‘The People vs George Lucas’ brings its case to L.A. Wednesday night
LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL
“The People vs. George Lucas” screens Wednesday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival and Hero Complex contributor Noelene Clark caught with the film’s producer and director of photography, Robert Muratore. Muratore and director Alexandre O. Philippe will be at the LAFF screening at the Ford Amphitheatre.
NC: How did “The People vs. George Lucas” get started?
RM: I was working with Alexandre and his wife, Vanessa, in Waco, Texas. It was a commercial project. We were shooting a promo video for a technical college down there. I came in as a second director of photography. … Alexandre has this amazing collection of “Star Wars” figures, especially Darth Vader figures. That’s how I was first introduced to him. When I first showed up at his place to talk about the Waco job, I got to see his collection, and we immediately hit it off. We’re definitely birds of a feather. We’re definitely “You’re one of my people.” It’s kind of hard to find people that feel this passionately about these films and about these genres, so it’s always a pleasant thing when you can connect with people of that ilk. … It was close to the beginning of the seven weeks that we were down in Waco, and Alexandre just mentioned the title of the film and said he had sort of this general idea, and I was like, “Yeah, we need to do this film.”
We started talking about “Star Wars” and George Lucas every single day for almost the entire seven weeks, drove his wife crazy. And I told Alexandre I’d be happy to come on as the producer because I have a good sense of the material, and I have some really strong feelings about this. When we got back to Denver, we put a team together with his wife and another producer, Kerry Roy. We put our company together and started working from there. … When Alexandre and I were in Texas, talking really passionately about it, and we’re not the uberfans who’ve absorbed everything else in the “Star Wars” universe, like the video games and the books and the entire expanded universe. I’ve played a few video games over the years and read a couple of things, but really, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m more a fan of the films, and I saw the films in the theater when I was a kid, so they affected me profoundly. We realized if we were so passionate about it, there had to be thousands upon millions of people out there who were as passionate, if not more so. So we thought it would be a good subject to explore. Even though “Phantom Menace” had come out years before, and the last in the prequel trilogy had come out, there was still stuff happening. “The Clone Wars” was gearing up at that time, and the TV series. More stuff was happening. We knew there was a still a lot of attention around “Star Wars.”
NC: I understand that a good portion of the film was crowd-sourced. How did you go about gathering that material?
RM: We crowd-sourced some of it. We conducted interviews in several cities in the United States, like L.A., Philadelphia, New York, probably a couple of others. A couple in Denver. We went to Europe, shot interviews there. We went to Japan, shot interviews there. So we did our own interviews. We went out and tried to get as many sorts of professionals, writers, critics that we could to get some more sort of expert opinions. Then we opened up to the fans so they could submit their fan films or any sort of interviews or rants or whatever they wanted to say about Lucas and his legacy. So the film is a fair combination of both the material we shot and fan submissions. It’s definitely different in that respect. …
Really the first thing we focused on was the website, because early in the process, we decided we were going to open it up to the fans and allow them to submit, so we created a platform for that through the website, which gave them guidelines and a way to send us their material. So from there, it was sort of a slow trickle at first. We started getting stuff right away, but it wasn’t until later on in the process, especially after our first trailer was released on YouTube, that the stuff really started pouring in. We were getting it from all over the world, from Germany, from Spain, from France, Australia. It was pretty amazing in that sense, that people came together from everywhere to give us their material. I think it just got around the circle. That fan base, once people start blogging, the word gets out and it really spreads. It’s unusual, because I’ll run into a few people who haven’t heard about the film, but mostly, if they’re in the fan base, they’ve heard about the film. It’s word of mouth, it’s blogging, and when the trailer got out on YouTube, I think that really set things in motion as far as the fan submissions, because we started getting a lot of feedback from that. There were a lot of angry people too.
People immediately assumed we were out to bash George and didn’t get the sense that we were trying to be objective and fair and professional about it. I’m leaving out a few death threats on YouTube. It was crazy. People were really angry. And I think it’s a subject that stirs up a lot of emotion. Even the people who are like, “You guys are just a bunch of whiny fanboys,” and “This is all old hat,” and “Been there, done that,” even those people, the fact that they’re responding to us means they’re still keeping an eye on us, and they care about it.
NC: Can you tell us about some of the more interesting fan submissions?
RM: Some of the fan stuff we got was just brilliant. Definitely some of the funniest moments in the film are the fan submissions, whether the animations or straight-out rants. One guy who ends up in the film maybe four times sent us eight hours of footage. One of our other producers had to go through it, and she was just going insane, because he would rant about Lucas and then he would defend Lucas, and he would go back and forth, and he basically covered almost every single plot point in all the movies. He was pretty much dressed as a Jedi the entire time too. He used action figures as sort of evidence to help him make his point, whatever point that was at that particular moment. He came across as being super-fanatical, but some of his stuff in there is the funniest stuff, and in fact there’s a little Easter egg at the end of the film after all the credits, and it’s him. … Some of the things that people sent us were pretty funny.
They would dress up in costumes. They would rant about Lucas through the means of sock puppets. There were people who submitted animations. And animation is a painstaking process. It takes an incredible amount of work. People who haven’t actually been involved in the process don’t really have an idea of the kind of commitment and fortitude it takes to create an animated piece, whether it’s 2-D animation or 3-D, or CG. Since I have played around with that stuff in college, I have a real appreciation for it. I really enjoyed seeing some of the fan films, especially some of the stuff people submitted to “Star Wars Uncut,” which we sort of tapped into as well to get some footage. I was amazed by some of what I saw. It was incredibly stylistic, incredibly professional, well-done stuff. Even the abstract stuff was incredibly artful.
NC: Do you consider yourself a fanboy? And were there any submissions that you thought were just over the top, or too fanatical?
RM: I would definitely consider myself a fanboy. I’m a huge geek. There’s no doubt about that. But definitely there are definitely people out there far more knowledgeable than me, who know every aspect of the universe, who’ve read all the books, who’ve played all the video games, who’ve seen all the fan films. And there are some incredible fan films. There are feature-length fan films out there. And there is a parallel between “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” You have that incredible amount of fanaticism on both sides. I would be a little bit like the kettle calling the pot black if I was going to call somebody fanatical, because I definitely have experienced my own sort of fanaticism with “Star Wars.”
The fact that I’ve spent the last 3 1/2 years of my life working on this film and living it and breathing it, and I can still get into arguments with people about it and talk hours on end about it, it kind of surprises me. I would think at this point that I wouldn’t even want to hear the words “George Lucas” or “Star Wars,” but it’s still something I feel very passionately about. I couldn’t point the finger at any of the fans because they have such passion for it, and it’s a passion I completely understand. … Something that struck me was the love of “Star Wars” all around the world. When you consider how hard it is for films to translate into different languages, you even look at the Japanese fans who just love “Star Wars” and worship it, and there has to be a lot lost in the translation there, but the basic story came through. The visual effects, the action, the characters made such a huge impact on even people in the Far East. You think of how powerful that is, and all the fans and the fan clubs pretty much in every major country on the planet. There’s a massive following.
NC: What is it about “Star Wars” that appeals to so many people over multiple generations and continents?
RM: Looking back on it as a child …
… I was 8 years old when I saw the first one.
First, you have just this sheer action-adventure excitement aspect of it, but also, Lucas was smart in that he was working with universal archetypes. He had studied Joseph Campbell and Akira Kurosawa, and if you go back and look at that material, you realize really “Star Wars” is about the hero’s journey, and it has thematic elements that date back millennia to stories that have been told about heroes for thousands of years. He had a real sense of what worked in that kind of story line. You also have the universal themes of good versus evil. The original trilogy had so many different genres wrapped up into it. It wasn’t just science fiction and action; it was also part western, part romance, part drama. There’s so many universal elements attached to it, I think it just appeals to almost everybody. Because the first trilogy was so strong, and it was something people hadn’t seen before, “Star Wars” itself, “A New Hope” when it first came out, it just sort of blew people away as an experience. It was unlike any other sort of milestone film up to that point.
There had been science fiction out there, but it was more cerebral, and it wasn’t quite as appealing to a larger audience. When “Star Wars” hit, it hit big, and of course the visual effects were just groundbreaking. Lucas has been a pioneer in visual effects and technology ever since. Everything that’s followed has had elements of those first movies, but I would argue that he hasn’t done it as well since the first couple movies. Obviously, that’s a matter of opinion. But when we explored our film, we really tried to get opinions on all sides. We tried to find out why some people liked “Phantom Menace.” For instance, we interviewed some French intellectuals in Paris, who were writers, and they adore “Phantom Menace” and the prequels. And they had these long-winded, intellectual arguments supporting their love of the prequels. It was in some ways astounding to me, but they had fairly intelligent arguments about it.
NC: Was it difficult to find those people who defended the prequels?
RM: Yeah, it was. We tried really hard to find people that would defend the prequels and would defend some of Lucas’ later decisions, like the special editions, and it was pretty difficult. We approached quite a few professionals and were turned down quite a bit, and I think part of it is some people, if they don’t have something good to say, they don’t want to say anything at all. And other people are just a little nervous about the title of our film, thinking it was belligerent and contentious, so it was pretty difficult. … It was a long road. Especially people in our generation, people who had seen the original “Star Wars” in the theater, it was hard to find people in that generation who liked the prequels or supported them. I think generally it’s been the younger generation. … When I saw “Phantom Menace,” I saw it four times in the theater because after the first time I saw it, I just was kind of stunned, and this is in our film too. Some people talked about this. It doesn’t really register what you’ve just seen. I wanted it to be good. I had such hope and expectation for it, and I had to go back and see it several times before I could really understand what I’d watched the first time.
NC: If you could change only one thing about the prequels, what would it be?
RM: Well, you mean aside from not having them exist to begin with? Because that would be my No. 1 thing. I mean, I hate to say that, because I really think that no matter how good they could have been, they never would have met the expectations of the fans after 13 to 16 years of imagining what the Clone Wars were like and what the Jedis were like and everything else. If I was going to change one thing … I don’t know. That’s a hard question. … This is what I would have done. Part of this was from getting some insider information on what some visual- effects guys were talking about, but I would have started the prequels with “The Clone Wars,” and had the third episode be of Vader hunting down the rest of the Jedi. Because “Phantom Menace” didn’t need to exist, and there were so many things, so many liberties taken with “Phantom Menace,” like Anakin creating C-3PO, like the midi-chlorians, like Jar-Jar.
The midi-chlorians were really painful for me. I would say that “Empire Strikes Back” was my favorite of all the films, and part of that was Yoda, and part of it was the Eastern philosophy that was obviously an influence to the whole story line in that film, because in “Empire Strikes Back,” you really sort of get the sense that the force is mystical, and it’s beyond comprehension. By adding midi-chlorians, you quantify it. Even though the midi-chlorians are some sort of middle-man explanation about how humans interact with the Force, it adds this scientific element to it that just doesn’t belong there. This is sort of a mistake I’m surprised Lucas made, because he’s working off “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” and the way these stories work in antiquity is they generally revolve around things that are mystical and unexplainable.
If you look at all the Greek mythology, it’s all about the gods, these beings with supernatural powers that can’t quite be explained, and there are these forces acting upon man that are outside of scientific theory or explanation. I think midi-chlorians really demystified the idea of the Force. And that was something that, as a child, I really attached to. When you’re a child, you’re still sort of developing your ideas on religion and God and what affects human beings on a supernatural level, so as a child, the Force is something that is really enticing and mystifying, and many good stories have elements that are inexplicable. And I think it’s where Lucas really failed in the prequels. He explained too many things. He explained too many things around the characters and their origins, and the Jedi. Your ideas of what the Jedis were like as an organization, if you will, from watching the original trilogy, I mean in my mind, I saw them as this almost monistic order. They were like super beings, but you couldn’t really explain them. But hearing Obi-Wan describe the Jedi and the Clone Wars, it was never going to be as good as what your imagination created.
NC: James Cameron waited to make “Avatar” until the technology was ready. Do you think that strategy would have helped Lucas with the prequels?
They approached things in a different way, certainly. You can definitely look at “Avatar” as being a groundbreaking film. As groundbreaking and as much of an experience as “Avatar” was, it still didn’t really come as close as “Star Wars” did to being a moment in cinema that stands still, when you look back and are like, “Well, that’s where things really started changing.” Don’t get me wrong, I think “Avatar” was an amazing experience. I don’t necessarily think that was Lucas’ problem. I do think Lucas was pushing the digital aspect of filmmaking a little bit hard, because it wasn’t quite there yet. Shooting on digital was pretty new, and it didn’t really look anything like film, and people are still struggling to make it look as good as film, and I think certainly when he started shooting in digital, and “Clone Wars” and Episode III were both shot completely digitally, you do see a difference as opposed to 35-millimeter. I mean, you look at “Empire,” and it’s one of the most beautifully photographed films of that time period and still holds up to this day as an amazing-looking film.
You could certainly look at that aspect of Lucas maybe jumping the gun a little bit with the technology. However, I think it’s really more about story. I think that’s where it really fails. You look at the original “Star Wars” even opposed to the special edition. It was a little sparser. You don’t have all of these objects in frame, all of these flying robots and alien creatures. In a way, that’s good, because oftentimes those kind of elements actually distract from what’s going on. Especially on Tatooine, it was a western. You look at any other western, and most westerns are sparse. They’re landscapes, empty landscapes with very few elements in them. But that’s what gives them that specific genre feel to them, and that’s sort of what focuses the story. The landscape becomes a character in the story, and you don’t need that many elements to really tell the story you’re trying to tell. I think the real problem was story and how Lucas realized it in the films.
NC: “Star Wars” was such a phenomenon. Do you think there has been anything like it since? Will there be?
RM: I don’t think there has been anything like “Star Wars” since. I think “Avatar” came close, but it wasn’t quite the same. I hope that someday there is something. I hope that something comes out that is groundbreaking. There have been huge events in films, like “Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar.” “Star Wars” is one of those magical moments that you can try to replicate, but it’s just never going to be the same. I hope something else comes out that matches the impact “Star Wars” did, but it’s getting harder and harder. So many films today are derivative. They say there are no original ideas, and there haven’t been for a long time, but there are fresh ways of telling the same story. It seems that cinema has sort of started to rely on remakes and rehashes of older films instead of older ideas in general. … That’s why I think in some sense the American film market has failed, because they’re basically looking to foreign films and to older projects to remake them instead of coming up with more original content.
NC: George Lucas didn’t commit any crime, legally or ethically, but some fans seem to feel a crime of culture was committed. By putting him on trial, are you making that crime more real?
RM: The film is not necessarily set up like a trial, but it definitely presents the case on both sides, and I would say that as far as being hijacking culture, especially the culture of cinema, I think we bring it out into the open more than it has been, because there definitely are certain facts that people haven’t thought about or haven’t made the connection to. In a way, it’s damning evidence against Lucas and the path he’s chosen with the original films and not allowing them to be released in the public, and saying certain things like wanting the originals and all the copies to get old, to sort of deteriorate and make way for the special editions to become canon and to become the only versions of “Star Wars” that people can watch in a high-quality way, in a contemporary environment.
NC: Why do people feel like they own “Star Wars”? Why can’t Lucas just do what he wants with it?
I think there are a couple of aspects of that. First of all, “Star Wars” is part of history. The original “Star Wars” was incredibly groundbreaking. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and it won seven. It became part of pop culture, and became part of our culture in general. “Star Wars” is something that’s been quoted and parodied and talked about ever since the late ’70s, so people have a certain ownership of it, especially the original films, because once you see something as a child, it’s imprinted on your mind. Sometimes you just want that version of it. So I think that’s where the ownership comes in. It’s something that really affected people. It’s something that means a lot to people. By the mere fact that it is such an embedded part of our society, people feel they have the right to see the version of “Star Wars” that they remember as kids.
NC: Has your opinion of Lucas changed throughout making this film?
RM: I would say things have come up during the making of it that have affected me on both sides of the argument. We learned more about Lucas’s philanthropic efforts and more of the things he’s done to advance cinema and to help children learn. On the other side of it, we’ve learned some things about the original trilogy concerning him not releasing them in their best form that angered me further. It was a mixed bag as far as how I felt before and after. I really think I stayed pretty much the same. I stayed pretty much balanced. I really relate to the fans who have this love-hate relationship with him. I feel the same way myself. There are things I really disagree with. I think in the end, I certainly appreciate him, and I’m very thankful he’s created the films we have. I think I can forgive a lot because of that. But we certainly learned some things along the way that were pretty interesting, even things we didn’t end up using in the film because we couldn’t substantiate them or because they just didn’t fit with the general theme or the way the story was heading.
NC: Was it difficult to trim down the footage?
RM: We had a really strong body of material. We had over 600 hours of footage when it was all said and done. And there were entire plot points and sort of subplots and story lines that we couldn’t explore because it was just too much. We knew we had to keep the film around and hour and a half, and I think our plan is to have a special edition DVD set that has hours and hours of some of this other stuff. We interviewed Dale Pollock, who is probably the premier biographer of Lucas even though he wrote his book in the early ’80s, but he had more access probably than any other writer ever has since. He gave us an amazing four-hour interview, and we were only able to use maybe 30 seconds to a minute of that stuff. So we could go back and cut a really strong one-to-two-hour segment just with him because he’s a very knowledgeable guy. He’s a professor in North Carolina, a film professor, and he was also a film producer. He had some amazing stuff to say, and it was painful seeing that stuff and knowing we can’t include it, so we really want to create a pretty incredible special edition for the film.
We spoke to a couple of people who worked on the original “Star Wars” — the assistant director, the script supervisor, who’ve gone on for their own careers, and Gary Kurtz, who in my opinion was one of the most integral elements of those first films. He produced “American Graffiti” and the first two “Star Wars” films. I have an incredible amount of admiration for him. He’s really a working man’s producer. He’s worked a crew; he’s been in the camera department, the sound department, the lighting department. He understands how things work from the ground up. He was a good producer for George, because he was able to give him an honest opinion and to really guide the process. Of the people we talked to who worked for George, he was probably the most interesting and the most thought-provoking. Again, we only have him in there a couple of times, but his is another interview we would like to add to our special edition, because there was a lot of great historical stuff in there.
NC: What was your greatest challenge in making this film?
RM: I think our greatest challenge was getting people to talk to us, more of the public figures, some of the directors and actors that either had been influenced by Lucas or who worked with him. We had a difficult time approaching those people and getting to talk to them. That was the greatest challenge, and I think it’s because the title of our film immediately turned people off. I think if we were to do it over again, we would have had a more neutral title just so we could get to talk to people originally. We were never out to bash Lucas or to bring him down. We wanted to get people’s honest opinions about it. Even though we had our own feelings about the films and about his decisions, we approached it in a very objective way. We wanted to get all the opinions around George and his films and the decisions he’s made. So I think that was the greatest challenge, really. Everything else came pretty easy. Once we started talking to the fans, the fan submissions came in. Once we started talking to some of the bloggers and critics and writers and other people, they gave us other connections, so most everything else came easy for us.
NC: What’s your favorite spaceship?
I mean, the Millennium Falcon is right up there. It’s gotta be the top three. It’s iconic, and it’s just a cool, cool ship. It’s kind of a piece of junk, and it’s kind of amazing the way it’s designed and the way it performs. X-wings are really cool too. X-wings and tie-fighters are really iconic. I like Serenity. I like the old Enterprise. I just rewatched the original ["Star Trek"] series with all the new digital effects. Whenever I had a moment, I’d throw an episode in. It took me a couple of months to get through them all. I hadn’t seen them in a long time. I watched them when I was a kid. And there were a few “Star Trek” episodes I’d never seen because for some reason they played certain episodes quite a bit in syndication and left a few out. I don’t know if you want to quote me on this, but when I watched the original series, I realized that Lucas had actually stolen some stuff from it. There’s this episode, I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s the episode with the giant space amoeba, and the Vulcan ship falls victim to it at the beginning of the episode, and there are 400 Vulcans aboard, and Spock feels the deaths, and it’s almost exactly the same scene where Obi-Wan feels the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. It’s so close and similar, it’s spooky. There are also some moments when Spock sort of uses the Jedi mind trick on people. Without actually touching people, he sort of projects his Vulcan mind meld, and basically tricks them into doing things to get them out of being imprisoned or whatever it is, and I’m like, “Lucas! You stole that!” I was pretty amazed when I saw those episodes and realized that Lucas had to have been influenced by “Star Trek” pretty greatly. You know “Star Wars” is very derivative. You look at “Hidden Fortress,” which I watched specifically to research our film, and there are definite similarities there, and you can see how Kurosawa definitely influenced him, but he did it in such a fresh new way, that it was just brilliant. I don’t hold it against him.
NC: Does the film tackle any of his non-”Star Wars” movies?
RM: We really tried to explore subjects outside of “Star Wars” because obviously Lucas has a history before “Star Wars.” He has “American Graffiti” and “THX 1138,” and we knew that would have to be part of it, and it is in there. So is “Indiana Jones” and the new one, because that’s definitely one of Lucas’ babies too, even though [Steven] Spielberg directed. …We sort of discussed in the film as well, the aspect of why Lucas didn’t pursue the other artistic films he always talked about pursuing. He said at some point he was going to let go of “Star Wars” and start making these films the masses wouldn’t want to see, but they were personal films. He was going to go back to his origins, because these are the kinds of films he made as a student. I mean, you look at “THX 1138,” and it was far more cerebral and dis-topic than the “Indiana Jones” films and the “Star Wars” films. You can tell that he definitely had these incredible ideas in his head that he never really explored. When you create a trilogy like that, you also create a huge level of expectation within the fan base. Especially the fan base that saw those original movies in theaters, and who grew up with them in some way, and basically had those as their first experience with the “Star Wars” movies.
NC: Did you invite George Lucas to defend himself?
RM: We approached LucasFilm at the very beginning. We of course wanted to talk to George, and we invited their participation in it, and they politely declined. We’ve had a dialogue with them on and off, and they’ve basically kept their distance from it. They haven’t swooped in to try and shut things down or anything.
NC: So what happens when you actually meet George Lucas?
RM: For the Los Angeles Film Festival, they send filmmakers out on a retreat to Skywalker Ranch, and Alexandre almost went on that retreat, but he couldn’t go because he had to be in Edinburgh for the European premiere, and they wouldn’t allow anyone but the director to go. There was a moment when I thought I might be going to that, and I thought over and over in my head, “What happens if Lucas shows up?” And the only thing I can say is, I would treat him with respect, like any filmmaker who’s put a lot of time and effort and creativity into their films and their projects. I would hope he wouldn’t be too antagonist toward us.
NC: Do you think he’ll see your film? Would he like it?
RM: I don’t know, I really don’t. I hope he does. There’s definite criticism in the film, but there’s also a lot of love in the film for him. I think that the film never would have been made, that there never would have been that kind of negative feelings toward Lucas had there not been such great love and admiration for him to begin with. When you look at the film on the whole, you realize that it really comes from a place of love for the films, even if it’s the people who despise the special editions and prequels; all of that comes from the love of the original films and how important those original films are to them. … I would hope that Lucas would see that, that he would take the criticism with a grain of salt and sort of see the admiration and the love there for him.
– Nolene Clark
RECENT AND RELATED:
VINTAGE VIDEO: Ford and Hamill on ‘Today’ show in 1980