George Lucas is one of the quiet powerhouses in Hollywood. He isn't seen at award shows. He shuns interviews. He is content to work at his Skywalker Ranch and let his company's product speak for itself. All that, of course, has changed in the past year, as expectations and anticipation for the Star Wars prequel have snowballed into a pop culture phenomenon.
Well Rounded Entertainment sat down with Lucas and a room full of national media recently, armed with staff- and fan-written questions, to discuss inspiration, the legions of obsessed fans and what he'll be doing when the rest of the world is at his movie.
When did you come up with the original idea for Star Wars?
I conceived it at about the same time I finished THX, which was my first film. I was getting a lot of pressure from my peers to do something other than these artsy character movies; they said I should move into a more socially-acceptable medium. I was thinking of something that I could get excited about that would be a little less esoteric. I came up with the idea for American Graffiti. At the same time, I came up with the idea of doing a sort of modern mythology, like Saturday morning serials for kids. I came up with two ideas: one was Indiana Jones and the other was Star Wars.
Star Wars has become so popular now that some of your diehard fans want to turn the belief system of "The Force" into a religion. Do you think some of these fans are taking things a little too far? Well, it is only a movie, and a lot of people have said, "Get a life!" But I think it's inevitable in our modern society that whenever people become attached to something, some people are gonna get excessive about it. I just think that people should live a well-rounded life. I'm happy that these films have stimulated young people's imaginations; it's designed to make people think about the larger entities and mysteries of life. But there aren't enough answers in Star Wars to turn it into a religion.
With all of the expectations building for this film, do you expect the inevitable backlash? Most of the Star Wars movies have gotten generally bad reviews for the most part, so I certainly expect it not to do well critically. It'll do better than I have with some of my other movies [laughs, probably referring to the critically lambasted Howard the Duck]... When you get into a situation like this, where you have so much high expectations, you can't possibly live up to that. Some of the fans, unfortunately, have gotten themselves into this situation, both because they've gotten much older [since the release of the original films] while the film is aimed at young people and the fact that they've got these amazing expectations about the film which it can't possibly meet.
Does it amaze you that they estimate hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost due to people calling in sick on May 19 so that they can see your film? Well, I heard the same thing about Godzilla (laughter)... I'm a little surprised at the amount of attention the film has gotten. We actually tried very hard not to let the film be over-hyped. It's kind of hard, though, because there's not a whole lot you can do about some of these things. The enthusiasm -- people waiting in line months in advance -- is just a spontaneous thing done by people who enjoyed the first set of films and who wanna repeat that experience of enjoyment. It's very clear, at least to me, that most of the kids who are waiting in line are people who just enjoy waiting in line and having a good time and meeting new friends and talking, and the movie's just an excuse to do that.
I have a 4-part question: why did stop directing for so long, why didn't you direct The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, what was it like to direct again, and do you plan to direct the next two films? I guess you could say that I'm back as a director now, and yes, I will be directing Episodes II and III. I've gone back to it as if I'd never stopped, and in some ways I haven't, because I've been directing second unit stuff (the parts of a film unessential to the main storyline) and have been very involved in the creative process on a number of projects since I stopped directing. When I stopped, part of it was the explosion of Star Wars. I felt like I had to focus on my companies if I was going to maintain this franchise. Directing those films, I wasn't going to be able to oversee everything. Those films were very big and hard to do, and [I felt] I could serve them better as the executive producer, overseeing the entire production. I had some other projects sitting on the shelf-- one was Steven Spielberg's, then Jim Henson came to me... Nobody says you have to be a director.
How do you feel about violence in the media today, especially in the wake of a tragedy like Littleton, Colorado? I don't think I've changed my attitude much over the years. The other films are pretty much the same in the amount of violence. The key issue with violence in the media is the context in which it is portrayed, because we live in a violent world. We'll always live in a violent world: life is violent, and I think to deny that would be almost as dangerous as glorifying it and making it an obsession. I think that hurting people for fun is the central issue here. You have to fight for freedom, fight for your rights and stand up for yourself, but you can't torture people, make them feel bad, or belittle them. Whether you're just being impolite, making fun of somebody because it's fun, or getting guns and trying to kill them, it's all the same kind of mean-spiritedness.
Can you talk about the origins of the story behind The Phantom Menace? Well, this story was written 20 years ago. I wrote a backstory when I came up with Star Wars, and it started when Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader) was very young and dealt with the issues of where he came from: the fact that he was a slave, and he was separated from his mother. These things are kind of important to the way the story evolves, so I had to start it when he was at a young age. Originally, I had him about 12 years old, but when I started writing the screenplay I realized that these issues weren't as dramatic as they needed to be if he was older, so I made him a 10-year-old.
Why did you choose Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd for their respective roles? I'm always looking for very accomplished actors who know their practice well. I'm always looking for the best possible talent that I can find for all of my movies. Next, I'm looking for people who have the stature -- but more importantly the demeanor -- of the characters. Liam was born to play (Jedi master) Qui-Gon Jinn -- he's very quiet, very big, very powerful, but also very contemplative. Ewan's witty and enthusiastic, and those things come through. One, they're all fantastic actors. Two, they have this persona that carries them. Natalie is very intelligent and strong and has a lot of presence, but at the same time she's very young. I needed someone to play a 14-year-old girl who could be elected to rule a planet and make that believable. Jake was this wild little Tom Sawyer kid who was exactly what I was looking for.
Part of the philosophy in this film is that greed is a bad part of The Force. Yet you've taken away the theaters' house allowances, limited the number of previews they can run, required them to keep it in theaters for 12 weeks, and been very picky about the theaters that can run it. What's the idea behind those kinds of business decisions? Most of those Draconian demands that we put on the theaters, I was involved in, but my demand was that it be showed in a good situation. What we're saying is that I don't want 20 minutes worth of commercials before the film. I want the film to be in a good theater, where the projection is good, the sound is good. I don't want it to move out of that theater to a 200-seat theater a week later so they can put another movie in. Most of those demands are trying to get a good presentation to the audience. They can't take their big theaters, play us there for two weeks, then put us in three or four little tiny theaters so they can bring in Wild Wild West. It doesn't mean any more money to me. No matter how you cut this thing in the end, the theater owners get half the money, the distributors get half the money. Of the billion or so they say the film will make, 500 million is going to go to theater owners. Financially, we don't get much of an advantage: I just want to see that the audience has a good time and is able to see the film the way it should be shown.
There are reports that this film will make a billion in merchandising alone. You've talked about the film's spiritual messages, but isn't there a danger of mixing that spirituality with such materialism? It doesn't seem to bother the church very much (laughter). The movie and the merchandising are two different things-- I make the movies. I'm an independent filmmaker from San Francisco, and I've had to make sure that I've exploited everything I possibly can on a movie. It's like being an Indian; if you kill a buffalo, you have to use everything. We can't leave a dead carcass out on the prairie to rot. I'm a very small company relative to the studios. They make billions of dollars every year, so they can afford to do just about anything they want. I can't. The licensing thing is something that grew spontaneously. The first toys didn't even come out 'til a year after the film came out. It's grown into this big opportunity that's helped finance the movies. I make the films to stimulate the imagination of the audience, especially the younger kids who see the film. I think play is healthy; letting kids play with toys and use their imaginations is not an evil thing.
Was Joseph Campbell (author of "The Power of Myth") an inspiration for you? When I started making these movies, I wanted to make a modern mythology. I studied anthropology in college and took a class in mythology; I read some of his stuff there. When I started Star Wars, I did more research before I wrote the screenplay. I reread A Thousand Faces and a few other things he did, and that was the influence he had on me. Later, after I did Jedi, somebody gave me a tape with one of his lectures and I was just blown away. He was much more powerful as a speaker than as a writer. Shortly thereafter, we became friends, and we were friends up to his death. In that way, he was a mentor. He was an amazing scholar, and an amazing person. I was privileged to be around him.
You mentioned earlier how you were dubious about the billion dollar box office projections for this film. Can you elaborate on that? Is there pressure on you in any way? You mean the "Let's beat Titanic!" stuff? I don't know where that came from. As anyone who knows about the film business knows, the chances of this film even beating the original are slim to none. I don't even think that it'll really beat E.T. I've said this before: I expect The Phantom Menace to be one of the top ten grossing films of all-time, and if it wasn't, I'd probably be very disappointed, but it's not the end of the world. I think the film will make its money back. This is not a contest in this certain adversarial society we live in, where somebody has to be a winner and somebody has to be a loser. It's a movie -- I made it because I enjoy making movies -- and I hope it does well. I really don't have any interest or desire to be #1, or win an Academy Award, or count how many good reviews I get opposed to how many bad reviews I get. That's not what it's really about; it's about the process of making a movie.
When the rest of the world lines up on May 19, what are you gonna be doing? I'm going to be off on the beach in the South Pacific somewhere-- as far away as possible. No phones. I'm not going to know what happens, and I'm going to be just as happy about that....