Hardware Wars: The First Star Wars Fan Film

By David Konow

May the farce be with you.

Other the years, there have been many fan films and parodies of Star Wars, and this year's release of Episode VII will undoubtedly spark more. Thanks to the marvels of digital video tools and sites like YouTube, you can put together a Star Wars parody quickly, cheaply, and unleash it into the world for all to enjoy.

This was not the case when Hardware Wars came together in 1978. It was the first parody of Lucas' space opera--and reportedly one he enjoyed. It became an urban legend short film that played in theaters and on cable, and it's still great fun to watch after all these years. As Shock Cinema magazine notes, Hardware Wars "laid the groundwork for every DIY movie send up that now pops up on YouTube…Premiering when George Lucas's cash cow was still filling the theaters, it quickly became a pre-VCR, word-of-mouth phenomenon." And indeed, Hardware Wars was still playing in theaters as a short subject years after it was made. (A friend of mine saw it play before the animated movie Heavy Metal when it opened in 1981.)

Hardware Wars was written and directed by Ernie Fosselius, a multi-hyphenate who could not only write and direct, but also worked as a sound editor in Hollywood for years (his credits would include Spaceballs and Ed Wood). John V. Fante, who was the cinematographer of Hardware Wars, and who also went on to shoot the visual FX for The Right Stuff and Star Trek IV, says, "Ernie's a very gifted filmmaker, a multi-talented renaissance man, and he's very, very funny. I don't know if he's ever been a stand-up comedian, but he certainly could have been one. He's very gifted, and Hardware Wars only scratched the surface of what he was capable of."

The thirteen-minute film opens with a fake studio logo, 20th Century Foss. The parody names for the characters include Fluke Starbucker, Ham Salad, Darph Nader, Princess Anne-Droid, Augie Ben Doggie, and Cuchilla the Wookie Monster. And remember, this was a decade before Spaceballs.

Part of its charm is that special effects in Hardware Wars are hilariously cut rate. The land speeder is a dune buggy, and you can clearly see the wires on the spaceships, as well as on Android's home planet, which is a basketball floating in space. The spaceships are steam irons, the Death Star is a waffle iron, and R2-D2, redubbed 4Q2, is a vacuum cleaner. Fosselius also created lasers by scratching them directly onto the film negative.

Hardware Wars was a remarkably ingenious little film in that it cost an estimated $8,000, and it was shot in about two weeks. Post-production was probably about 4 to 5 weeks. Fante tells us that Hardware Wars was shot with borrowed 16mm cameras, and it was also made without sound, which is why in some segments the dubbing is hilariously bad. (If you've seen it, think of the scene where Fluke Starbucker exclaims, "Golly!")

Michael Wiese, who now runs a successful publishing company, was a producer on Hardware Wars, and he and Fosselus raised the money to make the film. The spaceship interiors were shot in a garage in San Francisco, and they also shot the desert sequences at a beach in the Marin Headlands.

When the film goes into hyperspace, the effects were done with a little optical printer, "like what you used to see at rock concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium, floating gels over lights," Fante says.

Fosselius also got the legendary Paul Frees to provide the voice-over narration for Hardware Wars, and you probably best know his voice from the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland. Back when movie tickets were much cheaper, Frees gave us the hilarious line, "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss three bucks goodbye," and of course, the classic Hardware Wars tag-line, "May the farce be with you…"

"Getting Paul Frees was like getting James Earl Jones," Fante says. "He was a huge voice talent. I think they were in there for thirty minutes and they just banged it out."

Besides being the first Star Wars parody that launched the craze, Hardware Wars was ahead of its time in several other ways. Like we saw in Airplane!, which was made several years later, there's jokes crammed in every corner, and you have to watch it more than once to catch them all. "There were so many of layers of humor that Ernie would work into a film," Fante says.

Hardware Wars would also predate Apocalypse Now in that it used the famous Wagner composition, Ride of the Valkyries, before Coppola did. It was just probably a coincidence that Hardware Wars used this famous theme as well, and as Fante explains, "It's a pretty popular piece, and I think that was more a jab at John Williams's music in Star Wars."

Filmmaker Ernie Fosselius.

Once Hardware Wars was finished, Fosselius and company screened it for the American Film Institute, who just didn't get it. The audience didn't laugh once, grumbling that you could clearly see the wires. Feeling dejected, the Hardware Wars gang went to a local restaurant called Teddy's on Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco.

They told the waiter about what had just happened, and he said, "Well it would be great if you could show it here." Fante had the projector in the trunk of his car, which they set up in the restaurant. "They dimmed the lights, and we showed the film to about forty or fifty unsuspecting diners who absolutely loved it. They cheered all the way through it, and at the end they gave us a round of applause."

After that night, the Hardware Wars gang showed the film to anyone who would let them set up a projector. "We would go to parties, it was like four-walling a 16mm film," Fante says.

Hardware Wars

Trying to go beyond that was difficult. "There were no outlets for short films except film festivals and occasionally television," Fante continues. "We kept hearing, 'You know, we love it, but we can only distribute feature films because nobody watches short films anymore.'"

Then Wiese hooked up with Pyramid Films, a distributor from Santa Monica, who got the movie played in a variety of different venues. "It went to schools, the military, hospitals, everywhere," Fante says. "This was back when every high school had a 16mm projector and they'd show a movie during study hour."

At this point in time, they were still showing short subjects before major features in theaters, so Hardware Wars was blown up to 35mm, and it finally played theatrically. But the cult of Hardware Wars probably grew from cable, which was just starting to spread into every home in America in the early eighties. (Hardware Wars regularly played on ON TV, one of the first cable networks.)

Among its fans is George Lucas himself, who called Hardware Wars a "cute little film." Fante recalled one night being out to dinner with Ernie and Michael at a restaurant in San Anselmo, they looked over, and there was Lucas having dinner. They sent over a drink with the message, "It's from the makers of Hardware Wars."

Reports vary, but Fante has heard that Hardware Wars has grossed nearly a million dollars. "I don't know what the ultimate gross is, it's a closely guarded secret. I got paid $75 dollars (laughs), which I'm happy with." For many fans, Hardware Wars has stood the test of time, and once I learned how it came together from such modest means, my appreciation for it has grown even stronger. Not to mention the fact that it got out there and gained a big following when Star Wars was still a major hit movie playing in theaters, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. What else can we say, except, may the farce be with you, always…