Jedi News Interview: James Luceno: A Force Re-Awakened and On His Feet

Best-selling Star Wars author Jim Luceno and Dak vowed to meet again at their favorite tapcaf in Tierfon, 49 West, to continue their conversation, this time to exchange thoughts on Celebration Anaheim.

The theme was a comparison of a Star Wars writer and actor’s takes on the event. Two weeks after Anaheim, they reconvened at the other window table facing West Street as a local photographer friend, John Bergdahl, was hanging photos for an upcoming 49 West exhibition. This time the conversation was fueled by an expresso and a ginger beer.

Dak: Jim, last time we spoke, you were eager to see how Celebration would fare going into the main tent, as you put it. So, what was your overall impression of Anaheim?

James Luceno: It felt a lot like Orlando, except there were more people in costumes. And it was bigger on all fronts. But it was several separate conventions. There were those who came for you actors and the signings, that scene. And then there were the panels on the movies and the animation, two different audiences, I guess. Then the collectors. In the mornings, the doors would open, and there was this rush like K-Mart on Black Friday. These were the hardcore collectors who were intent on grabbing limited-edition collectables. And finally we writers and our scene. I would have loved to have had time to venture over to see you guys at the signing booths, but I was stuck in the merchandising hall. Did you get around? What did you do?

Dak: It was the same for me. Except I had that Star Wars and the Military panel you attended on the Thursday. And then I also did a lot of podcasts on the podcast stage. But I couldn’t just roam around. I was contractually obliged to be at my table for Official Pix who has the license for our autographing with Lucasfilm.

JL: How many hours were you at your table?

Dak: Pretty much all day, although you had an hour for a lunch break, and then times to go off and do photo ops for fans in a nearby studio area. It was a loose arrangement, but you couldn’t abuse it and go off for hours roaming around. I told them I’d not take my lunch break and regard my podcast appearances as my break. And I told the podcasters, I could only be with them for 10 minutes or so. And they honored that. It was fun. I did make it so I could get away to attend your Del Rey panel. How were you structured?

JL: This time, Mysterious Universe took the place of Barnes & Noble. It’s a bookstore headquartered in San Diego, I believe. Writers had a one or one-and-a-half hour limit for signings. That was hard because I like to take time to talk everyone who stops by.

Dak: I do too. Very much.

JL: The monitors kept telling me to keep the line moving. Still, it was pretty successful, and we moved a lot of books. What do you actors say to fans?

Dak: What’s your name? Where you from? What do you do? I’m more interested in their stories than reciting my own.

JL: Same.

Dak: I think that’s true for most of the actors. I surprised one guy from England who came by and said we met last year. He looked familiar. But when he said he was the fruit logistics guy, I remembered. “Yeah. East Anglia. Your parents were in the trade. How’s it going?” Blew him away. And the volunteer who was working with me. Surprised myself too with that one.

JL: Spur recollection. That’s happened to me too.

Dak: Yeah, well, I like people. It’s genuine. On Wednesday night late, I went down into that big basement room in the convention center where they had all the fans queued up for the first tickets for the opening ceremony on Thursday morning. I felt I wanted to do that. You know, do something special to cheer up those fans in their discomfort. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, families all camped out every which way. The first had gotten there at eight that morning. So my daughter and I walked all the way down the roped path through the middle of them for about an hour to cheer them up, sign autographs, let them take pictures. This was just before J.J. and Kathy had the pizzas delivered. It was rather like being Eisenhower in that famous World War Two photo when he’s talking with the troops the day before Normandy. Or what my mother did during the Blitz when she would go down into the London Underground to sing and play “Roll Out the Barrel” on her accordion for all the families camped out on the platform for the night. Same sort of deal that night in Anaheim. And the fans were all so incredibly cheerful. Sitting around on their blankets playing Star Wars Monopoly, Sabacc, whatever. It was festive.

JL: The Celebration vibe is very different, isn’t it. It’s unusual to be recognized. I was stopped often by people wanting to snap photos. It’s not like it is for you actors: writers typically aren’t familiar faces.

Dak: Well, in my case, I’m only recognized when I’m around Star Wars fans. And that’s good. I wouldn’t want it like it must be for Harrison Ford, being recognized wherever he goes 24/7. I like it on Star Wars weekends, though. So what else did you enjoy?

JL: I had fun with the Random House crowd, Shelly Shapiro and Joe Scalora, and the Lucasfilm crowd, Pablo [Hidalgo], Leland Chee and Jen [Heddle]. I got a chance to hang with Alan Dean Foster. I’d never met him before. I also spent time with James Kahn [Return of the Jedi], John Jackson Miller [A New Dawn] and Christie Golden [Fate of the Jedi: Omen].

Dak: What makes a Star Wars Celebration so different from comic cons or other conventions?

JL: It’s almost a family feeling, especially among the writers, the Random House and Lucasfilm people. We all had this sense of going through something together. I was amazed and touched. Was it the same for you actors?

Dak: Actors are a little different. When we actually worked on the films, way back when, truthfully, it was just another job. Certainly a great experience. But the actors are less invested.

JL: Yeah, that figures.

Dak: Don’t get me wrong. Those of us who choose to get on the convention circuit to one degree or another get invested in Star Wars. The fans want to hear our stories about filming and such and our memories of working with George and the Big Three, Mark, Carrie and Harrison. And speaking for myself, I have sort of lived into Dak, and more recently Bespin Boba, largely because that’s what the fans want or at least expect. And all the actors are touched by that. So your use of the word touched resonates. So, in a sense, some of us get to the point where we see the transactions at a convention as another kind of performance, and we step up. I don’t mean that cynically. It’s genuine. We have a voice actress friend who voices for Pokemon, Veronica Taylor, whom we see at comic cons routinely. She likes to refer to all of us convention actors as a traveling circus. A circus family. For us, it’s rather like doing location work on a film or doing a theatrical tour. So the actors have fun reconnecting on the circuit and swapping stories not just about the old times in the biz, but the new times—that con we both did in Indianapolis or Pensacola, or Essen or Orlando. And of course with Star Wars, we develop friendships with fans we see again and again who are in the 501st, the Legion or the Mandalorian Mercs.

JL: Difference is that with Anaheim, we are all here for the same thing.

Dak: Yeah. It’s like a Woodstock or a Newport Jazz or Folk Festival for Star Wars geeks.

JL: Whether you’re into blues, or rock or something else, you’re still sharing something in common.

Dak: Yeah. Validating each other.

JL: What did you think of the trailer?

Dak: I didn’t see it on the big screen. I only caught part of the opening with Kathy and J.J. I saw bits of it on the convention floor watching a screen at one of the LEGO booths. So I only caught the trailer later on my iPhone. What did you think of it?

JL: I was really excited by it. There were so many interesting shout-outs to the classic films. J.J. will play with classic moments, then turn them on their heads.

Dak: What do you mean?

JL: He constructs scenes so you’ll be expecting certain results, but just the reverse will happen. The movie will be full of surprises. The audience will be on their feet, not in their seats.

Dak: Wow, Jimmy. When we last talked, I detected a little skepticism. It was like you weren’t entirely sure what to expect now that Celebration’s in the main tent. But now, you’ve—

JL: In all honesty, I was a little wary that the new films would be a rehash. Like Mark Hamill was a little wary of J.J. coming in and directing. Now, I know where the story is headed.

Dak: And we can’t talk about that.

JL: No, we can’t. What did the actors think of the trailer?

Dak: Actually, I didn’t canvass them on that. We were all at our tables for the opening ceremonies. So the only reactions I got came from the fans. They all said they were really moved by Han’s line “Chewie, we’re home.” And that really got me too once I saw it on my phone that night on my hotel bed.

JL: Yeah. The new film jumps past the Prequel Trilogy and brings back the classic heroes. It speaks to the audience, the actors, across the whole franchise.

Dak: Last time, you and I spoke about canon versus Star Wars legends. Now they’re talking about a third category: anthologies. What’s that all about?

JL: Those films will take audiences back to the classic period, and in some cases to earlier times. Rogue One is a Star Wars anthology film. A stand-alone film set in that time period, but focusing on some new characters. A kind of prequel to A New Hope, filling in the timeline, and maybe opening up the literature to new stories. Did you make the 501st party.

Dak: I did. Only because it was at the Marriott, where we were saying. I wanted to go to the Mandalorians’ bash, but theirs was over by Downtown Disneyland which was too much of an effort. You get so tired after a whole day of non-stop signing and conversation. We did go across the street to the Hilton for the DK reception and book launch. That’s where I did my interview with Ryder Windham who was signing with the others for their Ultimate Star Wars.

JL: I would have been there, but Del Rey had me working. The current DK crop are a great group of people: Tricia [Barr], Ryder Windham, Dan Wallace. I met Adam Bray for the first time. He’s a very interesting guy. He spent years living in Southeast Asia writing travel guides for DK. What did you make of all the costumes this time? What was your favorite?

Dak: I love the women who are into nose art.

JL: : I saw several forties hairstyles and pill box hats.

Dak: Yeah. I think it’s great. So this one fan I know is Heather Shue. She and her husband Brad are in the 501st, Garrison Tyranus in Virginia. One of her characters is an ISO girl, Empire’s version of the USO.

JL: One of them may have stopped by Mysterious Universe.

Dak: And then at the 501st bash, I met this Imperial drum majorette. Very fifties, with the Imperial logo on her plumed parade hat. And then I saw a fair amount of steampunk variations on Star Wars. Those are always favorites for me. Very creative stuff—

JL: Did you see the Star Wars bunnies?

Dak: Yes!

JL: Very weird. When I spotted them they were preceded by a squadron of Imperial TIE pilots in black. Then there was this Space Balls crew with Darth Helmet and the other characters.

Dak: You catch the three Stormtrooper bellhops, in white tuxes?

JL: Yeah. Hilarious.

Dak: What did fans ask you the most?

JL: If I have any new books in the works.

Dak: Do you?

JL: I’m in talks with Lucasfilm.

Dak: Not Disney?

JL: My understanding is that the licensing—the games, books, the merchandise—all that is still Lucasfilm, not Disney. Disney is just the films and animation. Some people at Lucasfilm straddle both domains.

Dak: The two worlds are coordinated by the Story Group?

JL: Yeah, but I don’t necessarily associate the Story Group with Disney.

Dak: Isn’t Diana Williams more Hollywood than Lucasfilm?

JL: I haven’t met Diana yet.

Dak: So what is it about Star Wars, Jim?

JL: I’m so in awe of the Star Wars community. It’s such an inclusive crowd. Beyond polite, it’s totally safe. There’s no rude treatment of women. I signed books for people from Russia, Europe, South America, Japan, Thailand. At ComicCon, you get some contentiousness between various franchises. But with Celebration, we’re all there for the same reason. What must George Lucas think, walking through the merchandise halls? How does he react to seeing all he has wrought? His impact has been so enormous. Right up there with Amazon and Google.

Dak: I often ask folks what was the initial appeal.

JL: For me, nostalgia is a part of the experience.

Dak: Nostalgia, yes. At Essen, my daughter and I were having dinner with a Dutch volunteer on Mary Franklin’s Elite Squad, Wiebe van der Werk. Emily was working with him on one of the stages. He put nostalgia first.

JL: Nostalgia’s a touchstone for remembering a time before the heaviness of the modern world set in. We’d just had the death of rock stars and Vietnam. And Star Wars captured a moment afterwards, a time that felt innocent and wonderful.

Dak: What period are we talking about?

JL: We’re talking 1977 to ‘81.

Dak: In England, that wasn’t exactly a time of innocence.

JL: Well sure. You had the punk movement.

Dak: Yeah, and a lot of that was about a reaction to the hippies who were running the music business. The next generation was living in broken-down, postwar council estates and facing the rest of their lives unemployed and living on the dole.

JL: And under Thatcher. I’m reminded of this Italian film The Great Beauty—La Grande Bellezza—and this line, “Nostalgia is the last refuge of a people without a vision of the future.” That’s the negative connotation of nostalgia.

Dak: Of course, in Britain, nostalgia is all about “This was their finest hour.” Refighting the Second World War.

JL: Well, in America, this innocent and wonderful moment I’m talking about closed in 1981 with the big money on Wall Street, crack, AIDS, Reagan, Iran-Contra. But that Star Wars moment in the late-70s was a complete 180 from what in Hollywood went before. Star Wars was not another Taxi Driver or The Conversation.

Dak: See, that’s the kind of film art I was into when I was working on Empire, I’m somewhat ashamed to say. The film script, The Operator, I was peddling at the time was exactly that: a Taxi Driver set in a Soho strip club. And it was getting optioned right when I was filming Empire. So, I really didn’t get it, the significance of Star Wars at the time. Of course, I get it now. Like I said on one of the Celebration podcasts, George gave us something that inspires lives. Coppola and Scorsese’s work in the 70s was great film art, to be sure, but did it inspire people to go out and be creative, go out do good, change the world for the better? I think not.

JL: I should also say for those of us who were into sci-fi in the sixties, it was a validation for the geek crowd.

Dak: Wow, Jim. Were you into science fiction when you were a musician?

JL: Yeah, I was into all of it. Comics, too, from an early age.

Dak: I knew a few hippies were into Star Trek, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land. I can’t say I was, though.

JL: There were many others.

Dak: Like who?

JL: Alfred Bester, Hal Clement, Fred Pohl, Doc Smith, Clifford Simak …

Dak: Did your musician friends share this sci-fi interest?

JL: Very few.

Dak: That’s fascinating. I get it. So this meant George tapped into you guys in their 30s as well as tapping into the kids.

JL: Yeah.

Dak: Wow. So you seventies geeks were primed and ready.

JL: We were. I have to tell a story that Alan Dean Foster shared with me at Anaheim. He was contracted to write the novelization of the first Star Wars, three months before the film was released. Evidently, he immersed himself in the film as it was finishing. He went around and witnessed the prop makers and special effects guys working and such. So the company invited him to attend the film premiere at Grauman’s. He told me when the star destroyer first appeared on the screen, all the people in the audience were so excited, they got on their feet applauding. And this went on throughout the rest of the film.

Dak: Hm. The Force awakens.

JL: The Force awakens indeed.

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John 'Dak' Morton
John portrayed Dak Ralter, Luke Skywalker’s Gunner during the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. When Jeremy Bulloch played an Imperial Officer, he needed someone to cover him as Fett. Morton being similar in height was a body double for two days in costume. He filmed with another unit, the sequence when Fett confronts Darth Vader in the Bespin hallway during Han Solo’s torture – while Bulloch filmed his scenes as the Imperial Officer. Afterwards he left Hollywood and eventually settled in public relations work back in Annapolis.