Jonathan W. Rinzler (1962-2021), a fine chronicler of great movies…

The Sacred Texts.

As a lifelong fan of sci-fi movies, I’ve long collected books, magazines and, more recently, videos all about the making-of sci-fi and other movies. My first magazine I remember collecting was Forry Ackerman’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” and I would later graduate to Starlog, Cinemafantastique, Sci-Fi Universe, and others, including several British mags such as Sci-Fi Now and Total Film. My first taste of making-of books began as a little kid, with Carl Gottlieb’s “The Jaws Log,” which my entire family passed around. Eventually my own collection would swell to absolutely insane proportions–multiple bookshelves, boxes and even an off-site storage space would testify to that point. In the year 2005, I discovered a new voice in fandom chronicles who rewrote the book on making-of movie books; Jonathan W. Rinzler, more commonly monikered as J.W. Rinzler, who was only a few years older than myself, and who very much ‘got’ the profound, life-changing effect that movies such as “Star Wars,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had on kids born in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sadly, Rinzler passed away this month at age 58, just shy of his 59th birthday, after a devastating battle with cancer. Rinzler will be deeply missed. I’d only seen him in person once, at San Diego Comic Con, and while we never formally met, his major works are a cherished part of my home library. This column will focus on my favorite J.W. Rinzler books, and of their personal impact.

The book that started my obsession with Rinzler’s books, even if the movie it detailed wasn’t necessarily a favorite of mine.

It was at a (now defunct) Borders bookstore in 2005 where I first found a copy of Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars Revenge of the Sith,” which was a softcover book loaded with interviews, color photos, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and all kinds of nitty-gritty details about the production of the film. While I had mixed emotions about George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, the book was so colorful, informative and detailed that it gave me a whole new appreciation for the effort that went into the film’s making, if not for the film itself. It takes a hell of an author to make the production of a so-so movie more compelling than the movie itself! After leafing through it, I had to have it. Thus began my collection of Rinzler’s books–that first taste that gets you hooked, right?

The next one would be the book that made each new Rinzler release feel like Christmas morning…

I still remember the pulse-pounding excitement when I first got my mitts on Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars”, which included a foreword by Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”).

Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars” (sans “Episode IV: A New Hope”) came out in 2007 to coincide with the movie’s then-30th anniversary, and it was revelatory. Over the years, I’d read many other making-of books on the 1977 film, but Rinzler’s book took things to a whole new level. It was definitive. The book featured original story draft excerpts, as well as handwritten notes, sketches, storyboards and rare, behind-the-scenes photos I’d never seen (after 30 years of collecting Star Wars books & memorabilia). Rinzler also went in-depth on Lucas’ personal struggle to pare down his complex original drafts (“The Adventures of the Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills”) into the more manageable story with which we’re familiar. The book even included original studio call sheets (daily notes from the production on who/what is required for a day’s shooting) and other fly-on-the-wall details of the movie’s production. There are also detailed accounts of the unprecedented production’s difficulties, including heated exchanges between Lucas and the future Oscar-winning gearheads who were attempting to create all-new means of producing optical/visual effects at the little Van Nuys, California warehouse which became “Industrial Light & Magic.” ILM is, of course, the legendary Oscar-winning FX house which ushered in the modern era of moviemaking with computer-controlled cameras and, eventually, computer-generated images as well.

I read—no, devoured “The Making of Star Wars” over a few days, and it quickly became my go-to reference book for the production of Star Wars. Despite its silver jacket cover, it’s a gold standard. When a hardback edition came into print a short time later (with bonus material, of course) I seriously considered double-dipping and buying it twice, but common sense (and my budget) prevailed.

Note: The book, like Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, seemed destined for the same incessant revisionism that plagued those three films (1977-1983). Luckily, the book, unlike Lucas’ trilogy, stopped at just two print editions.

Model-maker/designer Colin Cantwell (“2001: A Space Odyssey” “Star Wars”) leafs through my copy of J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making Of Star Wars”, reliving memories and giving context to some of the photos and illustrations. 

One of my favorite moments with this book came when I met original Star Wars (and “2001: A Space Odyssey”) production artist and miniature model-maker Colin Cantwell at Comic Con Revolution 2019 in Ontario, California. I will never forget sharing the book and its galleries of sketches and storyboards with one of the original artists responsible for their creation. This was the guy who first designed the X-wing fighters, the Death Star and other important elements of that film. He leafed through the pages of Rinzler’s book, and smiled fondly at the images, telling me the backstories behind some of his original unused concepts. I will cherish that moment–it was like coming face to face with one of the architects of my childhood. Rinzler’s book made that moment possible.

Luke and Vader duel with mock swords (later augmented with rotoscoping) on the cover of “The Making of The Empire Strikes Back.” The foreword by Ridley Scott explains how Star Wars’ success prompted the director to make a sci-fi epic of his own–which became 1979’s “ALIEN”, of course.

In 2010, Rinzler released “The Making of The Empire Strikes Back”; the second in a planned series of books on the original trilogy of Star Wars movies. Like the first book, Rinzler’s painstaking research yielded details of Lucas’ original story drafts, which were augmented by collaborators, such as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who would go on to write Lucas’ “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Return of the Jedi” (not to mention other prominent films, including “The Big Chill” and “Grand Canyon”). Rinzler’s book was also the first I’d read that detailed the specific contributions of early draft collaborator Leigh Brackett (“The Big Sleep”). Brackett was famed for her film noir screenplays, but her overall impact on Lucas and Kasdan’s story perhaps wasn’t as great as her story credit would suggest. However, her death to cancer before the end of production prompted the team to give her a posthumous story credit. Rinzler’s book also details how Lucas’ former film school teacher Irvin Kershner had to be talked into taking the helm of the movie as a favor to former student George.

We also see the differences in Irvin Kershner’s approach–for Kershner, the actors and characters were key, and all the complex technical considerations were secondary. This caused the film’s budget to rise, and added stress to producers Lucas and Gary Kurtz, who had a surprisingly difficult time convincing Bank of America to bankroll additional money for the sequel to the most successful movie of all time. Rinzler’s detailed, frank accounts of the sequel’s difficult production included friction between Harrison Ford and the hard-partying Carrie Fisher, who had difficulty separating her professional and personal lives at that time. The mid-section of the book goes into the repeated takes involving the carbon freezing chamber sequence, where Han Solo is turned into a carbonite block for bounty hunter Boba Fett, much to Leia’s horror. Innumerable takes led to the cast, crew and director’s collective fatigue, which led to Harrison Ford’s brilliantly improvised “I know” line, as the exhausted actor felt it was more in character than the scripted “I love you, too.” Contrary to popular lore, the line was tried out in rehearsal before being committed to film. This followup to “The Making of Star Wars” was a very worthy successor, much like “The Empire Strikes Back” itself.

Note: Like Rinzler’s first original trilogy Star Wars book, I plowed through “The Making of The Empire Strikes Back” over a few days as well–reading a huge chunk of it while getting my car serviced one afternoon. Like gorging yourself on a massive dinner, you almost regret reading Rinzler’s books too quickly.

“The Making of Return of the Jedi” included a foreword by Pixar director Brad Bird, an indirect beneficiary of Lucasfilm’s success.

The third book in the series, “The Making of Return of the Jedi” was released in 2013 to coincide with the then 30th anniversary of that sequel’s release, in keeping with the established precedents of the other two. Receiving the book as a birthday gift, I dove in. The book went into typically exhaustive detail about the film’s production, including earlier drafts of the screenplay that were a bit darker than the finished film, including Luke’s meeting with the Empire in a throne room overlooking a volcanic pool of lava, where the force ghosts of Ben and Yoda aided Luke’s final defeat of the Emperor–even making themselves visible to Luke’s foes as well. The book later details the Northern California and Yuma Arizona location shoots, which were hidden behind the false production name of “Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination” in a vain attempt to keep local businesses from overcharging the crew’s presumed deep pockets. There is also much written about the actors playing the Ewoks, including 11-year old fan Warwick Davis, who’d live every young Star Wars fan’s dream by being cast as “Wicket,” the Ewok leader who befriends Princess Leia. As with the former two books, there are anecdotes about internal troubles as Lucas continually pushed the technicians at ILM’s new San Francisco headquarters to a higher standard for motion-control miniature photography (winning the FX house yet another Oscar in 1984).

Rinzler’s book relates very different notions about the nature of the Force–upsetting the later prequel trilogy’s “midichlorian” retconning. Notes taken during a story session between Lucas, screenwriter Kasdan and director Richard Marquand confirm that the Force was intended to be universal, and that anyone–with time and practice–can tap into it:

Kasdan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
Lucas: Yes, everybody can do it.
Kasdan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like Yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

Rinzler’s book confirmed my own suspicion that the ‘midichlorians’ introduced in 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” were nothing more than a Star Trekkish retcon of the Force’s previously established nature. The same applies to the revelation of Leia being Luke’s sister, which ex-producer Gary Kurtz insists was not part of the original story. Kurtz left production of “Return of the Jedi” over creative differences with Lucas, to be replaced by Lucas’ former film school classmate Howard Kazanjian. Once again, Rinzler’s books are refreshingly honest. Despite their gloss and studio sanctioning, these are not tie-in release fluff pieces.

Note: This was the first Rinzler Star Wars trilogy book I didn’t devour over a couple of days, since my house was undergoing massive plumbing issues at that time (early 2014). I took the book in fits and starts when my wife and I were forced to bunk at a hotel for two months. It was hard for me to focus on the book as my house was being ripped up by contractors. When things eventually settled down, I reread it cover-the-cover (of course).

“Fortune and glory, kid.” J.W. Rinzler would tackle the four Indiana Jones movies in one volume, “The Complete Making of Indiana Jones,” which was released in 2008 to coincide with the release of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

To coincide with the release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” publisher Random House released Rinzler’s “The Complete Making of Indiana Jones,” which would chronicle the making of the first four Indiana Jones movies (a fifth is currently in production in London). Cramming the production of the four movies into roughly the same space he’d typically reserve for a single film, Rinzler still managed to pull off the impossible by offering detailed notes, early drafts, casting information (with stills of actor Tom Selleck’s screen test for the role) and very rare production photos taken during the making of each film. I particularly enjoyed the earlier story drafts for each installment. For example, earliest story ideas for “The Last Crusade” took place almost entirely in a haunted house–a concept that survived in the final version as a Nazi-occupied castle in one sequence. “Crystal Skull” was to have been a more pulpy homage to atomic-age, 1950s B-movies than the more polished final film. Once again, the book also details many of the difficulties behind the shooting of the films, including star Harrison Ford’s various illnesses and injuries during the arduous productions. A must-read for all Indiana Jones’ fans.

Note: While some fans may quibble that the use of the word “Complete” in the book’s title should include production of the TV series “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (1992-3), it’s a moot point—Rinzler’s subject has always been film production, not television. For anyone seeking an in-depth account of the TV series, there is “The Cinema of George Lucas” (2005), written by Marcus Hearn, which gives as detailed an overview of the TV series as I’ve ever read.

“The Star Wars” that never was…released as a graphic novel in 2014.

2014 would see the release of two Rinzler books; one of which took a rare detour from chronicling film history and embraced the earlier drafts of George Lucas’ 1974 “The Star Wars.” “The Star Wars” graphic novel is a single volume graphic novel of an 8-part comic book series released the previous year. The book is unique in Star Wars history as it offers an alternate look at what Star Wars might’ve been–that is, if Lucas’ original, admittedly unwieldy story treatment had been given the green-light. Imagine young Luke Skywalker as a sixty-something general (more like Ben Kenobi), a talking R2-D2, Han Solo as a green-skinned monster, a handsome Darth Vader sans helmet, and the Jedi Bendu wielding the “Force of Others” (an earlier name for the Force later revived for 2016’s “Rogue One”). Rinzler created some new dialogue that stitches the patchwork ideas together, though he wasn’t above inserting an in-joke or two (“Yippee” says one character–echoing the awkward exclamation of young Anakin Skywalker from “The Phantom Menace”).

Storywise, “The Star Wars” lacks the grace and clarity of the 1977 film–feeling more like a collection of set-pieces instead of a coherent narrative. However, “The Star Wars” in graphic novel form is a fascinating idea. Personally, I would love to see other rejected story drafts of famous movies get the graphic novel treatment in a form as faithful as this book. While I’m grateful this far clunkier version of Lucas’ story didn’t get made (as was Lucas, apparently), it’s nice to live in a universe where one can still see a handsomely illustrated take on that story as well. The cinematogra–er, artwork by Mike Mayhew is simply stunning. Rinzler gave us Star Wars fans the original story that the studios rejected, and for Star Wars completists (like myself), it’s nice to finally have that itch scratched.

Rinzler returned to the role of editor for “Star Wars Storyboards.”

The other Rinzler book of 2014 saw the author taking on the role of editor once again; as he’d done with other Star Wars reference books, such as the Visual Dictionary. “Star Wars Storyboards–The Original Trilogy” is precisely that; a collection of the movies’ storyboards, as rendered by various artists, and organized in chronological order for the entire original trilogy. While the earliest storyboards are the furthest removed from their final cinematic counterparts, storyboards for “Empire…” and “Return…” look much more familiar, and appear more like comic book sketches for the movies (which was their intended purpose–to visualize the eventual films). Less a ‘what-if’ book and more of a nuts-and-bolts look inside the planning behind the films. The artwork is less about aesthetics and more about conveying kinetics and framing action. It’s easy to forget the well of talent that sprang from the original trilogy’s talent pool, including storyboard artist Joe Johnston, who would go on to become a respected filmmaker himself (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Captain America,” “The Rocketeer”).

My own pic of Rinzler, at a panel for the “Star Wars Storyboards” book, with director Joe Johnston (“Captain America,” “The Rocketeer”). The photo was taken in July of 2014. Rinzler edited the book, which was a collection of Johnston’s storyboards for the original Star Wars trilogy.

It was during the promotion of “Star Wars Storyboards” that I got to see both Joe Johnston and J.W. Rinzler in person together at a panel for the book’s release at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con. While I (foolishly) missed the opportunity to talk with Rinzler, I did get a chance to ask Joe Johnston a question during the Q & A portion of the panel. I asked if Johnston himself has ever used storyboards (or pre-visualization of any kind) for the films he’s directed. Johnston said he doesn’t–he frames all of his shots in his head. I found this answer surprising for an artist and filmmaker who began his film career in storyboard illustration. Perhaps it was his extensive work in storyboarding that made the process unnecessary for his own films. It was Rinzler’s book that stoked my interest to attend this panel.

Note: In hindsight, I very much regret not taking my copy of “The Making of Star Wars” to that convention for Rinzler to autograph

In 2018, Rinzler tackled the subject of my first cinematic franchise love: “Planet of the Apes” (1968).

In 2018, Rinzler would go back in time before Star Wars for a book on 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”. Like all of Rinzler’s books, “The Making of Planet of the Apes” included a forward by Fraser Clarke Heston, the son of star Charlton Heston, writing on behalf of his late father (I had no idea the younger Heston played baby Moses in 1956’s “The Ten Commandments”). Despite the 50 year passage of time between the release of the original film and the release of Rinzler’s book, there is still a fortune in story draft excepts (including “Twilight Zone” writer/producer Rod Serling’s script passes), artwork, storyboards, never-before-seen set photos, makeup tests and production notes from the Franklin J. Schaffner film of author Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel. One again, a new Rinzler book seemed to be tailor-made to my personal interests, as “Planet of the Apes” was my first cinematic franchise love–entering my life before Star Trek and Star Wars. In fact, one of my favorite Christmas gifts as a kid was the Mego Planet of the Apes treehouse play set and action figures–a gift from my dad, who waited in a long line at a toy store (after a very late shift at work) to get it for me on Christmas morning. Pawing through Rinzler’s lovingly detailed coffee table book on this beloved film felt like that Christmas morning of my childhood all over again. In fact, the release of each new Rinzler book felt like Christmas morning to me…

Next up was Ridley Scott’s ALIEN!

As Ridley Scott provided the foreword for Rinzler’s “The Making of The Empire Strikes Back”, it seemed almost inevitable that a making-of book for Scott’s “ALIEN” (1979) would happen someday. 2019 would see “The Making of ALIEN” arrive for the film’s 40th anniversary, and once again, Rinzler gave the film his typically deluxe, obsessively-detailed treatment…sating nearly every question and curiosity about the film’s production, from its earliest imaginings as an early 1970s B-monster movie (“Star Beast”) to the final masterpiece of horror/sci-fi we saw debut in May of 1979. Interviews, anecdotes, photos, amazing production art by Ron Cobb, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss and director Ridley Scott’s own storyboards are everywhere in the book. The book’s incongruously sterile white cover cleverly reflects the the white emergency spacesuit worn by Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the movie’s final confrontation between Ripley and her own ‘white whale’–the large, acid-bleeding monster that’s slaughtered her shipmates.

Note: My first awareness of this book came from an urgently texted photo of the cover from my equally geeky friend Nick, who’d just grabbed his own copy. This sudden awareness of the book’s existence naturally sent me running to my local Barnes and Noble to grab my own copy–which I did the very next morning. Thanks again, Nick!

“The Making of ALIENS” would be the last of Rinzler’s deluxe, coffee table making-of books.

2020 was a very trying year for us all, as the COVID-19 pandemic saw the entire world having to radically alter our day-to-day living in the face of this new medical menace, which has cost millions of lives globally. Even the dire seriousness of the pandemic didn’t prevent me from making a masked visit to my local Barnes and Noble (when they finally reopened for business) to order my copy of J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of ALIENS.” 1986’s “ALIENS” was, for me, the last truly solid movie of the ALIEN franchise, before it began to unravel in both cohesion and quality. None of the remaining ALIEN sequels or prequels would ever this satisfying again. Writer/director James Cameron, hot off the success of “The Terminator,” retooled his own idea for a “Vietnam war in space” movie to fit the ALIEN universe, after Fox approached him to do the sequel. Once more, Rinzler’s book dives deep into the difficult, UK-based production of the film; detailing the firing of a main cast member (James Remar, who played Corporal Hicks, was quickly replaced by Michael Biehn), as well as Cameron’s own infamous clashes with his all-English crew–whose insistence on protocol and tradition became maddening to the guerilla-style filmmaker. As with Lucas and “Star Wars,” it all came together somehow, and Rinzler’s handsomely appointed book takes us through those painful steps, one by one.

Note: James Cameron’s “Vietnam in space” story was, ironically, how George Lucas envisioned his original story for Star Wars–with the resistant Vietnamese recast as the scrappy Rebel Alliance and the forces of the Empire fronting for the invading American Armed Forces.

Rinzler’s last two books include a fictional account of the moon race called “All Up” (2021) and another film history book, “Howard Kazanjian: A Producer’s Life”, cowritten with Marcia Lucas (film editor/ex-wife of George Lucas) and set for release in September. It’s with a heavy heart that I realize there will be no more deluxe coffee table film books coming from this tenacious powerhouse of an author. J.W. Rinzler will be deeply missed, and his existing legacy of quality film chronicling will live on bookshelves and ebook readers forever.

Jonathan W. Rinzler (1962-2021).

Jonathan W. Rinzler, posing with Star Wars creator/producer/director George Lucas.

Images: Amazon, Author, J.W. Rinzler.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. firemandk says:

    Always sad when someone we share a passion with and has gone the extra step to enlighten and entertain us passes away . I sure felt that way when the “Model T Ford” guru passed away , so much knowledge taken away from us though he was the author of the “Bible” of Model T cars.
    Without people like him ( and you) , our lives would be a lot less entertaining ….nice write up.

    1. Thank you! Much appreciated.

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