Celluloid Wars: The Making of Battle Beyond the Stars

It’s been almost four years since I last updated this blog, and let’s face it, film blogging is dead.

And not just because I’ve been away, either.

Film studies, or theory, or simply “criticism,” whatever you want to call it – continues to be rattled off. But the energy for writing at length about movies online has been usurped by Podcasters and YouTubers – and there’s even Letterboxd to snatch up anyone who only wants to write blurbs.

Everyone seems to agree, there are far too many of these Podcasters and YouTubers (more of them than there ever were Film Bloggers) and even fewer of them worth paying attention to.

Blogging culture, or what’s left of it, still benefits the communities it’s always served best: political dissidents and fringe cultural researchers. But when it comes to Film Blogging, the most insightful and concise writers can’t compete for patronage with hosts you can actually see and hear, armed as they are with the Fair Use of film clips. It’s no different than looking at why Siskel & Ebert had a bigger audience than Pauline Kael. 

Siskel & Ebert were true visionaries, actually, with their Thumbs-Up / Thumbs-Down hermeneutic because as Armond White pointed out years ago, that’s exactly what online film criticism has become. Podcasters and YouTubers are just as hacky as previous generations of “critics” when it comes to padding their “reviews” with long plot summaries, especially on YouTube where it’s easy to compile a wacky clip show. And as with any old school TV or newspaper film critics, they don’t bite the hand that feeds – eager to be ingratiated with filmmakers and studios, they simply get excited about the newest product and reserve any actual criticism for the occasional dogpile on agreed-upon laughingstocks.

There are a few YouTubers whose criticism has integrity and depth, and even a few ambitious ones who use video editing to explore films more analytically. But the platform always favors the algorithmically optimized “10 HIDDEN CLUES ABOUT THE NEXT SPIDER-MAN VILLAIN!” and “100% REAL REACTION! FIRST TIME WATCHING ‘COME AND SEE’ WITH MY GIRLFRIEND!” types of videos.

Podcasting, being “hot media” per McLuhan, fares better when it comes to thoughtful analysis. But it’s still a tiny number of talkers with meaningful insight, who do more research beyond reading a film’s wikipedia entry. Even the hosts who bring on guests tend to be schmoozers and sycophants, like their YouTuber brethren, rather than investigative research-minded historians. And it’s totally unavoidable if they’re entertainment industry people to begin with.

Film Journalism / Theory / Studies / Criticism doesn’t thrive in ephemeral media because the analysis itself is like vaporware. The best video essays on YouTube seldom get watched more than once, and the best discussions or interviews are seldom listened to twice before the MP3 is deleted. The audience is always trying to clear their queue and move on to the next episodes of whatever pod or channel, so there’s no sense of permanence to the critic’s work – even when they expend meaningful effort on research or a “deep dive” analysis.

And so, as someone who takes this stuff seriously, I find myself drawn back to the original “hot media” of print, and the grand old tradition of Film Books.

While thousands of hours of Siskel & Ebert reviews exist mainly as cultural artifacts on YouTube, Pauline Kael’s volumes continue to occupy space on bookshelves, and therefore stature in the hearts of serious film fans. Print, by its nature, imprints itself on the reader’s mind.

(This is why, when I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing people for my own blog, I’ve opted for text rather than audio recordings / podcast episodes – because this makes the information searchable for reference, like a digital book on a shelf.)

The term “Physical Media” was only forced into use by the introduction of “Streaming” media, which has serious downsides for movie buffs and the average movie fan alike: we were promised vast virtual libraries of titles, but now have a myriad of subscription platforms bleeding us dry. The classics are increasingly crowded out by lame Original Programming on these streaming channels, while the sword of Damocles dangles over every film and show should one of its creators “get cancelled.”

“Physical Media,” originally, was simply “Home Video” – a revolutionary technology for audiences, allowing us to build our own “Film Library” – and Big Media cartels successfully propagandized people away from this privilege just as, coincidentally, Podcasting and YouTubing were taking place of Film Blogging.

Just as the concept of owning a copy of a film for home viewing was once an unthinkable luxury, the availability of information about the making of films (or serious writing about them as an art form) was also rare and valuable.

And just as we must retain our private film libraries, we must also do well to return to building libraries when it comes to film appreciation, because Film Books are Physical Media, too.

You can tell such documents are still the primary sources for historical information and even interpretation of films, because the average movie podcast or video essay tends to feature wholesale regurgitation of content gleaned from DVD extras. You may argue that commentary tracks or documentaries don’t constitute “Physical Media,” but it’s only because someone was burning them to disc, to be packaged and sit on someone’s shelf, that the labor was made to make them worthwhile in the first place.

Film Books, whose residence on bookshelves long precedes that of DVDs, hold greater stature to film buffs not only because of seniority, but ease of access. I’ve only watched or listened to most “Special Features” DVD extras once, but still pick up and flipped through the pages of Lynch on Lynch or Truffaut’s Hitchcock year after year. A good Film Book impels you to re-read it, as often as a good film impels repeat viewings on Home Video.

Celluloid Wars: The Making of Battle Beyond the Stars, is the first Film Book I’ve sat down and enjoyed in a long time, and it’s an anomalous treat of the genre: a new Film Book which was actually mostly written over 40 years ago, as the film was still being made.

The author is the film’s editor, Allan Holzman. He kept a journal of the production to emulate director Jean Cocteau, who created one of the all-time seminal Film Books by collecting his journals from the making of Beauty and the Beast. Similarly, Cocteau’s journals also went unpublished until decades after the film’s release, unlike the other most famous production-journal publication, Joe Alves’ popular The Jaws Log (1975). Besides Holzman’s war journal of Battle, there are some great retrospective galleries and interviews, but the journals are the true heart of the book: an authentic time capsule from a bygone era of b-movies.

Roger Corman’s life and empire have already been the subject of serious scholarship in other Film Books, going back to Todd McCarthy’s Kings of the Bs (1975). But the scope of his producing history is so vast, each era would be worth a book by itself – his 1960s Edgar Allen Poe / Vincent Price series, for example – and some of these eras have already been researched, some better than others. What is immediately exciting about Celluloid Wars is that it gives an inside look into an era of Corman films which for far too long hasn’t received enough attention, even though I personally believe it to be the culmination of his powers as a producer: the “New World Pictures” years, his production company from 1970 to 1983.

The films made under this banner, including Battle Beyond the Stars, were like b-movie counterparts to the “New Hollywood” films of the 1970s. In that celebrated era, many film-literate young people were eager to take advantage of loosened restrictions in movie content and to make more personal statements. Corman wasn’t opposed to allowing some degree of this liberty in the production of his exploitation films during this period, and this boldness was partly what characterized so many New World Pictures films as something special. At the height of the slasher film craze, for example, no major Hollywood studio ever released one directed by a woman, let alone written by a lesbian novelist – but there was New World, taking a chance on The Slumber Party Massacre (1982).

(Of course, as Holzman mentions in his journals, “Creative freedom” can also just be a euphemism for willingness to work overtime for free!)

Many movie nerds – and I’ve been guilty of this – love to breathlessly recite a list of famous directors who got their start working for Roger Corman, and in fact most of them come from this New World Pictures period. But his eye for spotting up-and-coming talent applied to all the roles of production, and this was the case with Allan Holzman, whose creativity as the film’s editor was critical in saving what was, it turns out, a very troubled production – like the original Star Wars which motivated its creation, Battle Beyond the Stars was apparently fixed in post.

Corman was fortunate to find Holzman, because while there were plenty of scrappy young creative go-getters in the New Hollywood era, there were admittedly thousands more who treated such jobs as hack-work, because a New World Pictures production lacked prestige. Holzman describes in his journals the style of cutting which tended to characterize b-movies, and which would have been fatal for a post-heavy project like Battle: by-the-numbers, just to be done with it. But many others were, like himself, passionate about getting the chance to prove themselves – and this shows in many New World Pictures titles, even if they didn’t then go on to become James Cameron – who actually got his big industry break with Battle, and made the most of the opportunity.

Cameron doing Battle

“Jim” Cameron, as he’s called, does get several anecdotes in Holzman’s journals, along with “Jamie” Horner and “Gale Hurd,” which ought to excite the name-droppers. But what really got me excited were mentions of Susan Justin, Holzman’s then-girlfriend, future wife, and future composer of the dark synthpop score to Holzman’s directorial debut Mutant / Forbidden World, which I raved about back in my Cinemachine days. The story of that film’s making is the subject of Celluloid Wars Volume 2, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

If I’ve made life at New World Pictures sound like some young filmmakers’ paradise, this book makes it perfectly clear it was more like a crucible which only the strongest would survive. Holzman explicitly states that if the journal he’s writing sells (back when planned to publish it in the early 80s, that is) he might get out of film for good, having felt burned out on cutting New World Pictures films and other b-movies with less than satisfying results. His internal struggle makes a good dramatic backdrop to the mounting problems of completing the film, partially because his occasional prosaic paeans about the Art of Editing were being written with the intention to be read by others someday.

Holzman provides further background to his journey during the making of Battle, and to his career in film as a whole, by opening up in the prologue (recently written for this book’s release) about his problems growing up as a stutterer. This speech impediment is rarely mentioned at all throughout the 1980s journals, so you know he didn’t wallow in any self-pity over it. Knowing, though, that prior to Battle he’d approached Corman about getting a shot at directing, only to be politely turned away because his nervousness set off his stuttering, is a bit heartbreaking to read – and had me pulling for him right from the start.

Now, it would be the cheapest sort of psychoanalysis to suggest that Holzman’s keeping this journal was some sort of compensation for his stutter, to say nothing of his entire career in filmmaking. But since Holzman doesn’t indulge in that in the book, I’m indulging in it here. (The phrase “striving to communicate” is used somewhere, but I don’t remember if he was using it as a personal metaphor.) In any case, what’s universally relatable is the tone he takes when trying to keep himself motivated under pressure, such as making a list of affirmative “facts” to tell himself who he is: “I am hung up on art, I have to be creative daily or I will feel like freaking out, I respond well to challenges.”

Holzman’s personal feelings never overshadow the behind-the-scenes story he chronicles, actually, and it’s hard to believe he had any mental energy left for these journals, let alone be prosaic, while working under such a brutal schedule. Then again, keeping this journal may have been what kept him sane. With editorial meticulousness, he even logged the exact times of the entries, and their odd hours give you a sense of the arduous marathon he was locked into.

Holzman at camera

As a b-movie fan, you tend not to notice editing any more than the average movie fan – unless it’s particularly bad, in which case it can add to a Camp factor. More often, it’s competently invisible because lower budget films tend to have less coverage, and the editor is merely assembling the pieces. In some cases, however, the editing in a b-movie stands out because the editor’s creativity gives the film some much-needed help. One of Holzman’s best bits of Film Theory is when he expounds on this dichotomy between seamless and creative editing, making the case for the latter’s superiority under any circumstances. The challenge of cutting together Battle Beyond the Stars was, however, a creative one by sheer necessity.

Creative editing has always been particularly important in special effects driven films, as illusions rely on good timing for their revelation. This is vitally important in b-movies, because good editing can also pull weight for a special effect’s shortcomings. (Or at least this was the case before CGI, when big and small budget effects films alike said “Screw it, you know it’s CG, we’re just going to fill the frame with it.”)

While Battle was New World’s most expensive production ever, they still had only about one-fifth of Star Wars’ budget, and the extra responsibility to make a coherent “space movie” that constantly cut between shots of spaceships and live actors (across multiple different planets!) fell squarely on editor Holzman’s shoulders, just as it did Star Wars’ three editors.

Another aspect of b-movie editing I’d never considered before Celluloid Wars was how the hurried schedule of something like a Roger Corman film, where the editing starts before the film has finished shooting, could allow for the film’s post-production department to shape the production-in-progress, since the editor is able to give immediate feedback on the footage as it’s received.

This early input was what ultimately led Holzman to take on a bigger role in Battle, first by letting others know what was and wasn’t working, and then – rather terrifyingly for him – realizing that since the special effects shots weren’t being completed on time, he was going to have to get belligerent with some people or the movie would be a disaster – and he’d get stuck with all the blame.

Holzman is professionally biased, naturally, but the story he tells in Celluloid Wars is more or less one of having to save in the editing room a movie with a lot of good ingredients, but which simply wasn’t going to work without a lot of tinkering – and this is a more credible perspective when you know that the director, animator Jimmy T. Murikami of Murikami-Wolf Productions, had never directed a live action film before or after this one.

Murikami on set with Richard Thomas

Murikami was apparently a well-meaning and nice enough guy, so Holzman doesn’t exactly disparage him besides one entry in which he briefly, but intensely, derides Murikami’s lack of vision. He calls the footage he’s receiving overly talky, unable to “cut down like a normal film.” Describing Murikami as mechanically focused on “creating a cartoon with sharp focus and flat perspectives,” he adds “I guess we have a case of animator turned director.” To be fair, some animators have succeeded artistically in live action films, like Frank Tashlin or Mike Judge – but obviously, a mini-budgeted Star Wars was too big an undertaking for Jimmy’s first outing.

At the final hour of Battle’s post-production, Holzman finds himself commandeering the special optical effects production out of desperate necessity, and the strain on him to deliver is tremendous. In spite of this, touchingly, he still finds himself feeling like a kid in a candy store – playing around with overlaying lasers on the shots of model ships, figuring out how to make the space battles work with what they’ve got. After weeks of fighting time and budget constraints, and creative clashes with the professional egos of others, the job becomes fun to him again – even with the unbelievable pressure of New World Pictures’ entire future riding on the film’s success. To still enjoy your work in such circumstances is inspiring, and it certainly means you’re in the right field.

One of the more surprising editorial choices which Holzman details his fight for was to emphasize the script’s humor. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to the producers, as the humor must have always been there on the page from writer John Sayles, who’d already penned the cheeky script for Piranha. You wouldn’t think there’d be any conflict in emphasizing humor for a film which already includes a literal “Space Cowboy.” But as Holzman puts it, you can’t even mention comedy or camp around Roger. This is something that seems to come up in every other retrospective of a New World Pictures film; that every writer, director, etc who’s ever wanted a more tongue-in-cheek approach to genre material had to butt heads with Corman to do so. This always baffles me, because virtually every Corman-produced film that’s achieved some long-lasting Cult Classic status has had some degree of comedy in it: The Little Shop of Horrors, the Poe / Price series, Death Race 2000, Rock n’ Roll High School – not to mention Forbidden World, the black humor of which would’ve been even more pronounced if Holzman had his way.

My only real complaint with Celluloid Wars is that just when Holzman’s struggle is ending, and the film is at last complete, his final journal entry abruptly jumps forward a few weeks in time to note that, yes, Battle opened and was “a major commercial success.” There’s no words of reflection on the accomplishment, no resting on laurels. But in the low-budget filmmaking world, that’s just how it is: onto the next project. He barely had time for journal entries at the finish line anyway, only briefly mentioning that the climactic space battle was cut over four days and three nights with no sleep. Corman offers him the job of editing Galaxy of Terror, but Holzman convinces Roger he’s earned his directorial debut.

It’s an abrupt conclusion to the journal section of the book – almost as abrupt as the film’s conclusion itself, which quickly cuts to credits after Richard Thomas gives his final speech about “the Akira believe that no form ends until all the lives that it has touched are ended.” Less verbose, but more touching in light of learning what a feat it was to make Battle, are his words preceding the speech: “I can’t believe it. We really did it.”

The scrapbook, commentary and “bonus” sections of the book that follow do provide their own conclusion to the saga, from a modern perspective. They remind me of the function Film Books used to fill as reference guides, when media wasn’t available digitally on-demand and finding various still images from films to study – even from something like Star Wars – wasn’t necessarily easy. You might go to your local library to find a book on “The Art of Star Wars,” but you’d really only be equipped if you’d saved various back issues of fan magazines like Cinefantastique or Starlog when they’d hit the newsstands – and even then, there was only so much material available. A small amount of supplemental text and images in Celluloid Wars actually is excerpted from Starlog magazine, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, another essential periodical from the past.

I have a lot of nostalgia for this pre-Internet age of movie fandom, because the ephemeral scarcity of those images made every individual image more thrilling when found in a magazine or Film Book. As a horror fan, for example, I can tell you that one stark black & white production still of Leatherface running in front of his family farmhouse I glimpsed as a child in John McCarty’s Movie Psychos and Madmen (1993) inspired years of dreadful anticipation, before I finally saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Would my imagination have been so fired up, if I’d just been able to instantly pull up Texas Chainsaw images and clips on my computer? This over-abundance and ease of access is part of the reason film appreciation has been so degraded.

The power of one frightful image

Looking through the behind-the-scenes photos and design art in this book made me appreciate the scrapbook quality of Film Books as visual reference guides in a way I never had before. Shout! Factory’s excellent Escape From New York re-release, for example, has a large gallery of BTS production photos, but how often will I actually pop the Escape disc into my player just to look at those images, compared to the fun of leafing through the recent scrapbook-style Film Book, Escape From New York: The Official Story of the Film?

The tactile sensation of flipping through page after page of such material and letting your eyes roam around the images, parsing captions for further information, will always be more enjoyable than opening a file on a flatscreen TV or computer. There’s a very generous helping of these pleasures in the second half of Celluloid Wars, when Holzman interviews and reminisces with special effects designers / model-makers Robert and Dennis Skotak (who, incidentally, were hired to do model & miniature special effects shots for Escape From New York based on their work for Battle) and costume designer Durinda Wood. 

These days it’s almost trite to comment anymore about the superiority of practical effects vs. CGI, but studying at leisure the detail of the Skotaks’ models on the printed page, you can’t help feeling that CGI is all just video-games-on-film by comparison. Reading the text of these conversations alongside production photos and conceptual art, magazine layout style, is a more immersive experience than even the best behind-the-scenes documentary, and dven the captions have the same enthusiasm of a Starlog feature article spread. Unsurprisingly, in the book’s afterward the publisher expresses his intention was to follow the path set by the old sci-fi fan mags of yesteryear and admirably, they succeeded.

Tying together the journal and scrapbook sections, the Skotaks actually get a bit of editorial comment on the details of Holzman’s journals which they remember differently, and although it’s nothing major, the inclusion of this second opinion underscores the integrity of the effort to create the definitive guide to Battle Beyond the Stars. Durinda Wood, likewise, offers some recollections of her own and a few pointed criticisms for some of the production’s shortcomings, although she’s too gracious to be bitter about any of it, and the full-page looks at her costume designs are delightful.

The Skotaks at work (in Corman’s studio space) on Escape From New York

Celluloid Wars is a great book for Battle fans, as you could probably guess without even needing to read this review. They’ll no doubt get a good chuckle at Holzman’s repeated references to the Laws of the Varda when it comes to getting a movie completed on time, and actually making it a decent one. But this is also a great book for Corman fans, and those who, like myself, appreciate the New World Pictures era in particular, a group which ought to include all fans of genre b-movies.

Most critically for film fans of all kinds, this is an encouraging addition to the collective library of Film Books, a tradition which stubbornly, thankfully, refuses to die and is needed now more than ever in these days of forced digital impermanence.

I look forward to volume 2 of Celluloid Wars, because while I enjoyed learning about the making (and rescue) of Battle Beyond the Stars from the man who barely survived it, this man’s subsequent sleazoid classic Forbidden World / Mutant is much closer to my own trashy personal taste, the blu-ray residing as it does on my real, physical media bookshelves.


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