Steve Silberman talks to George Lucas
about the films he was born to make: underground films.
"'I like Star Wars, but I certainly never expected it would take over my life.' Now Lucas says he is determined to leverage that security to make the kinds of movies that no one expects from him. He claims to have a stack of ideas piling up on his desk for 'highly abstract, esoteric' films even more daring than his 1971 debut, THX 1138. An expansion of one of Lucas' student projects at the University of Southern California, THX anticipated the cyberpunk aesthetic of William Gibson's Neuromancer and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, depicting a pharmaceutically numbed society of the future under constant video surveillance. After Lucas spent a year digitally restoring the film for its theatrical rerelease and DVD debut in 2004, a longtime employee observed: 'I've never seen George so excited by any other project at the company.' Lucas says the restored THX was just a preview of even edgier films to come that he will finance and direct himself. 'I've earned the right to just make things that I find provocative in my own way,' he says. 'I've earned the right to fail, which means making what I think are really great movies that no one wants to see.'
If earning the right to make movies no one wants to see seems like a dour forecast for the next phase of his career, it may be because Lucas has never felt at ease with his own mainstream success. For the past couple of years, he's been telling interviewers that the breakout popularity of American Graffiti in 1973 'derailed' him into the business of mass-market filmmaking and that his career was 'sidetracked' by Star Wars. His ambivalence about presiding over a commercial empire has even led him to identify with his arch-villain, Darth Vader. In the career retrospective included with the 2004 Star Wars DVD set, Lucas declares: 'I'm not happy that corporations have taken over the film industry, but now I find myself being the head of a corporation, so there's a certain irony there. I have become the very thing that I was trying to avoid. That is Darth Vader - he becomes the very thing he was trying to protect himself against.'
Though Lucas says he's looking forward to 'a whole new adventure' as a director of 'very out-there' films, he admits that he faced this crossroads at least once before and chose to go down the more familiar route of embellishing Darth Vader's backstory. Now he'll have to tap his inner Luke again - the searcher eager to leap into the unknown. But if the father of Star Wars isn't the real George Lucas, who's the man behind the mask?
The popular myth of Lucas' life is that he grew up as the son of a conservative businessman in Modesto, California, and became obsessed with car racing until his teenage dreams of being a professional driver were cut short in 1962 by a near-fatal accident. With little interest in cinema beyond Flash Gordon serials and Adventure Theater reruns on TV, he went off to film school, emerging after American Graffiti as the architect of the Blockbuster That Ate Hollywood. While this kind of talk suits Lucas' image as an ordinary billionaire in a flannel shirt who wanted to upgrade the old-fashioned cliff-hanger so generations of kids could learn to dream again, it obscures the crucial part of his life when he first glimpsed his own destiny. Understanding these early years not only casts light on Lucas' current yearning to make experimental films, it reveals the frustrations that drove a self-proclaimed Luddite to finance the creation of digital tools that forever changed the craft of moviemaking.
Like the journey of Luke Skywalker, the journey of Lucas the filmmaker began with a cryptic transmission that hinted at the existence of a universe more vast than the one he grew up in. While he was zipping his souped-up Fiat through the dusty Central Valley flatlands that provided the model for Luke's home planet of Tatooine, another kind of momentum was building to the north in San Francisco, where poets and painters were picking up Army surplus handheld 16-mm cameras to launch the first wave of independent cinema on the West Coast. A filmmaker named Bruce Baillie tacked up a bedsheet in his backyard in 1960 to screen the work of indie pioneers like Jordan Belson, who crafted footage of exploding galaxies in his North Beach studio, saying that he made films so life on Earth could be seen through the eyes of a god. Filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner had equally transcendent ambitions for the emerging medium: Brakhage painted directly on film and juxtaposed images of childbirth and solar flares, while Conner made mash-ups of stock footage to produce slapstick visions of the apocalypse. For the next few years, Baillie's series, dubbed Canyon Cinema, toured local coffeehouses, where art films shared the stage with folksingers and stand-up comedians.
These events became a magnet for the teenage Lucas and his boyhood friend John Plummer. As their peers cruised Modesto's Tenth Street in the rites of passage immortalized in American Graffiti, the 19-year-olds began slipping away to San Francisco to hang out in jazz clubs and find news of Canyon Cinema screenings in flyers at the City Lights bookstore. Already a promising photographer, Lucas embraced these films with the enthusiasm of a suburban goth discovering the Velvet Underground. 'That's when George really started exploring,' Plummer recalls. 'We went to a theater on Union Street that showed art movies, we drove up to San Francisco State for a film festival, and there was an old beatnik coffeehouse in Cow Hollow with shorts that were really out there.' It was a season of awakening for Lucas, who had been a D-plus slacker in high school. A creative writing teacher at junior college in Modesto opened his eyes to the pleasures of reading, which led him to the writings of Joseph Campbell, a decisive influence on Star Wars.
Then Lucas and Plummer migrated south, where they discovered another filmmaking revolution in progress. They made pilgrimages to the New Art Cinema in Santa Monica to take in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, and Federico Fellini's 8½ - movies that used handheld cinematography and in-your-face editing to deliver life unfiltered through the stale conventions of the Hollywood studios. At an autocross track, Lucas met his first mentor in the film industry - famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, a fellow aficionado of sleek racing machines. Wexler was impressed by the way the shy teenager handled a camera, cradling it low on his hips to get better angles. 'George had a very good eye, and he thought visually,' he recalls. By the time Lucas entered film school in 1964, he was already on his way to becoming the director who would combine the visceral excitement of Flash Gordon with the visual language of transcendence.
At USC, Lucas joined the first generation of film students who were influenced more by the explosion of world cinema than by the silver screen canon. One of his classmates, John Milius, the future cowriter of Apocalypse Now and director of Red Dawn, introduced him to the epics of Akira Kurosawa, whose depictions of Japanese feudal society were a key influence on Star Wars. Lucas' sense of his own mission crystallized in animation classes and in a course called Filmic Expression, which focused on the non-narrative aspects of filmmaking - telling stories without words by using light, space, motion, and color. The professors screened animated shorts and documentaries sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada, which has been funding cinematic exploration since the 1940s.
The work of three Canadian directors in particular excited Lucas about the potential of experimenting with the tools of filmmaking. An animator named Norman McLaren explored novel ways of creating images and sounds with every film he made, mixing human actors, animation, and special effects as Lucas would do digitally 20 years later. Lucas was also impressed by the documentaries of Claude Jutra, who used the artistic strategies of Godard and Truffaut to tell real-life stories. One of the reasons the first Star Wars film seemed so vivid compared with previous sci-fi fare, Lucas explains, was that he shot it like a Jutra documentary, covering the scenes with multiple cameras and staging them loosely on purpose so they would unfold with an edge of spontaneity. (Another reason was the salty insouciance of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, blissfully unaware that they were about to become action figures.)
The film that made the most profound impression on Lucas, however, was a short called 21-87 by a director named Arthur Lipsett, who made visual poetry out of film that others threw away. Working as an editor at the National Film Board, he scavenged scraps of other people's documentaries from trash bins, intercutting shots of trapeze artists and runway models with his own footage of careworn faces passing on the streets of New York and Montreal. What intrigued Lucas most was Lipsett's subversive manipulation of images and sound, as when a shot of teenagers dancing was scored with labored breathing that might be someone dying or having an orgasm. The sounds neither tracked the images nor ignored them - they rubbed up against them. Even with no plot or character development, 21-87 evoked richly nuanced emotions, from grief to a tenacious kind of hope - all in less than 10 minutes.
Lucas threaded the film through the projector over and over, watching it more than two dozen times. In 2003, he told directors Amelia Does and Dennis Mohr, who are making a documentary on Lipsett, "21-87 had a very powerful effect on me. It was very much the kind of thing that I wanted to do. I was extremely influenced by that particular movie." Deciding that his destiny was to become an editor of documentaries who, like Lipsett, would make avant-garde films on the side, Lucas worked in the USC editing room for 12 hours at a stretch, living on Coca-Cola and candy bars, deep in the zone.
'When George saw 21-87, a lightbulb went off,' says Walter Murch, who created the densely layered soundscapes in THX 1138 and collaborated with Lucas on American Graffiti. Lucas never met the young Canadian who influenced him so deeply; Lipsett committed suicide in 1986 after battling poverty and mental illness for years. But like a programmer sneaking Tolkien lines into his code, Lucas has planted stealth references to 21-87 throughout his films. The events in the student-film version of THX took place in the year 2187, and the numerical title itself was an homage. In the feature-length version, Duvall's character makes his run from a subterranean city when he learns that the love of his life was murdered by the authorities on the date '21/87.' And in the first Star Wars, when Luke and Han Solo blast into the detention center to rescue Princess Leia, they discover that the stormtroopers are holding her as a prisoner in cell 2187.
The rabbit hole goes even deeper: One of the audio sources Lipsett sampled for 21-87 was a conversation between artificial intelligence pioneer Warren S. McCulloch and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer who went on to develop Imax. In the face of McCulloch's arguments that living beings are nothing but highly complex machines, Kroitor insists that there is something more: 'Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God.' When asked if this was the source of 'the Force,' Lucas confirms that his use of the term in Star Wars was 'an echo of that phrase in 21-87.' The idea behind it, however, was universal: 'Similar phrases have been used extensively by many different people for the last 13,000 years to describe the "life force,"' he says.
The lessons Lucas learned from filmmakers like Lipsett, McLaren, Jutra, and Kurosawa helped shape the creation of all of his later work. 'My films operate like silent movies,' he explains in an unused portion of an interview for a documentary on editing called Edgecodes.com. 'The music and the visuals are where the story's being told. It's one of the reasons the films can be understood by such a wide range of age groups and cultural groups. I started out doing visual films - tone poems - and I move very much in that direction. I still have the actors doing their bit, and there's still dialog giving you key information. But if you don't have that information, it still works.'
The side of Lucas that wants to get out of the box has more allies than he may realize. Film critic Roger Ebert is already intrigued by the possibility of the director of Star Wars maturing beyond his well-worn role of being a dreamweaver for kids. 'Lucas is obviously great at science fiction, and he could combine his indie origins with his natural inclinations in smaller-scale sci-fi films,' he says. 'There's a lot of mind-bending speculative fiction by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov that has never been filmed. A movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is science fiction, though it was never described that way.'
While Lucas promises that his new films will tackle philosophical issues ranging from theology to slavery in contemporary society, he says they'll be 'short projects, like normal people do. You shoot a few months, they're finished in a year, and if you want to do another one, you still have time off.' Given a powerful enough vision, as Yoda might say, size matters not. A 32-year-old former coder named Shane Carruth walked away with the Sundance festival's coveted Grand Jury Prize last year for a knotty thriller on the subject of time travel called Primer. Total cost of production: $7,000.
'I'm proud of George, but I'm worried about him,' says Lucas' former cinematography instructor, USC professor emeritus Woody Omens. 'He was trying to speak a different cinematic language at an early point in his career, and he's still trying to get to that. If he wanted me to mentor him again 40 years later, I would say, "Let go. Do something that explores the non-narrative side of human expression from the perspective of a master and a veteran. Go and make the movie of your life."'
The myth of Luke Skywalker hinges on courageous acts of liberation. In our conversation at the ranch, Lucas sums up the central theme of his films from THX 1138 to Revenge of the Sith: 'How do you personally get to the point where you wake up out of your stupor and take charge of your life and do dangerous and scary things?' Now that Lucas' odyssey in the land of droids and Wookiees is over, he has an opportunity to tap the bravery of the younger self who mapped out a universe at his desk with a No. 2 pencil. The masters of independent cinema and the digital rebel alliance have assembled outside the gates of Skywalker Ranch to deliver a message: 'Lucas, trust your feelings.'"
WELL, GEORGE, GOOD LUCK TO YOU. It might be the greatest career switch since Rimbaud went from poetry to gun-running. But Rimbaud revolutionized poetry in his teens, and dropped it in his 20s. George is 60. Strike back soon, Luke.