×
Home Movies Movie News

George Lucas: The Wizard of Star Wars

A conversation with the creator of ‘Star Wars,’ who reveals the voice behind Darth Vader, why robots need love too and where Wookiees come from

Star Wars

Star Wars. 1977.

pwe Verlag GmbH/ullstein bild via Getty

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 wookiee, 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 Wookiee, 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?
Two.

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.

Or The Crimson Pirate with Burt Lancaster or The Magnificent Seven.
Yeah, but there aren’t any. There’s nothing but cop movies, and a few films like Planet of the Apes, Ray Harryhausen films, but there isn’t anything that you can really dig your teeth into. I realized a more destructive element in the culture would be a whole generation of kids growing up without that thing, because I had also done a study on, I don’t know what you call it, I call it the fairy tale or the myth. It is a children’s story in history and you go back to the Odyssey or the stories that are told for the kid in all of us. I can see the little kids sitting there and just being enthralled with Ulysses. Plus the myths which existed in high adventure, and an exotic far-off land which was always that place over the hill, Camelot, Robin Hood, Treasure Island. That sort of stuff that is always big adventure out there somewhere. It came all the way down through the western.

The western?
Yeah, one of the significant things that occurred to me is I saw the western die. We hardly knew what happened, one day we turned around and there weren’t any westerns anymore. John Ford grew up with the West, the very toe end of the West, but he was out there where there were cowboys and shootings in the streets, and that was his American Graffiti, I realized; that’s why he was so good at it. A lot of those guys were good at it. They grew up in the Tens and Twenties when the West was for all practical purposes really dying off. But, there was still some rough-and-tumble craziness going on. And the people now, the young directors like me, can’t do it because there isn’t anything like that anymore.

So you do a Star Wars.
I was a real fan of Flash Gordon and that kind of stuff, a very strong advocate of the exploration of outer space and I said, this is something, this is a natural. One, it will give kids a fantasy life and two, maybe it will make someone a young Einstein and people will say, “Why?” What we really need to do is to colonize the next galaxy, get away from the hard facts of 2001 and get on the romantic side of it. Nobody is going to colonize Mars because of the technology, they are going to go because they think maybe they will be able . . . well, it is romantic, it is the romantic aspect of it that needs to be looked at for a second, which nobody had ever looked at before. I mean, everybody had looked at the hardware end of it.

You firmly establish that at the beginning of  Star Wars with the words: “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . “
Well, I had a real problem because I was afraid that science-fiction buffs and everybody would say things like, “You know there’s no sound in outer space”. I just wanted to forget science. That would take care of itself. Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science-fiction movie and it is going to be very hard for somebody to come along and make a better movie, as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t want to make a 2001, I wanted to make a space fantasy that was more in the genre of Edgar Rice Burroughs; that whole other end of space fantasy that was there before science took it over in the Fifties. Once the atomic bomb came, everybody got into monsters and science and what would happen with this and what would happen with that. I think speculative fiction is very valid but they forgot the fairy tales and the dragons and Tolkien and all the real heroes.

So that was the mainspring of your decision to make Star Wars.
Right, and that is really the reason I did it. I had done sociological research on what makes hit films – it is part of the sociological bent in me; I can’t help it.

And yet you encountered a lot of resistance on this project?
Yes, I started out saying this is a fairly viable project, I thought it would make roughly $16 million. The thing is, okay, if I spend $4.5 million, then on the advertising and the prints and everything another $4.5 million, there is a little bit of profit in there, if it makes $16 million. I said this was a good venture, and I could take it to the studios . . . they do marketing and stuff but they don’t interpret it properly. The marketing survey is only as good as the people that are interpreting it, and when I went to one studio, United Artists, I said, this is what I’m going to do, it’s Flash Gordon, it’s adventure, it’s exciting, sort of James Bond and all this kind of stuff, and they said, no, we don’t see it. So I went to Universal and got the same thing.

I think I got $20,000 to write and direct Graffiti and they wanted me to do Star Wars for $25,000. I was asking half of what my friends were asking, and the studio thought I was asking for twice as much as I would get, and they said, no, no. It is too much money and we don’t really think it is for us, so they threw it out the window. And then I finally talked Fox into doing it, partially because they sort of understood, they had done the Planet of the Apes movies, partially just because Laddie, Alan Ladd Jr., understood. He was a project officer then and I guess he saw Graffiti before he made his decision and he said, this is a great movie and, what the hell, I was asking for $10,000 just to start this little project. They said, I think it’s got potential, so they went with it but nobody thought it was going to be a big hit. I kept doing more research and writing scripts. There were four scripts trying to find just the right thing because the problem in something like this is you are creating a whole genre that has never been created before.

 How do you explain a Wookiee to a board of directors?
 You can’t, and how do you explain a Wookiee to an audience, and how do you get the tone of the film right, so it’s not a silly child’s film, so it’s not playing down to people, but it is still an entertaining movie and doesn’t have a lot of violence and sex and hip new stuff? So it still has a vision to it, a sort of wholesome, honest vision about the way you want the world to be. I was also working on themes that I worked with in THX and Graffiti, of accepting responsibility for your actions and that kind of stuff. So it took me a long time to get the thing done. About the time we finished the preproduction, we did a budget on it. The first budget actually came out to $16 million, so I threw out a lot of designing new equipment and said, okay, we’ll cut corners and do a lot of fast filmmaking, which is where I really come from. Graffiti and THX were nothing, both under-a-million-dollar pictures. So we started applying some of our budget techniques and we got it down by $8.5 million, which was really about as cheap as that script could possibly ever be made by any human being.

When I first met you in London, you were complaining that you could make a $2 million movie for $1 million but you couldn’t make a $14 million movie for $8 million.
It was terribly difficult but we made it. We set the budget for $8 million, they said, no, make it seven. When we finally got the budget down to $7 million we knew it couldn’t be done, and we told Fox it couldn’t be done. They said make it $7 million anyway. I was practically working for free and my only hope was that if the film paid off, and if it cost $8 million, that would mean it would break even at $20 million.

What was your actual salary for directing?
I think in the end my actual salary was $100,000, which again was still like half of what everybody else was making.

Do you have percentage points in the film?
Everybody has points, but the key is to make them pay off. I figured I was never going to see any money on my points, so what the heck. I also had a chance to give away a lot of my points, which I had done with Graffiti. Part of the success is the fault of the actors, composer and crew and they should share in the rewards as well, so I got my points carved down much less than what my contemporaries have. But I never expected Star Wars to . . . I expected to break even on it, I still can’t understand it.

Why?
I struggled through this movie. I had a terrible time; it was very unpleasant. American Graffiti was unpleasant because of the fact that there was no money, no time and I was compromising myself to death. But I could rationalize it because of the fact that, well, it is just a $700,000 picture – it’s Roger Corman – and what do you expect, you can’t expect everything to be right for making a little cheesy, low-budget movie. But this was a big expensive movie and the money was getting wasted and things weren’t coming out right. I was running the corporation. I wasn’t making movies like I’m used to doing. American Graffiti had like 40 people on the payroll, that counts everybody but the cast. I think THX had about the same. You can control a situation like that. On Star Wars we had over 950 people working for us and I would tell a department head and he would tell another assistant department head, he’d tell some guy, and by the time it got down the line it was not there. I spent all my time yelling and screaming at people, and I have never had to do that before.

I got rid of some people here and there but it is a very frustrating and an unhappy experience doing that. I realized why directors are such horrible people – in a way – because you want things to be right, and people will just not listen to you and there is no time to be nice to people, no time to be delicate.

This was something else you said in London: “I’m tired of being a director, I want to go back to being a filmmaker”.
Well, that’s true, that is really what I want to do. I’ve done this thing now. I’ve directed my large corporation and I made the movie that I wanted to make. It is not as good by a long shot as it should have been. I take half the responsibility myself and the other half is some of the unfortunate decisions I made in hiring people, but I could have written a better script, I could have done a lot of things; I could have directed it better.

Back in California last summer you were again upset. You said the robots didn’t look right. Artoo looked like a vacuum cleaner. You could see 57 separate flaws in See Threepio, you didn’t like the lighting, everything seemed like it wasn’t coming together. Was it coming together?
Well, for one thing, by the time we got back to California I wasn’t happy with the lighting on the picture. I’m a cameraman, and I like a slightly more extreme, eccentric style than I got in the movie. It was all right, it was a very difficult movie, there were big sets to light, it was a very big problem. The robots never worked. We faked the whole thing and a lot of it was done editorially.

How?
Every time the remote-control Artoo worked it turned and ran into a wall, and when Kenny Baker, the midget, was in it, the thing was so heavy he could barely move it, and he would sort of take a step and a half and be totally exhausted. I could never get him to walk across the room, so we would cut to him there and cut to a close-up, and cut back so that he would be over here. It is all really movie magic more than it was anything else.

That’s why it’s amazing because when I finally saw the film I was surprised. I couldn’t see any seams. So I went to see it again and maybe saw a couple of seams, but that was it.
I can see nothing but seams. A film is sort of binary – it either works or it doesn’t work. It has nothing to do with how good a job you do. If you bring it up to an adequate level where the audience goes with the movie, then it works, that is all. It is a fusion thing and then everything else, all of the mistakes, don’t count anymore.

Well, the Star Wars audience has no trouble suspending disbelief.
Right. If a film does not work, then you can do an impeccable job with making the movie. People still see the mistakes, and they get bored and it just doesn’t work. And so what can you say? THX was about 70% of what I wanted it to be. I don’t think you ever get to the point where it is 100%. Graffiti was about 50% of what I wanted it to be but I realized that the other 50% would have been there, if I just had a little more time and a little more money. Star Wars is about 25% of what I wanted it to be. It’s really down there quite a bit. It’s still a good movie, but it fell so short of what I wanted it to be. And everyone said, “Well, Jesus, George, you wanted the moon for Chrissake, or you wanted to land on Pluto and you landed on Mars”. I think the sequels will be much, much better. What I want to do is direct the last sequel. I could do the first one and the last one and let everyone else do the ones in between.

It wouldn’t bother you to have someone else do the ones in between?
No, it would be interesting. I would want to try and get some good directors, and see what their interpretation of the theme is. I think it will be interesting, it is like taking a theme in film school, say, okay, everybody do their interpretation of this theme. It’s an interesting idea to see how people interpret the genre. It is a fun genre to play with. All the prototype stuff is done now. Nobody has to worry about what a Wookiee is and what it does and how it reacts. Wookies are there, the people are there, the environment is there, the empire is there . . . everything is there. And now people will start building on it. I’ve put up the concrete slab of the walls and now everybody can have fun drawing the pictures and putting on the little gargoyles and doing all the really fun stuff. And it’s a competition. I’m hoping if I get friends of mine they will want to do a much better film, like, “I’ll show George that I can do a film twice that good,” and I think they can, but then I want to do the last one, so I can do one twice as good as everybody else. [Laughs]

Talking to you as a screenwriter for a moment, rather than a director, you’ve said Star Wars comes out of bits and pieces of your childhood: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Alex Raymond . . . 
True, true.

Now nobody who sees the film questions what a Wookiee is, nobody questions what a Jawa is, they accept it right away because the film has a foundation of imagination, an elaborate underpinning of detail that makes these things plausible. So let’s take it one step further. Say, for instance, that you were an anthropologist and just came back from the Wookiee planet. What would you report?
That’s in the earlier scripts. I had actually written four different plots and different stories with different characters, and they involved different environments. In one of the scripts there is a Wookiee planet. It’s a jungle planet and there was a whole sequence where the Empire had a little outpost on the Wookiee planet and Luke [Skywalker] gets involved with the Wookies and he fights the head Wookiee. He wins the fight but he doesn’t kill the Wookiee and the Wookiee says, okay, you are going to be the son of the chief and all that kind of stuff. He rallies the Wookies and the Wookies all attack this imperial base. The imperial base has tanks and all kinds of stuff and the Wookies beat them off, and then Luke and Ben [Kenobi] and Han [Solo] and a bunch of people train the Wookies to fly the fighters, and it is the Wookies that go after the Death Star, not the rebels that were on the planet. It was a much different thing, there was a very involved thing with the Wookies. The Wookies are . . . slightly primitive, they live in the jungle, and there is a great sequence which may end up in one of the movies where there is a giant fire and they are all dancing around the fire, all the drums are going and all that kind of stuff. The Wookies are more like the Indians, more like noble savages.

The Jawas are more like aborigines.
Well, the Jawas are more like scavengers, junk dealers. We had a Jawa village scene in the film but we didn’t shoot it because the location was too far away, we just cut that out to keep on budget. We found these great things in Tunisia, little grain houses that were four stories high but with little tiny doors, little tiny windows, it was a hobbit village. So we had a whole sequence with these little hobbit-world slum dwellers but we had to cut it out.

Did you create Jawas and Wookies out of your readings in anthropology?