A great film doesn’t need plot, says George Lucas. Same with characters. And dialogue? Can only make it worse. A great movie just needs picture and sound. That’s always been his goal when writing and directing, since his days at a budding experimental filmmaker to a scrappy studio director to an independent film titan and the mastermind behind the biggest science fiction franchise of all time. High velocity picture and layers and layers of sound. That’s all it takes.
And if you don’t see eye-to-eye to him, you can buzz off. Just ask the producers who told him Star Wars 1977 was garbage.
Speaking with soon-to-be Late Show host Stephen Colbert as part of Tribeca Film Festival’s Directors series, Lucas regaled an eager audience Friday afternoon with tales of his early days in the film industry. The early 1960s were a time when his love for esoteric film experiments clashed with the movie studios that wanted him to pump out novel adaptations and down-the-middle dramas. He didn’t have any of it, happier going bankrupt making the murky, cerebral THX-1138 than living under an executive’s thumb. You know this man. The same stick-to-your-guns attitude that birthed the much-reviled special editions is the reason Star Wars happened in the first place.
The way Lucas describes his past says as much about the blockbuster artist as his facts do. At the talk, he described his first post-film school job, shooting behind-the-scenes features on the mostly-forgotten 1969 Western Mackenna’s Gold. His coworkers all picked obvious topics: One guy profiled the director, another took the producer, someone planted themselves on set, and Lucas—because he saw the world differently, truly—decided to make a film about the desert. A “tone poem” to be exact. If you wondered why Return of the Jedi: Special Edition needed extra landscape shots of Tatooine, here’s your answer.
As a teenager, Lucas dreamed of racing cars. But during his senior year of high school, a horrible car accident took him to death’s door and back and ended the ambition. He recovered at the movies, where he could recreate the speed. His college films were rapid-fire montages designed to stimulate the senses. When he finally convinced a studio to back THX-1138, mystified moneyfolk demanded changes to make the movie more comprehensible and digestible for mainstream audiences. Or any audience, really. Lucas shrugged at requests for cuts and editing alterations. “How are you going to fix it if it doesn’t make any sense?” he told them.
Star Wars’ roots in war films is well-documented, but even if the film weren’t transplanting World War II dogfights into space, boiling down Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theories to their essence, it’d have X-Wings and Tie Fighters shooting across the sky. Lucas said that, like most of the planet in 1968, he left Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey awestruck. No one had ever visualized science fiction iconography in such a way. He had one qualm: It was a liiiittttle slow. Because of technological restrictions (or, so he assumes) Kubrick’s spacecrafts could only float calmly through space, float from the Earth to the space station. Lucas wanted that movie, but kinetic. And that began 40 years of Hollywood filmmaking.
Lucas is correct when he asserts that his experimental sensibilities are why Star Wars ’77 works. In theory, the movie could play as a silent film. If you’re five years old, there’s entertainment to glean from Luke Skywalker’s adventure to the Death Star. The visuals burn into our brains. The soundscape is a clash of the real and unreal. Every detail sparks the imagination (and a glut of fan fiction). Knock the sequels, but they’re in the same boat. The man’s zeal for cinematic energy hits synapse-shattering heights in Episode III’s opening space battle. You don’t get there without the Trade Federation (or Lucas’ “wooden dialogue”—his words). Sacrifices.
Yes, money drives Lucas. He’s a little sinister about how his arty ways made Hollywood exorbitant amounts of money. After recounting his post-Star Wars wheeling and dealing to go fully independent with Empire Strikes Back, controlling both creative and financing, he ended the story with a simple, “and that’s how I became rich.” Lucas could have packed up his bags after the original trilogy to go back to experimental filmmaking—a career hope he’s voiced since the ’80s. He didn’t because of success. He couldn’t say no to more Star Wars. The money was good, but the technology was better. He relates Industrial Light & Magic’s toys, and any art-enabling tool, to cavemen and their cave-painting “brushes.” You don’t say no to the future.
And you don’t say no to a chance to fix what you didn’t get right the first time. Hate the Special Editions? Well, they’re not yours and Lucas doesn’t care. With Colbert, the filmmaker reflected on the outrage surrounding his decisions to tinker with Star Wars after the fact. “People like the funky stuff,” he said. “I don’t like the funky stuff.” Lucas didn’t want his magnum opus to sit around with visible matte painting lines and missing scenes. He wanted the movie he wanted. Jabba was supposed to be in Star Wars. So he put him back in. It’s his film and he can do it. A Hollywood director might care about pissing off his or her fans. Lucas doesn’t. He’s an artist, dammit.
Lucas did what he wanted. He didn’t think any of it would “pay off,” but he did it anyway. When Star Wars opened to huge numbers, he didn’t take it as a sign that his future was about to change. “Sci-fi fans—they’ll come to anything in the first week!” he told the room. But it worked, setting him off to make five more pictures with five more sets of sound. Or whatever they’re about. They’re movies. They’re experiences. Amen, for that crazy old wizard.
And no, he hasn’t seen The Force Awakens trailer—but he’s excited to see the movie. He hears there’ll be some solid movement.