A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…the cinematic legend that is, George Lucas, was born.
The year is 1944, the far away galaxy: Modesto, California. Best known as the writer and director of Star Wars, Lucas’ creative mind and love for storytelling was nurtured from an early age. He loved science fiction, comic books, and fast cars, and his parents fully supported their only son’s interests. In fact, they took eleven year old George to the opening week of Disneyland. Of many things that inspired Lucas, this was certainly a memorable experience. He found the emphasis on imagination and fantasy to be exhilarating, and it fed his love of creativity.
However, as he grew into a teenager, Lucas leaned more into his passion for cars and racecar driving, pinpointing that as his ultimate career ambition. He spent his later years of high school souping up cars with his friends and participating in street races. That was until the week of his high school graduation when Lucas was broadsided in a race and nearly died. His car flipped several times, and ejected Lucas only moments before crashing into a tree. He was left with bruised lungs, severe internal bleeding, and a justifiable aversion to racing.
With racecar driving no longer in his future, at the age of eighteen, still recovering from the crash, Lucas’ father hoped that George would come and work for him at their family stationery store. However, Lucas wasn’t ready to settle for an unfulfilling career. So, he left home and began studying at Modesto Junior College, taking classes on any subject he found interesting, from art and literature, to anthropology and sociology. Leaving home, he declared that he would discover his passion and in doing so become a millionaire by the age of thirty.
Within the hodgepodge of topics he studied, Lucas found himself particularly drawn to art, storytelling, and filmmaking. He and his friend John Plummer, spent their free time shooting car races on 8 mm, and attending Canyon Cinema screenings of European directors, as well as the experimental films of Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, and Bruce Conner. Lucas particularly enjoyed the French work of Godard and Truffaut, as well as Italian Federico Fellini, films like Jules and Jim, Breathless, and 81/2. As he continued to shoot autocross races, Lucas met cinematographer Haskell Wexler who saw that Lucas had real potential and a cinematic eye. And it was the push from Wexler and Plummer that led Lucas to transfer to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Art.
Godard and Truffaut
At USC, Lucas not only learned a slew of practical filmmaking skills, but he formed a tight-knit community with a group of his peers. This group called themselves The Dirty Dozen and included names such as Willard Huyck, Howard Kazanjian, and Donald Glut, who would go on to produce, and write for Lucas’ films Star Wars and American Graffiti. With such a widely talented group specializing in everything: lights, sound mixing, editing, producing, writing, and directing, Lucas found himself utterly taken aback by the technical elements of film, and playing around with how those can deeply impact the creation of an audio/visual story. This began Lucas’ experimental film phase creating animated or live action cinema that lacked a narrative and existed purely as visual expression. Some of his shorts of this period include Look at Life, Herbie, and The Emperor.
When Lucas graduated from USC in 1967, America was in the midst of the Vietnam war. In fact, Lucas was drafted by the Army, only to be exempted due to his diabetes. This exemption gave Lucas another shot to continue his path as a filmmaker, so he took it. He enrolled in graduate school at USC to continue his education in film production.
It was around this time that the beginnings of a new filmmaking community began, and an ambitious George Lucas met Francis Ford Coppola. The two became good friends, and realizing they shared similar visions and lack of interest in thinking inside the box of the Hollywood studio system, they co-founded their own studio called American Zoetrope. Produced by their independent studio, Lucas then attempted to direct his first feature film THX 1138, which was a flop. Realizing American Zoetrope was not the success the two had hoped for, only three years later, in 1973, Lucas branched out on his own, and created Lucasfilm. It was at this point in his career, at the age of twenty nine, that Lucas directed American Graffiti, which was a huge success.
American Graffiti (1973)
He made nearly $150 million at the box office, far surpassing his goals of being a millionaire by the age of thirty.
Only four year later, Lucas made Star Wars: A New Hope. At this point in time, he had fully established himself with his new filmmaking friends, a group known as The Movie Brats. Between Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, and himself, they were always supporting one another’s creative endeavors. This included celebrating their successes, but also providing good feedback to help each other avoid making terrible mistakes. Ironically, that is what his fellow movie brats first thought of Star Wars. Brian De Palma recalls watching the first cut and having absolutely no idea what was going on. It was De Palma, in fact, who gave Lucas the idea of the opening crawl. He told Lucas that it was essential to establish the people, place, and history before entering the world, or it wouldn’t make any sense. But, even with the additional opening crawl, his friends were skeptical of how it would be received. They made comments like “well, at least he got this movie out of his system." They thought it was too “out there” and anticipated that it would be a total flop. But, despite having good cinematic instincts, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
With fifteen movies in the franchise, and counting, Star Wars: A New Hope is, to this day, one of the top five highest grossing movies of all time.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
With a personal history worthy of an opening crawl and some epic John Williams score, George Lucas is another perfect example of what it means to follow your dreams and never give up. It sounds cliche, but cliches are overused for a reason.
There were so many points in Lucas’ life that he could have thrown in the towel. There were so many points when he could have decided to settle, put his ambitions aside and lead a more “normal” life.
But he had faith in himself and faith in his vision.
He surrounded himself with people who dreamed the same dream and trusted that with hard work and persistence he could make anything his reality. The film industry in particular can be overwhelming at times. It can feel impossible to break down the doors and even get a chance to make a movie.
But, if you can learn anything from George Lucas, it’s that perseverance pays off, and the people who realize their dreams are those that outlast.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.