Originally Posted: May 25, 2009, for STARLOG Magazine —
In life, there are many stories that need to be told.
Sometimes the path taken in telling said story is a long one, filled with detours – twisting and turning all while becoming a story in itself.
One such tale that has spawned many stories of its own is that of a film that was once called 5-25-77.
For those familiar with it, the film is a fabled tale that seems to appear on the pop-culture radar and disappear as quickly as the Millenium Falcon floating away unnoticed amid a sea of space junk.
For those that aren’t familiar, the short overview is that ’77 is the autobiographical tale of Patrick Read Johnson, a filmmaker from Illinois who may hold the unique title of being the “World’s 1st STAR WARS fan.”
As a teenager, the film-obsessed resident of Wadsworth, Illinois found himself sent on a journey to Hollywood, taken under the wing of Herb Lightman – the editor of American Cinematographer Magazine. The duo found themselves on the sets of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and a little movie that would come to be known as STAR WARS.
Upon returning to Illinois, Johnson spread the SW Gospel all while trying to plot his own future as a filmmaker.
Johnson condensed the events of his high school years and the trip to the west into one year for ‘77, a coming-of-age film that ties in with the date 5-25-77 – which STAR WARS fans will recognize as the day the film made its theatrical debut.
The road to telling this story? A story in itself.
Back in the early ’90s, I too was a resident of a small town in Illinois – Monee, then-population 1000. We lived a good 5 miles from the nearest proper “town”, and I would satisfy my own film obsessions by picking up copies of STARLOG, COMICS SCENE, and FANGORIA at the local grocery store. During the summer months, I would take a half-mile walk with my sister down a gravel road (it’s since been paved – urban sprawl) to a Speedway Gas Station, which happened to rent movies on VHS.
It was there that I discovered SPACED INVADERS, a sci-fi comedy about aliens stranded in a small American town. We didn’t have cable or satellite at the time, so VHS was my window into distant worlds, and SPACED INVADERS was a film that I rented several times. There was something familiar about it that always entertained.
The director? Patrick Read Johnson.
Almost a decade later, my wife and I found ourselves living in Lake County, IL. We’d moved from 50 miles south of Chicago to the polar opposite, 50 miles to the north. As I started to make the move from corporate life into the creative realm of professional filmmaking myself, I started working with a small group of filmmakers, where I first heard rumblings of “a local guy” that was “making a movie about STAR WARS.” A huge STAR WARS geek myself, I was intrigued. I searched the web for info and found that Harry Knowles over at Aint’t It Cool News was championing this project. In the works since 1999 under the title “1977”, “5-25-77” was rumored to be shooting soon – and shooting locally. Then silence.
I’d almost forgotten about the film when I got a call in July of 2002 asking me if I wanted to come down to Waukegan to work as an Assistant Cameraman on a test shoot for a film. What was it? 5-25-77.
I dropped everything and made my way down to the Genesee Theatre for the shoot, and that’s where I met Patrick Read Johnson for the very first time. He was shooting an investment trailer, and I spent much of the night on the ground shooting classic cars and kids in ’70s clothing under a marquee that read STAR WARS.
Another two years had passed, and I found myself working on the set of ROLL BOUNCE, a ’70s roller-skating comedy with Lil Bow Wow that was shooting in Lynwood, Illinois. On that set, I’d become friends with an actor named Justin Mantell, who was also making the 80+ mile trek to set every day from Waukegan. It was on that set that I received a call asking if I’d like to help with an open casting call in Libertyville, IL. The project? 5-25-77.
Along with PRJ and a few of the usual locals, we set up shop in a local restaurant and started accepting headshots and resumes. Those that fit the bill were sent upstairs for an on-camera read.
Produced by Gary Kurtz (STAR WARS, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), and Fred Roos (LOST IN TRANSLATION, THE GODFATHER PART II), 5-25-77 was actually filming within 30 days.
Populated by a cast of unknowns, mixed in along familiar faces including Colleen Camp (CLUE), SCRUBS “Janitor” and Chicago staple Neil Flynn, and FREAKS AND GEEKS star John Francis Daley as a young Patrick Read Johnson, Lake County, Illinois was going back in time. And Justin Mentell? He would find himself cast as the villainous “Tony”.
While I never had any kind of “official” role in the production, I’d often find myself on the set, either at the invitation of Patrick or as one of many (very many) go-to guys to help out in a jam. At one point, my phone rang while watching TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE at the Marcus Cinemas in Gurnee, IL. It was a Saturday night in mid-October 2004, and 5-25-77 needed Super 8mm film for a little “movie-within-the-movie” type of thing. They’d run out and needed it for Sunday. Yep, I had a stockpile of Super 8mm film, and hours later was delivering the film stock to PRJ at the local Max & Ermas.
Eventually, I popped up on set for a few days in a cameo as a high school student. I still had the ’70s “cheese” going on from the ROLL BOUNCE shoot, so I guess it worked. I have no idea if I’ve actually appeared in any of the film’s previous incarnations.
After the first round of principal photography was completed, much of the film was yet to be shot.
John Francis Daley found himself a regular on the short-lived FOX series KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, and Justin Mentell wound up moving to L.A., where he’d landed a recurring role on BOSTON LEGAL. There was silence in the 5-25 world again, until 2006 when the cast and crew assembled in Waukegan once more for shooting in a former Child World Toy Store (kids of the ’80s should remember), converted into a soundstage for 5-25 use. Filming also took place at Waukegan’s Genesee Theater, and many of the film’s important sequences including those with Herb Lightman (played by Austin Pendleton, pictured left), Future General, Douglas Trumbull (played by Michael Pawlak), Steven Spielberg (played by Kevin J. Stephens), and ILM were finally shot.
In the three years since, I’d lost touch with the world of 5-25-77, sans a few stories from crew members I’d run into; a few news blips that would show up online; and the occasional run-in with PRJ at the grocery store.
In fact, the last time I’d seen Patrick was memorial day weekend of 2008, almost “5/25/08”… until this past weekend. I was in the car with my wife, pulling into the parking lot of a local Panera Bread when we were talking about “5-25” and how I wanted to post something on STARLOG about it on 5/25/09.
She ran into the store to grab a salad, and I sat in the car. By some fluke, magic, or mystery – I turned to my right and noticed two spots away, a very familiar orange Pinto.
I quickly went inside and found PRJ sitting at a table, his MacBook open, working as always. The planets had aligned to get the real scoop on the newly retitled ‘77 and when audiences may finally be able to see it.
PATRICK READ JOHNSON: The STAR WARS Celebration screening (in 2007) was of an early rough cut. The first screening of something nearing a completed cut was the version we were asked to compete with at The Hamptons International Film Festival, in October of 2008.
STARLOG: I heard that WMA was repping the film for distro?
PRJ: Yes. Cassian Elwes, at William Morris Independent, picked the film up for representation not long after we screened at Celebration IV. He then put us together with Phil Alberstat at the Beverly Bridge Fund, who’ve since provided post-production financing to complete the film.
STARLOG: What’s the current status of ‘77?
PRJ: Though we had two fantastic screenings at the Hamptons Film Festival and won an award (The Heineken Red Star) and got a lot of nice press, Cassian and Phil and I all felt we needed to do some more work in the cutting room, which in turn required us to heavily revise our VFX shot list, choose some different songs from the era for certain sequences AND rework portions of the score by David Russo and Alan Parsons. Meanwhile, various members of the team were being picked off by other jobs, the big financial meltdown was occurring, and investment dollars were suddenly very hard to come by… So we basically shut down at the end of the year to wait out the turmoil. By the time things started to calm down, my VFX team was off doing other work, my composers were on to other jobs, and I’d taken an offer to direct another film. But, thankfully, I’ll be done with that project right about the time we plan on restarting post on 77, in order to have it ready for the American Film Market in November.
STARLOG: What’s the release plan, if any?
PRJ: There won’t be any release plan until we make our final domestic deal in November. I know it frustrates a lot of outside observers that we can’t give them a hard release date, but the truth is, it’s really a very freeing thing to be able to make your film, the way you really want it made, without having to live in fear of an impending date you absolutely have to hit. If we’d made this film through a studio and completed it in, you know 9 months or something… there are a number of wonderful things that might never have made it into the film. Though no one wants to see ’77 in theaters more than me, my fellow filmmakers and I are also keenly aware that making a GOOD independent film as ambitious as our for as little money as we’ve had to spend almost always results in a long gestation process. And frankly, on a film this important to me, I’m really very lucky to have had the luxury of all this time.
STARLOG: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the STARLOG readers, or those who have followed the production?
PRJ: I bought the very first issue of Starlog at a newsstand and every issue since. There are Starlog magazines sprinkled throughout the film as set dressing.
I’m just grateful for all the interest and support and I really look forward to finally sharing the finished film with audiences in theaters everywhere.
So there you have it – a long-overdue update about a film that audiences want to see.
An update appropriately posted on May 25, 2009 – the 32nd Anniversary of STAR WARS – and the 10th Anniversary of a tale that is yet to fully be told…