George Lucas: The filmmaking force
George Lucas: The filmmaking force
A fiercely independent creative talent, Lucas not only reinvented the way movies were made and marketed, but he also changed the way they were financed and distributed.
Driven by an uncompromising vision of the film industry, he fought with the studios to control the art of making movies. How did he build his film empire? How did he find the ideas to produce some of cinema’s most profitable films and most iconic characters? In “George Lucas: A life,” Brian Jay Jones plunges us into the life and times of one of the most successful film writers, producers and directors in Hollywood history.
Lucas always felt that there wasn’t much in his childhood that inspired him in what he did as an adult. He was bored at school; he hated math, his spelling was awful but he loved reading, especially comics. He preferred science fiction comics but his favorite character was Scrooge McDuck, the adventurous uncle of Donald Duck whose motto was “Work Smarter, Not Harder.”
Scrooge was bright and sharp and he wanted to do something in a way no one had ever thought of before. There is something of Scrooge in Indiana Jones’ character. Lucas believes Uncle Scrooge is a perfect indicator of the American psyche. Incidentally, one of the first works of art he bought after he became famous was a page of Carl Barks’s original art for an Uncle Scrooge comic.
Besides comics, Lucas was driven by a passion for cars. In his little shed he would build lots of racecars that “we would push around and run down hills,” Lucas has said. To prevent his son from speeding, George Sr. bought him a diminutive Fiat Bianchina with an engine that Lucas compared to a sewing machine. “It was a dumb little car. What could I do with that? It was practically a motor scooter.”
Consumed by his passion for cars, Lucas was not studying and his grades suffered. Three days before his finals, he decided to study in the school’s library, but never made it home. On the road, Lucas did not see the Chevy Impala coming from the opposite direction. Luckily, his safety belt snapped and he was projected out of the car before it became deadly wreckage. Everybody thought he had not survived. “All the teachers that were going to flunk me gave me a D, so I managed to get my diploma by virtue of the fact that everybody thought I was going to be dead in three weeks anyway,” Lucas has said.
A new lease of life
While he was recuperating, George Lucas realized how lucky he was to have a new lease of life. For the first time in his life he decided to pay attention to his studies. He received his arts degree from Modesto Junior College. His childhood friend, John Plummer, advised him to apply to the University of Southern California (USC).
USC had a cinematography school where Lucas finally discovered the world of movies. “I fell madly in love with it, ate with it and slept with it 24 hours a day. There was no going back after that,” he has said.
The mid-1960s to early 1970s turned out to be an extraordinary moment for major US film schools. They saw the rise of the film industry’s most enduring and prolific directors, editors, writers, producers and craftsmen. “Schools in New York were turning out artists with a grittier, harder-edged approach to film, people such as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone at (New York University) and Brian de Palma at Columbia. In California, the versatile Francis Ford Coppola was working his way slowly through (the University of California, Los Angeles) even as he was writing and directing low-cost horror films for Roger Corman. Steven Spielberg was at Long Beach State, ad-libbing his own cinema programs,” Jones writes.
‘Excruciating’ moviemaking role
After his graduation Lucas worked on “American Graffiti,” a film that describes a transition period in American history. It takes place in 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated, before the world changed forever. The movie is also about the fact that you have to accept change; you must go forward or else you have problems.
Lucas was happy when the filming of “American Graffiti” was over. In an interview with The New York Times, he complained that he could never be paid enough money to make a movie: “It’s excruciating. It’s horrible. You get physically sick. I get a very bad cough and a cold whenever I direct. I don’t know whether it’s psychosomatic or not. You feel terrible. There is an immense amount of pressure, and emotional pain… but I do it anyway and I really love it; it’s like climbing mountains.”
“American Graffiti” opened on Aug. 1, 1973. The reviews were excellent; Time called it “superb and singular” while The New York Times called it “a work of art.” It won a Global Globe Award for Best Musical and it ended up making a lot of money. It had cost $1 million to produce and earned more than $55 million, making it one of cinema’s most profitable returns on an investment.
His biggest project
Lucas never expected his little film to win anything or to make so much money. He promised his father he would be a millionaire before the age of 30. He succeeded, and then he was free to work on his biggest project, “Star Wars.”
In reality, Lucas had started working on “Star Wars” before “American Graffiti” was released. But in the “Filmmakers Newsletter” in 1974, he admitted that he doesn’t have a natural talent for writing.
“When I sit down, I bleed on the page and it’s just awful. Writing doesn’t flow in a creative surge the way other things do.”
After four drafts and four years of work, Lucas was still not happy with the script; the British crew working on “Stars Wars” during the two-week Tunisian shoot thought “we were all out of our minds,” Harrison Ford once said. Lucas has said: ”I was just this crazy American who was doing this really dopey movie”.
“Star Wars” opened in May 1977 and was an immediate blockbuster. The film exceeded everyone’s expectations. Accountants at Fox were already predicting that “Star Wars” would do better than “Jaws” and become the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Lucas, who never anticipated such success, was not available for comment: He had left for Hawaii with his then wife, Marcia, and where they were joined by Spielberg. A euphoric Lucas was already toying with another idea for a film. It would be about a treasure hunter named Indiana Smith and he had also found the title: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The movie eventually appeared, of course, with the character renamed Indiana Jones.
“The Empire Strikes Back” opened on May 21, 1980. Time magazine put Darth Vader on its cover and said it was a better movie than “Star Wars”. By September, the second sequel had made $160 million and by the end of its first run, it had made $210 million.
By the time “Return of the Jedi, the third installment, was wrapping up, George’s marriage to Marcia was also ending. ”I wanted to stop and smell the flowers. I wanted joy in my life. And George didn’t,” Marcia once explained. “He was very emotionally blocked, incapable of sharing feelings. He wanted to stay on that workaholic track. The empire builder. The dynamo. And I couldn’t see myself living that way for the rest of my life.”
George Lucas decided it was time to get his life back and that meant going forward without Marcia. He also wanted to take a two-year sabbatical from filmmaking but his friend Spielberg knew that each time Lucas was working on a film, he talked about quitting. He was right. Lucas directed three more “Star Wars” sequels. He was financed his own movie, which was a huge gamble that paid off. “The Phantom Menace” would make more than $926 million worldwide; it was followed by “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”, which was the highest grossing film in the US in 2005. Lucas was the first film director to negotiate sole and exclusive merchandising rights for his company, and that made him very, very rich.
That same year he received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award and eight years later he married Mellody Hobson. He is now retired. He sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion and now has little to do with the “Star Wars” franchise, yet the latest installment, “The Force Awakens”, made $2 billion worldwide.
Lucas still wears jeans and flannel shirts with white running shoes. He is trying very hard to build a museum to house his art collection. Nowadays, he is mostly concerned with philanthropy, but his proudest achievement is to be a father to his three grown children and his 3-year-old daughter, Everest. In 2005 during an interview with Charlie Rose, he said that he wanted his epitaph to read “I was a great dad — or I tried.”
• [email protected]