|George Lucas, during the filming of "The Rain People" (1968), which his award-winning documentary "Filmmaker" covered|
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|
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)|
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|
|Looking glum, during filming at Elstree Studios, London, 1976|
|Working at ILM with (from left) Richard Edlund, Jane Bay, John Dykstra, Lucas, Joe Johnston|
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 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|
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’ 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|
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)|
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.
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 filmmakers.com
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
Find all the entries in the thread here