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'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

June 12, 1980
george lucas star wars
George Lucas
AP Photo

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.

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