By at least two metrics, George Lucas is the most successful independent filmmaker of all time. He’s made other films, sure, but it was Star Wars that took everyone ‐ including the director ‐ by surprise. Ultimately, the largeness of that movie swept Lucas up, driving him further into his own universe, and he’s lived there for three decades.
Now he’s sold the property to a company that has vowed to continue the story without him, and that comes with a promise to retire from big movies. What that means is anyone except Lucas’ guess, but it’s not hard to imagine that his next projects will be more American Graffiti than Amidala.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who invented and tore down your childhood.
Don’t Just Predict the Future, Shape It
Lucas has been a guiding force in the transition from film to digital, which also puts him in the middle of the argument over what might be the end of film in filmmaking. He’s used money and clout to push for new camera technology that has increased what directors and DPs can do, but he’s also urged for responsibility in using breakthrough tools.
“Having lots of options means you have to have a lot more discipline, but it’s the same kind of discipline that a painter, a novelist or a composer would have. In a way, working in [digital] is much less frustrating than working in film, but it’s not as though it’s limitless no matter how you go. The artist will always push the art form until he bumps up against the technology ‐ that’s the nature of the artist. Because cinema is such a technological medium, there’s a lot of technology to bump into, and I think as more people use digital they’re going to find [it has] a lot more limitations. Some of those limitations will be [equivalent to] the limitations they had with film, and some of those limitations will just be because they’ve gone so far that they finally bumped into the technological ceiling.”
Yes, that’s Lucas looking beyond digital during the launch of digital.
Evolve with New Generations
You don’t get a documentary made about love/hating you unless you’ve done something monumental and then ruined it in the eyes of original fans. Probably no one has achieved that as thoroughly as Lucas, but for all the disdain from fans who felt a sense of ownership over the original Star Wars trilogy, the universe’s creator has “destroyed” his own work while finding millions of new, younger fans (and piles of money).
“People who are over 40 love [Episodes] IV, V, and VI and hate I, II, and III. Younger people like I, II, and III and don’t like IV, V, and VI, or they like I, II, and III better and think IV, V, and VI are kind of boring and slow. And of course the older people say, ‘Oh, I, II, and III ‐ it’s too jittery, too fast, too complicated, it’s too digital,’ or whatever they want to say. But definitely one generation has grabbed hold of one of them, and the other generation has grabbed hold of the next one. One of the key characters that helped us realize what was going on was Jar Jar Binks, because the kids that are under 10 years old, he’s one of their favorite characters. For people over 40, they cannot stand him ‐ it’s a hate thing.
You know, they’ve always been for 12-year-olds, and that’s never changed. People don’t want to think of it that way. They want to think those films are for grown-ups. Even though they were 10 years old when they saw it, it’s still very important to them, so, for them, it’s a grown-up movie, as opposed to a kids’ movie. The pre–Jar Jar Binks was 3PO. Everybody hated 3PO. I mean, it was like they couldn’t stand him. It really had to do with his character. They don’t like his character, and they don’t like Jar Jar Binks ‐ but they’re not designed to be likeable characters.”
Bottom line? Don’t be surprised when the next trilogy is made for 12-year-olds and not you. For all the hate that’s been thrown Lucas’ way, he’s still been able to make movies the way he’s wanted to make them, and his financial success (not to mention his cultural success) has come from understanding the changing landscape of fans. In a way, the creator of the Geek Generation hasn’t bought into the hype of a Geek Decade where studios have made movies that should have been for 12-year-olds aimed squarely, instead, at their fathers.
Of course, Lucas also said this: “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.”
Imbue Your Blockbuster with Something Deeper
Also, does this mean Lucas didn’t know where he was going with Luke and Leia, or that he was relishing everyone not knowing what he already knew?
Don’t Work Alone
No matter how many times it gets said, this particular piece of advice is worth repeating. Lucas grew into filmmaking along with a band of outsiders like Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg who helped each other with advice, time and money. They also showed each other their movies and gave unflinching feedback.
That continued after they had made it big, but maybe you shouldn’t always listen to de Palma.
Never Ever Ever Ever Stop Working
It’s easy to see Lucas as a towering success without remembering that he was once a complete unknown. He was a wannabe, banging at a Hollywood built by barriers to all outsiders at a time that when not having connections meant that you weren’t getting in to see the wizard. His journey to success was a long, grueling one, and this is a nice reminder of that.
Your Special Effects Are Not the Story
What Have We Learned
Here is a rebel who infiltrated the system and became a billionaire. He created an entire universe, lush and vibrant, in his mind and transferred it to the big screen to the delight of many. At the heart of it all is hard work and an enduring love of movies. He’s a fan, too, and it’s clear that he’s let that fandom define him from time to time, but he’s also made business decisions that have made him a ridiculous amount of money.
Perhaps he’s a controversial figure because of what he’s done to his own franchise, and maybe it’s telling that a man as successful as he couldn’t get Red Tails picked up by a studio, but he’s an icon that came from nowhere that has had an indelible role to play in the culture of the late 20th century. For those interested in finding their own way into the establishment, studying how he got there isn’t a bad start.