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George Lucas Honored at Cannes, Talks Post-Disney Star Wars Films

George Lucas Honored at Cannes, Talks Post-Disney Star Wars Films

‘I’m a stubborn guy and I didn’t want people to tell me how to make my movies,” is how Star Wars creator George Lucas summed up the secret to his success, speaking to a crowd of fans at a packed Debussy theater in Cannes Friday afternoon.

The 80-year-old filmmaker was being honored at the 77th Cannes festival with a Palme d’Or for his contribution to cinema, and the crowd, a much younger cohort than usually seen at these events, whooped and hollered as Lucas walked on the stage. They were rapt as he sat down for a wide-ranging discussion of his life in the movie business.

Lucas said he felt “nostalgic” to be back in Cannes, where he presented his first feature, THX-1138, at the Directors’ Fortnight back in 1971. His THX-1138 co-writer and sound designer Walter Murch was in the audience as Lucas recalled how Warner Bros didn’t want to send the duo to France for the premiere, forcing them to scrape together the money themselves. They couldn’t even get tickets for the screening and had to sneak in.

But “we weren’t really that interested in making money, we were interested in making movies,” said Lucas, speaking about his early career. He talked about being mentored by Francis Ford Coppola —whose latest epic, Megalopolis premiered in Cannes last year — on the set of 1968 musical Finian’s Rainbow and later helping Coppola set up indie studio American Zoetrope. He outlined how he fought to get American Graffiti made, for just $750,000, and then how he had to battle the studio, Universal Artists, to get the movie into theaters. Studio execs wanted to dump the film, starring a crowd of then-unknows, including Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfus, and Harrison Ford, on TV before a series of test screenings in front of screaming crowds — “It was like a rock concert,” Lucas recalls —convinced them to give theatrical a try. Starting in just a few theaters, the film went on to earn $115 million in the U.S.

Lucas’ deal included back-end residuals off the net gross of the film, which typically meant no money. “Because they week keep adding stuff to the budget so it never got paid off, net was almost like fool’s gold,” the director said. “But American Graffiti was making money so fast, I actually made a lot of money off it. It was the first time anybody had ever made money on net.”

The film also caught the eye of Allan Ladd Jr., then head of production at Fox, who approached Lucas after a screening and said, the director recalled: “You got any other movies? And I said ‘Well, I’ve got this sort of science fiction fantasy, crazy 1930s-style movie, with dogs driving spaceships.’ And he said ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever you want’…and he hired me and the rest is kind of history.”

Star Wars is the franchise most folks in the audience came to hear Lucas discuss and the director did not disappoint. He talked about securing licensing and merchandising rights for the first film, something unheard of at the time. “The studios didn’t have licensing departments…it took longer to design a toy than it did to make a movie,” he recalled, and how he got control of the sequel rights, in part because Fox at the time was teetering on bankruptcy. “They didn’t have faith in the movie,” Lucas said. “The studio was going bankrupt anyway, they had a lot of movies already and they were desperate.”

Lucas defended his Star Wars prequel films against the haters, arguing that critics have forgotten that Star Wars was never meant to be a grown-up movie. “It was supposed to be a kid’s movie for 12-year-olds that were going through puberty, who don’t know what they’re doing, and are asking all the big questions: What should I be worried about? What’s important in life?,” he said. “And Star Wars has all those things in there.” They’re buried in there but you definitely get it, especially if you’re young.”

The negative response to his Star Wars prequels, Lucas argued, came from “critics and fans who had been 10 years old when they saw the first one” and didn’t want to watch a children’s film. The public trashing of Jar Jar Binks —one of the first figures to be canceled on the then-nascent Internet — reminded Lucas of the original response to C3P0. “Everybody said the same thing about 3P0, that he was irritating and we should get rid of him,” said Lucas. “When I did the third one it was the Ewoks: ‘Those are little teddy bears. This is a kid’s movie, we don’t want to see a kids’ movie. I said: ‘It is a kids’ movie. It’s always been a kids’ movie.”

Lucas also defended his decision to go back and “clean up” his original trilogy, using new digital technology to make the film look the way he always wanted it to.

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“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,” says Lucas. Fans hoping for a 4K restored version of the original 1977 Star Wars shouldn’t hold their breath.

“We did release the original one on laserdisc and everybody got really mad, they said ‘It looks terrible.’ And I said ‘Yeah, I know it did,’” said Lucas. “That is what it looked like.”

Discussing the Star Wars sequels made after he sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 (for $4.05 billion), Lucas said the new corporate bosses got a lot wrong.

“I was the one one who really knew what Star Wars was…who actually knew this world, because there’s a lot to it. The force, for example, nobody understood the force,” he said. “When they started other ones after I sold the company, a lot of the ideas that were in [the original] sort of got lost. But that’s the way it is. You give it up, you give it up.”

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