Q: Not only in the science fiction, but in "American Graffiti," you have held up the cultural mirror to us and said, "Here's who you are." Did you do that consciously? Are you surprised at the reaction?
A: Initially we were very surprised. A lot of characters portrayed by the great stars of the '30s and '40s were mythological characters. Certainly the John Wayne character. The Western became the American version of Greek mythology because it had the same criteria. The heroes were masters of their own destiny. It was in a setting that was historically familiar and yet distant enough to allow romanticizing.
Q: The mythmaking is totally by accident?
A: No, not totally. But the cinema is a very powerful medium and very realistic. The impressions that are made on people out of literature or out of the theater are more or less intellectual impressions. In film the visuals can just overwhelm you on an emotional level. If it doesn't work on that sort of gut, direct plug-in level first, you don't have anything.
Unfortunately that's been taken too far by television commercials and by just basic television. They work with extremely shallow material. To jazz up what isn't there, they use all the tricks they have. You can see it on Saturday afternoon football. They are not content to sit and watch the game. You've got to have slow motion, instant replay -- anything to generate wonderful images that they feel are the only thing that keeps the audience from getting bored.
Q: You, the king of razzle-dazzle, think that's bad?
A: Sure. Look at the Coca-Cola commercials. They cram a tremendous amount of emotional content into 60 seconds. I'm not saying that that's bad for a television commercial -- or a political commercial. A Reagan commercial is full of that. There's no content at all, it's all sizzle and no steak. Ads have had a bad effect on the audience. I worry that the young audience especially is not willing to sit still for a slowly developed story. All you have to do is look at "Flashdance" or "Footloose" to see where the MTV approach to movies has gone for young people.
Q: What share of the mythmaking is yours, as a producer?
A: It depends on the relationship between the writer, the producer and the director. I feel like I contribute to the end result considerably. About half the time is spent on organization, administrative duties, putting together and supervising the unit that the director can function within.
Q: Can you give me examples of problems that you had to deal with in making "Star Wars," especially in bringing across the emotional impact?
A: "American Graffiti" is a better example. We had a difficult time getting anyone interested in that film because the script is not a linear story. It's an atmospheric piece. It all takes place in one 24-hour period or less. The script jumps from incident to incident. The time thread is the radio disc jockey and the music, which makes a comment on each scene. That is very hard to write down in the script. So we made a tape of Wolfman Jack and a lot of the songs we wanted to use and we played that when we talked about the script. But still it was passed over by a lot of people.
A lot of the incidents in the screenplay came from real life. Everything happened to somebody. We worked for about a year in preparation. I looked into the purchase of old cars and fixing them up, investigated the shooting on the city streets.
Q: Do you know anything about cars?
A: Yes, I worked on my own cars in high school, so that that wasn't too hard. First I had a '41 Plymouth and then a Jeep.
Q: You were really making a film about yourselves?
A: About the era, or about growing up. Film makers have done that for a long time, commented on basically their own experience in life. We felt in the early '70 that growing up in the '50s seemed to be like the ancient times. We'd gone through the Vietnam war and the hippie era and it felt like the world had changed so much that it was just an interesting idea to document what it was like to cruise on Saturday night. It was about cruising and about '50s rock-and-roll music.
Q: What were your expectations about the magnitude of this movie and what impact it would have on the American public?
A: None, virtually. We felt that the characters were funny but realistic enough so that they could have some identity, especially with our age group, and that it could generate a small audience.
Q: How much did it make?
A: Eventually, over $65 million, most of it in the United States or other English-speaking territories, because it really didn't have any way of translating it properly.
Q: And now you have homes where?
A: Several different places, but the main thing that came out of "American Graffiti" doing well was that it was much easier to deal with the next project: "Star Wars." It was also turned down by several people. But Fox took the chance primarily because "American Graffiti" was successful.
I've always started from the premise that any movie that I made would be one that I would want to buy a ticket for and sit and watch. You can't second-guess the audience three years early because they change their minds so often. So you really have to be the audience. In "American Graffiti," we all wanted to be able to use the music of the '50s and do a film about cruising. A chance to play with the cars. Orson Welles was right in saying that (film) is a great toy to play with.
Q: So the "Star Wars" conversation was: "It would be really fun to do a movie on -- ."
A: George (Lucas) always wanted to do Flash Gordon. We talked about it a lot. Actually even tried to buy the rights from King Features. Looking in the paper one Saturday night he said, "Gee, it'd be great to have a science fiction fantasy film to go see tonight." There hadn't been really anything that was science-fiction oriented since "2001."
Q: Did you have any inkling at all that there was going to be this enormous receptivity?
A: No, not at all. Some of it was easy to explain. I watched all the Disneyland TV shows in the mid- '50s like everybody else and they talked about flights to the moon and outer space. We felt it was time for a good action space-fantasy film because one hadn't been around for a couple of generations and the younger kids would probably enjoy it. We didn't want to make a children's film only. But that was a justification for saying that we thought we could get more of an audience than just hard-core science-fiction fans.
Q: What happens when your own hype is exceeded beyond your wildest dreams? A: The audience seemed primed for "Star Wars." It turned into an instant myth. The visuals of the characters were instantly recognizable worldwide. And that's something that hasn't happened in any other film for quite a while. And I really don't know why. Part of it is a projection of mythology into a futuristic setting. Science-fiction literature has always been successful within a small group of fans because it is a modern version of telling legends and it's a way for the heroes to understand their own destiny.
The audience is going to read into what you are telling them whatever they want to. Whatever they seem to be ready for. That's why kids like to have fairy tales read to them over and over again. Each time they bring a slightly different point of view to it. So they get a little bit more out of it. One of the reasons that "Star Wars" was so successful is that a lot of the audience went 10, 12, 15 times.
Q: On a personal basis you have fairly strong political views, but in your films, "American Graffiti," "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Dark Crystal," and now the Oz picture, there's no reflection of your views.
A: Indirectly there is. (The) Star Wars films reflect on basic attitudes of the individual characters involved. Each one of the characters becomes a type. Luke Skywalker learns -- certainly not a new lesson -- that each of us has to be responsible for our own actions.
One of the reasons the audience likes it so much is that in contemporary society, the individual feels a bit at sea and not responsible for his own actions. Everything that happens he can blame on somebody else. It's the city government's fault, the police, the president. It's somebody else's problem. The potholes weren't repaired or traffic is too bad.
If he lived in a rural agricultural community 500 years ago, you fixed the road in front of your house. You built your own barn. In an urban environment, you're not self-sufficient. Everybody's interdependent and we have a tendency not to be responsible for our actions.
In fantasy stories you do what you think is right regardless of the danger or the potential reward -- a very common message in John Wayne Westerns. In New York, this idea of fixing your own potholes on your street I think is a great idea. When you distance your relationship to the people around you -- no more volunteer fire departments, street patrols, all of those things went by the board when we over-organized urban society to take care of all those problems.
Because of that we have a tendency not to feel responsible for the people around us -- our community. That's one of the things that's told out of most fantasy stories by abstracting it out into never-never land. Same reason Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" character is so popular. Whether you agree with him politically or not, he's able to get results from doing something. Most of us feel so frustrated.
Q: You are involved in the creation of one of the most highly visible symbols of our age. You see this all over the world. The defense initiative is called "Star Wars." What kind of feelings do you have about the creation of that symbol?
A: I don't feel good about how it's being applied, certainly. The whole idea of weapons in outer space is very troublesome to me.
The creation of symbols -- that's one of the reasons film is so strong and popular -- you remember images. Everybody knows Darth Vader from "Star Wars." (But) there was no idea originally that these things would be created in a way that would make them like that.
Q: You weren't consciously trying to create an image that would last forever?
A: No. The images were supposed to be important for the moment. You make a conscious effort in any film to make the characters look like what you need to have them look like. Beyond that, whether or not they take in the public consciousness is very difficult to say. Someone once interviewed me about the toys and said, "You just made 'Star Wars' so you could sell a lot of toys." We had no idea that it would sell one toy, except possibly for a spaceship model.
Film reviewers have a tendency to over intellectualize the material more than theater or music or opera critics do, because they're trying to validate their position as serious. Film has never been taken particularly seriously; it's just movies. There's nothing wrong with analyzing film up to a point. But you carry that too far when you're trying to put hidden meanings into things that sometimes happen by accident.
Film is very much like a chemistry experiment. You sort of dump all the ingredients together, stir it all up and stand back and wait for something to happen. Any film maker would tell you that a lot of what happens happens out of the collaboration of the moment on the set, and there is no overriding consciousness about what you're doing. Someone tried to claim that Rick Dreyfuss' car in "American Graffiti" -- the Citroen Deux Chevaux -- was a symbol of the capitalist system collapsing!
Q: Are we trying to over-analyze "Star Wars?"
A: In a way. The reason we like it, the reason we latch on to heroic characters is because they're telling us something about ourselves. In the face of adversity I should be able to do the right thing anyway. No different than the teachings of Buddha and Jesus and Moses and Mohammed, really. If you look at them all bundled together the basic thoughts are the same. It's just a reinforcement for us of the need to do the right thing because you really think it's right in your heart, not because you're going to get a reward or not because someone is there saying you have to. A basic religious thought that comes out in mythology time after time.
Q: What is the satisfaction for you in making an "American Graffiti," a "Star Wars?" What kick do you get out of it?
A: I came up through the ranks. I went to film school and worked as a cameraman and an editor and a printer operator and almost any other kind of a job that I could get to gain experience. Seeing the film come together from an idea to finish is very satisfying. After a film is finished, the most satisfying thing is that an audience appreciates or enjoys it. Whether it actually makes a lot of money commercially is obviously a positive side effect that you can't ignore.
Q: Do you ever buy a ticket to your own movie just to watch the audience?
A: I have. I won't sit through the films though, because I only see the things that are wrong with them.