'The Empire Strikes Back,' and So Does George Lucas

The Force behind 'Star Wars' hopes its sequel will make enough money so he can be free from the Hollywood studios

george lucas star wars
AP Photo
George Lucas
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San Francisco's North Point Theater is packed with people, tension, anticipation. When the familiar strains of John Williams' Star Wars theme finally rip through the theater, it brings smiles of relief and recognition to the expectant faces.

"Oh, look," gasps a little boy in the second row. "It's Luke Skywalker!"

Sure enough, there's Skywalker, big as life. And Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and C-3PO – the whole group. The adventure continues.

By the time the houselights come up, the audience is on its feet cheering. The Empire Strikes Back, the long-awaited continuation of Star Wars, has arrived. And it is wonderful.

The Force behind both of these extraordinary films, as well as the cult classic THX 1138 and American Graffiti, makes his way through the crowd. Bearded, bespectacled, dressed in brown cords, brown V-neck sweater, checked shirt and tan sneakers, George Lucas, 36, looks more like a delivery boy than a man who is estimated to be worth more than $80 million. He tugs his wife Marcia's hand and the two slide out the front door, past the TV cameras and the reporters with microphones who are frantically looking for the stars of The Empire Strikes Back.

Star Wars, you may recall, not only captured the hearts and imaginations of millions, but also made millions. In fact, it's grossed more money in film rentals than any other movie in the history of motion pictures – more than $400 million – that is, until The Empire-Strikes Back. Only God, in a galaxy far, far away, knows how much this film will rack up.

The high wood fence that surrounds Lucas' house in San Anselmo, just north of San Francisco, is intimidating, as are the signs NO SOLICITING and BEWARE OF DOG. But just as Lucas' appearance is deceiving, so is all this. Behind the giant fence is a small, unpretentious wood house with a big front porch. And the dog that jumps up to greet me, an Alaskan malamute named Indiana, is about as vicious as Benji.

The front door opens onto a comfortable living room, dominated by a jukebox that holds Lucas' extensive collection of vintage rock & roll records. Like these discs, Lucas is a product of the Sixties. He really does believe in all those Sixties things: art, sharing the wealth, one for all and all for one. He and his wife, a film editor (Taxi DriverNew York, New York), have been married for eleven years. They share a love of film (he attended the University of Southern California film school), of northern California (he was born and raised in Modesto), of the simple life (Francis Coppola calls them "country mice") and a distrust of Hollywood.

Lucas settles into a roomy chair, crosses his legs, folds his hands on his lap and talks about his latest projects, his hatred of Hollywood and the movie system, how he hopes to beat that system, the tortures of trying to get a film made, his pal Francis Coppola and his dreams for the future – a place where George Lucas is much more at home than in either the past or the present.

Why didn't you direct The Empire Strikes Back?
I hate directing. It's like fighting a fifteen-round heavyweight bout with a new opponent every day. You go to work knowing just how you want a scene to be, but by the end of the day, you're usually depressed because you didn't do a good enough job. When I visited the set in Norway and saw all the problems and the misery that [director Irvin] Kershner was going through, wow, can you imagine being in the Arctic Circle at forty-five below zero? It's hard enough just to walk through it, let alone direct the actors, move the equipment. It was easy to let go of directing.

What did you do on this film?
I provided the story and technical advice, like, does a robot do this or that? They shipped me the dailies and I looked at them. There were some problems. They were a little over budget, over schedule. That concerned me, because I only had so much money and I was afraid if they used it all up, we wouldn't be able to finish the movie. But I knew they were trying to do the best job they possibly could, and I thought the stuff looked terrific. It's truly Kershner's movie.

Does that make you sad?
Well, it's still my story. I just didn't have to do all the work. [Smiling sheepishly] I feel Chewbacca is still my Wookie and R2-D2 is still my little robot.

How would you have made the movie differently?
Hard to describe. I look at a scene and think, "Gee, I wouldn't have done it that way." A lot of people have told me that The Empire is a better film than Star Wars, so whatever my disagreements were, well, Kershner was right.

Can you tell us how all this evolved?
[Laughing] Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, when I was in film school . . . It's a very long story.

We have time.
Okay. I loved shooting cinéma vérité and thought I would become a documentary filmmaker. Of course, being a student in the Sixties, I wanted to make socially relevant films, you know, tell it like it is. But then I got this great idea for a rock & roll movie, with cars and all the stuff I knew about as a kid. And then I thought that what I'd really like to make is a big children's fantasy fairy tale. I won a scholarship to work at Warner Brothers for six months, and Francis Coppola took me under his wing. He offered to have me make a feature version of a film I made as a student, THX 1138. So being young and bearded, and Francis being young and bearded, I thought, "Well, he understands my concerns." But then he said, "If you're going to direct, you have to learn to write, and not only do you have to learn to write, but you have to get good at it." He forced me to write the script for THX 1138, and the first draft was pretty awful. Anyway, I worked for a year on the script. I just didn't think Francis was ever going to get this picture off the ground, so I started working on a screenplay with John Milius [Dillinger, Big Wednesday]. We both wanted to make a film about the war.

Was that 'Apocalypse Now'?
Yeah. We were working on it when Francis not only got the deal for THX but for Apocalypse Now, and one to set up American Zoetrope [Coppola's film-production company]. It was exciting. We were going to be able to do just what we wanted. And then came Black Thursday.

Black Thursday?
Yeah. That's what we called it. Francis had borrowed all this money from Warner Brothers to set this thing up, and when the studio saw a rough cut of THX and the scripts of the movies we wanted to make, they said, "This is all junk. You have to pay back the money you owe us." Which is why Francis did Godfather. He was so much in debt he didn't have any choice.

What happened to you?
I was left high and dry. THX had taken three years to make and I hadn't made any money. Marcia was still supporting us, and I thought, "Well, I'll do the rock & roll movie – that's commercial." [Smiling] Besides, I was getting a lot of razz from Francis and a bunch of friends who said that everyone thought I was cold and weird and why didn't I do something warm and human. I thought, "You want warm and human, I'll give you warm and human." So I went to Gloria [Katz] and Willard Huyck and they developed the idea for American Graffiti, and I took the twelve-page treatment around.

And?
And it was turned down by every studio in town. The situation was pretty grim. Then I got invited to the Cannes Film Festival, because THX had been chosen by some radical directors' group. But Warner Brothers wouldn't pay my way. So, with our last $2000, we bought a Eurail Pass, got backpacks and went to Cannes.

But what about American Graffiti?
Well, I decided to stop in New York on the way to Europe and make David Picker, who was then head of United Artists, have a meeting with me, and I did. I told him about my rock & roll movie.

We flew off to England and he called and said, "Okay, I'll take a chance." I met him at his giant suite at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes and we made a two-picture deal for American Graffiti and Star Wars.

But United Artists didn't make American Graffiti.
I'm getting to that. Bill and Gloria had a chance to direct their own movie, so I hired another friend to write the script. The first draft wasn't at all what I wanted. It was a desperate situation. I asked Marcia to support us some more. I was borrowing money from friends and relatives. I wrote the script in three weeks, turned it in to UA, and they said, "Not interested." So I took the script – remember, the story treatment had already been turned down by every studio – back to the same studios, which turned it down again. Then Universal said they might be interested if I could get a movie star. I said no. Universal said that even a name producer might do, and they gave me a list of names and Francis was on the list. See, Godfather was about to be released, and the whole town was abuzz. Universal, being what it is, was trying to cash in on this real quick. You could see the way they were thinking: "From the man who brought you The Godfather." Anyway, Francis said sure. Godfather came out and it was a hit.

And the rest is history?
Not quite. Universal wouldn't give us our first check. Francis came very close to financing American Graffiti himself. Finally, Universal mellowed. When I first screened American Graffiti, one of the executives from Universal came up to me and said, "This movie is not fit to show to an audience." That is what he actually said. Well, Francis blew his cork. In my eyes, it was Francis' most glorious moment. He started screaming and yelling at this guy: "How can you do this to this poor kid? He did this film for nothing, no money! He killed himself, and the first thing you tell him is that it's not fit to show to an audience. Couldn't you say, 'Thank you, you did sort of a good job. Glad you brought it in on budget and on time.'" Francis kept yelling and yelling and he said, "Well, I like this movie. I'll buy it. I'll give you a check for it right now."

Universal took the film, but we still fought and fought. They wanted to take five minutes out of it. Five minutes in a movie is not going to make a difference. It was nothing more than an exercise in authority; Universal saying they had the right.

Did anything good come out of this experience?
[Laughing] At the bleakest point in all this, I got an offer to direct. I was writing every day, which I hate, so there was a temptation, but I said no. It went on until the price was $100,000 and points. The most I had ever been paid to direct a movie was $15,000. I said no. It was a real turning point.

What was the movie?
Lady Ice, starring Donald Sutherland. It was a disaster. If I had done that movie, it would have been the end of my career . . . I felt sort of proud of myself when I said no.

Then American Graffiti went on and was a hit?
Not quite. [Smiling] I told you it was a long story. It was January 1973. I had been paid $20,000 for Graffiti, it had taken two years, I was $15,000 in debt and Universal hated the film so much they were contemplating selling it as a TV Movie of the Week. I had to start paying back some of this money. So I thought, "I'll whip up that treatment, my second deal at United Artists, my little space thing." I did a fifteen-page treatment, showed it to United Artists. No deal. So I took it to Universal.

After what they had put you through?
I hated Universal, but I had to go to them. Part of my deal to make American Graffiti was that I had to sign my life over to them for seven years. That's the way they work over there. They owned me. They had first refusal on any idea I had. I showed it to them and they said no. I took it to Laddie [Alan Ladd Jr.] at Fox and he said he would take a chance. [Laughing] I was only asking for $10,000 to write the screenplay. In August 1973, American Graffiti came out and was a huge hit, and that sort of finished my financial woes once and for all.

What happened to 'Star Wars'?
At that point, I was thinking about quitting directing, but I had this huge draft of a screenplay and I had sort of fallen in love with it. Plus, I was a street filmmaker. I had never done a big studio picture, so I thought, "This'll be the last movie I direct." I finally finished the script. I wanted to make a fairytale epic, but this was like War and Peace. So I took that script and cut it in half, put the first half aside and decided to write the screenplay from the second half. I was on page 170, and I thought, "Holy smokes, I need 100 pages, not 500," but I had these great scenes. So I took that story and cut it into three parts. I took the first part and said, "This will be my script. But no matter what happens, I am going to get these three movies made." [Laughing] When I made the deal to write and direct Star Wars at Fox, I obviously made it for nothing. All I had was a deal memo, no contract. Then Graffiti came out, was a hit and suddenly I was powerful. Fox thought I was going to come back and demand millions of dollars and all these gross points.

Did you?
I said, "I'll do it for the deal memo, but we haven't talked about things like merchandising rights, sequel rights." I said I wasn't going to give up any of those. Fox said fine. They were getting me for less than $100,000.

Did you know then that the merchandising and sequel rights were going to be so valuable?
Well, when I was writing I had had visions of R2-D2 mugs and little windup robots, but I thought that would be the end of it. I went for the merchandising because it was one of the few things left we hadn't discussed. I took everything that hadn't been discussed. All I knew was that I wanted to control the sequel rights because I wanted to make the other two movies.

What is your deal with Fox?
They have first refusal on every Star Wars film I want to make.

How many is that?
Seven left.

I guess you really do have reason to hate Hollywood.
They're rather sleazy, unscrupulous people. L.A. is where they make deals, do business in the classic corporate American way, which is screw everybody and do whatever you can to make the biggest profit. They don't care about people. It is incredible the way they treat filmmakers, because they have no idea what making a movie is about. To them, the deal is the movie. They have no idea of the suffering, the hard work. They're not filmmakers. I don't want to have anything to do with them.

But if you want to make movies, don't you have to?
That's why I'm trying to build the ranch.

The ranch?
Yeah, I bought 2000 acres in Lucas Valley, California [no relation] – to build a kind of creative-filmmakers' retreat. The idea for this came out of film school. It was a great environment; a lot of people all very interested in film, exchanging ideas, watching movies, helping each other out. I wondered why we couldn't have a professional environment like that. When you make a movie, it really is a fifteen-hour-a-day thing, and you don't have time to do anything else. If you do it year in and year out, you become a complete nonentity. You need an environment that gets people excited about things, and they don't do that in Hollywood.

What will the ranch look like?
I've always been interested in architecture. [Smiling] This is a way of being [an architect] without doing the work. There will be a main building, a big, simple farmhouse. Behind that, shingled outbuildings for the filmmakers and editors. There will be another big building off to the side, sort of tucked away on a hill, where there will be a screening room, recording studio, computer center and more editing rooms. And then, way over on the other side of the property, will be the special-effects building. There will be one other little section down by the road called the farm group, which is a little guest house for visiting dignitaries or whatever.

How much is this going to cost?
No way to project at this point given the way the world is going. I figure it will take between five and six years and cost in excess of $20 million.

We know you're rich . . . 
That's way beyond my personal resources.

How are you going to do this?
We are taking the profits from The Empire Strikes Back and the next film, Revenge of the Jedi, and investing them in outside companies, then using those profits to build the ranch and maintain the overhead. It's just the opposite of how studios work. Basically, what we're doing is using the profits of other companies to subsidize a film company, rather than a film organization subsidizing a conglomerate. My only interest in life is to make films, explore films and grow as a person – if I can just do that and break even and not be forced to make a movie this year, or if I can make a movie that is not commercial at all, not even releasable. Making a movie is very difficult and painful, and if someone comes along after you've done all this work and says you're a fool and an idiot, it's very hard to pick up and do it again.

What happens if The Empire doesn't make enough money for your ranch?
Well, if it doesn't happen with this one and the next, then that's the end. I'm not going to spend the next fifteen years of my life trying to make hit movies to get the ranch. If it doesn't, I'll fold up shop. I tried, I failed and I'll just make 16-mm movies and live the way I've been living.

Are you ever going to forgive Universal?
[Smiling] I hold grudges. When Warner Brothers cut THX, I held a grudge for ten years. After Star Wars,they apologized. I said, "Okay, I forgive you." I didn't want to be ridiculous. After American Graffiti, Universal tried to be nice to me, but I was really angry and I remain angry to this day.

Are there dangers in working with close friends like Steven Spielberg, who is directingRaiders of the Lost Ark, which you conceived and will be executive producer of? What if he goes over budget? Will that put a strain on your friendship?
I don't think that's a problem. We all have large egos. We can be competitors and still help each other, respect each other. I try to work with only responsible directors, and Steve is a responsible director. He doesn't mean to go over budget. If you've got something that isn't working, the only way to really solve it is to spend more time and money getting it right.

I understand that your automobile accident when you were eighteen had a major effect on your life. Will you talk about it?
It was right before I graduated from high school and I should have been killed but I wasn't. I was driving a little sports car with a roll bar and racer's seat belt. I was hit, the car rolled, and for some reason the seat belt broke in one of the rolls, just before the car pretzeled itself around a tree. If I had stayed in the car, I would have been dead. When you go through something like that, it puts a little more perspective on things, like maybe you're here for a reason. [Smiling] Maybe I was here to do Star Wars and that's it. I'm living on borrowed time.

Coppola seems to have been another big influence on your life.
We respect each other, but at the same time we are totally different personalities. He says he's too crazy and I'm not crazy enough. Francis spends every day jumping off a cliff and hoping he's going to land okay. My main interest is security. It was great when we were together, because we complemented each other. I think we still have that relationship. The fact that he's always doing crazy things influences me, and the fact that I'm always sort of building a foundation, plodding along, influences him. But the goals we have in mind are the same. We want to make movies and be free from the yoke of the studios.

Are you having fun being head of Lucasfilms, a big corporation?
No. I don't want to be a businessman. My ambition is to make movies, but all by myself, to shoot them, cut them, make stuff I want to, just for my own exploration, to see if I can combine images in a certain way. My movies will go back to the way my first films were, which dealt a little more realistically with the human condition.

And how do you feel about the human condition?
I am very cynical, and as a result, I think the defense I have against it is to be optimistic and to think people are basically good, although I know in my heart they're not.

Oh, dear. Let's get back to The Empire Strikes Back for a moment. In the movie, Ben says Luke is the last hope and Yoda says no, there is another.
Yes. [Smiling] There is another, and has been for a long time. You have to remember, we're starting in the middle of this whole story. There are six hours' worth of events before Star Wars, and in those six hours, the "other" becomes apparent, and after the third film, the "other" becomes apparent quite a bit.

What will happen to Luke?
I can't say. In the next film, everything gets resolved one way or the other. Luke won the first battle in the first film. Vadar won the second battle in the second film, and in the third film, only one of them walks away. We have to go back to the very beginning to find out the real problem.

What about the actors? Are they under contract?
Some are, but it doesn't matter. I am not going to force anyone to make a movie. [Smiling] I'm not Universal Pictures.

Do you have story lines for the seven Star Wars movies left to be done?
Yes, twelve-page outlines.

How can you think that far ahead?
[Laughing] Marcia says I either live in the past or in the future, never in the present. I'm always sort of living for tomorrow, for better or for worse. [Shrugs] It's just a personality quirk.

This story is from the June 12th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 319: June 12, 1980