Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our sixty-second guest was the author of the multi-million selling novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back – Donald F. Glut.
Lightsabre – Donald, welcome to Lightsabre.
DFG – Thanks for inviting me.
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your career. Where did you begin as a writer and what led you to where you are today?
DFG – My earliest professional writing credits were articles I’d written for a monster-movie magazine called MODERN MONSTERS. That was way back in the Jurassic period of 1966. Before long I was editing that magazine. Before that I’d written articles for various fanzines, etc., including SHAZAM!, a fanzine I published and edited with my friend Dick Andersen. A long string of writing credits followed those early articles. In the succeeding years I wrote more of them, a number or non-fiction books about subjects that interested me (vampires, dinosaurs, nostalgia, etc.), novels, short stories, comic-book scripts, scripts for TV cartoon shows, motion picture scripts and even songs. But what I’ve always wanted to do – since I was nine years old and started making amateur movies in my home town of Chicago – was to direct movies. In 1995 I got the opportunity to direct my first professional movie, DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS, and I took it.
DFG – It was kind of cool when the Star Wars phenomenon was at its hottest, but also a bit of a downer. A lot of people rolled out the red carpet to me, so to speak, because Star Wars was considered by some to be something really important. People would try to impress me – kiss up — by telling me how many times they’d seen STAR WARS or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. They still do! But not being a fan of the franchise, I really didn’t and still don’t care how many times they saw those films. Remember, too, that I had nothing to do with the actual movies. My only involvement with Star Wars was writing the novelization of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, some of the comic-book stories published by Marvel Comics, and almost writing some of the newspaper comic strips for artist Russ Manning and also a Wookiee “character novel.” The latter actually got to the plotting stage (over pizza with co-author Gerry Conway), but never went further than that.
Lightsabre – The Empire novelisation sat atop the bestsellers list for two months and sold north of three million copies, but despite this yours is a name we hear little of in modern Star Wars fandom. Why is that?
DFG – Maybe fandom has moved on. Remember that EMPIRE (movie and book) is about a quarter of a century old. Or you might put the blame in part on the Lucas “empire.” Neither Lucas nor the company ever did anything to promote my name or me. I was never able to get any work from them following the publication of the novel, and for years they even misspelled my name on the royalty checks. When I phoned them in an attempt to get the writing gig for the RETURN OF THE JEDI novel the person I talked to didn’t even know who I was. Note also that in Lucas’ foreword to one of the later EMPIRE editions he never even once mentioned my name (even though we were “old friends” dating back to our USC days). When, a few years ago, I wrote to Lucas trying to get work – at a time when I was pretty desperate for money – I essentially got the proverbial “bum’s rush.” But I’d better stop here on this topic. I’m starting (once again) to sound like “sour grapes.”
Lightsabre – Your other works encompass a huge range of characters, from G.I. Joe to Vampirella, Batman to He-Man. Tell us a little about the broad scope of your writing?
DFG – Well, not much to explain, except that I’ve always loved horror, science fiction and fantasy, etc. Luckily most of the writing jobs I’ve managed to get have been in those areas. Also, once you get a reputation in certain areas, publishers, animation studios and so forth often come to you and offer work in those genres. As they say, one thing leads to another. When it comes to books, either fiction or not, I tend to pick topics that I’m particularly interested in, even though readers may not share those interests with the same passion.
Lightsabre – You were involved with Mattel when designing some of the characters for Masters of the Universe. Which characters did you have a hand in?
DFG – I didn’t really design any characters for MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. I was given Polaroid photos of some of characters and also their names. My job was to create origins and backgrounds for them, then use the characters in original stories that I wrote. Those were the little booklets that came out with the first wave of toys. However, I did create the character of Teela. I put her into one of those booklet stories to give He-Man (stupid name; I still hate it!) someone to play off of. Originally they didn’t want to use a female, afraid it would “turn off” little boys. But then, realizing they could use the same mold to make additional character figures that maybe girls would buy, they went with it. The name Teela, by the way, came from the “Gunga Ram” stories I’d seen as a kid on the old SMILIN’ ED’S GANG and ANDY’S GANG TV shows. It was the name of Gunga’s (an Indian “elephant boy”) elephant. Oddly, Joe Mazzuka (aka Nino Marcel), the actor who played Gunga, went on to be one of the producers of the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE TV cartoon show, which was produced by Filmation. Even stranger, I’d worked freelance at Filmation writing scripts for SHAZAM!, TARZAN and YOUNG SENTINELS and may have passed Mazzuka in the halls and not known recognized him. Unfortunately, he died just months before I found this out and I wonder if he ever thought about the possible significance of my Teela name. I named Castle Grayskull after then wife whose maiden name was Gray, because in the Polaroid photo of the castle it looked gray and not green. By the time the toys came out, I was going through a messy divorce; so seeing that castle in stores was a constant reminder of that.
Lightsabre – Novels and movies are two very different things, and with Empire cutting it so fine in making it to the screen by May 19th 1980 you must have had the book finished before Kershner finished his film.
DFG – I ran into Irv Kershner at a USC event a couple years ago and told him that, as far as I was concerned, there are two versions of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. When he gave me a puzzled expression, I replied that there was the movie version that he directed…but there was also the version I saw in my head as I was writing the novel, which was completed before I saw the movie. When I saw the movie for the first time and the first scene came down, I remember sinking down into my seat and saying, with much concern, “Its different!” The version in my mind was paced differently, the sets and characters “looked” different, and (I didn’t tell him this) I thought Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford gave better performances. That’s probably the same experience for anyone reading a “novelisation” before seeing the actual movie. Every reader has his or her own “other” version of the movie in their imaginations. Hmmmm That may be a topic to ponder and discuss someday. Which also brings up the question of why people read novelisations: If you read the book first, it can spoil the surprises in the movie. And if you read it after seeing the movie, you already know what’s going to happen in the book.
Lightsabre – You’ve written many various novels, comics, and scripts and directed 41 amateur movies, but to a worldwide audience you are probably best known for The Empire Strikes Back adaptation. Looking back a quarter of a century, how do you feel about the experience now?
DFG – It was probably one of the best career moves I ever made. The novel is still in print and, being part of such a huge and well-known franchise, it’s opened – and continues to open – many doors. People can relate to it. If I tell a publisher or producer that my credits include comic books like TRAGG AND THE SKY GODS or books like THE GREAT TELEVISION HEROES, it usually makes little or no impression. Most likely, they’ve never heard of those characters or titles. But if I mention things I’ve worked on that have become more or less “household words” (e.g., TARZAN, VAMPIRELLA, TRANSFORMERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, DINOTOPIA, or whatever), they can relate and it makes the impression I need to help me get the gig.
Lightsabre – The amateur films you made in the 1960’s, including Spy Smasher vs The Purple Monster were eventually shown on television. Was that an accolade you expected, or was your wide library of films always destined for a wide audience?
DFG – No, the intent for the most part was just to show those amateur movies to friends and family, usually in my own home. I think only SPY SMASHER VS. THE PURPLE MONSTER was shown on TV, although ROCKETMAN FLIES AGAIN turned up at a drive-in theatre, and CAPTAIN AMERICA BATTLES THE RED SKULL and BATMAN AND ROBIN were shown, with those other two movies, at colleges, in film festivals, and so forth. In the late 1960s those four titles – then referred to as “underground movies” – became available through the rental catalog of the Chicago Center Cinema Co-op. So, distribution of those titles was expected and desired. ROCKETMAN FLIES AGAIN was also made available for sale during the late 1970s or early ‘80s, in both 16mm and 8mm, through a California company called Glenn Photo Supply. Now all 41 films are available on the I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER DVD from my company Frontline Entertainment (see http://www.FrontlineFilms.com).
Lightsabre – Was there ever any opportunity to write further Star Wars adventures, and if given the chance today would you be interested?
DFG – Sure, I’d be interested, but only because of the money. But as I said, I’ve never been able to get any work – not even on that TV cartoon show about the droids, at a time when EMPIRE was still new. And believe me, I’ve tried!
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your other interests outside of your writing.
DFG – That’s an interview in itself! I’m interested in so many things, including stage magic, old-fashioned amusement parks, motorcycles, model railroads, “Holy relics,” and more. My greatest interest is probably in paleontology, specifically in dinosaurs. I’ve made a second career out of working with dinosaurs. I’ve written many books about dinosaurs, some of them fairly technical, and do volunteer work one day a week at the Dinosaur Institute of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Lightsabre – I was fascinated to see that you worked as a musician, singer and songwriter in The Penny Arkade, a rock band produced by former Monkee Michael Nesmith. That must have been an amazing time of your career?
DFG – One of the two or three greatest periods of my life. Can you imagine being part of the rock music/hippie scene in Hollywood, California during the late 1960s?! Going to a nightclub where the two “house bands” were the Doors and the Buffalo Springfield, hanging out at Michael’s house or in the recording studio with famous rock personalities, etc. It was a great time to be young and in Los Angeles.
Lightsabre – You also made a large amount of cameo roles in various movies. How do these come about, and why do you enjoy doing them?
DFG – I really don’t enjoy appearing in movies. For one thing, I get bored hanging around a set for hours with nothing to do, while I’d rather be directing the movie in which I’m doing the cameo. But when my director friends call me up and need someone to fill a space in a scene, I usually do it. As far as my own movies are concerned, I always do a “hand” cameo – close-up of a hand doing something or other. I think that was inspired by hearing that Italian director Dario Argento used his own hands for close-up inserts of killers wearing gloves. It started for me when, in DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS, the Allosaurus was supposed to yank the “bikini top” off one of the cavegirls and the actress insisted that the set be closed. I put on the rubber dinosaur arm and hand and started my own tradition.
DFG – Hopefully, to write and direct more movies made through Frontline Entertainment. I have scripts already written to take us through a couple years. Ideally I’d like to do nothing but make movies, although raising money to shoot them is always a major problem. All I need to start shooting the next one is the financing. (Any of you out there ever think of investing in a low-budget movie?) Probably I’ll also turn out more books about dinosaurs.
Lightsabre – A quick question about our site, Lightsabre. Any comments?
DFG – It looks quite good, if you’re a Star Wars fan.
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest on Lightsabre. Just one final question. Spider-Man, Chomper and Chewbacca are at the controls of a spacecraft hurtling towards Earth. The shields are out and the hull is beginning to break up. There’s only one ejector seat and parachute. Which one makes it to safety and how?
DFG – Nobody. Chomper eats Spider-Man and Chewbacca before anyone can eject and parachute…and Chomper, being a dinosaur, doesn’t possess hands capable of working the controls. Sorry to end on such a sad note. (Or is that merely a cliffhanger ending with a solution yet to be revealed?
This article was first published on www.lightsabre.co.uk on 11th February 2007.
- The Empire Strikes Back Notebook
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- Edition no. 1 (10/01/1980)
- Paperback: 127 pages