It’s always fun to see how you look in foreign attire. And George Lucas looks pretty good in Czech.
It’s always fun to see how you look in foreign attire. And George Lucas looks pretty good in Czech.
This is kinda fun: on a bookshelf in my office — it’s actually a wooden crate at the base of my desk — I like to keep every edition of the three books I’ve had published over the last decade. For Washington Irving, that meant I had it in hardcover and softcover. For Jim Henson, apart from the U.S. hardcover and paperback, there was a UK edition, a Polish edition, and an audiobook — the first time I have ever had an audiobook of my work, and I gotta admit, I still get a bit weepy listening to Kirby Hayborne read the heck out of it.
George Lucas, however, has made it into a few more foreign markets. Apart from the U.S., UK/Australian editions and the audiobook, it’s also available — so far — in Italian, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Finnish, and Polish. While there can sometimes be cover or artwork variations on the foreign versions, for the most part, the overall look and feel of the U.S. version of George Lucas remains intact — a testament to the beautiful design work by the folks at Little, Brown.
If you’re a foreign reader of George Lucas, let me sincerely say Grazie. Kiitos. Je nous remercie. Vielen Dank. Obrigado. Dziekuje Ci. Gracias.
So, this showed up in the mail today.
George Lucas: A Life arrives in paperback in a galaxy near you on November 21. If you’re so inclined, you can preorder it here, here, or here — or better yet, at your local brick and mortar bookstore.
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. Continue reading
I’m very curious about his relationship with Steven Spielberg. Can there be a situation that Spielberg jokes about Lucas not having an Oscar for directing a movie?
Lucas and Spielberg have one of those wonderful fraternal relationships where, as brothers do, they both admire and compete with each other. Would Spielberg ever make such a joke to Lucas? I don’t think so – that one might be a little raw; you can see it in Lucas’s face when Charlie Rose mistakenly says that Lucas has won an Oscar, and Lucas says with a slight grimace, “No, I’m too popular for that…”
Now, Spielberg has joked about Lucas and all his talk about going back and doing the kind or small, arty films he used to do in college. “We’re still waiting, George!” he says.
Of course everyone want to know about Lucas and Star Wars, but he also created great stories for Willow and the Indiana Jones movies. Sometimes people forget that he did that–they only remember the directors. Why is that? Do you agree that those movies are crucial to understand Lucas as a storyteller?
Do people forget that Lucas was involved with those movies? Maybe for Willow, though I think people now remember it more as a George Lucas film than Ron Howard one! I think the point, anyway, is that Lucas had a great knack for story concept – or, at least, how that story should look at 20,000 feet. In the best instances – Star Wars, Raiders – it then took some really great writers (Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, Lawrence Kasdan) to pull the final story and script together. The main ideas – the characters, the concepts – behind Willow and at least some of the Indiana Jones movies are really good ones, but the execution can be tricky. With Raiders, I think, it’s done about as well as it has ever been – that’s one where Lucas is content to light fuse and stand back and let Spielberg put Kasdan’s script to work.
I think the Indiana Jones films and Willow do help one to understand Lucas as a storyteller, ecause both of them are him using everything that’s important to him as a storyteller and mythmaker, whether it’s old Saturday morning serials and comic books or fairy tales and the Bible. But it’s not what Lucas has, necessarily, but how he uses it. The Indiana Jones movies made a lot of those old tropes look new and exciting. With Willow, it’s slightly different – it’s an intentional and obvious nod to Lucas’s love of fairy tales, to the point where one critic called him “the Great Regurgitator.” But I think Lucas was right about Willow, though at the wrong time. It’s got a bigger following today than it did back when it was made and, I think, has aged pretty well.
I often read very different views about Lucas opinion about Expanded Universe, especially books. Did he ever read any Star Wars books? Do you know something about that?
I can’t answer that with authority. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m fairly certain he’s read the Timothy Zahn novels, and he loves comics enough that I’m willing to bet he’s gotten his hands on a lot of what Dark Horse has put out. At the beginning, Lucas had firm ground rules for the Expanded Universe: no killing off characters he hadn’t killed himself, no bringing back any who were already dead, and no mucking about in Episode I-III territory. Those rules became fungible as time went on – hence the death of Chewbacca – and Lucas eventually felt the need to ‘catalog’ what, exactly, would be considered canon and what would be considered expanded universe. Which shouldn’t be at all surprising, given his constant need to control his own universe.
Star Wars without George Lucas in now a reality. Do you think that he really will ever let go of his “baby” emotionally and will never try to do something with Disney maybe? Probably they would let him if he asks and it will be good idea.
I think Lucas’s relationship with his franchise will always be complicated. There’s good reason he compared the entire experience to divorce, as his own divorce was one of the most painful times in his personal life. I think he’ll let go of Star Wars as much as any of us let go of our own children, which is how he regards the franchise: we watch them grow up and go off into the world to do their own thing, and sometimes they make decisions we don’t necessarily agree with – they marry someone we don’t like, or they live too far away – but we still love them anyway, even if we can no longer tell them what to do. Will Lucas ever really return to a Star Wars film? I don’t think so. They paid him very well to hand over the keys to the car. While they’ll let him sit in the back seat – the films still bear the Lucasfilm, Ltd. Imprint – I don’t think they’ll let him drive it again.
Your book about George Lucas is in bookstores only few days before new Star Wars movie and Christmas. It’s like perfect timing. How you would recommend your book to Polish readers? Why they should check it out?
First, it’s always fun to read about Star Wars – and I think this book will give you a better understanding of the kind of blood and sweat that Lucas put into getting the first Star Wars made and marketed. It really is a David and Goliath story, with Lucas using sheer force of will to get a movie on screen that very few people understood or believed in. More than that, however, it’s the story of the birth of modern cinema. All those things about film that we take for granted these days – sequels, action figures, great previews, waiting in line, soundtracks, eagerly anticipating the release date, great sound, convincing special effects – George Lucas either did it first, or laid the foundation for others. His contributions to film, I think, can’t be understated. He’s so much bigger than Star Wars (which is already pretty big!), and I think this book will give you a better understanding of his accomplishments beyond the galaxy far, far away. And it might also remind you of how much you love some of his other smaller projects, like American Graffiti, Willow, Tucker, or even Captain Eo.
Finally, it’s ultimately a great story about being absolutely true to yourself and committed one thousand percent to your own vision. Lucas constantly invested his own money in his company and in his films, even as his accountants fretted. Lucas was and is absolutely committed to getting the vision of the artist up on the screen in its purest form, and has worked his entire career to give them the tools to do that, whether it’s developing the gold-standard in special effects with ILM, creating groundbreaking digital technology (part of which became Pixar), or encouraging theaters to install earth-rumbling sound systems – like THX – to ensure a movie sounded in the theater the way it did in the editing room. The word ‘no’ isn’t in his vocabulary. If you’re a creative person – or a businessperson! — looking for a bit of inspiration, I think you’ll find that in George Lucas’s story as well.
Last final question… so “Rogue One” is new Star Wars movies with real connection to the first one George Lucas directed. What are your expectations as a viewer and a person who know so much about Lucas work with previous movies?
Star Wars is one of the real gifts Lucas has given us culturally – and it’s due in no small part to the fact that he’s given us a great big universe, with almost infinite places to play, and infinite stories to tell. I think there are plenty of talented people and talented storytellers we can hand the franchise to, who will manage it wonderfully. It’s easy to be cynical about Disney, but I think Disney really does ‘get it.’ I think they’ll take great care of the franchise. I think the story being told in Rogue One is an exciting one – and when I first heard that it was the story being told, it was one of those head-slapping moments where you think, ‘Of COURSE! What a great idea!’ And after seeing the movie, I can see why Lucas gave it his approval. It’s full of all sorts of affectionate little nods to his ideas and concepts – the Whills, Kiber crystals – while still taking the franchise in an exciting direction. I’ve got great hopes for Star Wars in Disney’s care, so don’t blow it! To quote Han Solo: “Great kid! Don’t get cocky!”
Happy Birthday to George Lucas, who turns 73 years old today. We raise our cups of blue milk to you, sir.
Part II of the interview I did back in December with Polish media (Part I is here.)
After all those years you can say something new about George Lucas? Was there any new topic you discovered during your research that maybe surprised you?
Well, again, I think part of what’s new here is simply the fact that his story has never really been told in a comprehensive manner before. We read about Star Wars, or Indiana Jones or even the godawful Star Wars Holiday Special and we think, aha! There is George Lucas. He’s the Star Wars guy, or the Indiana Jones guy. But he’s so much more than that. He’s an extraordinarily good businessman, even as, at times, he’s extraordinarily reckless with his own money. He’s constantly pitching projects – and, to my surprise, constantly running up against opposition, even with a project as terrific as Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s generous, loyal to his friends, and stubborn as hell. He considers himself ‘the little guy’ even as he’s building a gigantic do-it-all-himself film empire. He’s really a wonderfully complex guy who has made some really astonishing contributions to culture and film – and that, I think, is something readers may not truly appreciate until they get everything in context.
I often read comments from journalists and normal viewers that prequel trilogy would be better if Lucas would oversee everything like with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. What are your thoughts about that? Do you think that being director, screenwriter and overseeing everything was too much for him?
Back in the 1980s, it was definitely too much for him. He stopped directing right after Star Wars, for example, because it actually took a physical toll on his health. He had little patience with actors, and the daily grind of being on-set really kind of annoyed him. He was much better suited to producing, where he could still oversee and control everything without having to actually run the set – though with Empire and Jedi, he still practically parked himself on the shoulders of his hand-picked directors anyway. Lucas can really never not be involved.
Maybe that was the part of a problem with prequel trilogy. Lucas always has bold ideas but he thinks too much about technology and special effects and not about plot, actor’s performances and dialogues. What do you think about that?
That’s probably true to some extent – but the prequel trilogy likely wouldn’t have been made at all without Lucas at the helm. For him, it had become personal – not just Star Wars, but digital filmmaking. Lucas really wanted to make certain the prequels were done right – or, at least, as close to his vision for them as possible. The only way to do that, really, was to control as much of the process as possible, from production and design all the way down to the actual directing of the film. I don’t think Lucas would have been ready to relinquish control of those gigantic films.
What do you think about Lucas relationship with Star Wars fans? Some see him as god other as a devil so probably it is difficult for him.
Lucas’s relationship with Star Wars fans is like a writer’s relationship with reviewers. We pretend we don’t care what they say, and then we still read every word. Lucas, to his credit, has always made the kind of movies he wants to make, critics and fans be damned. I think the fan nit-picking did bother him enough that he scaled back whatever plans he might have had for Jar Jar Binks – that character was an absolute and unexpected disaster for him – but other than that, I think hearing the fans complain was just like listening to Ned Tanen at Universal all those years ago trying to tell him what was wrong with American Graffiti and then arbitrarily editing four minutes out of it. To Lucas, what do the suits know about filmmaking? And I think he’d say the same about fans: what do they know about filmmaking? He’ll make the film he wants and isn’t inclined to worry about your emotional well-being!
His curse, of course, is that he’s created this wonderful mythology that we all feel we own a piece of. We all feel entitled to Star Wars, we all have opinions, sometimes strong opinions, on Star Wars. When we hear Lucas liked Rogue One, for instance, half the fans think, “Great! They must have gotten it right!” while the other half think, “Rats, it must really suck.” It’s a love/hate relationship, and one that Lucas and his fans will wrestle with in perpetuity.
Would you say that Lucas passion for cars and motor racing influenced some set pieces in Star Wars or his other movies?
Absolutely. Lucas is fascinated by man’s relationship with machines – it informs his work all the way back to college in films like THX-1138 4EB or 1:42:08, which features race car driver Allen Grant putting a racecar through its paces. His own experiences as a gear head and a cruiser in high school are up there on the screen in full force in American Graffiti. And in Star Wars, his ships tend to move and dive and scream by like cars at a race track. Heck, the podracing scene in Episode I is practically the drag race in American Graffiti! Even a ship like the Millennium Falcon is really just a spaceship hotrod, souped up for speed and with a lot of special modifications that the driver made himself. Even Darth Vader himself is a man struggling with machine – “he’s more machine than man now” Obi-Wan tells Luke.
Lucas was criticized for directing quality of prequel trilogy but he was great with smaller movies like “THX” and “American Graffiti”. What do you think? Why there is so huge difference?
Lucas had a great, big story to tell with the prequel trilogy – and I think, partly, the story got away from him. But more than anything else, I think Lucas was really excited about finally playing in a completely digital universe. For the first time, he had the technology behind him to put practically anything up on the screen, and he was determined to use as much of it as he could, opening up new worlds and cities, and creating wild new characters that could only exist in the computer. Lucas, I think, really loves the world building – his first drafts of Star Wars, for example, get somewhat bogged down in it as well, but the costs of putting those enormous worlds on screen were too cost-restrictive in 1977. Lucas had to scale everything back. He didn’t have to do that in 1999, or 2003 or 2005. It’s all there on screen, for better or worse.
Do you know how George Lucas feels about being remembered only as Star Wars creator?
I think he’s accepted that the first line of his obituary will always read “Star Wars creator George Lucas…” But really, I don’t think he’ll ‘only’ be remembered for creating Star Wars. I think – I hope – he’ll be remembered as an innovator in filmmaking, as one of the Founding Fathers of digital cinema. Lucas also changed the way we as fans relate to films and filmmakers. Lucas turned film-going into a true experience, from being excited about these little two-minute sneak previews, to waiting in line for hours or days or weeks, to watching a great movie with great sound in theater with a spectacular sound system, then buying all sorts of great merchandise afterwards. Directors are rock stars now – we look for “A Tim Burton Film” or “A Film By the Coen Brothers.” George Lucas did that.
Up next in the final part of the interview: Willow! The Expanded Universe! Rogue One!
Forty years ago this week — Sunday, May 1, 1977, to be specific — George Lucas screened the premiere of Star Wars at the Northpoint Theater in San Francisco , the very same theater where he’d triumphantly (though not perfectly) debuted American Graffiti in 1973. Lucas was bracing for the worst; previous showings of the film, even as a work-in-progress, had been met with indifference, confusion, and sometimes anger, even from some of his closest friends (“What’s all this Force shit?” Brian DePalma had thundered at Lucas after a private showing in February).
Just before the showing at the Northpoint, in fact, Lucas had pulled aside film editor Paul Hirsch — one of three editors on the film, a talented trio which also included Lucas’s wife, Marcia — and warned him that they’d likely be asked by 20th Century Fox to recut the entire film. Marcia, however, had given Lucas a gauge for the film’s success in its current state: “If the audience doesn’t cheer when Han Solo comes in at the last second in the Millennium Falcon to help Luke when he’s being chased by Vader,” she told him, “the picture doesn’t work.” As the lights went down, Lucas locked eyes momentarily with Alan Ladd, the one producer at Fox who had believed in him and whose reputation was as wrapped up in Star Wars as Lucas’s own. The picture had to work.
The moment the enormous Star Destroyer rumbled overhead in the now-famous opening shot, the theater went mad with excitement — concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, in attendance that day, remembered lots of “hollering and cheering.” And sure enough, the place exploded with cheers and applause at this moment:
The applause didn’t end with the film. “It kept going on, it wasn’t stopping,” recalled Alan Ladd, “and I just never had experienced that kind of reaction to any movie ever.” Outside the theater, Lucas’s father, George Lucas Sr. (like Professor Henry Jones, Lucas, too, was a junior) was beaming as he shook hands with everyone who passed by. “Thank you,” he said proudly, “thank you very much for helping out George!”
As the crowd filtered out, editor Paul Hirsch sidled up to Lucas, trying to determine Lucas’s own reaction to the audience response.
“Well,” Lucas told Hirsch wryly, “I guess we won’t have to change anything after all.”
Back in December, I sat down for an extended interview with a Polish journalist to discuss George Lucas: A Life — but we also talked quite a bit about biography, fandom, choosing subjects for books, and the writing process. The original interview is somewhere on the Interwebz, translated into Polish, so I’m posting it here in three parts, and in English (and if my original interviewer wants me to take it down, please shoot me an e-mail).
Here’s part 1. I’ll post the next part shortly.
When I went to see your official website I’ve notice these words: Many Bothans Died To Bring You This Website. I immediately thought: he must be a Star Wars fan so George Lucas’s biography is really in good hands. Am I right? Are you a Star Wars fan?
You’re right indeed. I’m Star Wars Generation 1.0. I was nine years old when Star Wars premiered in theaters in May 1977. I was George Lucas’s target audience. It was a film aimed right at me, and I even remember seeing the preview and what an impact it made on me. My brother and I had all the Kenner Star Wars toys, we had posters, bedsheets, trading cards . . . you name it, we probably had it. Since then, I’ve seen every film in the theater. Star Wars is part of my pop culture nerd DNA.
Lucas created a unique phenomenon in pop culture. I know that for many people Star Wars is not a movie, but a way of life. What does this creation mean for you?
As I said, it’s sort of in my own pop culture DNA, too. However, I’m not one of those fans who can name every planet or spaceship, and I’m terrible when it comes to what’s known as the “Expanded Universe.” But I can geek out pretty hard on the original three. For me, Star Wars is fun and familiar. It’s a mythology that we all feel we own a piece of, and we can discuss it and debate it endlessly. That’s all part of the fun.
George Lucas is one of the most iconic names in pop culture. Was there a moment in your process when you thought it might be too difficult of a challenge? Millions of fans around the whole world will probably analyze every detail in your book, and they sometimes can be scary . . .
Well, fortunately, with Jim Henson, I’d already written about another hugely iconic figure with an equally as devoted fan base, so I knew the dangers of jumping into that particular pool. Still, as I did when writing about Jim Henson, when writing the Lucas book, I’d look at my reflection in the mirror each morning and tell myself “Do NOT mess this up.” Lucas and his work are too important to too many people.
Can you describe your writing process?
I hope people aren’t disappointed when they find out I don’t have some high-tech system for all this – because when it comes to writing and research, I’m horribly analog. I do a lot of archival research, and I still like to make hard copies of everything — whether it’s an interview Lucas did with Starlog in 1980, an article about the SIGGRAPH conference in 1985, or even a Kenner Star Wars toy ad. Then I three-hole-punch the papers and file everything in black binders in my office, usually organized chronologically, though sometimes I do it by topic.
While I’m researching, I type my notes on the laptop, but I still write my chapter outlines in longhand. And then, when I finally write that particular chapter, I write the outline up on a gigantic white dry-erase board so I can see the entire thing, move pieces around, or note other areas I want to make sure I cover.
My process hasn’t really changed all that much over the last decade. It’s horribly messy, I know, and many of my fellow biographers swear by electronic organizers or programs, but it all feels like a forced extra step to me. But as I always tell anyone who’ll listen, the right way to organize your research is the way that works best for you.
Did you meet George Lucas in person when you were writing this book? If yes, can you say something about that situation?
No, I’ve never met him. I’d like to.
I know that readers in Poland would like to know this: Is your Lucas biography only for fans of Star Wars and his other movies? Or maybe normal person who know who he is will also have a blast with that book? Or maybe it is a little bit for both?
It’s for more than just fans of Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Readers might know a little about Lucas, but perhaps not much beyond what he’s done beyond those movies. But Lucas is actually a really big story – he’s the story of modern filmmaking. This book for those who want to know more about the trials and tribulations that go with filmmaking, and how Lucas really kicked down the door for creator-driven films.
It’s also for artists who value the creative process and want to learn how Lucas fought, sometimes painfully, to maintain as much control over his own art as he could. Lucas is all about giving artists what they need to realize their own projects, without interference from meddlers – in Lucas’s case, the Hollywood studios — who, he feels, don’t appreciate the artist.
Finally, it’s also a business manual, about running a company absolutely aligned with your own artistic priorities, investing in yourself and your vision, and resisting the constant appeals to compromise that vision in the name of the bottom line.
I know that sometimes biography books can be boring as hell and you can have an impression that you are reading Wikipedia — that a book can be empty facts without a heart, you know? But your book is different because you read it with fascination. What is for you the most important aspect of biography book? What do want to achieve during your process?
Biography, even more than history and other non-fiction, really needs a great narrative. That often demands great organization of your materials. I often tell aspiring biographers that it’s not just what materials you use, but how you use them. Can you present them in an interesting or dramatic fashion? You don’t want your book to be a textbook or a recitation of facts – that’s a user’s manual, not a biography. What’s the drama in your subject’s life? The humor? The compassion? What did you learn, and how much of yourself will you inject into the narrative? These are all the questions we deal with as we wrestle with telling someone else’s story.
Still, it does amuse me when reviewers and readers complain that a biography or history has “too many facts in it.” That’s almost like the moment in Amadeus when the Emperor complains that an opera has “too many notes.” Just as musical notes are the foundation of opera, facts are the building blocks of biography and non-fiction. I think my job as a biographer is to take those facts and put them in context with each other, see how they relate to the overall story and life we’re telling.
We tend to think of Lucas in silos – “he did Star Wars and then he did Empire Strikes Back and then he did Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but real life is never actually that neat. Lucas was juggling lots of projects all at once all of the time. He was building a company and producing one movie and developing another one, all at the same time. The man is constantly in motion, and I wanted readers to see Lucas in that light.
Up next: The Empire Strikes Back! (yay!) The Star Wars Holiday Special! (yay?)
If you’re near Rockville, Maryland tomorrow evening, come on over to the Johns Hopkins University, Montgomery County Campus, where I’ll be speaking about George Lucas at 7 p.m. as part of the Gaithersburg Book Festival. (Yeah, I’m back in my old neck of the woods — and I also know I’m competing with one of my old employers, since the Montgomery County Council is holding a Town Hall meeting at the same time down in Silver Spring. Choose the event that best suits your particular wants and needs…)
I’ve spoken at the GBF before — back in 2014, I talked Jim Henson — and I’m looking forward to getting back again. If you’re thinking of attending, doors open at 6:30 p.m. at Gilchrist Hall Auditorium on the JHU MC campus at 9601 Medical Center Drive in Rockville.
Come on out! It’ll be fun! Really!