Modesto is a small California town that gains its livelihood from its shops and its farms. Beyond its few streets lies the walnut ranch where George Lucas was raised. The town has one cinema on its main street. "Films by Jean-Luc Godard," George Lucas says, "do not play Modesto."
Cashing in on Star Wars
The other empire that George Lucas built is booming still.
It follows that Lucas grew up away from the sophisticated influence that a major city would have offered. His adolescent passion was drag racing. He was one of the "Superkids," a member of the developing teenage subculture that separated from its community to form a mobile, affluent group on its own. He cruised Modesto's "strip" at night, chasing girls, listening to the blare of the car radio. He was determined to be an auto mechanic and a racing driver, someone who had access to the marvelous, sleek machines that sped legally on tracks instead of perilously on country roads. The dream left little time for schoolwork. He dropped out of high school and barely made junior college. There, he took photographs for racers, and thought of becoming a painter; he also studied sociology.
His interest in film came accidentally. He helped build a racing car for Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer; and he narrowly escaped death in a car crash. The meeting and the accident convinced him that he should use his visual talents rather than his mechanical ones. Painting was a gamble, and photography was problematic. The simplest and easiest solution seemed to be film school. Wexler helped Lucas to get into the University of Southern California. "I got there on a fluke," Lucas says, "and coming from a small town with one little theater, I didn't really have that much background. Producer and director were for me the same general category-the person who made the movies."
His background in painting drew Lucas to the animation department of USC, and the benevolent influence of Herb Kosewer. From there he moved to cinematography, and by the end of his, film-school days he had become, by his own admission, "an editing freak." The progression is logical. It left him with a fascination for what he calls "visual film, the sort of thing the French unit of the National Film Board of Canada was producing." It was film as tone-poem, film as metaphor, film divorced from narrative form; he still feels uneasy with theatrical film and its need to push a story along. That weakness shows in Star Wars: Lucas makes a marvelous fireworks display, but finds it difficult to link the explosions and stars and rockets.
In school, he found Truffaut and Godard; he learned to love the sensuality of Fellini. He discovered the underground film-makers of San Francisco, avantgarde directors such as Jordan Belson. "At USC we were a rare generation because we were open-minded. I was influenced by John Milius and his taste for Kurosawa and Japanese cinema. I liked documentaries by the Maysles brothers and Leacock and Pennebaker. But we also had guys there who did nothing but Republic serials and comic books. I was being exposed to a whole lot of movies you don't see every day."
Lucas was a star pupil, but not exactly a model. He dominated student film festivals with movies more sophisticated and accomplished than his peers'. But he constantly broke rules. He bought extra footage to make films longer than class projects allowed. He used his first one-minute allocation of film to produce the animated short which won him first prize in the National Student Film Festival. In all, he made eight films while an undergraduate.
Lucas rushed through his undergraduate work because he expected to be drafted for the war in Vietnam, but when his turn came he was classified 4F and exempted from service. For a time, he worked as a cameraman for Saul Bass, the designer of movie titles and director of animated films. He made a living cutting documentaries for the United States Information Agency. "That," he says, "was when I decided that I really wanted to be a director." He went back to USC graduate school for a single semester-January to June in 1968. He was a teaching assistant; he trained Navy photographers; and he assembled a formidable crew to make a science fiction short called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138: 4EB. It was a simple, stark picture of some future authoritarian society. Computers and electronic codes are set against a man running the length of a blind white corridor. Every move is watched; reality is monitored by cameras and screens. It is powerful but simplistic, a metaphor rather than a narrative.
In it, Walter Murcti played the voice of God; it was partly his script. But George Lucas was the director. The pair made "a blood pact like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn," according to Murch. Both were up for a Warner Brothers scholarship to watch films being made in a studio. They had been collaborators throughout their college days, and "we agreed," Murch says, "that whoever got the scholarship would turn around and help the other guy."