DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, in for Terry Gross, who's still a little bit under the weather. She hopes to return tomorrow.
Our guest today is George Lucas. As creator of the "Star Wars" movies and universe, he launched a franchise whose impact on pop culture and on Hollywood marketing and technology that's immeasurable.
Industrial Light and Magic, his special effects production house, has pioneered one cinematic revolution after another. The list of films he has directed and/or produced includes, among many others, "American Graffiti" and the Indiana Jones movies.
His newest project, though, is a book, "George Lucas' Blockbusting," a behind-the-scenes history of movies, the top 300 films from the beginning of the cinema to 2005 that Lucas himself considers most timeless and significant.
His definition of a blockbuster includes such things as artistic merit and lasting cultural impact, which makes his list both personal and interesting. In addition, Lucas and his researchers have gathered an amazing amount of information about original budgets, shooting schedules, production problems and other aspects of the business of show business.
They've also adjusted for inflation all the original box-office figures, production budgets and ticket prices, which makes for plenty of amazing comparisons. For example, George Lucas' list of the 10 most popular movies in history isn't your standard list of today's biggest blockbusters. Adjusted to modern dollars, the 1939 film "Gone with the Wind" remains the most popular film ever, followed by the original entry in Lucas' own "Star Wars" saga.
The rest of the top 10: "The Sound of Music," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "The 10 Commandments," "Titanic," "Jaws," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Ben-Hur" and "The Exorcist."
George Lucas, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. GEORGE LUCAS (Director, Producer): Thank you, it's great to be here.
BIANCULLI: You have in your book 300 movies, and you chose them, and I love most of the choices in your book, things that I didn't necessarily think were going to get in there that did: "Dr. Strangelove," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Deliverance." I regret the absence of one film, and so I have to ask you about this. It's "Gold Diggers of 1933." And I don't know if that was a borderline thing, and I wondered not only why isn't that there but also which movie do you miss? Which one for you was number 301?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, it's not 301. It's sort of 1001.
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Mr. LUCAS: You know, I - the hard part was, you know, culling it down and trying to find a mix of movies that run the gamut of different kinds of genres, different kinds of success. This book is as accurate as I could possibly make it. We had a lot of researchers. They worked many years.
Some of the films that we picked we just couldn't get any information on. I mean, I just couldn't find out anything. Some - so we had - those dropped by the wayside. And so a lot of the films that I wanted in there didn't get in there just because we didn't have any information about it, which is one of the reasons I was so anxious to do this book, because there's a lot of information out there, and the studios are going through their changes and all their things from, you know, corporate realities from this and that, and a lot of this information is disappearing.
BIANCULLI: Right, there's no institutional memory.
Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, and the people. You know, we actually were able to talk to some people who actually lived through a lot of this, and we were able to still - they still have some of this stuff on file in a musty old vault somewhere at the - the basement, warehouse, somewhere, that somebody knew about that we could get into and find out the facts. So that's going to go away in, you know, probably another 20 or 30 years. This information won't be there anymore.
Now, we're also in a process right now of completely turning this business model, the technology and everything on its head. So this, what's in this book now, is suddenly becoming ancient history simply by the technological advances that we're going through and the revolution.
And so that's one other reason why I wanted to preserve it.
BIANCULLI: So why no "Gold Diggers of 1933"?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, I think no "Gold Diggers of 1933" was that I just - each year we have a - you know, sort of a limit on how many we can put in there, and I think I just couldn't fit it in. I mean, again, I wanted "Gold Diggers of 1933."
You'll see there's a little section on musicals and hits of the '20s.
BIANCULLI: Oh yes.
Mr. LUCAS: And it's there.
BIANCULLI: It's in there.
Mr. LUCAS: And it's - you know, you just, you can't include everything.
BIANCULLI: Which blockbuster on your list most influenced you as a youngster? What was your favorite film-going experience among those movies?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, when I was very young, I didn't really go to the movies that much, to be very honest with you.
Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, and even when I did I was, you know, as a teenager, I was more chasing girls than I was actually watching movies. It wasn't until I actually got to film school that I actually - and I wasn't interested in Hollywood. I was more interested in art films in San Francisco, you know, Bruce Bailey(ph) and those kind of off-the-track people.
BIANCULLI: So you never had an oh-wow childhood experience in a movie theater?
Mr. LUCAS: Nuh-uh. Nuh-uh. Well, I mean, I saw - you know, "Ben-Hur" was an oh-wow experience when I was a kid, and so was "Lawrence of Arabia," and you know, those are ones that stick with me. The - once I got to film school, then I had things like - "Dr. Strangelove" was my favorite movie, which is why it's in there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUCAS: And you know, several movies like that.
BIANCULLI: It's one of those movies that gets better every time you see it. I don't even know what that phenomenon is, but you see more. It seems smarter. It seems more relevant the older it gets.
Mr. LUCAS: Well, I've actually experienced just the opposite, which is we have passed it. So the sense of satire has disappeared because the real world we live in is so much more goofy and stupid than the one portrayed in that movie. I know, it's very depressing.
BIANCULLI: But it's probably accurate though. It's okay. One of the things that's in this book, I should describe to people that there's all these charts, there's all these lists. There's all these little side things, and then each film is described, and then there are stories and show-biz stories and financial stories, and you find out these interesting little factoids all the way through.
I didn't know, for example, that Meg Ryan and Molly Ringwald were up for "Pretty Woman" before Julia Roberts got it, or that "Butch Cassidy" is the number one Western of all time.
Mr. LUCAS: Well, there's a lot of - there's a lot of mythology around the movie business, and this pretty much pokes a hole in all of it, because that was the point of the book, to say all right, let's remove all the hype and let's just get down to the raw facts. And they're more fascinating, personally, I think, than the hype is.
I mean, there are things, you know, I even learn things. In mean in 1910 the average ticket price was $6 or 6.50. Today, the average ticket price is $6.50. You know, I - you know, I just made my assumptions based like everybody else does, but the cost of a ticket hasn't changed at all.
You know, obviously in the big cities it's more, and in the small towns it's less, but the average is pretty much the same as it was back in, you know, 1920.
BIANCULLI: One cost that I'm sure has gone up, the music rights for "American Graffiti" in this book - because I've always wondered about that, because "American Graffiti" was your movie. It really started the nostalgia music craze, and you were able to get what was then a two-album but I guess a two-CD or just a two-album set of songs, 40 songs, for $80,000. Now, what do you think that would cost you today?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, that's not actually what happened. When we did the movie - you know, it was a very low-budget movie, $700,000, and they said the music budget can't be over 10 percent of the movie, and of course nobody wanted me to do that. They said you can't just put that much music in a movie, it won't work. And you can't - you have to score it. You can't just throw songs on it. It's not going to work. It's because nobody had ever done it before.
So I did it. We made the movie. We put the music in there. It was $70,000, and at the time we said, look, for another $5,000 per song we can get you the record rights to this. And they said no, no, no, no, we don't want any record rights. We don't want anything.
And then they came back a year later, and again, we were bringing these - you know, nobody knew who the owners of these songs were and all kinds of things because it was real - about a period of music where there wasn't much organization. And so you know, sometimes we'd go to people who had records in their garage, and the rights, you know, and the masters and everything.
So a year later, the studio went to do an album after the film was a giant hit, and it cost them a million dollars...
LUCAS: ...for those same songs that I got for 70,000.
Mr. LUCAS: So that gives you a clue of where it went just in one year.
BIANCULLI: We're speaking with George Lucas. His new book is called "George Lucas' Blockbusting." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: We're speaking with filmmaker George Lucas, whose credits include the "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones films. His new book is called "George Lucas' Blockbusting."
So now I have some blockbuster questions. The audience experience of a blockbuster - I'm not talking about the wider definition that you've done in the book but the sort of thing that we think of where they make tons of money, they're very big spectacle films - I think of, like, "Jaws," where I sat in the back of an audience once and saw everybody kicking at the same time to avoid being slid down like Quint in the shark's mouth or going up the stairs of "The Exorcist" and everybody screaming at once. How important is that communal viewing experience as we move forward?
Mr. LUCAS: I think that is very, very important, and I think that's the key to why movie theaters and the movie-going experience in a theater will never die.
I always tell people, I say look, as long as Green Bay Packer fans go in the 70-below-zero weather, in the snow, to watch a game they can't actually see because they all want to be together and scream together and have a good time together, the movie industry is safe. And there will always be movie theaters. There will always be people that want that social experience, because people, human beings, are a social animal, and they will want something like the opera, like the ballet, you know, they will want to go and have this communal motion picture experience, or like plays and Broadway shows.
So I don't think that's ever going to go away, and I think in the end the movie theaters are going to become more accommodating to that idea, that it needs to be a special experience, a special communal experience, which means better quality theaters, bigger screens, more amenities, so that it's a real experience.
BIANCULLI: Does it necessarily mean more spectacle, or would there still be room for an "American Graffiti" along with the "Star Wars"?
Mr. LUCAS: I have a feeling that the "American Graffiti"s are going to probably go by the wayside in terms of theatrical release. I think they're going to go directly to pay-per-view, you know, which is sort of Internet-based distribution.
BIANCULLI: One theme of your book is how technology changes things in Hollywood every so often - you know, sound, color, wide-screen, Dolby, CGI. Is - can you tell us about tomorrow? You're so well-placed to do this. Is it 3-D? Is it something else? What's going on at Industrial Light and Magic that's really exciting you?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, the breakthrough at Industrial Light and Magic really was "Jurassic Park." That was when we finally got a 3-D animated character of a dinosaur to look real. And you know, that - from the very, very beginning of the movie industry, whether it's Melies' "Trip to the Moon" or, you know, "The Lost World," people have been struggling with these issues, and we finally did it.
Now you can do anything. I mean, literally, you can do anything, and obviously we can do it quicker and faster and easier and that sort of thing, and that's going to continue.
3-D is the new kid on the block. The thing I like about the new 3-D as opposed to the old 3-D, old 3-D were 3-D movies, you know, where they took spears and poked them in the audiences' eyes and stuff.
BIANCULLI: Right, right.
Mr. LUCAS: Now we're shifting that, and even though there's a little bit of that left, mostly movies now are movies in 3-D, and we very early on in this process, we experimented with turning Episode IV into a 3-D movie, and with Jim Cameron and Bob Zemeckis and I, we went to the theater-owners' convention in Las Vegas and we showed these 3-D movies and saying, you've got to go digital because if you go digital we can have 3-D movies, and these are what they look like.
The startling thing about that is everything we showed them, especially like "Star Wars," which was not designed to be a 3-D movie, it just was a different way of looking at the movie. It was cleaner. It had depth. You know, it just looked great. But you didn't - you know, after a while, you forget that it's 3-D. It doesn't come out and remind you.
BIANCULLI: Before the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park," before you did that, what were the pre-digital special effects that you think were most significant, whether it was the Steadycam or some sort of process stuff that hadn't been done before? What movies really worked for you in a pre-digital age?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, in a pre-digital age we had matte paintings, which, you know, were when you wanted a big wide shot of something, especially a period film, and they were very static, but they seemed to work in the movies all right.
And the special effects part has been there ever since the very, very beginning, you know, since "The Trip to the Moon," which was very crude. But when you get then to "King Kong," which was the beginning of stop-motion animation, they improved it, but it was basically the same thing, and when I did - I mean, the number one movie up to that point really was "2001," where they took a great deal of care, spent a huge amount of money, a vast amount of time, and they made these perfect shots of, you know, spaceships floating through space. And it was very slow, and very meticulous.
I wanted to make a movie that was very fast and kinetic. So I set my sights on one technological advance that I needed in order to make the film move fast and have a lot of energy and be able to be an editorialized movie movie rather than bunch of static-shot movie, which is what "2001" was, the ultimate special effects movie since the beginning.
And so that's what we did. We figured out how to take models and match backgrounds and so shoot them where you could pan through space, which you couldn't do at that point. You could move the camera. So we were able to move the camera. That was a major breakthrough.
The second movie I decided that what I would try to do is create a realistic - so you believed it was a real person - two-foot green guy, which you know, you say, well, gee, but you know, in those days, that was impossible. You just couldn't do it.
And the idea was that we - you know, unless you did it with stop-motion, but in stop-motion it was very hard to do acting. You know, they did a lot of things in the acting, but the acting was very, very crude. But to do a more sophisticated form of acting, we really had - we made the decision to go to puppets, and we were just beginning to get to that place where we could use servo-motors and others kinds of technologies to move the eyes and move the skin and do things that you couldn't do before, and that was our technological breakthrough.
But those were things that had kind of been around, you know, rubber masks and, you know, elaborate makeup and stop-motion and matte paintings, and it really wasn't until digital that it blew all that open so that you could do anything.
BIANCULLI: Nowadays it's not that hard to see a blockbuster coming. You know, you'll hear about something like "Titanic" or "Avatar" a long time before it actually comes into theaters, and you have these expectations.
But "Star Wars" was a really different animal, and can you talk about when you gave a first private screening for some of your filmmaking friends and your other friends? Do you remember what their reaction was?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, I come up into the film business from film school, and as a result I have a lot of friends who are filmmakers who went to school with me or were going to school at the same time I was.
In those days, which was in sort of the '60s, you couldn't get into the film business. So there was absolutely zero chance of us making it in the film business because you had to be related to somebody.
So there was no chance of us ever, ever making it in the film business. None of us even thought that that would happen, but we loved movies, we loved making movies, and we cooperated with each other and were helping each other. We were like, you know, rebels trying to work our way in somehow.
And so we continued that. We always helped each other. We always cooperated with each other, and we would screen our movies in a rough cut to each other to get everybody's advice.
When I did that with "Star Wars," it was in really rough shape, and I invited a few friends. Some of them didn't understand it. It was very rough, and some of them, like Steve Spielberg, said this is going to be the biggest hit of all time.
BIANCULLI: What does he know? Yeah.
Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, and some friends, like Brian De Palma, said, you know, what's this crazy Force stuff, and why isn't there more blood? And you know, I know my friends really well, and I know what their reactions to things are. You know, everybody is personal, and they're all very honest.
I mean, the great thing about having friends watch your movie is they give it to you, which is what you want. That's why they're seeing it. And you know, so I got a very mixed result. The ones that really didn't understand it were just very quiet and said I'm not sure about this one.
And - but generally, you know, everybody sort of made contributions to what I could do to improve it, what wasn't working, what didn't make sense and that sort of things. The - which is what I expected.
The first time I showed it to an audience, obviously they went nuts, and...
BIANCULLI: That must have been great.
Mr. LUCAS: It was. I mean, it was the same thing with "American Graffiti." You know, we showed the movie to - of "American Graffiti" - and people just started screaming and yelling and getting carried away. And you know, my first film, "THX," everybody was very quiet afterwards.
BIANCULLI: George Lucas. His new book is called "George Lucas' Blockbusting," and we'll hear more of our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
We're talking to George Lucas whose latest project is a massive new book about the history of quality in popular filmmaking called "George Lucas' Blockbusting." When we left off, were talking about his own history of filmmaking, hanging out with other young friends in the business.
One story about your filmmaking friends in your earlier days - and I don't know that this is true, but I'd liked to confirm it if I can, because I think it's a wonderful story - that you and Steven Spielberg, at one point in your careers, each thought that the other one was coming out with a blockbuster. And so you traded points so that you would actually have some sort of a financial remuneration from the other's film, in case the other one did better. Is that true?
Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, that is true, actually. And we were, in those days, you know, it was very - it was the '60s.
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Mr. LUCAS: And it was a different world. It was sort of a communal world, where everybody helped each other. Everybody encouraged everybody. Everybody shared with everybody - and then we did that way. Of course, you know, none of us knew these films were going to be hits.
BIANCULLI: Well, that's what I love about it.
Mr. LUCAS: I mean Steve...
Mr. LUCAS: Steve may have come out ahead because he said I know this is going to be a hit. I certainly didn't know it was a hit. So, you know I...
BIANCULLI: But what films are we talking about here?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, that was "Close Encounters" and "Star Wars."
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BIANCULLI: Oh. Oh.
Mr. LUCAS: So we were...
BIANCULLI: Not a bad couple of films to throw money around on a bet.
Mr. LUCAS: Yeah. Well, in the end it was, you know, I thought he had the better film and he thought I had the better film and he won. I had the better film.
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BIANCULLI: I think that's great. When you were with friends and you were all seeing early screenings, rough cuts or very rough cuts of one another's films, what memories do you have? What really stands out about seeing some of those films by your friends?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, that was a great time for me, and I think for all my friends. You know, for 10 or 15 years we would show each other our movies. And you know, we'd sit down on the editing machine, we'd go through them with them, we'd see the screenings. It was a very collaborative and fun period and I think we all have very very fond memories of all that. It's a - you know, it was like a film commune and it was, you know, as it turns out, all of us sort of players - you know, from Francis Coppola to Marty Scorsese to Steve Spielberg, it's just, you know, and more - we didn't think that we were going to be the old men of the industry. But it turned out that way, that we actually are the ones who were able to rise above the average. And I think part of it was because we were able to help each and we had support from each other.
BIANCULLI: But what movies in particular? When you were seeing these things before anybody else was seeing them, before they were even finished, what really popped out, by whom?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, "Godfather" was a real experience, because the movie originally was very, very long and we got to see it and it was great. It was really great. And then the studio sort of made him cut it really, really short and it didn't work at all. But he turned that in and they eventually let him cut it back long again. But seeing the first cut of that was amazing.
Mr. LUCAS: And then I saw the first cut of - the very first cut of "Taxi Driver," which was quite an experience. You know, because it was pretty intense and it was sort of pushing the boundaries of violence and story and all kinds of things - so that was really exciting. And what else was there? There was oh, "Jaws" was, you know, because we lived through that, in terms of all...
BIANCULLI: What do you mean you lived through that?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, Steven had a lot of problems making that movie. I mean it was on water. It was very, very, very difficult - so there was a lot of pain and suffering that went on in that movie.
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Mr. LUCAS: And, you know, it's so we heard the day-to-day drama and then I saw the movie. And that was very exciting because it worked like crazy and, you know, he's - after all the struggle and all the - you get those movies where you say this is going to be the biggest disaster ever. And we, everybody thinks it, you know, because it was so hard to make and there were so many things that went wrong. And then when you see it and it works - like works - you just say wow, that's fantastic. It just, you know... And I think, ultimately, it was the same way for the people who saw "Star Wars," which is well, this is, you know, because it didn't have any special effects in it at all, and they just said I don't understand this movie. And it was the same thing with the studio when they read the script...
BIANCULLI: It's hard to visualize "Star Wars" with no special effects.
Mr. LUCAS: Yeah. And the studio, when they read the script, they said I don't understand the movie. I don't know what it is. I don't get it. And it's not until it all falls together in one piece and you've got the sound and the picture together and it's all working, that it actually is a movie. And I think a lot of people don't understand that a movie ultimately is a very fragile thing and that, you know, if it's not put together right, you know, it's not finished right, they can fall apart. It doesn't take a lot to send it the wrong way.
BIANCULLI: You've talked about how important that storytelling is as you define blockbusters and blockbusting, that there has to be an emotional resonance to these films for you to have put them into your list of these 300 movies through the ages. Can you talk about mythology, because here we have "Avatar" that's out as we speak and it's reworking Native American stories for part of its inspiration, and "Star Wars" was all about absorbing and reflecting various world myths and the whole Joseph Campbell perspective. And they were rewarded financially in every other way for dipping into mythology. Do epic blockbusters and mythology go hand-in-hand in film?
Mr. LUCAS: Well, mythology, basically, is storytelling. And when I started out in college, I was an anthropology major, and that's where I first became acquainted with mythology. And I always thought of mythology as psychological archeology. You know, the regular anthropology you can sort of - especially in terms, if you go back into society and archeology - you get a sense of the way that society worked and everything but you don't get a sense of what they were thinking.
With the stories - with the mythology you get a sense of what they were thinking. And by getting a sense of what they're thinking, you get a sense of their psychology - of the social psychology and sometimes the individual psychology. And that's what fascinated me because I was - I've been very interested in that all my life.
And the reason I got involved in "Star Wars" in the first place, is I wanted to do a little experiment with myself to see if the myths that were told and the psychological motifs that were underlying those myths were still relevant today - if we still reacted to the same psychology that they did back then.
So I didn't sort of take myths and turn them into a movie and modern and update them and everything. What I did is I took the psychology behind the myths. And then I also went, which is where Joe Campbell came in, which is he was a comparative mythologist and he would go across all various cultures, time periods, and that sort of thing and find the things that were common.
I was very interested in that. So I took the same things that were common and I used those as the basis for my story and discovered, I think, that beyond a doubt, we have the same psychology that we had 3,000 years ago. We don't have the same intellect. We have advanced a huge amount in the last 3,000...
BIANCULLI: Oh, I didn't know which way you were going to go with that.
Mr. LUCAS: But in the psychological motifs of what we do, why we do it, our psychology as an animal hasn't changed much. And we're still in the drama of trying to adapt to sort of hyper environmental situations that are putting extra strain on our psychology, that existed then but not that much different, but in different ways.
BIANCULLI: George Lucas, thank you very much for being on FRESH AIR.
Mr. LUCAS: Oh, it's my pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Filmmaker George Lucas. His new book "George Lucas' Blockbusting" has just been published.
Coming up, we remember record producer and musician Willie Mitchell who died yesterday.
This is FRESH AIR.