Tuesday, January 24, 2017

George Lucas: The Unlikely Star of “Star Wars”



A few weeks back, amid all the doom-and-gloom stories about American politics, world affairs, and bizarre weather events, the Los Angeles Times featured a rare cheerful headline. the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art was heading for L.A.’s Exposition Park. The choice of Los Angeles over San Francisco as the site of filmmaker George Lucas’s self-financed billion-dollar museum was by no means a sure thing. Though civic boosters like L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti had pushed for this, various commentators opposed it. More important, Lucas has never had much affection for L,A. as a cultural milieu. Yes, he’s been extremely loyal to his film school alma mater, the University of Southern California, which has benefitted hugely from his largesse. But as soon as his career permitted, he abandoned Hollywood for the San Francisco Bay and his super-private Skywalker Ranch.

My friend and colleague, Brian Jay Jones, is the author of the fascinating new unauthorized biography, George Lucas: A Life. When we discussed the newly-announced plans for the museum, Brian admitted to being surprised. In his words, “I thought Lucas would surely want it in his backyard where he could piddle around with everything.” As I’d learned from reading Brian’s book, George Lucas is both a mild-mannered guy and the ultimate control freak.

Lucas started out in workaday Modesto, California as a mediocre student passionate about pop music and fast cars. American Graffiti, his first big hit, is a fair picture of his teen years. Early on, his imagination was shaped by comic books, TV, futuristic heroes like Flash Gordon, and an opening-day visit to Disneyland with his family. This trip took place in July 1955, when Lucas was an impressionable eleven-year-old. The now-long-gone Rocket to the Moon ride was one of his special favorites. It’s certainly fitting that, decades later, Lucas was able to participate in the launching of a more updated Tomorrowland adventure: Star Tours.

It was after he entered film school at USC that Lucas truly came into his own. At first he cultivated his skills as an editor. Later, after moving into directing, he continued to rely on his technical abilities, sometimes to the detriment of story and performance. Like my former boss Roger Corman (who was also particularly devoted to technical matters)  Lucas never developed a gift for working with actors. But there’s no question that he knew what he wanted.

I learned from Brian Jones’ biography that Lucas has never been happy writing screenplays. Yes, he’s cranked out a number of Star Wars scripts, but (especially as the Star Wars universe has continued to expand) he’s astonishingly willing to move into production without a finished screenplay in hand. As a longtime screenwriting instructor in UCLA Extension’s world-renowned Writers’ Program, I cringed in discovering how much Lucas exalts post-production over the rigors of the writing process: “The editing is how I create the first draft.” 

Of course Brian’s book is full of fascinating tidbits, like how C-3PO got his voice. (He was originally supposed to sound like a Bronx used-car dealer, not an English butler.) Brian also spends considerable time showcasing Lucas’s determination to upgrade every element of the original film to take advantage of technological breakthroughs since 1977. It’s certainly understandable that purists are not happy with alterations to a film they know and love. This is  especially true when Lucas’s tweaks seem to change beloved characters like Han Solo (who in Lucas’s revised version shot the bounty hunter Greedo only in self-defense). The last line of Brian’s author bio makes his own feelings crystal-clear: “He continues to believe that Han shot first.”

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