Paths to glory – George Lucas’s journey from a car racer to the celebrated filmmaker.

1 June 2017

Destiny is a stimulating phenomenon. Most human beings desire to find their purpose in life. Some set out to find it whereas for others, it appears before them. Very often, one meets it in the strangest of roads. Talking about roads, someone really changed his destiny on roads. Literally! In 1962, an eighteen year old boy gave up his dreams of becoming a car race driver after a road accident that nearly got him killed. But very soon, the boy found another passion to indulge himself in. From moving vehicles, his passion shifted to moving pictures as he began to watch some classic European Films. With this interest, he went to University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Fifteen years after the road accident, in 1977, his new found passion gave a superlative experience to the world. STAR WARS the epic space fantasy had released and GEORGE LUCAS, the racer turned filmmaker had just elevated the entire Motion Picture Industry to a glaring new stature!

As Laozi, the ancient Chinese Philosopher once said, the journey of thousand miles begins with the single step. Any filmmaker that delighted us with films of colossal canvas initially made films with almost nothing. The case was similar for George Lucas. His directorial debut, ‘THX 1138’ was made within a budget of less than a million and it depicted a future world where the population is controlled by android police officers. Though the film failed to generate box office success, over the years it has received much critical acclaim. Ironically, it was his love for cars that gave him the first major breakthrough in the movie world. His second feature film ‘American Graffiti’, was based on his childhood in California and his love for cars. Another film that had a budget less than one million, it went on to collect more than 140 million! This is one of the most profitable films of all time and the film was added to the United States Library of Congress for preservation in National Film Registry in 1995. 

Encouraged by the success of American Graffiti, Lucas decided to develop an idea for a space opera that he and his partner Gary Kurtz had been brainstorming for the past few years. Having been fascinated by ‘Flash Gordon’ comics and serials as a young boy, Lucas wanted to adapt them into his own films. After the screening of his debut film, United Artists offered him a two film development deal and Lucas wanted to pitch American Graffiti and a Flash Gordon Space Fantasy Film. However he failed to obtain the rights for Flash Gordon. After his failed attempts to obtain the Flash Gordon rights, he approached United Artists with American Graffiti but they passed on the film which was later picked up by Universal Pictures. After spending two years for American Graffiti, Lucas decided to turn his focus to his own space opera – The Star Wars.

‘Script Writing is the toughest part of the whole racket’ – said famous filmmaker Frank Capra. Compelling scripts are always the product of rigorous and diligent efforts. And one can imagine the amount of work that would have been part of a movie that has Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, R2-D2, 3CPO etc as characters! Even four decades down the lane, it wouldn’t take more than a minute to recollect the pivotal characters of Star Wars! Lucas had a fixed schedule to his writing. He began writing in January 1973 and dedicated himself eight hours a day five days a week. He began taking small notes, inventing odd names and giving them possible characterizations. Using these initial names and ideas he created a two page synopsis titled ‘Journal of the whills’. Annoyed that it was too difficult to understand, he began writing a 13 page treatment called the Star Wars and this treatment had thematic parallels to the 1958 Akira Kurosawa film ‘The Hidden Fortress’. Though Hollywood was not shy of science fiction films back then, most of them had a dark and unpleasant mood like ‘Rollerball’ and ‘Logan’s Run’. Lucas was one who craved to make a difference and hence he thought of a fun science fiction aimed at kids. He said in an interview that through Star Wars he wants to give young people a faraway exotic environment for their imaginations to run around in. He wanted the kids interested in space exploration to start thinking of colonizing Venus and Mars and the only way to do it is to have a kid fantasize about it!

Lucas and Kurtz went on to pitch the 13 page treatment to various Hollywood Studios. United Artists once again turned them down and Lucas approached Universal Pictures, the studio that funded American Graffiti. But Universal Pictures too rejected the film because they felt the concept was a little strange and they wanted Lucas to follow American Graffiti with more relevant themes. Lucas then approached Walt Disney Productions but that effort too was unsuccessful. Finally, through Alan Ladd Jr, the head of 20th Century Fox, Lucas completed a deal to write and direct the film. Lucas later went on to say that, Ladd invested in Lucas and not in the movie. But again the journey to the final draft version of the script took years. If a die hard fan of Star Wars get to read earlier versions of the script, he wouldn’t be able to realize who is who! Hans Solo was a frog like alien, Luke Skywalker was a grizzled old general, the dark side of the force was called “The Bogan” and there was a main character named Kane Starkiller. Lucas initially struggled to have a balanced script and some of the bewildering scenes would have been too expensive to shoot. Even his friend, director Francis Ford Coppola and Kurtz expressed their reservations about the earlier drafts. But practice makes one better. In the second draft that came in 1975, Luke was a farm boy and Darth Vader the fearsome man in black as we are familiar today. The third draft introduced the character Obi-Wan Kenobi. On the new year of 1976, Lucas completed the fourth draft of the script which was used when production began on March 25 1976. That was some new year resolution! The rest is history!

One particular feature that was unique in the Star Wars design was the “used future” concept. Science fiction films generally provide a futuristic architecture but Star Wars went right against it. Their sets were designed to appear inhabited and used and not clean and tidy as opposed to other futuristic films! Lucas believed “used” future is what is needed to attain maximum credibility. When 20th Century Fox dissolved their visual effects department, Lucas started his own visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and they immediately started working on Star Wars in a warehouse in California. The innovative method of motion control photography were used to perform most of the visual effects. For the film to have a distinct look Lucas prefered a combination of strange fantasy graphics and the feel of documentary. 

Image Courtesy: ILM

Released in 1977, Star Wars became the highest grossing film of all time and it held that record for five years until Spielberg’s E.T came out. However, when adjusted for inflation, Star Wars is still the third highest grossing film in the world. The film received Ten Academy Award Nominations and won seven of them. Lucas said that he intended Star Wars to be one complete film but later realized his story material was too long for a single film and he had to split it into multiple films. Two sequels for the film were released in 1980 and 1983. A prequel trilogy was released between 1999 to 2005 and in 2015, the first film in the sequel trilogy to the original series also came out. A direct prequel to the original film was also released in 2016! Star wars is home to several Television Series spin offs, video games, novels, toys and clothing. With the kind of Legacy George Lucas has left behind, there is minimal chance that he would regret not becoming a car racer! 

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