I love George Lucas. I really do. I think the reason people express so much anger at him when they talk about his recent films is, ironically, because they love his work. He is responsible for more iconic characters and films than most filmmakers could ever dream of. A big reason why he achieved so much greatness is because early on he decided he wasn’t going to let adversity stop him from bringing his visions to life. This led to problems later in life when he didn’t allow criticism to shift his course for the better with the Star Wars prequels, but you’ve got to take the bad with the good, I guess.
Live Life Purposefully
It’s easier to make it through struggles when you believe that your life has a purpose. On June 12, 1962, 18-year-old George Lucas crashed his car into a tree at 100 miles per hour. The damage to his car was so catastrophic that he should have been killed, but something providential happened. As his car flipped over several times, his seatbelt ripped, and he was sent flying out an opening in the roof, away from the crunching metal that would have ended his life had he remained in the car when it hit the tree.
He was critically wounded and had to spend four months in a hospital. That gave him plenty of time to think about his life. Up to that point, he had spent most of his time focused on hotrods, late-night partying, and hardly anything of consequence. After the accident, he started to think about why he had been spared, what he really wanted in life, and what he should do with his time.
“Before the accident, I never used to think,” he said years later. “When you go through something like that it puts a little more perspective on things, like maybe you’re here for a reason.” Lucas is definitely alive for a reason. He is a superb filmmaker with a knack for tapping into our collective imagination and creating stories that are accessible to many cultures, age groups, and generations. Thank goodness his life was miraculously spared, and he went on to find his calling.
Prove People Wrong
Show people that you’re capable of much more than they think you are. After the critical success but commercial failure of his debut film THX 1138, Lucas was challenged by his friend and collaborator Francis Ford Coppola to do something light-hearted and character-driven for a change. Lucas had earned a reputation for focusing too much on hardware and not enough on people.
What did Lucas do in response? He created a little film called American Graffiti, which has a complex narrative structure, wall-to-wall music, and several memorable characters. And it does all of this without a single special effect. It is a deeply personal work that tells a slightly exaggerated version of Lucas’ teenage years, and it still holds up as a great coming-of-age story even today. It launched the careers of Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, and many other young stars. And it gave Lucas the box-office clout to get Star Wars off the ground. Way to prove your friend (and the world) wrong, George. You are a great storyteller.
When One Door Closes, Carve Your Own
If you get rejected for one opportunity, that might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you when something better comes along. Lucas didn’t take rejection lying down. When he was unable to obtain the rights to turn his beloved Flash Gordon serials into a film, he took on the much more arduous (and rewarding) task of creating his own space opera from scratch. He borrowed ideas from Joseph Campbell, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, and many other remarkable people to create something both original and classic: Star Wars.
Later, when his friend Steven Spielberg wasn’t chosen to be the director of a James Bond film, Lucas told him about a little idea he had for an adventure film featuring an archaeologist who scours the globe for hidden treasures. Of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark became a huge hit and created an action hero whose popularity rivals the world’s most famous spy.
I’ve heard that Lucas wrote Willow after being rebuffed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate for the film rights to The Hobbit, but I’ve never been able to confirm that that’s true. So I’ll just say that even if it’s not Lucas’ version of The Hobbit, Willow is further proof of his ability to turn a familiar-sounding story into something that is uniquely his own. It’s a good addition to the pantheon of fantasy films – better than Krull, though not as good as The Princess Bride. The point is that Lucas never has to rely solely on someone else’s work to tell great stories.
Start Small and Then Build Like Crazy
It’s okay to scale back your vision when necessary, but when you get a chance to realize your lofty goals, take it. In his first draft of the script for The Star Wars (later shortened to the name we all know and love), Lucas tried to do way too much. It had too many origin stories, character arcs, and insane plots involving Kiber crystals and other bizarre things. He realized he had enough material for several films, so he decided to take the middle part and focus on that for the time being. Thankfully, the first film he got out of all that whittling was the one that was most feasible to produce given the budgetary and technological constraints of the time: A New Hope.
Even with his truncated scope for the first film in what would become the Star Wars saga, Lucas still had to cut out a lot just to get the film made. He had to settle for one Wookiee instead of a whole planet of them, and he had to leave a lot to the audience’s imagination when showing alien cities and planets. Luckily, those limitations worked in the film’s favor and left audiences hungering for more in the end. With each sequel, Lucas made good on the promises of the first film and he added more creative touches, special effects, and character twists until he weaved a beautiful tapestry of storytelling.
Trust Your Friends
You can’t do everything by yourself. You often have to trust other people to help you make it through difficult challenges. When Lucas finished the marathon principal photography portion of Star Wars, he returned to California and discovered that he had no editor for his film. To avert disaster, he desperately turned to his then-wife Marcia Lucas, who had edited American Graffiti. She did a superb job turning what could have become an incoherent mess into a fast-moving and always-engaging narrative flow.
Many other times, Lucas has turned to his friends to help him with his important projects. He had Coppola produce American Graffiti, he asked Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to add snappier dialogue to Star Wars, he tapped Spielberg to direct all of the Indiana Jones films (so far), and he got his old apprentice Ron Howard to direct Willow. Most of the times that he’s worked with friends have been incredibly successful. Of course, the glaring exception is Howard the Duck, which he executive produced for Huyck and Katz. Nobody’s perfect.
Do the Impossible
Don’t let others tell you what you’re capable of. Find out for yourself by trying something that seems impossible. When Lucas promised Twentieth Century Fox that it was possible to make a grand adventure film set in outer space for just $13 million, even he probably thought he was crazy. At that point, the only other film to attempt such photorealistic special effects was 2001: A Space Odyssey. And that movie had taken many years and re-releases to finally recoup its costs. Thank goodness Alan Ladd, Jr. had faith in the project, and he gave Lucas a chance to pull off the seemingly impossible task of making a profitable sci-fi tale that would appeal to a broad audience.
To accomplish this technical feat, Lucas created a special-effects team virtually from scratch. He hired an eclectic group of animators, TV commercial producers, artists, pyrotechnicians, sound designers, and more, and gave them the task of creating something film audiences had never seen or heard before. The results are simply stunning. Not only do the special effects in Star Wars hold up well even today, they are perfectly integrated with the story because Lucas couldn’t afford to let anything go to waste. All of this paved the way (and set a great example) for other filmmakers to follow.
For better or worse, George Lucas became a huge success thank to his inability to accept defeat. He always managed to turn problems into opportunities. There’s a lot that we can all learn from him.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
The image of George Lucas and Alec Guinness is the copyright of Twentieth Century Fox.