The Movie Man

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Holy shit! George Lucas! Oh hey, Happy birthday to you, George Lucas! The much maligned multi-billionaire (the criticism seems less harsh when you consider his considerable wealth) turns 74 today. Best known for creating some of the most popular film franchises in history – and subsequently ruining them – Lucas has been a master of the entertainment industry who helped to shape the movie making experience unlike any other. His vision for story often far exceeded the limitations of the most modern technology which most filmmakers would have made due with the best that they could, but Lucas is not most filmmakers. Today, I will write about the man behind some of the most formative films in current pop culture and how the course of his life brought him to where he is today.

George Walton Lucas Jr. did not have childhood aspirations to be a filmmaker. His pursuit of passion was fast moving cars. He loved to watch them, he loved to drive them, and he loved to race them. When Lucas was 18, he was ringing out one of his tricked out rides when he was struck by another driver and rolled over. The serious accident almost claimed his life, and he spent his recovery time reading up on the storytelling process. After high school, Lucas attended Modesto Junior College and later the University of Southern California where he further studied aspects of story and filmmaking. As I previously discussed in “Skywalkin’ Blues”, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the encapsulation of the monomythic hero in classic story. George Lucas read this book and used it as an outline for an idea he had that would become Star Wars, but before that he also turned his attention toward technical capabilities.

George Lucas is part of a group of directors and producers who are considered to be the New Wave in Hollywood. During the late-60s through the 1980s, Lucas and others such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Philip Kaufman, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch to name a select few (all will be mentioned in this piece), helped initiate the new era in Hollywood to refresh and remix the old and increasingly decrepit tropes of aging cinema. Lucas’ skills behind the camera that he helped to hone by filming fast car races (he still stayed involved in his passion even after the accident) were being noticed, and helped him win an award for a film he made as a graduate student at USC called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. Upon completing school, he co-founded film studio American Zoetrope with friend and colleague Francis Ford Coppola (see! there’s one!). The aim of the studio was to have greater artistic freedom in filmmaking to avoid being stifled by the traditional Hollywood studio executives. Lucas used the platform to turn his student film into a larger film THX 1138 (the THX sound recording/mixing company is a branch of Lucasfilm that became independent and takes its name from this movie), and while it commercially did not do well, he had enough to form his own company: Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Lucasfilm’s first film was American Graffiti which clearly drew upon Lucas’ familiarity of hot rod racing teenagers. Furthermore, it was a success! Both commercially and critically, American Graffitti allowed Lucas to set off onto his next planned project to make a Flash Gordon movie. Unfortunately, the inability to secure the rights to Flash Gordon prevented this, but even more fortunately, Lucas had an ace in the hole that throughout his life helped him to become not just a billionaire, but one of the richest men alive. Of course, I am talking about Star Wars, and seeing as how I have talked about the entire Star Wars saga numerous times, I am going to gloss over it here (at least until we get to the 1990s). The one thing I will point out here, is Lucas formed another couple of companies amid production of the first Star Wars film. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was created in 1975, and has since been the leaders of technical effects. In essence, they are the creators of your movie dreams making just about every monster, mechanical machination, and eventually much of the CGI effects seen in films (with many thanks to eventual partner Pixar). Also open for business in 1975 was Sprocket Systems, which would later be called Skywalker Sound. Basically, the visual magic that ILM created was given its buzz, hum, or whir by these sound maestros. Both of these companies were so new to the industry, that when Star Wars was being celebrated at the Academy Awards show, they gave an honorary sound effects Oscar to Ben Burtt because the categories for sound effects weren’t invented yet! Suffice it to say, Lucas ended the 1970s an extremely wealthy man who could make any creative project he wanted thanks to his Star Wars moolah, and the amazing team of effects personnel at his studio’s partner effects studios.

In 1980, his team churned out the greatest sequel ever made with The Empire Strikes Back, a film predominantly penned by Lawrence Kasdan (that’s two!). Kasdan would also help Lucas on his next trilogy turned more than three, the Indiana Jones series. Kasdan wrote the screenplay to Raiders of the Lost Ark based on a story from Lucas and Philip Kaufman (three!). As is well known, Harrison Ford was a star in both franchises, but the amazing archeologist’s adventures allowed friends Lucas and Steven Spielberg (all right, you get the idea; I already said they’ll all come up again) to work together. This was the plan again for Lucas’ third Star Wars movie, but did not come to fruition – the general consensus being that Speilberg was unable to contractually because Lucas had left the Directors Guild of America. Whatever the case may be, Lucas then turned to David Lynch after seeing his film Eraserhead (it’s a David Lynch movie all right), but this did not come to be either.

Not everything Lucas made was a smash though (cough, Howard the Duck!). In fact, most of his projects outside of Star Wars and Indiana Jones were not well received. Still, he did manage some key wins outside of the galaxy far, far away and the Nazi-punching whip-wielder. Lucas was involved in LabyrinthThe Land Before TimeThe Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and even got to work with idol Akira Kurosawa on Kagemusha.

Of course, today, Lucas is typically labeled a shell of his former creative self who has tarnished his own grand projects. He has become a caricature of a man who comes into too much power, just in this case it pertains to creative entertainment properties.

This is obviously in reaction to Lucas returning to filmmaking by returning to Star Wars, first with the re-release of his original trilogy with some major alterations, then with the release of his prequel trilogy that most fans of the original were not crazy about. Lucas actually started a debate over the control that creators should have over their own work once it becomes such a large part of the culture. On the one hand, I am a huge Star Wars fan who loves the stories as they originally were produced and I do not like any tinkering with them, even to fix their flaws. But just put yourself into George Lucas’ flannel shirt and consider that you have some major movies out there that you didn’t have the technology (even with the astounding tech your companies helped create) at the time to make the way you wanted. Now you do, and you have the money to make those changes. Who has the right to stop you? It’s a more complicated answer than anyone would like, but let’s not forget Lucas’ feelings on the matter. I am aware that I am asking you not to be mean to a billionaire who I have been plenty mean to in the past and will again be in the future, but hopefully this piece will help you realize that once he was a boy seeking to have an adventure of his own and ended up achieving massive success which in turn led to his own downfall in the eyes of so many who once loved him. Makes you appreciate the primary story of the prequels a bit more, doesn’t it?

Thanks for reading and watching! If you’d like to learn more about Lucas, there is no shortage of materials to explore the man behind so many of our most beloved myths of the movieplex. I can recommend his interesting episode of the show Prophets of Science Fiction that details some of Lucas’ life and how his ideas for the Star Wars universe inspired countless people to venture further into their own interests in science, filmmaking, storytelling, inventing, etc. The show was a series produced and presented by Ridley Scott, who rightfully states that he owes his career to Lucas and his dogged push to achieve his film vision for his most famous series because without the Alderaan shattering success of Star Wars, Scott would have never gotten the chance to direct Alien and Blade Runner.

Make sure to pursue your dreams like a young George Lucas, and make sure to run back here in less than 12 parsecs (or just by next week) for more stellar fun.

May the Fourteenth Force be with You,

Alex

Oh, wait! Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! I almost forgot about Martin Scorsese! Just like the Academy, I overlooked an astounding director, and when he finally won for The Departed in 2007, his buddies Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas were there to present it to him, with a bit that was tongue in cheek at the expense of George:

Congrats Marty, and fuck you Coppola and Spielberg! (not really; I love you guys!) But come on! George is richer than both of you! Who’s laughing now!?

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