How the geekdom came together to save a love song to 'Star Wars' from the dark side
In 1997 local slam poet and writer Ernie Cline wrote a script called Fanboys. It was the story of four Star Wars fans who road-trip from Ohio to Skywalker Ranch in the Bay Area of California to steal a print of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace so that one of their number, who is terminally ill with cancer, can see it before he dies. It was a sweet story of friendship and fandom and the enormous and emotional lengths that one will go to help out the other. It was a story about love, actually.
Just more than 10 years later, Fanboys, directed by Kyle Newman and released by the Weinstein Co., is finally arriving in theatres. In the interim, Cline and Newman had the sort of freakishly bizarre, occasionally nightmarish Hollywood experience that makes for, well, a great script. The Fanboys you see at the movie theatres this weekend is not the Fanboys they originally set out to make, but it's close enough, sweet enough, and entertaining enough to be worth your while – especially if, like us, one of your most cherished memories is of that gargantuan Imperial Destroyer pursuing Princess Leia's tiny rebel ship in the opening moments of George Lucas' Star Wars.
The Austin Chronicle sat down with Cline and discussed the improbably problematic gestation of Fanboys, why Star Wars still rules, and how a small online insurgency came to triumph over the Empire of Darth Weinstein.
Austin Chronicle: How was Fanboys conceived?
Ernie Cline: My mother had died the year before, so death was very much on my mind at the time. I remember thinking, "Well, what if I got sick and was unable to see this movie that I'd waited and wanted to see for so long?" That was where the germ of the Fanboys script came from. Once I had the idea, I wrote it really fast. Looking back now, if I'd known anything about film production – at the time I was really just a movie fan – I probably wouldn't have done it. The plan was to get the film shot and out before Episode I hit the theatres in May of 1999, because I felt that after that, no on would ever want to see it. So that's what I originally tried to do.
AC: Harry Knowles and Ain't It Cool News eventually became a huge factor in the making of the film, right?
EC: Yeah, for sure. I gave him a copy of the script and told him I was going to try and make it – this was back in 1997 – and he read it, loved it, and the very next day wrote this great review of it and posted it to his site. At the time I really had no inkling of the power that Harry wielded in Hollywood then, but suddenly I was fielding calls from Newsweek, The Village Voice, just all this national press calling about this little project of mine that in reality had no money, no cast, no nothing. It was really a joke, but nobody knew that. Harry reviewing the script and saying he was going to play himself in it lent it instant credibility that it really did not deserve to have, at least at that point.
AC: What impact did the release of The Phantom Menace have on Fanboys?
EC: That brought it even more attention. The Artists and Entertainment Group called me along with several other agencies and movie studios who expressed interest in seeing the script, but nothing ever came of it. I did get in touch with a young producer by the name of Matt Perniciaro [What We Do Is Secret] who was a huge Star Wars fan and who read the script, optioned it, and flew down to Austin to watch [Peter Jackson's] Bad Taste at the Alamo and discuss making Fanboys. By that point, Episode I had come out and had been kind of a disappointment.
AC: What did you think of Episode I? Honestly?
EC: I felt bad for George Lucas, because no matter what he did, there was simply no way he could ever produce something that would live up to what had been fermenting in the imaginations of this entire generation of kids. These kids were now adults, and they wanted very, very much for this new film to give them back their childhood.
That was when Matt sort of encapsulated the whole idea of Fanboys, which was that it was a film about four friends sharing this one common experience and how this particular generation felt about Star Wars. That made Fanboys relevant and viable despite the fact that Episode I had come and gone.
AC: But there was a new hope, so to speak, right?
EC: Right. [Director] Kyle Newman came on board. He was the biggest Star Wars fan imaginable, even bigger than me. Just like everyone else, Kyle had heard about the script on Ain't It Cool News years before, but he had gone to NYU film school and won awards for his short films and was just enthusiastic about getting Fanboys made no matter what. The other thing that finally got Fanboys made was the involvement of Kevin Spacey's production company, Trigger Street, which came about because Matt had a relationship with Evan Astrowsky, one of Fanboys' eventual producers, who passed it on to Spacey, who read it, though it was great, and said, "Let's do it."
AC: What was George Lucas' official position on Fanboys at this point? He knew about it, right?
EC: That was one of the big worries we had. We knew that we'd never be able to make the movie without clearances from Lucasfilm. But – and I can't verify this, but it sounds right – Kevin Spacey had met Lucas on the set of Superman Returns, where Spacey was playing Lex Luthor, and mentioned that he was trying to get this little film called Fanboys made. So he asked Lucas for permission, Lucas gave it, and then once that happened, once it was "Fanboys with the permission of George Lucas," then everything happened very fast. It had been, at that point, seven years of false starts and limbo, and then – bang! – off we go.
AC: How did you end up at the Weinstein Company?
EC: DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg were interested in it for a time, but when they said no thanks, they handed it off to the Weinstein Company and told them, "You should check this out, because this is the best movie we're not going to make." Harvey Weinstein read it on a Friday night and on Saturday morning called and said, "I want to make this movie with you guys." That was October of 2005, and by February of 2006, we were shooting Fanboys.
AC: Are you allowed to talk about the Weinsteins' misguided attempt to recut the film and the huge online protests that followed?
EC: I can, yes. Guillermo del Toro had warned me about the Weinsteins when I met him once at the Alamo. Because of his experience with the Weinsteins butchering Mimic, he's just one of many people who has an "I've been screwed over by the Weinsteins" story.
What happened with Fanboys was this: We finished the film in March of 2006, and then the reshoots began. In the meantime, Kyle had gone off to make a remake of Revenge of the Nerds for Fox Atomic, and while he was doing that, [producer] Scott Mosier came in and directed some of the reshoots. Which was fine. Revenge of the Nerds, however, fell apart, and whatever faith the Weinstein Company had in Kyle fell apart with it. And then the test screenings began. When they would show it at Star Wars conventions, the numbers were through the roof. When they showed it to a test audience in Rosita, California, it wasn't getting The 40-Year-Old Virgin numbers that the Weinsteins wanted to see. And so they thought that by recutting Fanboys to make it less geeky and less nerdy, they could make it into a movie for everyone, which, of course, was never the point in the first place. Fanboys was always aimed directly at the fans. But the Weinsteins brought in a series of other writers whose job it was to pitch ideas to make it into a broader type of comedy. They also decided to completely remove the film's inciting subplot, which is that one of the four friends has cancer and is dying. And that subplot was what made the whole movie make sense. It was about friends helping friends while confronted by impossible odds, just like Star Wars itself. But the Weinsteins thought the whole cancer thing was a bummer and brought in another director for reshoots again. By this time, it's late 2007, a year and a half after we wrapped, and the 25th anniversary of Star Wars had come and gone, which was a golden release opportunity that the Weinsteins completely blew.
AC: How could Harvey Weinstein miss that? It seems like it would have been the perfect time to release Fanboys.
EC: Grindhouse had just been released, and I think they felt burned by that, because it didn't do well in theatres at all. I think in the wake of that debacle, they began to question not only Fanboys but all of their projects. But honestly, dude, I don't know. I've given up trying to second-guess the Weinsteins' reasoning, attempting to figure out why they did what they did.
AC: Without the cancer element, then Fanboys is really more akin to National Lampoon's Star Wars Road Trip.
EC: Yeah, totally.
AC: So ultimately, thanks to the fans and fan-related test screenings, the Weinsteins got the message that the film was better off the way you had written it and Kyle had directed it, right?
EC: Exactly, yeah. Once word got out – and it got out really, really fast – that the Weinsteins were trying to recut the movie, the Star Wars fans started to turn on them in a way that nobody expected. It got to the point where the fans, from all over the world, paralyzed the offices of the Weinstein Company by sending literally thousands of e-mails a day.
AC: What were you and Kyle thinking while all this was going on?
EC: We didn't know if it was going to be released, cut, or get dumped straight onto video or what. But once the fan outcry reached the point where it was featured in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety and pretty much everywhere, the Weinsteins relented. What I heard was that Harvey called Kevin Spacey up and said: "You can have the movie back; just turn the Internet off. Please." And that's when Kyle was allowed back onto the project to fix the film.
AC: And the biggest irony of all is ...
EC: ... that last summer we got to go to Skywalker Ranch to do the final sound mix, yeah. The surrealness of that was lost on no one.
AC: How do you feel about the Fanboys that's being released tomorrow? Is it anything like what you first imagined it would be? Are you happy with it?
EC: It turned out okay, but it was so ugly there for a while. For a little, low-budget Star Wars fan movie to get all this press, I'm kind of worried that people have been waiting for so long – 10 years – for this movie to come out that it's kind of like The Phantom Menace in a way. It's never going to live up to the hype of being this big Judd Apatow, $30 million comedy, which is how they're marketing it. It's not what I pictured, in both good and bad ways. It's a little more crude in parts, thanks to Harvey, and it's not as sweet or emotional as I had originally hoped it would be. It's kind of uneven because of all the hired hands that were brought in. But the whole thing was a learning experience for me.
AC: What did you learn, specifically?
EC: I guess I learned that stuff that you think is impossible and could never happen is in fact not impossible at all and can happen.
AC: There is no try; there is only do.
EC: That's it.