“I was as normal as you can get,” stated American filmmaker George Lucas when reflecting upon his childhood. “I wanted a car and hated school. I was a poor student. I lived for summer vacations and got into trouble a lot shooting out windows with my BB gun.” The California native was not initially drawn to the medium which would bring him fame and fortune. “Modesto was a small town, and there were only a couple of theatres. When I went to the movies I really didn’t pay much attention. I was usually looking for girls or to goof off.” George Lucas, Senior owned a stationary store where he sold office supplies and equipment to support his son, three daughters, and frequently invalid wife. “He was conservative, and I’m very conservative,” admitted Lucas who served as the delivery boy for the family business once he got his treasured driver’s license.
A major acquisition by the teenager fueled dreams of becoming a professional race car driver. “It was a very small Fiat, which I souped up.” The automotive purchase would have near fatal consequences for its owner. “I was in an accident the day before I was going to graduate from high school,” said George Lucas of his driving on a quiet rural road. “The car rolled and for some reason the seat belt broke in one of the rolls, just before the car pretzeled itself around a tree. If I had stayed in the car, I would have been dead. When you go through something like that, it puts a little more perspective on things.” Suffering a collapsed lung and being in and out of hospital for three months, Lucas shifted his focus to more academic pursuits. “When I went to junior college I got very interested in social sciences – psychology, sociology, [and] anthropology.” However, the reformed student did not entirely abandon his automotive passion. “I still had all my friends in racing…so I started to do a lot of photography at the races – rather than driving or being in a pit crew.”
“A very close friend of mine, whom I grew up with…was going to USC and asked me to take the test with him,” remarked George Lucas who was planning to go to San Francisco State to become an anthropology major. “At about the same time, I had been working on a race car for Haskell Wexler (Bound for Glory), and I met him, and he influenced me in the direction of cinematography – being a cameraman.” Accepted by the University of Southern California, Lucas attended the film school run by the academic institution. “When I finally decided that I was going to be a filmmaker all my friends thought I was crazy. I lost a lot of face because for hot rodders the idea of going into film was a really goofy idea. And that was in the early 60s. Nobody went into film at that time. At USC the girls from the dorms all gave a wide berth to film students because they were supposed to be weird.” But the decision paid off. “In a way movies replaced my love for cars. Since I was 12 or 13 I had had this intense love relationship with cars and motorcycles; it was really all-consuming. After my accident, I knew I couldn’t continue with that, and I was sort of floundering for something. And so when I finally discovered film, I really fell madly in love with it, ate it and slept it 24 hours a day. There was no going back after that.” The budding moviemaker flourished. “I made eight films at USC, ranging from one minute to 25 minutes. It was difficult and there were lots of barriers but it wasn’t impossible. I came up against the same discouragement when I left film school: ‘You’ll never get into the industry. Nobody ever does.’ But you know, I did it because I didn’t believe what they said. You just have to be stubborn and bullheaded, and move forward no matter what you’re up against.”
For his first USC assignment George Lucas had to take one minute worth of film stock and explore the workings of the camera. The resulting montage called Look at Life (1965) features photographs taken of Martin Luther King Jr., Nikita Kruschev, the Ku Klux Klan, and Buddhist Monks, flashing by at a rapid speed. “I realized that I’d found myself,” stated Lucas who was honoured with short film competition awards for his debut cinematic effort. “I loved working with film and I was pretty good at it. So I took the bit and ran with it. I was introduced to film editing – the whole concept of editing – and I think ultimately that film editing was where my real talent was. Still is, I guess.” Freiheit (1966) is a three minute production that stars Randal Kleiser as a student who tries to run across the Berlin border to freedom. Herbie (1966) is named after musician Herbie Hancock whose Jazz composition provides the soundtrack for the abstract 16mm black and white project which experiments with streaks and flashes of light. Taking its title from the lap time of the Lotus 23 race car driven by Peter Brock at the Willar Springs Raceway, 1:42:08 (1966) used a cameraman positioned horizontally beside the vehicle.
Finishing his undergrad work, George Lucas took jobs as an editor, grip and second unit cameraman. “I worked for Saul Bass on a film called Why Man Creates . Then I got a job cutting, as an assistant editor, on a USIA [United States Information Agency] project for President Johnson on his trip to Asia,” recalled the freelancer who could not get into the union for cameramen. “There were a lot of stupid directives with the Johnson film. You couldn’t show Lady Bird’s profile. It always had to be a ½ view. You couldn’t use any angle of the president where his bald spot showed. I had to put in a shot of a bunch of horses in Korea running down the street to control the huge crowds. Someone thought it looked a little too fascist – which it wasn’t – and made us take it out. I just liked the shot.” Promoted to film editor, Lucas found himself drawn towards his assistant and future wife Marcia Griffin (Taxi Driver). “My relationships with women were not complex. Until I met Marcia, it was a very animalistic attraction.”
“I was also teaching at USC – a class on photography – and then I decided to go back to graduate school,” said George Lucas. “I was there for one more semester and did many more movies, but still non-story type films. I was interested in abstract, purely visual films and cinema verite documentaries.” The teaching experience allowed the young instructor to shoot a treatment composed by him and USC film school colleagues Matt Robbins (The Sugarland Express) and Walter Murch (The English Patient) as an exercise of working without light with a group of Marine and Navy combat photographers. “To have this young hippie come in and teach them after they’d been at it for 10 years was a challenge,” confessed Lucas. “But the whole idea of the class was to teach them they didn’t have to go by the rule book.” Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138:4EB (1967) stars Dan Natchsheim as a man fleeing an oppressive futuristic society, who has to navigate through an underground maze. The finished product took the top prize in the drama category at the National Student Film Festival and impressed an up and coming filmmaker. “We first met at a student film festival in 1967,” said two-time Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), “where the short THX 1138 was not yet a license plate in American Graffiti or a state-of-the-art sound system in a couple of thousand movie theatres worldwide, but instead a vision of the future of mankind – dark and pessimistic, but nonetheless brilliantly crafted. I was jealous to the very marrow of my bones. I was 18 years old and had directed 15 short films by that time, and this little movie was better than all of my little movies combined.”
“As a film student I was all technical,” said George Lucas who chose to profile a Los Angeles disc jockey who called himself Emperor Hudson. “The idea behind it was radio as fantasy,” explained Lucas as to the origins of The Emperor (1967). “A lot of teenagers have a make-believe friend in a disc jockey, but he’s much more real because he talks to them, he jokes around.” At the National Student Film Festival the short film received an honourable mention in the documentary category. Another USC project was a six minute cinematic adaptation of the poem composed by E.E. Cummings called Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town (1967). Helping classmate John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), George Lucas edited and did the sound recording for Marcello, I’m So Bored (1967), an animated satire of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up).
“I won a couple of scholarships at the end of the semester,” remarked Lucas. “One to watch Carl Foreman make McKenna’s Gold  out in the desert, and make a little behind the scenes movie, and the other was a Warner Bros. scholarship in which you observe moviemaking for six months.” Foreman initially disliked Lucas’ contribution 6.18.67 (1967), as a surrealist exploration of the desert environment using camera tricks that had nothing to do with the film starring Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird); however, the short film did receive an honourable mention in the experimental category at the National Student Film Festival. George Lucas doubted his time spent at the Hollywood studio would prove to be constructive. “Watching does not teach you anything, so when I got to Warner Bros. I wasn’t interested in watching them make movies, but they assigned me to Finian’s Rainbow , which was the only picture they were making there at the time.” Part of the problem for Lucas was that his creative interests lay elsewhere. “I really wanted to go over to the animation department.” Even though no animation projects were being developed at the time, the scholarship winner still felt that the assignment switch would allow him to make better use of his time. “I figured if I could get over there with all those cameras and stuff I could swipe some film from somewhere and make a movie.” The director of the musical starring Fred Astaire (Funny Face) had other plans for Lucas. “When Francis [Ford Coppola] found out that I was trying to get off the picture – I told him why – he said, ‘Listen kid, you come up with one good idea a day, and I’ll give you a lot of other things to do.’” A lifelong friendship was forged between them. “Francis and I were the only two on the film under 50 years old and we’d both been to film school and both had the same kind of background, so we could relate to each other.” Lucas added, “Francis’ main areas of expertise were directing actors and writing – and mine was primarily in camera and editing. So we interfaced very well and complimented each other. I became his assistant, and I helped him with the editing and I’d go around with the Polaroid and shoot angles.”
When filming for Finian’s Rainbow was completed, Francis Ford Coppola talked Warner Bros. into giving his protégé a contract to turn THX 1138 into a feature film. The development money enabled George Lucas to join the small production crew of 12 to shoot The Rain People (1969). “If you’re going to be a director, you’ve got to be a writer, for your own protection,” recalled Lucas of some words of advice given to him by Coppola. “I’d get up at four in the morning and write on THX until it was time to go to work for Francis at seven. By the time we were finished looking at the dailies, it was always 10 or 11 at night, but I was young and it was fun.” George Lucas served as an assistant to the cameraman, sound man and art director; he also kept a 16mm camera and a Nagra tape recorder with him to document Francis Ford Coppola at work, for a behind the scenes production Filmmaker (1968). “Francis kept saying, ‘We don’t have to make films in Hollywood. We can be anywhere in the world we want to be,’” remarked Lucas. “It was the era of Easy Rider  and moving vans with all the equipment in them. I wanted to free up filmmaking and have it more like a street adventure, guerilla units instead of a crew of 150.”
Subbing for his mentor at a San Francisco convention where he was supposed to address a national gathering of English teachers, George Lucas met independent filmmaker John Korty (Funnyman); Korty told him about the studio he had set up in a barn. “George went right to a pay phone and called Francis in Nebraska and said, ‘You gotta to see this.’ They came out on the Fourth of July 1969. They were amazed to see that I had an editing table, everything I needed. Francis said, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’” Francis Ford Coppola went on an equipment buying spree in Europe while Korty helped in finding and renting a warehouse in San Francisco. American Zoetrope was established with Coppola as president and Lucas as vice president. As Francis Ford Coppola worked on the post-production for The Rain People, George Lucas continued to work on the feature length script for THX 1138 with the help of USC colleague Walter Murch. Other film school friends joined in the upstart production company, including John Milius. “We were a loose confederation of radicals and hippies,” chuckled Lucas.
“My primary concept in approaching the production of THX 1138  was to make a kind of cinema verité film of the future – something that would look like a documentary crew had made a film about some characters in a time yet to come,” revealed George Lucas of his feature directorial debut. “At the same time I wanted the picture to look slick and professional, in terms of cinematic technique, I felt that the realism of the film’s content would be enhanced by the actors and their surroundings looking slightly scruffy, even a bit dirty, as they might well look in the society depicted.” To achieve the desired atmosphere Lucas focused on a particular cinematic element. “The main approach would be in the lighting. The idea was to not light anything unless it was absolutely necessary. Only if we walked into an area where there was no light at all would we put up a few low-wattage lights here and there.”
A worker (Robert Duvall) becomes a fugitive in an emotionally repressive society when he does not take his prescribed medication. The $777,777 production that stars Duvall (Get Low), Donald Pleasence (The Great Escape), Maggie McOmie (Grand Junction) and Don Pedro Colley (Sugar Hill) was filmed during 10 weeks of principle photography and shot in in 22 locations in the San Francisco Bay area, including the Oakland Coliseum, San Francisco Pacific Gas and Electric Building, the Marin County Civic Centre in San Rafael, and in the various tunnels of the under-construction Bay Area Rapid Transit system. “I knew that the no-lighting approach would enable us to move very fast in shooting,” stated George Lucas. “Obviously, we would have to do something to compensate for the lack of light, and that led to the decision to force-develop practically the entire film. We decided to ‘push’ everything, except for the shots to be used for making opticals. By not pushing those shots, we hoped to achieve a consistency of graininess throughout the film.” The rookie director had a preconceived notion regarding who should lens the science fiction tale. “I felt that THX should be photographed by someone with a very thorough documentary background, someone who was used to thinking fast and making quick technical decisions.” Three cinematographers were recruited. “Al Kihn had worked as a TV newsreel cameraman for four or five years and had shot a few documentaries for the USIA. David Myers, who is older than Al, has had a great deal of experience and is highly respected in San Francisco as a documentary cameraman. He shot many of those fine documentary sequences in Woodstock .” Lucas was impressed by the cinematic skill of Kinn and Meyers “We selected those two primarily because I liked the way they ‘thought’ on the screen and the way they followed the action.” The third member of the cinematography team was a friend and colleague. “Haskell [Wexler] was our standby cameraman. He did some of the shooting and helped us out of some of the tight situations that can break you on a low-budget feature.”
“When we got into the actual shooting I would set up a scene and maybe rehearse once,” stated George Lucas. “A lot of the time I didn’t rehearse at all. There were not marks or measurements. The cameraman just had to guess where the actors were, while riding focus blind in a lot of cases. If a take was acceptable, but not perfect, I would move the cameras before doing it over, instead of making take after take from the same position. This gave me a vast number of different angles for each scene. Since I planned to edit the picture myself, I wanted to be able to ‘make’ the film in the editing.” Lucas added, “I got so that I knew which actors gave their best on the first take and which ones needed a couple of takes to warm up. We would zero in on their close-ups accordingly, using long lenses, so that the actors literally didn’t know when they were being filmed in close-up. This resulted in more natural performances, because they were playing to each other all the time [instead of to the camera].”
“There was one sequence in the picture that we went all out to light completely,” said George Lucas. “That was the ‘cathedral’ sequence near the end of the picture that was actually shot in a TV studio. They had all of these lights electronically controlled by push buttons so that we could do whatever we wanted in the way of lighting.” Reflecting on the picture Lucas observed, “No film ever ends up exactly as you would like it to, but, with minor exceptions, THX came out pretty much as I had visualized, thanks to some excellent assistance and a whole lot of luck.” Much to the disdain of the director, Warner Bros. had a psychologist test the reaction of the audience, “It was insane. It was like bringing an audience to the Mona Lisa and asking, ‘Do you know why she’s smiling?’ ‘Sorry, Leonardo, you’ll have to make some changes.’ At least the audience understood that THX was not a love story set in the 25th century, which was the way Warners planned to market it. Instead the company settled for ‘Visit the future, where love is the ultimate crime.’”
The Hollywood studio cut five minutes out of the film which received mixed reviews and grossed $2.5 million domestically. “Primarily because of the arguments about THX, Warners cancelled the other six projects and Zoetrope had to be reorganized,” said George Lucas referring to the event christened Black Thursday. “If you’re going to use your own resources and not rob a bank, you have to figure out a way to make money. Francis can earn a great deal writing scripts and directing if he does it in a certain way. He doesn’t like it, but he couldn’t have made The Rain People if he hadn’t made Finian. He had to do The Godfather  to make The Conversation .” The experience left a lasting impression on Lucas. “I realized after THX that people don’t care about how the country is being ruined. All the movie did was to make people more pessimistic, more depressed, and less willing to get involved in trying to make the world better.”
“My second project was Apocalypse Now which John Milius and I had been working on in school, and we got a deal with Francis to develop the project,” remarked George Lucas. “So I said, ‘This is great. I love John Milius; he’s a great writer. I was going to get a great screenplay and I wasn’t going to have to write it.” Lucas turned to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick for creative inspiration. “I was doing it much more as a documentary in the style of Dr. Strangelove . It was going to be shot in 16mm. That’s how John and I originally pitched it to Francis. Until he made it [in 1979], you couldn’t do a film about the Vietnam War. That’s what we discovered.” Contemplating further his failed attempt to bring the story to the big screen, the director stated, “Most of the things in the film were things the public didn’t know about yet. Nobody had any idea that people were taking drugs over there. Nobody had any idea how crazy it was...The film at the time was vaguely an exposé, a satire, and a story about angry young men.” Reflecting upon the impact the Vietnam War had on the American consciousness, Lucas remarked, “Wars have a tendency to be course changes, which is why it is dangerous for a society to get into war – it shakes up the status quo. Vietnam is a perfect example. It was billed as a completely harmless war way over there; no bomb was ever going to fall on United States soil. But a huge psychological bomb landed on the United States soil, and it changed it forever.”
“I got invited to the Cannes Film Festival because THX had been chosen by a radical directors’ group,” remembered George Lucas. “But Warner Bros. wouldn’t pay my way. So, with our [his and Marcia Lucas’] last $2,000, we bought a Eurail Pass, got backpacks and went to Cannes.” Before arriving in France, Lucas made a slight detour. “I decide to stop in New York on the way to Europe and make David Picker, who then was head of United Artists, have a meeting with me. I told him about my rock and roll movie. We flew off to England and he called and said, ‘Okay, I’ll take a chance. I met him at his giant suite at the Carlton Hotel at Cannes, and we made a two-picture deal for American Graffiti and Star Wars.” The deal soon ran into trouble. “I wrote the script in three weeks, turned it in to UA, and they said, ‘Not interested.’ So I took the script – the story treatment had already been turned down by every studio – back to the same studios, which turned it down again. Then Universal said they might be interested if I could get a movie star. I said no. Universal said even a name producer might do, and they gave me a list of names and Francis was on the list.”
“The whole film is essentially a teenage fantasy,” revealed George Lucas who used his teenage years as the subject matter of his sophomore effort. “That one night is really a year’s cruising. It’s purposely done so that the kids get the better of the authority figures.” Lucas sought out a husband and wife writing team to help him develop the screenplay for American Graffiti . “When I had the idea of the film about four guys who cruise around and do all of this stuff on the last night of summer, I sat down with Bill [Huyck] and Gloria [Katz].” Using his personal experiences, the director created the main characters in the $775,000 production. “On a realistic level, most kids start out like Terry the Toad [Charles Martin Smith]. When they’re 14 or 15 they hang out with the bigger guys and never quite make it. That’s how I started out. When I got to be 16 and got a car I started racing, hopping up cars, and ended up as a hot-rodder. That would be John [Paul Le Mat]. Then I had that very bad accident and spent time in the hospital. After that I started to apply myself to myself and became like Curt [Richard Dreyfuss]. I still went down to cruise, to hang out, but I was more detached. ” Lucas had a hard time relating to the role portrayed by Ron Howard (The Shootist). “Steve is the one we had the most problems with because, by definition, he’s the most bland…I didn’t really know Steve. He was more or less made up by the other writers.” The California filmmaker went on to say, “In my version, you would have just cut that whole story out because it didn’t work. They got him up to where he worked, but they couldn’t get him up to the level of the other characters who were infinitely stronger.”
“Mackenzie Phillips (The Jacket) who played Carol and Paul Le Mat who played John had never acted before,” stated George Lucas who spent four months searching for the right cast members. “Richard Dreyfuss [Jaws] who played Curt was primarily a stage actor who had done a little television. Ronny Howard [Steve] spent 15 years as a television actor; Cindy Williams [Laura] was essentially a feature film actress. There was a wide variety of backgrounds so one of the real problems in directing was trying to make sure that everyone stayed even.” The pivotal role was portrayed by Dreyfuss. “Ultimately we hung the film on Curt,” said the director. “His only problem came down to deciding whether he was going to leave town, and that’s an awfully thin idea to hang a movie on – especially when you have these other dynamite things going on. So I invented the girl as a metaphor. The reality of cruising is that you do it ultimately because you’re hoping to find that one girl, the dream girl you’ve always wanted to meet. That’s why you keep doing it every night.” The elusive Dream Girl in the T-Bird is played by Suzanne Somers (Nothing Personal). “She was originally designed as the siren in the town who would lure him back, keep him there. People have interpreted his following her all over while she eludes him as why he finally leaves. Interestingly enough, when you do something like that everybody interprets it in his own way.” Also featured in the picture are Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch), Candy Clark (Zodiac), Harrison Ford (Morning Glory), and Wolfman Jack who provides the voice of the radio disc jockey.
“George was under incredible strain,” stated Harrison Ford who had done some carpentry work for the casting director of the movie. “He was working his tail to the bone. It was such a low cost production that we didn’t have a camera car, for example. What we did was haul one picture car with another picture car on a trailer we’d rented from U-Haul. Then we took the trunk lid off the lead car so the sound man, the cameraman and George could crouch in the trunk. I remember a scene where we had to circle the block again and again and again. Afterward, we went up to the camera car to see how it had gone, and George had fallen asleep in the trunk.” Adding to the workload of the director was the limited time frame he had to shoot scenes. “We could only shoot from 9 at night to 5:05 in the morning when the sun came up,” remarked George Lucas. “There was just no way after that because the film was 80 percent exterior night, and there was no way to fake it.” The filmmaker had to prioritize his shots. “Working on a tight schedule like that I would shoot the meat of the scene – the close-ups and the dialogue – then save the long shots and the drive-bys till last. I figured if I couldn’t get them I could pick them up on second unit.” A week into production Lucas sought the help of cinematographer Haskell Wexler who had initially turned down the offer to work on American Graffiti. “He’d fly up here to San Francisco every night, and shoot the picture all night, sleep on the plane down to Los Angeles, shoot all day on commercials, then fly back up here. He did that for almost five weeks. It was just an incredible gesture, and he did a fantastic job. The movie looked exactly the way I wanted it to look – very much like a carnival.”
A central element in American Graffiti is the 41 pop tunes included in the music soundtrack for the price of $80,000. “Walter Murch did the sound montages, and the amazing thing we found was that we could take almost any song and put it on almost any scene and it would work,” said George Lucas. “The most incredible example – and it was completely accidental – is in the scene where Steve and Laurie are dancing to Smoke Gets Into Your Eyes at the sock hop, and at the exact moment where the song is saying, ‘Tears I cannot hide,’ she backs off, and he sees that she’s crying.” The music of a particular American group features prominently in the picture. “In a way you could trace the film through the Beach Boys, because the Beach Boys were the only rock group who actually chronicled an era.” Reflecting on the theme of the film, Lucas remarked, “A line in the movie sums it up: ‘You can’t stay 17 forever.’ It became a great metaphor for what the country was going through at that point.”
“Graffiti worked the way it was going to work from the start,” stated George Lucas who, because of contract stipulations, had to cut down the story from 160 to 110 minutes. “It was paced very nicely and it had a good flow to it. After that all of our editorial efforts were in cutting almost an hour out of it but keeping the same pace that was in it originally and keeping the stories balance.” The studio executives were not impressed with the end result. “Universal hated the film so much they were contemplating selling it as a TV Movie of the Week.” The Hollywood studio backed off when Francis Ford Coppola intervened and offered to buy the picture from them. “The studio thought it was for the people out of college – between 25 and 30. But it was designed for people between 16 and 20, and then everybody from 10 to 60 went to see it.” American Graffiti grossed $115 million domestically. “I was getting hundreds and hundreds of letters, from kids especially, that were very positive, telling me how dramatically the film had changed their lives.”
At the Oscars, American Graffiti was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Candy Clark), Best Director, Best Editing, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Cindy Williams contended for Best Supporting Actress at the BAFTAs, George Lucas received a Directors Guild of America Award nomination, and the trio of Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck was presented with a Writers Guild of America Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay – Comedy. The Golden Globes lauded the coming of age tale with Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and Most Promising Newcomer – Male (Paul Le Mat) while handing out nominations for Best Director, and Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Richard Dreyfuss). “In a way, the film was made so my father won’t think of those as wasted years,” remarked George Lucas. “I can say I was doing research, though I didn’t know it at the time.” American Graffiti was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1995.
“American Graffiti gave George the success and money he needed to found Lucasfilm, and he immediately set out to bring the vision we shared into reality – the way he saw it,” observed Francis Ford Coppola. “I always see images flash in my head, and I just have to make those scenes,” revealed George Lucas. “I have an overwhelming drive to get that great shot of the two spaceships, one firing at the other as they drive through the space fortress. By God I want to see it. That image is in my head, and I won’t rest until I see it on the screen.” True to his word, Lucas established Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in 1975. “There was no alternative. I was making this huge special effects movie, and there was no special effects company around that could handle that kind of project.” There was another reason for founding ILM. “If you hire [Douglas] Trumbull to do your special effects he does your special effects. I was nervous about that. I wanted to be able to say, ‘It must look like this, not that.’”
His independent, creative and entrepreneurial spirit would be put to the test when George Lucas attempted to make his space opera into a cinematic reality.
Check back next week for part two of this feature.
Visit the official site of Lucasfilm.
Fonte: CGSociety http://features.cgsociety.org/story.php?story_id=6282&referer=rss