My journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens

INHERITANCE: Author, playwright and radio personality Jeff Messer shares his Star Wars tales with a new generation of clones: his kids. Photo by Kelli Mullinix

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, my cool Uncle Ray took me and my cousin Michael to see a movie called Star Wars. It was showing at the Waynesville drive-in on a Saturday night in the late 1970s. It forever changed my life.

I was a 7-year-old kid, living in a in a small town west of Asheville. I was surrounded by country folk and farmland, but I was a dreamer like simple farmboy Luke Skywalker. I, too, felt destined for something more than a simple life — minus the intergalactic conflicts, of course.

George Lucas’ space fantasy inspired feelings in me that I never wanted to lose, though it wasn’t possible to go see the movie over and over again. This was well before home movies. It was even pre-VHS. If I wanted to keep the tale fresh in my mind, I had to find another means of doing so. So I took a stack of notebook paper, and I began to write the story of Star Wars as I remembered it. I illustrated each page. It was my only way of holding onto the experience. But something more came from writing my own adaptation — it lit a fire inside me. I had become an author, at least in my own mind.

I began writing original stories that borrowed heavily from elements of Star Wars as well as comic books, TV and movies. By fifth grade, my penchant for creative writing had earned me a reputation, and the music teacher asked me to pen a script for the school musical. It was little more than a 20-minute knockoff of The Muppet Movie, but it was my first work performed for an audience. They applauded at the end. That immediate reaction pulled me toward theater.

In 1991, at 20, my first professional work as a playwright — a musical revue about composer Irving Berlin, the first such show to be authorized by the Berlin Estate — was produced by my hometown community theater. More plays followed. In 1998, I was a regional runner-up in the Kennedy Center College Short Play Competition for my work, Anglo-White-Heterosexual American Men.

Recently, I unearthed my adaptation of Star Wars from a crate of random items at my parents’ house. Being reunited with it, as The Force Awakens looms large, gave me a sense of completion.

News of the Star Wars franchise returning to movie theaters made me feel like that 12 year-old kid who walked out of Return of the Jedi. Not only will there now be new tales and a new generation of characters, but the beloved characters are returning as well. Awakens, shrouded in mystery until its release, was written by Lawrence Kasdan, whose credits include Empire and Jedi, as well as Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Like others of my generation, I spent the decades following Jedi wondering what happened next. The heroes prevailed, evil was destroyed, and it looked like peace in the galaxy. But George Lucas had numbered the movies as episodes 4, 5 and 6, which left fans to wonder about episodes 1, 2 and 3 (and the much-hinted-at 7, 8 and 9). There were new stories and novels in the 1990s. Some were excellent, like the Heir to the Empire trilogy by Timothy Zahn, which felt like a continuation of the movies. Some novels fared less well, as they dealt with decidedly non-Star Wars-esque plots like alien invasions or Jedi private investigators.

The late ’90s brought the prequel films. I was not melodramatically mortified by them, as many of my contemporaries were. I was nearly 30 and knew that my perspective had changed. Star Wars essentially redefined modern pop culture and cinema in 1977. In 1999, there was no way the prequel trilogy could have that level of impact. Plus, I was not a kid anymore, and some of the cinematic wizardry that wowed me in the ’70s was more common two decades later. But nothing could tarnish my love of the original and all it had inspired in me.

My son Nicholas was born in 2003. Inevitably, Star Wars became a part of his life, too. Sharing the movies allowed me to buy Star Wars toys again. Nicholas played with those toys before he knew what the franchise was, drawn to the sleek designs of stormtroopers and droids that fill the mythos. I saw myself in him as he played, creating his own scenarios and tales.

When the time was right, I showed him the films, starting with Episode 1, The Phantom Menace. It has a kid-friendly feel to it, with an 8-year-old in the lead role as a pre-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker. There is a fan debate over viewing order for first-timers — should it be by original release order or numerical order? For me, it was a matter of what I thought Nicholas would best respond to. For a 5-year-old, it’s a mind-blowing feast for the eyes. Nicholas was hooked. His unbiased views of the movies that older fans liked to complain about gave me an appreciation for the power of the inspirational experience.

Disney bought Star Wars from Lucas in 2012 and announced that, as of 2015, there would be a new film each year. That expanded the Star Wars universe beyond my wildest dreams. It also made me realize how intimate and personal such an epic thing can be. My Uncle Ray, who introduced me to Star Wars, passed away suddenly two years ago. I will be thinking of him as I see the new movie. And, as I return to a movie theater for episode 7 (Awakens), picking up where my 12-year-old self left off after episode 6 (Jedi) in 1983, I have a stepson and stepdaughter to join my son and me as we experience it together.

Star Wars gave me inspiration to dream, to create and to conquer imaginative galaxies of my own. My son is now exactly the same age that I was when I saw Jedi. The baton is being passed to a new generation on screen, in Awakens, and for me, personally: May the force be with us all.

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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