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Either as a writer, director, or producer, George Lucas has been integral to the production of many movies we consider classics. The Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises are notable for their worldwide success, but that was never an ambition for the USC film grad.
"I've never thought of myself as a commercial filmmaker. It just happened. It happened in spite of myself,” Lucas told ET in 1993. In fact, Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first time people heard one of his ideas and thought it had potential to be a hit. “Everything up until that point, everyone said, ‘What are you talking about? I don't get it.’"
He added, “I think I've done OK, because I like making movies and I've always made what I want to make, regardless.”
And the movies Lucas wanted to make were usually something that had never been seen before. Or something that took a known element of cinema and turned it on its head. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, ET looks back at Lucas’ ambition to create a unique cinematic experience, as well as what he’s learned as a filmmaker and storyteller.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that Lucas would become known as an influential presence in the history of movies. This is the same artist who started out in San Francisco directing cinema verité-style avant-garde films, then worked around the studio system to create a worldwide phenomenon.
Early on, the filmmaker realized that if he wanted to maintain creative control of his work, he had to get out of Hollywood. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where his mentor Francis Ford Coppola also worked, Lucas found less pressure and interference from studio executives. The years of his movie ideas being met with aggressive skepticism had clearly left a mark -- American Graffiti and Star Wars weren’t exactly “sold in the room,” as they say.
“People think of them now as very conventional, but at the time I couldn't get them made, because they said they were too experimental,” Lucas told ET’s Leonard Maltin at Skywalker Ranch, a monument to his success as a commercial filmmaker as well as a special effects hub for multiple blockbusters each year. “We don't understand it. What is this 7-foot-tall Wookiee? I don't get it.”
Lucas continued, “But you can really only have breakthroughs like that when you are able to take the risk on something that isn't obviously commercial or gonna be socially accepted.”
What Lucas needed to sell people on for Star Wars was his vision of an immense cinematic experience. He wanted to make a movie that you had to see in the theater on a big screen, surrounded by speakers that could magnify sound effects and a John Williams score. For the audiences’ hearts and minds, he would do the work of adapting the universal monomyth for a grand space opera. The true and authentic “Star Wars experience” to Lucas came down to watching the movie in a theater. While Laserdiscs and home video cassettes allowed fans to enjoy the movies at home, he insisted there were several aspects you couldn’t replicate on a small screen.
“You can get the story and you can get the characters on television, but with a film like Star Wars, it was meant to be kind of an environmental experience,” Lucas told ET in 1997. “Which is it's big. It's space. It's overwhelming. That's part of the thrill of being in that movie.”
He added, “If you do want to see it with the emotional impact that it was meant to have, you have to see it on a big screen.”
Around this time, Lucas was on the verge of releasing “Special Edition” versions of the original trilogy. After grabbing the original prints (which ended up being in poorer condition than anyone had predicted), he added digital effects and modified certain scenes that had bothered him since their original release.
“A lot of times, if you go into an artist's studio you're gonna find a lot of canvases sitting along the wall. They say ‘Oh, yeah. I did that 12 years ago, but I just…’ And you look at it and it looks perfectly fine. ‘But there's something I don't feel right about it,’” said Lucas.
With his name on a special effects company that couldn’t be rivaled in resources and technological advances, the ability to rewrite history proved to be too tempting. He remembers well the brutal honesty with which he spoke of his dissatisfaction with A New Hope upon its release, as well as the traps artists can fall into upon revisiting their work. Lucas compared his touch-ups on the beloved trilogy to pulling the thread on a sweater (the first film ended up with approximately 150 new shots.)
Lucas continued, “There were a lot of things in Star Wars I just wasn't happy with, and when the film came out, everyone said, ‘Oh, looks great. ‘You love it.’ I said, ‘Well, you know it's only about 60 percent of what I wanted it to be.’ Everybody thought I was nuts.”
Still, he said the satisfaction he received from the experience was worth the time he and his team put into it. Lucas was able to fix his issues with the films, and claimed that the original trilogy is now 80 percent what he wanted them to be as opposed to 60 percent. Most importantly, generations after 1977 were able to enter a theater to receive Lucas’ ideal “Star Wars experience.”
Forty years ago, Lucas proved himself behind the camera with creative innovation and a clear vision. Between then and the start of his work on the prequels, he gained another title that carried just as much weight: storyteller.
“A film, to be successful, relies on two feet. One is the story and the other are the characters,” said Lucas. With his work on the Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy and TV series, and as an executive producer on Labyrinth and Willow, Lucas had learned just how crucial these two elements are. “Movies have the tendency to rely more on story, but they both are pillars that you build the movie on, and if those don't work, the movie won't work. The special effects won't save you.”
The filmmaker has been given credit for influencing several enormous shifts in cinema. A lot of it he has no problem acknowledging. He was there to witness how the entertainment industry evolved after Star Wars, as well as how his creative risks and advancements were used by other filmmakers.
“I brought special effects back into the vocabulary of making movies; it had been a very, very big factor before that. Gone with the Wind is a special effects movie,” Lucas explained to ET in 1999. As the millennium drew to an end, people had been making movies for over 100 years. Being a student of film, one of the very first of a generation who were labeled as such, Lucas had a century’s worth of filmmaking knowledge to draw from.
“People interpreted that as ‘people go see special effects movies,’ but they don't. They never have and they never will,” said Lucas. The two feet of a successful movie, story and characters, could be aided by special effects, but not replaced.
The growth of the “blockbuster” film has also been very closely associated with Lucas and frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg. Star Wars and Jaws are popularly considered the origin of the summer tentpole films that set the template for the movie market today. The Sound of Music and The Godfather are a couple of examples Lucas cited as similar box office successes, even if the main characters didn’t fly X-Wings or outrun massive boulders.
“For every year that there's been a movie business there have been blockbusters, and the studios have always focused on trying to do blockbusters,” said Lucas, referencing how studios during the golden era of Hollywood installed aggressive marketing machines. The most famous of these was the massive effort made by Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick to drum up public awareness, motivated by the unprecedented amount of money that had been poured into the film.
In 2012, Lucas sat down to talk with Oprah Winfrey on Oprah’s Next Chapter, where he discussed the unfortunate vantage point of the phenomenon he had created.
“The biggest problem I’ll have is that I never got to see Star Wars,” said Lucas, who compared his experience of the massive success that followed to standing in the middle of a hurricane. He added, “I never walked into a theater like everybody else did and said, ‘Oh, my god!’”
With the help of Kathleen Kennedy and the Lucasfilm Story Group, that Star Wars phenomenon is now more expansive than ever. In 2015, there would be another opportunity to feel the emotional impact Lucas had envisioned for the ideal Star Wars experience. Beginning with The Force Awakens, new generations of passionate fans worldwide were able to see a brand-new Star Wars movie in theaters. Between the new chapters and an unprecedented array of canonical stories within the universe, Star Wars had once again become an immersive cinema event.
The film student who never set out to be a commercial filmmaker ended up creating a story that’s grown into the most unconventional moviegoing experience of the 21st century.