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George Lucas: To feel the true force of ‘Star Wars,’ he had to learn to let it go

George Lucas is a pioneering filmmaker who redefined how films are made. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: ERIC RISBERG/The Washington Post)

At the ranch, yes. Yes. Feel it flowing within you. The gate, the road, the hills, the trees, the vineyard. You, him, the house. Luminous beings are we. This was all built in the 1980s with piles of that initial "Star Wars" money, yet the main house was made to look several decades older, grander, Victorian — authentically ersatz, basking in the Marin County sun.

In a short hallway off the foyer are two discreet, glass-encased shelves containing what you thought you’d see, when and if you ever got past the guards at Skywalker Ranch: Darth Vader’s lightsaber hilt, Indiana Jones’s Holy Grail, that kind of stuff. Visitors are sometimes disappointed the place isn’t packed with it.

Snooping around anyhow (admiring all the other original art, including Norman Rockwell’s 1920 painting “Shadow Artist”), which is when the 71-year-old filmmaker George Lucas silently pads up from behind in his white tennis shoes and faded blue jeans and that casually impressive pompadour of silver hair.

He’ll receive a Kennedy Center Honor this weekend for his blockbuster work in movies and film technology, but he’s quick to point out that he’s the only recipient this year who isn’t technically a performer.

“I perform in the shadows,” Lucas says, and these days he’s more familiar with the darkness of outer space. “Once you get out of the hot part of the burner, everybody forgets about you — which is okay.”

It's strange to be the father of "Star Wars" at this particular moment. The Honors are being held a mere 12 days before the intensely anticipated release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the saga's seventh episode — directed, amped up and recharged by J.J. Abrams. Look close at the credits on the movie poster and notice that Lucas's name is nowhere on it, unless you count the word Lucasfilm.

Since selling Lucasfilm Ltd. to Disney three years ago in a jaw-dropping $4 billion deal (which included handing over “Star Wars,” Indiana Jones, all of it), Lucas has had no connection to the new film, despite initial reports that he would play a consulting role. He says that Disney “decided they didn’t like” the stories he’d outlined for the sequels. It became clear to him that his baby was going its own way, and at light speed. Disney is now building two huge “Star Wars” theme parks and has additional movie projects — besides Episodes VIII and IX — in the works.

“I call it like a divorce,” Lucas says candidly. He always knew that at some point he’d have to part with “Star Wars” in order for the franchise to go on living.

"There is no such thing as working over someone's shoulder," he says. "You're either the dictator or you're not. And to do that would never work, so I said 'I'm going to get divorced.' . . . I knew that I couldn't be involved. All I'd do is make them miserable. I'd make myself miserable. It would probably ruin a vision — J.J. has a vision, and it's his vision."

As recently as a couple weeks ago, with fans going ape over tidbits and new trailers for “The Force Awakens,” Lucas had still not seen the film. Not a frame.

He expected that he would soon see it here at the ranch (“I’ve got the best theater in the world,” he notes), perhaps even with Abrams and Lucasfilm Ltd. President Kathleen Kennedy (a longtime Lucas collaborator) in the room, watching him watch it. What then?

"Now I'm faced with this awkward reality, which is fine," Lucas says. Extending the metaphor, he says it's like when a grown child gets married. "I gotta go to the wedding. My ex will be there, my new wife will be there, but I'm going to have to take a very deep breath and be a good person and sit through it and just enjoy the moment, because it is what it is and it's a conscious decision that I made."

The Kennedy Center Honors: George Lucas

N/A, N/A - OCTOBER 8: portrait of Kennedy Center honoree George Lucas for Sunday Arts package (Photo by Marc Baptiste for The Washington Post) GETTY OUT (Marc Baptiste )

As a kid growing up in Modesto, Calif., George Walton Lucas Jr. was wild about cars and racing, indifferent to high school, except when taking apart European engines in shop class.

The movies he later wrote, directed and/or produced all celebrated and honored the idea of the skilled and sometimes recklessly daring driver: It's there when young Robert Duvall, on a motorcycle, eludes android police officers in Lucas's coolly dystopian first film, 1971's "THX 1138," or when teenagers drag-race in his 1973 sleeper hit "American Graffiti," or as Han Solo weaves through an asteroid field in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back," or when Anakin Skywalker comes from behind in a Tatooine podrace in 1999's "The Phantom Menace." (In a telling exchange from "Empire," R2-D2 asks Luke Skywalker if he wants to put the X-wing on autopilot for the trip to Yoda's planet of Dagobah: "That's all right," Luke says. "I'd like to keep it on manual control for a while.")

After surviving a serious car crash at 18 (he was broadsided while driving a yellow Fiat Bianchina), Lucas snapped to: “I realized maybe I should get educated.” He went to community college and then to film school at the University of Southern California in the ’60s, where, like many, he became obsessed with experimental film.

It was next to impossible to get work in the industry, Lucas says, so he and his friend Francis Ford Coppola formed their own production company, Zoetrope Studios, in an era in which other young turks (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, et al.) were poised to forever change the business.

With 40-plus years of hindsight and film history to consider, it can be difficult to imagine what Coppola and Lucas had in common. “We shared many ideas about how the film industry could be different [and] work differently toward the goal of making ‘more personal’ films,” Coppola recalls. “When I saw his student films, I was totally impressed with what this shy, understated young man could do.”

After Coppola made "The Godfather" and Lucas made "THX 1138," both men were eager to collaborate on a film about Vietnam (which eventually became Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"), but Coppola dared his friend to try making a comedy next.

Lucas took that bet and made “American Graffiti,” a heartfelt film loosely sketched from his own experiences, about a young man (Richard Dreyfuss) who tools around the streets of Modesto one last night before he’s supposed to leave for college.

In theaters, “American Graffiti” dialed back in time a mere decade, but to audiences who had seen and felt the tumult of the late ’60s, the vibe of “American Graffiti” felt like a century had passed. The soundtrack, a double-LP packed with early-’60s classics, sold millions of copies.

We now live in an era of constant throwbacks and reminiscences (everyone’s doing the ’80s now — even “The Force Awakens” plays on nostalgia, with its septuagenarian Han Solo and touch-of-gray Chewbacca). Nostalgia, though, was never really his intent, Lucas says. His favorite college subjects were psychology, anthropology, sociology — and still are. He thought of his movie almost as a documentary, an elegy for things such as radio DJs, teenage innocence, Friday nights and cruising around. “I said, ‘You know, this is all probably going to go away.’­­ ”

In the long term he was right: Behold the self-driving Google car and young people with no apparent interest in getting their driver licenses. “I said, I want to document this idea, this unique American mating ritual . . . this whole fantasy world of being a teenager and being in love.” Such a film today, Lucas supposes, would have to take place online.

By the mid-’70s, Lucas hoped to return to making experimental independent film, but Alan Ladd Jr. at Twentieth Century Fox bought his loony idea for a science-fiction space saga.

Lucas wanted to make a movie that would teach children the central ethic of right and wrong, good and evil. “I want[ed] to see if I can bend their lives at a particular point in time when they’re very vulnerable,” he recalls, “and give them the things that we’ve always given kids throughout history. The last time we had done it was with the Western. And once the Western was gone, there was no vehicle to say, ‘You don’t shoot people in the back’ and such.”

But mostly, Lucas wanted to make "one real movie. Everything I'd done had been low-budget, cheapy, on-the-streets. I had never made anything on a soundstage. I wanted to build sets . . . work with art directors and production designers and – you know."

In “Star Wars” lore, Lucas and everyone at Fox braced themselves for the film to bomb. It cost about $11 million to make; the studio was already down in the dumps financially. It opened on the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend of 1977 in 32 theaters.

Are you old enough to remember?

Are you lucky enough to remember?

Not the rereleases, not the cable reruns, not the thousand times we’ve all watched it on screens as big as an IMAX and as little as an iPhone, but that very first time it played in those twin-plexes and drive-ins. The words crawling across a field of stars, the camera panning down to the desert planet, the Imperial Star Destroyer seeming to come in low over our heads with its laser cannons firing at Princess Leia’s cruiser.

There went our minds.

Jumping into hyperspace now, blurring the story forward, mostly because you know it by heart.

After "Star Wars," the blockbuster became a significant American export. The artists and engineers who worked for Lucas's special-effects and sound companies repeatedly upgraded the moviegoing experience, not just for the summer giants but across the board — the way all films got sharper, the way theaters thundered and roared. Laborious stop-motion and model effects gave way to computer-generated images. When Spielberg made "Jurassic Park" in 1993, it signaled to Lucas that the digital tools were ready to tackle the epic back story of "Star Wars," about the fall of the noble Jedi Knights and the rise of the evil Galactic Empire.

Or as Lucas puts it, “Was there finally a way for Yoda to have a sword fight?”

There was, but it meant opening a Pandora’s box. Lucas may or may not have been prepared for the depth of anticipation and fevered devotion that awaited the prequels — the online gossip (production call sheets from the top-secret set of “The Phantom Menace” were finding their way to the Internet’s earliest bloggers), the anxious fans, the sound of film critics sharpening their knives.

His first step was to digitally revise the older “Star Wars” films and rerelease them in theaters in 1997. He’s a passionate defender of an artist’s right to go back and tweak his work, which is why Lucasfilm cleaned up the matte lines visible on the original trilogy’s space battles and added more creatures and humanoids to crowd scenes. It was like taking a refurbished car out for a spin.

He also went back to some scenes that had always bothered him, particularly in the 1977 film: When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is threatened by Greedo, a bounty hunter working for the sluglike gangster Jabba the Hutt, Han reaches for his blaster and shoots Greedo by surprise underneath a cantina table.

In the new version, it is Greedo who shoots first, by a split second. Deeply offended fans saw it as sacrilege; Lucas will probably go to his grave defending it. When Han shot first, he says, it ran counter to “Star Wars’ ” principles.

“Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, ‘Should he be a cold-blooded killer?’ ” Lucas asks. “Because I was thinking mythologically — should he be a cowboy, should he be John Wayne? And I said, ‘Yeah, he should be John Wayne.’ And when you’re John Wayne, you don’t shoot people [first] — you let them have the first shot. It’s a mythological reality that we hope our society pays attention to.”

His “Star Wars” prequels came out between 1999 and 2005. They were big and technically impressive (and collectively took in $2.5 billion in box-office), yet many found them soulless and lacking a certain whiz-bang momentum.

The fanboy backlash was considerable. On an episode of the hit CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," Raj recommends watching "Star Wars" in the so-called "machete order," (Episodes IV and V, followed by II and III as a history lesson, then VI) in order to avoid the indignities of "The Phantom Menace." There was even a documentary in 2010 called "The People vs. George Lucas."

Lucas, to his credit, never really took the bait, but a disturbance in the Force persists. On a recent episode of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” the host, in a twerpy mood, asked his guest Harrison Ford: “Who do you like better, George Lucas or J.J. Abrams?” The audience howled. Ford paused, feigned discomfort, and said: “George has been amazing to me. He’s been the author of the early chapters of my life and given me the opportunity to have a really extraordinary life.”

Partly so he doesn’t have to read the worst about himself and his movies, Lucas says he has assiduously avoided the Internet since 2000 — no Facebook, no Twitter, no e-mail even — but that doesn’t mean he avoids people.

Out in the world, people recognize him (in the most banal places, while catching a movie with his wife at a cineplex, or reporting for jury duty, or accidentally walking into the frame of someone's YouTube video about molten salt reactors) and they still need to pour out their feelings. Not to kvetch about Jar Jar Binks (what would be the point anymore?), but to tell him that they were once children. To tell him what "Star Wars" meant to them then and what it means to their children and grandchildren today. That story never gets old.

Now he’s living his own sequel, the Yoda years.

In 2013, Lucas married Mellody Hobson, 46, an investment banker and workplace diversity advocate who also chairs the board of DreamWorks Animation. In between takes at a photo shoot, he proudly gets out his phone to show off pictures of their 2-year-old daughter, Everest, and freely describes the details of the gestational surrogacy process that made her. (After his divorce from his first wife in 1983, Lucas raised three children, now grown — two of whom he adopted as a single father.)

He has pledged to give away nearly all of his estimated $5 billion worth; much of his philanthropy has focused on education, with significant donations to USC’s film school and the University of Chicago Lab Schools.

Most notably, he has thrown his energies into the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago, which could cost him as much as $300 million to build, by some estimates, and $400 million to permanently endow.

The museum will display examples of 20th-century narrative and popular art — illustrative and cinematic and even digital. It will include some “Star Wars” and other historical movie artifacts, but it will also show off artists such as Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell (Lucas and Spielberg together own nearly all the Rockwell paintings, as it happens) and others whose works were derided by traditional art critics as lacking intellectual heft.

“To me, art is communicating emotions — that’s all,” Lucas says. “That’s art. If it’s not communicating emotions and it’s just an intellectual exercise, then it’s just a road map. Or it’s a set of plans for a building, it’s not the building itself.

"The great thing about art is that you get a feeling about something, you get knowledge about something, but you don't know why. Describe the Sistine Chapel — it's very hard. 'It made me feel spiritual feelings and thoughts I'd never had before.' Well, what do you mean? 'I don't know what I mean — you'll have to just go and see it.' 'Star Wars' was like that. People couldn't describe it; they just kept saying, you gotta go see it, you gotta go see it, you gotta go see it. Now we're like that with [the Broadway hit musical] 'Hamilton' — you gotta go see it. Why? . . . To try to describe these things is very hard."

After offering to build the museum in his home of San Francisco, Lucas tired of fighting those who opposed both its sensibilities and its proposed location. He’s facing a similar battle in Chicago — art and architecture critics have sniffed at the design and the location on the city’s cherished lakefront. One city alderman compared Chinese architect Ma Yasong’s design for the museum to a spaceship for Jabba the Hutt, while Bears football fans have complained that it would replace prime tailgating lots at Soldier Field.

The museum has both city hall and the Illinois legislature on its side; a federal judge recently gave a preservation group until February to respond to the city’s request for the court to drop a lawsuit protesting the museum. “Doing this museum, I’ve realized that most cities don’t want museums, they don’t really care about them,” Lucas says. “You know, it’s too esoteric for most people, and they don’t see them as educational institutions.”

Still, “I’m optimistic,” he says. “I’m always optimistic.”

And he’s optimistic about that fast-approaching day that he takes a seat in a theater, the lights go down and (presumably) the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” appear on the screen. (Surely they won’t have changed that.)

Think of it this way, he says: "I never got to see the spaceship come over [in 1977]. I never got that experience that everyone else got to have. I never got to see 'Star Wars.' So this time I'm going to."

Of all people, it seems like he’s earned the right to have his mind blown.

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