January 3, 2016

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.

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. 

Star Wars Force Awakens - Harrison Ford - Han Solo

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. 

On Retirement

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.

Your Comment

20 Comments

Lucas isn't very honest, IMO, and I absolutely don't understand him the more I hear and read from him. Back in the days he was stating that "Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story" only to create Ep.1-3 which are mainly special effects with filmed elements in them. After Ep.1-3 he said that he would prefer to produce 20-30 small movies for a couple of millions each instead of one 100 million movie...only to produce "red tails", a movie that (all expenses summed up) should touch the 100 million mark. In the above interview he says that the money he made was a by-product, kind of an accident while at the same time he exploited the IP financially as never seen before in movie history. And while the author of this article may be curious about what he still is brewing up, after Ep.1-3 and Indiana Jones 4 I'm rather not that excited...

January 3, 2016 at 5:40AM

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I didn't want to agree with Mariano, but I think he is essentially right. And let's not forget 'Radioand Murders' and 'Howard the Duck', two other big budget films that Lucas had a prominent hand in that were mediocre at best, and notably devoid of the sort of creative risk taking that Lucas seems to be proselytizing. On the other hand, I Lucas is not wrong either, at least in words, if not in deeds.

January 3, 2016 at 10:03AM

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Scott Vanderbilt
Production Sound mixer
72

>>
"Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story" only to create Ep.1-3 which are mainly special effects with filmed elements in them
<<

I think though that his position is that it doesn't matter how much you use the tools to tell the story--a lot or a little--as long as you get your story told. He wasn't undermining tool use, he was prioritizing the story at any cost, even if the cost means using tools excessively to get there.

January 3, 2016 at 3:00PM, Edited January 3, 3:00PM

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At first glance it does seem that Lucas contradicts himself. However, if you go back and watch the many interviews he's done the story is pretty much the same, it's the details that slightly change. While there was plenty of CGI in the prequels, there was also a ton of models and sets used. Far more than most people realize. It wasn't all done in the computer. Lucas is a cinematic genius. Yes, I'm being completely serious. That man knows more about cinema, art, storytelling, and even the tech side of it, than probably half the directors working today. I know that a lot of people have complaints against the prequels. But what many see as poor writing and directing on his part, was a stylistic choice that Lucas made for the films.

January 3, 2016 at 10:18PM

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Poor writing and directing is now a stylistic choice? Tell that to Hitchcock, Akira, and the other great masters of film. Or better yet, why not tell that to Michael Bay? See, if we can't criticize what we perceive as "poor writing and directing" then we really can't criticize any terrible movie. George Lucas may "know" a lot about the art of cinema and the "tech side" of things, but that doesn't mean he can put it into practice, which I think is well demonstrated not only by the Star Wars prequels, but also by the Indiana Jones sequel and some of his subsequent projects.

January 4, 2016 at 2:09PM, Edited January 4, 2:09PM

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I probably should have been more clear in my statement. I'm not saying that Lucas chose to write or direct poorly and it's ok...I'm saying that the choices he made are perceived as being "poor" when in fact they were stylistic choices. Lucas was always an artsy filmmaker who was mostly into avant-garde filmmaking. He's also a big fan of the old style of acting from the 1930's and 40's. When he made the original Star Wars he made them in the fashion of the B serials he grew up with. When it comes to the prequels, he decided to make them even more in that fashion. The films were mostly filmed on sound stages (like the old movies of the 30's and 40's), something Lucas has stated he always wanted to do, and the actors were directed to act in a way that is like the style of the 30's and 40's. To our modern society of moviegoers, this may come off as wooden, and therefore "poor" writing/directing on Lucas' part. But that wasn't necissarily the case when you consider what he was going for. It just wasn't what people are used to seeing these days or what they expected. And to be fair...the acting isn't all that much different in the OT but it is less proper and therefore comes off a bit more genuine. With the prequels Lucas was trying to show a more 'civilized age' as alluded to in the OT, hence, the decision to play up the older style acting.

January 5, 2016 at 1:15AM

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I never knew he had a 2 year old kid? Kind of curious how he managed that at his age. Hopefully he gets to make more THX style films.

January 3, 2016 at 7:00AM

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Glenn Thomas
Music video director and editor.
1

I respect Lucas' decision to sell the franchise, but he really does need to accept that fact and move on. As far as Hollywood taking big risks on directors with little credentials, I don't think that's actually the case. Studios will put a novice director in charge of a movie in order to give the producers more wiggle room to steer him/her into the direction that Hollywood wants. A studio would never be able to put as much pressure on a Spielberg or a Fincher, as those directors already have a very defined style that audiences look for in their movies.

January 3, 2016 at 9:49AM

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Armand Piecuch
Vice President of Fourth Wall Productions
81

That's exactly it about the untested directors. They want someone they can push around, not someone who will navigate the ship through un-charted waters. These are heavily used shipping lanes and these giant ships can basically navigate by GPS so the director is mostly superfluous. Case in point, David Fincher on Alien 3. They thought they had someone they could push around, and discovered they didn't and then they had all kinds of trouble on that film. The studio is not looking for a director it's looking for a warm body to stand at the helm.

January 3, 2016 at 10:35AM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
738

Well, isn't George Lucas who took away the vision of Richard Marquand in ROTJ in order to sell toys. It's said that Marquand had a very different idea for the story and Lucas told him that people were in on SW because of the spectacle and not the plot. So, tho I find that what he is saying is true, I don't think he believes it, or at least Lucas doesn't live by it.

January 3, 2016 at 10:16AM

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Domingo Alvarez
Aspiring Director/DP
154

Actually, here: http://starwarsuniverse2.tripod.com/id6.html you can read the synopsis of Lucas's stories for episodes 7,8,9 they are quite fascinating!

January 3, 2016 at 10:20AM

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Jose Santos
Student/Director
53

I only read 7th. It's really boring. Much worse than the current one.

January 3, 2016 at 6:16PM, Edited January 3, 6:16PM

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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1126

I mean to be fair they are early early undeveloped ideas, but they are pretty barebones. The only thing in it thats cool is the Dark Jedi attack on Bespin with jetpacks.

January 4, 2016 at 4:09AM

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I'm curious to know how you verified the authenticity of thee synopses. I think it would be safe to assume the actual treatments were sold to Disney as part of the Lucasfilm sale, and I highly doubt they would end up on a random fanboy's site with no attribution or provenance.
On the other hand, it was posted on the internet, so they must be real.

January 4, 2016 at 10:03AM

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Scott Vanderbilt
Production Sound mixer
72

J.J. Abrams:
"If you're lucky, the tools themselves will inspire you..."

January 3, 2016 at 2:03PM

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Inspired by lens flares? or whip pans?

Abrams should never have had anything to do with the story of the new Star Wars. I won't get started again but the studio could have walked blindfolded into a bar and found someone that could have written a better story than the new rehash.

January 3, 2016 at 5:42PM

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I think George Lucas is under-appreciated.

January 3, 2016 at 9:16PM, Edited January 3, 9:45PM

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The problem with "Hollywood" is when you finally have success, you become so insanely wealthy that you lose touch with the "art" side of the business and it always is about profits.

January 3, 2016 at 10:44PM

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Derek
21

Yup,

That was the reason why, I am so disappointed in starwarz series.

Well, he made good money, got nothing to say about it.

January 4, 2016 at 12:06AM

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Minu Park
Director
21

Sorry Lucas, you used, and relied too much on tools (CGI) to make the story for the abominations that are the prequels. Bad acting? Fix it in post with CG face morphs.

January 7, 2016 at 12:34PM

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