George Lucas on the Impact of Star Wars
On Saturday, February 19, 2011, the Directors Guild of America held an astounding event at their facility on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. The Directors Guild, or DGA as it is commonly called, is the labor union for film and television directors. To celebrate the institution’s 75th Anniversary, they are holding a series of events to honor cinematic “game changers”. Well, first and foremost on their list was none other than George Lucas.
The event was held in the main theater at the DGA, and despite it being a rainy evening in Los Angeles, the theater was filled with eager entertainment professionals. Celebrities in attendance included Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”, “Cowboys & Aliens”), Kyle Newman (“Fanboys”) and Jamie King (“Clone Wars”). After a quick welcoming statement by the President of the DGA, Taylor Hackford, as well as the 75th Anniversary Advisory Chairman, Michael Apted, a brief “sizzle reel” was shown. About ten to fifteen minutes long, the short film titled, “George Lucas: Game Changer” highlighted Lucas’ vast accomplishments and innovations over the course of his career. From his early days as a film student at USC to American Graffiti to his work on the entire Star Wars saga, the film helped put into perspective just how much Lucas has influenced the industry. It highlighted many of the technical achievements Lucas has brought about via Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm Ltd., Skywalker Sound and beyond.
After the film, the “main event” of the evening was a one hour Q & A session with Lucas and filmmaker Christopher Nolan (“Memento”, “Insomnia”, “Batman Begins”, “Inception”). Nolan, clearly a huge Star Wars fan himself, got right to work and framed the discussion by saying he wanted to talk about Star Wars before it was STAR WARS.
Note: Many of the following stories are well known and have been told by Lucas many times. Watch “Empire of Dreams” to learn about them in more detail.
Nolan began by asking Lucas about the earliest days of the idea for “Star Wars” and what had inspired him. Lucas detailed how he had basically bankrupted Francis Ford Copolla’s production company, American Zoetrope, with “American Graffiti” and how Copolla went off to make “The Godfather” to get himself out of the hole. His advice to Lucas was to write “a comedy” – something that was a bit more accessible to the general population. Not having comedy in his blood, Lucas had this crazy idea for a space western in the ilk of the old serialized “Flash Gordon” type shows. But at the time there was very little out there that Lucas could look to for inspiration in the genre other than Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”.
Nolan asked Lucas about the environment in Hollywood at that time. Lucas responded by saying it was an interesting and in some ways “great” time in Hollywood because the moguls were dead, but the corporate bean counters hadn’t solidified their control over the industry yet. So he felt he was able to “slip through the cracks” in a way – with the help of an executive named Alan Ladd, Jr. Lucas went on to detail how he met Ladd via a screening of “American Graffiti” and how Ladd believed in him as a filmmaker and wanted to work with him. Ladd made Lucas a deal to work on some projects with him – that deal including Lucas’ idea about that space western.
So Lucas began writing the script. When he was done, he realized it was way, way too long - 225 pages long. Lucas claimed he unofficially titled this draft as “The Tragedy of Darth Vader”. Nolan asked if Lucas ever showed anyone that version of the script, and Lucas replied by firmly saying he was at least smart enough to not do that! He decided to take basically the first act of the script and make it its own film. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was born. He recounted how Ladd essentially admitted that he really didn’t understand the film or what Lucas was trying to do with it, but Ladd had such faith in Lucas personally, he told him to go make the film.
Nolan then asked about the budget and Lucas told him how he had been given an $8 million budget but that he knew the film was going to cost $11. And he also said how he basically bluffed his way through questions about how he was going to achieve the necessary special effects needed for the film. He deliberately misled the executives, telling them he had created something called “Rotary Cam Photography”. In reality, this technology was a figment of Lucas’ imagination, and he admitted to basically being terrified about how he was going to get this done.
Nolan went on to ask Lucas about casting the film and shooting in the U.K. Lucas told familiar stories about casting the film as an ensemble – basically hiring the right group of actors than slotting individuals for the role. He even mentioned that he was hassled by the British unions/government about bringing three American actors to the U.K. to shoot the project! Lucas also told some funny stories about shooting in the U.K. with a veteran crew who largely thought the project was ridiculous. He detailed how the art department – including folks like Ralph McQuarrie, John Mollo and John Barry (who was the production designer) – were the only ones who were on “his side” during the production. It was plain to see Lucas’ genuine affection for those folks. Meanwhile, the director of photography and others basically pulled the plug on shooting every day the first moment they could. They gave Lucas very little leeway (and apparently even less respect) to get the job done. Lucas recounted the familiar tale of Alan Ladd basically being forced to shut down shooting early due to the board at 20th Century Fox coming down on him. Lucas was given one week to do two or three weeks of work.
Nolan then continued on by asking about post-production. Lucas talked about how things basically only got worse once principal photography was done. He returned to the U.S. to discover that ILM hadn’t completed a single usable shot and had burned a huge chunk of their budget already. He even mentioned that he was so stressed he ended up in the hospital.
He went on to talk about how the primary problem (and ultimately the major achievement) of the effects for the film was figuring out how to pan, tilt, roll, swing and move the camera properly to film the spaceships in a way that had never been done before to achieve what needed to be done. He talked about the creation of the Dykstraflex camera (in simple easy to understand terms) and how it essentially solved the problem.
Interestingly, Lucas talked about how he had to fire the editor he was using during the production and had instructed a couple people who were basically assistants to essentially just string together the dailies together for him. I have to think this is a reference to the now legendary “Lost Cut” that John Jympson assembled. (Please see David West Reynolds’ article titled, “The Lost Cut of Star Wars” in Star Wars Insider Magazine #41 for more details). Lucas then went on to detail how he himself began to cut the film together – concentrating on achieving a cut of the film that had “speed”.
The quick pacing of the film was something Lucas admitted was done not only because for cinematic reason but for practical ones as well. Lucas was very worried about the any one shot being visible for too long on screen because he thought his special effects might not hold up if viewers had too long to look at the shots. He said the film was designed to be seen once in a theater and laughed how obviously he had no idea that VCRs, DVDs etc would be coming to change that forever! But essentially Lucas was insecure about the film – worried to death about audiences seeing his matte lines and rubber masked cantina aliens. (On a side note he did mention re-shooting much of the cantina scene with the help of Rick Baker.)
Nolan continued forward with questions about when Lucas realized the film was going to be a hit. He talked about Alan Ladd calling him that first weekend with the “good news”, but Lucas revealed how he didn’t believe it really. He mentioned that he told Ladd to call him after four or five weeks in release because these types of films would be expected to do well that first weekend due to the built in hardcore sci-fi fans. Well, the rest is history.
Lucas hit many other topics during the discussion including how and why he created the special editions of the films, and how he wanted the films to reflect his true vision. Unfortunately (at least it was unfortunate to me), Nolan and Lucas did not discuss the music for the film at all or the upcoming Blu-Ray or 3-D releases of the films. Yet overall it was a lively discussion that stayed centered on the actual film itself and did not delve into a broader discussion about its affect on our popular culture.
After the Q& A, the DGA presented a screening of “Star Wars: A New Hope” – and yes, it was the Special Edition. With an immaculate print and unbelievable HD sound quality (the DGA theater is absolutely state of the art) fans were treated to something special. And despite everyone in attendance being “pros”, the audience still cheered when the 20th Century Fox fanfare played, the Lucasfilm logo sparkled and the Star Wars opening crawl hit the screen!
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