It’s understated, however George Lucas built one of the earliest matrices…he founded a fictional universe that many of us in real life willingly inhabit. It’s plausible many would happily prefer to occupy that fictional universe rather than this current reality.
Lucas is among those rare architects…he is in the Builders Hall of Fame with Walt Disney and Jim Henson. (Brian Jay Jones, the author of George Lucas: A Life wrote the excellent Jim Henson: The Biography…as well Elizabeth Hyde Stevens penned the astonishing Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career…a succinct and deft exploration of the creative vs. capitalism paradox.)
Walt Disney invested movie profits into building theme parks, while Lucas built Skywalker Ranch and Henson…well he had Sesame Street (bit of a stretch but chances are you spent quality time in that hood and if so, you hung out with Jim Henson’s street gang).
As such George Lucas: A Life is ultimately about his success as an architect. Architects leave a legacy of building and designing; what you’ve built is considered a success…especially if it remains vibrant and vital.
Here’s one of the problems with success: as soon as somebody succeeds, everybody wants to know how you did it. What’s the formula?
This is how A Life breaks it all down…
For American Graffiti, Lucas netted $4 million after taxes ($4 mill for old-timey money was big money!). Lucas took the $4 million and dumped it all into The Star Wars. (“Drop the ‘the’. It’s cleaner.”)
Star Wars netted him $12 million (this is just the movie…the toys, merch, etc. = several more millions). He also founded Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in the process. Lucas took that $12 million and dumped it into The Empire Strikes Back.
The Empire Strikes Back pulled in $100 million (box office, toys, merch all of it this time…dude made $100 million!). Now he’s got real money.
By then he’d bought the land for Skywalker Ranch and started to build. Again.
And sure you can count up all the ifs…if Empire failed, if Star Wars didn’t hit, etc. But it is what it is.
Jones documents how Lucas was driven by the desire for independence/control and his vision. You can debate if the work is any good but it’s a moot point. (A Life describes how in 2008, Lucas sat down with a group of animators and assembled 22 episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He sold them all to the Cartoon Network. A pre-Netflix business model, he had all 22 episodes edited. Done. All the network had to do was air ’em. He didn’t want any notes, any suggestions. He wanted to execute the project he saw in his head so he financed all 22 episodes. Independence/control and vision. That series would last 6 seasons for total of 121 episodes.)
That all seems so simple, like Lucas had a game plan all along. Yet the problem with creation myth is we look at them from the future and we tend to categorize them as either cautionary tales (heed these words!) or inspiration kindling. To quote Rob Schneider: “You can do it!”
Yet with many successful creative myths, it’s difficult to look back and fully understand why creators felt something wouldn’t succeed. Stan Lee was told Spider-Man would be a disaster (in fact many of the prominent Marvel characters we adore today were co-created almost as afterthoughts. Lee wanted to leave comics and do “serious writing.”) Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were shocked their sitcom about nothing netted viewers. Lucas is no different.
Page 214 reveals the honesty of an Artist:
“In the end,” Lucas said later, “I really didn’t think we were going to make any money at all on Star Wars.”
Yet just 2 pages before, on page 212, A Life describes the unique business deal with the movie studio that ultimately set up Lucas’ life:
“George didn’t need the money anymore,” said attorney Tom Pollack, “so we went after all the things we wanted in the beginning…which is control―control over the making of the picture and control over the exploitation of all the ancillary rights.”
Additionally, Lucas would own―control―about 40 percent of the gross profits from the film; but what he really was after was buried in the details. As a result, the nine-page deal memo ballooned to a forty-page production and distribution contract, according to which Lucas would own the rights to the sequels, television, publishing and merchandising―
”areas that were important to George,” said agent Jeff Berg, “because he know the life of Star Wars would exist beyond making the first theatrical motion picture.”
There is a confidence Lucas is displaying in business meetings, in his dealing with Fox that’s independent of his personal feelings about his work. It’s no different than an actor going to an audition and suddenly getting the part and realizing they have to memorize all kinds of monologues and they’ll be working with notable actors…that panic sets in. Still the actor, I can only hope went to the audition because…they know they are good at acting.
On page 54, Lucas, still a university student (he hadn’t even made THX yet) came to this powerful conclusion:
“As soon as I made my first film, I thought, `Hey, I’m good at this. I know how to do this,” said Lucas. “From then on, I’ve never questioned it.”
That undeniable fact set him on his course; even when making Star Wars felt bleak and like a waste of time. It was difficult to gage what he was building even as he realized he was on the right path.
Similarly, page 197 shares this moment that echoes Lucas’ predicament:
“On Friday, June 20, 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 409 theaters and changed movies forever. As Lucas had predicted, Spielberg had a colossal hit on his hands―one that surprised even Spielberg, who has brought the film in over budget and a hundred days late, and nearly had a nervous breakdown, all but convinced he’d just made a spectacular dud.”
And that is it right there.
According to Wikipedia, George Lucas is the creator of Star Wars. That is an incredibly easy sentence to write. A Life documents the struggle to set up his Star Wars-funded life as well as revealing how it was never easy; it was constantly perilous, similar to Indiana Jones’ Leap of Faith. Less a biography and more a lesson in stubbornness, determination and ultimately vision.
To build something that lasts, to create something out of nothing requires a blueprint no matter how rudimentary it is. A Life is not a blueprint for you to follow; it is the inspiring story of one of our most popular architects.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!