I first came across JW Rinzler a few months ago when I read The Star Wars and was fascinated and quite impressed by his career. He has dabbled in a bit of everything, from writing, painting, even directing is own short film. Rinzler was kind enough to talk to me about his career including working for George Lucas on Star Wars set as well as his newest book and project All Up (which you can pick up at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon). Enough of me jabbering, take it away JW!!
Tell us a little about yourself and your background? (where are you from, where you grew up, when did you start writing ect.)
I’m from NYC and Berkeley, CA, bout half/half. I didn’t start writing books till I was living in Paris, France, during the 1990s; I wanted to write a book on Spielberg, but I didn’t get very far. Later, I was able to fulfill that dream in writing the Making of Indy book.
It seems you have mostly built your career on more or less showing the behind the scenes of some extremely popular pop-culture films. How did you think of this?
I worked for Lucasfilm for 15 years as the nonfiction editor, so this was a natural out-growth of my job. I spent three years shadowing George Lucas while he made Revenge of the Sith. Then I pitching the idea of writing a giant making of Star Wars book and because he liked my first book he said yes.
I am a huge fan of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I would argue that possibly the second biggest franchise in history is Indiana Jones, again why did you write a book about the making of these movies as well? And which is your favorite? I think The Last Crusade is not only a great Indian Jones film, but I would argue a great film in general. There are so many cool aspects to the story, probably Lucas’ best film.
I think my favorite is Last Crusade; I would agree with you; the father-son relationship works really well and it’s a very witty script with great set pieces and the whole cast and crew just seemed to be having a lot of fun together. They were well oiled team, the UK crew, after six films together.
From your behind the scenes books and research on both films what was the most interesting thing you learned about each franchise?
The most interesting thing I learned about Star Wars was how it almost never happened. The studio was against it and George Lucas had to finance much of preproduction from his own pocket, which would not have been possible if American Graffiti hadn’t been such a huge hit. For Indy I think I was amazed by the brainstorming story conference and how George seemed to be on fire, coming up with one great idea after the next. Of course Spielberg and Kasdan were contributing, too. But just reading about the franchise coming to life right there on the page was a pretty exciting.
As I said I am a huge fan of Star Wars and one of the coolest things I have seen is the graphic novel you created based on the original screen play by Lucas called The Star Wars. Can you talk a little about how this came about?
The graphic novel took years to get off the ground. I wrote about it in the intro to The Star Wars; I had to sell George Lucas on the idea which Dark Horse and I finally did by doing a wordless comic book, a few pages of one, to show him what it would be like. Then I gave him my whole adaptation and he accepted it and then we are on our way. I really just wanted to show that story in illustrated form because it was so different from the final film. It had flaws obviously, that’s why he re-wrote it, but also was extremely interesting as a rough draft blue-sky approach.
After reading The Star Wars I cannot get over how much the story changed from the original script to the final six films that we all know and love. Working on your behind the scenes books I was hoping you could shed some light on this question. Is this typical of movies to undergo extensive rewrites and changes as well as massive character changes as drastic as Star Wars?
I haven’t done an exhaustive study so I can’t really say. I’d venture that most original films go through a lot of rewrites. Certainly even a film like The Shining went through tremendous changes even though it was based on a book. But there’s no one way of doing it. Clint Eastwood makes movies based on scripts which he believes work and does relatively little rewriting most of the time, but even he had overseen major rewrites. Also editing a film is another rewrite…
One thing I have always wondered is how many films Lucas originally wanted to make? I have heard that six but I have also heard nine. Do you know the real number and what could have been in those last three if they were supposed to me made?
George originally was going to do 12 but they were only numbers in his mind. Seriously I think he probably wanted to do nine and that’s how many there will ultimately be for the Skywalker story. But he had all sorts of ideas which were like a kaleidoscope in his mind and they were constantly changing. I wrote about some of this in the Making of SW Trilogy books.
I would love to talk about ALL UP. It’s very simply about the most exciting adventure in modern history: our species’ first small steps in space, ramped up by a bunch of amazingly interesting people: German, American, and Russian, who were considered to be crackpots at first but, in a way, thanks to World War II, the rocket became a viable instrument of warfare and therefore something that all the superpowers had to take very seriously. So the period from the 1930s to the 1960s becomes amazingly interesting. Because I wanted to get into the heads of the historical participants—Wernher von Braun, Jack Parsons, Sergei Korolev, Eisenhower, Hitler, Truman, JFK, Churchill, Stalin, I thought to tell the story fictionally was the best way to approach it. Also because some of the information is hard to confirm 100%, but in a novel you have more license. There’s info that most documentaries or nonfiction books are not going to touch, for instance Freemasonry and the extent to which Parsons was an occultist and involved in sex magic. The extent to which von Braun was or was not a Nazi and a member of the SS. Operation Paperclip, the CIA’s recruitment of former Nazis etc. etc. Also the Russian side of the story is usually glossed over but without Korolev, Sputnik and Gagarin, there would be no US space program to speak of, possibly.
All Up is quite a bit different from your other books and works as it is more history focused, what drove you to write this book? Are you a history buff or did you just find the topic interesting?
In a way I think it’s pretty similar to what I’ve been doing. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the Space Age. In both nonfiction and fiction and in this case historical fiction, you’re telling a story which involves pacing, dialogue, atmosphere, the same ingredients are present in both nonfiction and fiction. Of course with fiction you get more into character and other details. But if people didn’t feel something for George Lucas and his collaborators, they wouldn’t necessarily have enjoyed reading the making-of books either. But yes I did find the topic extremely interesting and in doing the research I learned a ton about it. I had been pretty ignorant before I tackled this project. So that’s the advantage of doing a book that has real historical foundations as you get to become a semi-expert.
I have often thought about this, that if the Nazis had the resources I think they could have undoubtedly won the war, invented the atomic bomb, and put a man in orbit and on the moon. From my own research, to some extent, I think the Allies, US in particular, just out produced Nazi Germany in terms of weapons and men. In terms of aerospace, Operation Paperclip was massive for the US. What are your thoughts on Nazi engineering and Operation Paperclip?
Well that’s a complicated topic and I’m not an official historian. I do think the Soviet Union also had a lot to do with the collapse of Nazi Germany. Also the Germans almost wanted to self-destruct, which is harder to prove, but seems to be psychologically true. But certainly during the war Hitler for a while put a lot into the development of rockets. Then he stopped; then he started again. If they had gone full on from the beginning it’s possible that they could have come up with a more long-range rocket that would’ve hit America, but they had problems with manufacturing which meant it was not going to rival 250 bombers dropping a drop tons of bombs from each bomber. The V-2 could never do something like the bombing of Dresden. As for the atomic bomb I really couldn’t say. Operation Paperclip is clearly very controversial, but in doing the research I understand America’s point of view: there was simply no way they could let these guys go over to Russia, which is where they would’ve probably ended up. The alternative was just throwing them in the prison, which would’ve been an incredible waste of talent and genius. Post World War as it turned out there were enormous benefits for peace for peaceful space travel, which is something that we’re now getting back into and God-willing we’ll soon have a manned mission to Mars. As a species we have to go to other planets; it’s the natural thing to do.
Can you talk about Tron: Legacy and the character Rinzler in the movie?
That really didn’t have much to do with me. Apparently the writers of Tron: Legacy were trying to think up a name for the sort of villain and they had my Making of Star Wars book on the table so they thought they’d name him after me. I guess he’s kind of a heroic villain, but I’m not sure what to make of it [insert laughter.]
I see on your site you also have 18 Underrated films link, can you talk about this? Are you a part time movie critic?
I’m not a movie critic per se but I am critical when I watch movies, so if I see one that I think is undervalued, which most people haven’t seen or know about, I just feel like I should let people know. I get very enthusiastic about movies that I love and I just want to share my enthusiasm. On the other hand sometimes I think I’d like to post blogs about giant plot flaws in not so good movies, but it’s more fun to be positive.
I also see that you have paintings on your site, do you paint? If so can you talk about how you got into painting and why?
I used to paint when I was in my 20s; I started when I was probably 18 and painted fairly diligently for about 10 years; I had a few shows in New York, Berkeley, and Paris but I could never make a living and I really wasn’t trained the way I should be. I was OK at expressing myself but not very good when it came to technique. Maybe in my retirement, if I ever do retire, I’ll learn some basics and go back to painting. But I find writing to be very gratifying because you can tell the whole story. Course there’s a whole story in a painting, but you know, it’s different.
You have also produced an animated short called Riddle of the Black Cat. Can you talk about this and why you wanted to venture down this road?
I just like storytelling and trying to get to what is under the surface of things. Even when it comes to writing objectively about Star Wars and Indiana Jones I feel that a lot of books missed lot of salient details. Same with books about the first Space Age. And I felt that if you read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat short story, that interpreters often miss the point. The whole idea is that the villain, the psychotic, is not really psychotic; he’s a more or less cold-blooded murderer who uses cats as excuses and witches, to try and get off on an insanity plea. The reader is supposed to be the detective. I thought I could convey all this through an animated short. And I also just wanted to direct some animation; I thought that would be really fun and it was fortunately Greg Knight did a fantastic job doing all the illustrations himself. And then Chris Vibbert did a fantastic Sound design and score. Working closely with them and with the editor Dave Sidley was just a lot of fun and I wish I could do more of it. I have an idea so if some producer out there wants to contact me and raise money–let’s go! Maybe I’ll do a Kickstarter in a year or so.
Below you can see Rinzler’s animated short Riddle of the Black Cat.
Who is your biggest influence?
When it comes to writing I think my favorite writer is Herman Melville, although I could never approach his level of prose; but I love lots of folks. Shakespeare; Lord Byron; Raymond Chandler; Will Eisner. When it comes to music I’ve got to go with in the baroque, Bach and more contemporary with The Beatles but I’m really getting into jazz now. There are so many people and so many great publications like Mad magazine and Heavy Metal. But when I was doing painting I absolutely loved Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and Botticelli and Fra Angelico and Delacroix—I feel that on Earth we’re really blessed with a whole slew of fantastic artists whose work is still around!
What book that you have written are you most proud of and why?
At this point, I’d have to say ALL UP. It’s been a passion project now for more than a four years and I’m excited that people are finally going to be able to read it. I sincerely hope they enjoy it.
Is there anything else you would like to add? (Please include any social media links so readers know where to find and follow you.)
Nope, but thanks for the questions. People can find me on jwrinzler.com or on Facebook, or on Twitter, @jwrinzler. I’m on Goodreads, too. It’s a bold and new world for writers who are self-publishing! People can preorder ALL UP at a low price until May 25, by the way.