Just got a hold of a copy of this and I thought you guys would appreciate it. The following is an interview with George Lucas that was first published in April 1977 in American Film:
George Lucas Goes Far Out by Stephen Zito
George Lucas is angry.
The unit publicist on Star Wars advises two commercial artists to leave because Lucas refuses to see them that day. One complains that they have an appointment. It doesn't matter--Lucas is out of sorts. When Lucas gets mad, he doesn't yell and shout. He Sulks, Pouts, and Refuses to Talk to people. Sometimes he takes to his bed.
The screening of the dailies doesn't improve his humor. Several of the special effects shots need to be redone, putting the production of Star Wars another day behind schedule.
It's a hell of a day to do an interview. Lucas wants to return to his home in San Anselmo, just outside San Francisco. He for sure doesn't want to break bread with a writer from the East. We drive to a local hamburger place in Van Nuys, weighted down by silence. The choice of restaurant is typical of of Lucas--no frills, no pretentions, just plain old American junk food. He doesn't grandstand in the Polo Lounge. Lucas jealously guards his privacy--he was once recognized in a restaurant and has never returned.
George Lucas is a contradictory man. Short and slight, he has the presence of a bigger man. Young by Hollywood standards at thirty-two, he is the kind of guy you just might entrust with $8 million of your stockholders' money to make a science fiction movie. In a very public business, he is a very private person. He lives as far from Hollywood as he can and commutes there as if it were some kind of leper colony. He is, quite simply, a man who wants to have everything his way.
Lucas claims to be shy of the press but he is a good talker. Yet, he tell you nothing by accident, doesn't let you in his life.
He is one of the most successful of a new breed of Hollywood filmmakers--the bright young man out of film school who jumps into the industry without the seasoning once required of directors. Others of his generation include Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and Steven Spielberg.
Movies are clearly far more than a means of livelihood; they are his life. He is, first and foremost, a filmmaker who got into the Hollywood studio system by becoming Francis Ford Coppola's assistant on The Rain People. Coppola taught him a lot about writing and acting, produced Lucas's first film, THX 1138, and lent his name so that Lucas could obtain financing for American Graffiti. THX 1138, the expansion of a college-made film, was a modest critical success, a box-office failure, and something of a cult favorite. American Graffiti, well-received by the critics, became one of the largest moneymakers in the history of film.
What happens when you direct one of the all-time box-office smashes? Well, everything. You can write your own deal, do what you want, spend what you please, get your own way. Even up old scores. What a director does with this freedom tells a lot about the man. Some sink into self-indulgence, others into conspicuous consumption of movie budgets. George Lucas has used the success of American Graffiti to make an $8 million animated comic strip called Star Wars.
One cynic, in advance of its completion, has called it American Graffiti in outer space. The story, as reconstructed from the Lucas script and the tacky sci-fi novel which bears his name, concerns the adventures of Luke Skywalker, a bored young man who lives with his aunt and uncle on a remote farm on the desert planet of Tatooine, somewhere in the universe. Luke's narrow, confined life is shattered by a message from a kidnapped rebel princess that sets him off on a series of adventures. He soon falls in with a bizarre collection of companions--an old wizard, two robots, a daredevil space freighter pilot, and a giant Wookie.
If this sounds like the stuff of Marvel comics "sword and sorcery" plots, well, it is just that. (Marvel will even release the story in six installments this spring.) There is a lot here to charm the preadolescent mind--rebellion, interplanetary wars, doomsday machines, space pirates, black knights, magic and sorcery, death stars, mystical happenings, sophisticated torture devices, medieval weaponry, and a savage air battle above the gray surface of a killer satellite.
George Lucas does nothing to disguise the fact that Star Wars is for the schoolboy in us all. "I decided I wanted to make a children's movie, to go the Disney route," Lucas explains in his distinctively nervous manner. "Fox hates for me to say this, but Star Wars has always been intended as a young people's movie. While I set the audience for Graffiti at sixteen to eighteen, I set this one at fourteen and maybe even younger than that."
George Lucas, who wrote the screenplay for and directed this story, found his inspiration among the debris of American popular culture. He believes, truly believes, in his boy's own adventure plot, and approaches the pulpish narrative with a sense of wonder and with naive enthusiasm. His original impetus came from the work of Alex Raymond.
"I loved the Flash Gordon comic books," Lucas confesses between bites of his hamburger. "I loved the Universal serials with Buster Crabbe. After THX 1138 I wanted to do Flash Gordon and tried to buy the rights to it from Kings Features, but they wanted a lot of money for it, more than I could afford then. They didn't really want to part with the rights--they wanted Fellini to do Flash Gordon.
"I realized that I could make up a character as easily as Alex Raymond, who took his character from Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's your basic superhero in outer space. I realized that what I really wanted to do was a contemporary action fantasy."
George Lucas, an avid reader and collector of science fiction literature and art (including a number of Alex Raymond originals) has been greatly influenced by other adventure and fantasy science fiction writers as well. "As a kid, I read a lot of science fiction," Lucas recalls. "But instead of reading technical, hard-science writers like Isaac Asimov, I was interested in Harry Harrison and a fantasic, surreal approach to the genre. I grew up on it. Star Wars is a sort of compilation of this stuff, but it's never been put in one story before, never put down on film. There is a lot taken from Westerns, mythology, and samurai movies. It's all the things that are great put together. it's not like one kind of ice cream but rather a very big sundae."
Such recent science fiction movies as Silent Running, Marooned, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, are heavily science oriented, constructed in accordance with what we know or can formulate about current hardware and technology. The characters are boxed in by probability, logic, and common sense. Not so Star Wars. The story is set in an alien galaxy with neither temporal nor spatial proximity to our solar system. It takes place in a land of fantasy. This is not our future realized: Lucas severs all ties with our solar system.
Lucas also cuts himself off from science. "It's very surreal and bizarre and has nothing to do with science," he says of what he mockingly refers to as the film's subtext. "I wanted it to be an adventure in space, like John Carter of Mars. That was before science fiction took over, and everything got very serious and science oriented.
"Star Wars has more to do with disclaiming science than anything else. There are very elaborate, Rube Goldberg explanations for things. It's a totally different galaxy with a totally different way of thinking. it's not based on science, which bogs you down. I don't want the movie to be about anything that would happen or be real. I wanted to tell a fantasy story."
When Lucas and I talked about Star Wars, there was no way to judge how successful Lucas had been in making this new movie--which comes out sounding like American Graffiti meets THX. Not only does Lucas have control over the final cut of the movie, he controls merchandising and publicity as well. Only a handful of the people working on the film, and a couple of key studio executives, had seen the almost-finished film. Part of this secrecy is designed to protect the innovative special effects work, but it is also the result of George Lucas's intense need to control and to personally oversee every aspect of his movie. He is the total filmmaker, a self-styled auteur obsessed with hot rods, disaffected adolescents, and the glitter of low culture.
If Lucas's labors over the past four years result in a marvelous children's adventure to stand beside movies like Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth, it will not have been easy. As we finished our lunch, Lucas tells me that he is suffering from bouts of exhaustion, depression, and disgust. "I didn't realize it was going to take so long or be so big or take so much of my life," he says with the manner of someone on whom fate has played a dirty trick.
All of the four years of Star Wars have been difficult for Lucas. This has been his first experience of working on a big-budget picture with a large cast and crew, in which the director must be more than a filmmaker. He must be a diplomat, field marshal, and nursemaid as well. Perhaps the biggest problem for Lucas has been that, despite the high budget, there has never been quite enough money. "Although it costs a lot of money," Lucas says of Star Wars, "it's still a low-budgeted picture. So it's on the same intensity level as a Roger Corman movie only a hundred times bigger. We still don't have the luxury of a big movie--time, doing things right. Everything is compromise, cutting corners, not doing this or that. You suffer. You say, 'I can't do this,' or 'That looks terrible, but we'll go with it,' which you are normally doing on a $700,000 picture where you're saying, 'Get it done!' We're doing that, only it's taking four years. The hard part is, once we started production--which will be two years in May--it's been almost relentless, seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. That's all right for a couple months, but when it goes on for over a year, it really gets to be a drag."
Lucas candidly admits that his problems on Star Wars were the result of his chronic inability and unwillingness to delegate authority and responsibility. He wants to do it all himself--write, direct, produce, supervise, edit, shoot. He has a hard time letting go. "I come up from the filmmakers' school of doing movies, which means I do everything myself," Lucas explains. "If you are a writer-director, you must get involved with everything. It's very hard for me to get into another system where everybody does things for me, and I say, 'Fine.' If I ever continue to do these kinds of movies, I've got to learn to do that. I have a lot of friends who can, and I admire them. Francis [Coppola] is going through that now, and he's finally learning, finally getting to the point where he realizes he can't do it all. He's getting into the traditional system: 'Call me when it's ready, and it better be right, and if it's not, do it again and spend whatever it costs to get it right.' But you have to be willing to make very expensive movies that way. You can't make cheap movies.
If I left anything for a day, it would fall apart, and it's purely because I set it up that way and there is nothing I can do about it. It wasn't set up so I could walk away from it. Whenever there is a leak in the dam, I have to stick my finger in it. I should learn to say, 'Somebody else go plug that up.'"
The principal photography on Star Wars was completed last summer on location in Tunisia and on forty-five sets spread over eleven sound stages in England. The intervening months have been spent in editing the 340,000 feet of live-action footage marrying it with the special effects shots created for Lucas at the two-story warehouse in Van Nuys, which serves as the headquarters for Industrial Light and Magic, an organization of technicians specifically formed to supply Star Wars with special effects. The effects work for Star Wars has been expensive and painstakingly difficult. Most of the work was done by young and relatively inexperienced effects people rather than by such acknowledged masters of the art as Linwood Dunn and Douglas Trumbull. The reason for this choice of staff was characteristically pragmatic on Lucas's part. With his young staff, he has more control over the special effects than if he had employed an established special effects director with a style, approach, and hardware all his own.
"If you hire Trumbull to do your special effects," Lucas explains, "he does your special effects. I was very nervous about that. I wanted to be able to say, 'It must look like this, not that.' I don't want to be handed an effect at the end of five months and be told, 'Here's your special effect, sir.' I want to be able to have more say about what's going on. It's really become binary--either you do it yourself, or you don't get a say.
"Technically, you always compare things against 2001. If you took one of our shots and ran it on the light box and set it next to one of Kubrick's shots, you would say, 'Well, his are better.' But there is no way, given the time and money we've had, that Kubrick could do any better. He was striving for perfection and had a shot ratio thirty times what we have. When you spend that kind of time and money you can get things perfect. We went into this trying to make a cheap, children's movie for $8 million. We didn't go in and say that we were going to make the perfect science fiction film, but we are gonna make the most spectacular thing you've ever seen!"
The "we" to which George Lucas occasionally refers includes Gary Kurtz, the producer of Star Wars and, like others on the movie, an old and trusted friend of Lucas's. The truth is that Lucas doesn't have many new friends--he is a hard man to know. One of Kurtz's jobs is to function as an unofficial consigliere--limiting access to Don Lucas, granting favors and interviews, fixing messes, pouring oil on the troubled waters. He is friend, confidant, interpreter, hatchet man. When Lucas talks, Kurtz listens. Only after Lucas returns to San Anselmo do Kurtz and I have the opportunity to talk. He explains that he and Lucas work together with a tense kind of harmony.
"It's a casual arrangement. If you want to categorize the function of the working producer, it is to provide all the tools so the director can do everything he wants, or, at least, everything within the limits you are trying to work. I also function as a sounding board to discuss everything that comes up. Star Wars is more formally arranged than Graffiti was. We made Graffiti with eighteen people, but by the time Star Wars is finished we will have employed nine hundred people. The larger the picture, the less time you have to deal with detail. On a small picture, you can do everything yourself."
The burden of coping with production problems in England and Tunisia fell largely to Kurtz. He was responsible in large part for the selection of the British crew: Gil Taylor, the cinematographer who shot Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day's Night, and Frenzy; John Barry, the production designer from A Clockwork Orange; and John Spears who was in charge of production effects and explosives. It was not always the happiest of crews. Lucas feuded with Taylor, and even fired an editor with whom he didn't get along.
Lucas never really adjusted to making the movie in England. The British crews insisted on knocking off work promptly at 5:30, and he felt himself to be a stranger in a strange land. "We had several problems," Gary Kurtz recalls. "George wasn't happy there--he doesn't like to be away from home. There are a lot of little things that are bothersome--light switches go up instead of down. Everything is different enough to throw you off balance." Kurtz was often put in the position of mediating between introspective Lucas and certain key members of the foreign crew. "All film crews are a matter of chemistry," Kurtz says. "George is not a particularly social person. He doesn't go out of his way to socialize. It takes him a while to know somebody, to get intimate enough to share his problems with them. It's easier for him to work with people he knows."
George Lucas is, in many ways, most comfortable with what is known and familiar. He is marvelously adept at the manipulation of the styles and artifacts of the cultural past. Lucas and Kurtz function in many ways like a couple of pack rats. Star Wars is literally constructed from bits and pieces of the usable past. During postproduction, model makers at Industrial Light and Magic were busy cannibalizing model kits in order to make spaceships. They used fragments of Kenworth Tractors, Kandy-Vans, Panzer Kampfwagens, and even Ford Galaxy 500 XLs to make their spaceships.
This wholesale recycling of the artifacts of the past is nowhere more apparent than in the final gigantic space battle that will take up the last twenty minutes of the movie. The scene is composed of a number of scenes right out of vintage World War II movies. Literally.
"Before the storyboards were done," Kurtz explains, "we recorded on videotape any war movie involving aircraft that came up on television, so we had this massive library of parts of old war movies--The Dam Busters, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Battle of Britain, Jet Pilot, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, 633 Squadron and about forty-five other movies. We went through them all and picked out scenes to transfer to film to use as guidelines in the battle.
"We cut them all together into a battle sequence to get an idea of the movement. It was a very bizarre-looking film, all black-and-white, a dirty 16mm dupe. There would be a shot of the pilot saying something, then you cut back to a long shot of the plane, explosions, crashes. It gave a reasonably accurate idea of what the battle sequence would look like, the feeling of it.
Lucas and Kurtz showed the battle sequences to the special effects people and to the artists who transferred the ersatz movie to storyboards. "It's very easy to take your hand and fly," Kurtz says, making an imaginary loop the loop, "but it's very hard to convert that movement to what John Dykstra and the other special effects people had to do with the models.
The system that generated the special effects was created by John Dykstra, who received his training under Douglas Trumbull on The Andromeda Strain and Silent Running. Dykstra, who is the head of Industrial Light and Magic, oversaw the construction of a special computer-run system for making the more than 350 special effects in the film. The key to Dykstra's operation stands in a back room of the warehouse: a giant camera mounted on tracks and powered by high-torque motors under the command of a computer. Each shot is programmed in a computer and played back a number of times to accommodate the various model elements in the shots. The complex special effects system allows Dykstra to create special effects shots with models which approximate the effect of live-action shots.
Dykstra and Lucas didn't always see eye to eye. One of their biggest problems was communication. In special effects, there is always a gap between intention and execution, between conception and realization. Lucas sometimes became angry when the matted shots did not have the authenticity and pace he wanted for the movies. "Directors and special effects directors always disagree incredibly," Dykstra says, "because he conceptualizes one thing but I know what is capable of being produced. The major problem we encountered on this show was being able to apply what George started out with conceptually. From the day we met, we talked about World War II dogfight footage which involved lots of action, continuous motion, moving camera, streak, loops and rolls, and all of the things aerial photography allows you to do in live action. This has been difficult to do in special effects with multiple ships, planet backgrounds, and stars, because of the problems of angular displacement, matching shots, and depth of field.
"It's hard to explain that a concept won't work because of some technological thing, and this becomes a bone of contention. When a director shoots an exterior, he can see the lighting and the setup and the action and hear the dialogue, but when he comes in here, all there is is a camera photographing a model. So you have to be able to determine a spatial relationship without having to see the relationship in front of you or being able to compress in your mind's eye five minutes of motion into five seconds. It's more akin to animation than anything else.
"George has to trust me to be able to interpret the drawings and the black-and-white war footage, and that's really hard to do. I don't know if I could do that with somebody. That's one of the biggest problems there is."
Despite their differences of opinion, Dykstra respects Lucas for his single-mindedness, his obsession with getting things right, his love for every frame of Star Wars.
"The neat thing about George is that he has a sensibility. He is really involved in his movie, he is really attached. He's hardheaded about stuff, but, if he's wrong, he'll change his mind rather than say, 'I'm the director, I've made a decision and that's it.' He's got taste. He's got that gift for popular narrative. People like what he does: It's active; it's fast; there's humor in it. Star Wars is gonna be exciting all the way. The aerial battle that takes up the last reel of the film is going to be as exciting as the car chase in The French Connection."
During our lunch I had asked Lucas what he wanted from the movie.
"Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film," he answered, "I realized there was another relevance that is even more important--dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps--that you could still sit and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures. Once I got into Star Wars, it struck me that we had lost all that--a whole generation was growing up without fairy tales. You just don't get them anymore, and that's the best stuff in the world--adventures in far-off lands. It's fun.
"I wanted to do a modern fairy tale, a myth. One of the criteria of the mythical fairy-tale situation is an exotic, faraway land, but we've lost all the fairytale lands on this planet. Every one has disappeared. We no longer have the Mysterious East or treasure islands or going on strange adventures.
"But there is a bigger, mysterious world in space that is more interesting than anything around here. We've just begun to take the first step and can say, 'Look! It goes on for a zillion miles out there.' You can go anywhere and land on any planet."
There can be little doubt that George Lucas has gone out on a limb. He has used the success of American Graffiti to put on film the dreams and fantasies of his childhood. He has spent $8 million in a genre where movies are usually done as cheaply as possible, resulting in shoddiness. The only question left about Star Wars is an old one, frequently asked since the Wright Brothers took their contraption to Kitty Hawk: "But will it fly?"
Stepping softly in a danger zone…