German friends and fans: the latest issue of the German pop culture magazine Geek! features not only a terrific photo of Mark Hamill on the cover and lots of cool articles on All Things The Last Jedi, but you’ll also get a three-page interview with me talking about George Lucas and the cultural significance of Star Wars.
For those of you who won’t be getting to Germany any time soon — and who may not understand German — journalist Christian Endres, who conducted the interview, was kind enough to permit me to post our conversation in its entirety — and in English — here on the blog.
Hello Brian! Have you ever met a person who didn’t know Star Wars?
I don’t know that I’ve met anyone who doesn’t know what Star Wars is, but I have met several people who’ve never seen it. These generally tend to be people who were in their 30s when the movie first came out in 1977, didn’t get swept up in the zeitgeist, and then just never got around to seeing it. But Star Wars still creeps into their references, whether they know it or not – just like people say, “Rosebud” without ever seeing Citizen Kane, these folks will still say things like, “There is no try,” or “May the Force be with you.” Star Wars is truly in us all.
Would you call Star Wars the greatest myth of our age? And does this make George Lucas the greatest fairy-tale-storyteller of modern time?
I think it’s definitely right up there, though it’s in good company with things like Lord of the Rings and perhaps Star Trek and the DC Comic/Marvel universe. These are all mythologies with gigantic canvases, enormous numbers of characters, and sprawling story arcs. George Lucas—consistent with his driving need to control his creative destiny—is the one who single-handedly created, scripted, wrote the story, or set the ground rules of the Star Wars mythology. If that doesn’t make him singlehandedly the greatest mythmaker of all time, he’s definitely in the running.
Lucasfilm and Disney are often said to be a legal watchdog monster, a real beast in protecting their properties. Did this make you hesitate writing your book? Did you ever fear you might get into some sort of legal trouble?
It never worried me for a moment, because I felt pretty certain that I was going to do the work to make sure I got things right, and thus they’d have no cause to saber-rattle me. Throughout the writing of the book, I had no involvement from Disney or Lucasfilm — or from Lucas himself, for that matter. This book was an incredibly deep-drill archival project, using sources available to anyone who knows how to look — which is the real trick, I suppose. I interviewed people, certainly, but for the most part, I relied on newspapers, magazines, books, DVD commentaries, documentaries . . . you name it, I probably had my hands on it. Everything you read in the book is soundly researched and carefully attributed or sourced -– there are no ‘anonymous sources’ in my book. I think the fact that both Lucasfilm and Disney left me alone after the book came out means I got it right.
You never met George Lucas. Do you think this ultimately helped your biography? Did it give you a broader, more nuanced look at the man?
I think not having Lucas’s involvement made it a much better book, and let me tell you why.
First, there was a concern that had Lucas participated, he might have wanted to control the content of the biography – to ensure the story got told the way he wanted it told. That would mean ceding editorial control over to Lucas, which is something he doesn’t like doing with his movies, so why would I want to do it with the book?
Second, when you have your subject reporting the events of their life back to you forty or fifty years after the events occurred, a few things can happen. Memories fade, details get dropped – but we also like to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories, explaining away mistakes, downplaying the contributions of others, or making happy accidents seem intentional. I think relying on the contemporary accounts of incidents as best I could – rather than on recounted stories — makes the book that much more exciting.
If you talk with Lucas today, for example, he’ll tell you he always knew he had a huge hit on his hands with Star Wars, and that Fox would rue the day it didn’t’ give him the money he wanted to finish it the way he wanted to. But that’s not what really happened. It’s much more exciting as a reader to read Lucas’s comments from a small magazine interview he did in 1976 when he doesn’t know what’s going to happen with this movie of his, and he’s angry at Fox for its lack of faith, but he’s fretting that his movie isn’t going to make a dime. As a reader, we know what’s going to happen with Star Wars. We know Lucas has the biggest hit ever on his hands. George Lucas knows this in 2017, but he doesn’t in 1976. It’s more exciting to let 1976 Lucas tell the story.
You have lots of lively quotes and dialogues in your book. Was this important for you in your efforts to “tell the story”?
Absolutely. I think great biography can, and should, read like a novel. They’re doing two different things, of course, but just like with a novel, I think biography readers like to be involved with characters, and they’re interested in good dialogue, which can also really convey what a character is really thinking. They like to hear the main character speaking to them, and hearing others talking about the main character behind their back.
Now, I could step in and tell you what’s happening — and I do that from time to time — but that becomes more of a user’s manual, not a biography. I want the reader to be listening to my subject – the ‘main character’ – and I want them to pay attention to the way that character and others around him speak. I want them to hear those voices. By choosing our quotes carefully, biographers can let their subjects – and those around them – tell the story in a much more interesting and dramatic manner.
I like the writing tone of your biography a lot. Do you have any prominent journalistic or biographical paragons or influences?
Thanks, I appreciate that. In biography, I love Robert Caro. He’s the Elvis of Biography, breaking the ground and changing the way we research and write. While The Power Broker seems to get all the glory, as a former political staffer myself, I’m more inclined to admire his ongoing multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson. Caro really knows how to use his sources to bring voices into his books. And he’s absolutely committed to a sense of place, to understanding how our surroundings—our home, our workplace, our neighborhood—shape our subject and their stories.
And oddly, perhaps, if there’s another writer I could point to who really influenced me, who made me think, hey, I want to do it like that, it would be the brilliant comic book writer and novelist Alan Moore. Moore understands the power of language and word choices to convey a mood, and the inherent drama in a short sentence. He really knows how to segue between sections and wow does he know how to craft an ending. Moore is the one who inspires me to try to end each of my chapters on cliffhangers, if I can—or, at least, with a dramatic quote or statement.
Was there a publication/source for your research where you needed to be a real Indiana Jones to get that piece, because it was so rare, so hard to find?
I really wanted to read the local newspaper George Lucas and his parents would have read while he was growing up – in this case, The Modesto Bee. Finding it online was a bit of a challenge – and even when I could find it, every issue wasn’t available, so I relied on several librarians in Modesto to e-mail me some scans! Librarians are the best.
Anyway, one of the reasons I wanted to read his newspaper was so I could double-check a story Lucas has told forever, regarding the origins of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Lucas has always said he could only get one TV station in Modesto, and that he watched old movie serials on a TV show called Adventure Theater – movie serials like Flash Gordon that inspired Star Wars and Don Winslow in the Navy that inspired Indiana Jones. Reading through The Modesto Bee, I discovered that they actually had five TV stations available, and that there was no such thing as Adventure Theater. I’m sure Lucas did see the old serials on TV in Modesto, but those details he provided – about TV stations and TV shows – didn’t check out. Lucas was instead creating his own version of the story. And that’s why I love reading the local newspapers!
What was the strangest item you discovered in your research?
I don’t know how strange it is necessarily, but I think it’s indicative of the nerdy bits of research trivia that really excites biographers. I really wanted a feel for the kinds of courses offered at the University of Southern California when Lucas was a student there in the mid-1960s. It was information that wasn’t going to go into the book, but it’s all part of that effort to try to get a handle on your subject’s environment. I ended up reaching out to the archivist at the University of Southern California, who mailed me the complete course offering handbook. So if you want to know what classes you could take in film school at USC in the 1960s, I can probably tell you!
Are the Internet and online information more of a curse or a blessing for a task like yours?
The blessing of the web is that you can access lots of different archives without having to actually physically go there—though in many cases, you might have to pay for that access. You can get old newspapers by subscribing to various online services, or, for example, you can read any issue of Newsweek, The New Yorker, or The New York Times online if you have a subscription – but you do get the immediate access to the information, any time you want, and that always makes things handy.
You can also use the web to try to track down sources, using LinkedIn, Facebook or even public Twitter feeds to reach out to potential sources, even if all you’re doing is asking a question of someone with a particular expertise.
The real curse of the web, however, is that it can sometimes be information overload – and you can’t always trust that information. You’ll see people telling the same stories over and over again, or websites reporting stories second, third, or fourth-hand. As a biographer, you ask yourself, Okay, where did they get that story? Sometimes you find the original story and can verify it; other times, you find out it’s completely made up or misreported. So, you have to always be skeptical of what you’re reading online. Track it back to its original source if you possibly can. If you can’t, beware – or better yet, don’t use it.
What were the best, the most surprising, and the worst experiences while working on the book?
I love writing about the creative process—from the spark of the idea to the execution, even how you raise the money for it. I love sitting in the corner, so to speak, listening to the conversations, the doubt, the trial and error, the improvising that goes on. So, to me, one of the best parts was making that deep dive into the creation and making of Star Wars — the original, 1977 film that meant so much to people my age. I was nine when the movie came out, so I was his target audience, and getting to submerge myself entirely in the making of that film, even when it was just one dashed-off line in Lucas’s notebook, was a thrill.
The most surprising thing came out of putting his story together, looking for patterns, and discovering just how reckless he could be with his money. While Lucas was raised by a conservative businessman father who told him to never run a deficit, Lucas, when it comes to making his movies, is constantly risking everything. He takes all of his money from American Graffiti and dumps it entirely into developing Star Wars, draining all his capital on this project no one understands. Then, when Star Wars hits, he invests everything he has in The Empire Strikes Back—and, more importantly, in building Skywalker Ranch. If Empire fails, he tells director Irvin Kershner, he’s gonna lose everything. No pressure, right? And then, in the late 1990s, as he’s developing the prequels and digital technology, he dumps $100 million of his own money again! And then he has the gall to constantly lecture Francis Ford Coppola about being careless with money! As Spielberg rightly said, “George has a bank called Star Wars. Francis doesn’t.”
The worst or maybe most disappointing experience was getting within a hair’s breadth of interviewing Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, and then at the very last moment having them refuse to speak with me because “George isn’t on board.” I was so close!
When did you know that you had struck the balance between Lucas and Star Wars? I mean, there’s the danger that you end up talking more about Star Wars than about George Lucas — or THX 1138 or American Graffiti or any other project!
Star Wars is the pivotal project in Lucas’s life, not just film-wise, but career-wise. So, you’ve got to spend quite a bit of time on it – all roads lead to and from there, and it’s the project he can’t escape from, no matter how much he might try. It’s a constant presence in his story. When it comes to Lucas, balancing those two narratives – the personal life and the professional one – is something of a parlor trick because for much of his life, his professional life was his personal life, to the point that it cost him his first marriage.
Did writing this book change your view of – and your connection to – Star Wars?
I think it made me appreciate even more how lucky we are to have it in the first place! We forget that Star Wars was mostly an independent film; its development, including its special effects, came out of George Lucas’s pocket, courtesy of American Graffiti money. But the studio had little faith in it, Lucas had to cut corners and discard plotlines, characters and locations in the name of fiscal expedience – and the film actually just got better and better for it. It really was the Little Film That Could, and it succeeded because of Lucas’s dogged determination to control as much of his own work as he could, and get as much of his own vision up there on screen. That it succeeded so spectacularly is testimony to his stubbornness and absolute commitment to his creative vision.
If you could meet George Lucas face to face and ask him only one question, after all your occupation with his life and work – what would that question be?
“Are you happy?” I don’t just mean satisfied; I mean “Are you content and at peace with your place in the universe?” For his entire life, he’s always been railing against The System, fighting for creative independence, and now at age 73, he’s won the game on his own terms, sold the company, and retired with his wife and new daughter. He’s brought so much joy to billions with his work, and he deserves to be happy and content. I hope he is.