The Wookiee Wins: Meet the Director of the Chewbacca Doc That Conquered Kickstarter

Inside that famous furry costume is Peter Mayhew.
Inside that famous furry costume is Peter Mayhew.

Understandably, Peter Mayhew is not as well-known as Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill. But W. Ryan Ziegler wants to change that. The first-time filmmaker is now raising money on Kickstarter for Standing in the Stars: The Peter Mayhew Story, a documentary about the 7-foot-3 actor who played Chewbacca in the original Star Wars films. Mayhew needs attention now more than ever; after attending one more Star Wars convention, he’ll undergo an unprecedented series of knee-replacement surgeries. Ziegler's film is also his way of helping the actor launch a comeback. Ziegler has already surpassed his Kickstarter's $42,000 goal, and, with four days to go, has raised $52,700. We talked to him about his project's ambitious goals, how much exposure Zach Braff and Spike Lee gave him, and why we should just let the Wookiee win already.

How did you learn of Mr. Mayhew's condition, and how did you come into his story?

I learned of his condition a few years ago. In addition to being a filmmaker, I know [Mayhew's] family well. I have visited his home a few times, and when I visited there in January, we talked about bringing friends, family, and fans along on this next giant step in Peter's life.

The last convention will show the lives he's touched. Alternately, I think more stories will emerge during interviews, recovery, and the first show [he attends] once he's back on his feet. That's where we'll get a real feel for Peter's strength and the huge yet tight-knit community that is his part of the Star Wars universe.

Given that a good part of this project is Mr. Mayhew's final convention before his surgery, how do you plan on approaching your subjects? Obviously you'll want to show how much Mayhew's fans love and support him. But I imagine you'll also have to avoid being too maudlin. Or do you see the film as a project to help Mr. Mayhew in his recovery first, and something for everyone else afterward?

In my opinion, the support of the fans is more than just driving the documentary, it's also driving Peter to press through this surgery. Between the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers and the regulars on the convention circuit, Peter and his wife, Angie, have no shortage of friends. Through their time at conventions, their nonprofit, the Peter Mayhew Foundation, and their work with Make-A-Wish, they've touched hundreds of thousands of lives. These same friends, fans, and family have had a huge impact on Peter's life.

Are you a big Star Wars fan?

I enjoyed the films, but until recently did not consider myself a part of the fandom. In researching for this project, and being included in the family's day-to-day, I have developed a tremendous respect for the fans. In particular, the 501st [Legion] have really stood out as the most inspiring, intriguing, and impressive family of fans I could have imagined.

People of all ages, spanning generations of Star Wars fans, have ways of relating to [Mayhew]. Diehards know the details of his character, and appreciate the subtlety of his iconic gait. Older fans remember who they took to see it for the first time. Younger fans have seen the movies and watched the animated series where Peter's voice was added to Chewbacca's vocal track. Infants have Wookiee the Chew artwork hanging from their nursery walls. Star Wars is ingrained in our society, and will continue to hold a special place in the hearts of generations to come. At conventions, everyone is impressed by [Mayhew's] size, even seated. And no one walks away without a handshake and an autograph from our favorite gentle giant.

Why Kickstarter? And what do you think about the ongoing argument about the influence of celebrity on Kickstarter (i.e., whether celebrities who use Kickstarter to fund their projects can bring more eyes to other projects)?

Kickstarter was a great platform because the Mayhews live among the fans and interact daily with them. They live their lives publicly and, as such, really wanted to find a way to share what they were going through with anyone who was interested.

More broadly, in my experience, celebrities that throw their clout at any business can do nothing but help it grow. I don't think it's taking away from the little Kickstarter projects as much as it's bringing more people to the Kickstarter platform by having celebrities host their ideas there. Through Kickstarter analytics, I can tell you that very little of our support came from [the] Discovery [feature] on Kickstarter as compared to the direct outside support we received from [Mayhew's] fan base across the world.

Have you reached out to Mayhew's co-stars for support, or interviews?

His co-stars have shown a lot of support, and Lucasfilm has given us the go-ahead on our project. But beyond that, we have not reached out to the industry a lot yet.

How did you plan to film Mayhew's medical procedures and recovery? It's a delicate matter.

The doctors are all in, and the engineers behind the prosthetics have worked tirelessly for months to reach this point. We've been allowed a lot of clearance when it comes to filming the medical side due to the rarity of this sort of surgery. Gigantism is treatable, and so the number of giants in the world is falling. From my research, I have yet to find another account of a giant going through this process. Everything used in the surgery is custom. Even the hardware for cutting through bone had to be custom-made for Peter's surgery. The stakes are high, but everyone knows to let the Wookiee win. Peter has already allowed the fans to see him struggle for two years getting in and out of a wheelchair. The idea of filming his recovery is not intrusive but empowering to Mayhew.

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