How George Lucas's love for a trippy Canadian art film found its way into the DNA of Star Wars - all the way to stormtrooper FN-2187
Finding character names to live up to Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Jabba the Hutt is a tall order. For The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has been pulling inspiration from all sorts of nooks and crannies. Oscar Isaac’s dashing pilot Poe Dameron is a hybrid of Abrams’s daughter’s toy Polar bear Poe and his assistant Morgan Dameron. Gwendoline Christie’s baddie Captain Phasma is a riff on Phantasm, the 1979 horror film that is a favourite of Abrams. And BB-8, the cute football-like droid, was chosen simply because he resembles a number 8.
But it has taken until the unveiling of the film to understand the backstory of John Boyega’s Finn. Finn, it transpires, is a rechristening of his stormtrooper designation FN-2187. It’s a moment for die-hard Star Wars fans to knowingly nod and smile. 2187, as any hardcore geek can tell you, is a reference to the cell number that holds Princess Leia captive in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Yet the origin of the number goes back to George Lucas’s days at the University of Southern California (USC) Cinema School. Coming from Modesto, a one cinema town in California, Lucas was exposed to a whole world at USC. In a class called Filmic Expression – a course that focussed on films that dealt with light, colour and movement at the expense of story – he discovered the work of the National Film Board of Canada, a government agency that had sponsored animated shorts, documentaries and experimental films since the Forties.
The NFB film that made the most profound impact on the young Lucas during USC was 21-87 (1964), an abstract short by Arthur Lipsett. Lipsett’s MO was to collect the scraps other filmmakers threw away and then juxtapose them with seemingly non-related sounds to create a weird collage effect.
His 1962 film Very Nice, Very Nice was nominated for a Best Short Subject Oscar that year and caught the eye of Stanley Kubrick, at the height of his hipness, who invited Lipsett to create the trailer for Dr Strangelove. Lipsett declined.
For 21-87, Lipsett combines discarded shots of news footage, an autopsy, teens dancing (coupled with rhythmic, almost orgasmic breathing), trapeze artists and runway models with his own footage of blank faces on the streets of Montreal and New York. When you understand that Lucas loves films that show no interest in coherent storytelling, character development and believable dialogue, the Star Wars prequels become a lot easier to understand.
Watching the film on a loop, fuelled by Coca-Cola and candy bars (Lucas might have been the only student in the Sixties not to do drugs), the nascent director became obsessed. “I said, ‘That’s the kind of movie I wanted to make’ — a very off the wall, abstract kind of film,” Lucas told biographer Dale Pollock. “It was really where I was at, and I think it was one of the reasons I started calling most of my college movies by numbers. I saw that film twenty or thirty times.”
Subsequently, the titles in Lucas’s early filmography of shorts look like a Countdown numbers game: 1:42:08 (1966), THX 1138: 4EB (Electronic Labyrinth) (1976) 6-18-67 (1967). But Lucas began to pay homage to 21-87 in deeper ways. For starters, his student films such as Look at Life, a one-minute film that mashed up images from Life magazine, borrowed Lipsett’s approach wholesale.
His first feature film THX-1138 allies Lipsett’s freeform image-sound techniques to an actual story. Robert Duvall plays a character on the run from a futuristic city when he learns his lover was murdered by the faceless authorities on – you guessed it – “21/87”.
Yet the perhaps the biggest impact 21-87 made was on Star Wars’ notion of the Force. At one point during 21-87, Lipsett samples a conversation between Warren S McCullough, an artificial intelligence pioneer and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer who was a co-founder of IMAX.
In response to McCullough’s assertion that human beings are merely complex machines, Kroitor says, "Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God." Lucas has subsequently confirmed that the Force “was an echo of the phrase on 21-87”. The crux of the biggest films on the planet started life in an artsy Canadian short.
Plagued by psychological problems his whole life, Lipsett committed suicide in 1986, aged 50. Lucas never met his hero but must be quietly delighted that 21-87 carries on in The Force Awakens. Keep a lookout in Episode VIII.