Wed. October 31
George Lucas Just Saved Star Wars by Firing George Lucas
So at long last, George Lucas has decided to get out of the moviemaking business. He’s selling out Lucasfilm, including all of its properties and moneymaking storylines, to the Mouse. This is a good thing. Maybe even a great thing.
To understand why, we need to back up a bit to understand more about who George Lucas is and who he isn’t. And here’s the first step I’d like you to take before we go any further: banish from your head any assumption that George Lucas even likes Star Wars. Assume, for the sake of argument, that he doesn’t like it at all.
Done? Good. Now we can proceed. You’ll be surprised how much of what happened makes sense.
I didn’t really understand George Lucas, despite living on an uninterrupted diet of his films for most of my childhood years, until I read The Making of Empire Strikes Back, a recent book which tracks the process of the best film of the Star Wars saga and includes all sorts of stories from the set about the clashes between Lucas and director Irvin Kershner. Around the time the book came out, Lucas publicly declared that Empire was the worst Star Wars movie, to the shock of many fans.
But Lucas had his reasons for saying this. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lucas was at a pivotal point in his life and career. He had just made it huge, bigger than anyone expected, bigger than he could ever have dreamed, with the original Star Wars film. Corporate obligations are weighing on him. He’s frustrated and stuck on the script, working with multiple writers and junking much of what they suggest. And if there’s one thing Lucas hates, it’s writing. Here’s a few excerpts:
“George made an analogy between the real estate business and the film business,” says Weber [Lucasfilm CEO]. “There are three rules in the real estate business: location, location, location. And three rules in the movie business: script, script, script.” . . . Lucas had written Star Wars himself, out of necessity, but he did not enjoy the job, which was laborious . . .
With Brackett [the original scriptwriter] hospitalized, everyone waiting to get started, a locked-in production schedule, and no other writer on hand, Lucas was left with no choice but to write the second draft himself. “George doesn’t like to write,” Kershner says. “He hates writing.”
Lucas’s initial script is a mashup of ideas, and lacks nearly every memorable line which ultimately made it into Empire (even “Do, or do not, there is no try,” the oft-quoted Yoda line, is not Lucas’s). The side by side comparisons of Lucas and Kershner are night and day. Here’s just one comparison:
Lucas’s Yoda: “Not material are we. Luminous beings are we, tied together by the Force. Yes. There are two of you . . . your body and your energy.”
Kasdan’s Yoda: “Luminous beings are we [pinches Luke's skin], not this crude matter.”
There’s another extensive conversation between Kershner and Harrison Ford about the script and directing changes for the Carbonite scene, illustrating how many of the elements fans love were completely absent from Lucas’s version of the film. In almost every circumstance, Kershner or producer Lawrence Kasdan are slicing away the fat of overwritten dialogue, useless scenes, throwaway shots, and the rest, bringing it down to the essence of story and scene with zen efficiency.
When you understand how Lucas writes, you understand why the characters in the prequels sound the way they do, reciting dialogue that’s an insult to wood. Harrison Ford infamously complained “you can type this s***, George, but you sure can’t say it”, and Lucas even jokingly called himself “the King of Wooden Dialogue”. But by the time the prequels rolled around, Lucas had become uneditable, all-powerful, impossible to defy. At the time of Empire he was still a nouveou riche member of the rising new Hollywood directorial stars, but not yet the corporate behemoth he would become. You start to see why Jar-Jar sounds the way he did. No wonder the prequels feel like a forced process of a guy doing something he doesn’t want to do, and poorly.
Even the smallest scene in Empire is thought through with more care than anything found in the prequels. In Lucas’s director’s commentary on Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he repeatedly talks in a mildly bored tone about being forced to do multiple expositional scenes to bring along viewers with the oppressively dull plot. Compare that to this, from Kershner:
“The admiral says to one of his officers, ‘We don’t need those bounty hunters. They’re the scum of the galaxy,’” Kershner notes. “Then the admiral, who is standing below them in the control pit, is startled because, hanging over the edge of the bridge area, are 10 toes, huge claws with lizard-like skin–and you wonder, ‘My god, what’s attached to that?’ He looks up and you see a lizard character glaring down at him. But his disgust is not that it’s some alien creature, but that it’s an immoral creature. [laughs] That was not in the script, of course, his reaction to the toes, but that’s what I mean by an interpretation with humor. The imperials are all very pure looking and very clean, they’re all humans. And yet he’s reacting to the bounty hunters’ immoral motive. They work for money. Even the Imperials think they’re doing good for the galaxy. There’s no such thing as people desiring to be evil, they’re evil for a purpose. They want to do good.”
If Lucas understands this distinction, he gives no sign of it, then or now. Compare this, of course, to the entire prequels—where I still have no clear picture of the motivations of nearly any of the evil characters, besides wanting to break or enforce trade embargoes of some kind. I’m sure the export/import bank factors in there somewhere.
But it’s not just that he doesn’t want to write Empire’s script, and is forced into it anyway (though Kershner would drastically change it). Lucas also doesn’t want to direct the movie. In fact, he seems to want to distance himself from the story that’s made him a multimillionaire, and is almost overeager to find someone else to take it up. Emphasis mine:
“I’ve retired from directing,” Lucas says [in a memo regarding finding a director for Empire]. “If I directed Empire then I’d have to direct the next one and the next for the rest of my life. I’ve never really liked directing. I became a director because I didn’t like directors telling me how to edit, and I became a writer because I had to write something in order to be able to direct something. So I did everything out of necessity, but what I really like is editing.”
Ah, so that’s his true calling: sitting in a room by himself editing what someone else has written and someone else has filmed. Odd, considering his position as the original storyteller . . . but it gets even odder still. Unless he hates Star Wars, in which case it makes perfect sense.
The book details how, once the filming was done, Lucas discovered to his frustration that Kershner had given him a lot less film to work with in the editing room. Lucas may have claimed that editing is what he enjoys most, but he wants to approach it with an overabundance of material. He talks in interviews about how he wants everything to be like a documentary, a ton of material to work with once you get into the cutting room. Lucas finds Kershner has filmed more sparingly, with very limited options and his own reworked dialogue and shots. After the first cut is done, Lucas leaves for Japan, where he and Francis Ford Coppola are producing Kagemusha. He can’t wait to rid himself of Star Wars, but it keeps pulling him back in.
No wonder the prequels feel like a forced process of a guy doing something he doesn’t want to do, and poorly. No wonder he seemed so uninterested in telling a real story in the universe, as opposed to just throwing CGI at the screen and shooting reaction shot after reaction shot, usually with characters talking while sitting on couches, or doing soap opera-esque looks out the window before turning back. No wonder the whole thing feels soulless and empty.
Lucas’s role in the process seems to be more along the lines of that of an initial inspiration for characters and a story, but a creative mind who slowly came to resent these characters and how they took over his life and career, turning him into a corporate figure instead of a movie editor. Maybe that’s why others, such as the video game creators at BioWare or the fans who’ve created full story arcs (such as the brilliant Darth Side, a fantastic look inside the mind of Darth Vader) tell better stories than Lucas himself does.
Now, there’s potential to correct the error that was corrected in Empire but sadly restored in the prequels: George Lucas in the director’s chair. Maybe Disney will treat the franchise as Dan McLaughlin recommended they should all along.
Lucas is a man of considerable gifts, and some of these are still evident in the prequels–his imagination, his talent with special effects, his gift for the pacing of action sequences. But he has always had weaknesses as a filmmaker–he has no talent for directing actors, his dramatic and especially romantic dialogue can be horrendous–and one thing he did well in the original trilogy (well-timed wisecracks and one-liners) seems to have ossified in the intervening years as he went from quirky and ambitious film buff to merchandising tycoon.
All of that would have mattered a lot less if Lucas had made the decision to bring in the best help he could get from talented directors and writers to work over the films and make them wonderful and realistic and human . . . the use of a revolving door of directors has worked quite well for the Harry Potter films, for example. If Lucas had only been willing to get the input of some other people, he could have worked with better dialogue, better performances, and people to point out huge mistakes before they hit the screen.
Disney has indicated they plan to use a method approximating this, with a new Star Wars film scheduled every two-to-three years. For my own part, I’d wager Disney is smart enough that they’ll likely make wiser choices than Lucas did. With the right directors and the right storylines in place, Disney can easily make back the $4 billion they spent on LucasFilm in short order. There will be missteps, sure–but I also suspect Joss Whedon, Brad Bird, or any of the other potential directors who fell in love with this universe as teenagers are unlikely to try anything as stupid as Lucas’s prequel choices, when there were suddenly “heroes on both sides,” wooden dialogue was interrupted with anti-Republican undertones, and the Force turned out to be nothing more than genetic superiority. These are not the choices of someone who cares about his story all that much–it’s the choices of someone who just wants to power through it all so the process can be over as soon as possible.
Fans of the franchise are certainly skeptical about these new movies after being forced to suffer through Lucas’s bitter meanderings through the universe he inspired. But should they be? While Lucas will remain as a creative consultant, Disney has already shown the ability to produce action packed crowd pleasers for children and adults alike, and their success with trusting Marvel’s Avengers to Whedon was admirable. And really, your childhood can only be destroyed in front of you once. How much worse could it be?
A final aside: I’ve joked for decades among my friends that the definitive proof that time travel will never be invented is in the fact that George Lucas was not mysteriously murdered by someone who appeared out of thin air in 1981. I may need to stop telling that joke now, because perhaps the reason they didn’t do it was so this sale could happen. If so, that is a comforting thought.