Friday, 25 May 2018

Defending George Lucas: Why you can't take away the credit for the original Star Wars

George Lucas directing Star Wars

Considering he's the creator of the most popular movies ever made, George Lucas takes a lot of crap.

I've criticised him myself, particularly for his refusal to release the unaltered versions of the original Star Wars.

But a lot of the criticism goes way too far, and it seems to me that some myths are taking hold on social media. So today, Episode Nothing finds itself defending George Lucas. 

Why do people criticise George Lucas so much?

The young George Lucas

George Lucas has been taking serious stick from many fans since at least 1999, when The Phantom Menace became the first Star Wars film that millions of people could discuss online. (Just a couple of years earlier, you could gripe about the Special Editions, but internet use wasn't sufficiently widespread for you to air your grievances to a huge audience.)

From that time until now, most of the complaints were about the prequel trilogy. I agreed with much of that criticism, but I thought it became unnecessarily nasty. Take the song 'George Lucas Raped My Childhood', which I think makes the mistake of conflating two slightly different things: disappointing films and child abuse.

Lucas was also slated for refusing to release the original, unaltered cuts of the 1977 Star Wars and its sequels. But I suspect most of the people who cared about this were a little older and therefore likely to be more mature in the the tone of our criticism.

The prequels, the special editions and the refusal to release the GOUT (George's original, unaltered trilogy), were all reasonable grounds for complaint. But lately, especially in the overheated world of social media, people have increasingly refused to believe that the success of the original Star Wars had much to do with the man who laboured over it for years.

Here's a tweet I just read: "God I hate seeing George Lucas credited for anything. Carrie Fisher & Marcia Lucas were the people that made the OT (original trilogy) even remotely watchable."

"No one would care about Star Wars without the editing of Marcia Lucas or the script doctoring of Carrie Fisher," says another tweet.

I think people are putting their agendas ahead of the facts here. And that's dangerous, given how quickly myths can take hold on social media.

Carrie Fisher went on to become a well-regarded Hollywood script doctor  and, of course, she was a gifted novelist  but there is precious little evidence of her having major input into the screenplay of Star Wars, back when she was an under-confident 19-year-old.

As for Marcia Lucas, I'd be the first to agree that her contribution seems to have been played down in the official Lucasfilm histories. She was a hugely talented film editor, and she made some other key contributions to Star Wars

But to suggest that other people made Star Wars a success despite George Lucas is just plain wrong. I want to take on a couple of key criticisms in particular.

Was George Lucas a poor writer?

George Lucas the screenwriter 

George Lucas is, as he was the first to admit, not a natural writer.

His friend, Francis Ford Coppola, told him that he should learn to write screenplays if he wanted to direct  although many other prominent directors of his time got along perfectly well without writing their own scripts.

Lucas hated the process of writing. He described it as "exactly like doing a term paper". But he made himself do it, keeping office hours as he scratched out his screenplay with a pencil. His assistant then deciphered his tiny handwriting and dealt with the spelling.

For Star Wars, he really wrote not just one screenplay, but several. There were four different drafts, with the story and characters radically different in almost every one. (Drafts three and, naturally enough, had the most in common as he refined his ideas.)

In early 1977, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck gave the dialogue an uncredited polish. But until then, the changes to the screenplay were nothing to do with "script doctoring". What was happening was that Lucas was substantially rewriting and reinventing his own story in response to feedback from the people who read it  and the practicalities of what could be put on film.

A large number of people must have given useful notes, but the credit for what ended up on the page must go to Lucas.

Was Star Wars saved in the editing?

There's a very good video essay on YouTube by RocketJump, called 'How Star Wars Was Saved in the Edit'. It's a great account of how the movie was reshaped in the cutting room.

I have only one substantial quibble with the video, and that's its title. I don't think it's fair to say Star Wars was "saved" in the editing. It was just edited, extremely well.

Editing was George Lucas's strength. Cutting images together effectively was what got him noticed at film school. When he was directing American Graffiti, in 28 hectic nights of shooting, he told the cast that he didn't have time to direct it on set, but would really be directing it in the cutting room.

The same applies to Star Wars. Lucas fired a distinguished British editor, John Jympson, who didn't seem to be assembling the footage the way he wanted. Instead, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew cut the film back in California. They worked at a frenetic pace and the film itself had an equally frenetic pace.

In some cases, footage shot for one scene was moved into another. The scenes with Luke's Tatooine friends were excised. Timescales in the story were tinkered with. And a ticking clock was added to the climax, with the decision to make it clear that the Death Star was about to destroy the fourth moon of Yavin if the Rebel pilots didn't knock out the battle station first.

But this was the way Lucas worked and would continue to work. He has been called the "super-editor", and he presided over post-production as his footage was turned into a film whose pace and drive were unlike anything audiences were used to.

What to admire about George Lucas

George and Marcia Lucas 

I find a lot to admire in the young George Lucas -- the man who, at 33, had made a flm that would change the world.

He was not a natural writer, but he had written a terrific screenplay. 

He was a shy character, yet he directed hundreds of people to make a $9.5million movie.

After the success of American Graffiti, he could have had success as a director for hire, on projects someone else had conceived. But he spent four years labouring to get Star Wars made. And despite his quiet manner, he was single-minded in staying true to his vision for the movie.

Yes, there were many great collaborators who got his movie made. We don't hear enough about some of them. But there is no taking away the credit due to Lucas himself, for seeing his project through to completion and making the most successful film that had ever been seen.


Rory Cobb said...

I think you have managed to accurately identify the majority of the problem in your article, which is the 21st century’s prolific use of social media. The fact that people can and do vent their anger and frustration instantly and globally has eroded our ability to have an inner monologue and have allowed our more savage instincts to get some sort of soft coddling. (I think the device the Krell invented in Forbidden Planet that unleashed their collective Id wasn’t a machine that freed them from insturmentation, but was probably Twitter...). Coupled with the fact that nobody pays attention to history or context any more- and, the fact that there are no researchers or fact checks on this information that is regurgitated and then suckled makes matters worse. That’s how things like the Marcia Lucas editor/Carrie Fisher script doctor thing spreads.
There is also another problem-Star Wars was of its time, but times have changed. People want Star Wars to forever be like it was in 1977, but it’s not 1977 anymore. Or 1988 for people who watched on video for the first time. The end of the 20th century saw radical changes in not only films and filmmaking, but the way pop culture pervades our daily life and shapes our culture. Nothing is ever going to be how it used to be-even Star Wars- and so let’s beat up the guy who can’t make it yesterday.
The prequels were of their time, but also of the time before-which I think made a strange dichotomy. Lucas didn’t change his impetus for them-the serials from the 1930’s; but I think the method of making the prequel films is so far removed from those films of the 30’s (and even the original trilogy) that some people found the combination unpalatable. But a bad writer? No- he wrote in the context of the genre. I dare say that the majority of the people born after the 1980’s have never seen Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe or The Undersea Kingdom or read Edgar Rice Burroughs (which is why that film flopped), and therefore have no frame of reference.
I strongly disagree with his refusal to release the original trilogy from an historic standpoint. Apparently the Library of Congress agrees, which is why they refused his copy of the Special Edition when the original was deemed of historical significance. But I’m not writing songs or posting things online about how I hate him. There’s too much real injustice in this world that deserves our condemnation. Not our favorite uncle who no longer entertains us by pretending to remove his finger they way he did when we were kids...

Darren Slade said...

Rory, I love this comment. It's a blog post in its own right, really.
I particularly like the line: "Nothing is ever going to be how it used to be-even Star Wars- and so let’s beat up the guy who can’t make it yesterday."
It reminds me of the people who hate on Paul McCartney. It's not enough that we had the Beatles once; he's pilloried for the fact that he couldn't deliver the experience a second time.
I could list my problems with the prequels all day, but a few years down the road, I don't feel personally aggrieved by what Lucas did. I just wish he'd just taken a bit more advice on board.
In a fairly short period, around five years ago, Lucas remarried, received a medal from President Obama and sold his company for $4 billion, so I guess he's pretty much won at life.
The only thing I take serious objection to is, as you say, his refusal to preserve the original, unaltered movies, because that's an affront to film history. I hope Disney rectify that mistake.

John White said...

That's a good, well-considered and fair blog post Darren and really good mega-comment/essay by Rory.

In this age of post-Trump anger and bile, it's good to step back and look at the facts, and assess the positives.

I don't care about the Prequels. I just don't ever watch them or think about them, so there's nothing to be annoyed about. It bothers me about the GOUT and Library of Congress. There's an element of hypocrisy considering George's comments about film colourisation being vandalism.

But then again, if an artist is unhappy with an early/original version of their work, why should they be obliged to offer it up? Leonardo tinkered with the 'Mona Lisa' for decades, imagine if he'd been asked to scrub it back to the earlier version? It's an extreme example, but food for thought? I don't think thee's any simple answer despite my misgivings about the alterations—to his own property.

Some day the GOUT will be released. Until then, we have Harmy's version, which is the one that I watch.

Norm said...

I think the fundamental reality is that the guy just wasn't a very good storyteller.

He had the good idea if remaking sci fi serials from the 1930s and 1940s.

He then had a tremendous amount of help writing Star Wars. I suspect Marcia Lucas had a much bigger part in that than she is credited.

Everything else he's done was either written and directed by someone else or was just plain bad.

Director for hire was probably his lot in life, but Lady Luck smiled on him instead.