When most people think of George Lucas, the first thing that usually comes to mind is Star Wars. He has directed 18 films with his last being Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith in 2005, and produced over 60 projects including all things Star Wars of course, but also all the Indiana Jones movies, TV series and TV movie, and of course Red Tails.
He has poured his movie minded genius into his latest project Strange Magic, which brought myself and 24 other bloggers out to San Francisco for a private screening and tour of his beautiful Skywalker Ranch. As if screening his film at the ranch wasn’t special enough, George Lucas happened to be at the ranch and sat right behind me during the screening. I may have overheard him talking to actor Elijah Kelley about how this was the first time he has seen the film completed. But you know, I have to hand it to Disney and Lucasfilms to make it even more amazing by -having George Lucas give us an exclusive interview where he talked about his family, love, and why this movie, 15 years in the making, now.
George Lucas: Star Wars, Family and Strange Magic
I don’t know what you would envision if you were going to meet George Lucas, I didn’t even know what to expect myself, but for some reason, normal wasn’t one of those thoughts that came to mind. Well, let me say, dressed in jeans, button down shirt with a sweater and tennis shoes, he was as normal as could be. When I first saw him, he was walking into the lobby of Skywalker sound and when he saw Elijah, he stopped to catch up. Starbucks in hand, calm, casual, and just cool, George Lucas was obviously in his element.
After the screening of Strange Magic, Lucas took a phone call and when he came back to talk to us, the first topic of conversation, his kids.
Hello. Yeah I was hiding in there talking to my daughter.
How old is she again?
She’s 26. Yeah I got a 33 year old, a 26 year old and an 18 month old.
Oh boy, you have a little baby.
And a boy. He’s 21.
Let’s talk about Strange Magic, can you tell us a little bit about why you wanted to make this film?
Well it started quite a while ago, about 15 years ago, and I just got the idea that it would be fun. I mean I love to do musicals using my favorite music and, so it kinda harkens back to my pre-Star Wars days. And I thought it would be fun to make a film that was more for tween girls than Star Wars which is for tween boys, even though in the end everybody loved it and girls love it and, you know it all worked out. So I’m hoping that this one, even though it’s more teen girl-centric, hopefully it will engage all the boys and everybody will like it, because it’s at that magic age where you don’t make movies, unless it’s Hunger Games or something. You know the idea of an upbeat, fun, simple movie just appealed to me. I’d finished all the Star Wars and everything and I was producing films but I wanted to do one that I could actually get my-my hands dirty.
So we started with a small group here, designing things, doing animation tests and doing this, and so it went on for years and years and years, you know I was kinda doing it on the side and you know it kept growing and it’s one of those fun movies I loved doing it because I love the music, I love coming to work on it, I love watching it, which is the key in the end for me, just it’s something I did for the fun of it.
You have said that the film is about how everyone deserves to be loved, and I think that that’s so true is what, why, how did that theme emerge for you, did it emerge when you had the idea or was it more in the process?
Well the original process was to make a movie that is the difference between being infatuated and being truly in love. And, again since being infatuated ultimately is about surface value, surface issues and you know, being really in love is about interior issues. I wanted to make a movie about that which is that in the end, it’s very easy to be infatuated with somebody. And of course people are infatuated with boy bands and beautiful people and all the things you read in the magazines, all that kind of stuff, but in the end, from experience, you don’t really wanna be married to somebody like that, you really don’t wanna spend the rest of your life like that, and you really aren’t gonna have a serious, deep relationship with somebody like that. You know, they have a tendency to be with somebody else like that, which means that they usually don’t, last very long. But as a result, it was just to play with that and say, and especially, again, for young girls who are prone to infatuations, to say, you know, it’s not always the cutest guy in class that you really wanna be out with. That kind of idea and then as I moved along obviously, for me, personally I had been a bachelor for 20, I got married but then I got divorced but then I was a bachelor for 20 years. And I said, “I’ll never fall in love again it’s just not gonna happen”, I was the old-old cranky Bog King.
Hence the whole new father thing.
No it’s never gonna happen to me, I just will never find anybody, and I found somebody who doesn’t look at all like me. I’m a 60’s radical, government unhappy, Wall Street-hating person from San Francisco, and I ended up meeting a woman who’s a head of a big investment management firm who’s on Wall Street who doesn’t look like me, you know? It’s the last person you would figure would fall in love with the bald king or I’d fall in love with her since I am not into princesses….a beautiful princess too actually.
Yeah, now I got a princess and I got a little princess. And my other princesses who have gone on to bigger and better things, so as time went on it became more meaningful to me because I realized that in the end, like with my wife and stuff, we fell in love because we were exactly alike inside. You know, it’s like the movie, you know first you say well, I hate this stuff, well that’s interesting, you know?
You’re surprised and you realize that you have so much in common that you would never have thought of on the surface, and it’s the same thing again with, like Roland which is, you know the classic pretty boy and, that story has been told over and over and over again but at the same time it needs to be retold, it’s the same thing I did when I started doing Star Wars and thinking about mythological motifs and the fact that kids need to, at 12 years old.
To me adolescence is a key period in a childs life, and to make movies that say look, these are the issues, they may seem obvious to us ’cause we’ve been through it, maybe your parents have told you about this, maybe they haven’t but you need to know the story of why you have friendships and what a friendship means, why there are things in the world that are bigger than you are, why your complicated feelings with your parents and all these kinds of things are not unusual, they’re not just you, this is something that everybody goes through. So this is kind of the same thing. I won’t call it a myth because I beat that one to death with Star Wars but this is a fairytale. Same thing only much sweeter.
We know that you think that deeply about the stories you tell and as we carry on your vision we try really hard to go that deep with it so it’s great to check in with you and just be reminded of what we’re doing here, and even if it’s not a myth it’s an archetypal kind of experience, like heartbreak, love, healing; like most of us will go through that in life and it’s not easy but it is in a way universal so.
Well it’s a story that needs to be told to every generation you know ’cause the little girls growing up, or boys, they don’t know any of this stuff, by the time they reach 12 they’re very confused. And, even though we all know it, and oh I’ve seen that, well that’s been told over and over and over again, well it needs to continue to be told over and over again, you can’t sort of let kids slip through the cracks and say oh yeah, I was in the generation that didn’t get that message. The message is so simple and, you know it’s been around for thousands of years and it can always be retold.
My favorite part is the-is the redemption at the end, like you might go through something really terrible but you can be surprised and find healing. Around the corner from the most unexpected experience is the most unexpected person.
Well there’s an issue on this one which is I made it for older kids. That doesn’t mean, it’s like Star Wars, I mean five year olds watch Star Wars and you got people with their face burned off crawling up volcanoes and things and the kids seem to somehow survive it. But one of the things, especially for young girls, is to be brave. That’s a key element, we not in here but in the end, you know the princesses are great, especially Marianne, I mean she goes from being a princess, who’s afraid of the dark forest and everything, to somebody who is actually facing things that are scary, and getting through them.
Let’s talk about music for a little bit, because you were one of the first directors to use popular music as a soundtrack. It was an integral part of the story in American Graffiti. Can you tell us a little bit about what attracts you to popular music as a filmmaker? And also after that I wanna ask how you got, how you decided to work with Marius De Vries on the movie.
Well I love music. Music’s a huge part of my life, I love all kinds of music, and obviously I listen to music every day, on the radio, top 40 and all that kinda stuff but I also listen to a lot of other kinds of music. But with this one, one of the inspirations was, I wondered if I could tell a love story using love songs, I could just take them and string them all together so they actually told the story. Which was the original challenge. In the beginning, the movie was about twice as long as it is now which means it had about twice as much music and I feel pained at the fact that some of the sequences were, cut.
Sitting with us during the interview Elijah Kelley shouts out – “Sequel! Sequel, you love music, sequel.”
Yeah right. Well I’m all for it. There were great sequences with great songs and Marius even recorded them, like actors recorded them, we had all these great things but ultimately there’s a thing called discipline, you know you have to. It’s like American Graffiti, I could sit and listen to it all day. And that was a part of American Graffiti, I just wanted to have a movie that I could sit in the editing room and listen to and have a good time.
It’s the same thing, this is my-my pre-Star Wars period, I’ve gone back, I’m going back in time. I tell people yeah I’m gonna go back and do experimental films like I did in college, well this is getting myself back there, which is a, you know, just a fun movie, that I love to listen to and a lot of the songs were my favorite songs but a lot of them really had to do with trying to tell the story, I need them to say this and that thing, let’s find a song where they say that.
I said I wanna song that has these words and so he came up with three or four songs and we go through them and say, well that doesn’t really tell the story, this is a little off until we found the right one, that actually one had the musical mood that would get us from point A to point B but also actually say the words that the actors were supposed to say to each other, in the song, and that’s where Marius came in which is to say how are you gonna stitch all this stuff together. Different genres, different time period, different everything, but knit it all together so it sounds like it belongs in one thing. And he’s a genius at doing that, he did it and, you know long version we had a lot of faith in him, being able to pull it off, although, ultimately with all these guys I beat them to death, finally to the point where fortunately Gary came in and said well we have to make these decisions we can’t just have all this music that George loves. We have to get this down to a reasonable length.
With Strange Magic, especially talking about your relationship with your daughters, it seems like it’s very much inspired by your children. Does being a parent inspire you with all your stories?
Well, I’m a big parent person, kid person. I didn’t think much about kids when I was working a lot and all that kinda stuff. ‘I’ll have kids when I’m ready.’ And then when my then-wife and I decided to have kids, you know we tried and we couldn’t, so in the end, I ended up adopting kids, the first one I adopted with my wife but within a short time we got divorced. But when I was walking through the hospital with her, you know she was a couple of hours old, it was like lightning struck me.
I just, I never had a experience like that ever, and it just, you know again the magic of it hit me. And so I was raising my daughter and then my daughter always wanted a brother, and she said I wanna have a brother, I wanna brother. I knew how to adopt, I had become a sort of adoption specialist for all my friends ’cause I’d adopted her. A good friend of mine was an adoption lawyer helped us. He was like 90 years old but he and his wife became very, very good friends. So, I got talked into having another one and I think my daughter was seven. You have one and you say oh God she’s walking now, she’s talking, she’s doing this and she, I wanna go back to that other thing, the only way you can do it if we have another one. And it gets better and better till obviously then they become teenagers and they’re programmed to be obnoxious and, that’s the only way you can get rid of them, otherwise you, baby them for the rest of their lives and all that kinda stuff but I mean I went through three of them and then wanted to have another one. I forgot, it’s like pregnancy I guess, you forget.
You forget what they were like as teenagers and you say ‘oh, but they’re so cute I want another one. So, I ended up having another one but, with this one, because of technology and everything, we were able to have a natural baby.
Did any of your girls go through a phase and was that kind of the inspiration for the fairy theme of the movie?
It was fairytale, my middle daughter, who I was just on the phone with, is now doing music videos and things, and she’s 26 and she loved Wizard of Oz. So ’cause we had to have the entire thing, we spent years reading The Wizard of Oz every night we’d read a chapter. And it’s fairytale of sorts, it’s not, I don’t know where you’d classify it but that obviously had an effect and she still cherishes it as something very special to her and I think that had an effect on me.
So I read that that you originally had a bunch of Beatles’ songs to bring the whole movie together, what were those songs and were you actually listening to those songs when you came up with the idea?
Well you could go to the Beetles catalog and anything that’s got love in the title is something we had in there. All You Need Is Love…you know? But you know there’s a real world and in that real world, this is a relatively inexpensive movie, small, very small, and so, just like with American Graffiti, I couldn’t afford to put Elvis Presley in there. I didn’t but I survived you know, it’s like everything else you have to kinda be strong, be brave and sometimes trim some of the things you really love. It’s the difference between having a button-down movie and a indulgent movie. So as I said, we all love it and we’ve seen movies that has a lot of other stuff in it which is fun but I’m extremely happy with the way it turned out, the story’s told very efficiently. The songs are still there, it’s great when you have what we had, what did we have like a hundred (songs)?
Something like that, they were all wonderful, they were all spectacular, and now what do we have, about 40?
Gary Rydstrom the director shouts out “25 or so”.
25? Oh no wonder it was so painful. But they’re all great. We don’t go through long periods without music so to me, it’s fun and again there’s the part where you actually have to tell a story, so I think it melded correctly between the actual story and the dialogue and the characters and the music, and feels like it belongs together, to me anyway. But I’m very kind to my own movies.
Did you start with a set of songs in mind, with this notion in mind to tell the story that are still in the film that we saw today?
Some of them are, yes. When I first started I took songs that told the story and then this went over a period of a long time, but we then took and started doing storyboards and we started putting actual, that’s when Steve (Gizicki) started working, where we would actually get songs, we would actually get the words, we would actually, weave it all together. But then obviously it ended up coming out very long. It had to have an evolution where some of the story was told in dialogue, some of the story was told in music the story itself had to be tightened down and things connected which, in just using music you couldn’t do.
So, compared to the animation and visual effects that ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) used in Rango, how have those changed or improved at all since that movie compared to what you see now in Strange Magic?
Well there are different, you know every movie has a style, I mean animation, some people have made mistakes in animation by trying to say we want this to look realistic, which one, isn’t really possible and two, is not very bright. Because the whole idea of animation, the art of animation, is to create a style that is different from shooting a live action movie. It’s the style is part of the art of it. You know in some feature films in live action you use style that’s very distinctive, but animation sort of is demanded of it, ’cause if you aren’t gonna make it look realistic why not just shoot it? Right, use actors and shoot the thing. So there was a period where they were trying to go for that, and we can still do it, we do it in special effects, which is to say we create realistic versions of actors and intercut them, for a lot of different reasons. So the idea of making an animated character look real we’ve already accomplished. But the one thing you can’t do, which is the part that Elijah was talking about is, a computer can’t act, only a human being can act. It’s just computers aren’t crazy enough so, and that magical thing called talent, which is what an actor uses to create empathy, to create character, that’s something you can’t do. You can actually can make copies of people, but they can’t be human. You need a human being behind them to be the voice, and that’s why, when we go and you put a camera on the actor, you wanna capture the-the magic of that actor. An animator can do it, and that’s part of the art of animation, but it helps an animator if he’s got something to work with. So the animator still, which, I don’t know if Elijah knows but there were some animators over in Singapore and from all over the place pretending to be Elijah. Looking in the mirror, making faces, as they would say, improving his performance. Which is controversial but at the same time it’s a different, Elijah does it out of his soul, he does it standing there and being himself, playing a part that he has conceived of in his head. An animator does the same thing but they’re in the scene, and they’re saying I’m gonna try to make this fit in this scene and to make his facial expressions as they go to that next level. Because Elijah couldn’t do it because he was locked in a room like this and it was like, you know, five feet by five feet. And all green and dark. And it’s hard to be in the place as an actor to do that so you need the help of a co-actor, which is the animator. And so, those two work as a team to create the character, and of course, like with digital technology, you’re just gonna create all the actors and eventually the actors will go ahead, well you can’t. It takes twice as many actors to do an animated film as it does to do a real one. So it’s not something that people do to save money or for whatever other reason, they do it because ultimately in this particular case you’re using a particular style, and in this case I wanted the style to be very realistic, much more realistic. Rango is, you know an animated film, it’s got some, you know realistic looking stuff but this is a whole different level of realism. And the idea was that you could go out in your backyard and these guys all live out there somewhere.
Right. They’re in the grass.
Yeah, they’re in the grass.
One last question before I let you go, of all, of the fortyish or maybe a hundred songs that became 40 and then 25ish, out of those that made it in the film which would you say is maybe…
You’re not gonna ask me that.
Maybe one of your favorites?
Well the the one that started it is the opening song, that was the first song I picked. I know it’s also at the end. But, you know I love that song.
I Can’t Help Falling In Love?
I Can’t Help Falling In Love. You know it’s, again, I grew up under the tutelage of Elvis and my wife says I still have that pompous pompadour. But at the same time, it’s been recorded several times, each time it’s recorded it’s better and better, and it to me was the inspiration to say this is what this movie’s about. You know, wise men say only fools fall in love. And in my experience with love, as I was dating for those 20 years, I had some girlfriends who I knew weren’t right, I knew were, I would say high maintenance, difficult, all the things you don’t want. Yet I fell in love with them. And ultimately the only thing I can say is there’s no accounting for love, it’s just no matter how rational you think you’re being, you say well I’ll never do that, you do it.
Love is strange.
Yeah it didn’t last but it’s, but we both tried, neither one of us wanted to fall in love and we both did and we knew that ultimately it wasn’t gonna actually work, but you try anyway.
STRANGE MAGIC opens 1/23/15
*I was invited by Disney to take part in the Strange Magic Event. All opinions are my own.
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