The Wizard of 'Star Wars'

Rolling Stone's 1977 cover story on creator George Lucas

May 4, 2012 12:10 PM ET
rolling stone 246 star wars
Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Han Solo on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Terry O'Neill

One sunny spring afternoon last year, an old friend and fellow movie buff drove me to an inconspicuous two-story warehouse in Van Nuys, California. The building was headquarters for Industrial Light and Magic, an organization of young technicians charged with the responsibility-of creating special visual effects for 'Star Wars,' writer/director George Lucas' $9.5 million space fantasy.

Lucas and the principal unit had just started shooting in Tunisia, but the activity around IL&M that day was so intense you'd have thought the film was opening in a month or two. Modelmakers were hard at work putting the finishing touches on miniature spacecraft (chiefly by cannibalizing store-bought model kits); a team of animators was hard at work on prototype effects; the explosives people were worrying about upcoming tests and everyone was fussing over the camera that John Dykstra and his technicians had constructed – from scratch – to shoot the space sequences.

Dykstra, the film's special photographic effects supervisor, who had worked previously with Douglas Trumbull ('2001: A Space Odyssey'), led a bunch of us upstairs to a makeshift screening room littered with chairs and a couple of old overstuffed sofas. One of the young animators had just completed a series of laser blasts for Dykstra's approval. The room went dark and we watched the "lasers" light up the screen. The better ones were greeted with applause; the most spectacular ones got cries of "Wowie!," "Whoopee!" and "Far out!"

Later, I was peering at some storyboards – sequential pen-and-ink illustrations – of a planned space battle scene. Several shots featured a hairy creature with enormous teeth apparently at the controls of a spacecraft. "What's that?" I asked a passing technician. "A Wookie, of course," she replied, and continued walking without further explanation.

Even back then it was pretty easy to see that this young and gifted crew was fired up by George Lucas' peculiar vision and exceptional imagination. He says that all of his films are characterized by "a sort of effervescent giddiness". Whatever you want to call it, it's a quality that seems to affect the people who work for him and audiences alike. His first feature film, 'THX 1138,' was technically brilliant but no crowd-pleaser. Still, it has attained cultish status and has consistently done well through campus rentals over the past few years. Then came 'American Graffiti,' George's paean to the Class of 62, cruising and rock & roll. Made for $750,000 with a small crew and a 28-day shooting schedule, it has become the 11th-largest grosser. And in case you've been asleep for the past couple of months, or on Mars, George Lucas' third feature, 'Star Wars,' will certainly hit the Top Ten and may well become the biggest grosser ever. Within eight weeks it had taken in $54 million at the box office. George's novelization of the script, released without fanfare by Ballantine Books last winter, was last seen reaching Number Four on the mass-paperback charts, with 2 million copies now in print. And the posters, T-shirts, models, masks of the main characters and more books are on their way; the soundtrack album is already gold. Not bad for a film that almost never got off the ground in the first place, and was an unknown quantity almost right up to the release date.

When I visited the set in London later that spring, there was a notable lack of effervescent giddiness. It was certainly impressive enough – all eight of the EMI Elstree Studios' sound stages were in use for Star Wars – and everything seemed to be on schedule, but George Lucas was worried. Some of the actors were questioning their dialogue. The robots didn't look right. A whole sequence with Peter Cushing had to be reshot because it didn't look right. There were script revisions. The Alec Guinness character was going to be killed off two-thirds into the film, and the studio didn't know it yet. The English crews worked a strict eight-hour day, and had two obligatory tea breaks....

At his home in San Anselmo later that summer, George and producer Gary Kurtz were looking more worried. The studio was demanding a rough cut, and the special effects were barely one-third complete. The robots were looking even worse. The score wasn't ready. There were lightning problems, sound problems...

Somehow – basically through around-the-clock efforts – it all came together. A week before opening there was still no answer print. George and the sound people were looping sound effects into the 70-millimeter version right up until the last minute. The only question remaining was, would it fly? It did.

It's not a difficult movie to synopsize. In fact, Star Wars is straight out of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon by way of Tolkien, Prince Valiant, The Wizard of Oz, Boy's Life and about every great western movie ever made. Our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a farmboy from an arid desert planet called Tatooine who suddenly finds himself – through a series of unlikely events – smack in the middle of a galactic civil war. His allies include Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a daredevil space-pilot-for-hire; Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), a mystical old gent who is the last of a group called the Jedi knights, and who knew Luke's father when; Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who is one of the chief rebels opposing the Empire; Chewbacca, the Wookie, an eight-foot-tall, intelligent and ferocious anthropoid; and two wisecracking robots named Artoo Deetoo and See Threepio (the former speaks android, the latter English) who practically steal the film.

The chief bad guys are Darth Vader (David Prowse) and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), aided by a horde of flunkies and storm troopers. They operate out of the Death Star, an enormous satellite designed specifically to go around the galaxy zapping recalcitrant planets unwilling to side with the Empire. It is clear, early in the film, that confrontations are inevitable. It's also clear who's going to win.

What sets Star Wars apart from its predecessors are the special effects (some 365 separate shots) and the extraordinary richness of Lucas' imagination. There's the Cantina sequence, for instance, where the heroes stumble into a bar whose patrons are the scum of a dozen galaxies. And there are ancillary creatures like the Jawas, tiny, chattering beings who hustle used robots for a living. As for the opticals and miniatures, Lucas and Dykstra have come up with a new standard against which all future space-fiction films must be judged. Before Star Wars was released, Dykstra told an interviewer that the final battle sequence would be every bit as exciting as 'The French Connection' car chase. He was right.

So here sits George Lucas, 33, in a hotel suite over looking New York's Central Park. He's in town to see the premiere of his friend Martin Scorsese's film, New York, New York, which was edited by his wife, Marcia (who also cut much of Star Wars). Somewhere out there, folks are queuing up for the next showing of his movie, and George Lucas, fresh from Hawaii, is smiling.

So how does it feel; Did you really expect that Star Wars was going to take off like this?
No way. I expected American Graffiti to be a semisuccessful film and make maybe $10 million – which would be classified in Hollywood as a success – and then I went through the roof when it became this big, huge blockbuster. And they said, well, gee, how are you going to top that? And I said, yeah, it was a one-shot and I was really lucky. I never really expected that to happen again. After Graffiti, in fact, I was really just dead broke. I was so far in debt to everyone that I made even less money on Graffiti than I had on THX 1138. Between those two movies it was like four and a half to five years of my life, and after taxes and everything I was living on $9000 a year. It was really fortunate that my wife was working as an editor's assistant. That was the only thing that got us through. I put some of my own money in Graffiti, we were trying to finance it and operate at the same time, and I had been borrowing money from Francis Ford Coppola, my lawyers, my parents and everybody I knew. I really had to get a movie off the ground. And I had worked on Apocalypse Now for four years. I was supposed to do it right after THX. Francis finally bought the property back. We did everything we could to get it off the ground, but nobody would go for it.

The Apocalypse Now that you wanted to do...
...was completely different than the one Francis is doing now... It was really more of man against machine than anything else. Technology against humanity, and then how humanity won. It was to have been quite a positive film. So what happened was I finally got a deal for very little money to develop Star Wars.

How many studios had turned it down?

And then Fox took it?
Fox took it, and it was close because there wasn't any other place I wanted to take it. I don't know what I would have done, maybe take a job. But the last desperate thing is to "take a job". I really wanted to hold on to my own integrity. So I was going to try to write a very interesting project. Right after Graffiti I was getting this fan mail from kids that said the film changed their life, and something inside me said, do a children's film. And everybody said, "Do a children's film? What are you talking about? You're crazy".

You know, I had done Graffiti as a challenge. All I had ever done to that point was crazy, avant-garde, abstract movies. Francis really challenged me on that. "Do something warm," he said, "everyone thinks you're a cold fish; all you do is science fiction". So I said, "Okay, I'll do something warm". I did Graffiti and then I wanted to go back and do this other stuff, I thought I had more of a chance of getting Star Wars off the ground. I had gone around to all the studios with Apocalypse Now for the tenth time and then they said, no, no, no. So I took this other project, this children's film. I thought: we all know what a terrible mess we have made of the world, we all know how wrong we were in Vietnam. We also know, as every movie made in the last ten years points out, how terrible we are, how we have ruined the world and what schmucks we are and how rotten everything is. And I said, what we really need is something more positive. Because Graffiti pointed out, as I said with these letters, that kids forgot what being a teenager was, which is being dumb and chasing girls, doing things – you know, at least I did when I was a kid.

Before I became a film major, I was very heavily into social science, I had done a lot of sociology, anthropology, and I was playing in what I call social psychology, which is sort of an offshoot of anthropology/sociology – looking at a culture as a living organism, why it does what it does. Anyway, I became very aware of the fact that the kids were really lost, the sort of heritage we built up since the war had been wiped out in the Sixties and it wasn't groovy to act that way anymore, now you just sort of sat there and got stoned. I wanted to preserve what a certain generation of Americans thought being a teenager was really about – in a strong sense from about 1945 to 1962, that generation, several generations. There was a certain car culture, a certain mating ritual going on, and it was something that I'd lived through and really loved.

So by seeing the effect Graffiti had on kids, I realized that kids today of that age rediscovered what it was to be a teenager. They also started going out cruising the main street of town again, and I went back and did various studies of towns, my own town, Modesto, we checked them out. There was no cruising and then, all of a sudden, it all started up again. So when I got done with Graffiti, I said, "Look, you know something else has happened, and I began to stretch it down to younger people, 10- to 12-year-olds, who have lost something even more significant than the teenager. I saw that kids today don't have any fantasy life the way we had – they don't have westerns, they don't have pirate movies, they don't have that stupid serial fantasy life that we used to believe in. It wasn't that we really believed in it...

But we loved it.
Look, what would happen if there had never been John Wayne movies and Errol Flynn movies and all that stuff that we got to see all the time. I mean, you could go into a theater, not just watch it on television on Saturday morning, actually go into a theater, sit down and watch an incredible adventure. Not a stupid adventure, not a dumb adventure for children and stuff but a real Errol Flynn, John Wayne – gosh – kind of an adventure.

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