Evolution of a filmmaker

Before the empire, there was the auteur who just wanted to be left alone

The mythology of the “Stars Wars” sextet has been traced to the archetypes of Carl Jung, the “magical thinking” of “The Golden Bough” and our collective dream life as deconstructed by Joseph Campbell. But to hear George Lucas tell it, his life story — as film or opera — would resemble that of a character of classic literature: Faust.

“I said, ‘I’ll do just one regular old Hollywood movie on a soundstage,’ ” Lucas recalls. “And that little whim is what got me into ‘Star Wars.’ And, unfortunately, that little whim turned into my life.”

Unfortunately?

“Well, for better or worse, let’s put it that way.”

Some would say Lucas sacrificed his art — evident, if nebulously, in his pre-“Star Wars” career — for money and control. Others would ask, “What’s wrong with that?”

The filmmaker’s fable, whatever its moral, belies the fears on both sides of the debate between movie art and business: If Lucas was, as he claims today, a guy who wanted to make documentaries and abstract films, the results since “Star Wars” — aka What Happens When Art Guy Gets All the Money and Control He Wants — would likely be as confusing to both sides as Chewbacca describing an episode of “Desperate Housewives.”

“On a personal level, Lucas could make any film he wanted to and not have a second thought about the financial consequences,” says Dale Pollock, author of “Skywalking: The Life and Times of George Lucas.” “Of course, he has had that power for the past 30 years and not done a single personal film that he is once again promising to make.”

How Lucas got into his purported better-or-worse position is a tale in itself — one of seduction. In the central role is a USC film school grad and documentarian from the San Francisco Bay Area making “street films” and exploring the experimental side of cinema. And in the role of the Prince of Darkness: Francis Ford Coppola. OK, the malevolence might be missing, but the subplot of fate and free will is front and center.

“Francis was the overriding factor in those days,” Lucas says of his early career in San Francisco, when he was part of a collective of cinema revolutionaries that included Philip Kaufman, Fred Roos and Tom Luddy, among others. They were all hopped up on the idea, as producer Gary Kurtz put it, that “independent filmmakers were gaining more and more power and the studios were losing more and more control.”

Although Lucas and Coppola paid tribute to Kurosawa when they later helped finance “Kagemusha” (1980) and shades of Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” are present in “Star Wars,” Lucas’ filmmaking heroes are more arcane, including the documentarian Claude Jutra and experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett.

At the time, Lucas had done his student version of the dystopic “THX 1138” and a number of short docus including “Herbie” and “Freiheit.”

“When I came to San Francisco, (Coppola) was very much into doing theatrical motion pictures,” says Lucas. “And, y’know, with ‘THX,’ he said, ‘You can do this as a film.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t want to do theatrical motion pictures; I want to do abstract films.’ And he said, ‘Well, just do the best you can.’ ”

Calling “THX” more or less “the best I could do in terms of theatrical movies,” Lucas leaves out all the help he had — not from Coppola, necessarily, but from Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick and a little movie called “2001,” which had left a few doors open on its merry way through the collective consciousness.

The late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael described “THX” as exhibiting “some talent but too much ‘art.’ Movie lovers may enjoy ticking off the homages or steals — Cocteau’s ‘Orpheus,’ Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc,’ and so on.”

“(Coppola) basically encouraged me to do what I wanted to do,” Lucas says, “which obviously was not what the studio wanted me to do. But I had this opportunity to do something that is sort of halfway between a theatrical film and an abstract underground movie. And I knew I’d never get a shot at that again. And that it would probably finish off my career. And I could continue being a documentary filmmaker.”

It didn’t happen, of course, even if “THX” was all but abandoned by its studio.

” ‘THX 1138’ was just mind-boggling, quantum leaps from what other people were doing,” says actor-turned-director Ron Howard, who attended USC film school a decade after Lucas, “even though he said he only got a B on it. But even then he wasn’t interested in working inside the box.”

In a 1997 reminiscence, Joseph Gelmis — author of “The Film Director as Superstar” — remembered the effect of seeing “THX” on TV in 1973. “Two years earlier, Hollywood and the New York critical community — myself included — had basically written off the young writer-director as a techie with a lot to learn about character, empathy and storytelling,” Gelmis wrote.

“But on television, ‘THX 1138’ was a revelation. Instead of looking mutilated and fragmented, like most movies chewed upon every few minutes by commercials, ‘THX 1138′ was the first film I’d ever seen swallow the commercials. Whole. They were incorporated into George Lucas’ vision of a Big Brother society using video conditioning as an instrument of mind control (‘Be Happy, Buy More!’).”

It was at the further urging of Coppola — who provided not just a portal to fame and fortune but protection from the studios — that Lucas made the transition from avant-gardist to pop artificer. “Francis sort of challenged me again,” Lucas says, recalling how his mentor urged him to do a comedy, something sans robotic bells and doomsday whistles.

‘Graffiti’ artist

And that’s how “American Graffiti” came about. Drawn from Lucas’ youth cruising the streets of Modesto, Calif., “Graffiti” pointed to a filmmaker more grounded in character than mise en scene, and its thoughtful pace seems almost European compared to what would come later.

The “Graffiti” set was unlike “anything I had experienced up to that point,” says Howard of the coming-of-age story in which he starred at 18, “which was really a reflection of old-school, highly traditional Hollywood filmmaking. So to me it was sort of revelatory, the spirit of the crew, the technical experimentation and adventurousness of the approach: use of multiple cameras, the spontaneity. It was just all brand new to me.”

Adds Kurtz, “George’s background had been in documentary work and he approached his features very much that way: set up two cameras and let the actors go though the scene and not have to shoot inserts or coverage if you’ve got everything. And part of ‘American Graffiti’ was shot that way. It had a very naturalistic feel about it.”

Time magazine critic Jay Cocks wrote, “Few films have shown quite so well the eagerness, the sadness, the ambitions and the small defeats of a generation of young Americans.”

Writing for Penthouse, Roger Greenspun called it a “powerfully abstract film — as much committed to exploring a country of the mind as to examining any town in Northern California.”

It is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll movies in accurately capturing what was joyous about the music, and life, in post-Eisenhower, pre-Kennedy assassination America. But it also is a movie that yearns painfully for the past. Lucas admits — while resisting the word “nostalgia” — that a “big thing” in “THX” and “Star Wars,” is “the idea that things constantly change and you can’t hold on to stuff.”

But holding on to stuff is precisely what Lucas’ films have been about. “THX” is about banished freedoms, “Graffiti” is about vanishing youth and “Star Wars” works because it taps into that Joseph Campbell theory — proved out by everyone from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Michael Bay — that cultural beings have shared stories, and unavoidable narratives.

At the time of “Graffiti,” Lucas also was letting go of his own stuff, which included his aesthetic connection to the San Francisco film collective. As perceived by Kurtz — who would produce “Graffiti” and the “Stars Wars” films — the S.F. crowd was a mutual admiration society.

Bay Area camaraderie

“There were parties, dinners,” adds Fred Roos. “Francis had not moved up to Napa yet, and he had this big house in Pacific Heights. He would give these gigantic dinners and screen films. I remember seeing a long, long version of ‘Star Wars’ before George ever pared it down. Everybody would give notes and thoughts. They wouldn’t hold back. It was just a collegial feeling.”

Unfortunately, as Philip Kaufman once pointed out, “success separates people,” although Lucas’ move into pop films was never looked at judgmentally.

“It was the kind — no a kind — of film George was interested in,” says Kaufman of “Star Wars.” The helmer behind “The Right Stuff” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” was originally set to direct “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and developed the story with Lucas, but the assignment eventually went to Steven Spielberg.

Kaufman has nothing but praise for Lucas now. “People could see something special in what George was doing, even in those early films,” he says. “I think it was the one he did about Francis’ film, ‘Rain People’ (“Filmmaker”). George had the ability to find the right place in the right moment. Later, he made his moments. But even then he was attracting attention.”

But even when he was making “American Graffiti,” Lucas was thinking about the ” ‘Flash Gordon’ movie” that would digest his next three decades. And now? Can he go back, pre-CGI and Hayden Christensen, to a place long ago and far away, when people drove ’57 Chevys, wore DAs and listened to Danny and the Juniors?

“I’m probably going to go back and do films that are more like ‘THX,’ ” he says, “so I’m going back even further.”

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