The release of Star Wars Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker in late 2019 marked the end of an era. That first film in 1977 was a panacea for the times, and the pioneering innovations in special effects and CGI spawned spinoff companies that changed the aesthetic of science fiction films for generations. We owe it all to the man with the vision and determination to make his “galaxy far, far away” a reality for us all, George Lucas.
Before shifting gears to filmmaking, he spent his teenage years cruising the streets of Modesto, California in a souped-up Fiat—not unlike a desert planet protagonist who liked to thread the Stone Needle of Beggar’s Canyon in his T-16 Skyhopper. It was a near-fatal car crash that would steer Lucas away from becoming a race driver and toward a new adventure in filmmaking.
After a brief stint of film courses at a community college, he enrolled at UCLA film school, where he achieved notoriety for his science fiction film short, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (1967). Through a scholarship with Warner Brothers, he was introduced to UCLA grad, Francis Ford Coppola, who was directing Finian’s Rainbow. The two young filmmakers quickly became friends and soon after formed Zoetrope Studios to make Lucas’ first feature film, THX 1138, an adaptation of his UCLA short. They set up offices in San Francisco, far from the established filmmaking mecca. The film was a flop at the box office leaving Lucas and Coppola in the red. Fortunately, Coppola picked up a directing gig with a “small film,” The Godfather, and they were able to clear up their ledger.
The two remained friends, but Lucas decided to set off on his own and start his namesake studio, Lucasfilm. Lucas attributed the failure of THX 1138 in part to the re-edit of the film by Universal Studios before its release. This learning experience may have had a big influence on the way Lucas approached future projects with big movie studios. The words of Master Yoda, “The greatest teacher, failure is,” come to mind.
His next film, American Graffiti, was written and directed by Lucas and inspired by his teenage years of cruising and drag racing Modesto’s avenues. This nostalgic movie featured a small cast of aspiring talent who have since become household names, including Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, and Ron Howard. American Graffiti was made for $780,000, grossed more than $100 million domestically, and earned five Academy Award nominations.
Now a proven commodity, Lucas set about writing his space opera, styled after the afternoon cliffhanger and swashbuckler serial matinees of his youth. But making an ambitious sci-fi film with space wizards and renegade, nerf herding smugglers was no easy task at the time. With the exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the science fiction genre was wrought with heavy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic themes. For the studios, this particular genre was a high-risk endeavor, typically with minimal ROI. Science fiction was usually reserved for B-movie status.
But culturally, the world was primed for Star Wars: A New Hope. The reputations and traditional ideals of institutions and leaders had been destroyed. The United States was mired in the Vietnam War, and back home, Nixon’s Watergate occupied the airwaves. If ever there was a time for a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey epic, this was it. In 1977, Star Wars debuted to universal acclaim. The film was made for $10.5 million and grossed $400 million worldwide.
The conflict between good and evil in an escapist setting brought much welcome relief. However, getting to that point of success required resilience, persistence, and a little rebellion too. Let’s break down some of those essential lessons using the sage wisdom of the Jedi.
- Remember, the Force will be with you always. Filmmaking of the 70s was ripe for disruption. Big budget films were overdone and overthought. In spite of the naysayers, George Lucas pushed forward, maintaining his indy mindset, pushing ahead with a powerful belief in his idea. He enlisted the talent of a futurist illustrator Ralph McQuarrie to give people a window into his ambitious vision. He found allies in other filmmakers, like Spielberg and Coppola, and a young producer at 20th Century Fox who believed in him and defended his work—despite not really understanding what he was doing.
- Size matters not. Even though Master Yoda was vertically-challenged (and sounded a lot like Sesame Street’s Grover), he was one of the most powerful Jedis in the universe. Lucas and the crew he assembled to make his film approached their task with a rebel spirit and a scrappy start-up mindset. Many of the practical and special effects that fledgling Industrial Light and Magic created had never been done, and many of the ILM crew, by their own admission, did not know what they were doing. On the other side, but not necessarily the Dark Side, there have been plenty of rebels that have become empires. The trick to staying relevant is to continue to keep that rebel spirit.
- Reach out with your feelings. George Lucas had a vision of how he wanted to make his films. To protect his artistic license, he needed financial independence. By letting go of the customary director’s fee in exchange for merchandising rights, by maintaining the rights to future sequels and taking a 40% share of the box office, he ensured that his “empire” would endure.
- Do or do not. There is no try. Anyone with ambition knows there’s no halfway. What most people think of as edgy, soon becomes the middle of the road, so one must continually innovate to hold the higher ground. Creative people tend to draw upon what they know. So it’s fair to assume, whether consciously or not, that George Lucas’s hero, Luke Skywalker, represents a desire to reach for more. By listening keenly to our instincts and feelings, we can bravely seek out a greater destiny. Having a wise old Jedi for a friend never hurts either.
For over 40 years, this saga of the Skywalker line has been strong with the Force. For some fans, Disney’s acquisition of LucasFilm in 2012 has been fraught with Dark Side angst. Still, the franchise continues to capture the wonder and imagination of audiences, old and new. Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm, LucasArts, THX Sound and Industrial Light & Magic are all entities that were established through the creation of this blockbuster film (even the original tech for Pixar’s early 3-D rendering can trace its roots to this picture), and their legacy continues to have a lasting impact on the way we experience entertainment today on many levels.
Word has it that Disney is going give their lightsabers a rest for a while, at least on the big screen. For now, there’s plenty to binge on Disney Plus like The Mandalorian, Star Wars Rebels, The Clone Wars, a rumored Kenobi series with Ewan McGregor in the works, and much more. Rest assured, it’s not time for Jedi to die any time soon.
“Empire of Dreams: The Story of the ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy,” Prometheus Entertainment,
Fox Television Studios (in association with), Lucasfilm (in association with), 2004
“The Documentary Podcast: Living With Star Wars,” BBC, Dec. 22, 2019