Profile: George Lucas - The troubled emperor

Click to follow
HAS WORD reached you yet? Later this month, George Lucas's new film, Star Wars, Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace, will open all over America - the rest of the world to follow. The signs could hardly be more propitious. Movies playing the trailer for The Phantom Menace experienced a terrific increase in business. Many authorities are sure it will gross $100m in its first weekend; and that by the end of the summer it will have pushed Titanic into second place on the all-time box-office list. An executive at Toys'R'Us, anticipating the related merchandising, has called it "the biggest consumer-product opportunity of 1999". There goes the century.

And yet, as Liam Neeson has said - he plays a leading role in the new film - "Look, it's only a movie." And if George Lucas is a name known throughout the world, let's remind ourselves that the last time this driven movie-maker directed a film was 22 years ago, with Star Wars, the start of the whole legend about legends. Is he rusty then? Does being out of practice mean The Phantom Menace could fail? I doubt it. In Los Angeles, and other cities in the US, kids have been camped out on the sidewalks for weeks, waiting for the first screening. It's possible that the film could disappoint the kids born since Star Wars, the ones addicted to more violent video games than George Lucas is going to deliver.

But, in 1999, an enormous marketing operation is in process and the movie will be the biggest of all time long before most people pause to wonder whether it's any good. We are talking revenue in the range of $4bn before the millennium. And that is revenue to a company, Lucasfilm, of which the boss and the sole shareholder is George Lucas - shy, private, happy (he says, but no one quite believes him), divorced, the adoptive single father of three kids, a man who'd like people to be happy, develop a sense of good and evil, be kind and have respect for education. So there.

Explaining George Lucas is not easy, if only because we may feel that a grand empire on earth demands complexity in its master. Nothing is more classically romantic than the assumption that profound, complicated, endlessly fascinating people run the world - such as Alexander, Elizabeth I, Napoleon. Maybe the 20th century has existed to teach us how easily banal nonentities can reach the top and "simplify" human nature.

George Lucas was the son of a man who ran a stationery store and a walnut farm in Modesto, California. That is not much more than a hundred miles away from the Marin where Lucas now lives and works. But it is another world. Modesto would be close to desert but for the extensive plan to irrigate the San Joaquin Valley and make it America's fruit and vegetable patch. It is flat land, between the coastal mountains and the higher peaks of the Sierra Nevada. It is a place of enormous fields, of dust in the air mixed with sprays to help the crops - things you don't ask questions about. There are many Hispanic workers, plenty of whom have always been illegals (so there are shanties in every town). And it is a place where summer days, one after another, go over 110F. It is a place to get away from.

George Lucas was a child in that town, from 1944 to 1962. His family was not poor, nowhere near it, but they did not travel much. And if they did, their only destination was San Francisco. To this day, George Lucas stresses that he is part of the San Francisco film-making community; more or less, he has never done a professional day's work in his life in southern California. He holds to the country boy's detestation of that place "down there", where no one is to be trusted and the movies could be the nation's road to ruin.

George was interested in cars, souped- up engines, and the speed you could reach on the long, straight highways that went from A to B. He dropped out of high school with a D+ average grade - and this was not the most challenging high school in America. But he made it into Modesto Junior College, and from there he went to the film school at the University of Southern California - in Los Angeles. At Modesto, he started to do photography and dabbled in painting. But he was badly hurt in a car crash and that's what prompted him to explore the camera more than the engine. (Still, don't underestimate his personal thrill at all those corner-cutting whiz- bang space racers he has developed over the years.)

It was in Los Angeles that he became a camera expert, and met two guys from the East Coast - Francis Coppola and Walter Murch. Coppola was the son of a musician, Murch the child of a New York City painter. Next to them, Lucas was the shy provincial. But he had one big thing to tell them about: northern California. In those days, in talent, education, ambition, eloquence and wide-eyed dreaming, Coppola was way ahead of Lucas. Indeed, Lucas wasn't much more than junior assistant on The Rain People, a road movie that the gang made in 1969 as a proof that you didn't have to play by the LA rules to do a feature film. It was after that experience that Lucas suggested to Coppola and Murch that they might all hang out in the Bay Area.

All three are there still: the best soundman in the business (Murch); maybe the most colourful and self-dramatising of American directors (Coppola); and George, the Modesto man who is the biggest name in pictures.

In 1971, the year in which Coppola made The Godfather, Lucas produced a low-budget feature out of his USC project - THX 1138, a dark, paranoid sci-fi film about thought-control and the death of individuality. It was a complete flop, but it is essential viewing if you want to grasp the fears inside George Lucas. After that, for peanuts, he went back to what he knew - growing up with cars, guys and girls in Modesto: he made American Graffiti, with wall-to-wall pop music on the sound-track and a bunch of unknown kids in front of the camera. Twentieth Century-Fox had put up the money (less than $1m), and they hated it. All of which proved that you should never trust or listen to anyone from LA. The picture was saved only when Coppola made the gesture of taking out his chequebook and offering to buy the film outright because he knew it would be a hit. So Fox weakened, re-cut the film, grumbling all the while - and had a monster hit.

That's why they were willing to put up $10m for Star Wars, the sci-fi project that George wanted to go for next, and for which he said he had a lot of new special effects in mind. Again, Fox mistrusted the venture - and, to prove their stupidity, they agreed to a contract in which George kept the merchandising rights, until then unexploited by film-makers, for himself. When they saw Star Wars, plenty of Fox executives believed they had a goofy failure on their hands. Wrong again. They had one of the landmarks in the picture business, a movie that launched its own franchise, that identified a new young audience likely to go back to the film time and again, with the overall urge to see things they'd never seen before - electronic things, rather than real light on real faces. None of which necessarily made Star Wars a masterpiece.

Of course, George didn't stop then, even if he stopped directing films. He began to buy land in Marin, in and around San Rafael, that is now the basis for his empire - Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic and the extraordinary Skywalker Ranch. The Ranch is a walled estate where many of his 2,000 employees work, done as a Victorian mansion but with all the highest and latest technology inside. It's the sort of place Jay Gatsby might have made for himself: it's large, impressive yet inauthentic - it has no true style or character beyond mishmash. It feels sterile, and there can be a uniformity in the brilliant young Lucas employees - George has his pick of the best now - that is alarming. But it is emphatically not Los Angeles, and it is George's place - no matter that he may not always realise that he has just imported a kind of LA power into the north.

It was as this northern kingdom developed that George's wife, Marcia, left him. She was a movie editor, highly talented. No one knows or says why the marriage ended, but it was plain for years that George became more withdrawn because of the loss. Then for several years he was with the singer Linda Ronstadt. Equally shy, they seemed made for each other. But again the relationship came to an end. And, at 55, George Lucas is still a bachelor as well as a fond, attentive father to the three adopted children.

He is a good boss, though not overly keen on being talked to by his employees. And all he has done in the last 20 years is the Star Wars franchise, the Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise, and the revolutionary research and development that have changed the face of the movies - and reinvigorated the Hollywood he hates so much.

And there's the rub. There is a view that in the years just before Star Wars, Hollywood had so lost its confidence that it became easier for talented young people to make darker, more difficult movies about the real America - as opposed to mere, or simple-minded, entertainment.

George argues that he opened the ways for independent, creative young people like himself. Maybe. But I think the world recognises now that there has never been a time in which American films have been less interesting, or more commanding throughout the world.

It may be a question of whether you think the ideas in Star Wars, the content, the human interest, come remotely near such things in The Godfather, Taxi Driver or Nashville. Whereas industrial collapse might have liberated the content and form of American movies, the success pioneered by George Lucas has inaugurated a kind of electronic orthodoxy in which humanity hardly shows. Is that George's fault? No, for he never intended it, and because he is likely still a sad, troubled person. But his success has altered everything - and it may be degrading the audience by urging it to live up to that most disastrous model for life in America - staying young and carefree.

Life Story

Origins: Born 14 May 1944, in Modesto, northern California

Family: Son of an ultra-conservative owner of a stationery shop, who described him as "his mother's pet"

Education: Thomas Downey High School, Modesto Junior College and the University of Southern California film school

Married: Marcia Griffin, film editor, 1969-1983 (divorced)

Children: Three adopted - Amanda (19), Kate (11) and Jett (7)

Filmography: 14 films as a director, including THX 1138 (1970), American Graffiti (1973), Star Wars (1977) and three prequels.

As a writer, 25 films including Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and Ewok (TV)

Oscars: None (two nominations as best director for American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977)

Personal wealth: Estimated at more than $2bn

On `Star Wars': "For me, it's when the world recognised the value of childhood"