Monday 15 May 2017

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 2) - An appreciation of George Lucas

George Walton Lucas, Jr was born on May 14th 1944 in Modesto, California, the only son of George Walton Lucas, Sr (who owned and operated the L M Morris Stationers store) and Dorothy Lucas (nee Bomberger).  He has three sisters - Ann (born 1934), Kate (born 1936) and Wendy (born 1947) - and the family lived on a walnut ranch his father owed.  His mother suffered ill health and was often confined to bed whilst George was a child.  Fascinated by comic books and movie serials - especially Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon - Lucas was a poor student who developed a passion for cars and motor racing; during high school, he raced on the underground circuit at fairgrounds and helped out in local garages, planning to make that his career until a bad accident, three days before graduation, changed that.
George Lucas, during the filming of "The Rain People" (1968), which his award-winning documentary "Filmmaker" covered
On 12th June 1962, on his way home from Modesto library (in a last ditch effort to improve his grades), his Fiat Bianchina was broadsided by a Chevy Impala driven by a classmate.  The impact flipped the Fiat several times before the regulation racing seatbelt snapped - which it shouldn’t have - throwing him clear before the car wrapped itself around a solid walnut tree.  He was badly injured but ultimately okay, though the accident scared him.  “You can’t have that kind of experience and not feel that there must be a reason why you’re here,” Lucas told Dale Pollock in Skywalking.  “I realised I should be spending my time trying to figure out what that reason is and trying to fulfill it.”

After recovering, he attended Modesto Junior College and applied himself hard.  He also began filming car races with an 8mm camera and when talking to his school friend John Plummer, who was studying at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered the cinema school there might be easy to get into.  Through a shared interest in racing, Lucas met acclaimed cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler who was impressed with Lucas’ talent and also advised him to try USC - “George had a very good eye and he thought visually,” Wexler told Pollock.

Lucas began studying at USC in 1963, at a time when several great talents were emerging.  Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese were studying in New York, Steven Spielberg was making shorts at Long Beach State and Francis Ford Coppola’s UCLA thesis, You’re a Big Boy Now, was being turned into a studio film.  USC was something of a hub and Lucas and his classmates - including Walter Murch. John Milius, Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins, Randal Kleiser (Lucas’ room-mate), Caleb Deschanel, Howard Kazanjian, Willard Huyck and Dan O’Bannon - became known as the Dirty Dozen.  Walter Murch told Dale Pollock, “if you went and saw a student film and said, ‘Gee, this is kind of a boring film’, you just didn’t ever associate with that guy.  But if you went and saw an exciting film, you became friends with this guy.  That was the way we all got together.”

Deeply influenced by a Film Expression course, which concentrated on non-narrative elements such as colour, light, movement and time, he was inspired by the visual films from the Nation Film Board of Canada, especially Arthur Lipsett’s 21-87 (1964 - it would later become Princess Leia’s cell number).  It was “the kind of movie I wanted to  make,” Lucas said, “ a very off-the-wall, abstract kind of film.”  At USC he made several non-story films in this vein, such as Look At Life, Herbie and 1:42.08, defining himself a filmmaker rather than director, particularly interested in camerawork and editing.

With Marcia, in 1969
After graduating, he applied to join the United States Air Force as an officer but wasn’t eligible due to speeding tickets picked up in his youth and was later excluded from the draft when medical tests showed he had diabetes.  In 1967, he enrolled at USC as a graduate student and worked as a teacher for a class of US Navy students.  Using them - and their funding - he directed the short film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB which won first prize at the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival.  Earning a student scholarship from Warner Bros., he chose to observe the making of Finian’s Rainbow (1968) which was being directed by Coppola and the two men got on immediately, becoming lifelong friends.  In 1969, Lucas married Marcia Lou Griffin, also a Modesto native, who he met whilst helping celebrated editor Verna Fields cut newsreel footage.

Lucas and Coppola formed their own production company, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco, as part of their dream for making films outside the Hollywood system and exercising greater creative control over their own projects.  Zoetrope signed a deal with Warner Brothers for seven films, the first of which was THX 1138, a feature adaption of Lucas’ student film (the title, apparently, came from his college telephone number: 849-1138).  Lucas co-wrote the script with Walter Murch and the film was made between September and November 1969, filmed on location in the San Francisco area (including the unfinished tunnels of the Bay Area Rapid Transport system).  When Coppola took the completed film to Warners, they disliked it and re-edited the film in-house, incensing Lucas by cutting four minutes.  Released in March 1971, it wasn’t a commercial success and critical reception was mixed, but improved over the years and it was re-released in the wake of Star Wars (including the deleted footage) with Lucas releasing his Directors Cut in 2004.  Warners pulled their financing and American Zoetrope, vastly under-capitalised, fell apart, leaving Coppolla personally responsible for $300k of debt.  Lucas, embittered by the situation (he has never worked with Warner Brothers again) and Coppola were forced to split apart, with Francis accepting an offer from Paramount to direct The Godfather (1972).

Lucas created his own company, Lucasfilm Ltd and took some of Coppola’s advice, writing a script that would appeal to a mainstream audience by taking his cue from his teenaged years cruising in Modesto.  “Cruising was gone,” he told Marcus Hearn, “and I felt compelled to document the whole experience and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls.”
On set during the making of "American Graffiti" (1973)
Lucas co-wrote the script for American Graffiti (1973) with old friends Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz while producer Gary Kurtz eventually got Universal to finance it on a budget of $600k (raised to $775k when Coppola, hot off the success of The Godfather, agreed to co-produce).  Filming took place in Petaluma, North California from June to August 1972 and utilised a stellar cast (most taking their first steps to stardom) with old friend Haskell Wexler acting as unpaid director of photography.  Kurtz sorted the music rights, helped after old friend Brian Wilson allowed him to use the Beach Boys tracks at a reduced rate (all music publishers fell in line with this except RCA, which is why Elvis Presley doesn’t appear).  The music rights cost $90k, leaving no funds for a traditional score and so created a new kind of soundtrack, made up entirely of hit records.

Universal weren’t happy (even though Francis Coppola, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures all offered to buy the film from them) and cut three scenes (equating to four minutes) but word of mouth was good and it made over £55m on a combined budget of £1.27m.  Re-released in 1978 - with stereo sound and restored scenes - it earned a further $63m making it one of the most successful studio films ever in terms of cost-to-profit ratio.  Critically praised, it was nominated for five Oscars (but didn’t win), four Golden Globes (Paul Le Mat won Most Promising Newcomer), a BAFTA, the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing and the Writers Guild of America for Best Original Comedy.
On location in Tunisia with Mark Hamill, 1976
Getting used to his newfound status and wealth, Lucas began working on his next project which had been around before Graffiti.  Originally planning to make Flash Gordon (he couldn't get the rights), he'd instead invented his own space fantasy - Star Wars - and found a willing partner in Alan Ladd jr at Twentieth Century-Fox (who didn't understand the treatment but believed in Lucas).  Wary of history, Lucas waived higher fees for writing and directing, to keep hold of more rights and protect the film from changes by the studio.
Looking glum, during filming at Elstree Studios, London, 1976
He began writing Star Wars in January 1973 (“eight hours a day, five days a week”) and came up with enough material for not only the original trilogy but a planned nine-film series.  In 1975, he established Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to produce the special effects after discovering Fox’s visual effects department had been disbanded.  Principal photography began on 22nd March 1976 in Tunisia, before moving to Elstree Studios in London and finished in July.  It was, by all accounts, thoroughly gruelling and at one point Lucas was diagnosed with hypertension and exhaustion and warned to reduce his stress level.  This wasn’t helped when it was discovered ILM were behind on their schedule - though to be fair, they were working on an unprecedented number of shots using brand new technology that, often, they’d invented themselves.  Originally planned for release at Christmas 1976, the delays pushed that back to summer 1977, adding to his stress.
Working at ILM with (from left) Richard Edlund, Jane Bay, John Dykstra, Lucas, Joe Johnston
“My main reason for making it,” he said in 1977, “was to give young people an honest, wholesome fantasy life, the kind my generation had. We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things.”

Star Wars was released in the US on 25th May 1977 in 32 cinemas and immediately broke box office records, earning $1.6m in its opening weekend.  It earned $220m during its initial run and went into international release at the end of the year (the UK got it in January 1978) - by the end of 1978, it had earned $410m.  Re-released in 1978, 1979, 1981 and 1982 - with the Special Edition appearing in 1997 - it has, to date, earned over $775m worldwide ($2.5bn adjusted for inflation).  Critically praised, Star Wars was nominated for ten Oscars (won six), four Golden Globes (won two) and six BAFTA nominations (won two).  The film was also selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress in 1989.
Marcia wins the Best Editing Oscar
In late May, to escape Star Wars, George & Marcia went to Hawaii and met Steven Spielberg, who had just finished Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  As the two old friends built a sandcastle, they talked about future plans and Spielberg admitted he’d love to direct a James Bond film.  Lucas told him an idea that was “better than Bond” about an adventurer called Indiana Smith.  Spielberg liked the idea but not the name (“okay then,” Lucas apparently replied, “what about Jones?”) and signed on to direct, with Lucas co-writing the story and producing the film.  The deal he proposed was tough and only Paramount would agree to the terms, wherein they financed the $20m budget with Lucas owning over 40% of the film and collecting almost half the profits after a certain income level.

In 1978, Lucas bought the 1,882 acre Bulltail Ranch in San Rafael, with the intention of building a creative centre there, which later became the celebrated Skywalker Ranch.  The same year, he satisfied his two-film contract with Universal by producing and helping edit More American Graffiti (1979), written and directed by Bill L Norton.  It was a box office failure.

Lucas executive produced and came up with the story for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but left Lawrence Kasdan to re-write Leigh Brackett’s screenplay and Irvin Kershner to direct.  Lucasfilm funded the production with Star Wars earnings but Kershner’s directorial style meant the film went hugely over-budget and Lucas was forced to go back to 20th Century Fox for funding.  The film, however, was extremely successful and the final part of the original trilogy, Return Of The Jedi (1983) was completely funded by Lucasfilm.  Lucas was executive producer and co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan.
Steven Spielberg & George Lucas, 1983
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), delayed because of Spielberg’s previous directing commitments, was a great success, setting up a whole new franchise with the three sequels - Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989) and (the frankly too late in the cycle) Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) all directed by him.

Throughout the 80s, Lucas used his clout to help get several films made, often by friends, that wouldn’t have stood much chance otherwise.  Amongst others, he produced (or executive produced) Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), Lawrence Kasdan's excellent Body Heat (1981) - he didn’t take a credit as he was worried people would think the Star Wars team was now making porn, Haskell Wexler’s Latino (1985), Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986), Godfrey Reggio's Powaqqatsi (1986), Willard Huyck’s Howard The Duck (1986), Ron Howard’s Willow (1988), Don Bluth's The Land Before Time (1988) and Coppola’s Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988).

Powerful friends indeed - from left, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese,
Brian De Palma, Lucas, Francis Coppola
Lucas was also influential behind the scenes.  In 1979 he set up the Graphics Group, a computer research division within Lucasfilm, run by Ed Catmull.  They developed the Pixar system, creating early CGI effects for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) and the group was bought by Steve Jobs in 1986 for $5m - renamed Pixar, they’ve gone on to re-define computer animation.  Lucas also helped develop industry-standard post-production equipment, like the Avid System (originally known as Edit Droid) and Sound Droid (which later became Digi-Design Pro Tools) and in 1983 set up THX Ltd with Tom Holman to produce equipment for stereo, digital and theatrical sound for films and music.

Lucas’ midas touch at the cinema in the early 80s helped build his business empire - by 1985, Lucasfilm encompassed Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound and LucasArts.   Skywalker Ranch was functioning as Lucas wanted it to - a creative think-tank as well as the base of his operations - with the land assembled over the years parcel-by-parcel (it now occupies 4,700 acres off Lucas Valley Road though only 15 acres have been developed).  Having adopted a daughter, Amanda, in 1981, Lucas’ marriage to Marcia broke down in 1983 and the divorce was finalised in 1987, resulting in him losing much of his fortune.  He was in a relationship (and engaged) for the remainder of the 80s with singer Linda Ronstadt and, as a single parent, adopted Katie (born in 1988) and Jett (born in 1993).  He and his children appear in the prequel trilogy.
Skywalker Ranch - the main house is towards the centre of the picture, above the lake
Star Wars (aside from die-hards like myself) grew dormant though interest was renewed with a Dark Horse comic line and Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire trilogy.  In 1993, Variety announced Lucas would make a prequel trilogy, having enthused over the CGI possibilities seen in Jurassic Park (which Spielberg asked him to supervise in post production) and he took a sabbatical from running Lucasfilm to write the script through 1994.  In 1997, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, the Special Edition trilogy was released to cinemas featuring digital modifications to all three films.

The Phantom Menace (1999), the first film Lucas had directed in more than twenty years, was released to incredible expectations and although a huge success financially, it didn’t fare so well with critics or original trilogy fans.  Having enjoyed the process, Lucas directed the sequels - Attack Of The Clones (2002) and Revenge Of The Sith (2005).  In 2012, he wrote the story and executive produced Red Tails, a war film based on the Tuskegee Airmen in the US Air Force during World War 2.
In Tunisia, filming "Attack Of The Clones" (2002)
Lucas married Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and chairperson of DreamWorks Animation on 22nd June 2013 at Skywalker Ranch.  Their daughter, Everest Hobson Lucas, was born by surrogate in 2013.  In January 2012, he announced “I'm moving away from the business... From the company, from all this kind of stuff” and said he would be looking to make small, esoteric films.  In June 2012, Kathleen Kennedy, a longtime collaborator of both Lucas and Spielberg, was appointed co-chair of Lucasfilm Ltd with the intention of succeeding him after a year.  On 30th October 2012, Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05bn, taking over the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brands and retaining all subsidiary companies, including Industrial Light & Magic.  The deal - paid half in cash, half in shares - made Lucas Disney’s second largest shareholder after the estate of Steve Jobs though, in a December 2015 interview, he likened his decision to sell to a “divorce”.

At the time of the sale, Lucas said “for forty-one years, the majority of my time and money has been put into the company. As I start a new chapter in my life, it is gratifying that I have the opportunity to devote more time and resources to philanthropy.”  Since 1991, his George Lucas Educational Foundation has worked to celebrate and encourage innovation in schools.  In addition, he gave $1m in 2005 to help build the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C., $180m in 2006 to USC (adding to previous donations which saw the building of the George Lucas Instructional Building and Marcia Lucas Post-Production building), $25m in 2013 to the Chicago-based not-for-profit After School Matters, of which his wife Mellody Hobson is the chair and $1m in 2016 to the Obama Foundation.  In 2015, when wealthy neighbours around Skywalker Ranch opposed plans to extend the film-making facilities, he countered with plans to build affordable housing on the land, which he would pay for himself.

Lucas has been nominated for four Academy Awards - Best Directing and Writing for American Graffiti and Star Wars - and received the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1991.  He was a co-presenter, with Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, at the 2007 Academy Awards to present the Best Director Oscar to their friend Martin Scorsese - in the speech, Spielberg and Coppola talked about the joy of winning an Oscar, poking fun at Lucas.

The American Film Institure awarded him its Life Achievement Award in June 2005 and the Science Fiction Hall Of Fame inducted him in 2006, the second 'Film, Television and Media' contributor after Spielberg.

In July 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama for his contributions to American cinema.  In October 2014 he received Honorary Membership of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, was inducted as a Disney Legend in August 2015 and in December 2015 was an honoree at the Kennedy Centre Honours.
Posing with some of the miniatures created for the Star Wars original trilogy, at the Lucasfilm Archives, 1983
Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin
Biography at
Lifetime biography

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

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