George Lucas talks about how he made ‘Star Wars,’ what he hoped to accomplish, the ‘death of the western’ and how he heard of wookies
By Paul Scanlon
George Lucas possesses peculiar vision and exceptional imagination.
His first feature film, ‘THX 1138,’ was technically brilliant but no crowd-pleaser. Then came ‘American Graffiti,’ George’s paean to the class of ’62, cruising and rock and roll. Made for $750000 with a small crew and a 28-day shooting schedule, it has become the 11th largest grosser.
And in case you’ve been asleep for the past couple of months, or on Mars, George Lucas’ third feature, ‘Star Wars,’ will certainly hit the Top Ten and may well become the biggest grosser ever. Within eight weeks it had taken in $54 million at the box office.
What sets ‘Star Wars’ apart from its predecessors are the special effects (some 365 separate shots) and the extraordinary richness of Lucas’ imagination.
So here sits George Lucas, 33, in a hotel suite overlooking New York’s Central Park. Somewhere out there, folks are queuing up for the next showing of his movie, and George Lucas is smiling.
So how does it feel; did you really expect that ‘Star Wars’ was going to take off like this?
No way. I expected ‘American Graffiti’ to be a semisuccessful film… and then I went through the roof when it became this big, huge blockbuster.
And they said, well, gee, how are you going to top that? And I said it was a one-shot and I was really lucky. I really had to get a movie off the ground. So what happened was I finally got a deal for very little money to develop ‘Star Wars.’
How many studios had turned it down?
And then Fox took it?
Fox took it, and it was close because there wasn’t any other place I wanted to take it. I don’t know what I would have done, maybe take a job. But the last desperate thing is to “take a job.” So I was going to try to write a very interesting project.
Right after ‘Graffiti’ I was getting this fan mail from kids that said the film changed their life, and something inside me said, do a children’s film. And everybody said, “Do a children’s film? What are you talking about? You’re crazy.”
I thought: we all know what a terrible mess we have made of the world, we all know how wrong we were in Vietnam. We also know, as every movie made in the last ten years points out, how terrible we are, how we have ruined the world.
I saw that kids today don’t have any fantasy life the way we had — they don’t have westerns, they don’t have pirate movies, they don’t have that stupid serial fantasy life that we used to believe in.
It wasn’t that we really believed in it…
But we loved it.
Look, what would happen if there had never been John Wayne movies and Errol Flynn movies and all that stuff that we got to see at the time.
I mean, you could go into a theater, not just watch it on television on Saturday morning, actually go into a theater, sit down and watch an incredible adventure. Not a stupid adventure, not a dumb adventure for children and stuff but a real Errol Flynn, John Wayne — gosh — kind of adventure.
Or ‘The Crimson Pirate’ with Burt Lancaster or ‘The Magnificent Seven.’
Yeah, but there aren’t any. There’s nothing but cop movies and a few films like ‘Planet of the Apes,’ but there isn’t anything you can really dig your teeth into.
I realized a more destructive element in the culture would be a whole generation of kids growing up without that thing, because I had also done a study on the fairy tale or the myth.
It is a children’s story in history and you go back to the ‘Odyssey’ or the stories that are told for the kid in all of us. I can see the little kids sitting there and just being enthralled with ‘Ulysses.’ Plus the myths which existed in high adventure, and an exotic far-off land which was always that place over the hill, ‘Camelot,’ ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘Treasure Island.’
That sort of stuff that is always big adventure out there somewhere. It came all the way down through the western.
Yeah, one of the significant things that occurred to me is I saw the western die.
We hardly knew what happened, one day we turned around and there weren’t westerns anymore.
So you do a ‘Star Wars.’
I was a real fan of ‘Flash Gordon’ and that kind of stuff, a very strong advocate of the exploration of outer space and I said, this is something, this is a natural.
One, it will give kids a fantasy life and two, maybe it will make someone a young Einstein and people will say, “Why?” What we really need to do is colonize the next galaxy, get away from the hard facts of ‘2001’ and get on the romantic side of it.
Nobody is going to colonize Mars because of the technology, they are going to go because they think maybe they will be able… well, it is romantic.
You firmly establish that at the beginning of ‘Star Wars’ with the words “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Well, I had a real problem because I was afraid that science-fiction buffs and everybody would say things like, “You know there’s no sound in outer space.” I just wanted to forget science. That would take care of itself.
Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science-fiction movie and it is going to be very hard for somebody to come along and make a better movie, as far as I’m concerned.
I didn’t want to make a ‘2001,’ I wanted to make a space fantasy that was more in the genre of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that whole other end of space fantasy that was there before science took it over in the Fifties.
And yet you encountered a lot of resistance on this project?
Yes. I started out saying I thought it would make roughly $16 million. The thing is, okay, if I spend $4.5 million, then on the advertising and the prints and everything, another $4.5 million, there is a little bit of profit in there, if it makes $16 million.
And then I finally talked Fox into doing it, partially because they sort of understood — they had done the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies — partially just because ‘Laddie,’ Alan Ladd Jr, understood. He was a project officer then and I guess he saw ‘Graffiti’ before he made his decision and he said, this is a great movie and I was asking for $10000 just to start this little project.
How do you explain a Wookie to a board of directors?
You can’t, and how do you explain a Wookie to an audience, and how do you get the tone of the film right, so it’s not a silly child’s film, so it’s not playing down to people, but it is still an entertaining movie and doesn’t have a lot of violence and sex and hip new stuff? So it still has a vision to it, a sort of wholesome, honest vision about the way you want the world to be.
The first budget actually came out to $16 million, so I threw out a lot of designing new equipment and said, okay, we’ll cut corners and do a lot of fast filmmaking, which is where I really come from.
So we started applying some of our budget techniques and we got it down by $8.5 million, which was really about as cheap as that script could possibly ever be made by any human being.
What was your actual salary for directing?
I think in the end my actual salary was $100,000, which again was still like half of what everybody else was making.
Do you have percentage points in the film?
Everybody has points, but the key is to make them pay off. I figured I was never going to see any money on my points, so what the heck. But I never expected ‘Star Wars’ to… I expected to break even on it, I still can’t understand it.