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George Lucas Is Being Cranky at Cannes

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Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images

Sorry, fellow nerds, George Lucas has no intentions of releasing the original versions of the first Star Wars trilogy on home video anytime soon. When asked about it during a lengthy on-stage interview at the Cannes Film Festival, Lucas noted that they’d already been released on laserdisc and that everyone at the time said they looked terrible. (I can confirm this, but they looked awful because of the shoddy video mastering, not the actual source material.) He also insisted that the special effects on the original films were incomplete — “movies get abandoned, they don’t get finished” he said, echoing Leonardo Da Vinci — and that part of his reasons for restoring, revising, and adding new VFX to them in the late 1990s was because he wanted to complete them the way he saw them. “I’m a firm believer that the director or the writer or the filmmaker should have a right to have his movie be the way he wants it,” he added, sounding slightly more annoyed than usual.

None of this is news, of course. And Lucas’s wide-ranging chat at Cannes didn’t exactly offer any revelations. Rather, it was a chance for the packed audience to sit in the presence of the man who made Star Wars for 90 minutes. (The wild standing ovation he received beforehand, complete with several rounds of boisterous cheers, confirmed this fact; it was by far the most enthusiastic applause I’ve heard at the festival this year.) And the avuncular, soft-spoken Lucas was very much in character in his now-iconic leisurewear of checkered untucked shirt, loose and comfy pants, and big sneakers that look like well-used pillows. None of which should come as a surprise, but at a festival where security might tase you for wearing the wrong-colored bowtie on the red carpet, it was certainly notable. We’ll see if Monsieur Lucas will don the obligatory tuxedo for the festival’s closing ceremony tomorrow night, where he’s due to receive an honorary Palme.

It’s always fun listening to Lucas recount his remarkable road to success and how he managed to maintain and build on that success. He’s always so matter of fact about it. “We were never interested in making money,” he said at the start of the conversation, talking about how New Hollywood filmmakers such as himself, his mentor Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and others managed to revolutionize the American movie industry. “We just wanted to make movies.” He then spent a good part of his 90-minute chat talking about money.

Not in a bad way, though. Lucas revolutionized licensing and merchandising on the first Star Wars, and he recounted how that was one of the keys to the film’s success. “Licensing in those days did not exist because it took longer to build a toy than it did to make a movie,” he recalled. He said that he spent the two years before the movie’s release going to Star Trek and comic book conventions with Star Wars posters and T-shirts, building up interest in the film among a core audience of genre devotees. When the film finally opened in 1977, its struggling studio, 20th Century Fox only released it in 32 theaters, because its board of directors hated it. When the lines started going around the block, they expanded it to more than a thousand screens, an unprecedented number for that time.

Lucas expounded to the audience at length about the difference between net profits and gross profits (in short: net profits, which only kick in after shady studio accountants deduct all sorts of real and imaginary costs, are useless, while gross profits are where you make real money), and about how he managed to finagle gross profits on Star Wars after only getting net profits on American Graffiti. He also discussed how he managed to secure sequel rights to the first Star Wars because his original script was so long and he’d cut most of it out. He also knew that the studio’s initial contempt for the film, coupled with the fact that Fox was about to be sold anyway, meant that they didn’t care about the sequel rights.

Lucas also talked at length about his friendship with fellow Cannes attendee Francis Ford Coppola, who transformed his career at several points in their early years. It was Coppola who suggested that Lucas stick with him during the making of Finian’s Rainbow (1968), at a time when Lucas had decided he was bored with being on film sets and intended to try his hand at animation instead. Later, Lucas joined Coppola on the tiny crew for his low-budget road movie The Rain People (1969), as they traveled across the country improvising locations and scenes. (Lucas didn’t discuss the excellent short documentary about Coppola that he made during this time, called Filmmaker: A Diary, but you should check it out if you haven’t.) At the end of that shoot, Lucas told Coppola he intended to go back to San Francisco and make short experimental films. Coppola told him to write a feature length script instead, which he promised to produce.

That 1971 debut feature, the Robert Duvall-starring THX-1138, actually played at Cannes, in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar. The studio wouldn’t pay his way to France, so Lucas and his sound editor Walter Murch (who was also present during his Cannes talk this year) pooled their money and went to Cannes on their own, where they had to buy tickets to see their own movie. Lucas recalled that some years later, a reporter at Cannes asked him why he skipped the press conference for THX-1138. “We didn’t know there was a press conference!” Lucas exclaimed.

After THX-1138 failed to recoup its cost, the studio asked for its money back. Desperate for funds, Coppola took on the job of directing The Godfather. When Lucas asked how he could help, Coppola suggested he write a comedy. “If you want to make a movie, don’t make one of these artsy sci-fi whatever,” he recalled Coppola saying. “I dare you to make a comedy.” Which is how Lucas came to write American Graffiti, whose incredible success gave him the clout to make Star Wars.

Lucas recounted that after Universal executives first saw American Graffiti at a preview screening, they hated it. The screening was packed, and the audience had loved the film, but he recalled Lew Wasserman, the head of the studio, coming to him and Coppola after the screening and telling them they should be ashamed of the film. “Francis got very mad at him,” he said, “and we were having this big fight in the back of the theater. Francis said, ‘How dare you? This kid almost killed himself making this movie, shooting it in 28 days and nights. How dare you at least not say it was an interesting movie?’”

Afterwards, Lucas and Coppola slowly started having more preview screenings, always with a packed, receptive crowd, slowly making their way back to the film division executives, who eventually changed their minds. American Graffiti would go on to become the third highest grossing release of 1973, and, given its low budget, probably one of the most profitable pictures of all time. It set Lucas up to make Star Wars on his own terms. And then keep making it, sequel after sequel.

“But that was Hollywood then,” Lucas said. “I’ve been retired for 10 years. I’m not sure what it’s like now.”

More From the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

  • All the Films Sold at Cannes 2024
  • Kelly Rowland Explains What Happened on Cannes Red Carpet
  • The Best Movie at Cannes This Year Is an Oddball Canadian Comedy

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Bilge Ebiri , 2024-05-25 00:28:14

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