Patrick Read Johnson has been making his Star Wars homage, 5-25-77, for 18 years.
Well, longer than that, if you start counting in 1999 when he first started writing the script. It’s an autobiographical story about how Johnson started in a small town in Illinois and made a life in Hollywood. Johnson’s 5-25-77, which finally had its theatrical release earlier this year and is now streaming on Showtime, isn’t just about his childhood and aspirations of being a moviemaker. It’s also the true story of how he became the first ever fan to ever watch the original Star Wars movie, which came out on, you guessed it, May 25, 1977.
The idea for the movie first started in the 1990s, when Johnson got to know Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz.
“One day, I say just offhand, you know, ‘I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I saw Star Wars long before it came out.’ [Gary] goes, really? What it was, a test screening or something?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, long before you probably even did test screenings, or at least any that I ever knew of anything else.’ And he goes, ‘Well, when did you see it?’ And I gave him the date. And he said, ‘Wait a minute,’” Johnson explains.
“He goes, ‘If you saw Star Wars on that day, you were the first human being that didn’t either work on it or have something to do with marketing… you were the first nonprofessional… to have ever seen it.’ And he goes, ‘You’re fan one.’”
Kurtz encouraged him to write a screenplay about that story. So he did. And over two decades later, the rest is history. The reason it took Johnson so long to finish the movie is, well, complicated.
The meat of the story starts in 2004, when Johnson had 5-25-77 in production and started shooting. Freaks and Geeks star John Francis Daley was cast to play Johnson alongside other cast including Austin Pendleton, Colleen Camp and Neil Flynn.
At one time, Johnson was set up at Universal, and over the years he’s had several chances to have it made for a good budget by a large studio. But he chose not to go that route because he wasn’t willing to compromise or allow the story to be changed.
“We actually brought it to some major studios, a couple of which were happy to make it,” Johnson says. “But a certain incredibly high-powered executive at Disney at the time said, ‘I’ll make this movie tomorrow.’ But he goes, ‘I know you, Patrick. And I need to tell you something. You’re not going to want to make the version of this that I’m going to greenlight, because if I greenlight this, it’s going to have to be like Road Trip for moviemakers. It’s going to have to be lots of sex, drugs.’ I don’t have any problem showing any of that in my films at all — I would be happy to. The problem was, he was saying, ‘I don’t mean just show it — you’re going to have to make, basically, a comedy out of what is really an intense drama with lots of fun.”
So Johnson decided to make the movie independently. And that comes with many challenges and, as he found out, setbacks.
After production originally wrapped in 2004, Johnson realized he needed to do some reshoots — and then some more reshoots in 2006. When post-production began, things slowed to a crawl. Johnson needed more money, but he was unwilling to compromise. The main hold-ups involved the soundtrack, which includes several ’70s rock songs, the rights to which ended up costing, after a heavy discount, $200,000. Then there was color timing and the final sound mix.
But thanks to Johnson’s dogged efforts — and his decision to screen unfinished versions of the movie at many festivals over the years, even taking it on the road to show the public — the movie began to take on a sort of legendary status. It accumulated fans who genuinely wanted to see the movie get finished, and picked up more funding.
Finally, by 2019, he was ready to release the film. Then the pandemic hit. Fast forward three years later, and 5-25-77 had a theatrical release earlier this fall. Johnson insists the timing of the long-awaited release has absolutely nothing to do with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, of which he is a big supporter.
“If you see just one disaffected-cinema-youth-trying-to-make-it-in-his-hometown-as-a-young-boy movie this year, it should probably be The Fabelmans,” Johnson says. “But if you see two…”
5-25-77 is now streaming on Showtime.