Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Mr. Star Wars - George Lucas in 1977

Quietly single-minded: George Lucas 
shooting Star Wars in 1976

What do we know about George Lucas – the young man with enough drive and imagine to make the most successful movie the world had ever seen?

Today, of course, he is a multi-billionaire , a retired company head, semi-retired film-maker, a philanthropist, and the object of roughly equal adoration and derision from Star Wars fans. But who was he back in 1977, when he turned 33 just before his long-planned space film was released?

Lucas was nobody's stereotypical idea of a film director. He was not one of the megaphone-wielding despots of old Hollywood, but neither was he a cocaine-snorting egomaniac like some of his contemporaries. 

He was serious and awkward, and no one seems to have understood how he had courted and married Marcia Griffin, the attractive and talented young film editor who would cut Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and New York, New York as well as her husband's films. In photographs from that time, the features behind Lucas’s black beard and glasses wear a deadly serious expression, and this very thin, very young-looking man in a checked shirt and sneakers appears distinctly out of place directing major stars like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing on huge movie sets.

George Lucas: the Modesto years

Lucas was born on May 14 1944 in Modesto, California, where his father ran an office supply company. He was never interested in taking over his father’s business, and one theme that recurs in American Graffiti and Star Wars is the importance of leaving the family home and making your own way in the world.

On the other hand, Lucas seems to have taken a bit of the small town businessman’s outlook with him. Hence his perpetual distrust of the big corporations who might want to put one over on the independent operator or devour his business.

Lucas had been a painfully shy child, and he was an underachiever at school. He wasn’t even very movie-literate. “Films by Jean-Luc Godard don’t play Modesto,” he once said. As a teenager, he loved drag racing and rebuilding cars, and his studies suffered as a result. But after he almost killed himself by crashing his souped-up car at the age of eighteen, his outlook changed. Having come so close to death, he was determined to make something of his life. He improved as a student and, after a chance meeting with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, was inspired to sign up for the University of Southern California’s film programme.

George Lucas directs Robert Duvall
in THX 1138

George Lucas and THX 1138

The young Lucas became known at USC for making striking, arty films that broke rules and won prizes. It was by winning a competition that he was given the opportunity to shoot a documentary about the making of Mackenna’s Gold in 1969. He discovered that this lumbering, big-budget, Hollywood western was the antithesis of the kind of film he wanted to make, and it confirmed him in his contempt for the big studios. Before long he had hooked up with Francis Coppola and served as production assistant on Coppola’s 1969 film The Rain People, while still finding time to make a documentary about the production. With Coppola’s encouragement, he went on to expand his most successful student film into his first feature, THX 1138, for Coppola's fledgling independent company, American Zoetrope.

THX 1138 was a bold, clever, science fiction about a future where everyone lives indoors and love is banned. Unfortunately, its distributor Warner Brothers hated it so much that they demanded back the money they had just given Coppola to set up his company. Coppola, suddenly deeply in debt, was forced to postpone his dreams of independence and sign up to direct a big studio film. Fortunately for him, that film was The Godfather. Lucas, meanwhile, managed to land a two-picture deal with Universal. His next movie was a low budget hit – in fact, when profits were weighed against costs, it was one of the biggest hits ever.

George Lucas on the set of American Graffiti

George Lucas and American Graffiti

American Graffiti was shot in twenty-eight nights for around $750,000. Coppola had provided the impetus for the film, by telling Lucas that he should write a script on a subject he felt passionate about. The result was a story about a group of teenagers in the early 1960s, cruising in cars along the streets of their small Californian town on the last night before two of them leave for college – all set to a soundtrack of some forty great rock and roll records. The pace of the production was hectic, and Lucas made himself ill through his relentless regime of filming all night, editing footage in the mornings and devoting much of the afternoons to preparing the coming night’s shooting.

With the success of Graffiti, Lucas could have taken a step up to directing a studio blockbuster of someone else's conception. Instead, he decided to pursue a pet project – that Flash Gordon-style adventure he'd been mulling over.

George Lucas: sticking with the vision

It seems to met that the qualities which saw Lucas through the making of Graffiti and Star Wars were the same ones that Lucas would land him in trouble with his own fans later in his career.

Firstly, there was the insistence on pursuing his own vision. Yes, he listened to feedback on the four very different drafts of the Star Wars script, and of course he had to make compromises when it was being filmed. But he had his own idea of how to tell this story, and there were compromises he would not make.

Secondly, there was his fascination with post-production. On location with Graffiti, Lucas told the cast he did not have the time to direct the movie properly on set, and that he would really be directing it in the cutting room. It was a very significant comment. Lucas was a great editor, and loved wielding control in the cutting room; it came easier to him than dealing with the unpredictability of human beings on set. His genius at post-production was to help give Star Wars its unique freshness and pace. Yet with the success of Star Wars, Lucas would be free to place ever more emphasis on shaping his films after shooting, rather than grappling with story, character and performances.

Today, Lucas comes in for a lot of flak, often from those of us who loved his early films the most. We decry the Star Wars prequels, his refusal to release the original trilogy properly on Blu Ray, and his increasingly unconvincing claims that he will get around to making those arty, personal films he has been talking about for four decades. Yet it strikes me that his ability to shrug off the indignation of first generation fans today may be down to the same quiet single-mindedness that enabled him to make Star Wars his way in the first place.

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