Star Wars: George Lucas' Vision
Thursday, May 19, 2005; 4:30 PM
George Lucas is credited with some of the most successful movies ever made. His "Star Wars" saga has broken box office records and become one of the most prolific, and profitable, in the history of cinema. In his book, "Skywalking," author Dale Pollock chronicles and explores the phenomenon that is George Lucas.
Pollock was online Thursday, May 19, at 4:30 p.m. ET to discuss the life and career of George Lucas and the "Star Wars" saga.
Pollock, dean of the schoold of filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts, began his career as the entertainment editor for the Santa Cruz Sentinel before becoming chief film critic and box office analyst for Daily Variety and later chief film reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Calendar, Business, Metro and Editorial Sections.
Richmond, Va.: In the narration regarding the deleted scenes of Episode II on DVD, Lucas said several times in essence that "while we liked that scene in terms of character and emotion, we thought it was better to move right to the next point in the plot." Where did this apparent blind spot to the importance of character and emotion come from? I thought those were quite telling comments. He did a nicer job with character Episode III than in I and II, but I'm curious why there was such a change from Episodes IV-VI, where he had quickly crafted characters we cared about? Character hasn't ever been his strong point, but there was still a considerable difference.
Dale Pollock: I think Lucas has become more interested in his digital technology and advances than character and emotion, which is his unfortunate arc from AMERICAN GRAFFITI to EPISODE 3. The depth of character and complex emotions present in the first three films are clearly absent from the first two prequels. I have not seen REVENGE OF THE SITH yet, so I have to reserve judgment (our few local screenings in North Carolina were sold out last night, so I will go this weekend).
Dale Pollock: The primary interest that Lucas and Lucasfilm have in their fan base is to have a dedicated audience for all things STAR WARS. As you know, he has taken fans to court for unauthorized websites and parody films, and has ignored all fan feedback on the deficiencies of Episodes I and II. He still essentially makes these films for himself and his friends.
Columbus, Ohio: Lucas' creative vision is unquestionable, and his command of special effects is remarkable... but his interest in dialogue and human actors seems near non-existent, and many blockbuster directors seem to be following his lead. Have special effects killed the well-developed character in big- budget movies?
Dale Pollock: I don't think it's necessarily true that all blockbusters have to have cardboard characters and horrible dialogue. Even a film like TROY tried to do some character development amidst the spectacle, even if it wasn't always successful. Spielberg continues to make films about real characters and situations, and a director like Robert Rodriguez and SIN CITY demonstrate you can provide even comic book characters with great dialogue.
Washington, D.C.: Why has Lucas not directed any non-"Star Wars" films since the first film came out?
Dale Pollock: Because essentially he hates directing, and has only directed the first three prequels only because they necessitate little actual direction of actors, and far more attention paid to effects. The great mystery to me is why Lucas has never bothered to make the personal films he vowed to make after the success of the first STAR WARS when he could have done anything he wanted. He has never explained this, yet he's still talking about doing it some day. I wouldn't hold my breath.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dale -- I really enjoyed "Skywalking" and still have my copy.
In spite of Lucas' professed desire to make smaller scale indie films for the rest of his life, do you think he'll ever not use digital effects in any of them, if only for backgrounds or the like? What's your take?
Dale Pollock: As I said, I really don't expect him to make these small, personal or individual films. He hasn't done so up until now, and that's clearly not because STAR WARS took up his every living minute. I think he enjoys staying within the confines of either Skywalker Ranch or his new operation in the Presidio, he'll do another STAR WARS TV series a la YOUNG INDY, and the personal films will stay on the backburner.
Alexandria, Va.: I hear that post-Star Wars, Lucas wants to do the "art house" films he always planned to make. Do you think he still has the directing/editing chops to do this?
Dale Pollock: I don't think he has any skill in directing good actors in any kind of film, big or small. To take talents like Samuel Jackson, Natalie Portman and Christopher Lee, and do so little with them, is almost criminal. I still don't think he enjoys directing, he only enjoys manipulating technology that doesn't talk back or have a different point of view.
North Canton, Ohio: Looking forward, Lucas has hinted that he has earned the right to fail and wants to dabble in some THX projects. Do you have any idea what his next projects might be?
Dale Pollock: Not a clue, and I don't think he does either, outside of his desire to keep two STAR WARS series on TV.
Re: Lucas's Arc: I vividly remember a George Lucas quote from a Siskel and Ebert special on "The Future of Film in the '90s." The special aired in January, 1990 and featured interviews with Lucas, Spielberg and Scorcese. Lucas said, "I'm not a big fan of sci-fi. The problem with science fiction is that too many directors get carried away with 'Hey! Look what I can do!' What they forget is that special effects are simply tools to help you tell a story."
That is a stunning change if you look at the Special Editions and the prequel trilogy. What happened? Does Lucas recognize his evolution?
Dale Pollock: Self-reflection has not been his strong suit over the past 10 years. I don't think he sees the irony of that comment, which I had not seen before. It's quite telling, if you look at his approach to the three prequels, which has been all about, "Hey, see what I can do with my technology!"
Arlington, Va.: Did you get a chance to meet with and interview Lucas when working on your book?
Dale Pollock: I did more than 70 hours of interviews personally with Lucas, lived at Skywalker Ranch for two weeks, and spent time on the set of RETURN OF THE JEDI. Additionally, I interviewed close to 100 other individuals who grew up with him, worked with him, or did business with him.
Re: Your great mystery: ...because he got divorced and lost half his estate. Lucas has said that he had to do the prequels for money.
Dale Pollock: I really don't believe money was his motivation. I don't think it has been the central motivation for anything he's done, although he is obviously a canny and smart businessman. His desire to make these prequels came from his obsession with getting his vision on screen, and bringing the story to the conclusion he envisioned. He may be mercenary, but he's not greedy.
Philadelphia, Pa.: I am interested in filmmaking, and I know North Carolina has seen a growth in filmmaking in recent years. What filmmaking programs and degrees does your school offer?
Dale Pollock: Well, that's a nice question to get to answer. We offer a Bachelor of Fine ARts in Filmmaking, and a Master of Fine Arts in Film Music Composition. If you want more information on our program, go to www.ncarts.edu, and check out the School of Filmmaking home page.
Alexandria, Va.: Jar Jar Binks is one of the most loathed characters in film history, and to many he represents what is "wrong" with today's George Lucas. Why didn't someone step back and say, "This character is too annoying for words?" Do you think Jar Jar's severely reduced role since Phantom Menace is evidence that Lucas is not completely immune to outside criticism?
Dale Pollock: I think Lucas is as immune to outside criticism as he has always been. He doesn't care what anyone else thinks other than a very small circle of close friends. But I think JAR JAR was only there for one film (I remember seeing the character mentioned in only one story outline that I read, provided by George)and just didn't fit into the other ones. Characters come and go in the STAR WARS films. We've barely seen a Wookie again until Episode III.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think there'll be another Indiana Jones film? Lucas, Spielberg and Ford have always said they want to do another one, and a fourth film seems to have been in development for a while now, but if it was really a priority, they've had over 15 years to make it happen.
Dale Pollock: I do believe there will be another INDIANA JONES film. They have a script and are now trying to cast it, since Harrison Ford is clearly too old for anything but a cameo. I expect it to go into production in 2006, for release by Paramount in the summer of 2007.
Baltimore, Md.: Dale, were you able to interview some of the actors that have worked with Lucas on the "Star Wars" movies? What is their take on his directing and relationship with actors?
Dale Pollock: I interviewed virtually all of them, and they were all very polite and very fond of George, which meant they were not very candid about his shortcomings as an actor's director. They were almost amused by the terse direction he gave them, and it became a running joke among the casts of all the movies, I understand. No one wants to insult the goose that keeps laying golden eggs.
College Park, Md.: Lucas seems very fickle about his work, as we can see from his recent revisions of the original trilogy. Why has he been so adamant about changing something that is already so well loved? I know that due to the limitations of the time, the films didn't come out the way he wanted, but does he really not realize that fans love the original films in the original state?
Dale Pollock: He doesn't care what the fans treasure, he cares about his original vision and his frustration in not having the technology available to realize that vision in the 1970s and '80s. He is a very self-centered person, and he considers the entire STAR WARS saga as his personal creation, therefore it has to meet his high standards. He reserves the right to go back and change any element of any of the six films, as his whim dictates. The ultimate auteur.
College Park, Md.: One of the reasons I think the latest movies haven't gone over well with viewers is that George Lucas strayed from Joseph Campbell. The original "Star Wars" movies were all about the archtypal hero Campbell talked about in his books. What do you think?
Dale Pollock: That worked for Luke's character in the original STAR WARS, but is less useful in tracking Annakin's character arc, which is dealt with less in Campbell, who really only explores the hero myth, not how the hero becomes the villain. I think Lucas ripped off Campbell for the underlying ethos of the Force and the hero's journey that Luke takes in Episode IV, but it is less applicable to the rest of the saga.
New York, N.Y.: If Lucas has so little interest in directing, as you've said several times, then why didn't he have someone else do the job in the prequels? Other people did episodes 5 and 6, so why not the same for a prequel (or two or three)?
Dale Pollock: Because he was so angry at how he felt Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand ruined his vision with EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, respectively. He felt he could not entrust the prequels to any outside director, and that he would make the "sacrifice" of directing them himself to keep the purity of his intentions.
Arlington, Va.: Are you a fan of George Lucas?
Dale Pollock: I am a huge fan of his imagination, his accomplishments and his impact on filmmaking, film technology, sound, editing and special effects. I am less a fan of the man, in part because of his efforts to control everything said about him.
Alexandria, Va.: How do you think the "Star Wares" movies compare to the thre "Lord of the Rings" flicks? Of the two series, which one is your favorite?
Dale Pollock: I believe the Tolkien films have far more depth and really deal with primal emotions of fear, struggle, heart and love. I think the STAR WARS films ultimately look superficial compared to the world that Tolkien spent 30 years of his life creating, and his academic and linguistic background makes the trilogy much more intellectually stimulating. I think STAR WARS may be more entertaining, but as serious works of art, I go for LORD OF THE RINGS.
Cabin John, Md.: The filming of "Phantom Menace" and the stories describing the strife on the set should have indicated that there was something seriously organizationally wrong before the movie was released. Folks calling Jake Lloyd "mannekin Skywalker" behind his back or Liam Neeson threatening to quit acting altogether are only a few of the more mundane incidents to come out of that debacle. Could the abject failure of the Star Wars movies as an artform be attributable to simply poor leadership on the part of Lucas?
Dale Pollock: I think the unique way these films are made puts strain on any actor, particularly those with classical training like Liam Neeson (as it was for Alec Guinness, the only actor in STAR WARS who declined to be interviewed for my book because I was told he had nothing good to say about Lucas as a director. To be acting in front of a blue or green screen, holding objects that are not there and speaking to creatures who do not yet exist, is difficult for any actor, particularly when the director is not overly sympathetic.
Olney, Md.: Do you believe that Lucas has always been the "self-centered" person that you describe him as? Or, do you think that the success of the original trilogy went to his head, causing him to become jaded?
Dale Pollock: No, I think he has always been self-centered. That can be viewed as a preservation technique, for self-survival, but I also think it helped bring about the end of his marriage. Just my opinion, but that's how I see it.
Deathstar, N.C.: Dale -- Are Star Wars fans falling in on generational lines? I'm near 50, I saw the first Star Wars premiere at a press screening I got into through my college newspaper. I can tell you the entire theatre was simply awe-struck by Lucas's moxie and panache. Totally radical stuff in '77. BUT there was still a certain ironic, "counter-culture" feel to it.
It's 2005 and on a bad day I'm thinking I'm a member of the Evil Empire. Do young people today understand any of Lucas' earlier anti-establishment message? The characters also seemed to more 3-D than the effects in the first two or three?
Dale Pollock: Well, I'm older than you and I am still really looking forward to Episode III. I think there is always some generational split among film audiences, but either STAR WARS entertains you, or it doesn't. I think there's probably less of a generational split on these films than other teen-oriented films in the marketplace.
Washington, D.C.: With all of the questions about Lucas's own lack of directing talent in comparison to the many areas in which he is quite talented, I was curious about your impression of how genuine directors feel about working with him. We all know that Lucas and Spielberg are (publicly at least) very good friends. What about others who have worked on movies that Lucas played a large creative/production role in? Kershner is the most obvious example, but not the only one.
Dale Pollock: Both Kershner and Marquand resented Lucas' interference with their methods, and Lucas resented their resentment. Kershner still feels he directed the best STAR WARS film with EMPIRE, and personally, I agree with him. I also think very few established directors would have wanted to direct EPSIDOES I, II or III, given Lucas' reputation for creative control of this franchise.
New York, N.Y.: Hello. Same NYC poster as before, just wanted to ask a followup:
How/when did Lucas come to believe that Kershner ruined Empire? I ask because (1) a lot of people (me included) believe it's the best one, and (2) even after that, he still had someone else direct Jedi. (Thanks for taking questions, by the way. Very interesting chat!)
Dale Pollock: Glad you're enjoying this chat. Kershner said he would never work with Lucas again after his EMPIRE experience, and I think Lucas felt the same way. He felt Kershner went too emotional in EMPIRE, and put too much emphasis on Vader's struggle, and not enough on Luke's. It just wasn't the movie he would have made (I think many of us are glad he didn't make it!)
Denver, Colo.: Professor: How much of the prequel stories do you believe Lucas had in mind as he created the original Star Wars trilogy? Was it simply a very broad concept, or do you suppose he had quite a bit of details in mind, such the role of Qui Gonn, Darth Maul, etc.?
Dale Pollock: He had very specific outlines, which each ran 5-8 pages. I read them for a total of 12 films, so at least that many were planned. The most detailed synopses were for Episodes I-VI. He says he has no more STAR WARS features planned, but I still think he could change his mind, because I know he worked out stories that followed the original 3 films.
Richmond, Va.: What exactly is Lucas' vision, if it doesn't encompass story and character -- is it just the visual spectacle?
Dale Pollock: I think his vision is of other worlds that carry the same politics, struggles, societal dynamics and battle between people and technology. It is certainly not character or dramatic concerns that drive his vision, rather an epic story on an epic scale that gets him excited.
Washington, D.C.: I feel that Lucas' claim that he wrote Episodes I through III before he wrote the old movies is bogus, self-serving tripe, and that he simply had a very rough outline of those stories before 1999. What do you think?
Dale Pollock: I never saw actual screenplays for Episodes I-III, but there were very detailed story outlines, with certain character names, but not all. I think he started in the middle because of the excruciating set-up we all witnessed in Episodes I and II. If he had started there, we wouldn't all be on this chat room now.
David Fincher Fan: Lucas won't make your list (or mine), but who are some of the active directors that you like and admire? Who do you think would have made the prequels particularly interesting?
Dale Pollock: I think having someone like Paul Haggis, who wrote MILLION DOLLAR BABY and just directed CRASH, could have done an amazing job with one of these episodes. Ditto Robert Rodriguez, David Fincher, even Ridley Scott (better this than the boring Crusades!). Plenty of young directors out there he could have mentored as a producer, but he is unwilling to let go of even that much control.
Arlington, Va.: Pray tell... can you summarize the plots of the three unmade Star Wars synopsies you were able to read?
Dale Pollock: I had to sign a confidentiality agreement to read them, so I'm afraid I cannot.
Alexandria, Va.: The news of a live-action "Star Wars" TV show kind of came out of left field. It seems a little odd, from what I know of Lucas. The economics of television means that the FX he's used in the films will be prohibitively expensive, and there's always the possibility that like "Young Indiana Jones," the audience really won't care. Why do a TV show as opposed to three more films?
Dale Pollock: The movies are too expensive, take too long and cost his company too much to market. TV is quick, cheap and gives him a library of episodes that he can build. It also allows him to try out different technological innovations on an episode by episode basis, and find out what works and what doesn't. Plus his talent costs are miniscule.
washingtonpost.com: What was Lucas's reaction to "Skywalking?"
Dale Pollock: He hated it because it's honest, doesn't pull any punches, and was well-researched (i.e., does not rely on only George's version of life and the universe.) I think it was upsetting to him to actually read what he said about people. The irony is that I was worried throughout the writing of the book that I was being way too nice to him, and that people would accuse me of kissing his butt. I was surprised by the vehemence of his reaction, because to me, 21 years later, the book is a very balanced portait.
Washington, D.C.: Does he exercise this same control over the books? Some of the authors seem very out of step and only concentrate on their time frames, not the entire "Star Wars" universe.
Dale Pollock: He doesn control the content of the books, but because they are clearly not HIS vision but that of the authors, he gives them more leeway. None of those books will ever be made into a film, however. That's where the other authors end, and Lucas-only territory begins.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Do you think, to fit his "vision", Lucas purposely picked horribly wooden actors to play Anakin Skywalker in the prequils?
Dale Pollock: I don't think any filmmaker consciously casts a horrible actor. The problem isn't the actors, the problem is the director. Look at Natalie Portman in Episodes I and II, and then look at her performance in CLOSER, directed by an actor's director, Mike Nichols. It doesn't seem like the same actress. That's the difference in directors.
Cabin John, Md.: I don't get it. Lucas has been giving the public progressively worse pieces of storyless tripe since "Return of the Jedi" and yet the adoring fans line up like battered wives of abusive alcoholic husbands deluded that he has "finally and truly changed." Even the most ardent of fans have to admit that "Episodes 1 and 2" were little more than very poorly written vehicles to secure burger deals.
Dale Pollock: Because people are curious. I hated the first two prequels, but I'm still anxious to see Episode III. It also helps when you're wrapping up a cycle you first set up 28 years ago.
Washington, D.C.: I hate to ruin the end of Episode IV but... Anakin is Darth Vader!
Seriously, I haven't read "Skywalking." Did you write it because you are a big fan or for another reason?
Dale Pollock: I wrote it because I was asked by Crown Publishers to write an unauthorized biography, and my big coup was getting Lucas to agree. He has never made that mistake again.
Deathstar, N.C.: Okay, Dale, this TV project. Do you know anything about it? It's like a reversal of the Star Trek mania, isn't it? First the movie, then the TV show? Will it cheapen our perceptions of the films? Is that possible?
Do you think I can get Durham, NC renamed? School board politics here are TOUGH...
Dale Pollock: I only know what I've recently read about the TV project, but it doesn't surprise me. It's exactly what he did when he figured he would never make another INDIANA JONES movie, and the result was YOUNG INDY. I still think he might change his mind, and do another 3 films starting with Episode 7.
Greensboro, N.C.: Has Lucas ever credited Joseph Campbell for his influence on "Star Wars?"
Dale Pollock: Yes, in my book and many interviews. He also participated in a PBS special about Campbell that was hosted by Bill Moyers. He has never not credited Campbell.
Ellicott City, Md.: What Star Wars character does Lucas most identify with and who do you think he most resembles in terms of personality or philosophy?
Dale Pollock: I think it's changed. Originally, it was Luke Skywalker, and now I think it's Annakin Skywalker. That says a lot about the evolution of George Lucas.
Washington, D.C.: Do you use any lessons from Lucas or "Star Wars" in the curriculum at the film school?
Dale Pollock: Not lessons, per se. I use his approach to owning his work when I teach Creative Producing, and I use the power of the Force as cinematic mythology in my Film Ethics class. We do not offer any separate class in Lucas or STAR WARS, although he did feature in a class we offered on directors of the 1970s.
Alexandria, Va.: Enjoying the chat. The MAD TV takes on George Lucas are awesome. Do you think he'll update the hairstyle at some point?
Dale Pollock: I can't imagine anyone who cares less about how they look. He has dressed the same essentially for almost 40 years.
Arlington, Va.: One of the things I love about Star Wars is its influences from myth -- Joseph Campbell's work and things like that. When did Lucas learn about Campbell and why does he like him so much?
Dale Pollock: He originally read him as a student at USC and really got into his work. He told me he read HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES more than a dozen times, and clearly it was THE major influence on the first STAR WARS film.
Ashburn, Va.: In the sci-fi section of bookstores, there are always dozens of paperback novels featuring the "Star Wars" characters. Who comes up with these stories, and does George Lucas have any involvement with them?
Dale Pollock: My understanding is that the individual authors "pitch" ideas to Lucas, who then personally approves them, and the final manuscript that is published. That's the way he used to do it, he may have changed. But Lucasfilm owns the rights to all those novels. The authors are paid flat fees, and do not get royalties, to my knowledge.
Durham, N.C.: Did Lucas ever evidence any understanding of the apparent contradiction between his dislike of the colorization of films, and his refusal to release the older Star Wars films without all the added computer effects? Does he really believe he owns "artist" rights to these enormously collaborative (particularly digital artists) works, or just the legal rights to them?
Dale Pollock: He is a big believer in artist's rights, and he completely and totally believes that they are his works, he created, financed and owns them, and he can do whatever he wants with them as their creator. Colorization is something corporations did to works they legally owned, but were made by someone else, and they didn't bother getting the filmmakers' permission. Lucas is both owner and filmmaker, so he doesn't need anyone's permission to change whatever he pleases.
Silver Spring, Md.: Dale, it's another Star Wars film and another chance to talk to you about it. As former head of the AFI, how do you think Lucas should be considered in the history of film? Do you lump him into directors of his generation, i.e. Spielberg, Carpenter, Eastwood? Is he too much of an auteur in his own right? Or is he more interested in technology, building up ILM's capacity, than actual filmmaking of his own projects?
Dale Pollock: I'm afraid this will be my final response. I've really enjoyed this, and answering some intelligent and challenging questions. So to the final one, I think Lucas is a major figure in film history, for both his technical contributions to editing, special fx and digital technology, and his defining the blockbuster film and its ability to galvanize audiences around the globe. No one did it before him, no one has done it more successfully, and no film artist has ever owned their own work when it has been so successful in the marketplace. I doubt anyone will come close to him in any of these areas, so I place him right up there with Spielberg and Coppola as one of the dominant influences on filmmaking in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.