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These Fans Love ‘Star Wars’ So Much They Made Their Own Films

In the remote desert sand dunes near Glamis, California, not far from where part of 1983's "Return of the Jedi" was shot, a team of filmmakers has come to make the next "Star Wars" movie.

And while there may be real stormtroopers wandering the set here, you won't find George Lucas or J.J. Abrams.

But you will find Jeff Henderson and Nick Finch.

"Look at him with the guns! Are you kidding me?" Henderson says, pointing excitedly at stormtroopers carrying huge laser rifles as they march over a steep dune. "If I was a kid and saw that, I would literally spontaneously combust!"

Henderson, 48, and Finch, 33, are friends. But they're also "Star Wars" fans so in love with that "galaxy far, far away" that they've decided to produce and direct their own "Star Wars" movie. Their film, "The Sable Corsair," is about space smugglers who crash land on a strange planet and soon get into trouble.

For three days in April, Henderson and Finch — along with a small army of friends and family — battled 100-degree heat, blowing sand, wayward dune buggies driving through their scenes, and fatigue.

"It's been hectic and so fun," says Alex Lynn Ward, who plays a character named Adara. She also happens to be Nick's girlfriend.

But tough working conditions are taking a toll, and the team falls behind schedule.

"We're at the point now where if you made a checklist of all the things that could literally and figuratively go wrong, we've checked all of them off the list. Other than tsunami, zombies, Godzilla, plague of locusts," Henderson says.

"The Sable Corsair" will be Henderson and Finch's entry into something called the Star Wars Fan Film Awards, run by Lucasfilm (a division of ABC's parent company Disney) since 2002. Beyond bragging rights, the contest doesn't come with huge prizes, or any guarantee of fame and fortune. So why do it?

"It's one of those things like a childhood nostalgia that you just fall in love with," says Finch. "Once you watch the first one, I don't care who you are, then you're hooked. Then you want to know about these people and see what keeps happening."

"It's a world we love, a universe we love, and we get to play in it," says actor America Young, recruited to play a lightsaber-wielding Sith Witch.

Like the other roughly 60 people working on the movie, she isn't getting paid. Not in money, anyway.

"OK, did you see the shot we just did?" Young asks following a late afternoon take. "We were surrounded by stormtroopers and Boba Fett on Tatooine. That's what I'm getting paid!"

On the last day of the grueling desert shoot, Henderson stops to thank the group of volunteer extras dressed as sand troopers, Imperial officers and even Boba Fett. They are members of what's known as the 501st Legion, a worldwide group of "Star Wars" costume enthusiasts.

"You look phenomenal, and seriously, I can't tell you what this means to us," Henderson tells them.

He says it'd be great to win the contest, but winning isn't everything.

"The worst case scenario [is] that I've spent three days with some of the most important people in my life personally and creatively, and we make our own 'Star Wars' movie," Henderson says. "There's no downside."

The strange and fun world where fans make their own movies about characters and stories they are passionate about is bigger than ever. And it's not just "Star Wars." There are hundreds of fan films online, spanning from homemade Harry Potter adventures to "Game of Thrones" knockoffs.

For the most part, big studios tolerate fans using their copyrighted characters in fan films as long as those fans don't make a profit. Lucasfilm actually encourages them.

"I think what Lucasfilm gets out of it above all, is a healthy fan community. You want your fans to love you, to love the story, to express themselves," says Anthony Breznican, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly who covers the "Star Wars" beat. "It's really just a way of nourishing that fan base and keeping them happy and engaged and curious."

Once the three-day shoot wraps, Henderson, Finch and the rest of "The Sable Corsair" crew are under the gun, trying to finish editing before the contest deadline.

"We're trying to do six months of work in about 10 days," says Henderson, who works full-time as an artist and designer.

The team gathers to re-record dialogue at the Southern California apartment Henderson shares with his girlfriend Jenna Busch, creator of the "Legion of Leia" blog.

"Our house is full of 'Star Wars,' it's our favorite movie," Busch says. "In fact, I didn't go to the premiere of 'The Force Awakens.' I waited another day until he came back from China so we could see it together."

PHOTO: The people pictured are volunteers - friends and family members as well as members of the 501st Legion - working to make a fan film out of a shared love of Star Wars.ABC News
The people pictured are volunteers – friends and family members as well as members of the 501st Legion – working to make a fan film out of a shared love of "Star Wars."

There's a lot at stake. The team raised about $10,000 with a GoFundMe campaign, and spent about $3,000 of their own money. Finch, who works as an actor by day and a bartender by night, says they even lost money because they turned down work in order to devote more time to finishing the film.

And this year, their competition is fierce. In all, the 2016 Star Wars Fan Film Awards received more than 500 entries according to Mickey Capoferri, senior director of Online Content & Programming at Lucasfilm.

In New York, brothers Samtubia and Samgoma Edwards are submitting their own fan movie called "TK-436: A Stormptrooper Story."

The pair shot their story in a small park not far from their home in the Bronx. The movie includes a number of visual effects that aren't just good, they rival Hollywood's best.

The brothers hope their entry gets attention from studios looking to hire up-and-coming directors.

"We hope people see it and think, 'Wow, these guys do high concept ideas, visual effects, action,'" Samtubia says.

That might be their dream, but it's one that actually came true for Joe Nussbaum. Back in 1999 the USC film grad made a "Star Wars" fan film called "George Lucas in Love." He was hoping it would jumpstart a Hollywood directing career. It did.

"It was like wildfire. It worked beyond our wildest dreams," Nussbaum says. "We made, like, 300 VHS copies. People were coming up to us saying they had seen it."

One of the fans that saw it? The "Star Wars" creator himself, George Lucas.

"I had a meeting at DreamWorks, where the head of DreamWorks came in and handed me a letter from George Lucas. The first line of which was, 'Steven Spielberg sent me a copy of your short film,'" Nussbaum says. "I mean it was incredible. It was a big time."

Today, you can find Nussbaum on a Los Angeles soundstage, directing and producing episodes of the Amazon series, "Just Add Magic." He says he owes his entire career to his fan film.

"One-hundred percent," he says. "In fact, I still get jobs off of it now. I've directed a lot of things. I'm really fortunate. But if I'm in a meeting and someone starts going gaga over anything, it's always 'George Lucas in Love.'"

The Star Wars Fan Film Awards Audience Choice category is judged by fans casting votes online. But Lucasfilm also recruits a few heavyweight judges to screen the entries in other categories, including director Gareth Edwards.

Edwards is helming "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," a movie he jokingly describes as his own fan film. He's seen "The Sable Corsair," and says he sympathizes with what the team had to deal with.

"Having stood in the middle of a desert, trying to shoot a 'Star Wars' film, I know that they probably suffered," Edwards says. "It's just even finding that location and then sticking it out in difficult conditions."

"I get worried when I watch stuff like that because I think, 'Watch your back.' The gap between professional filmmakers and amateurs is tiny and it's getting smaller and smaller," Edwards says of "The Sable Corsair."

After the fans and the filmmakers have a chance to vote, the winners will be announced in July at the Star Wars Celebration in London, a convention for "Star Wars" geeks that includes what is essentially the Academy Awards for "Star Wars" fan films.

Jeff and Nick, along with Nick's girlfriend Alex Lynn Ward and his brother and co-producer Chris Finch, have arrived in the U.K. just in time for the ceremony.

"It's been an epic journey," Chris says, tearing up. "I'm so proud of these two and everything they did. And it's awesome."

The time comes to announce the winner of the Audience Choice award, selected by fan votes.

"And the winner of Audience Choice," StarWars.com host Andi Gutierrez reveals, is "The Sable Corsair."

The crowd cheers. Jeff, Nick, Alex and Chris are all smiles as they take the stage. Their friends and family back home are staying up late to watch the ceremony as Gutierrez and co-host Peter Townley present them with a golden stormtrooper statue.

The Edwards brothers are winners too, taking home the Filmmaker Select award, and maybe someday, finding fame and fortune.

"'Star Wars' is a defining creative and professional centerpiece of our lives," Henderson says. "It's amazing, man. Especially because we did this because we love 'Star Wars' in a very sincere way."

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