On The Trail: a disturbance in Australian Star Wars fandom

Bounty Trail

This article was first published in Frontier Issue 1, April 1996. This republication has been edited May 2024.

Justin Dix is an energetic, quick-talking man who works as a film promoter, prop designer, set designer and sometimes graphic artist. Somehow in the middle of this hectic schedule he manages to be an independent filmmaker. His latest is causing a stir in fandom circles, even overseas; the Star Wars-based short film Bounty Trail.

At a gathering to discuss Star Wars in general, and Bounty Trail in particular, we pick Justin’s brain for information about the film. This is not a hard task; set the conversation in motion and Justin will readily tell almost all, moving smoothly from one aspect to the next. His excitement and enthusiasm for the project are openly displayed and catching us in its wake.

What is Bounty Trail? “I wrote it about a year after I saw The Empire Strikes Back in high school,” Justin explains. “As a creative essay. It’s set between Empire and Return of the Jedi, directly after Boba Fett leaves Bespin and he has Solo. The scrolling text goes much like this: ‘Slave 1 hurtles toward the Nel Harta system. Boba Fett, satisfied with his prize, is unaware that the Empire once again considers Solo a valuable asset after the escape of Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader, determined to turn the young Jedi to the Dark Side, employs a Star Destroyer to track down the carbonated smuggler.’ That’s pretty much the story, it tells you exactly what is happening in Bounty Trail.”

As Vader would say, most impressive. The story is based around Boba Fett but features a cast of characters drawn from the underworld that was richly, yes as Justin laments sparsely, shown in the trilogy. “No rebels,” he replies to that question. “Completely Empire and bounty hunter orientated.”

Obviously Boba Fett and the world of the bounty hunters are wonderful characters to draw upon, but where did the story come from?

“It’s a logical conclusion,” Justin explains. “Vader put so much effort into getting Solo originally, he lost a Star Destroyer in the asteroid field trying to get Solo, because he knew he could not get Skywalker by himself. But Luke escaped. Vader’s logical conclusion: Skywalker is going after Solo. So, send a Star Destroyer to retrieve Solo. The thing is, because it’s more of a pride thing, for the reward but also pride, Boba Fett isn’t going to just give Solo back. He doesn’t realise that Skywalker escaped, he left before that. So he’s on his way to Tatooine… It’s going to have a Western feel… gunslinger sort of thing. Bounty hunters started in that era.”

By accounts the film aims to put a new twist into the Boga Fett character after what some would call an end not worthy of him in Return of the Jedi. While characters such as Darth Vader and Jabba the Hutt will make appearances, the events that evolve do not directly involve them. They do involve, however, a new bounty hunter villain.”

“The main bounty hunter the Empire has been in communication with is Tagor Bren,” Justin says. “He has a group of cronies, three or four who tag around with him.” Justin saw a picture of the bounty hunter in the Star Wars magazine and immediately recognise the character’s potential. “It says ‘the most feared bounty hunter in the universe’. I thought that if anyone could be a match for Boba Fett, it might be him.”

“The film turns Boba Fett into a bit of a good guy,” Justin continues. “There is going to be a huge surprise.”

So how does the film end? “I’m not going to tell you some of the things,” he replies with a grin. “The ending I think is good. Because I’m at a disadvantage, set between Empire and Jedi, we know that Boba is going to be alive, we know he’s got Solo, we know he gets to Jabba’s Palace. So the ending can’t be that.” He goes on to explain the story will have an ending where viewers can draw some of their own conclusions to some events. “The ending has to be what no one expects, really.”

Being an independent film, there is nowhere near the budget of a blockbuster. There is concern this may reflect in the acting. Justin is not worried.

“Ninety percent of the characters are in helmets or masks. The other ten percent are human faces, most of them Imperial…they always stand straight, very military, they never get overdramatic, they never get mad, they never get sad. There will be fear in some of them, Vader is in it.” He grins.

Justin is determined to keep the atmosphere on set wound up, as well as allowing much improvisation. “If someone think so of a good thing to put in there, that fits into the story… We’re less restricted than motion pictures are. When the script’s done and we’re filming, if someone goes ‘Hey what about this line?’ and we quickly go…” He makes a scribbling sound. “‘Gee that sounds a whole lot better.’ We want people to improvise on their characters. We don’t want to take complete directions, we want them to know who their character is… Because it’s Star Wars, they have so much resource material to drawn upon. We’d like people to get really into it.”

Shooting has not yet started, beyond a short trailer Justin made earlier this year. He’s hoping to get the film out by the beginning of next year, but for now the schedule looks like “later”.

Justin goes to great length to make sure we understand this is a fan film. Everyone involved is a Star Wars fan, and Justin has recruited as many fans as he can for both on and off screen roles. His storyboard artist is in New South Wales, as are several actors. One of the actors owns a property outside Melbourne, and this is where principle photography will take place. Justin has three computer graphic (CGI) artists and two pyrotechnic experts. All of these people are donating their time and expertise for free, including much of the equipment being used, just for the thrill of working on a Star Wars fan film.

An example of this is the costumes. “Most of the suits are already done,” Justin says. “That’s one good thing. Because they all have owners, we already have the cast members to go with them. Everybody wants to be in a Star Wars film. If fans make recreations, if they’ve got some good props… I’m quite willing to put them in. The thing is, I’d much prefer they came long and wore them.”

It is this attitude, combed with his enthusiasm, that has guaranteed him wide support for the film. “It’s fan orientated, Crew, cast, everything. I’m always open to anybody who’s got new things. There’s some people who make masks, people who make their own weaponry… There’s not going to be a huge archive after this, everyone takes their stuff home.”

The project is on a fast track, but Justin is realistic about it. “It’s still going to be very hard for some people to know what we’re doing, if we’re going to come up with a reasonable (end) product, if they haven’t seen the trailer. As soon as you mention ‘amateur’ – we prefer ‘independent’ – people assume cheap and cheesy… cheesy sets, cheesy models, all that sort of stuff. If it looks bad, we’re going putting it on camera. It’s got to look good. All the other films we’ve done were as a small group. But now I love the idea of bringing in all the different talent, all the different fans from everywhere, it’s going to make the project just that much better. And we really want to stress, it’s non-profit.”

He then indulges in a small amount of dreaming. With what’s now available to the public in computer graphics, high-grade film and video equipment, and the high dedication of fans “…we can probably come up with as good a product as (the original) Star Wars.”

Until the re-release of A New Hope, and the new films promised by George Lucas, it is up to fans to keep the real vibe of Star Wars going. With the high quality of production available, and the extremely talented people who love Star Wars so much, fans doing such things for themselves help keep morale high. 

Justin has the final word. “We love doing original stuff, original is better. But what’s great about doing this, is it already has an audience before we’ve started. We’ve got a couple of thousand people already waiting to see it. We’re cheating a bit in that way, but it’s good.” He smiles broadly. “And we never know who’s going to see it.”

2024 postscript: Justin Dix went on to establish a full time career in the film industry and worked on the Star Wars prequel films.