In a classic case of ‘oh, what could have been’, surrealist filmmaker David Lynch once turned down the opportunity to direct the now legendary Star Wars picture Return of the Jedi in the early 1980s.
The now-iconic 1983 space opera film, which was eventually directed by Richard Marquand with the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and Lucas himself, arrived as the third instalment in the original Star Wars trilogy and was met by astonishing commercial success alongside positive reviews.
While the cinematic values of Return of the Jedi may well have struggled to reach the heights of the Star Wars films that proceeded it, the project is highly celebrated by the most avid of George Lucas fans, and the impressive performances of the likes of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher et al. remains its lasting legacy.
Despite its success, the film very nearly took a bizarre different route when David Lynch, the filmmaker who at the time had just been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for The Elephant Man, was approached by Lucas with the proposal of taking on Return of the Jedi.
“I was asked by George to come up and see him and talk to him about directing what would be the third Star Wars,” Lynch once explained. “And I had next door to zero interest. But I always admired George. George is a guy who does what he loves. And I do what I love. The difference is, what George loves makes hundreds of billions of dollars. So I thought I should go up and at least visit with him. And it was incredible.”
Lynch, who suggested that Lucas should direct the film himself in a bid to reflect his own vision, explained the secrecy that surrounded his meeting with the Star Wars creator given the major budget and anticipation that surrounded the project. “I had to go to this building in L.A. first. And I had to get a special credit card, and I had to get special keys. A letter came, and a map,” he said. Then I went to the airport, and I flew up. They had a rental car all ready for me. Keys. Everything was set. I was to drive to this place. I came into an office. And there was George. He talked with me for a little bit. Then he says, ‘I want to show you something.'”
Lynch continued: “Right about at this time, I started getting a little bit of a headache. You know what I’m talking about (laughs), OK…He took me upstairs. And he showed me these things called Wookies. And now this headache is getting stronger. He showed me many animals and different things. Then he took me in a ride in his Ferrari for lunch. And George is kind of short. So, he had the seat back, and he was almost laying down in the car. And we were flying through this little town up in Northern California. We went to a restaurant. Not that I don’t like salad. But that’s all they had was salad.
“Then I got a really… almost like a migraine headache. And I could hardly wait to get home. Even before I got home, I kind of crawled into a phone booth, and I called my agent and said, ‘There’s no way! There is no way I can do this!’ He said, ‘David, David, David… Calm down! You don’t have to do this.’ So George, bless his heart, I told him on the phone the next day that he should direct it. It’s his film.
“He invented everything about it. But he doesn’t really love directing. So someone else did direct that film. But I called my lawyer and told him I wasn’t going to do it. And he said, ‘You just lost, I don’t know how many millions of dollars.’ But it’s okay.”
Shortly after rejecting Lucas and the Star Wars project, Lynch was approached by Dino de Laurentiis who asked him to create a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune—which again threw Lynch outside of his comfort zone with the extraordinarily large budget.
Perhaps spurred on by his decision to turn down Lucas, Lynch accepted the Dune job. Although De Laurentiis hoped it would be as successful as Star Wars, Lynch’s Dune turned out to be a major commercial and critical flop and would later see the Twin Peaks director dissociate himself from its existence.
Below, see Lynch describe his meeting with Lucas along with an imagined effort of what his Star Wars effort may have ended up looking like.