It was an unlikely encounter. Johnson, then 15, was from Wadsworth, Illinois, making Super-8 movies with his friends. His mother had sung her son’s praises to the editor of American Cinematographer magazine, who set up a trip to Los Angeles and a meeting with the director. But what really galvanized Johnson on that West Coast trip was getting a chance to visit Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the effects house conceived by Spielberg’s pal George Lucas.
ILM staffers asked Johnson if he wanted to watch some rough, unfinished footage of Lucas’s next project, a fantasy epic that at the time was due to be released in theaters in just three months. Johnson saw through missing effects shots, boom mics, and other rough edges to become perhaps the first civilian fan of Star Wars.
The experience led Johnson, who went on to become a successful filmmaker, to mount 5-25-77, an autobiographical movie sparked by that experience. The movie, which was mostly filmed in 2004, has sat unreleased for close to two decades. If the original Star Wars trilogy birthed 5-25-77, then Lucas’s prequel saga may have helped temporarily tank it.
“I now think that a lot of that came from a generation of studio executives and financiers who grew up with the original three films [and] who were unhappy with the prequels and just didn’t want to consider supporting any other projects that somehow celebrated what they now considered a tainted brand,” Johnson tells Mental Floss.
But he wasn’t willing to give up.
A Long Time Ago, in an Illinois Far, Far Away
Johnson’s first seminal experience as a movie lover didn’t come in meeting Spielberg. It was years earlier, at a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Johnson was at an age where most kids were itching to see Disney films.
“My interest in filmmaking was sparked by my parents taking me to see 2001 during its opening run, in 1968,” Johnson says. “I was a 6-year-old kid when I walked into that theater. And by the time I was carried out, on my dad’s shoulder, I was, at least in my mind, a movie director trapped in the body of a 6-year-old kid.”
An autodidactic film education followed, with Johnson reading books about films and borrowing his father’s film camera to make home movies like an unauthorized sequel to Jaws: Johnson and some friends filled plastic bags full of red dye intending to bloody the family pool, not realizing it was dye concentrate. All of the water turned the color of beet juice and prompted a neighborhood rumor that someone had actually perished in there.
To help her son along—and possibly to prevent him from ruining the pool again—Janet Johnson phoned Herb Lightman, editor of American Cinematographer magazine, and asked him to introduce her son to special effects artist Douglas Trumbull, who had worked on 2001. Lightman agreed, and while showing the teen around Los Angeles, took him to the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to meet Spielberg. They later went to ILM, as Lightman was intending to write something about Star Wars—and allowed Johnson to tag along.
“According to Herb, rumor had it they were in way over their heads and things weren’t going well,” Johnson says. “And that seemed to be confirmed when we arrived and [effects artist] John Dykstra apologized profusely to Herb that he could show us around the facility but didn’t have any still photos for Herb to use in the magazine article, because Lucasfilm’s offices [there] had been broken into the night before and someone had stolen basically all of the slides, stills, and transparencies they had.”
Without any supporting media, Dykstra figured the best way to get Lightman interested in Star Wars was to screen some footage. “So he ushered us into ILM’s screening room, fired up the projector, and the screen filled with blue … nothing but big, wide silent blue. And then, the Star Destroyer appeared overhead, and kept appearing, growing longer, and wider, and it just kept going, and going.”
Johnson was transfixed, in much the same way millions of moviegoers would be in a few months’ time. Dykstra screened a few more scenes while Lightman asked questions and Johnson watched in awe. “Until, the next thing we knew, the Death Star had blown up, our heroes had gotten their medals, and the film just ended [with] no credits, no music, just silence and darkness. And me suddenly knowing what I had to do.”
Johnson may have initially arrived in Los Angeles as a visitor, but he eventually realized his ambitions. After dropping out of Illinois State University in 1980, he headed west, doing effects work and writing screenplays. He directed the sci-fi comedy Spaced Invaders (1990), the John Hughes-penned Baby’s Day Out (1994), and the coming-of-age film Angus (1995). That latter film resulted in a battle with studio executives over the edit; they wanted a “hip” teen film to market, while Johnson preferred a low-key approach.
The experience, Johnson says, caused him to rethink his relationship with Hollywood. “I was still nursing the wounds of directing Angus and thought, as I was mostly making my income off screenwriting, which I could do on Mars, why would I want to continue to live in Los Angeles? So, I loaded up my life and family and moved back to Wadsworth, Illinois.”
Upon returning to his hometown in 1999, Johnson was reminded of the people, places, and memories of his childhood in the 1970s. “I became so ensnared in these memories that I realized I had to just write them all down. And soon I found myself writing what would become 5-25-77.”
A few years prior, Johnson had floated an idea for an autobiographical film set in the ‘70s to Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz. After telling Kurtz about his Star Wars screening, the producer suggested that be the hook for the film. (The title, 5-25-77, refers to the date Lucas’s film originally arrived in theaters.)
Revisiting the idea years later, Kurtz was encouraging. After completing a script, Johnson began shooting in 2004 with actor John Francis Daley (Freaks and Geeks) playing “Pat Johnson,” a teen navigating adolescence and spurred on by Star Wars to realize his ambitions of moving from small-town Illinois to Hollywood in order to become a filmmaker.
To play Johnson’s supportive mother, Janet, co-producer Fred Roos approached Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, for the role. Fisher wanted to do it, but the plan ultimately fell through, as did a planned cameo by Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) as a theater owner taken aback by the surprising success of Star Wars—plus one by Mark Hamill as a cop. Hamill was willing but worried his presence would take people out of the movie.
Johnson had interest from studios, but their desire to turn the film into something more salacious, like then-recent hits American Pie or Road Trip, soured him on going that route. Instead, he financed the film through private fundraising, securing roughly $120,000 to shoot the movie his way.
Johnson shot most of what he needed before that financing became a problem. “The first 75 percent of the film, basically all of the stuff that takes place in Illinois, was shot for about $100,00,” Johnson says. “But just as we were about to embark on shooting the Hollywood portion of the film, one of the original investors just essentially vanished and we were left with a movie that was 75 percent complete, but we had no money to finish.”
Johnson cut together what he had, which was three-quarters of a film, and “spent two years showing a really fun little film, that had, at its center, what was probably the longest ‘scene missing’ slug in film history, 30 minutes of a title card that read: ‘Pat Goes to Hollywood.’”
Finding the money to finish the film came with an additional wrinkle. In between Johnson conceiving of and shooting 5-25-77, Lucas had returned to the Star Wars universe with a trilogy of films chronicling the evolution of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. Though they were financially successful, the films received a critical drubbing.
“We also started running into a huge amount of cynicism about Star Wars itself,” Johnson says. “It’s not like the prequels weren’t making money, it was more that there was this weird pushback on the idea that Star Wars was going to last, that anything to do with Star Wars was naturally going to be successful.”
For the umpteenth time, 5-25-77 didn’t look like it would ever see the light of day.
The eroding faith in Star Wars didn’t bode well for Johnson’s near-completed film, which ultimately wound up needing an additional six figures in funding for effects, post-production work, and music rights. Rather than fight against the market, he opted to wait it out.
5-25-77 became something of a mythological film in Star Wars circles, one that Johnson was happy to keep alive. In 2007 and with Lucas’s blessing, he screened it for Star Wars convention fans. While Johnson was happy to get the film in front of an audience, he was also curious to see what he could trim.
“The folks at Lucasfilm had heard all about the film from Gary Kurtz and [ILM chief creative officer] John Knoll and others involved and asked to take a look,” Johnson says. “We sent them a DVD of the 3.5 hour cut, and they liked it enough to invite us to screen it at Celebration IV, which was a huge opportunity for us to both get the word out about the film and also to test the cut we had and find the best places to cut.”
Encouraged by the response, Johnson took the edited film on tour, driving it from city to city in his Ford Pinto and eventually accruing over 7000 miles. (Unreleased footage shot for a documentary about the road trip may surface one day, Johnson says.) In 2013, it played the Toronto International Film Festival. Though it was seen by small audiences, the struggle to garner a wide release remained out of reach.
Intermittently, Johnson would try to shoot pick-up footage he was still missing; he also needed funds to secure rights to songs and finish effects shots. Each screening seemed to be a work-in-progress presentation. At one point, Johnson even recruited students at the University of North Carolina School of Arts, where he was teaching at the time, to assist in shooting new footage.
Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012 would prove to be the turning point. After years of dormancy, Star Wars was generating new content, including a successful sequel series and several television shows. As Johnson said in 2017, “I don’t have to get people to go see a movie about nerds, because nerd culture is the dominant pop culture now.”
But there were still hiccups. A planned 2015 release intended to capitalize on The Force Awakens didn’t quite pan out. Neither did a May 25, 2017 rollout. While the film screened in select theaters, it didn’t see a wide release. The problem, according to Johnson, was that he still needed to secure rights for the soundtrack.
“The final obstacle to the film being released had nothing to do with companies wanting to release it or not. It was all about the fact that we had a fantastic ‘70s rock song soundtrack, featuring a lot of songs by Queen, Supertramp, 10cc, Argent, Ambrosia, Ringo Starr, The Alan Parsons Project, and many more, that we had managed to negotiate an incredible low-cost ‘favored-nations’ deal for, but was still totaling close to $200,000 that we just didn’t have.”
Distributors suggested using cheaper songs, which caused Johnson to flinch. “I wasn’t willing to sacrifice what was in many ways the life-blood of the ‘feeling’ of the time and place that these songs, as performed by the original artists, added to the film.”
In 2020, Johnson got a call that had been 20 years—or perhaps 43 years—in the making. Eric Wilkinson, the acquisitions director at distributor MVD Entertainment Group and a longtime fan of Johnson’s film, said he’d been able to secure the funds for the soundtrack.
In May 2022, MVD announced they had acquired the worldwide rights to 5-25-77, formally ending the film’s Carbonite freeze. It’s in select theaters now, with a digital release coming on November 8. What will people see? According to Johnson, it’s the film he set out to make back in 2004—one that may hinge on but is not really about Star Wars. Instead, it’s about the kind of influence that kind of creative spark can have on another artist. The film itself, he says, is presented without compromise.
“It’s far better than the film I set out to make,” Johnson says. “Over the years, I’ve had the benefit that very few filmmakers get of having time to really consider and feel the film, not only as it developed but as I developed. One of the things that is really vital in making a film that has the potential to connect deeply with an audience is knowing your film’s premise. Not its story, or its plot, but its purpose.
“When I first set out to make 5-25-77, I suppose I was just trying to celebrate or exorcise the ghosts of my past. But, over time, I came to realize that what I was really hoping to do was to celebrate and thank everyone who ever believed in me, all the people that maybe knew, far better than I did, that I just might make it.”