Category Archives: interviews

“He Isn’t Inclined to Worry About Your Emotional Well-Being”: An Interview, Part II

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?

Lucas_revenge-of-the-sith_photofestBack 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?

george-lucas-indy-4Absolutely. 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!

“Too Many Notes”: An Interview, Part I

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?)

This and That

It’s a gorgeous early summer day here in Maryland and I’ve been outside mowing and working in the yard–but I’ve got a few noteworthy things to, uh, note for you.

First, for those of you in the Norfolk/Newport News region, I’ll be on HearSay on Tuesday, July 1, from noon until 1 p.m. (that’s 89.5 FM on the local dial, but it’ll be streaming shortly afterward).  I’ll be sitting in studio to talk Jim Henson with my pal Liz Humes (who also brings you the Wordy Birds radio show in Richmond every Friday), who’s sitting in for the vacationing Cathy Lewis for the week.

And as I mentioned, even if you’re not in the Virginia region, the show will be available online shortly thereafter over on their website.

Next, an interview I did with Neil Haley during last fall’s Miami Book Fair just went online right here. This one was a lot of fun, since we had thirty uninterrupted minutes — and I think Neil had just completed an interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, so it was a nice change of pace for him as well.

Finally, it’s always lovely to read a thoughtful reader review like this one.

You Can Talk All You Wanna…

As you can imagine, I love talking about Jim Henson — so much so, that it’s sometimes difficult for me to keep things short.  That’s why I love doing online interviews and podcasts, where you’ve got the time to stretch out, tell longer stories, and/or go on at length, as needed.  And sometimes even when not needed.

To that end, I point you toward three extended interviews I’ve done in the past few weeks, some of which you can watch, and a few of which you can even download and listen to later. Because nothing gets you moving quicker on the treadmill than listening to me in your headphones.

First, here’s a nearly hour-long interview I did with Oline Eaton for New Books In Biography.  In the interest of full disclosure, Oline’s a fellow member of BIO and a friend, but all that really means is that when you put the two of us together, we love to talk shop — so this interview spends some time on the process of writing and researching biography.  And you’ll even get a little behind-the-scenes look at the writing of the book’s prologue, which — spoiler alert! — I actually wrote last.

bitofachat-headerNext, here’s A Bit of Chat I did with the smart and cheeky Ken Plume.  If you’re a Muppet fan, you know that Ken knows his stuff — heck, in Jim Henson, I cited a number of interviews he’s conducted over the years with folks like Frank Oz and Steve Whitmire. We had a great time together, and talked for nearly an hour about Jim, the Muppets, mugs on The Daily Show, and the choreography of the unseen (a term I wish I could claim, but it’s Ken’s, not mine, darn it). I could have kept going much longer, but I had to take a phone call for another interview — and you’ll hear me answer the phone and apologetically bring the interview to a rather anticlimactic end.  Hopefully, Ken and I can do it again sometime, since things were really getting good.

Finally, during my trip to New Mexico at the end of October, I sat down for an interview at the local PBS station in Albuquerque to tape New Mexico In Focus. The regular host was out that day, so I got fill-in host Larry Ahrens instead — and I have to tell you, as a New Mexican, there’s actually no other interviewer I’d rather sit with.  Larry’s a New Mexico institution, hosting radio and TV shows for nearly as long as I can remember.  He had also really done his homework, which always makes for a fun interview — and since it was PBS, we talked quite a bit of Sesame Street, of course.

Here’s the New Mexico In Focus piece:

….and we were having so much fun with that, that we taped a Web Extra:

Talking Jim Henson with The Library Journal

jim-henson-muppetI recently had the pleasure of talking about Jim Henson, Washington Irving (!), and the writing process for Jim Henson with the fine folks over at the Library JournalThe interview is now up over at the Journal‘s website, and you can read it right here.

Picture me answering the questions while wearing a smoking jacket and smoking a pipe. Even though I own neither.

Westward Ho!

I know, I know . . . long time, no see, right? My philosophy at the moment is that if I have time to write a blog, it’s probably time I could spend working on the book — hence, I’ve not updated in a while.  That will likely continue, though I’ll still let you know when anything exciting or newsworthy pops up.

Take now, for instance.  I’m leaving tomorrow to head back out to Los Angeles to have two conversations with some more Amazing People. It’ll be a very quick there-and-back kinda thing — but it ‘s also an opportunity to say a quick hello to some folks at Jim Henson Studios, which is always a good thing.

More later.

Take The A Train . . . Provided It’s Going The Right Way, Of Course.

I hopped the 6:21 a.m. Acela train to New York yesterday, on my way up to have my second extended sit-down session with An Amazing (and Important) Person. It was my first time on the Acela — normally I’m a Northeast Regional kinda guy, but I couldn’t make the generally skittish NER work, as one arrived waaay too early, while the other pulled into Penn Station much too close to my meeting time. And given that the NER is famously delayed on its arrival in New York, I didn’t want to risk missing one moment of the three hours my subject had generously set aside for our conversation.

After riding the NER almost monthly for the last year or so, being on board the Acela seems like stepping onto the set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Everything seems vaguely futuristic: doors open between cars at a touch (and without the rattle of the NER), the seats look like command chairs, and the cafe car features a streamlined bar area where diners sit on stools, rather than at the cramped booths of the NER. There’s even wi-fi humming throughout the train, allegedly for the courtesy of business passengers who need it for work, but I notice that most passengers — including yours truly — are using it to check Facebook or update their Twitter feeds.

On my arrival in Penn Station, I decide to see if I can navigate the underground tunnels that will take me to the Red 1 subway line I need to get to my destination (usually I exit Penn Station then walk outside for the two blocks or so it takes to get to the station at 34th Street). I’ve tried to do this before, but ended up either dead-ended or completely turned around, and thus simply headed for the closest EXIT sign, which, more often than not, seemed to eject me into the middle of a shopping mall.

This time, however, I manage to successfully weave my way to the subway station, follow the arrows for the 1 and board the train marked 242nd Street.  For a moment, I’m very pleased with myself for my successful navigation of a system that your average New Yorker can navigate drunk—then immediately realize, as I watch the street numbers at the subway stations go down instead of up, that I’m headed the wrong way.

Unlike the Metro in Washington — where you can exit any train boarded in error, cross over to the other platform and board the correct train without ever exiting the Metro — most stops in New York require that you exit the station, cross the street, and re-enter the station (and pay again) for the train going the other direction.  I had learned this lesson months earlier when I boarded the wrong train from Long Island to Brooklyn, but that apparently didn’t stop me from boarding the wrong train at 34th Street.  Rats.

Humbled, I exit and re-enter and board a train going the right way, and make it to my interview with gobs of time to spare — so much so that I have enough time to sit for a bit in a park overlooking the Hudson, where I watch a young woman get pulled along like a waterskiier behind the five large dogs she was walking at once.

At ten on the dot, I ring the bell at my destination, where I’m greeted like an old friend. While we’ve traded e-mails several times, this was only our second face-to-face — but I’m welcomed enthusiastically and ushered into a cozy living room with comfortable furniture and framed by a large open window overlooking the street. For the next three hours, as a cool breeze and birdsong flutter in through the open window, we have a wonderful conversation, during which I scribble notes frantically on a yellow note pad, trying to get it all down and completely ignoring the lines on the paper as a I scrawl in large cursive with a black felt tip. At one o’clock, we’re done. We shake hands warmly, and my subject makes me promise we’ll get together again soon.  It’s a deal.

Afterwards, I sprint for the subway — and board the correct train this time — then slide into a booth at the TGIFriday’s at Penn Station, fire up the laptop, and start typing my notes as quickly as I can while everything’s still fresh, stopping only a few times to squint at my handwriting to figure out what I’ve written.  By 2:45, I’m only about a third of the way through my notes, but it’s time to catch my train back to Maryland.  This time, I’m on the Northeast Regional, which gets up in my face by pulling into Penn Station right on time.

On the ride home, I grab a seat, as I usually do, in the Quiet Car, where chatter and phone calls are strictly prohibited. I do this even when I don’t have work to do because if I don’t, it seems I always end up with someone in the seat next to me who spends the three-hour train ride back to DC discussing the results of their latest physical, their aunt’s rocky marriage, and the personal lives of everyone in their office.  I drop the tray at my window seat, crank up the laptop again, and return to my task at hand for the next 90 minutes or so.  The seat next to me is eventually occupied by a Richmond-bound passenger in a ballcap and shades, who plays video baseball on his iPhone, and tries briefly to engage me and the woman across the aisle from him in conversation. From our stage-whispered responses, he realizes he’s committing a breach of protocol — but that still doesn’t prevent him from answering a phone call and chatting for several minutes before a conductor stops by and loudly announces that those who wish to talk on the phone must move to another car — “or I will put you out,” he adds matter-of-factly. The phone disappears.

I get off at the BWI stop, pay for my parking (when will the BWI station finally get all their ticket booths working??) and head for home in DC-Baltimore rush hour traffic.  To my surprise, I’m home before 7 p.m, just in time for Barb, Madi and I to take in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which we all thought to be a bit plodding and about 45 minutes too long — but that’s for another time.

Topping It Off at the Pasatiempo

My pal Brian D. informed me that there’s an interview with me in Pasatiempo, the arts magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican. It’s actually the transcript of a conversation I had over the phone with reporter Craig Smith about ten months ago, as I was stuck in traffic. It’s also one of the first interviews I ever did — at least sitting on the business end of the microphone — and I think the jitters show, since I tend to ramble a bit from each question.

There’s one funny moment, though, right at the end of the discussion, where a misheard, mis-transcribed word, makes things sound rather dirty:

The other thing I would really hope comes through in the book is how hard this guy really had to work. If you see his letters, he didn’t spell very well; it’s why I wanted to print his letters as they are. He had to work hard to make his writing work. He took it very seriously.

While people thought he was writing this elegant prose and topping it off, he was humping.

Actually, what I said was “tossing it off,” not “topping.” But paired with the term “humping,” it probably sounds more interesting that way.

Here’s the link to Pasatiempo, but it’s a bit of a mess navigating the pages. If you’re so inclined, I’m on pages 32-34. At some point, I’ll put a (corrected) transcript up on my main website.