretty cruel to make the actors wear their headgear any longer than necessary, but super stars are super stars.

We spent the most time with George in the editing room. That’s where George believes movies are made, and he would come in and chop away at the film. As the picture kept getting shorter and shorter, we started to worry that it wouldn’t fulfill the requirements of ABC. But George wasn’t concerned. “You’ll come up with something.” The producer, unbeknownst to us, had built a ‘George Factor’ into the budget. An additional two weeks of shooting. It was decided that we would shoot a new sequence involving a dragon and an ewok hang glider. The next day, Joe Johnston came in with the storyboards and we got busy building a cave set. What had originally been an easy escape into the forest became a cliffhanging adventure for Wicket and Cindel.

May 12, 2010 Posted by | guest commentary | , , , | 1 Comment

Star Wars Ewok Adventures: The Battle for Endor

May 12, 2010

Star Wars Ewok Adventures: The Battle for Endor

I’m clearly biased about this movie since as I said yesterday it was written and directed by my uncles. I just wanted to get that out of the way so nobody mistakes this for an impartial review. It’s probable that my familial connections influence my view of the movie. Having gotten that out of the way I want to say I do enjoy watching this movie again. I mean contrast it with the first Ewok movie and you instantly notice a pretty significant difference. I mean: Wicket’s mouth moves! Amazing!

Right from the start this movie makes with the action. Wicket and Cindel are having an idyllic walk though the woods and then suddenly there’s a big battle scene with explosions and blaster fire and these big ugly lugs kidnap the Ewoks and kill Cindel’s family. That’ right, they kill Cindel’s brother and parents practically before the opening credits are over. You may recall (if you watched it) how Cindel’s parents are kidnapped by an ogre offscreen in the first move – leaving you feeling like you’ve missed a bit of the action. Well you’re not shortchanged this time around. And it’s great that the movie starts of with such a bang. You know you’re in for more action this time around.

After Cindel and Wicket escape from the goons (and a quick encounter with a dragon – which you can read more about in one of our guest commentaries) they quickly find the best thing in the movie: the speedy little creature Teek. Teek lives with the curmudgeonly old man Noa – played by Wilford Brimley. Most of the interactions that stayed with me over the years since I last saw this are bits of tender comedy between Noa and Teek. Things like Teek taking the muffins to Wicket and Cindel and Noa saying “You WERE hungry weren’t you!” It’s impressive that with this strange little grimacing creature that is barely articulated they get such a range of emotion. Teek is just fun to watch.

For a movie that starts out with such a traumatic beginning (the slaughter of Cindel’s family) there sure is a lot of fun comedy in here. You’re encouraged to laugh some at Noa and his irascible attitude as he complains to Teek about taking in the two orphans, and at the general antics of Teek and Wicket. But then you have this big exciting battle at the end where the Ewoks use all their Storm Trooper battleing abilities from Return of the Jedi to hold off an overwhelming horde of baddies.

Sure the effects are a little aged now in the era of CGI, but the Harryhousen fan in my loves all the stop-motion creatures. I remember wishing I had one of the articulated walking tadpole creatures to play with. And of course my uncles were always upset that there was never a Teek action figure. I agree – it would have been cool.

Altogether it’s a great bit of fun and adventure, and I’m pleased to find that about twenty five years later I still enjoy watching it.

May 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment