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Wadsworth director has new hope for ‘Star Wars’ flick

Film director Patrick Read Johns(right) 50 Iowposes for phowith Morgan Flores 30 Iowalong side 1975 Ford Pinwith Stormtroopers outside Genesee

Film director Patrick Read Johnson (right), 50, of Iowa, poses for a photo with Morgan Flores, 30, of Iowa along side a 1975 Ford Pinto with Stormtroopers outside the Genesee Theater. Johnson will be driving the Pinto across the country in a fundraising effort for his film 5-25-77 the anniversary of Stars Wars. Johnson is formerly from Wadsworth. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 3, 2012 10:49AM

WAUKEGAN —“Star Wars” — or, as George Lucas has renamed it, “Star Wars: Episode IV —  A New Hope” — was a mere twentysomething when Patrick Read Johnson first started pursuing his dream of producing a semi-autobiographical movie about the night he saw his generation’s defining cinematic adventure.

 As of Friday, “Star Wars” is now 35 years old, constitutionally eligible to run for president. And Johnson — the Wadsworth filmmaker with such titles as “Angus” and  “Baby’s Day Out” on his entry — is not only still trying to bring his independent film to the silver screen but is prepared to go the extra mile to do it.

 Make that the extra 2,000 miles, or the distance between Lake County and Hollywood, where Johnson is headed in a bid to secure the final chunk of financing to finish “77,” as the film originally known as “5-25-77” is now titled.

 “We’re about $500,000 away from completing it,” Johnson said this week as he laid plans for the cross-country journey. “The main thing we have to do is finish our special effects and decide what music we can afford to use. (We) have about 20 songs right now, but I’m guessing by the time we get done (paying for the rights), it will be about five.”

 On Friday afternoon, Johnson staged a ceremonial start to the road trip in front of the Genesee Theatre, epicenter of the film’s climactic scenes and the potential site for a premiere screening of the finished product.

Johnson was joined by his support crew: A documentary team planning to capture the endeavor as “Hearts of Dorkness: a filmmaker’s oddyssey.” (sic)

The crew includes Morgan Flores, James Gelet, Donald Revolinski and Chamolie Thompson. Their first scheduled stop is a film festival in Fairfield, Iowa, and the road to Tinseltown is expected to include stops in Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Texas — as well as a KOA campground at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is routinely played on an outdoor screen.

The featured player for the journey is a 1975 Ford Pinto, which was purchased specifically for the film to stand in for the actual vehicle that Johnson took out to Hollywood when chasing a film career more than three decades ago.

 “It is an actual, original 1975 Pinto, not a copy,” Johnson said. “It’s got a new engine, and new tires, but otherwise it’s the real thing.”

 The path to completing “77” can be traced back more than 10 years, around the time Johnson moved back to Wadsworth from Southern California to raise his family. When Johnson first developed a script depicting a day in the life of a Warren Township High School student going through hell to see this hot new movie he’d heard about, the Genesee Theatre was still in mothballs and two of the “Star Wars” prequels hadn’t even been released. 

“I’m going to film all those scenes at the Genesee Theatre. I desperately want to film it there,” Johnson told The News-Sun in April 2000. “If I have it my way, we’d film it all here (in Lake County) and it would be a complete community effort. If I set this here in Gurnee and Wadsworth and Waukegan, the good will alone will help us out so much as far as filming locations.”

Sure enough, by spring 2004, filming was taking place at such locales as Six Flags Great America, Waukegan High School and the former St. Therese Medical Center. More scenes were shot inside the refurbished Genesee in March 2006 with a cast that included Patrick Francis Daley (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Bones”) and the late Justin Mentell of Waukegan, who was co-starring at the time on “Boston Legal.” Also among the cast were Waukegan native Neil Flynn (“Scrubs,” “The Middle”) and longtime character actor Austin Pendleton.

The direct result of that effort was a teaser trailer shown during a film festival at the Genesee in 2006 and a longer cut that made the rounds in 2007, including a screening at the College of Lake County. Outside of that, funding issues kept the project in what Johnson described with a laugh as “post-production hell.”

If this summer’s 30-day excursion goes as planned, Johnson said, a full-length cut of the film could be screened at the Genesee in July. Much of that depends on a prospective series of California visits with key members of the science-fiction filmmaking community, who will be offered a live screening of the film.

 “Much like everything else in life, we’re making it up as we go along,” he said, adding that he’s optimistic about taking care of business once he reaches the West Coast. “It’s been a long road, but I think I can see the end of it.” 

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