A long time ago (let’s say in 2004), in a small town far, far away (Wadsworth, Ill.), Patrick Read Johnson commenced production on his autobiographical coming-of-age drama, 5-25-77. That title refers to the exact date that George Lucas’s blockbuster space opera Star Wars arrived in theaters.
The 53-year-old Johnson was one of those fledgling filmmakers for whom the first Star Wars was a formative cinematic experience, eventually setting him on a path that led from the small town of Wadsworth to a career as a writer-director in Hollywood. (His directorial credits include the 1990 sci-fi comedy Spaced Invaders as well as 1994’s Baby’s Day Out, and he also co-wrote the story for 1996’s DragonHeart.) That personal journey is reenacted by his onscreen counterpart, movie-mad amateur filmmaker Pat, played by Freaks and Geeks star John Francis Daley, who was 19 when the film started shooting. “My intention was to make the movie look and feel like it was really shot in the ‘70s,” Johnson tells Yahoo Movies. “We painstakingly tried to re-create that period in every frame.”
5-25-77 revolves around the adventures of young Pat (Daly), who has turned his house into a mini-film studio where he makes homegrown versions of seminal features like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jaws. During a trip to Los Angeles in the spring of 1977, he’s treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the garage where the fledgling special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic is rushing to finish a little movie called Star Wars before its May release. Enamored with what he sees, the young man later has his mind completely blown when he watches the completed film at the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, Ill., on May 25 (that theater, by the way, is the same place where Johnson saw Star Wars 38 years ago at a matinee showing; he’d wind up seeing the film 34 times that summer.)
So why haven’t we seen this loving Star Wars homage yet? That’s because the production of 5-25-77 has lasted over a decade. Johnson first called “action” in the summer of 2004, but ran out of funds with only 75 percent of the film complete. Since then, he’s been filming additional material whenever he’s had the time and the cash — he estimates there have been 50 shooting days over 10 years. He’s also screened incomplete “work in progress” cuts at various festivals, like the 2007 Star Wars Celebration and the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Despite Johnson’s hard work, for a while it seemed general audiences were never going to get a chance to experience what one early review described as “a fanboy version of Almost Famous.”
That is, until now: 5-25-77 is finally ready for its close-up. “The movie is done,” Johnson reveals exclusively to Yahoo Movies from his current home in North Carolina. All that remains, he says, is to get his final cut cleaned up for exhibition. He also has a distributor in place (though he won’t reveal which company it is yet) that plans to release the film in theaters and VOD in the near future.
“I can tell you that the film will come out in theaters on a significant date,” he teases, adding that the release date won’t conflict with the next official chapter in the Star Wars saga, J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens, which hits theaters on Dec. 18. “We don’t want to be opportunistic, just celebratory,” Johnson insists. “We don’t want to take the eyes off the big prize [which is Episode VII.]” He does encourage eagle-eyed Star Wars fans to be on the lookout for some “unconventional advertising” leading up to 5-25-77’s release. “A few months out, you’ll start to see some things appearing around the country, and if you’ve seen the movies these things are referencing — like 2001 and Jaws — you’ll know it’s advertising before anyone else does.”
Last month, Johnson returned to his home state to do some pickup shots of such personal landmarks as his childhood home and the Genesee, which has since been converted into a general performance venue. “When we originally shot the film in 2004, we were so under the gun that we grabbed one exterior shot of my house and that had to suffice,” Johnson says. “I really wanted some other angles, not just for variety, but also storytelling purposes.”
During that initial round of shooting, he was also unable to secure access to the Genesee, so he filmed those sequences against a greenscreen, hoping to drop in footage of the actual theater later. This time, he was able to bring his camera inside, finally completing another crucial piece of the 5-25-77 puzzle. (Primarily due to his advancing age, Daley’s last on-camera involvement with the movie was a 2006 follow-up shoot, though Johnson says that he’s recorded additional dialogue and narration since then.)
Johnson has been aided and encouraged throughout his journey by a number of Star Wars veterans, including The Force Awakens producer Kathleen Kennedy (he credits Kennedy and Steven Spielberg with jump-starting his career after the two saw Spaced Invaders) and A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz (who’s a producer on 5-25-77). In addition, Industrial Light & Magic exec John Knoll personally screened clips from Johnson’s movie for George Lucas to get his approval for the Star Wars-related material. “They gave us their blessing to show what we’re showing,” Johnson says. “None of the miniatures are the original shooting models, but several are built to the exact scale. And our Imperial Star Destroyer model is an exact duplicate of the original.”
Initially, Johnson used the visual effects program After Effects to re-create the making of those Star Wars battles, but over the many years he’s been working on 5-25-77, he’s included more and more model work. “Audiences always told me, ‘Don’t improve the effects! These are what this guy could have done in his garage.’ The answer wasn’t to improve the effects — it was to make them worse. So now it’s models on wires with firecrackers stuck in them.”
Along with completing the film, Johnson’s other roadblock during the past decade has been finding the right distribution deal. For a time, 5-25-77 was set up at the William Morris Agency. But the director says that within the company, there were “differing opinions about what the movie needed to be,” a conflict that became even more pronounced after the very public dispute over another Star Wars-related film, 2009’s Fanboys. Written by Ernest Cline (author of the blockbuster nerd novel Ready Player One, which is currently being turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg), Fanboys was the victim of numerous re-shoots and re-edits, resulting in two different versions of the movie. When it was finally dumped into theaters in early 2009, the film quickly disappeared. “I had read Ernie’s original script and just loved it,” says Johnson. “But the film went through a metamorphosis and became a parody — Kentucky Fried Fanboys. When it came out and did not perform, it confirmed in the eyes of [distributors] that Star Wars was over.”
Watch a trailer for the movie:
Of course, predictions of Star Wars’ death proved to be greatly exaggerated. Powered by the expertly orchestrated The Force Awakens marketing campaign, the franchise’s Force has arguably never been stronger. And Johnson — who reacquired 5-25-77 after William Morris merged with Endeavor in 2009 — now seems in the ideal position to benefit. He says that prior to signing with his current distributor, he had been approached by other companies eager to exploit the connection. “They told me, ‘We’ll release it on the same day as Episode VII, as counter-programming!’ Not only is that wrong and stupid — it’s heretical.”
That desire to safeguard the Star Wars legacy — not to mention protect his own film — has guided him throughout the long, difficult process of making 5-25-77. “I’ve made a few movies since Spaced Invaders, but this is my first film,” he says. “It’s my American Graffiti. I’ve taken a long time doing it, but not for any other reason than wanting it to be wonderful.”