The Man Who Made Star Wars

The idea was to make a high adventure film for children. The result was the box-office hit of all time. The man responsible was George Lucas.

Wally Fong / AP

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."

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."

The winner was Lucas. He went to observe the making of Finian's Rainbow, and from that grew his partnership with Francis Ford Coppola. The new alliance gave him a chance to bring Murch into the crew of The Rain People, while Lucas served as "general assistant, assistant art director, production aide, general do-everything." On the side, Lucas worked on a documentary about the making of Coppola's film "more as therapy than anything else," he says. "I hadn't shot film for a long time." But his main occupation, between five and nine-thirty every morning, was work on a new version of the THX 1138 script, a project originally devised with Murch and Hal Barwood. It was Lucas's first feature script; he thought it was "terrible." Coppola, when shown it, said simply: "It is. You're absolutely right."

"I wanted to hire a writer," Lucas says, "but Francis said, 'No, if you're going to make it in this business you have to learn how to write.'" So, with Walter Murch, he prepared a new script; it became the first, and only, project of Coppola's company, American Zoetrope, as a studio.

The making of THX 1138 was like a film student's dream. There was enough money to work properly, but the studio chiefs in Los Angeles never saw rushes or dailies. Warner Brothers saw no material until the rough-out was taken down from San Francisco for their inspection. Only Coppola, the friend and patron of Lucas and Murch, had immediate influence on the operation; and he was, in effect, one of its architects. Working with friends allowed unorthodox methods.  Murch permitted the intricate sound track to grow along with the images hat Lucas was photographing, directing, and editing. The sound montage was an organic part of the film, nova decoration imposed afterward. The tiny crew, with the shaven-headed actors, could travel to locations in a single minibus. George Lucas was on his own.

The day Warner Brothers saw THX 1138, they abandoned director, producer, the American Zoetrope studio, and all that went with them. They left Lucas, with Coppola, deeply in debt. Worse, they recut THX 1138. "I don't feel they had the right to do it," Lucas says, "not after I had worked on that thing for three years for no money. When a studio hires you, that's different.  But when a film-maker develops a project himself, he has rights. The ludicrous thing is that they only cut out five minutes, and it really didn't make that much difference.  I think it's just a reflex action they have."

The film was not a commercial success, although it found a steady audience in universities around the campus circuit. In 1978, seven years later, when it was re-released in the form George Lucas had originally intended, it still did not take off. Even the fact that it came "from the makers of Star Wars" could not make its cold vision into something popular.

While Lucas was cutting THX 1138, the producer Gary Kurtz came to visit him. Kurtz wanted to discuss the problems and virtues of the Techniscope process, but the talk ranged more widely.  Together they speculated about a rock'n'roll film set in the late 1950s or the early 1960s, in the days before the Beatles and the killing of President Kennedy and the war in Vietnam. Over the next years, Lucas distilled his own adolescence in Modesto into a script. He worked with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, USC graduates, but the project was constantly stalled and shelved. George Lucas and his wife, Marcia, exhausted by the horrors of the Zoetrope collapse, set off for a long vacation in Europe, packs on their backs.

When they returned, Lucas found that United Artists was prepared to put up a little development money for his idea. He decided to hire a writer, but he found, quickly, that he should have stuck to Coppola's advice. The script was professional, but not authentic. With distaste, Lucas says: "The man had put in playing chicken on the road instead of drag racing."

"That was my life," Lucas explains. "I spent four years driving around the main street of Modesto, chasing girls. It was the mating ritual of my times, before it disappeared and everybody, got into psychedelia and drugs." He had no intention of allowing the film, which was to bear the title American Graffiti, to be inexact. He wanted to recreate the years of transition, before Vietnam, corruption, drugs, and time changed everything.

The tension between our dreams and Lucas's life is what makes American Graffiti work for so large an audience. The low-light filming, with its curious, golden radiance, becomes a dream. Time is collapsed. All the central characters are confronted with a turning point in the course of a single night. Yet that night could be placed anywhere within a decade. Cars and music span ten years, an era rather than a date. The slogan for the film—"Where were you in '62?"—makes the setting seem fixed in time, but it is not. The reality, the underpinning, is the music, and that goes from the start of Eisenhower's second term to the end of Kennedy's golden years. "George wrote the script," Walter Murch says, "with his old 45's playing in the background."  From the beginning, the group-Kurtz, Huyck, Katz, Murch, and Lucas-discussed which tune best went where. They open the film on a giant amber light; as the camera pulls back, we realize it is the marking on a radio dial. The structure of the film comes from the radio program, the songs that disc jockey Wolfman Jack plays. Characters take cues from the music.  And Wolfman Jack is the unseen center of it all, father figure as much as circus master. Like a father, he resolves problems, calms fears, arranges for meetings that would otherwise be only longings.

The one character who comes close to him is Curt, and after confronting him, Curt can escape the town, while the others stay fixed in their past. He is the would-be cynic with a romantic spirit, frightened of catching the plane to go away to college. He spends the night of the film's action, against his will, with a gang of punks. He catches a glimpse of a wonderful blond girl in a white T-bird, sailing past him on Third Street. For him, the Wolfman is his only means of contact with this golden vision. He finds the courage to drive out to the radio station, enter the corridors, face the station manager through a maze of reflecting glass; the sound track, in precise counterpoint, plays "Crying in the Chapel." The manager assures him the Wolfman is not there, the Wolfman is only on tape; but as Curt leaves, the manager puts back his head and lets out a Wolfman howl. In that moment of realization, Curt finds the power to face an outside world.

When the script of American Graffiti reached Ned Tannen's desk at Universal Pictures, it had already been rejected by United Artists, after their initial flush of interest, and it had been "turned down by every other company in town." But Tannen liked the idea. "God knows," he says, "I've made enough mistakes so I can say this wasn't one of them."

"I was having a very difficult time," Tannen says, "persuading the company to let me make American Graffiti." Partly, it was a project that came to Universal at the wrong time. "Universal was a very conservative company," Gary Kurtz says. "It was making most of its money in TV, and gearing most of its theatrical film to an eventual sale to TV." The unconventional would not, Universal feared, attract a free-spending network.

Then there was the problem of explaining American Graffiti to a board of directors. For Tannen, "it was just an idea. Nobody knew what it was. It wasn't based on some book that was a huge best-seller. It wasn't a special-effects movie where you have all sorts of gyrations and people could say, 'Oh, boy! That's terrific!' It was a terribly personal, small story." There was no single line on which it could be promoted. "Pictures like American Graffiti have to be discovered. There's no way you can hype that kind of a movie. What are you going to sell it on?" Even when the film was complete, Tannen says, "nobody in the company had any concept of what the film was. It's funny thinking of it now. It didn't seem funny then."

Universal made a condition for allowing the project to go ahead: Find a big name. Lucas did not want stars. The only figure who could possibly convince the all-powerful head of the studio, Lew Wasserman, was a producer-Francis Ford Coppola. He was, finishing The Godfather; he was established and known; he would do very well. Gary Kurtz remembers: "George and I went to Francis and asked him if he'd come into the project with us." The name proved enough for Universal to put $780,000 into making the film.

Evidently, the name was not enough to make Universal believe the project stood a chance of success. Lucas asked for $10,000 to buy the album rights to the songs he was planning to use on the sound track; Universal refused. When the film had been released, and its success was obvious, they had to pay $50,000 for the rights to the same material. While Coppola and Lucas were exiled from the lot by a strike of the Screen Writers Guild, the studio recut the film. They refused to release the film in stereophonic sound, although it had specifically been designed for stereo. And when they first saw a print, some angry studio executives believed the entire film was unfit to be released. Only after a stormy outburst by Coppola, standing at the back of a crowded San Francisco cinema, was the film saved. Universal owes its gigantic earnings to Coppola's temper.

Star Wars began as fourteen pages of story. United Artists, entitled to see each Lucas
project because of their interest in American Graffiti, refused it.  "Universal never formally said no," Gary Kurtz says, "but I knew from talking to the people there that they were uneasy about the idea." As Kurtz and Lucas continued to build enthusiasm within the film world for their earlier film, their new project for a space fantasy began to seem more plausible. It is a curious form of Hollywood logic: Back winners, whatever they do. "If it hadn't been for that success," Kurtz says, "we would not have been able to get Star Wars made at any studio, because they all had the same apprehensions."

This is how it worked. "We finished Graffiti at the end of January, and the answer print was ready in the first week of February," Lucas says. "That was when we had the arguments about the release dates. We made the deal [with Twentieth Century-Fox] on Star Wars on the first of May, and Graffiti came out in August. But the film was building before release. And it was really in Hollywood that it was beginning to build." All Twentieth Century-Fox promised in the May deal was the money to start developing a script. Like all Hollywood deals, this one moved step by cautious step. It did not guarantee the film would ever be written, let alone made. But by the second and third steps in the contract, American Graffiti was on release. "It did well in New York and Los Angeles, but it took a while to grow. We didn't know until well into October and November that it was going to be an enormous hit," Gary Kurtz says. Neither he nor Lucas could control the marketing of the film, or prevent Universal from selling off the rights in various states before exhibitors had a chance to see the film. Kurtz had planned to bide his time. "I thought we could go to theaters across the country after the first week and say, 'Look, the first week's take is good, the second week is good-book this picture!'" In the event, the second and third weeks of the release were what Variety calls "socko" and even "boffo."  Mr. Wasserman intervened.  He ordered his executives to scrap other bookings and make theaters bid again for the film.  Mr. Wasserman is not lightly disobeyed.

Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys ("I love them, I'm really into that"), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.

From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. "Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio," he says, "but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn't ask for another $1 million-just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade." Lucasfilm Ltd.,. the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, "already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff."

Lucas could argue, with reason, that he was protecting his own investment of two years' research and writing as well as his share of the $300,000 from Graffiti which he and Kurtz used as seed money for developing Star Wars. "We found Fox were giving away merchandising rights, just for the publicity," he says. "They gave away tie-in promotions with a big fast-food chain. They were actually paying these people to do this big campaign for them. We told them that was insane. We pushed and we pushed and we got a lot of good deals made." When the film appeared, the numbers became otherworldly: $100,000 worth of Tshirts sold in a month; $260,000 worth of intergalactic bubble gum; a $3 million advertising budget for presweetened Star Wars breakfast cereals. That was before the sales of black digital watches and citizens' band radio sets and personal jet sets.

The idea of Star Wars was simply to make a "real gee-whiz movie." It would be a high adventure film for children, a pleasure film which would be a logical end to the road down which Coppola had directed his apparently cold, remote associate. As Graffiti went out around the country, Lucas refined his ideas. He toyed with remaking the great Flash Gordon serials, with Dale Arden in peril and the evil Emperor Ming; but the owners of the rights wanted a high price and overstringent controls on how their characters were used. Instead, Lucas began to research. "I researched kids' movies," he says, "and how they work and how myths work; and I looked very carefully at the elements of films within that fairy-tale genre which made them successful."  Some of his conclusions were almost fanciful. "I found that myth always took place over the hill, in some exotic, far-off land. For the Greeks, it was Ulysses going off into the unknown. For Victorian England it was India or North Africa or treasure islands. For America it was Out West. There had to be strange savages and bizarre things in an exotic land. Now the last of that mythology died out in the mid-1950s, with the last of the men who knew the Old West. The last 'over the hill' is space."

Other conclusions were more practical. "The title Star Wars was an insurance policy. The studio didn't see it that way; they thought science fiction was a very bad genre, that women didn't like it, although they did no market research on that until after the film was finished. But we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars." Beyond that audience, Lucas was firm that the general public should be encouraged to see the film not as esoteric science fiction but as a space fantasy.

The final plot line was concocted after four drafts, in which different heroes in different ages had soared through space to worlds even wilder than those that finally appeared. It was a calculated blend. "I put in all the elements that said this was going to be a hit," Lucas says. He even put a value on them. "With Star Wars I reckoned we should do $16 million domestic"—that is, the distributors' share in the United States and Canada would amount to $16 million—"and, if the film caught right, maybe $25 million. The chances were a zillion to one of it going further."  Wall Street investment analysts, even after the film had opened, shared his doubts. They felt it could never match Jaws.

Both makers and analysts were wrong. Star Wars was a "sleeper," a film whose vast success was in doubt until after it had been open for a while. Meanwhile, Lucas and Kurtz had to do battle over budgets. The original sums were so tight that Kurtz told the board at Fox, "This will only work if everything goes perfectly. And it very rarely does." During shooting, the designer of monsters fell sick, his work for the sequence in a space tavern incomplete. The sequence did not work in its original form, but the studio would allow only $20,000 more to restage and reshoot the scene.

Compared with 2001 (Lucas calls Kubrick's film "the ultimate science fiction movie"), the special effects in Star Wars were cheap. Where Kubrick could allow his space stations to circle elegantly for a minute, Lucas had to cut swiftly between individual effects. But that became part of the film's design. Where Kubrick's camera was static, Lucas and Kurtz encouraged their special-effects team to develop ways to present a dogfight in space with the same realism as any documentary about World War II. As usual in animation, they prepared storyboards, precise drawings of how each frame was to look; but, unlike most animation, their drawings were based on meticulous study of real war footage. They looked for the elements that made an audience believe what they were seeing. For Lucas, it was a return to his original interests at USC-the basics of film, recreated with models, superimposition, paintings, and animation. "We used a lot of documentary footage," Kurtz says, "and some feature film footage. We looked at every war movie ever made that had air-to-air combat-from The Blue Max to The Battle of Britain. We even looked at film from Vietnam. We were looking for the reason each shot worked, the slight roll of the wings that made it look real."

John Dykstra, assistant to Douglas Trumbill on 2001, retreated to a warehouse in Van Nuys, California. There he developed a camera which could move through any axis, to match real-life movement of wing tips or fuselage; and linked it with a computer that could remember the movements and duplicate them exactly when a different model was before the camera. That way, two separate models, photographed separately, could seem to do precise battle. The surrounding planets were on a painted background; the laserfire was added by animation. Superimposition brought all the elements together. Developing the technique took most of the year and of the budget allocated to special effects. "The fact is that we didn't have the money," Lucas said later, "and the key to special effects is time and money. I had to cut corners like crazy. I cut scenes left and right. And I cut out over 100 special effects shots. The film is about 25 percent of what I wanted it to be."

Arguably, the technique worked better dramatically than did the spectacle of 2001. Lucas was invading the territory of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not a laboratory. He was making a series of Tolkein episodes, with dragons, hobbits, wizards like Gandalf and dark forces with storm troopers like Naz-Gul for support. There is no respect for science, no residue of a one-time staple of films-the menace of the atomic age. In this patch of deep space, giant craft can thunder like jet airplanes, and the London Symphony Orchestra can blast its romantic horns and violins. Mere physics says that space is silent. And Lucas contrives his battles well enough to spare us any desire to concentrate on the precise specifications of the craft involved.

But he does not tell a story. This is the basic failing of the film. It lacks true narrative drive and force. It is a void, into which any mystic idea can be projected; entertainment, brilliantly confected, which is quite hollow. Its only idea is individualism-that a man must take responsibility for others, even at great personal cost and peril. Its idea is, in classic form, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

The iconography is bizarre. Darth Vader, the dastardly villain, is black. That is commón in science fiction. In the supposedly liberal Planet of the Apes series, the wicked and stupid gorillas are the military, and they are black. The honey-colored chimpanzees are the wise, good scientists. The closer to the color of a California WASP, the better the character: it is a fair rule of thumb. But Darth Vader's forces are storm troopers armored in white. The wicked Grand Moff Tarkin lives in a gray-green world, with gray-green uniforms; he is clearly a wicked Nazi. Yet when our heroes take their just reward at the very end, there are images which parallel the finest documentary of Nazism, Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. "I can see," Kurtz says, "why people think that. I suppose it is like the moment when Hitler crosses the podium to lay the wreath." Critical confusion is not surprising when there are allusions to Nazism as both good and bad. French leftist critics thought the film was fascist; Italian rightists thought it was clearly communistic.

Nor is the vague, pantheistic deism of the film coherent. Star Wars talks much of The Force, a field of energy that permeates the universe and can be used for both good and evil. It is passed on with a sword, just as the sword Excalibur is passed on in the Arthurian romance; the influence of chivalric stories is strong. But when The Force is used by Luke Skywalker to help him destroy the monstrous Death Star, he is urged only to relax, to obey his instincts, to close his eyes and fight by feeling. The Force amounts to building a theology out of staying cool.

Star Wars has been taken with ominous seriousness. It should not be. The single strongest impression it leaves is of another great American tradition which involves lights, bells, obstacles, menace, action, technology, and thrills. It is pinball-on a cosmic scale.

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars went out on test release to twenty-five theaters.  In nine days, it had grossed $3.5 million.  Within two months it had recouped its $9 million costs, and it was in profit before its general release.

In real money terms, Star Wars was made for money that would not have bought a moderate drama in the early 1960s, if it involved overseas filming. Its marketing was directed, cleverly, at an audience which was known to exist-the young in summer. It was released carefully, at ordinary ticket prices. Its prospects had been properly researched. The cynics observed the signs and bought stock in Twentieth Century-Fox as fast as they could. As the share price soared, student audiences justified the rise.

On the profits, Twentieth Century-Fox waxed fat. It kept 60 percent of the film's earnings. Neither Kurtz nor Lucas would talk of how the rest was divided. Alec Guinness was said to be the richest actor in the world because the producers had given him an extra half point in the profits. British tax rates made that claim seem unlikely. But the real point of interest was the attitude of Kurtz and Lucas toward giving away profit to thank their associates. "Some of the profit was obligated by contract to certain people. Some of it wasn't," Kurtz says. "We used the uncommitted points to say 'thank you' to people for doing a good job. People tell me that's unheard of in the movie business, but I really don't think so. It's a private contract. People just don't talk about it."

George Lucas kept a sizable interest in any sequels to Star Wars. That was written into his original contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, at his insistence. The money will be the seed of his other projects. He still dreams of making personal films, concentrating on the poetry of cinema. Ned Tannen says, "The fact that Star Wars is the biggest hit ever made and that he doesn't think it is very good—that's what fascinates me about George. It's what I really admire about him—and I certainly think he is wrong."