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Battle Beyond the Stars

Battle Beyond the Stars

When Star Wars became the smash hit of 1977 by turning B-movie adventure into big-budget spectacle, drive-in mogul Roger Corman saw the writing across the stars. The producer and former director had made his share of drive-in science fiction and space adventures, but they had all been cobbled out of spare parts and imaginative art direction, with simple miniatures and animation providing the space ships. Now Hollywood was moving in on his brand of genre filmmaking and action fantasies with budgets he couldn’t match and he needed to raise his game to meet them.

Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s answer to the new Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. The script is from John Sayles, whose screenwriting apprenticeship came from such Corman productions as Piranha and The Lady in Red, with a story credit shared with Anne Dyer, but the concept was from Corman himself: “The Seven Samurai in Space,” with a few hints of Star Wars tossed in around the edges. Richard Thomas, fresh off six seasons of the folksy family TV drama The Waltons, plays the film’s innocent, idealistic hero Shad. He’s Luke Skywalker by way of John-Boy, a farmboy on a peaceful agrarian planet that looks like a counter-culture commune in ancient Greek garb. When the vicious warlord Sador (John Saxon) brings soldiers and his answer to the Death Star to their planet and gives them seven days to surrender, Shad sets out in a talking space ship (in the tradition of referring to vessels in the feminine, this one quite literally has a voluptuous pair of breasts protruding from the bow) to hire a fighting force of mercenaries to defend themselves from the invasion.

After a detour at a nearly abandoned space hub, where he manages to recruit the only single girl (Darlanne Fluegel) his age in the region, he starts putting together his team: a drawling smuggler who goes by the handle Space Cowboy (George Peppard, offering the film’s answer to Han Solo), a lizard-like slaver with a grudge against Sador, a hive being of multiple clones in search of new sensations and experiences, a pair of heat-producing beings known as The Kelvin, a buxom Valkyrie warrior (Sybil Danning in a costume that barely covers her) in a mosquito of a fighting ship seeking battle glory, and in the film’s inspired casting coup, Robert Vaughn as a jaded bounty hunter who joins their fight in exchange for “a meal and a place to hide.” It’s the same role he played in The Magnificent Seven, the original western remake of The Seven Samurai. Corman also casts a pair of respected Hollywood greats in small roles: Oscar nominated actor Sam Jaffe as a mad scientist who has wired himself directly into his space station and legendary acting teacher and character actor Jeff Corey as the blind tribal elder.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 1]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

When it comes to new hope for the American cinema, filmcrit types are always in the market. New hope in 1980 took the form of a low-budget festival film with the misunderstandable title Return of the Secaucus 7. It wasn’t a documentary, wasn’t a tribute to sullen or snarling radicals, wasn’t even a where-were-you-in-’72 American Graffitistyle slice of overpacked nostalgia. What it was was this genial, witty, low-key comedy, with just the right touch of rue, about a group of friends getting together for an informal reunion one summer weekend, and trying to get used to the idea of turning 30—and just a wee bit comfortably bourgeois. The screenplay was a beauty, ostensibly laidback and wide-open, yet carefully detailed without letting the pointedness show; the characters expertly drawn, no fuss, and so cleanly individualized (among other things, everyone’s dialogue has a logic and texture all its own) that for the audience and for one another they step right out of any assigned boxes, free to explore a wide range of possibilities. The result was a droll ensemble portrait shot through with the cozy vitality the Sixties used to call natural, without any of the boring unintelligence that so often went along with it.

The Return of the Secaucus 7
“The Return of the Secaucus 7” (that’s John Sayles second from left, hiding behind his cast)

The film marked the directorial debut of John Sayles, himself age 30 and one of the most solidly talented writers of contemporary American fiction. About the time Secaucus 7 went into national release, Sayles accepted an invitation to meet with a scriptwriting class at the University of Washington and share some of his experiences. Virtually all the Hollywood personnel who graciously and generously gave of their time to support this course delivered themselves of frank and cogent remarks about the realities of the film biz at the dawn of the Eighties; but even in this company Sayles was conspicuous for the comprehensiveness and lucidity of his commentary. He talked for better than two hours, first supplying a general commentary on his background in film and the circumstances of Secaucus 7‘s making, then opening the floor for questions. Having never heard so much good sense about films and filmmaking collected in one place before, movietone news requested permission to share it with a larger public; the unassuming writer-director seemed surprised that anyone would think so highly of his off-the-cuff remarks, but he agreed. “We’ll send you a transcript so you can check it out.” He thought about that a moment, then said, “No. If I said it, I’ll stand by it. Just go ahead.” And that, with very little editing and rearranging, is what we did.

I’d always been interested in doing screenwriting, realized that there weren’t too many ways into it. I didn’t want to go out to Los Angeles and start knocking on people’s doors trying to get an agent, so I went a route that isn’t much help to most people, which is that I wrote two novels and got them published. I got a literary agent out of that, and his agency had a deal with a film agency on the West Coat, so they were automatically representing my novels as screen properties. I wrote a query letter to them saying, “I also write screenplays”—which I hadn’t done at that time—”do you want to see one?” They said, “Sure, send one,” so I wrote one and sent it off to them, and they said, “Sure, we’ll represent you.” So I moved out to the West Coast.

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