Tag Archives: interviews

Talking Muppets with the Great Gonzo

Well, not quite; I actually had the privilege of appearing with legendary Muppet performer Dave Goelz as we talked on San Francisco NPR with Heidi Rabben, curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which is hosting the Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited touring exhibit. Stick around for the entire conversation, and you’ll hear Dave Goelz absolutely make a young Muppet fan’s year.

You can hear our discussion in its entirety here. It runs about 51 minutes.

“Constant Wonder” and Dr. Seuss

Last week, I had the pleasure of discussing Dr. Seuss with Marcus Smith on his “Constant Wonder” radio show on BYU Radio. It was one of the more interesting interviews I’ve participated in, thanks to some really good and fun questions from Marcus, as we covered issues like Ted Geisel’s German upbringing and how that affected his work; his growth as an artist; why the Pulitzer Prize meant so much to him; and whether Dr. Seuss cheats at rhyme.

It was all part of a longer consideration of the poetry of William Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss — and if you missed it, not to worry. You can listen to it–or at least my part of it–here.

“The Word ‘No’ Isn’t In His Vocabulary”: An Interview, Part III

This is the final part of an extended interview with Polish media on George Lucas and Star Wars. The first part is here and the second is here.

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?

Dedication Of The Sumner M. Redstone Production BuildingLucas 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?

71CmDQGYLQL._AC_UL320_SR214,320_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.

rogueone_onesheetAFinally, 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!”

“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?)

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.