George Lucas changed the face of movies with his space-set western Star Wars. He reveals how hard it was to get that first film made and how, 30 years later, the saga continues.
Back in the mid-1970s, a young writer-director called George Lucas was struggling to get his grand space opera movie made.
Disappointing box office returns for his films THX-38 and American Graffiti meant he didn’t hold out much hope that his family saga set in space would ever even make it into cinemas, let alone win any popularity contests.
“The original Star Wars was one movie and I wrote a back story and script to it which came out to 200 or so pages,” George recalls.
“I couldn’t do it because they only gave me three million dollars. So I cut it up and put the other acts on the shelf. My assumption was it was going to fail, because at this point in my career, I had done THX, which had failed, and American Graffiti which they wouldn’t even release because they felt it was so bad.
“And now I was doing this crazy wacky thing. A studio executive said, ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing. I don’t understand the story. I don’t get seven-foot dogs and robots talking. It doesn’t make sense. But I like you and I think you’re very talented and you’re going to go someplace.’
“So I figure, I’ve got a shot. I’ll do this, and then somehow, I will get these other two films made, but it’s going to be a struggle to convince people to spend more money on something that didn’t make any money,” he adds.
“So when it was a hit, I was the most surprised of anybody.”
Of course, the rest is history. George’s wacky space opera captivated fans all over the world and made instant stars of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill.
The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi soon followed, enabling George to set up his own businesses including production company Lucasfilm and special effects corporation Industrial Light and Magic.
Now, three years after the last Star Wars prequel, George is turning his attention to a computer-animated look at the Star Wars universe.
New feature-length movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars is set between Episodes II and III, Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith and follows Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they battle evil Count Dooku.
It also introduces a few new characters, namely Anakin Skywalker’s young Padawan, Ahsoka Tano, and evil Sith Asajj Ventress.
George intends the film to be a launch pad for the animated TV series of the same name to be shown in the US on Cartoon Network this autumn.
“This feature film came by accident,” says George.
“It had to do with doing a TV series and developing new techniques and studios.
“When the first few shots came off the assembly line, I looked at it on the big screen and thought – ‘this is fantastic. It’s so much better than I thought it was going to be. This looks like a feature film.
“This could be a feature film. Why don’t we make a feature film?’ So that’s how this happened. Primarily because I thought a lot of the fans would probably like to see this on a big screen.”
So George went ahead with the animation, and he and director Dave Filoni created a host of animated characters inspired by 1960s TV series Thunderbirds and Japanese animae and manga animation.
“I am not a big fan of realistic animation,” George says.
“If you’re going to make a realistic movie, you may as well use actors and shoot it. It’s much easier and cheaper and better.
“The whole charm and wonder of animation is that you can style it as an art form. I’m a big fan of anime and manga. I love art and in my early career, I wanted to be an illustrator.
“On this one I decided I would go back to the 50s and 60s and one of the shows I watched a lot was Thunderbirds which was done with marionettes. So I said, ‘why don’t we make this thing look like it was done with marionettes where you can see the paint on the faces?’ It’s got a very painterly look. It’s not at all realistic. It’s something you can only do in animation.”
Despite owning a successful special effects company, George still finds it easier to work with actors than computers.
“Computers are more difficult – it’s logical,” he says. “But you’re always dealing with actors. People think there’s no actors involved in animation, and there actually are a lot of actors involved. Not only the real actors doing the voices and all that sort of thing, but the animators are also actors. A computer can’t act. It just can’t. And it’ll be a long time before it can.”
Clearly, Star Wars has grown bigger than its creator ever imagined. But George doesn’t appear to be growing tired of the universe he created.
He’s looking forward to exploring more characters and storylines in the TV medium, which he says gives him more freedom than film.
“TV is a more exciting medium because you can do so much more in it,” he says.
“A feature takes a long time, a huge amount of resources, and it has a very narrow focus. Anakin Skywalker being sent to the dark side and redemption by his son is a narrow story.
“And I created a universe that’s very very big, but I still had to keep focused on a very narrow part of it. There might be a funny character who appears on screen for eight seconds, but I can’t tell his story.
“Television gives me a chance to do that. So in this, especially in animation, it’s a little bit more light hearted, it’s more fun. I can take little side trips wherever I want to, and say things like, ‘this week, we can deal with this over here’. It’s more interesting.”
The legions of science fiction fans that consume every aspect of the Star Wars universe are sure to agree, although George disputes that Star Wars has anything to do with science.
“We look at it as a different dimension,” he says.
“The laws of physics are different here. Star Wars is not science fiction at all. It’s much more attuned to mythology, to psychology, to history than it is to science.
“It’s more of a parable about the way we are, rather than the way we’re going to be. That’s why it starts out as a fairytale – a long time ago in a galaxy far away – once upon a time. It deals with princesses. It’s purposely designed not to be about where we’re going. It’s about where we’ve been and what we can learn from the past in the present.”