The Rogue One: How George Lucas Defied Expectations and Proved His Genius
When Star Wars was released in May of 1977, the world was not only introduced to a galaxy far, far away, but also the genius of its creator George Lucas. Cinemagoers were awed. The world changed.
When Star Wars: The Phantom Menace premiered in May of 1999, the reaction was different. Fans were disappointed by Lucas’ attempt to revitalize his franchise, and to many, his legacy was tarnished.
The captivating novel, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor, proves this shouldn’t be the case. The book expertly studies the franchise’s lasting impact and highlights Lucas’ journey in bringing his story to life. It offers a wealth of information for filmmakers and aspiring creators, both in Lucas’ behaviours and in the decisions he made.
With Rogue One now thrown into the mix, it’s worth looking into the original rogue - George Lucas - and the tricks he employed to tell his story.
1. He Transformed His Inspiration
Before Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas was perhaps one of the biggest thieves in cinema, using the films and serials he loved to inspire his own creations. There’s a great internet doc called Everything is a Remix, that discusses this trend in music and film and Lucas’ relation to it (among many others).
That said, the original Star Wars is laced with everything that Lucas loved as a child. The opening title crawl takes its cues from the Flash Gordon serials of the mid-1930s, the cantina scenes are a blatant callback to the saloons of vintage Westerns, and the Jedis echo the samurais of Akira Kurosawa. In fact, much of Star Wars’ visuals and plot parallels Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. In watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lucas discovered that space and spaceships could be showcased believably on film, and even went as far as hiring the film’s special effects supervisor on Star Wars.
Many of the world’s greatest artists and thinkers have adopted this tactic. Steve Jobs was allegedly inspired by Xerox when developing the first GUI and Michael Mann pulled a frame directly from Canadian painter Alex Colville for a moment in his film Heat. This behaviour doesn’t cheapen their work or lessen its impact, it’s simply part of the trade.
Lucas recognized that the films that inspired him were not his own, but when copied, transformed, and combined, they became the DNA of something that was mind-blowingly unique.
2. He Created Parallels to the Familiar
Introducing a new world to audiences is a difficult task. Do too little in world building and it doesn’t feel different, go too far and you’ve lost and confused them. The genius of Lucas, maybe unbeknownst to him, was that he was already steps ahead of this problem by drawing inspiration from the films he loved. Whether audiences knew it or not, they were instantly familiar, and therefore comfortable, with the film’s ancestry. It wasn’t completely foreign territory, thus it became easier to absorb and understand.
But Lucas didn’t pull from fiction exclusively. The Star Wars galaxy can be brought back down to Earth’s history and basic mythos. At its core, the film is about a farm boy with dreams of going to war. The imagery and symbolism behind the Empire is eerily similar to Nazi uniforms and beliefs, and due to Lucas’ frustration with the Vietnam war, the Rebels can be boiled down to their Vietcong roots - a partisan force daunted by an oppressive and all-imposing superpower.
Audience’s may not see this evidence clearly or immediately upon first or multiple viewings, but parallels to the familiar can serve as a trigger that makes even the craziest of worlds feel like home.
3. He Was Empowered by His Constraints
During the various stages of Star Wars, Lucas was constantly challenged by the studio about the film’s budget. Every choice seemed like an uphill battle - he was, even in pre-production, forced to reconsider many aspects of the film and its scope. That said, what most likely seemed like difficult sacrifices at the time changed the way he approached the film and its many aspects. He came to recognize his constraints, and in doing so, created a previously unseen motif in science fiction that defined the genre for decades after.
Before Star Wars, sci-fi films had a polished and vibrant look. Such a look was often expensive to achieve. While creating parallels to our world and its stories, Lucas recognized that the tone could be further supported in the film’s design, and it could be done within his constraints. By creating a “used universe”, and developing worlds that felt lived in, Lucas and his designers could repurpose items and weapons to create something other-worldly while still supporting the film’s budget. Luke’s lightsaber hilt, for example, is primarily a flash apparatus from an old camera. Han’s blaster is a modified German pistol. The list goes on.
The best indie and low-budget filmmakers and Hollywood directors are able to do the same thing. They have the ability to study their resources, accept them, and put them to use in the most original and unique ways. Disadvantages instantly become a memorable and defining advantage if acknowledged and repurposed.
4. He Persevered
It’s argued that Lucas had the pieces of Star Wars in his mind for at least 5 years prior to the film’s release. Even after directing THX 1138 and American Graffiti, Lucas was often doubted or teased when he shared his dreams of the Star Wars universe, as no one had ever made a film like it. It sounded absolutely bonkers to his friends and supporters. To make matters worse, Lucas was known to be a very quiet and withdrawn individual. There are stories of him visiting college campuses to speak about his previous two films, and when asked about what was next, he spoke of a film with “space rangers” and was met with dissatisfied and doubting glances.
The odds seemed to be stacked against him.
But as his funds dwindled, and as he wrote draft after draft (which you can read here) under the guidance of friends and mentors, Lucas finally wrote the story he dreamed of creating. Star Wars, as he saw it, finally existed on paper.
And then he had to convince studios to support it.
Perseverance from Lucas and his team got Star Wars onto the big screen. The rest is cinematic history.
We filmmakers are often faced with rejection - it comes with the territory. But recognize that as you push forward for another day, or for another week, that you’re building a thicker skin, and you’re becoming a more seasoned and experienced creator.
Perseverance can become your greatest tool. It’s the Force that will push you forward, support your vision, and take your career to places you may have never dreamed.
Who knows - maybe you’ll be the next rogue to change the way we see things.