George Lucas on Filmmaking: 'You’re Telling a Story Using Tools, Not Using Tools to Tell a Story'
George Lucas recently spoke with Charlie Rose, and the 50-plus-minute talk is fascinating on a number of levels, from how Hollywood changed in an unfortunate way after Star Wars, to how he feels about the new film, and where he sees his career now:
Here are just some of the most interesting points from the interview:
He Never Wanted to Be Involved in Hollywood Movies
This is something he's reiterated a number of times. While he's become synonymous with Hollywood, his goal was to always make small films that were motivated by visuals rather than plot — "tone poems" as he refers to them. In many ways, the original Star Wars could not have been made in the current climate. With a few exceptions, there aren't many large-scale original movies being made today. Star Wars was actually hated by the board of directors at Fox, which is a testament to just how different of a film it was at the time. Lucas considered it a space opera or space fantasy, and not science fiction, and it's one of the reasons people had a tough time grabbing on to it.
My ambition was ultimately to be Michael Moore.
A little bit later in the interview, Lucas admits that his "ambition was ultimately to be Michael Moore." He wanted to make visually interesting films and documentaries — but obviously his career took some major turns after American Graffiti and then Star Wars.
Lucas mentions that Coppola told him to "stop with the artsy fartsy stuff" like THX 1138 and to try to see if he could make a comedy. He eventually went and made American Graffiti, a film that the studio originally wanted to shelve. It became a hit, and changed the direction of his career forever. He then wanted to focus on making a film that was geared more towards kids, and combined elements of mythology and serials of the day, like Flash Gordon. Star Wars was meant to be new mythology for kids trying to find their way in a bigger world, and he felt that some of that was lost when westerns stopped being popular.
He tried to get the rights to remake Flash Gordon, but was not able to do so — which actually worked out in his favor, since Star Wars became a bigger hit than any Flash Gordon movie would have been.
Lucas mentioned that he wasn't really that happy with how much of his vision actually made it onscreen — a number like 35% — which is likely why he went back a number of times to "enhance" different scenes or fix errors in the first three films.
After Star Wars
SW changed the landscape of Hollywood blockbusters. It also saw lots of copycats. People thought they could just make a bunch of movies with spaceships, but as Lucas says, they were all terrible because they were missing the ingredients that make a good story. Ironically, this risky film also caused studios to take less risks, because they started putting more and more money into a single film in order to make a bigger return, and thus needed more bland ingredients to ensure things turned out well. What's interesting is that Lucas didn't expect either Star Wars or Indiana Jones to become the hits that they were, and according to him it's part of the reason they were so successful, because they were just focusing on making the best films they could make, and not squeezing every dollar out of the potential audience. According to him, "I made money in spite of myself, and I think it’s because I didn’t care whether it was a hit or not a hit."
On Telling Stories
The quote in the title is in reference to all of the special effects that were invented in order to bring his Star Wars vision to life. While he continued to innovate, he was always developing the tools out of necessity to tell his stories — it was never just as an excuse to be flashy or wow the audience. This is something that gets lost in major Hollywood films all the time. We have started to emphasize the spectacle over actually telling a good and interesting story, and it seems like sometimes we're just creating pretty images for the trailer.
Whenever there’s a new tool, everybody goes crazy and they forget that there’s a story and that’s the point. You’re telling a story using tools, you’re not using tools to tell a story.
People have many opinions on the Prequel films, but Lucas managed to create an entirely new world that we had never seen before. With a few exceptions, the spectacle was part of the storytelling, and the techniques he used were there to facilitate him being able to execute his vision as closely as he saw fit.
On the Movie Business
Historically George Lucas has never gotten along that well with the studios, and he's got a lot of problems with how they operate now. In order for a movie to be made, the studios do a calculation that factors in how popular they think something will be, and in what territories they can expect to make money. This is why we're seeing less risks being taken with the type of material that's out there. There are many films from the past that have become hits that would never be made now because they seem too risky. As Lucas says:
The movie business is exactly like professional gambling, except you hire the gambler. Usually some crazy kid with long hair... You give him $100 million dollars, and you say “Go to the tables, and come back with $500 million dollars.” That is a risk.
The insane thing is that so many of these big franchises are handed over to directors without a big resume. For an industry that is so preoccupied with minimizing risk, they are very often taking a huge risk just by hiring someone who hasn't proven they can successfully handle all the pressures that come with directing $100 million plus studio film. We saw that with one of the directors who will continue the franchise that Lucas started. Colin Trevorrow, who is helming Episode 9, got the job to direct the massive blockbuster Jurassic World when his only major feature credit was a tiny indie made for under $1 million dollars. Now that he's got a huge movie under his belt, Star Wars isn't a stretch, but it's crazy that studios care so much about these tentpole films and yet trust filmmakers who've never made a studio movie before, let alone one costing hundreds of millions.
As Lucas says, "You can't make mistakes." Some of the criticism of The Force Awakens is that it borrowed too heavily from story elements from the original film, but it was part of a need to make sure that they got it right, and the only sure way of getting something right is by mirroring what has come before.
Lucas mentions that he essentially retired from directing because he wants to create movies that won't make any money. It would really be unfortunate if we never got to see any of these experiments, because there is no question that his imagination is incredible based on the sheer amount of backstory and content that he dreamed up for the Star Wars universe. He sold the company to Disney because of the 2000 or so employees that he wanted to make sure were taken care of, and he didn't think it was right that he might start making even more risky projects and potentially put their livelihood at risk.
While Lucas was already at work on stories for the next films, eventually Disney said they wanted to go another direction and not use his stories. We'll never get to see what he had in mind for the new films, but with how he talks about the new film in the interview, it likely would have gone down a very different path, something with a lot less nostalgia.
Hopefully someday we will get to see these new films from Lucas, especially since nearly unlimited money and pure creativity are rarely able to come together.