x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

George Lucas, ruler of the Star Wars empire, slows down

Having spent the bulk of his career making blockbusters, the director claims he is "retiring" to focus on art house films, which raises the question: what is his idea of art house?

George Lucas plans to say goodbye to Hollywood and focus on art house movies. Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
George Lucas plans to say goodbye to Hollywood and focus on art house movies. Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

Having spent the bulk of his career making blockbusters, the director claims he is "retiring" to focus on art house films, which raises the question: what is his idea of art house?

The news that George Lucas is stepping down as a Hollywood mogul to devote himself to art house movies sounds as improbable as learning that Woody Allen is making plans to direct the next Batman.

Lucas is most famous for the six Star Wars films, with the Indiana Jones franchise hot on its heels. What, then, would his idea of an art house movie be: Deathstar in Venice?

But the decision of Lucas to stand aside as the head of his eponymous Lucasfilm studio betrays a yearning for a simpler, CGI-free life, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, or at least before Jar Jar Binks. "What more could one ask for than to have one's youth back again?" he once confided to a biographer.

Lucas has just turned 68 and says he is "retiring" and that "I'm going to retire to my garage with my saw and hammer and build hobby movies".

He is walking away from a multibillion dollar enterprise that includes television and developing new technologies in special effects and computer animation. The new chief mechanic at Lucasfilm is Kathleen Kennedy, a producer best known for Jurassic Park and a co-founder of Amblin Entertainment with her husband, Frank Marshall, as well as Steven Spielberg. Kennedy, 58, is taking over as co-chair and will assume full duties when Lucas finally hands back the key to the executive washroom.

What Lucas means by "retiring", though, is another matter. He has talked of making "movies that were more experimental in nature and not having to worry about showing them in movie theatres". It sounds more Empire of the Senses than The Empire Strikes Back.

Industry gossip says some of this may be due to the struggles he experienced in attempting to find a distributor for his last film. Red Tails is a biopic about black airmen overcoming racism in the Second World War and was rejected by a number of Hollywood studios, one of which could not even be bothered to send someone for a screening.

Lucas, whose financier girlfriend Mellody Hobson is African-American, was both bruised and shocked by the experience, telling the New York Times in January: "Isn't their job at least to see movies? It's not like some Sundance kid coming in there and saying, 'I've got this little movie — would you see it?'" In the end Red Tails failed to cover its production budget, suggesting the studios might have been on to something.

Perhaps he has in mind something more like THX 1138, his first full-length feature film as a director, which was released in 1971. A science fiction film, THX 1138 was billed as a dystopian vision of the future, in which a ruthless authoritarian elite rules through mind-controlling drugs and brutal robocops. Mostly though, it is remembered for a thrilling futuristic car chase filmed in the newly constructed tunnels of San Francisco's subway system.

Even as a young filmmaker, clearly, Lucas was being pulled in two directions. He might have wanted to make hip indie flicks, but somehow always ended up with a Hollywood blockbuster.

American Graffiti came next, a coming of age homage to small-town USA that was released in 1973, just two years after Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. Thematically, the two films mine a similar vein but, while Bogdanovich is quintessentially art house (even shot in black and white), Lucas takes American Graffiti down a Technicolor memory lane, complete with cruising hot rods and a thumping rock 'n' roll soundtrack.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and with a bit part from a young Harrison Ford, the film is set in Modesto, the Californian Central Valley town where Lucas's parents ran a local stationery store.

As a teenager, Lucas showed more interest in motor racing, until a serious crash in his souped-up Italian Autobianchi almost killed him. The accident, which he survived only because his seat belt broke and threw him clear, happened three days before high school graduation.

His racing days behind him, Lucas began to develop a passion for experimental film, eventually transferring from a local college to the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, where he fell in with another student three years his junior called Steven Spielberg and formed part of a group of young film artists styling themselves as the "Rat Pack" and whose number included Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future,Forrest Gump), Howard Kazanjian (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and screenwriter Bob Gale (Back to the Future).

It has been said that Spielberg's Jaws, released in 1975, created the summer blockbuster, but it was the first Star Wars, two years later, that truly transformed the movie industry.

Lucas conceived the idea of a space opera while completing American Graffiti and not knowing if he would get the backing to make it. United Artists and Universal both passed, fearing excessive budget costs. Eventually, Fox picked up the tab, giving Lucas US$150,000 to develop a script and a further US$9 million to make it.

Released in the summer of 1977, few saw its potential. Ford, again with Lucas, complained of working with "a giant in a monkey suit" and famously observed of his character Hans Solo's lines: "George, you can type this ****, but you sure as hell can't say it."

Test screenings also left studio executives distinctly underwhelmed, not least because Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company founded by Lucas, was struggling with the space battle scenes and temporarily filled in the blanks with old Second World War dogfights.

In the end, the numbers tell the story. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope earned $1.5m in its opening weekend, but had taken $410m by the end of its international release. Last year, TheEconomist magazine estimated that the six films, included the three "prequels" released two decades later, had earned just under $8 billion (Dh29bn). Add in the toys, books, television spin-offs and merchandising, and one estimate put the value of the package at a staggering $27bn.

So Star Wars has clearly made George Lucas a very rich man. But has it also made him happy? It is sometimes hard to tell. In interviews, he can sometimes sound defensive about the success of his films, claiming that by funding the growth of multiplex cinemas they have actually provided screening space for the Miramaxes of this world.

As for the films' artistic value, he told the People's Choice Awards in 2009: "Star Wars is fun, it's exciting, it's inspirational and people respond to that. It's what they want."

But then there is this, from an interview with Time magazine six years ago. "I grew up in the Godard, Fellini world and all that. To me, that's where my heart is. But I realise that's not commercial. That's why I can say I managed to do something that everybody wants to do - all those guys wanted to do - which was to get a pile of money so I can sort of waste it."

What does he mean by wasting it? Beyond THX 1138, there are not many clues in the Lucas canon. Star Wars was followed by Indiana Jones. Does he mean The Land Before Time, the 1988 cartoon about dinosaurs that he produced with Spielberg, or the execrable Howard the Duck, a misbegotten adaptation of a Marvel comic book that represents his biggest critical and box office failure?

Perhaps Lucas just has his own peculiar vision, the same foresight that drove him to complete American Graffiti and the first Star Wars. He once even claimed: "None of the films I've done was designed for a mass audience, except for Indiana Jones."

Asked about his plans for the future, Lucas has ruled out a return to the galaxy far, far away but he is coy about plans for a fifth Indiana Jones. Certainly his definition of low budget needs some qualification. He once said: "Anything under $20m is pretty cheap, anything under $10m is almost impossible and anything under $5m is Roger Corman [the low-budget, B-movie director and producer]."

The Biog

May 13, 1944 George Walton Lucas Jr is born in Modesto, California, to George and Dorothy, owners of a stationery store

1962 A car crash three days before high school graduation nearly kills him

1967 Graduates from University of Southern California

1973 American Graffiti establishes Lucas as a leading young filmmaker

1975 Founds Industrial Light and Magic, pioneering new standards of special effects

1977 Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope is released

1981 Lucas writes, produces Raiders of the Lost Ark

1999 Directs The Phantom Menace, the first of three Star Wars prequels

2008 Teams up with Steven Speilberg for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

June 2012 After announcing he will leave LucasFilms, he appoints Kathleen Kennedy to succeed him