Happy Birthday to George Lucas, who turns 73 years old today. We raise our cups of blue milk to you, sir.
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!
Last week, I had the great pleasure of speaking on George Lucas as part of the Great Lives lecture series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.* If you missed it . . . well, it doesn’t look like I had a LICK of fun, does it? (I call this Study in Big Gestures, Number 1483 in a Series).
And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that all these terrific photos were taken by the remarkable Karen Pearlman, who manages to make EVERYONE look good.
* Yeah, I’m Associate Director of the series now. But I was asked to speak here LONG before I signed on for the AD gig. DON’T JUDGE ME.
Who do those crinkling, smiling eyes belong to? Why, none other than Theodor Seuss Geisel — the good Dr. Seuss, whose birthday just happens to be today.
I’m SO thrilled to be working on the life of yet another wonderful, creative, inspiring iconic subject — and I’m just as happy, too, that I’ll be working with the same terrific team at Little, Brown that helped put the George Lucas bio in your hands.
Who’s the subject of my next biography? Yesterday, over on Twitter, I let slip that it was yet another American pop culture icon. That led to a number of good guesses: Walt Disney. Elvis. Stan Lee. Frank Oz. Johnny Carson.
All good guesses, but wrong.
Here’s another hint.
Got it yet?
Pretty much every book talk biographers do ends with the inevitable question, “What are you working on now?” (As I always joke, the BIO conference and the AVN awards are the only two venues where people greet each other by asking, “Who are you doing next?”) As I indicated in this article that ran in my local newspaper yesterday, I’ve been circling for several months now a really terrific subject for Book Four — and I’ll tell you more shortly. Stay tuned.
At the beginning of December, after spending nearly fifteen years living in a little town in Maryland — we had taken care of our main task, namely ensuring that our daughter got out into the world safely and successfully — Barb and I sold our old farmhouse in Damascus and moved about 80 miles south to Fredericksburg, Virginia. As you can imagine, packing up fifteen years worth of stuff required digging through every nook and cranny and drawer and box. Lots of stuff got thrown out — user manuals, old atlases, plenty of random cables that didn’t connect to anything any more — as we made our best effort to simplify and downsize.
That can be tough work for me — I’m notoriously sentimental about things, and I’ve been known to hold onto receipts, guidebooks or business cards for decades. But I vowed to try my best to carefully sort through the countless boxes, bins and files in my office and throw out anything I thought might be considered clutter. And I did pretty well, too — or so I thought. Imagine my surprise, then, when my wife — who is famously non-sentimental about things — looked at my pile of stuff to go into the trash and said, “Don’t you think you might want to keep that?”
She reached into the pile and pulled out this:
It was the pile of assorted drafts for Jim Henson: The Biography, going all the way back to my first handwritten notes and outlines from early 2010. It wasn’t everything, but it was some of the earlier versions I’d written, printed out, proofed, then filed away as I moved on to the next draft. I was trying hard to be remarkably stoic about them, but when Barb pulled them out of my pile, I have to admit it I very eagerly put them into a banker’s box, on the side of which I scrawled JIM HENSON in fat black Sharpie.
As a bookend to the story, while unpacking in Fredericksburg, I opened a small wooden box — one I hadn’t actually looked in while packing, and had instead just thrown it into a larger box with some other stuff — and discovered another little bit of buried treasure:
Much of this predates those early drafts shown above, as this is actually the proposal for the Jim Henson biography, which I was calling at that time, Ridiculous Optimism: The Life of Jim Henson (a title I still like a lot, but I totally understand the need to give it the shorter, clearer title under which it was eventually published). You can see at the top corner I’ve written “March 2010 — Proposal and Chapters Pitched.” The sample chapters, in case you’re interested, were eventually massaged into the much more greatly expanded first two chapters of Jim Henson.
Now flash forward three years or so, and you’ll arrive at the roughly bound book sitting on top of the proposal: the first reading copy of Jim Henson, containing the first round of edits from Ryan Doherty, my editor at Ballantine. This version still had to go through another round of editing and a legal read, and there’s not a single photograph — we were still working through photo clearances with Disney. All of this, too, went into that same banker’s box with the early drafts, with Belloq’s admonition from Raiders of the Lost Ark ringing in my ears: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.”