Voyage to the 'Hearts of Dorkness'

Patrick Read Johnson and the strange oddysey of 5-25-77

An imperial guard from the 501st Battalion of Star Wars cosplayers leads the way to last week's test screening of 5-25-77
An imperial guard from the 501st Battalion of Star Wars cosplayers leads the way to last week's test screening of 5-25-77 (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

First, an apology. Earlier this week, we called 5-25-77 a "ballad to how Star Wars changed lives and film love." As Monday's last-minute test screening at the Alamo Drafthouse proved, it's a lot more than that.

Director Patrick Read Johnson has been babysitting his autobiographical picture (briefly known as '77) for almost a decade. It covers his life as a high schooler in Wadsworth, Ill., and his remarkable voyage to becoming a film maker. It's kin to local writer Ernie Cline's Fanboys (and it suffered an equally tough trip to screens), true, but then there's some LA Stories and a big chunk of Woody Allen's Radio Days in there too. While it's as nerd-friendly as you would expect (watch for possibly the first Star Wars versus Star Trek geek-off ever), it's hard core nerd, for fans who recognize Doug Trumbull as fast as they do Boba Fett. In fact, if it owes a debt to any George Lucas movie, it's probably American Grafitti.

And, yes, this is the same 5-25-77 that screened at Star Wars Celebration IV in 2007. So what happened? Well, Johnson explained that at Monday's screening:

"There's been a lot of conjecture about why this film didn't come out, and it's because it didn't have to - You know how directors are.

"We raised money independently to make this film. We didn't pre-sell it in Sweden and everywhere else to get production money, we didn't presell it to a studio, we completely financed it ourselves with friends, relatives, whoever else could help. What happened was that, by doing that, I was allowed the freedom to do the film I wanted to make. I had studios that wanted to make it, but they wanted it to be turned into Road Trip, or they wanted it to be American Pie for Star Wars geeks, and I was not making that film. By the time we got finished to the point where people were really starting to pay attention to it, the William Morris Agency picked up the film. They said, 'We love this, it's great, we're going to get it into theaters, we're going to get you $500,000 to do the final music and final visual effects.' Wow, this is going to be beautiful and amazing. Cassian Elwes, the biggest film sales agent in the world was repping it, and all of a sudden the bottom fell out of the economy, and William Morris was gobbled up by Endeavor, and suddenly the biggest film sales agent in the world was out of a job.

"We were orphaned, and we just languished for a while. We went, 'Well, we don't have anyone representing us and we've got a crowded market place.' Fanboys had just come out and not done well – I know Ernie (Cline, writer) and Kyle (Newman, director), I love those guys, they're great and we're big supporters of each other, but they got smashed a little bit by the handling of the film, and there was a perception that we're the same kind of movie, which we aren't. So we sort of laid low for a long time, cooking the film, trying out new things, trying new cuts, and finally we went, 'OK, it's time to get back into selling this movie.' The economy was coming back, distributors were getting interested again, but unlike the old golden age of everyone going, 'Hey, your movie's not finished? Here's $500,000 and we'll put it out in theaters, oh, here's an advance and would you like a limo to the premier?' It's not like that any more."

Now Johnson is driving across America in a busted-up 1975 Ford Pinto. Behind him is a documentary team – the same one that made Jaws doc The Shark is Still Working – in an RV called (PeeWee fans, rejoice) Large Marge on an insane mission. Johnson is taking his rough cut of 5-25-77 to anywhere, as he puts it, where there are kidney shaped swimming pools and large concrete dinosaurs. It's a one-man test screening tour, with an editing booth set up in the back of Marge. His ultimate goal is to take the film to the people he calls "the three wise men" who shaped his film making career. Meanwhile the documentary crew are filming his bizarre odyssey while chronicling the troubled and now seemingly triumphant history of his biopic. That's becoming a documentary called Hearts of Dorkness. Considering the fan-made The Shark is Still Working will be included on the upcoming Blu-ray of Jaws, then consider us intrigued.

To pay for their adventure, they've launched a Fundrazr campaign. Yet that's to complete the journey, not to fund the film. That will take another $500,000, so what he's doing now is effectively roadtesting it, drumming up interest, before putting the financing together to complete the last few effects and get a real distribution deal.

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Alamo Drafthouse, Patrick Read Johnson, 5-25-77, Star Wars, Hearts of Dorkness, 501st Battalion, The Shark is Still Working, Test Screening, Cassian Elwes, William Morris Agency, Endeavor, '77

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