“Control.” That word tolls like a bell throughout Brian Jay Jones’s new biography of George Lucas. It shapes the arc of Jones’s narrative: As a filmmaker, Lucas searched for control, achieved control in ways no one had quite done before, and finally relinquished control.
With his “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” movies, Lucas created the vogue for fantastic adventure films and their string of sequels. They brought him fame and fortune, but also persistent criticism such as Pauline Kael’s snipe that Lucas was “hooked on the crap of his childhood” and was “essentially in the toy business.” With technical innovations in sound, special effects and computerized filmmaking, Lucas changed not only the way movies are made but even the way they are shown. His THX sound system forced theater owners to rearrange theaters’ speakers and alter the acoustics to certain specifications. When he switched from shooting on film — which he once described as “a stupid 19th century idea” — to digital photography on “Attack of the Clones” in 2002, he spurred theaters to change to digital projectors. By 2014, 92 percent of U.S. theaters had them.
That he would be known as a great technician might not have surprised the young George Lucas, tinkerer with toy trains and later with motorcycles and cars, but that he would be criticized for becoming a popular filmmaker would have. While still in his teens, he discovered the French New Wave and the underground avant-garde filmmakers of the San Francisco Bay Area. His first efforts as a filmmaker at the University of Southern California were arty, even avant garde, and his first feature, “THX 1138,” a dark, dystopian science fiction movie, grew out of a short film he made at USC. It was also the film that, after Warner Bros. took it out of his hands and cut four minutes from it, launched his lifelong quest for control of his work.
“THX 1138” was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, only five years older than Lucas. In Jones’s telling, Coppola serves as something like the older brother Lucas never had, with both the closeness and conflicts of a sibling relationship. They met in 1967, and Lucas learned the ropes of filmmaking as a production assistant on Coppola’s film “The Rain People.” Both had dreams of establishing their own studios in Northern California, removed from the interference of the movie industry in Southern California. The difference was that Coppola, always extravagant in ideas and actions, imagined his American Zoetrope “as a corporate compound, with its own airport and fleet of helicopters.” Lucas started Lucasfilm Ltd. in his home in Mill Valley, Calif., with only two employees, himself and his then-wife, Marcia. Zoetrope became a financial disaster; Lucasfilm grew into a major force in the movie business.
Coppola’s failure served as an object lesson for Lucas. Their differing approaches to the movie business were defined once when they were both asked what they would do with $2 billion if someone gave it to them. Coppola said, “I’d borrow another $2 billion and build a city!” Lucas said, “I’d invest a billion of it and use the other billion to build a town.” Lucas maintained control by reinvesting his money and plowing his profits back into his films. His approach, as Jones phrases it, was: “Create. Oversee. Control everything.”
But control had its price: Lucas’s hands-on approach to every aspect of the first “Star Wars” film led to hospitalization for stress and exhaustion. His solution was to give up one task: directing. Harrison Ford shrewdly noted that as director, Lucas regarded actors as an “inconvenience.” Mark Hamill put it more starkly: “I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were a way to make movies without actors, George would do it.” Lucas returned to directing when he made the trilogy of prequels to “Star Wars,” by which time some of the “actors” in his films, such as the infamous Jar Jar Binks, were created in the computer.
And then, at peak control, he gave it all up. His first marriage had foundered in part because he and Marcia, the film editor he had met while he was at USC, grew apart during his obsession with “Star Wars.” When he began contemplating marriage again, he was negotiating the sale of Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries to, of all things, a Southern California studio: Disney. The cash and stock deal that gave Lucas $4.05 billion, took place in 2012, and the next year Lucas married Mellody Hobson, the president of a Chicago investment firm.
But in retirement, Lucas is still playing the control game. Over the years, he has amassed a collection of art by Norman Rockwell and other narrative artists and illustrators including N.C. Wyeth, Beatrix Potter and Maxfield Parrish. It was, Jones comments, “art that actually spoke to him.” His earlier proposals to build the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in San Francisco or Chicago have foundered because of opposition to the site and city politics, but he’s negotiating again with San Francisco as well as Los Angeles. Jones observes that wherever it’s eventually built, “you can bet Lucas will be intimately involved in its layout, design, color scheme, and lighting.”
This biography is “unauthorized,” but even though Jones interviewed only a handful of Lucas’s friends and collaborators, he has mined the literature on Lucas’s life and work to produce an admirably comprehensive view. He treats the man more as a businessman than an artist, avoiding psychologizing and critical assessments of the films to concentrate on the tangible accomplishments. As a book, it’s not so much for “Star Wars” fans — although even they will probably find something new in it — as it is for those who want to know how Lucas changed an industry.
Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.
By Brian Jay Jones
Little, Brown. 550 pp. $32