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George Lucas Wants to Play Guitar as 'Star Wars' Takes a Vacation

"Dare to be cute," says the thirty-nine-year-old mastermind of the 'Star Wars' trilogy, who's sitting pretty with the last installment, 'Return of the Jedi.'

July 21, 1983
star wars cover 1983
The cast of 'Return of the Jedi' on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Aaron Rapoport

It's been more than ten years since George Lucas began shopping around the idea for what he would later call ''my little children's movie'' to a generally unresponsive Hollywood. It wound up taking three movies to get the whole idea on celluloid. Star Wars (1977) has sold $524 million worth of tickets worldwide. Its successor, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), grossed $365 million. They're second and third on the all-time domestic-rentals list, behind Steven Spielberg's E.T.

Then there's Raiders of the Lost Ark, for which Lucas was executive producer. It's fifth on the rentals list. There's the Star Wars merchandising: $1.5 billion in gross retail sales. There's Lucasfilm Ltd. and its profitable subsidiaries, Industrial Light and Magic (special effects) and Sprocket Systems (postproduction services). There's research in state-of-the-art postproduction equipment, in computers and in interactive videogames that both teach and entertain. And finally, there's the ongoing construction of the 3000-acre Skywalker Ranch, which Lucas insists is only a larger and more elaborate version of what's been perched in the hills north of San Francisco – in one form or another – for the past ten years: a place where the Marin County film community can congregate and work.

And now there's Return of the Jedi, the $32.5 million closing chapter of the middle trilogy of a proposed nine-part epic. As in the past, not all film critics went with the Force. Weekly Variety, the show-business newspaper that attends to such matters, noted that the New York critics were basically split: ten reviews were favorable while seven were negative, either branding Jedi a merchandising vehicle or contending that the human actors were overwhelmed by the special effects.

Criticism aside, Jedi is something more than a sequel. When people start lining up more than twenty-four hours before the first show, as they did across the country on May 24th, it's not just to learn how Luke Skywalker works out his father problem. The arrival of a new Star Wars picture has become a social and cultural event, not to mention a box-office bonanza. In the first full week of release, the picture pulled in $45.3 million, or about $20 million more than the previous one-week champ, E.T. It set an opening-day record of $6.2 million on May 25th and went on to establish a single-day record of $8.4 million the following Sunday. By mid-June it had grossed $70 million.

The rush of numbers accompanying the release of a Star Wars movie tends to obscure a couple of interesting facts. Lucasfilm nearly went broke independently financing Empire; a last-minute bank loan was necessary to ensure completion. And the eventual profits from Empire led to another problem: Lucas' company, based chiefly in Los Angeles, began to mushroom. Says George: ''We went from two people in merchandising to eighty, and the eighty were doing the same job as two.'' The staff was radically pruned, and the survivors were relocated in northern California. Lucasfilm's primary aim now is to consolidate everything at the ranch.

Two weeks before Jedi opened, we sat in George Lucas' spacious, quiet office behind his home in San Anselmo and talked while he slowly and thoughtfully ate his breakfast: an Egg McMuffin and a glass of milk. He mentioned offhandedly that he'd lost some weight during the hectic final months of postproduction work on Jedi. In fact, he looked like a stiff breeze might blow him across the bay to San Francisco. He had just returned from executive-producer chores in Sri Lanka, where his friend Steven Spielberg was shooting the Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

I first met Lucas on the set of Star Wars in 1976, and as we talked this past May, I became convinced that what his longtime friends have been saying in the press is true: the guy hasn't changed. Sure, slacks and polished loafers have replaced the sneakers and jeans, and a Mercedes has replaced a '67 Camaro, and, except for distribution, Lucasfilm has virtually severed any ties it had with the rest of the motion-picture industry. It doesn't need them anymore. But Lucas remains soft-spoken and self-effacing, with a subtle sense of humor that doesn't quite come across in print.

Another Lucas constant might best be termed a kind of genuine ingenuousness. For example, he can discuss the lifestyles and cultures of the various creatures he has brought to life on film like an anthropologist who's just returned from the field. Yet he can talk about the drop in attendance between the first and second Star Wars pictures in such a somber tone that you half expect him to say it's curtains for Lucasfilm if Jedi experiences a similar drop and winds up, say, only fourth on the all-time list.

But Lucas is now looking to shake this peculiar intensity and rearrange his priorities to put his personal life back together. As this issue was going to press, he announced that he and his wife of fifteen years, Marcia, have parted amicably and would soon divorce. Lucasfilm spokesman Sid Ganis said Lucas would retain custody of the couple's two-year-old daughter, Amanda.

Even though you're no longer directing, I get the impression that making a 'Star Wars' picture, even the third time around, isn't getting any easier.

Jedi almost killed everybody, every department, from costumes to building monsters to the sophistication of the mechanics to the special effects. Everything was very, very hard on everybody.

This one was grim for me, just as bad as Star Wars, just as bad as directing. I don't know how I got into it. It's the demands, the amount of time one has to spend, and the anxiety, the worrying: ''Is it going to be good? Is this going to work? Why is everything going wrong all the time?'' And it's my personality. I'm very emotionally involved in it, and I've made a big commitment to it. It's been ten years, ten years, since I started this. I started on April 17th, 1973, and I turned in the first story treatment May 20th. From about May 1st, 1973, until next week, there hasn't been a day in my life where I haven't gotten up in the morning and said, ''Gee, I've got to worry about this movie.'' Literally. Not one single day, even when I was on vacations and even when I had Saturdays and Sundays. After Star Wars, I was doing other things and thought I was out of it, but I wasn't. I was in it just as deep as ever. I was doing Raiders and More American Graffiti, building a company and a ranch and doing all these other things on the side, thinking I had the time to do it. But I didn't.

Part of the problem is that success has made it so that I don't have any life of my own. I was ready to quit after Graffiti. I said: ''Well, I'll do one more movie. I'll do this Star Wars thing.'' And if Star Wars had gone in the toilet, I'd have been okay. But it became this giant success, and success more than anything else just dominated my life. You end up not being happy anymore and working yourself to death. Star Wars became a priority; it was one of those things that had to be done: ''We have to get finished. What if something happens to one of the actors? We can't afford to keep the sets around any longer; it costs a lot of money.'' It put me in a bad place personally. I have a little daughter, and she's two years old, and I see her a couple of hours a night and maybe on Sundays if I'm lucky, and I'm always real tired and cranky and feeling like, ''Gee, I should be doing something else.'' I sort of speed through everything.

But now it's done. I have to decide one way or the other about doing another trilogy. It depends on how well this one does, what the economics of the situation are and what my personal life is. Can I rearrange my life in such a way that my priorities are correct? My family should be first and the movies second. If I can't make that work, then there won't be any movies. I've put up with Star Wars taking over and pushing itself into the first position for too long. I've been trying to shove it back. Every time I kick it down, it comes rearing its ugly head back up again. This time I've kicked it down for good, I think.

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