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The fan force

by Jake Wilson


Article published online here, June 4, 2009

Troy Henderson, Australian Garrison Commander of the 501st Legion  an international Star Wars costuming association  outside Flinders Street Station.

Troy Henderson, Australian Garrison Commander of the 501st Legion an international Star Wars costuming association outside Flinders Street Station.
Photo: Simon Schluter

The Star Wars films have prompted some serious acts of fandom. Jake Wilson meets four people taking their devotion far, far away from the norm.

EVERYONE'S a fan of something, whether it's football, basketball, cars or motorcycles," says Rob Baard. "And it's our human nature, I think, to aspire to be like the things we're following."

Baard, 28, should know. While employed as the marketing manager at Village Cinemas Geelong, he spent five years' worth of evenings and weekends labouring on Star Wars: The Untold Tale, a feature-length "fan film" that had its Melbourne premiere in 2006.

Baard, who was just 19 when he started making the film, calls it "a coming-of-age story".

"When you're a young boy all you want to do is go off and have adventures, and then when you're out there in the real world you're faced with all these obstacles. Can you deal with them? Can you not deal with them? That's what the film's all about."

In retrospect, Baard regards The Untold Tale primarily as a learning experience "my five years of film school," he says. The actors were filmed in front of a green screen in a storage room next to the cinema; later, he painstakingly added in the science-fiction backdrops on his home computer. He says he is particularly proud of the film's climax, a fight between a Jedi Knight and a Sith Lord "with droids flying around everywhere" that ends with the pair toppling through space into water hundreds of feet below.

Though he was pleased with the response his film got with one family of fans in Adelaide dubbing it "part seven" of the Star Wars cycle Baard admits he made a big mistake in not tapping into the mass of like-minded souls out there. "Only afterwards did we realise that there was this massive fan base out there, close by, that could have been involved."

Baard is not the only Australian fan to have composed his own chapter of the epic story that began long, long ago. Melbourne writer Tom Taylor, whose play The Example was a winner at Short and Sweet in 2005, is employed full-time writing for the monthly comic series Star Wars: Invasion, an authorised spin-off of the films. The first instalment, set "25 years after Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star", will be released next month.

Taylor, 30, can hardly believe he's been given the chance to participate in the industry at all, let alone write dialogue for some of his childhood heroes: "I'm still pinching myself."

Though only an eight-page "teaser" for the comic-book series has so far been published, Taylor is already aware of the intense scrutiny online. "Within moments of its being announced there were posts up at various fan sites and people commenting on what they'd like to see and what they wouldn't like to see."

Writing in the very specific tradition of space opera, he has still found subtle ways to touch on some of his favoured political themes. For example, all the heroes of the series are refugees "from one of the first worlds destroyed by the big invasion force".

With an MA in cultural studies, Melbourne writer Mary Borsellino, 27, has a few theories about what makes the Star Wars franchise so ripe for redevelopment and expansion. For a start, setting a story in an alternate universe rather than the mundane world gives readers or viewers a special licence to imagine new scenes and events for themselves. "Just by the nature of the text there's a lot more you can say about Middle Earth or a galaxy far, far away," she says.

Borsellino, who works in the philanthropic sector, has published Star Wars fan fiction online, but she is not a fan only of this series. She has campaigned against sexism in comics, undertaken academic research on the TV series Supernatural, and is about to publish the first in a series of young adult novels titled The Wolf House, which she describes as "Twilight for punks".

Speaking about fandom in general, she says the texts with the most devoted followings tend to be "deeply mythic, really big stories about heroes or villains, people who are in some way out to change the world or save the world".

Apart from Star Wars, other narratives that fit this bill include Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Lord of the Rings; Borsellino has written stories in tribute to all three. "It's also whether (the original) feels like it's missing something," she adds. "Fandom needs a crack to get in."

If Borsellino's approach to pop culture is rather high-brow, Troy Henderson, 34, represents a different kind of fandom. An electrician by day, he recently took over as the Australian Garrison Commander of the 501st Legion, an international Star Wars costuming association with the motto "Bad Guys Doing Good".

Members of the legion make regular public appearances dressed as Darth Vader's stormtroopers and other Star Wars villains, often raising money for charity in the process.

This week, Henderson and his fellow troopers are scheduled to appear at the opening of the Scienceworks exhibition Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, which displays costumes and props from the original films. They will also be at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for the Melbourne premiere of Fanboys, a comedy about four friends who embark on a road trip just before the release of The Phantom Menace (1999).

While the 501st are out to enjoy themselves, they're also serious about the challenge of creating "movie-accurate" costumes. In other words, cardboard armour won't do.

Getting it right can require thousands of dollars and many months of toil, with attention lavished on everything from vacuum-formed armour to handmade boots.

Like the others Metropolis spoke to, Henderson's fascination with Star Wars has been with him since childhood. "I always loved the stormtroopers, they were always my favourite characters," he says. "But when you're a kid you can't go around playing the bad guy."

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination is at Scienceworks, until November 3. Fanboys is at ACMI June 5-21.

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