While there’s been tons of behind-the-scenes books about Star Wars, writers Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman are trying to do something different with Secrets Of The Force (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) by not only presenting it as an oral history, but having that oral history be, as the subtitle explains, “Uncensored” and “Unauthorized.” In the following email interview, Altman (who was my boss at Geek Monthly) explains how this book came together, what it does and does not cover, and why they feel oral histories work for these kinds of making-of books.
For people who haven’t read one of your oral history books before, what makes Secrets Of The Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History Of Star Wars different from other books about Star Wars?
I think the strong appeal of this book for Star Wars fans, as well as fans of cinema in general, will be the fact that it’s a primer in the entire saga. It covers the entire franchise from its conception until the most recent iterations of TV. So, in that way, it’s very different than anything that’s ever been written about Star Wars, which tends to cover a certain part of the universe or one of the individual trilogies. No one’s ever covered the entire universe in one volume.
Given how many books there have been about Star Wars — including J.W. Rinzler’s excellent and exhaustive The Making Of Star Wars: A New Hope, The Making Of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and The Making Of Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi — why did you decide to write your own?
After the tremendous success of our previous books, our editor had approached us with the idea of doing an oral history of Star Wars and asked if we were fans. Although I felt I was done after our Bond book, Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History Of James Bond, which I thought was a fitting capstone on our oral history series [and you can learn more about from this previous interview], Ed convinced me to go once more into the breach given how much we both loved Star Wars and I’m glad I did as it was really eye-opening. I’m a huge fan of the Rinzler books, and Paul Duncan’s enormous tomes for Taschen, but these books are much more focused on the minutiae of production along with storyboards and behind-the-scenes photos, our books are very, very different in terms of what they address in terms of a historical context as well as more about how the sausage is made; the good, the bad, and the ugly.
As you said, this covers the entire Star Wars saga. Does that include the books and video games, given that those things are all canon?
We literally cover the entire saga from the beginning of George Lucas career to the newest TV incarnations. I’m absolutely thrilled with our deep dive into the Holiday Special, which I think is probably more words than have ever been written about this fascinating footnote in Star Wars history. We also talk about the roads not taken as well as the missteps. The video games are really the only thing that get short shrift, largely because we were told this had to be one book, so unlike the Star Trek book which expanded into two volumes [The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History Of Star Trek: Volume One and The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation To J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, And Unauthorized Oral History Of Star Trek], we had to find areas to cut so we could cover the entire saga in one book.
But given that the Star Wars series is still going — with more movies, TV shows, books, and games in the works — there will eventually be enough stuff for you to write Secrets Of The Force II: Electric Boogaloo. Why did you decide to cover the whole saga as it stands right now, and not just, say, focus on the original trilogy, and then do a second on the prequels, a third book on the Disney era, and so on?
It would not surprise me if this is our most successful book, which would be a pretty high bar considering the success of The Fifty-Year Mission and Nobody Does It Better, and Ed and both have discussed how much we’d like to go back and do a much deeper dive into The Clone Wars, which was a magnificent series which, by necessity, we could devote more than a chapter to in this volume so that’s something that warrants a much deeper dive if we get the opportunity. Also “unmade Star Wars” would be a great subject to expand on from the early drafts of Jedi to Duel Of The Fates to the Underworld series. That could be fun. But right now, besides being tied up on my own TV series, I’m co-writing another book with Ed on another franchise that I’m very excited about. It was another case where I thought I was done until our editor approached us with a delicious idea for another volume that I couldn’t refuse.
Unless I’m mistaken, you and Ed are both of the age where a lot of Star Wars fans disliked, or even hated, the prequels. Was it hard for you to set aside your biases and present the prequels in the same way as the original trilogy movies?
These books are like Rashomon, so there are multiple perspectives. As Bob Evans once said, there’s your truth, my truth, and the actual truth, and no one is lying, so it’s fascinating to explore the multiple perspectives on each film. That’s what makes it fun to be a Star Wars fans. Regarding any of the less successful Star Wars films, as the authors, it’s not our job to render judgment one way or the other, it’s up to those who are interviewed to express their opinions. Even the most divisive films will have both super fans and detractors and as they say, that’s what makes horse…or pod…racing.
Secrets Of The Force, as the subtitle says, is an oral history. What is it about the format of an oral history that you think works really well when people are talking about making a movie?
The entire impetus of our bestselling Star Trek books was the oral history format. Ed had wanted to do a definitive Star Trek50th anniversary history, and I kept rebuffing him, and then by sheer happenstance I read the oral history of MTV, I Want My MTV, concurrently with the Saturday Night Live oral history, Live From New York, and I called him and told him I know how we can do the Star Trek 50th retrospective and that if we did it as an oral history, I was in. I think we both feel liberated by that format which has worked so well in telling these stories. It’s like a giant dinner party with 500 of your closest friends who, in this case, are the people who made the projects were writing about. It’s also a way to allow multiple points of view, which is liberating since there are often so many divergent opinions when it comes to these franchises.
You have long quotes in Secrets Of The Force from Star Wars creator George Lucas, many of the movies’ stars — including Mark Hamill, Ewan McGregor, and Daisy Ridley — as well as numerous producers, directors, and other members of the production staff. How much of that comes from new interviews you did, and how much of it is culled from other people’s interviews?
Sadly, like most of our books, many of the principals have passed away, so they tend to primarily be new interviews we’ve done along with interviews we’ve done in the past supplemented where necessary from press conferences and public appearances where necessary, especially for anyone whose passed away that we hadn’t interviewed in the past.
Is there anyone you couldn’t get into the book, either for legal reasons or because they just never said anything interesting and unique?
As with any book, there are always a few people who have no interest in talking whether because their experience on the films were less than enjoyable or it’s just a subject that they’re sick of talking about. For instance, Alec Guinness would have been someone like that who just had no interest in talking about Star Wars anymore. And we had to do a major culling down towards the end of the process due to the size of the book, so I’m sure we lost some great interviews in the process that needed to be trimmed to make the book something that people wouldn’t injure themselves when they picked it up.
And what about Mel Brooks; did you include any quotes from him about Spaceballs? Or, for that matter, any of the people who’ve done Star Wars parodies over the years: Seth McFarlane, Bill Murray, Kevin Smith….
The parodies weren’t anything that really interested us; Hardware Wars, the fan films, Spaceballs, Free Enterprise, and Fanboys weren’t really relevant to the story we were telling. That’s a whole other book, isn’t it?
Plus, you’d have to interview yourself about Free Enterprise, which you produced.
Anyway, in putting Secrets Of The Force together, did you learn anything about Star Wars that either really surprised you or made you laugh out loud?
That’s the joy of writing these books. We’re always learning something new we never do and in Secrets Of The Force I think we were able to unearth some really interesting stories about these films I’d never heard before. As I mentioned, I was especially pleased with the section on the Holiday Special as well as a lot of the unproduced Star Wars scripts. But pretty much in the case of all the films, there are stories and anecdotes I’ve never heard before which is what you want in a book like this. It’s for the novice Star Wars fan as well as the die-hard.
Finally, since Edward isn’t here, let’s talk about him: What does Edward bring to the process that you do not?
Ed’s a machine. He doesn’t stop writing, he’s relentless, and he really puts his interview subjects at ease. This was a tough book for me since I was busy doing my TV series throughout a lot of it, and it was tougher than in the past to get cooperation from the people we needed to speak with. In the past, I tended to write on my hiatus from whatever TV show I was working on, but didn’t really have the opportunity here because of our production schedule between season one and season two of Pandora was unforgiving, but Ed picked up the slack. I admire his passion and dedication to everything he does. I’m really lucky I answered the phone when he called me back in the late ’80s because he wanted to reprint an interview I had done. We’ve never stopped talking since and it’s been a great partnership in terms of these books which in many cases have become the definitive accounts of these pop culture phenomenon like with The Fifty-Year Mission and So Say We All, our oral history of Battlestar Galactica. I keep on saying this is absolutely the last one, I’m done, but like Michael Corleone, I keep trying to get out, but he pulls me back in. And I’m grateful because each one of these books we’ve done has been incredibly rewarding and Secrets Of The Force may be the most rewarding one yet.