George Lucas: “Star Wars is my destiny”

From The Big Issue archives, here is an interview with George Lucas from just before the release of The Phantom Menace where he talks CGI, the business of filmmaking and plans for a future trilogy that would reunite the original cast...

The Big Issue: What’s the greatest misconception about the new Star Wars film?

George Lucas: The emphasis on special effects. Special effects don’t make a movie. The story makes the movie – and all the special effects do is allow you to tell a particular story.

How would you articulate the message of the Star Wars movies?

The message of the Star Wars films is pretty classic. There’s good and evil and the hero’s journey, his quest.

Do you think that, as a society, we have a real need for these kinds of mythical heroes today?

Without doubt. Movies have a big voice, and what we film-makers have to do is set a good example. The story being told in Star Wars is about heroes who have the ideas that we, as a society, would like people to possess. It’s a terrible thing to say, but there’s a certain part of society that would like everybody to be cynical. But at the same time, another segment of society needs to have heroes – to have somebody of whom they can say, ‘This is the kind of person that we should aspire to be.’

You sound like a teacher.

I see myself as a teacher, One of my friends calls me ‘Yoda in a flannel shirt’.

Did your family ever think you’d become a teacher?

Oh, no, my father wanted me to be a businessman. I used to say, ‘I’m never gonna be a businessman!’

But now you seem to be an expert at business.

The things that I’ve gotten involved in have blended my creative and business interests.

You’ve always had this rebellious streak. How did that manifest itself early in your career?

I remember, when I was casting the original Star Wars, I was under this great pressure from 20th Century Fox to cast ‘names’. They felt safer if there was ‘star power’ behind their investment. They wanted me to take Jodie Foster or Amy Irving – I wanted Carrie Fisher. I wanted new faces. That’s why I chose Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford.

George Lucas 1999
George Lucas deop-in

Tell me about the legendary miscalculation made by 20th Century Fox when it traded away merchandising and sequel rights to you in exchange for lower wilting and directing fees.

That was back when merchandising rights didn’t mean anything to anybody because nobody had ever merchandised a movie before. They’d merchandised TV shows, but for movies there’d occasionally be some T-shirts and posters for sale. The idea of toys was pretty minimal. I thought I was getting the ability to promote the film using posters and T-shirts something I could get kids to wear at Disneyland and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I want to go see that movie.’ In the beginning, even when Star Wars first came out, we couldn’t get a toy company interested. It wasn’t really until Star Wars got to be a huge hit that toy companies showed any real enthusiasm. It wasn’t as though I said, ‘Let’s create a Luke Skywalker action figure or a Princess Leia doll.’ It was somebody else. Then it caught on.

In 1977, you said: “We are the guys who dig out the. gold.” What did you mean?

I was referring to Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and myself. I was saying that the guy in the executive tower cannot do that. The studios are corporations now, and the men who run them are bureaucrats. They know as much about making movies as a banker does. The power lies with us – the ones who know how to make movies.

Is it true that your friend Francis Ford Coppola once proposed that you start a religion, using the tenets of ‘The Force’ as its holy text?

Yes, that was really Francis’ idea. I remember him saying, ‘You know, you’ve got a certain amount of power in politics. But religion! With religion, you really have power.’ I told him, ‘Forget it. I don’t have any interest in power.’

In 1996, David Thomson wrote an essay called Who Killed The Movies? He blamed you and Steven Spielberg — with Star Wars and Jaws — for changing the course of film history, creating a blockbuster mentality. How do you respond to that?

That little myth got started by a critic who didn’t know much about the movie business. It’s amazing how the media has picked it up as a fact. There’s an ecosystem in the film business. What happens is when Steven and I make our movies and they make billions of dollars, well, half that money goes to theatre owners. For every billion we make, a half-billion goes to them. What do they do with that money? They make more multiplexes. More multiplexes means more screens, which means more room for more movies. Thus, room for more non-mainstream films, for art films. Look at the rise of the independent film industry! An art film, Shakespeare In Love, just won the Academy Award and another art film, Life Is Beautiful won Best Foreign Film. The American art film industry didn’t exist 20 years ago, and now it’s thriving. We have ruined nothing, absolutely nothing. In fact, we have helped smaller films flourish. There’s a symbiosis. Star Wars, didn’t kill the film industry. Popcorn pictures have always ruled. Why do people go to see these popcorn pictures when they’re not good? Why is the public so stupid? That’s not my fault. I just understood what people liked to go and see, and Steven has too, and we go for that.

So what’s to come?

Star Wars is my destiny. I’ve promised Episodes II and III for 2002 and 2005. In Episode II, the tone will be darker and the characters will be older.

You originally envisioned a nine-part film cycle for Star Wars. Does that still hold?

That was just an idea I flew the idea of, perhaps, moving on to Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, resuming where Return Of The Jedi left off. But I don’t think it will happen. I never really had a story for the later sequels. The only notion I had was, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to get all the actors to come back when they’re like 60 or 70 years old, and make three more that are about them as old people?’ I mean, our society is ageing. But, by then, I’ll be 70, too, and I’m just not at all sure whether that’s gonna happen.

This interview originally appeared in The Big Issue in May 1999