The Director's Chair Interviews

George Lucas
by Mr. Showbiz

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FROM our perspective on the brink of the twenty-first century, it's hard to believe that the monumental Star Wars trilogy originated as a low-profile experiment on a shoestring budget. Twenty years later, its impact on American culture--film and otherwise--is undisputed, and creator George Lucas has been canonized as a genius. Prior to Star Wars, Lucas had directed only two feature films: the futuristic drama THX 1138, which was a critical and commercial disappointment; and the nostalgic hit American Graffiti. Despite the success of the latter film, Lucas wasn't able to garner much industry support for Star Wars--his script was turned down by two studios before Twentieth Century Fox agreed to bankroll the film.

Lucas estimates that due to budget and technological constraints, the 1977 version of Star Wars lived up to only about forty percent of its potential. While audiences around the world were thrilling to the heroic exploits of Luke, Han, Leia, and Obi-Wan, the filmmaker was feeling "really disappointed"--frowning all the way to the bank. Over the next twenty years, overcoming the technological constraints of film became a passion for Lucas: he has not directed a film since Star Wars, and has instead devoted his time to improving technology and special effects through his company, Industrial Light & Magic.

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Lucas on having the opportunity to touch up Star Wars

There's a lot of things I was disappointed about in [Star Wars], and I wasn't real happy with it when it came out. I never felt it really got finished. I never expected to be able to fix it. I mean, almost any filmmaker could go back and say "Gee, if I only had another few days, some more money. I could really fix a lot of those things that slipped by, that I'd give anything to fix at this point." I was fortunate enough when this opportunity came up. I said, "This is my chance! This is my chance to fix all those things." So I took it. I'm very happy with it.

If you go back and you check the interviews from when I made the movie, everybody said, "Oh, this is so wonderful." And I said, "Well, it didn't turn out very well. It's only about forty percent of what I wanted it to be. I'm really disappointed in it." At every interview, relentlessly. Everyone I work with has been hearing this for twenty years. As a matter of fact, I think they're relieved: "Oh, he's finally going to do it. We won't have to listen to this anymore!"

The opportunity came along with the twentieth-anniversary celebration. There were a lot of ideas bandied about what we were going to do. Everybody both at Fox and Lucasfilms said, "We've got to do something. This is an important thing to us, it's an important thing to a lot of our fans, we should celebrate the fact that we've been here for twenty years." I said, "If you're going to put that much money into reissuing the movie, I want to get it right this time."

On the challenges of making Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars, you know, we had this kind of low-budget, young director, and all these problems that we had to cope with, which made the picture less than what it could be. Empire was a much better situation. We had a lot more resources and [Irvin] Kershner's a great director. So we really didn't have to change too much. Most of what we changed were some things like Cloud City, which Kersh was complaining about on the set. I was saying, "Look, they're just not going to let us have any more set 'cause it costs too much." The idea of putting in digital backgrounds, that didn't exist then. You wouldn't even think about doing something like that. Same thing with the snow monster. We built a snow monster; it just looked terrible. It was Kershner who said, "We can't let this stay in here." And I said, "You're right, it's terrible." So we cut it out. We had someone else do another little tiny puppet that we used just marginally to give you the impression of a monster. But we all wanted to have that monster. A lot of these things are things you want on the set that you have to make compromises for. And you say, "Now we are going to do it the way we wanted to do it then."

On altering the cantina confrontation between Han Solo and Greedo

It was always meant that Greedo fired first. In the original film you don't get that too well. But in terms of Han's character, I didn't like the fact that when he was introduced the first thing he did is just gun somebody down in cold blood. That wasn't what was meant to be there. The other issue is a perception issue. We had three different versions of that shot: one he fires very close to when Han fires, one was three frames later, one was three frames later. And we sort of looked at it and tried to figure out which one would be perceivable, but wouldn't look corny. It's very hard to do that, because, I mean, obviously if you know the film real well and you're looking for that you see it. If you don't know the film very well and you're just watching the movie, it almost goes right by you. People don't perceive what's happened there, even now. So, it's trying to find that medium ground, and it's always this way in film, of what can the majority of the audience perceive and what can't they perceive. I like fast-paced movies--accusations have been made about this--and I like things to go by in an almost surreal way. So I'm caught between doing things that work for me--really understanding the scenes and understanding what's going on--and the audience, which I know is looking at something for the first time, and things go by in a very different way. So, there's always the conflict about where you draw the line. Perhaps I should have done it two frames sooner.

Lucas on special effects

Special effects don't make a movie; the story makes the movie. All the special effects do is allow you to tell a particular story. As a filmmaker . . . it's not like writing a book where you can use words to create an imaginary world in the reader's mind. Film is very literal. There's a certain kinetic reality that works that can fool the audience. But, at the same time you're stuck with a very literal interpretation of what's going on. You have to create something to photograph that fools the audience into thinking they're creating an imaginary world that allows them to function in this make-believe environment. Doing it with words is much easier. You don't actually have to construct the things. So the big drama is, how do you get some things constructed? How do you create the illusion that something exists visually that doesn't? Whereas if you write it down in a paragraph, that's great, that's easy. You just sort of say, "The earth falls apart." It's no big deal--you can describe it in detail as much as you want. But to try to actually show it is really hard.

On mythology

Mythology, in general, is used to convey certain social values, certain social precepts from one generation to another generation. In the beginning, obviously, it was an oral tradition. It was really designed to give the community a self, a cohesive set of "thinking modules" that allowed them to be a society. And then these were told in story form, because that was the best way to teach it. The lessons were used in the form of metaphors and that sort of thing. So they weren't direct, but the emotional content--the psychological imperative that's implicit in these kinds of story telling--was handed down generation to generation. . . . And obviously this tradition has gone on for thousands of years.

In modern society, there is competition from lots of other sources, media and better communication between people, larger masses of people. The conscious use of mythology in a society has kind of gone by the wayside. When I got into college, I studied anthropology and I sort of got into this stuff. One of my instructors said that the Western was the last of the American mythology and really probably one of the last of the world mythologies that had been developed. In the sixties, that all fell apart and Westerns went by the wayside--especially in the film business, not necessarily in the literary field. As a popular myth transport, we were sitting there with nothing specifically mythic. One of the reasons I started doing the film was I was interested in creating a new kind of myth and using space to do it, because that's the new frontier.

There's a lot of messages, themes, dramatic issues that are pretty classic--you know, good and evil and friendships. The structure of mythology, in terms of the hero's journey and that sort of thing, is also fairly classic. Say there's only thirty-two plots in the world and everyone does a variation of one of those thirty-two plots. Mythology takes those thirty-two plots and puts them into a slightly more structured context. Especially when it comes to the heroic part of this, which is what I was dealing with. Mostly I was dealing with the hero-type myth.

On Star Wars prequels and sequels

I was pretty determined to get those three movies finished. After the first film came out, and suddenly it was a giant hit, I said, "Oh, I get to do these two movies." Everyone said, "What [else] are you going to do?" I said, "Gee, I could do these back stories too. That would be interesting." That's where the [idea of] starting in episode four came [from], because I said, "Well, maybe I could make three out of this back story." That evolved right around the time the film was released, after I knew it was a success. Then everyone started saying, "Are you going to do sequels?" I said, "Gosh, sequels. I guess I could do sequels. I could do three of what happens later on." But that was really an afterthought--I don't have scripts, I don't have any story. The only notion on that one is wouldn't it be fun to get all the actors to come back when they're like sixty or seventy years old, and make three more that are about them as old people. And that's about as far as that one's gone so far. The first six will get finished and will be the film. Whether I go and do a sequel of this--because I'll also be seventy [Laughs]--I'm not sure whether that's going to happen.

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