What happens when you ask two people to tell you what they think of George Lucas?
One is likely to tell you that he’s a greedy, visionless sellout, who is determined to destroy his almighty legacy by constantly tinkering with it.
The other will tell you that he is the embodiment of innovation and courage, both as an entrepreneur and artist.
Such is the story of one of filmmaking’s most outstanding talents.
RISE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
George Lucas could have been a race-car driver.
The world of underground racing was his teenage passion, and may well have become his career, until a near-death experience “that, in theory, no one could survive” took him off the track.
At the time of the incident, Lucas was at a crossroad. He hadn’t been a very good student in high school, and wasn’t sure where his life was headed. The accident granted him a newfound sense of determination to do something with his life.
He decided to enrol in college, studying everything from anthropology to literature, but his love of fast cars remained. In order to keep connected with the scene, he picked up an 8mm camera, and began filming races.
At the same time, Lucas became interested in underground cinema. The alternative approach that avant-garde and international filmmakers were bringing to the craft appealed to him, and he felt an appeal in creating something similar.
And so he entered film school.
“Everybody said it was a crazy thing to do because in those days nobody made it into the film business. I mean, unless you were related to somebody there was no way in. So everybody was thinking I was silly. ‘You’re never going to get a job.’ But I wasn’t moved by that.”
Unbeknownst to Lucas, he couldn’t have chosen a better time to commence study at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Later referred to as ‘The Dirty Dozen’, Lucas’s classmates included future leaders of the film industry including his roommate Randal Kleiser (director of Grease), Robert Zemeckis (director of the Back to the Future trilogy) and John Milius (the eccentric writer behind Apocalypse Now). He also became friends with future collaborator Steven Spielberg, who had been rejected from the same course because of his bad grades.
The school was extremely popular, so much so that Lucas first took an animation class after being unable to gain a spot in production classes. Handed a one minute roll of film, Lucas and his classmates were asked to demonstrate their understanding of animation technology by creating simple effects such as making the images go up or down on screen.
Lucas instead took the roll, and turned it into his first ever film, entitled Look at Life. It toured national festivals, and won several awards.
JAGGED STEPS TO SUCCESS
Over the following two years, Lucas produced eight short films inspired by his experience with underground cinema. He graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in film in 1967.
Upon graduation, he was drafted into the United States army which, at the time, was involved in the Vietnam War. When it was discovered that Lucas had diabetes, he was exempted, and decided to enrol in post-graduate studies.
During this time, he made a short film which would later be adapted into his first feature, THX 1138. In response to the short’s success, Warner Brothers offered Lucas an internment on the production of a film of his choosing. He picked Finian’s Rainbow, directed by a former film student who had found work in the industry: Francis Ford Coppola.
The pair founded American Zoetrope, a system designed to liberate filmmakers from the strict guidelines of Hollywood dictatorship, and produced THX 1138. It was a flop.
“My first six years in the business was hopeless. There’s lot of times when you sit and you say, ‘Why am I doing this? I’ll never make it. It’s just not going to happen. I should really go out and get a real job, and try to survive’.”
Lucas then chose to start his own company, Lucasfilm. After an unsuccessful attempt at getting a documentary off the ground, he chose to make American Graffiti, a script he had written after Coppola had challenged him to make something more commercial.
The film was a huge success, making $140 million at the box office, and receiving five Oscar nominations. It launched not only Lucas’s career, but that of actors including Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ron Howard. American Graffiti also became the basis for the concept of the summer blockbuster.
Lucas had made it.
Or had he?
THE BATTLE FOR STAR WARS
After the success of American Graffiti, Lucas had put away $300,000 to focus on the development of a pet project: a sci-fi film that would later release as Star Wars.
The concept was met with stiff resistance, only being made after 20th Century Fox executive Alan Ladd Jr. appealed to the company’s president personally. The film went on to save the company after a string of box office failures.
Still, the project took years to develop. Initial drafts of the script were vastly different from what would eventually appear on screen, to the point where Lucas’s collaborator on the film called the story ‘gobbledygook’.
When eventually a working script was completed, Lucas lobbied Fox for a production budget of $18 million. They were given $7 million.
The rest is history.
BUILDING AN EMPIRE
It was at this time that Lucas started making the decisions that would found a cinematic legacy.
During pre-production of Star Wars, Lucas established Industrial Light & Magic, a visual effects company that would go on to define special effects in the industry. ILM were the first to use motion capture, the first to create computer generated characters, and the first to create digital skin textures. The company has won 15 Academy Awards, and been nominated for a total of 27.
Famously, Lucas also negotiated to retain the rights to all Star Wars merchandise, and to any sequels. Since then, Star Wars toys have generated $12 billion in revenue.
After the success of Star Wars, Lucas pulled back from directing. He had always considered himself as a filmmaker in a broad sense, so he turned his attention to writing and producing.
In this role, he saved the career of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa by producing his film Kagemusha, and created the Indiana Jones series.
When Lucas returned to the directing chair in order to bring to life the prequels to Star Wars at the behest of his children, initial excitement quickly transitioned into outrage from fans and critics alike.
Given unprecedented freedom to create the films as he pleased, they were panned for their extreme use of CGI (only one scene in Episode 1 features no computer-generated effects) and heavy-handed dialogue.
Following the films, Lucas threatened retirement. When asked if he would produce any more Star Wars films, he responded “Why would I make any more when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”
The same year, he sold Lucasfilm to Disney for a reported $4 billion.
Though Lucas continues working on smaller films, his attention has turned primarily to philanthropic interests.
“As I start a new chapter in my life, it is gratifying that I have the opportunity to devote more time and resources to philanthropy.”
He revealed that half of his fortune will be given to charity as part of The Giving Pledge, an endeavour which calls on America’s wealthiest individuals to donate heavily to those in need.
Lucas also founded his own charity foundation: The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Under the name of Edutopia, the foundation promotes innovative approaches to education, and provides free materials for teachers to access via their website.
Work is also soon set to begin on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a $300 million project that is expected to open in 2018. The museum will house Lucas’s collection of pop art, valued at $1 billion.
Passionate fans easily forget that behind the icon George Lucas exists a real person. Love or hate his style, he is simply a man trying to give the world what it has demanded since the release of A New Hope: more, more, more.
Much of the evolution that filmmaking has experienced over the last 50 years can be directly attributed to Lucas’s vision. So maybe it’s time we stop hating, and start thanking the man who has made our lives that much more entertaining.