How George Lucas relied on help from his friends to create Star Wars.
Today marks forty years that Star Wars has dominated movie culture, remaking the conception of fandom, the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and the very way movies are made and distributed in its own image. This is the only world anyone born after 1970 or so has ever known, and so for all of us the occasional reminder may be necessary that it was not always so, and that until shortly before its release Star Wars was a decidedly unlikely success. As in the story of an exceptional underdog becoming central to a triumph over steep opposition, the movie itself came to be as the result of singular inspiration, to be sure, but considerable group effort and luck.
Developing an interest in avant-garde and art house film in his late teens, George Lucas went on to formally study film as both an undergrad and graduate student, winning a scholarship from Warner Brothers that allowed him to choose a film to work on and observe. It being a transitional period for the studio, the one project that drew Lucas’ interest was Francis Ford Coppola’s musical Finian’s Rainbow. Coppola at the time was a minor cult figure among film students, owing not only to his garrulous charisma but to film schools still being a relatively new thing at the time and Coppola being one of the first alumni to make waves in Hollywood. Lucas was drawn to Coppola and became a friend and protege, with Coppola using the near-limitless prestige and industry clout he acquired from The Godfather’s success to help Lucas make American Graffiti, whose great success, in turn, gave Lucas the necessary access to studio resources to get Star Wars greenlit.
At that point, the principal obstacle was Lucas’ own struggles to communicate the story in his head through writing. Character names were giggle-inducing or unpronounceable. Entire plot points drowned in indecipherable proper nouns. Friends Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck were enlisted to help hone the script into shape. The production was fraught, with Lucas at loggerheads with his crew, who took his cerebral, taciturn affect to be arrogance, unbecoming in a director so young. Harrison Ford told Lucas, of the dialogue “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.” The special effects, many of which had to be invented from scratch, took forever to finish. At a screening of a rough cut, Lucas invited several friends, including Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg (Martin Scorsese was also invited, but canceled), to give feedback. De Palma provided a litany of notes, not sugar coated, that Lucas, though stung by De Palma’s candor, incorporated into the finished film. Among these was the crucial pairing of the phrase “The Force of Others” to, simply and eternally, the “The Force.”
The only person who thought Star Wars was going to be a hit then was Spielberg. The 1970s being famously (only slightly apocryphally) a time of dour, darkly lit genre deconstructions with unhappy endings, even Lucas’ closest friends thought his space movie for kids was doomed to failure. Spielberg, though, told anyone who would listen that it would be a massive hit (an instinct, it should be noted, that was instrumental in Spielberg going on to be the most consistently successful film director in American history). Lucas had been judging Star Wars to some degree against Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which, while it ended on a note of awe and wonder, took some very 70s paths to that ultimate destination, depicting an Everyman protagonist who abandons his family and ends up isolated from “normal” people. Lucas considered Spielberg’s film a more serious enterprise entirely and thus more likely to be a huge hit – a function, perhaps, of a certain competitiveness he felt toward Spielberg – and Star Wars to be a niche piece that would play only to kids, but Spielberg assured him that this was not the case. And lo, it came to pass, and Star Wars was the biggest hit of all time. (It should be noted that Close Encounters was not exactly lost to history.)
If there’s a point to all this, it’s that great feats are not accomplished alone, or in a vacuum. Star Wars began with George Lucas, and regardless of copyrights, it will always, to a degree, be his. But he shares possession with the friends and collaborators who shepherded it into being in the first place, and with everyone whose life Star Wars has touched in the many years since. We are all made of stars, and of Star Wars.