American filmmaker George Lucas (born 1944) was responsible for the creation of a number of the most profitable movies in history, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. Lucas is also responsible for many technical innovations in filmmaking, especially special effects.
Lucas was born in Modesto, California on May 14, 1944, the only son among George and Dorothy Lucas's four children. His father sold office supplies and equipment and owned a walnut farm. George Lucas Sr. found his son difficult to understand and quite stubborn. Lucas enjoyed racing cars and was the proud owner of a souped-up Fiat in high school. He was not a good student, and barely made passing grades. Shortly before graduating from high school, Lucas was involved in a serious car accident and nearly died from his injuries. With broken ribs, Lucas spent three months in the hospital. This experience seriously affected his outlook on life. Lucas decided that he wanted to go to art school. His parents refused to support this decision, however, so Lucas instead studied social sciences at Modesto Junior College.
While at Modesto, Lucas developed an interest in photography and film. He began making films with an 8mm camera, though he knew little about the art and its history. Lucas combined his new interest with an old one when he began to photograph car races. He also became involved in the building of race cars. One was built for Haskell Wexler, a famous cinematographer, who befriended Lucas. With the cinematographer's help, Lucas entered the film program at the University of Southern California (USC). Lucas had a variety of interests in film school. He began in animation, then moved on to cinematography and editing. Lucas was determined to succeed as a filmmaker, and produced eight student films. One of these films, 1965's THX-1138: 4EB won several awards, including a first prize at the National Student Festival. In this short film, Lucas explored his version of the future.
Lucas graduated from USC in 1967 and worked on the fringes of the film industry for several years, holding odd jobs. He spent time as a cameraman for Saul Bass, filmed part of the infamous 1968 Rolling Stones concert in Altamonte, California, and worked as an editor for documentaries produced by the United States Information Agency. While working for the USIA he met Marcia Griffin, a film editor. They married in 1969, and adopted a child in 1981. The couple divorced in 1984 and Lucas later adopted two children on his own.
In 1969, Lucas won a scholarship from Warner Bros., which allowed him to watch a film being made. He was on the set of a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola entitled Finian's Rainbow. Lucas and Coppola developed a strong friendship. Lucas became an advisor on Finian's Rainbow and assisted in the editing room. This was the break he needed. Lucas worked on Coppola's next film, The Rain People, and made a documentary about the production called Filmmaker.
First Feature Film
Through Coppola's newly founded film studio and independent production company, San Francisco's American Zoetrope, Lucas made his first feature, THX-1138. Based on the short film he made as a student, the full length movie took the futurism to an extreme. With an intelligent story, and no real special effects, Lucas's version of the future was not unlike George Orwell's 1984 with some elements of his future hit, Star Wars. Though produced through Zoetrope, the financing for THX-1138 were provided in part by Warner Bros. The studio did not like the film, and wanted their money back. Coppola convinced them to reconsider. After Warner Bros. edited five minutes off the film, THX-1138 finally saw a limited release in 1971. It was never promoted by the studio. THX-1138 was not a commercial success and received mixed reviews. Critics praised the technical aspects, but found the story to be derivative of other science fiction films. In 1978, THX-1138 was re-released with the missing minutes restored, and it quickly became a cult classic.
Success with American Graffiti
In 1973, Lucas experienced his first real success as a filmmaker with American Graffiti. The film was a nostalgic look at the early 1960s as Lucas remembered it, down to the most exacting details. The story focused on one summer night in 1962, and followed teenage boys and their cars. Lucas co-wrote the script and directed it, with Coppola serving as a co-producer. American Graffiti had a budget of a little more than $750,000 and was filmed in less than a month. Initially Universal, the studio which financed the production, was not happy with the finished product. Coppola offered to buy the film and release it himself. Although the studio did not believe it would make a profit, American Graffiti was released nonetheless. It took several months for the film to build a following, but American Graffiti became the sleeper hit of the year. By 1975, the film had grossed over $50 million; by 1998, $115 million. American Graffiti was one of the most profitable films of the 1970s, and received five Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe for best comedy. Lucas was honored with several best screenplay awards.
Star Wars Redefined Blockbuster
As soon as American Graffiti was completed, Lucas began working on the script for Star Wars. He planned his space fantasy as three sequential, interrelated trilogies, of which Star Wars was the first episode of the middle trilogy. This science fiction film included aspects of westerns, soap operas, serial swashbucklers, and other genres as well. Lucas told Gerald Clarke of Time, "I wanted Star Wars to have an epic quality, so I went back to the epics. Whether they are subconscious or unconscious, whatever needs they meet, they are stories that have pleased or provided comfort to people for thousands of years." The Lucas-directed Star Wars was released to near universal praise in May 1977. His very personal vision appealed to a mass audience. The film smashed all box-office records as audiences viewed it repeatedly.
One of the reasons for the success of Star Wars was its spectacular special effects and definitive production design. As with his earlier films, Lucas paid particular attention to details. Star Wars won Academy Awards for its special effects and technical aspects. Though Star Wars was made for about $10.5 million, the film grossed $400 million worldwide before its re-release in 1997. Despite this success, the experience of making the film left Lucas exhausted. A retiring man with simple pleasures, he found directing the massive set of Star Wars to be overwhelming at times. Lucas did not direct another film for twenty years.
Despite his experience directing Star Wars, Lucas proved to be a wise businessman. He declined to take a director's fee for his work on the film, in exchange for rights to merchandising. Lucas also retained the rights to the Star Wars sequels. It was the former, however, that made him immediately rich. Lucas merchandised Star Wars in every conceivable way, through books, toys, kits, and consumer items. Between 1977 and 1980, Lucas made $500 million off of Star Wars merchandise. He managed the merchandising through his company (Lucas Film Ltd.), established in 1979. Lucas set up other companies to deal with organizing his burgeoning film empire.
By 1980, the second installment in the trilogy was released. In the production of The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was only the executive producer and wrote the story on which the script was based. There was some critical debate over the merits of the more complex story, but many noted that the special effects were technically better. The Empire Strikes Back earned $365 million at the box office. After his hands-off approach, Lucas returned to a more active role in 1983's The Return of the Jedi. He co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasden, and again served as executive producer. Reviews were even more mixed than with The Empire Strikes Back. While special effects were excellent, critics thought they were overused and overwhelmed the characters and the story. As a whole, the trilogy grossed $1 billion. Their merchandising licenses, however, brought in over $3 billion.
Created Indiana Jones
At the time Lucas began developing his concept for Star Wars, he had the idea that eventually led to another trilogy of films. The Indiana Jones series was developed as an homage to Saturday matinee serials and adventure films of the 1940s. Lucas conceived the story for the first Indiana Jones movie, entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark, and served as producer. His story again found mass appeal, both from critics and audiences. Lucas's involvement decreased in the next two Indiana Jones movies. He wrote the story for 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and produced Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Both of these films were not as popular as the first installment, with many critics finding the films to be derivative. Lucas used the Indiana Jones character in a 1992 series he produced for television. Entitled The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Lucas conceived of all the stories, but the show only lasted for one season.
Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Lucas primarily worked as a producer, with mixed success. Movies such as Labyrinth (1985), Howard the Duck (1986), and Radioland Murders (1994) were box office failures. Other films were more successful creatively and at the box office, such as Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and Willow. (1988)
With profits from his film successes and Lucas Film, Ltd., Lucas founded Skywalker Ranch, a production facility near the Bay Area in California. Lucas based all of his companies there, which covered every aspect of film. One in particular changed the face of the film industry. Originally founded to handle the special effects for Star Wars, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) advanced film technology through research and development. ILM branched out to do innovative special effects for other movies, such as Star Trek and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. ILM was responsible for THX, a digital sound system found in many theaters. Despite his contributions to the film industry, some critics believe that the emphasis on special effects overwhelmed the stories they were supposed to enhance. Lucas disagreed telling Richard Zoglin of Time, "Special effects are just a way of visualizing something on screen. They have expanded the limits of storytelling enormously."
Returned to Star Wars
Though many doubted the other two Star Wars trilogies would ever be made, in 1994, Lucas began writing the scripts for the prequel trilogy. To prepare audiences, Lucas and Twentieth Century Fox reissued enhanced "special editions" versions of the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters beginning in 1997. Using the technology developed by his companies, Lucas fixed some of the errors in the first films and included scenes that technological limitations had previously prevented. In total, he added four and a half minutes to Star Wars.
In May 1999, Lucas released The Phantom Menace, the first installment of the prequel trilogy. Lucas directed this film and wrote the script. Because of the success of the Star Wars trilogy, a bidding war developed over the rights to release what would be guaranteed profit makers as well as the rights to make the toys. Because Lucas tapped into a childhood consciousness that was universal, his films have changed the world's standards for entertainment.
Further Reading on George Lucas
Barson, Michael, The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors, Volume 1: The Sound Era, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Curran, Daniel, Guide to American Cinema, 1965-1995, Greenwood Press, 1998.
International Directory of Films and Filmmakers 2: Directors, edited by Laurie Collier Hillstrom, St. James Press, 1997.
Monaco, James, The Encyclopedia of Film, Perigee, 1991.
Quinlan, David, The Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, Barnes& Noble Books, 1983.
World Film Directors: Volume II, edited by John Wakeman, 1945-85, H.W. Wilson, 1988.
Advertising Age, August 31, 1998.
Esquire, December 1996.
Forbes, March 11, 1996; October 14, 1996; September 22, 1997.
Fortune, October 6, 1980; August 5, 1985; August 18, 1997.
Inc., June 15, 1995.
Life, June 30, 1983.
Newsweek, May 31, 1993; May 13, 1996; January 20, 1997.
The Other Side, March-April 1997.
People Weekly, June 23, 1983; March 26, 1984; February 26, 1996; November 30, 1998.
Time, May 19, 1980; May 23, 1983; June 27, 1983; June 16, 1986; September 22, 1986; March 2, 1992; September 30, 1996; February 10, 1997.
Variety, July 20, 1998; July 27, 1998.