George’s immutable Force

George Lucas has many gifts, but conviviality is not one of them. Even when he was a kid shooting “American Graffiti,” his casting director, Fred Roos, recalls that Lucas couldn’t explain what sort of actors he was looking for, so the young filmmaker interviewed virtually every young actor in America.

When Lucas finished shooting his film, he couldn’t communicate persuasively with the production bureaucrats at Universal, so they came close to discarding a film that would go on to become the biggest sleeper of its generation. Lucas’ pal at the time, Francis Coppola, could schmooze with the best of them (he schmoozed up the financing for “Graffiti”), but even today Lucas couldn’t sell a free holiday to Tom DeLay.

Hence you have to empathize with Lucas at this moment when he is forced to take center stage. “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” is opening worldwide and all the fans are again looking to their seer for words of wisdom.

And Lucas is trying to respond, giving a series of cryptic interviews that are at once intriguing and perplexing. Surveying his various mixed messages, here is what one concludes:

  • Lucas plans to focus on making low-budget art films — “vaguely esoteric,” in his words — yet is forging ahead with two “Star Wars” television series and a major animation initiative based in Singapore.

  • Lucas is weary of running a big corporation whose revenues are almost $1 billion a year, but is leading his 1,500 employees this summer into a new $350 million compound in the Presidio that has changed the landscape of downtown San Francisco.

  • Lucas is urging his executives to plan a “life without George,” but at 61 seems as hyperactive as ever and appears to run his empire down to the last detail.

“People think of me as a sort of pathological, Howard Hughes-type guy sitting in a hotel room, which is definitely not so,” he told Time magazine’s Richard Schickel.

Can there be a “life without George?” I don’t know the answer to this question, but I am certain about one thing: I don’t plan to ask George.

I recall another occasion when I asked George a tough question many years ago. “The Conversation,” which Coppola had directed, had been mired in the cutting room for almost a year and, despite finetuning, the Gene Hackman movie still didn’t seem to click.

One day Lucas came by to screen the film at his friend’s behest and, after the lights went back on, I saw him standing alone in the back of the theater. I was the studio functionary who was in charge of the film, so I approached him and said: “Our release date is looming. You’ve seen the film several times, how do you feel about this cut?”

Lucas gave me his usual noncommittal stare. “Better,” he replied. I waited for amplification. I just got the stare.

“Any ideas for fixes?” I asked, knowing I was pushing it.

“Yup,” he said. And that was the conclusion of our talk.

I think any serious questions about Lucas’ future plans would meet with an equally articulate effusion.

* * *

The first time I visited Disneyland, my guide turned out to be Walt himself, but I was too distracted for the first few minutes of our tour to appreciate the surroundings. I wanted to figure out whether The Rumor was true: Did Walt Disney really dislike children? Last week’s 50th anniversary festivities reminded me of that visit.

As Walt showed me around Disneyland, I could quickly see that he was focused on the mechanisms and the design, not “the show” itself. In his own way, he was a poet, but he was also an engineer. As we explored the place, a steady stream of children wandered by, but my host did not take any special interest in them, nor did he stop to observe how they were busying themselves. Yet after a few minutes, my feeling about The Rumor was simply this: It wasn’t that Walt disliked children, it was simply that he had created this place for adults — and for himself — and if kids happened by, so much the better.

And, yes, I found myself liking Walt Disney. But I felt that he hadn’t set out to create anything as portentous as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” He just wanted it to be a damned interesting playground for grown-ups who were still kids at heart.

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