Monday, 23 July 2012

George Lucas

Bye George
George Lucas is retiring to his garage to make ‘hobby movies’. But before he goes, he’s bankrolling a second world war film, to the tune of $93m
Jeff Dawson Published: 10 June 2012, Sunday Times Culture

I have a bone to pick with George Lucas. More specifically, the knuckle on my right little finger, recently cracked by my six-year-old son’s red lightsaber. “You’re lucky it was just a toy,” Lucas chortles. “Don’t try to have a laser fight with someone who’s innately superior.” Famously, when 20th Century Fox allowed Lucas to forgo his director’s fee in return for the merchandising rights to Star Wars, the request seemed laughable. “I mean, no movie had ever done what Star Wars did,” Lucas says. “Movies didn’t do that.”
Four decades on, the tills of Star Wars Inc have kerchinged to the tune of $30 billion (£19.5 billion), more than $23 ­billion of it splashed on “consumer ­products”. Throw in Lucasfilm, his studio, ­Skywalker Sound, the special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic, the THX audio system, his founding of Pixar and his creation of Indiana Jones, and Lucas is far, far away the most commercially successful film-maker in the history of motion ­pictures. His personal worth is $3.2 ­billion; last year, according to Forbes, he trousered a casual $90m.
Did nobody take note of this? For when Lucas began touting his latest project — family-friendly derring-do, aerial dogfights and wholesome jock heroes socking it to evil-empire baddies — you’d have thought Hollywood would have reached for its spangliest Princess Leia two-piece to entice him into bed. But no. “I knew nobody would finance a movie like that,” he grumbles down the line from his home in northern California. “But I didn’t expect that people wouldn’t even release a picture like that.”
The problem? Lucas’s picture, Red Tails — starring Nate Parker, David ­Oyelowo, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr — is the story of the first ­African-American flying outfit in the United States Air Force. “They don’t feel that movies with an all-black cast can make any money,” he gripes. So Lucas personally anted up the entire $58m budget of Red Tails, with another $35m invested in distribution/promotion. More fool the naysayers. When the film opened in America in ­January, it shot to No 2 at the box office, and it looks set to double its return once it premieres internationally.
Red Tails is “inspired by true events”, gleaned from consultation with the remaining pilots — the fabled “Tuskegee Airmen”, named after their Alabama training base. “Forty of them in the beginning,” Lucas says. “There are seven left. The best guys I’ve ever met.” In 1942, after Congress yielded to pressure to allow the training of “coloured” airmen, the newly formed squadron was dispatched to North Africa. They became highly decorated bomber escorts, their ­­P-51 Mustangs identified by crimson flashes on the tailplanes.
A script for the film had come to Lucas in 1988. “I thought it was a great story. Very inspirational.” The only obstacle, then, was how to stage the aerobatics. Lucas preferred to wait for technological advances that would allow the combat sequen­ces to be staged digitally, rather than shot using vintage planes. There’s no question that the simulated rat-a-tat-tatting has gone down well, thanks to a whopping 1,400 effects shots. “It’s the first feature film that’s got dogfighting the way you really want it to be done, which is on a level with Star Wars.”
There has been less enthusiasm for the stuff on the ground. Some of the ­dialogue and characterisation have been dismissed as simplistic, devoid of a political dimension. Indeed, save for an opening caption from a US Army War College study — “Blacks are mentally inferior, by nature subservient and cowards. They are therefore unfit for combat” — the film is almost all action, not affirmative action. “They expect you to make the civil-rights movie. The critics wanted The Help, poor black people being oppressed, then, at the end, the white guy getting his comeuppance. This isn’t like that at all. This is, ‘Hey, these guys are great guys, they’re heroes. They fought in the war, they are patriotic.’ It’s a different take on the stereotype.”
Indulging in a liberal guilt trip is to miss the point of Red Tails, he tuts. “It’s not an esoteric movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s like Star Wars, in that it’s designed to be an old-fashioned 1940s gung-ho movie — a corny old war movie.” Some attribute Lucas’s aroused black consciousness to his relationship with Mellody Hobson, a leading African-American financier, friend of Obama and Oprah. At recent functions, Lucas has been hobnobbing with Spike Lee, Al Sharpton and other African-American luminaries, who have rallied round the film. He still felt insufficiently empathetic with the material to direct Red Tails, that task going to the black director Anthony Hemingway, best known for The Wire, but he did end up unofficially co-directing, steering it through reshoots and complex ­special-effects insertions. “Something,” he sniggers, “I know how to do really well.”
At 68, Lucas remains an enigma: a card-carrying progressive, yet an arch capitalist; bubble-gum mainstream, yet a confirmed outsider, operating from his Skywalker Ranch; in sensibility, more Silicon Valley mogul than Tinseltown (like Bill Gates, Lucas has just vowed to give half his fortune to charity); and, astonishingly, a screen titan who has ­formally directed only six films. After his debut, THX 1138, and fresh from the ­success of his Oscar-nominated American Graffiti in 1973, he went off, he says, “and did this young people’s ­Saturday-matinée movie with dogs flying spaceships. A lot of my friends were doing something important — and I got hijacked by it”.
Some would say it was more a case of Stockholm syndrome, with Lucas obsessively re-editing and reformatting his space opera. (The Phantom Menace has just been rereleased in 3D.) But you can’t deny him his place in the pantheon, bracketed as one of the “movie brats”, that group of film-makers who burst onto the scene in the early 1970s and redefined movies as we know them. “I didn’t think we were going to change cinema, but, you know, whether it’s the Renaissance or Paris in the 1920s, we happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he muses. Between the passing of the tycoons and the takeover of the business by multinational cor­porations, there was a change in the structure, he says, a “crack in the door” that allowed the young creatives to rush in. Lucas and Steven Spielberg were the class nerds; their affection for their craft is adolescently pure. “We went to film school and made movies because we absolutely loved them.”
After trippy beginnings at the Uni­versity of Southern California — surrealist films about cloud formations — Lucas made his full directorial debut with the low-budget sci-fi THX 1138. Two years later came his tale of hot-rodding ­Californian teens. “American Graffiti I did on a lark because Francis [Ford Coppola] challenged me to make a comedy instead of these weird artsy-fartsy movies,” he says. “That sort of sent me down a path I didn’t expect to go.”
Lucas announced recently that he was jacking in mainstream film-making, going back to his roots. “I’m gonna retire from the company and the business, and all the things I have,” he confirms. “I’m gonna just go back to my garage, get out my hammer and nails and build hobby movies — model movies that I can fly around in the back yard.”
Some garage. There’s Indiana Jones 5 in the offing, and talk of Harrison Ford (70 next month) reaching for the whip again. “I’m working on a script for those guys, but they have to approve it,” Lucas says. “It took me 14 years to get ’em to do In­di­­ana 4. Harrison wanted this and Steven wanted that...
“In the beginning, it was easy. I said, ‘This is the script, we’re shoo­ting it, let’s go to work.’ Now they’re all superstars.”   
Red Tails is reviewed in this section

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