Behind The ScenesSportsCenter

Aided by Luke Skywalker, ESPN produces a ‘Star Wars’ project that’s a labor of love

“This is definitely the highlight of my career,” feature producer Martin Khodabakhshian said between 14-18-hour editing days to complete the SC Featured’s Star Wars: Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN). “It’s my most fun, but most grueling assignment.”

This comes from a person who has received 11 National Emmy Awards as producer, many for ESPN’s critically acclaimed E:60, but who also wishes folks a “Merry Sithmas” this time of year, and is presently showing off a Darth Vader Christmas tree his wife made for him.

So in January, when Vice President, SportsCenter & News Storytelling Units, Craig Lazarus — knowing “Martin K” was a big “Star Wars” fan — sent him an email asking if he knew anyone who could do “the ultimate sports-related ‘Star Wars’ piece” in conjunction with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” let’s just say Khodabakhshian didn’t hesitate responding in the affirmative (and coincidentally he was at Disney World at the time).

We share a bond over the ‘Star Wars’ universe so it was a pleasure collaborating with him.
– Coordinating producer Ben Houser on working with feature producer Martin Khodabakhshian on the project

“I didn’t want to do the stereotypical ‘big-name-athlete who has a ‘Star Wars’ collection (that probably dwarfs mine),’” Khodabakhshian said, although his “Star Wars”-dedicated room probably belies that fear. “So, talking to my neighbor I learned that part of the blueprint of the movie’s lightsaber duels was a form of Japanese martial art called kenjutsu – which evolved into kendo – and that triggered off the idea to do something on that influence on the film.”

It just so happened the World Kendo Championships – held every three years – would be staged six months later in Tokyo. Khodabakhshian was off for a shoot in Japan, leaving stateside responsibilities to one of his “closest friends in the world,” coordinating producer Ben Houser, who grew up watching early ‘Star Wars’ films on his father’s reel-to-reel projector and celebrating ‘Star Wars’-themed birthdays.

“We share a bond over the ‘Star Wars’ universe so it was a pleasure collaborating with him — Martin is one of our most talented producers, and he poured his life into this project,” Houser said. “Everything we did was a joint effort — discussing concepts, ideas, the shoot locations, our poster, and the idea of Mark Hamill as the host.”

Oh yeah, they got to meet Luke Skywalker.

Mark is even cooler than Luke, and a consummate professional. Mark told us he turned down a myriad opportunities and PR requests for the movie to do this specific project. – Producer Martin Khodabakhshian on working with Mark Hamill

“A kendo feature raised the idea of expanding the show, but when Mark Hamill came into the discussion with Ben, and we learned we got him — game over!” Khodabakhshian said of a 12-14 minute piece becoming the 30-minute special. “Working with him [doing stand-ups and voice-overs Dec. 7-8 in Los Angeles] touched every fiber of my body, and brought back the reality of why I got into this business. Mark is even cooler than Luke, and a consummate professional. Mark told us he turned down a myriad opportunities and PR requests for the movie to do this specific project.”

A project made easier when you’re already an expert on the subject.

“Being a fan of the franchise made it easy to know exactly what we wanted to make this show unique,” Houser said, “and the archival folks at Lucasfilm helped us obtain rare behind-the-scenes footage from the first six films.

“We want to deliver for the ‘Star Wars’ fans,” Khodabakhshian said, “and with the reaction to the trailer on Facebook [the Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel trailer is over two million views and climbing], it’s cool there’s a little pressure on us to do it.”

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